Puzzles and timing

In his Use Boxmen review on gamingdaily, Jazmeister wrote the following:

If you look at it like a puzzler that thinks it’s mario or sonic, it’s not a very good game, is it? And you know, it could be better, actually, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I’ve read this same complaint all over – it relies on timing. It needs careful timing. I can’t get the timing right, I need to keep trying again. There’s this unwritten rule, seemingly, forbidding Puzzle games from demanding quick player reactions. […] The game doesn’t need to bow to your expectations, just because you want to smoke a pipe, study the level, and get it right first try. You have to be good to do that. You have to practice.

Which is a fair statement, you know, why do people complain so much when designers mix tight timing mechanics with puzzle mechanics? Well, apart from the reason Jazmeister already gave, I can think of another big one: People can’t discard theories.

And now, your honor, exhibit A.
And now, your honor, exhibit A.

You see, when people play puzzle games they follow a certain pattern:

  1. Think of a possible solution.
  2. Test solution.
  3. If solution doesn’t work, go back to step 1.

If you insert timing into the equation then the pattern becomes this:

  1. Think of a possible solution.
  2. Test solution.
  3. If solution doesn’t work maybe it was your own fault and you should try again, go back to step 2 (If repeated N times, where N is a ridiculous number, go on to step 4).
  4. Let’s discard that theory for now, go back to step 1. (If you run out of theories, go on to step 5)
  5. Alright, maybe one of the solutions we discarded was actually the right one. Let’s test every single one all over again, go back to step 1.

Turns out that with the simple addition of timing we are screwing with the player’s head. Unless they are completely sure, they never know which of the possible approaches is the correct one, so they have to brute force it until they get the right answer. They can never discard any theory because maybe the game is just incredibly hard and the timing is so tight that only after trying 6000 times in a row they can get it right.

Furthermore, they can never discard any theory, so they will keep on testing every single one hundreds of times just in case the puzzle is incredibly hard to time right. And maybe the actual solution is the only one that they haven’t thought of already, so they were wasting their time testing the wrong solutions. So in theory this mix of mechanics has the potential to drive a person insane if the designer is feeling particularly evil. That or they might just abandon the game altogether.

Well, now that we know the big problem behind this particular type of design, how can we fix this inherent problem? or rather, how can we try to lessen it? I have a few ideas:

  • Having more than one solution can’t hurt.
  • Make it obvious when the wrong way to approach the problem is wrong. This may or may not involve making the timing more forgiving.
  • Optional and subtle hints.

Aaaaaand I can’t think of any other generalized solution, it really depends on the types of puzzles and timing we are talking about.


4 thoughts on “Puzzles and timing

  1. Yep, I agree. I think if you take a puzzle like the ones in the last stages of SMB, where you have a gap exactly as long as you’re capable of jumping, broken by a single tile, then another gap of similar length – this is obviously a test of skill. Then you get something like the first puzzle in Use Boxmen – the Zelda door-switch puzzle, which is obviously a cerebral puzzle. I don’t think anybody tries to muscle through that one, at least once they know the door will shut once they step off the tile.

    When you mix them, though, you make it sound like it’s completely paralysing. I find it invigorating. Figuring out what I need to do, then figuring out how to do it, that’s the meat of games like this. I hate the fiddliness – some of those levels could be more lenient, with second long gaps between events (rather than millisecond – long gaps) taking the edge off and giving you more time to react. You /can’t/ do that game “Iron Man”, just like the Hitman games, and I’m not sure I agree with that, but there you go.

  2. Diego Doumecq

    “When you mix them, though, you make it sound like it’s completely paralysing.”

    Heh, I tend to do that. To explain things like these I think of the worst possible situation and then proceed to examine the problems behind it. In this case, my mind was fixated on Braid and how frustrating its puzzles became when it wasn’t clear what the solution was.

    Anyways, like I said in the post, this problem manifests itself in one way or another when this type of design is applied. Nevertheless, the severity of the problem is entirely up to the designer and whether or not he/she is aware of the possible problem.

    For example, Portal is a great game that relies heavily on this mix of timing and puzzle mechanics, but they managed to stay away from the frustration loop I described. Well, mostly. You see, there’s this one level where I figured out the answer in under 5 minutes but proceeded to discard it because I thought it was impossible to pull off. Only after an hour or two of trying a million different things I realized I had it right from the beginning >_>

  3. Some of my most interesting adventure in a game was in Pagan: Ultima VIII. I don’t know if my game was bugged, or whatever, but after doing this quest I had to face the God of the Earth Element who resided “inside the mountain” or something. He was behind a big door, apparently.

    So in this cave I found a door, but nothing happened and I couldn’t open it. This is what I now suspect should have been my focus – why isn’t this door in a random cave opening for my Earth magic?

    But no, off I go – tracing the wall of the map for big doors or other secret ways. Eventually I found a couple pieces of debris by the cliff face.

    P:U8 is an isometric game with a flashback-like quality – you can hop little steps, scramble up mid-height things, and jump high to grab things with your fingertips. By standing on these pieces of busted plank or whatever, and by investing about TEN HOURS, I managed to reach the top of the cliff that encircled the game.

    I didn’t find the mountain king. I found GLITCH CITY, where no single pixel knew what colour it should be, and just kept the old colour (be it the UI, your head, a fireball spell, or just more grey rock) as I scrolled along. Stepping into this sludge of pixels would cause your death with an “oof” sound – although, because it could never show you what happened, I just assumed he’d fallen right back down to ground height. It was crazy.

    I loved that game, but I never did get past that. That inventiveness people have when the obvious thing, the right thing, doesn’t work – that’s the opportunity for a great game (like Deus Ex) to jump in and reward the innovation of the player.

    Use Boxmen just kills you a million times, I guess. It’s pretty brutal. We used to respect that, though – I guess that’s what I meant.

    My, what an interesting conversation!

  4. Diego Doumecq

    Interesting indeed!

    Mmmmhhh, as you describe it, it looks like a feedback problem more then anything else, since it’s more of a traditional puzzle without any timing or skill involved. (Of course, that is if the game wasn’t bugged, hehe.)

    When the mechanics involve puzzles, patience is the one thing that the game designer requires from the player. So it kind of feels odd for me to rant about how frustrating these things are when they were designed to be that way from the beginning.

    But my problem with normal puzzles is that there ARE other possibilities, we just don’t explore them (me, ranting about adventure games: https://indigostatic.wordpress.com/2009/02/12/stale-adventuring/ ).

    I mean, it seems like the mayor innovation in terms of puzzles was adding timing to the equation and that resulted in MORE possibilities for frustration…. and I kind of like these puzzles, not because of their nature, but because they are different than everything else I’ve experienced. It’s a new branch, at least new to me.

    At the end of the day, to be stumped, to not know how to resolve a particular problem can be quite entertaining for a while. Especially when there are a lot of possible solutions floating in your head, and there’s witty responses for each one, explaining what could go wrong, why that wouldn’t work and so on.

    It’s when the game acknowledges my input, when the game gives me real feedback that I smile instead of frown. It can be a hint, it can be a completely unhelpful one-liner, I don’t care as long as the game recognizes that I exist, that the combination of items I just tried was plausible.

    In other words: I hate the generic “I can’t do that” line.

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