Wonderlandian writer whose first challenge in anything is learn the rules so they can break it. Not trying to game the system he just enjoys finding where the rabbit holes end.
So last time, we talked about the atmosphere and how it can make dungeons great. This time I want to follow up on that and talk about something I think is equally as important, what’s going inside ‘em. Monsters and traps are important but my favorite thing to add to my dungeons are puzzles. Puzzles are dangerous for game design though, they are probably the greatest high risk high reward event you can use.
Lets start with why puzzles can be problems first. In a recent VR success Trover Saves the Universe, one of the first levels has a traditional button pushing puzzle. Fortunately for TStU this is a trope subversion and not an honest puzzle the developers thought would be a good idea. The reason this puzzle works so well as a joke is because it does everything wrong that a normal bad puzzle does and then calls it out for what it is, not a fun experience. This puzzle like most puzzles fails at being environmentally coherent, having intrinsic value, and matching the theme of an established villain. Starting out this puzzle is a complex electronic box with 9 buttons in a forest path.
I’m not saying that everything in a fantasy needs to make complete logical sense, but it needs to be enough not to dislodge people from the story. “Who put this here”, “Why here?”, and “Why wouldn’t I just walk around this minor barrier?” are all reasonable questions that whiplash the player back out of the game and into remembering that it is because this is a game that they just have to accept it. If you want an old example of this problem, let’s look at old dungeon crawlers that would keep the door to the room your in locked until you beat all the monsters. Anyone playing the game can get why the entrance gets locked when they walk in, it’s an ambush, but why unlock progression when your minions have been defeated? From an evil villain standpoint you have someone that sees a powerful adversary pop up slaughter your underlings without much threat and you what, open the door for them? The simple solution to this is having a member of the room drop a key they were holding. It makes sense that the minion would need a way in and out of the ambush room, it’s not like they live there. Taking this back to puzzles there should be a reason why they naturally fit in the dungeon. Is your adventurer raiding a sun temple? Well it makes sense to have a mirror puzzle reflecting the suns rays, that may at one time have been a ritual in the temple! But it wouldn’t make sense to have a water puzzle in the sun temple, unless maybe there is a river nearby and the temple is in disrepair.
The second problem this puzzle has is that it sucks. First its highly speculated that it can’t be beaten, but if we ignore that and pretend it’s like the basic puzzle it’s modeled after it still sucks. The base puzzle is locked until you get all the buttons matching the correct color. Everytime you press a button it acts as an on/off switch for multiple buttons around it. I guess if you like the challenge of figuring the fastest method of achieving this task then this can be enjoyable, but for most people its very lacking. What makes puzzles enjoyable, is a controversial topic as any, but I’m going to go with the difficulty being worth the reward, and the puzzle having appropriate weight for it’s failure. Value can be a hard thing to judge and often needs to be tested on multiple people before you can properly zero in on its proportions. The puzzle in TStU if taken serious is a random roadblock with no time penalty, and an impossible difficulty. If playing a serious game and this happens, call the game dead and move on. The designers don’t care about the players time. There is a level of respect that is given to the player when a proper puzzle is placed in front of them. Take for instance the hacking puzzles from Bioshock. In Bioshock when you want to hack a machine, for reduced prices or a feisty alley, you have to do a pipe puzzle.
These puzzles are time sensitive, and mistakes in them tax the players already limited health resources. Best of all they are completely optional. The risk vs reward is something that the player can weigh every time they see a machine. Succeeding on the progressively difficulty of hacking more turrets gains the player the skill to do them faster and minions of their own to help them feel safer in the briny deep.
Sticking with Bioshock for a moment, we arrive at the third key to a good puzzle, why would the big bad have this in their lair? The machines in rapture, are set up by two warring parties. The flying ones are security drones that are naturally a part of the city, as such it makes sense that they are sent out to kill you whenever possible. The wheely chair machine guns are set up by psycho inhabitants staking claim to their own purchase of the city. The puzzle is not their to challenge the player but to challenge anyone. This makes the puzzles more believable. There is nothing more enjoyable to me than tricking baddies into their own traps or puzzles and watching them fail. It lets me know the world is real, it makes me feel rewarded for understanding the world i’m in and playing by its rules. When a baddy walks through his own puzzle with no effort and no penalty it does the opposite. “Oh yeah, it’s a game” is the only forgiveness for it. So will Bioshock’s turrets or whirly guns fire on neutral parties? Hell yeah they do! Does TStU barrier affect those villains? We’ll never know since there aren’t any around, but seeing how they just pop up I’d wager a no.
So when making a place for your players to explore don’t forget the puzzles. Puzzles will take the most time to deal with normally and for that reason they monopolize the memory of a location. Let the players enjoy it! Make them stop and enjoy your painstakingly created environment, give them a challenge that makes them want to complete it, but make sure you reward them appropriately.