The Craft of Adventure
Five articles on the design of adventure games
Copyright © 1995-6 Graham Nelson. Second edition.
HTML conversion by N. K. Guy, tela design.
In an early version of Zork, it was possible to be killed by the collapse of an unstable room. Due to carelessness with scheduling such a collapse, 50,000 pounds of rock might fall on your head during a stroll down a forest path. Meteors, no doubt.
- P. David Lebling
W. H. Auden once observed that poetry makes nothing happen. Adventure games are far more futile: it must never be forgotten that they intentionally annoy the player most of the time. There’s a fine line between a challenge and a nuisance: the designer has to think, first and foremost, like a player (not an author, and certainly not a programmer). With that in mind, I hold the following rights to be self-evident:
At its most basic level, this means that a room with three exits, two of which lead to instant death and the third to treasure, is unreasonable without some hint. On the subject of which:
Many years ago, I played a game in which going north from a cave led to a lethal pit. The hint was: there was a pride of lions carved above the doorway. Good hints can be skilfully hidden, or very brief, but should not need explaining after the event. (The game was Level 9’s ‘Dungeon’, in which pride comes before a fall. Conversely, the hint in the moving-rocks plain problem in ‘Spellbreaker’ is a masterpiece.)
This rule is very hard to abide by. Here are three examples:
i) There is a nuclear bomb buried under some anonymous floor somewhere, which must be disarmed. The player knows where to dig because, last time around, it blew up there.
ii) There is a rocket-launcher with a panel of buttons, which looks as if it needs to be correctly programmed. But the player can misfire the rocket easily by tampering with the controls before finding the manual.
iii) (This from ‘The Lurking Horror’.) Something needs to be cooked for the right length of time. The only way to find the right time is by trial and error, but each game allows only one trial. On the other hand, common sense suggests a reasonable answer.
Of these i) is clearly unfair, most players would agree ii) is fair enough and iii), as tends to happen with real cases, is border-line. In principle, then, a good player should be able to play the entire game out without doing anything illogical, and deserves likewise:
For example, the game opens near a shop. You have one coin and can buy a lamp, a magic carpet or a periscope. Five minutes later you are transported away without warning to a submarine, whereupon you need a periscope. If you bought the carpet, bad luck.
‘Closed off’ meaning that it would become impossible to proceed at some later date. If there is a Japanese paper wall which you can walk through at the very beginning of the game, it is extremely annoying to find that a puzzle at the very end requires it to still be intact, because every one of your saved games will be useless. Similarly it is quite common to have a room which can only be visited once per game. If there are two different things to be accomplished there, this should be hinted at.
In other words, an irrevocable act is only fair if the player is given due warning that it would be irrevocable.
For example, a game which depends on asking a policeman about something he could not reasonably know about. (Less extremely, the problem of the hacker’s keys in ‘The Lurking Horror’.) Another unlikely thing is waiting in dull places. If you have a junction at which after five turns an elf turns up bearing a magic ring, a player may well never spend five consecutive turns there and will miss what you intended to be easy. (‘Zork III’ is very much a case in point.) If you intend the player to stay somewhere for a while, put something intriguing there.
In the bad old days many games would make life difficult by putting objects needed to solve a problem miles away from where the problem was, despite all logic - say, a boat in the middle of a desert. Or, for example, a four-discs tower of Hanoi puzzle might entertain. But not an eight-discs one. And the two most hackneyed puzzles - only being able to carry four items, and fumbling with a rucksack, or having to keep finding new light sources - can wear a player’s patience down very quickly.
For instance, “looking inside” a box finds nothing, but “searching” it does. Or consider the following dialogue (amazingly, from ‘Sorcerer’):
(with the small key)
No spell would help with that!
(with the small key)
The journal springs open.
This is so misleading as to constitute a bug, but it’s an easy design fault to fall into. (Similarly, the wording needed to use the brick in ‘Zork II’ strikes me as quite unfair, unless I missed something obvious.) Consider how many ways a player can, for instance, ask to take a coat off:
remove coat / take coat off / take off coat / disrobe coat / doff coat / *shed coat
* (I was sceptical when play-testers asked me to add “don” and “doff” to my game ‘Curses’, but enjoyed a certain moment of triumph when my mother tried it during her first game.)
Nouns also need...
In the same room in ‘Sorcerer’ is a “woven wall hanging” which can instead be called “tapestry” (though not “curtain”). This is not a luxury, it’s an essential. For instance, in ‘Trinity’ there is a charming statue of a carefree little boy playing a set of pan pipes. This can be called the “charming” or “peter” “statue” “sculpture” “pan” “boy” “pipe” or “pipes”. Objects often have more than 10 nouns attached.
Perhaps a remark on a sad subject might be intruded here. The Japanese woman near the start of ‘Trinity’ can be called “yellow” and “Jap”, for instance, terms with a grisly resonance. In the play-testing of ‘Curses’, it was pointed out to me that the line “Let’s just call a spade a spade” (an innocent joke about a garden spade) meant something quite different to extreme right-wing politicians in southern America; in the end, I kept the line, but it’s never seemed quite as funny since.
(If only this went without saying.) At the very least the parser should provide for taking and dropping multiple objects.
Since only the Bible stops at ten commandments, here are seven more, though these seem to me to be matters of opinion:
Being locked up in a long sequence of prisons, with only brief escapes between them, is not all that entertaining. After a while the player begins to feel that the designer has tied him to a chair in order to shout the plot at him. This is particularly dangerous for adventure game adaptations of books (and most players would agree that the Melbourne House adventures based on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ suffered from this).
Small chance variations add to the fun, but only small ones. The thief in ‘Zork I’ seems to me to be just about right in this respect, and similarly the spinning room in ‘Zork II’. But a ten-ton weight which fell down and killed you at a certain point in half of all games is just annoying. (Also, you’re only making work for yourself, in that games with random elements are much harder to test and debug, though that shouldn’t in an ideal world be an issue.)
A particular danger occurs with low-probability events, one or a combination of which might destroy the player’s chances. For instance, in the earliest edition of ‘Adventureland’, the bees have an 8% chance of suffocation each turn carried in the bottle: one needs to carry them for 10 or 11 turns, which gives the bees only a 40% chance of surviving to their destination. There is much to be said for varying messages which occur very often (such as, “You consult your spell book.”) in a fairly random way, for variety’s own sake.
This may sound odd, but many problems are solved by accident or trial and error. A guard-post which can be passed if and only if you are carrying a spear, for instance, ought to indicate somehow that this is why you’re allowed past. (The most extreme example must be the notorious Bank of Zork, of which I’ve never even understood other people’s explanations.)
A few red herrings make a game more interesting. A very nice feature of ‘Zork I’, ‘II’ and ‘III’ is that they each contain red herrings explained in the others (in one case, explained in ‘Sorcerer’). But difficult puzzles tend to be solved last, and the main technique players use is to look at their maps and see what’s left that they don’t understand. This is frustrating when there are many insoluble puzzles and useless objects. So you can expect players to lose interest if you aren’t careful. My personal view is that red herrings ought to be clued: for instance, if there is a useless coconut near the beginning, then perhaps much later an absent-minded botanist could be found who wandered about dropping them. The coconut should at least have some rationale.
An object is not a red herring merely because it has no game function: a useless newspaper could quite fairly be found in a library. But not a kaleidoscope.
The very worst game I’ve played for red herrings is ‘Sorcerer’, which by my reckoning has 10.
Unless it’s also funny, a very contrived reason why something is impossible just irritates. (The reason one can’t walk on the grass in Kensington Gardens in ‘Trinity’ is only just funny enough, I think.)
Moral objections, though, are fair. For instance, if you are staying in your best friend’s house, where there is a diamond in a display case, smashing the case and taking the diamond would be physically easy but quite out of character. Mr Spock can certainly be disallowed from shooting Captain Kirk in the back.
The diamond maze in ‘Zork II’ being a case in point. Similarly, it’s polite to allow the player to type English or American spellings or idiom. For instance ‘Trinity’ endears itself to English players in that the soccer ball can be called “football” - soccer is a word almost never used in England. (Since these words were first written, several people have politely pointed out to me that my own ‘Curses’ is, shall we say, slightly English. But then, like any good dictator, I prefer drafting constitutions to abiding by them.)
In other words, when the end is approaching, or how the plot is developing. Once upon a time, score was the only measure of this, but hopefully not any more.