Betrayed Alliance Post-Mortem (Puzzle Design – The Squirrel Puzzle)

I heaped myself a bunch of praise when I looked at the Overworld Structure for BA: Book 1. As much as I enjoy patting my own back, today I’ll be moving my hand to my forehead as we look at some puzzle choices.

Plot and Puzzle Spoilers

The Squirrel Puzzle

This puzzle has three steps:

  • 1. Activate the puzzle by giving the squirrel the acorn
  • 2. Say “copy cat” to the squirrel and it will position itself to mirror your actions
  • 3. Make the correct sequence of steps.
Conspicuous, eh?

As a puzzle, it’s fine. Not earth-shatteringly good, not rip-out-your-hair-bad. The signposting to say “copy cat” is clear once you’ve heard the dialog from the soldiers watching the Whispering Caverns. The signposting for the correct sequence of steps is carved into the puzzle structure itself, which is also told to the player if they happen to “look at” the puzzle board itself.

What’s wrong with it?

The design feels arbitrary. Simply put, why is it there, other than just another obstacle for the player? And what reason is there for a squirrel?

It breaks the immersion when it’s just some random puzzle.

What’s worse is that it was designed with a story purpose, but very little made it into the game.

The puzzle leads to a hidden grove, meant to be a “special place” for the main villain (Gyre) and his wife, who had died before the events of the game. The spirit of the wife “haunts” the place playing music, which has led to the spread of the legend of the “Muse of the Mountain.”

The puzzle needing two participants was originally set up for Gyre and his wife to gain access to their secluded sanctuary. With her passing, Gyre had trained an animal to replicate the pattern so he could still gain access. I never devised a way to get this information into the game, sadly. About all that made it into the game were the rumors about the “Muse of the Mountain” which you find in an optional library book.

Why do the tiles make sounds?

From its inception it was designed to be a music-puzzle, where the player (along with the squirrel) would repeat the four chords of a song that could be heard playing if one listened near the entrance.

The woman/spirit the player finds is seen to play music and sings all of her dialog. The lore is that people can hear her singing, but Gyre cannot due to his heart being clouded with thoughts of revenge.

So what happened? I hadn’t considered the limitations of sound in SCI, particularly the ability to only play back one sound at a time. The idea was each block played a tone, but when the player and squirrel would step on two different blocks, it would play two sounds making a small chord. That didn’t work at all because it couldn’t!

A concession was made to add arrows onto the puzzle board itself and remove any correspondence to the notes and the solution. The puzzle became more of a dexterity challenge than a music puzzle in the end.

I have regrets…

While the puzzle is generally fine in a vacuum, I do regret how I poorly I translated the puzzle from design to execution. I feel it lost almost all of its story meaning, and most of its original puzzle design as well.

It wasn’t until about the last month or two before release I had (for other reasons) decided to use “SCI Audio” which would open a parallel program that plays music separately from the game program. This program did allow for multiple tones at once, but at that point, the puzzle was already in place and the release was coming too soon to go back and change things.

Redeeming features

Yes, I have regrets, but this puzzle still has some things going for it.

  • It adheres to the “find the lock before the key” rule, while also allowing you to play around a bit with it (if you give the Squirrel the acorn).
  • While the notes no longer matter, it is generally fun to play with them.
  • The player will typically go through a series of trial and error efforts like “pressing down all the tiles” before leaving the puzzle or solving it. It’s generally good if the puzzle’s not so easy the player gets it straight away.

Who cares what I think?

It’s your opinion that matters, not mine. I just made the puzzle, you got to play it. So what are your impressions?

Sierra Deaths were Great (and How to Make Them Greater)

It’s a bold statement given the great frustration that dying can cause in the old Sierra games, but let me lay out why they were great and how to make them even better.

The Good:

My thesis on Adventure Games is that the Experience of Exploration is the highest goal the developer should aim for instilling in the player. A large part of that is an interesting world, but not just interesting – Interactive. If something “sticks out” in the art, the player better be able to interact with it, and hopefully in clever and interesting ways.

What’s that got to do with dying?

Deaths add interactivity, even if “negative.” If the world is too static, it’s boring. If there’s a man-eating plant, it’d be a shame if it didn’t eat you when you get too close. Even though a hazard like this isn’t “positive” in the sense that it helps you progress, it adds another element of immersion, and one that adds a little apprehension and tension.

Bonus points awarded if you can use a death-hazard for positive uses too. Space Quest 3 does just this with these little alien pods that suck you up and eat you if you wander to close. But, if you’re clever, you can lure your enemy into the same trap, adding even another layer to the interactivity resulting in the elusive feeling you’re looking to instill in the player: delight. That feeling when your Experience of Exploration meets with your cleverness.

Hints: Death sequences also yield a great opportunity to distribute a hint. If a death is the result of some “less-than-perfect” line of play from the player, it could mean that the player could use a bit of assistance. Hence the death text is often humorous (to soothe the player’s negative feelings toward dying) and insightful. Sometimes the hint is veiled and sometimes it is more direct, depending on the situation.

Speaking of bad feelings.

The Bad side of Sierra Deaths

Loss of Progress – This is usually the worst part of dying in Sierra games and has led to the mantra, “save early, save often,” which seems a bit of cop-out on the side of the designers. The ability to save anytime is really a fantastic feature that I’ve always enjoyed, but it puts a lot of responsibility on the player, and when many players were young when they played these games, the idea of saving the game each room wasn’t second nature. I wonder how many people quit these games after losing progress…

The Fix: For Betrayed Alliance 2 I’ve implemented a simple solution to this problem. Each screen autosaves the game. If you die and haven’t saved lately, you can just start the room over fresh all while allowing the player to make use of the “save anytime” feature.

Unfair or unforeseeable Death: Frustration can also come from lazy or incompetent (or just plain sadistic) design. King’s Quest 4 had a dark cave. No problem! You have a torch – but the problem is the torch doesn’t illuminate much, least of all a surprise chasm that claims your life through no fault of your own. Deaths of this nature must be avoided if you wish to keep the trust of your player.

The Fix: Be careful how you design deaths – make them fair and avoidable.

Random Chance of Death: Unlike real life, death should be predictable, not based on random number generators. Walking in front of a knife being thrown in Quest for Glory 1? That death’s on me! Running into a randomly generated shark in the water in King’s Quest 4, that’s just frustrating.

The Fix: Avoid randomness is death events. If randomness is necessary, make sure the player has some way to manipulate the variables. Perhaps King’s Quest 4 could’ve featured an item that warded off sharks?

It Just Feels Bad to Die: Dying sucks not only because you may have lost progress, but because it means you failed. Where’s the fun in that? This feeling is often subverted with a fun animation, funny dialog, and hopefully a well-placed hint for the player to understand where the mistake came into play. All of these things were present in the classic Sierra games, but a friend of mine developed an idea which I think transforms death’s “feeling bad” experience to something positive.

The Fix: His idea was to tally the amount of deaths and their unique causes in a list.

WHAT!? A list of failures for the player to be disappointed by? That’s your fix?

Yes! But what it really does is turn deaths into a collectible! If you tell the player how many unique deaths there are, don’t you think they’ll shoot to find them all? I’m even thinking of adding some “hidden” deaths for the more intrepid players!

Conclusion

Dying is mechanic that early Sierra games were known for. Some franchises used them with greater success than others. The designer’s goal is to maximize the feeling of playing in a living (albeit dangerous) world, while at the same time minimizing the frustration that can come from the mechanic. If the dangers can be used for immersion and creative puzzle-solving, that’s even better.

Sierra’s death design could have benefitted from a “nicer” approach to game-saving. An non-intrusive autosave is my solution. I’m also eager to see if the “death as collectible” idea is as popular with others as it is with me.

Let me know.