True confession time. No matter how much we love interactive fiction, there will still be moments in which we will swear off ever playing such games again. Our favorite games can still bother us enough to make us gently remove the diskette, CD, or DVD on which it came and smash it into teeny tiny pieces.
Granted, the entire genre was built on the concept of solving puzzles, an inherently frustrating activity. Complaining about adventure games being annoying is like complaining that gothic architecture incorporates flying buttresses, that a piece by Lizst is too technical, that guests on a Very Special Sally Jesse Raphael are too vacuous.
That doesn't excuse designers from reducing frustration wherever and whenever possible. What I want to do in this article is describe how I differentiate between an annoyance which is (arguably) necessary and one which should be removed.
In general, puzzles are designed to slow you down, to make the experience last longer. They are one of the only ways a designer can control the pace of the game. We've come to expect them, and we'd feel cheated if they weren't a little annoying. What's one of the major topics discussed in adventure game reviews? Puzzles. And if they're too easy, reviewers' cries of "the game's not worth it!" will follow close behind.
It's not a great leap of logic to move from "players like challenging puzzles" to "players love difficult puzzles." It is, however, a small leap to an unwarranted conclusion. The result of such a jump? Designers add puzzles which are difficult simply to be difficult. Never mind advancing the plot. Never mind creating puzzles which flow naturally out of the game's setting. Instead, stick a five-ring Tower of Hanoi puzzle in the middle of a hospital! Make the safe openable only after solving six simultaneous equations! Remember the chess puzzle(s) from The Seventh Guest? A perfect example of needlessly annoying puzzles. Invariably the hint books sidestep giving a real solution and instead suggest writing a computer program to solve puzzles like this.
There are borderline cases, cases in which the annoying puzzles fit well, or at least adequately, in the story. Jigsaw had an Enigma machine with which you had to decode a German message. Graham kindly simplified the machine, but solving the puzzle still involved a lot of repetition. For me, a puzzle or two like this are reasonable; more than that, and I'm likely to start reaching for walkthroughs. Much more than that and I begin dreaming up synonyms for "tedious."*
Red herrings fit snugly in the "annoying by design" category. Interactive fiction authors used to throw in a puzzle or two which were unsolveable, just because. I've done it myself in Waystation. However, judging from the players' feedback, most people really dislike these. Annoyance goes up with number, which is a fancy way of saying that if you put in as many as the Infocom game Sorcerer did, people will complain. Fortunately or unfortunately, with the advent of graphic adventures, red herrings have mostly faded from view. It costs too much to include non-essential segments in graphic games.
What else? Oh, yes, bottlenecks. Frank DaCosta, in his book "Writing Basic Adventure Programs for the TRS-80," opines, "The best way to heighten interest in a scenario is to limit the player's options as he moves. That is, he must be made to travel with the maximum effort to see the rooms he desires." In other words, make rooms branch out, with bottlenecks closing off the branches. Mmm, I certainly like nothing better than spending a long time walking from room to room. While a forgiveable practice in text adventures, where "maximum effort" wasn't all that much for reasonably-fast typists, the use of bottlenecks in graphic adventures borders on the criminal. One of my favorite things about Zork Grand Inquisitor was its use of a teleporter to let you move quickly among the places you had visited.
Fast becoming a footnote in the history of adventure games, mazes were also designed for annoyance. The original adventure had one; so did Zork. At this point, though, they smell like gym shoes. There have been a few mazes in recent graphic adventure games, but for the most part they're considered passé.
I can understand when a game is purposefully annoying, as long as it isn't too annoying. What I have more trouble understanding are games which annoy without meaning to. Granted, it's hard to tell what is going to annoy players; we're such a persnickety bunch. But still...
Take, for instance, the interface. A poor interface can make every task onerous.
Read-my-mind puzzles are also grating. It's not difficult to write an impossible puzzle, one which can't be solved without access to the contents of the author's brain. It is, however, poor practice, unless your core audience is psychic.
Then there are puzzles which make no sense whatsoever. Is there anything worse than working on a puzzle, having to resort to a walkthrough, then discovering that the puzzle still doesn't make any sense? It's as if the designer (or designers -- nothing more fun than games by committee) was out to lunch that day.
Necessity or Habit?
What I want to ask is, do adventures have to be annoying? For the impatient among you, let me get to the point: yes, they do. Thank you, and good night.
For those of you patient enough to hear my reasons, try this on for size: how else do you lengthen the experience of interactive fiction? As I said earlier, puzzles are one of the few ways designers have to control pace. You can have interactive fiction without puzzles, but it's hard to have puzzles in interactive fiction and not annoy people.
And don't we expect to be annoyed by interactive fiction? If we wanted simply to enjoy fiction, we'd read a book. In general, players (myself included) like games which surprise us without straying too far from what we expect.
As with many things, what I want is a balance. Annoy me, but not too much. How much is too much depends on how I feel at any given moment. Designers: beta-test your game with a wide variety of testers. As far as I know, this is the only method I know for balancing the annoyance factor of a game.
* During a recent game I settled on "agonizingly drawn-out, like trimming toe-nails with a butter knife," which is more of a similie than a synonym, but I'm sure you see my point.