Friday, 8 March 2013

Winterlude (2). Prague, psycho puzzles and preferences.

[semi-standard copy-paste intro] 
Between hibernation and game-testing responsibilities, I have still managed to involve myself in some other games to provide the change-of scenery and offer a road-stop for the mind's retreat. More than that, these games have given me the itch to share some stories again and let the commentary sprawl. Let's see if I can carve that itch into a somewhat readable series - here goes, in no particular order. (Cyber Ninjas landed in the first slot.) 

At quite young age, when I still had very limited access to the world of "electronic games", I made a curious discovery about myself. While being very enthusiastic about all games in general and taking great joy in watching others play whatever, I found it difficult to delve into just any game myself. Partly it was due to controls mechanics - mashing a correct sequence of correct keys in exact correct combination while running against time was the synonym of "utterly stressful", for example. Still, the elusive to-play-or-not-sense extended beyond that. And so, growing into a gamer meant a sort of ever-active quest to find those select  "my games" that I would dare to dig thoroughly into. Over the years I developed some semi-articulate preferences to guide my what-to-play-next choices. They function as a sort of mental flowchart or safety net to prevent investing my time and resources into games I'd probably not enjoy. In other words, steering the way to familiarity and comfort, they can also act as unnecessarily rigid standards and thus lead to stagnation. Then Good old Games came along and remedied the situation: the ease of access and affordability effectively eliminate such "wrong choice anxiety". As a result I have accumulated a number of titles to "try out, out of curiosity, and it would be okay if I didn't like them".

So, Still life. I was looking for something different (and not too time-consuming) to try out inbetween my "usual universes". After drudging through the inevitable how-the-fuck-do-I-get-this-thingie-to-do-that-thing-I-need-it-to-do-phase, I found myself quite hooked. The story grew more compelling with each step further in. The scenery was stylish. I wasn't overly keen on the navigation logic (nor the shifting 3rd person view) but with some practice I was able to work with it. And the soundtrack was pretty cool.

I also learned that apparently I've been carrying some great loathing towards certain kinds of mechanical puzzles. (That idea itself puzzled me - after all, I had quite thoroughly enjoyed Myst ... perhaps not every last bit of it but still.)

Anyway, there was this chest in the attic - the gateway to the game's next stage. Once you roll those cylinders into the correct position, that is. After wiggling them a little, I (proverbially) stomped my foot: "I'm not going along with this! Oh, I know that with a wee bit of effort I'd be able to move these things into the required  configuration. But you know what, Game? I'm not willing to give you that effort! Family fetish or not, I don't care for this puzzle, all I want is to go on with the game!"

As I was looking up the right amount and order of clicks and applying them ingame with no remorse or hesitation, it occurred to me that I had either heard or read a similar sentiment somewhere.
You apathetically poke the sliders around, knowing you could solve this, but this is like overly complicated math, it -
Wait a minute.
This is a wooden door, and you have an axe in your inventory. It ought to be possible ... if this was real, it would be absolutely possible.
Yes, that was it! I found it buried deep in my "good point" bookmarks (no mystical symbol combination required for access). It was an Escapist article where game designer Jonas Kyratzes passionately explains why puzzles-within-another-game do anything but improve the user experience. (And I passionately agreed.) The part that interested me the most (and that had stuck to my brain) was the fundamental difference he points out between puzzles (boo!) and obstacles (yay!).

The difference is in integration: A puzzle is a purpose unto itself and follows its own rules, but an obstacle is part of the game world and the gameplay. An obstacle, while still created by a designer as a gameplay element, is organically derived from the world that the game presents. A slider puzzle on the kitchen door is just a puzzle; needing to get the key from the cook is an obstacle. 

In my terms, what he's discussing is the difference between "getting the answer right" and "solving the situation". Or - to go even more abstract - the divide between "accumulating knowledge" and "learning". I'm also connecting many dots related to instructional design here. The puzzle vs. obstacle situation is very similar to what Cathy Moore explains in terms of "what they must know" vs. "what they need to do" (a point I've taken to heart and tried to keep mindful of ever since).

Speaking of my "gamer sense" and preferences, I have no clue how to define the border between "challenging" and "frustrating" - though I can always tell which end of that continuum I'm dealing with. In Still Life, I found it curious how some puzzle-things would come off as pleasantly stimulating while  others (virtually identical in function and form) would become a blatant chore. Furthermore, often the "frustrating chore" kind of situations would seem very "organic to the given world" - in theory at least. A few examples.

Fitting the symbolic objects to statues in sequence taught in a poem was more time-consuming than solving many other ... er situations. However, those trips to the other end of town were filled with suspense and purpose; and when the silent ladies finally snapped into their places, it felt genuinely rewarding.

In contrast, figuring out which numbered buttons to press based on artwork clues in the kinky-house was theoretically fitting but felt just kind of tedious.

For some reason I found "lockpicking" task the most frustrating of them all. (Even more frustrating than the slide-around-an-image-of-the-key-to-make-it-a-real-key just before Prague finale. There I simply didn't give a crap.) It seemed so natural and sensible at first - until I found myself grumbling into the noise of excessive Alt+Tabbing and the Sequence of Correct Clicks.

At the same time, maneuvering the crane levers into their designated positions earlier in the game didn't bother me at all. Go figure.

To sum up.  Lining up symbols in mechanical  combination lock - "Boo!" Navigating a brave little bomb robot across the laser field - "Wheeeee!"

Sliding puzzle to "open" secret-covering paintings? Oh no, you didn't! Where is that axe! (And where did I put that article link again?)

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