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In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
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Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
Welcome back to The Forgotten Essentials, an occasional series offering a look into characteristics and design choices which, in my opinion, should be considered more vital to genre-specific game design than they usually are. Previous forays into RPGs, shmups, and fighters are linked over in the sidebar - this time around, as something of a segue into an all-new series (more on that later) I’m looking to tackle the near-omnipresent puzzle genre. Any reviewer under the sun will praise a good puzzler’s all-important “addictive” nature, its “easy to learn, hard to master” sense of progression, and fine-tuned suitability to competitive high-score hunts – while all these things are certainly important, several other, less-obvious guidelines tend to fall by the wayside far too often.
(Re)-introductions out of the way, let’s get down to business: oh, and just to be clear from the outset, while this article is mainly concerned with “pure” and “classical” puzzlers instead of hybrid games with “puzzle elements”, quite a few of these items can easily be applied to the genre’s numerous offshoots as well, so no worries. Without further ado, then, here are my candidates for the title of “Forgotten Essentials” of the Puzzle genre.
Let’s get this one out of the way first – on a personal note, while I can excuse most games’ lack of presentational prowess relatively easily (as long as more important aspects make up for it, of course), when it comes to puzzlers I am a HUGE graphics whore. If that statement hasn’t prompted you to close your browser window in abject disgust, you’re probably at least a little perplexed – small wonder, considering how often puzzle titles are declared immune to any sort of “skin-deep” criticism. Such petty trifles, after all, aren’t supposed to matter when it comes to a genre that’s totally about the gameplay! All I have to say to this knee-jerk assumption is “hogwash” – if any game is really so addictive that I’m going to be staring at nothing but blocks and blobs for hours on end, they’d darn well better be attractive blocks and blobs, with plenty of glittery trimmings, song-and-dance numbers, and heck, a car chase explosion or two thrown in while we’re at it.
I say this because, more than most of their peers, puzzlers are by their nature fiendishly effective purveyors of visual fatigue – in otherwords, it’s often much easier for one’s eyes to wander (if not flee whilst screaming) during puzzling, simply because there’s generally less visual variety to be found here than elsewhere in gamedom. You might be able to ignore it for awhile, but mark my words, before long a too-spartan puzzler WILL wear on your retinas, regardless of how engaging it is for your fingers. Moreover, if I may be so frank, to me a puzzle title plagued by over-recycling and/or lack of visual polish suggests an excessive degree of willful laziness on a developers’ part – seriously, once you create the basic pieces and backdrops you’re largely done, and will be re-using most of those stage after stage! Why do they still look so God-awful? Make those gems sparkle or shatter or pontificate or SOMEthing!
This isn’t to suggest, of course, that every puzzler needs cute, stumpy, squeaky anime people plastered all over the place, as is the prevailing custom; on the contrary, the rare product which spurns this over-invoked design aesthetic for something different (assuming it actually works on some level) is very much welcome. The point is, though, while nobody begrudges the original Tetris its purely functional presentation, the days when a plain-faced puzzler could still stand out and hold one’s attention, as far as I’m concerned, are long over, and more developers need to seriously step up their efforts on this front. And lest I forget, while poor visuals are certainly detrimental, their penchant for annoyance pales in comparison to a subpar puzzle soundtrack – while the mute button is always an option, it shouldn’t need to even be on the table if the in-house composers don’t slack off, assuming they can get away with it (say it with me) “because it’s just a puzzle game”. No, poor graphics and/or sound can’t outright kill a good puzzler – they can, however, keep it from being truly great.
Think of the Less Fortunate
These days there’s a growing push for publishers and developers to take an ever-more-diverse gaming population into consideration – by this I don’t so much mean the growing list of arbitrary demographics (girl gamers, gay gamers, etc.), but rather catering to groups for which this kind of attention is not merely PR-friendly, but altogether necessary to getting the full experience after plunking down their cash. Controller setups friendlier to left-handed players, ensuring that subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing, including an option to enable larger text for the visually-impaired (or HDTV-impaired) – that sort of thing. While it’s great to see these once-marginalized fellow players getting some long-overdue acknowledgement from the industry, one set that tends to slip through the cracks is the colorblind – while not being able to tell colors apart might not sound like a particularly debilitating ailment offhand, if you’re a puzzle fan and can’t tell the green pieces from the red ones, you’ve got a problem.
Don’t get me wrong. As I inferred in the previous section, I love colors – heck, who doesn’t, especially within a genre noted for its bright rainbow stylings (and rainbow barf to boot)? That said, puzzle game makers should see to it that their products aren’t 100 percent reliant on color differentiation when it comes to getting things done – this can be as simple as including an option to change, say, the default palette-swapped orbs to more disparate shapes or symbols that are much easier for colorblind gamers to tell apart. Unfortunately, these concerns are frequently left on the cutting room floor, and as a result an untold number of potential customers and fans are sacrificed upon the altar of “we couldn’t be bothered to make this really easy fix.” I don’t care what kind of setup or aesthetic vision your title has – there IS a way to make it work for the colorblind, so make it happen. Please, developers. If you won’t do it for me, do it for Anthony.
Don’t Fence Me In
A while back, our own Ms. Davis posted an article about an obscure “box-pusher” puzzle-platforming game from way back in the original Game Boy era – its coolest feature? The ability to “rewind” the current level as far back as you needed to in order to correct a mistake (or several). Even way back in 1990 at least one developer realized that making it too easy for players to irreversibly screw themselves over (and then forcing them back to the beginning) would not go over well with most audiences – why, then, almost two decades later, do so few puzzle games offer their audiences so much as a semblance of a “way out” of a tough spot?
This unfortunate tendency to “trap” players can manifest itself in several ways, depending upon which sort of puzzler you’re playing – to expand upon the above example, if you accidentally push a block into a wall and can’t pull it back, is there any way, apart from resetting, to undo such a small mistake? If you’re battling someone in a more “traditional” puzzle title and he manages to pull off a big chain at an inopportune moment, do you have ANY hope of surviving, let alone getting back into the match proper, once the incoming hail of garbage hits home? Are the requirements to beat out that descending ceiling so tight that a single bubble aimed one millimeter too far to the left basically means your game is over? The best puzzlers are able to offer a measure of systematic flexibility as a side dish to the demands they make of the player – most of us, after all, can only take so much rote, unforgiving trial and error before we start feeling more like electrode-sporting lab rats than gamers. We’re not demanding the proverbial “win button” here – just a general sense that if we’re quick and/or clever enough we can overcome our inevitable mistakes…and, in the process, enjoy the game enough to stick around, get better, and hopefully make fewer of them in the future.
Let Me Keep the Change
This one is closely related to the previous subheading, but I thought it deserved its own spot of coverage – few things get on my nerves in games, particularly an innately exacting genre like the puzzler, more than the overwhelming feeling of stinginess on the part of the developer. When I say “stinginess”, I mean when a game’s creators give players next to no room for error – specifically, no room for error when it comes to the player’s actions, instead of the game’s challenges, the interface as opposed to the underlying structure as covered above. Making high-end demands of me for success is one thing, but constantly yanking an ever-tightening leash around my neck is not a legitimate way to do so, especially if you want me to say I enjoyed the experience afterwards.
The most common mis-application of this rule comes when you drop a block or other shape onto a surface, and suddenly realize you need to give it one more quarter-turn for it to work as you intended – “Too freakin’ bad!” says the game. “It touched the ground exactly 0.001 milliseconds ago, time’s up, live with it!” This is especially frustrating if the placement was an accident in the first place – “Noooo, I didn’t mean to hit the “down” arrow there, Scout’s honor! I wanted to move it over another space first!” you plead. “Tough luck, loser!” replies the game. Or how about this – you’re building up in preparation for a grandiose chain, and are JUST about to set it off, but your far-outmatched opponent manages to send a single garbage block your way which just so happens to fall on the tippy-top of the EXACT column that equals “Game Over” if it fills up. “Aaaagh, I was going to clear out all of those in two seconds!” you protest – you swear you can hear your console laughing at you. You also swear that you can’t quite tear your eyes away from the Power button, which suddenly looks a lot more tempting than usual.
Once more, developers, I’m not asking for anything outlandish here – I do want my abilities to be tested, and I do want to sweat as I weigh risk versus reward in any puzzle-based product worth its salt. That being the case, it’s kind of tough to gauge the potential applications of one’s strategies if they’re so frequently hamstrung, effectively on technicalities – if I lose, I want to feel that I was still able to give my best, and that my best needs to get better, not that I was mostly undone by an overly stingy umpire calling the balls and strikes. Does it really ruin a game’s balance to allow a bit of wiggle room for late movements, or a quick countdown or other “fail-safe” before a too-sudden death? Seriously, we’ve already paid good money for your product – let us keep the change.
Ah, the good ol’ morale-killing counter-attack. It always feels so great to lure an unwary opponent into a big, juicy trap of their own making - there’s just something cathartic about drowning a rival in misplaced aggressiveness (accompanying maniacal laughter certainly helps the mood too, though you probably already knew that). Of course, you’re likely also aware that it’s not nearly as pleasant to be on the receiving end of such an assault – so certain, mere moments ago, that you’d just launched the perfect offensive, only to end up effectively punching yourself in the face. Clearly, there are boundaries to be heeded in order to ensure that players don’t grow weary of a game’s counter-attacking mechanic – too bad that some very high-profile puzzle games never got that memo.
Many competitive titles, puzzlers included, are frequently inclined to include some measure of baiting one’s opponent and biding one’s time, which is fine, but when reversals, crowd-pleasing as they are, become infused with so much flash and raw power that they’re effectively the only viable path to victory, things turn monotonous and ugly in the blink of an eye (like that one guy you consistently out-race in Mario Kart who ALWAYS gets the Spiny Shell halfway through the last lap). The problem is often further exacerbated in titles which include several selectable characters with varying statistics – whoever’s personal numbers are best-suited to counter-attacking instantly becomes god-tier, and everyone else merely fodder for his unstoppable moving walls. Once more, developers should take care to offer players a way to get back in the game and capitalize on the karma flow, but when it’s all about emptying one’s screen and filling an opponent’s in one shot then the ballyhooed “flexibility” supposedly on offer becomes meaningless. When enough time and effort is devoted to making offensive and defensive maneuvers balanced and effective across the board, you’ve got yourself a game with some legs. One-trick ponies with weak knees, on the other hand…well, I’ll just let Gary Larson speak for me on this one.
Mind the Curve
Perhaps this item is a tad too “universal” for a genre-specific Forgotten Essentials feature, but I’ve stumbled into this pitfall enough times within the puzzle realm to consider it worth a mention. We’ve all been there - you start up an appealing new game and breeze through its first two challenges without even trying, only to be suddenly and utterly destroyed in stage number three…and there are 25 stages left after that. Smacking headlong into a wall so abruptly is never pleasant, but in a puzzler it can be particularly off-putting; especially if you’re just starting out and haven’t had much time to sharpen your skills, finding oneself so unceremoniously flattened can make you feel like the butt of a bad joke. It’s almost as if the developers are snickering behind the curtain: “Oh? You seriously thought THAT meager level of competence is what this game is all about? SURPRISE BUTTSE-…er, a Really Difficult Level!” At that point, why bother to keep going? Regardless of any promise the game shows, there are, to put it bluntly, plenty of other titles out there that are just as interesting and challenging, but far better-paced.
The inclusion of gradually-unfolding (but skippable, don’t you DARE forget that) tutorial snippets to ease players into more advanced techniques can help mitigate this, especially when they work in tandem with individual opponents and challenges geared to test the player’s understanding of a specific area. To completely solve this problem, however, the creators need to go deeper, and really become familiar with the gameplay system and progressive structure they’ve created, not just in terms of being able to rattle off its features on cue but to the point where they can truly say they’ve walked a mile in a potential player’s shoes. Is everyone going to be familiar with the terminology and internal logic that “core” genre enthusiasts might take for granted? Might the current stage layout demand too rapid a shift in required tactics on the gamer’s part? If I didn’t already know what needed to be done to get past this section, would I end up unduly frustrated here? Puzzlers aren’t just about hand-eye reaction time, which can be gradually built up via simple repetition; a puzzle gamer’s most valuable asset is the ability to alter the way he thinks on the fly, and that skill doesn’t manifest itself, let alone grow stronger, nearly as effortlessly for most of us. Once more, developers, don’t mollycoddle us, but also don’t forget that, unlike you, we’re pretty much going in blind, and an overly nasty curve is liable to catch us off guard in the worst way. Some gentler turns and a few road signs, especially early on, are much appreciated.
Hold the Random
How boring would life be if everything was completely predictable, and events always came to pass in the exact same sequence time after time? Puzzle games are certainly no different – a big part of the fun is figuring out how to make the best use of randomly-determined assets. That way, it looks and feels all the more impressive when your efforts to find a method to the madness finally pay off, and the screen explodes in a display of fireworks that you couldn’t have planned better if you’d had all the advance notice in the world. Of course, anyone who’s played a puzzler before also knows the dark side of having to deal with uncertainty – that ONE freakin’ blue piece you need that NEVER shows up. That single garbage block which falls EXACTLY where you couldn’t afford to put it. The terrible, merciless judgments of the Tetris God.
Obviously players don’t want to deal with a completely fixed set of circumstances – after all, if that were the case then any puzzle solved once would never be worth tackling again. On the other hand, throwing our fates completely to the wind does us no favors either – how depressing is it to watch a world-record score attack replay and find oneself more in awe of the player’s incredibly lucky draws than anything else? Developers, then, need to keep things loose, but not completely unrestricted – those random algorithms need to be grounded with a handful of hard-and-fast guarantees. Assurance, for example, that we’ll never be irreparably deluged with one kind of piece while never laying eyes on another. That our opponent won’t end up with a far superior selection of candy-colored ammunition than we ever get. That, so long as we take a well-thought-out route towards completion, the stuff we need to finish the level WILL show up. If these guidelines are followed, players can still experience the rush of thinking on their feet without feeling cut off at the ankles.
Think Fast, But Not TOO Fast
This is perhaps the toughest single bullet point for any puzzle game to get right, as there’s really not much of a “trick” or “shortcut” to success – it always comes down to the simple question of whether or not the creator has taken enough time to tweak the system. Almost any puzzler you can name, when you get right down to it, demands two things from the player – the ability to plan their actions WELL, and the ability to plan them FAST. The pair are constantly at war, as one’s most successful strategies tend to come to fruition when the rough spots can be ironed out at leisure; being pressed for time in such a setting demands that all challengers strike a delicate balance, avoiding the hazards of both rushing into bad decisions and being left in the dust due to over-caution. This elegant tug-of-war is the heart and soul of much of the puzzle genre – however, the responsibility of maintaining equilibrium does not fall solely on gamers’ shoulders.
Some puzzle designers have yet to realize that there’s a difference between getting stuck whilst solving a video game versus, say, a newspaper crossword puzzle – even considering all of the technological advances implemented over the years, the latter is still much easier to stare down at length, put away for awhile, and come back to later. Gluing one’s aching eyes to a glowing screen as the soundtrack loops and your batteries drain will wear on most puzzle fans far more severely than cupping one’s chin and re-scanning the daily Sudoku challenge – rough spots are inevitable, of course, but video games should be very, VERY wary of stopping a player dead in his tracks for a long period of time as he waits for a viable solution to manifest itself. Of course, venturing too far in the opposite direction is no good either – punish one’s audience too severely for not constantly reacting on the spur of the moment (especially in titles with several buttons to juggle) and you might not even be hocking a puzzle game any more.
Video game puzzles are unique insofar as there’s almost always something else waiting and working “behind the scenes” – once all of that newspaper crossword’s answers are successfully fitted into the grid, its designer’s job is done, and when the reader figures out how to fill them correctly he’s also finished until the next one arrives at his door. Video puzzlers are much more complex to create and master, as they have the potential to go on forever – no matter how skilled you get, there’s always an opponent, record, or other challenge that will force you to push yourself farther. It’s a long journey, and players need to be able to think ahead (but not TOO far ahead), and quickly (but not TOO quickly) – if either of these principles is misapplied then the trip is likely to conclude before its time, but if the right balance is struck the quest in and of itself becomes timeless. That, I think, is what every puzzler ought to aspire to.
Well, I suppose that’s all for this edition of Forgotten Essentials – I’ve no idea if/when another one of these will pop up, but as I hinted earlier on this article is really more of a lead-in to a larger project that I’ve been chipping away at (and promising to unveil) for quite some time now. At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches on it, and hope to finally reveal the bugger to my fellow c-bloggers (and anyone else who might care to drop in) before much more time has passed – I won’t offer any further hints as to exactly what it entails, but the content of this article should give you a good idea of where its basis lies. In short, keep an eye on this space if you like what you just read.
Until I pop up again, thanks as always to this blog’s visitors for giving me a bit of your time – I hope you enjoyed the read.