Puzzles in horror games Part 6: On “brain boosters” and hint systems

Yeah, late again… development is becoming more intense, but I will try and keep the blog entries coming in some kind of regular fashion!

A major feature of many games is to let the player become a another person, to play around as some fantasy alter ego. In God of War you take the role as a powerful spartan, Tony Hawk lets you become a professional skater and so on. All of these games lets you have skills and attributes that you normally do not. In God of War it is super human strength and combat abilities. In Tony Hawk it is abilities that normally takes lots of talent and years of talent to acquire. In most adventure games, the player takes the form of some type of Sherlock Holmes character and here one runs in to a problem: How does the player become Mr Holmes? How can she be given Sherlock’s wit and problem solving abilities, just like she is given Kratos’ strength? That’s what the rest of this blog entry will be about.

Physical attributes, like dexterity and strength, are simple to put into the actual gameplay and is nothing that feels intrusive. These physical attributes can be pretty much everything that exists outside of the brain and problem only starts when the thing to boost exist wholly or partly inside of the gray lump. An example of this is aiming, which requires some physical dexterity but is also about reflexes, something that resides, to a degree, in a person’s brain. This is a pretty easy thing to solve and have been done so in the form of auto aiming and slow motion systems (ala Max Payne). It would be possible to do something similar with problem solving and add help systems that guide the player. This could come in the form of A Beautiful Mind-like “number visions”, where the protagonist ability to find patterns is visualized as certain numbers becoming illuminated and floating out in the air. An example of this in use, are pool simulators where player can see where a strike will go. Another example of the same type is simply to add some kind of calculator, to help offload the player’s brain from some heavy cognitive challenge.

The biggest problem with having these kinds of helper systems is that they will only work on very specific tasks (like playing pool) and are not something that helps in the wide varieties of puzzles encountered in an adventure game. Another problem is that it might actually weaken the experience of solving puzzles. Giving the player extra strength to take on hordes of enemies does not feel like cheat, but being given visual tools to solve to problem feels like hand holding. It is almost the equivalent of the game taking over the controls in an action game. These two issues are probably the cause why I have never seen such a system in an adventure game (but would very much like to know if one exists!).

Another way of letting the player become Sherlock Holmes, is by putting all of the problem solving in “game space”. This means that all actual thinking is implemented as game mechanisms and is determined by dice rolls or something else. In the Call of Cthulhu RPG the player has to make dice rolls against certain skills to do things like decipher runes, read books and understand the meaning events. This is a quite good way of doing more complex tasks that would require years of education (like understanding ancient languages), but is not as a fun with simpler “connect the clues” kind of challenges (where it turns into hand-holding). However, when implemented in games, where generating important outcome from random generator is not as accepted, it is quite hard to get right. What happens if the player fails the “dice roll”? Should she be able to try again? If so, how many times should it be possible to retry? Instead of using the random generator, there could be some mini-games involved, which is the way it is implemented in Farenheit (indigo prophecy) at certain places. Mini games is not much better than a random generator though, and no solution feels really good.

A hybrid solution to putting everything in “game space” is to limit the player’s options according to the protagonist’s skills and letting the game provide parts of the solution. The most common usage of this is in dialogs where the player is given a certain number choices of what questions to ask or what to answer. This kind of system lets the game do half the work and lets the player finish it, giving a lot more satisfaction than simply rolling die or completing an unrelated mini game. Problems can still arise though, for example in a dialog the player can come up with something more clever than the options given or perhaps the protagonist have not yet figured something out that the player has, leaving an option unavailable. This leads to “guess the action” and “missing item” problems (see this post) respectively and is something that one wants to avoid. While working pretty good in a dialog, this system can become quite annoying when applied to other areas, as it is very much like the game taking control from the player.

A game can also implement some kind of hint system which gives the player help when in needed or just continually feed the player advice. Hint systems not only let the player gain some brain power but is also a way of lessen the chance of getting stuck. However, like with the other systems described, hints can easily turn into hand holding and make the experience worse. Hint systems can either be implemented as an ingame thing or a completely separate system.

When in game, hints are dropped through character comments, notes, etc and is the main way in which we implemented hints in Penumbra. The problem with this is that it is hard for the player to ignore the hints, and while their help might be appreciated by some, others might find that they make game too easy. As they are part of the in game resources, they are very hard to remove and must thus be carefully tuned. They can also never spell out the solution to a puzzle and might not be of much help for a player that has become stuck.

By using a special hint system, the player can chose for herself how much to use it. This sort of freedom is not always good though and players might unwillingly abuse the hint system. For example, I know many cases where I pretty much stopped solving puzzles after checking a walkthrough and when playing the remake of Monkey Island, I used hints much more than what I really wanted to. A way to solve this is to use some kind of limt for hints, as in Professor Layton where hint coins are used. However, the problem then becomes that some players might have tons of hints left to use and others few. This makes it very hard to tweak correctly and those in most use of hints might end up not being able to use them.

Finally, is some kind of brain booster really needed for the player? In terms of hint systems, it is pretty obvious that they are good at making sure the player does not get stuck. But perhaps the player should just settle with who they are, use the brains given and not try and be someone who they are not? But does this not defeat the purpose of games? If we can have games that improve every other attribute in a player character, why not intelligence? I also think many would agree that being really smart would be preferable from being really strong, and providing people with such an experience would be very worthwhile! As discussed in this entry though, boosting brainpower in a game is highly problematic and has even proved to be so in real life. However, by using some of the systems above at least the problem of puzzle difficulty is partly solved and more people can enjoy playing the game.

What do you all think of this and how would you like to see a “brainbooster” implemented? If you know any game with an especially good or bad hint system, then we are very interested in hearing about it!