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How and why to write low spoiler hints for adventure games.

Low spoiler hints for adventure games are more difficult to write than walkthroughs but spoilers are no fun either. Meghann O'Neill, writer of official incremental hint guides for Thimbleweed Park and Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, breaks down her process.

Meghann O\'Neill, Blogger

March 22, 2021

15 Min Read

When I was a kid, I spent years not-beating Space Quests and Monkey Islands. My Year 8 Computer Studies classes were all debating the best way to sword fight with insults, not learning BASIC. My dad secretly kept those old hint books, with the magic pens, in his study. He told me he had a “friend at work” who played games. He relayed my questions to his (imaginary) friend and then made me wait weeks for the tiniest hint. My Year 1 teacher, Ms Watling, was even less useful. She was playing The Black Cauldron, but I had to give hints to her (at the age of 6).

The entire reason to play a point and click adventure game is to solve puzzles, right? These days, I’m not so sure. I still play a lot of adventures. I didn’t find The Darkside Detective, for example, overly difficult, but I was totally there for the story, art and music. I played Thimbleweed Park with my kids, who were absolutely delighted by Ransome’s beeped out swearing. My younger son still says, “Oh sure, make the beeping clown climb the beeping ladder,” every time I ask him to do a chore. I played that for the sheer delight of introducing my kids to a nostalgic experience.

In 2021, guides will appear online within days of an adventure game being released, usually in the form of walkthroughs, text or video. I vastly appreciate every person who creates guides for adventure games. It takes such effort.

Game developers, people who create guides are supporting your players by encouraging them not to give up on your game. Why would a player give up on your game? Your puzzles are logical, your tutorial is detailed and you have a cool method of tracking objectives. And I’m sure you’ve reflected on the fact that your players might be busy with life, new to the genre or just interested in the goofy story you’re telling alongside your puzzles. I'm genuinely not blaming you, but as a game reviewer of 14 years, my feeling is that many games carefully address all of these things through design, but not everything is communicated well enough for everyone. Perhaps your vision is to create an authentic, hardcore adventure game experience, so “handholding” is irrelevant. I love those kinds of games too. But I stand by my absolute conviction that people who make guides are supporting your players beyond the ways you've supported them yourself.

After reviewing Thimbleweed Park before release, for PC Powerplay magazine, I decided to create an incremental hint guide in Twine. I pictured creating something like Universal Hint System, which I used extensively while I was busy studying at uni (and playing adventures like The Longest Journey.) UHS is still a great resource for classic game guides, but it hasn’t been active in a long time. Their tagline is, “Not your ordinary walkthrough, just the hints you need.” For Thimbleweed Park, I wanted to create a system that could deliver players a tiny nudge, one nudge at a time, like friends nutting out Monkey Island together, in Computer Studies, or Ms Watling bothering me at lunchtime for hints on how to meet the Fair Folk. As I mentioned, I appreciate people who make linear walkthroughs for games immensely, but I have accidentally spoiled myself via use of them, many times, while trying to find the nudge I needed. 

My Twine guide for Thimbleweed Park got tens of thousands of views in the first few weeks after release and Terrible Toybox asked me if they could use the Twine to create what you may know as The Hint-Tron 3000; an in-game, incremental hint system that you can call from any phone. Creator, Ron Gilbert, explained his thought process in a blog post here.

After this, I was commissioned to write a very large Twine guide for Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, which formed part of a Kickstarter promise. Thankfully, the developers lent me all of their game’s code so I was able to search literally millions of words and variables, as part of my process. You can find it here. 

Recently, software developer, Juho Rutila, got in touch to invite me to make something for Nice Game Hints, which is an immediately impressive site and concept. It is structured like UHS and aims to provide incremental hints, via a flexible structure. Incredibly, Juho has made all of his development tools available for guide creators to use. I simply downloaded his demo, learned a few things about Github and Markdown, then made a guide for Henry Mosse and the Wormhole Conspiracy, to be published on Nice Game Hints. The file structure and syntax looks like the below. You can see the page, shown by the last screenshot, live, here.

My “day jobs” are reviewing games and teaching game composition at a couple of universities. The intersection of teacher and reviewer (as well as a lifelong love of the adventure game genre) has allowed me to learn a few things about the best ways to communicate low spoiler hints to players, as I’ve been creating incremental guides. I’d like to share these lessons with you.

You need to know what players are thinking.

If you’re serious about not spoiling players, writing an incremental guide requires you to have a range of ideas about why players may not understand literally every puzzle in the game. Consider this hypothetical example. The player finds a crying baby and they need to quiet it because it’s scaring away the birds needed for another puzzle. They may wonder if the baby needs food, or its mother. They may wonder if they need to play the panpipes they found in the jungle to soothe the baby to sleep, but the panpipes are broken. They may wonder something you can’t imagine. Or they may have no ideas at all.

The player goes to an incremental hint guide and sees a question reading, “How do I get the candy back from Bob?” This makes the player think of the saying “it’s like taking candy from a baby” and (without even exploring the guide) they go in search of the baby’s candy, having potentially been more spoiled than they wanted to be. Perhaps all they needed was to be pointed to a clue in the game that suggested a thief has been stealing things, and therefore perhaps the baby was a victim of this crime. Or, they could be pointed to a character who will reveal the baby has a sweet tooth. The hint they want and the hint they get may not align.

I’d probably try to mitigate this accidental spoiler by creating two topic headings. One could be, “The baby is crying.” Another could be, “Bob has something I need.” (The candy.)

Also, if the player is not a native English speaker (and the game is not localised), the way you explain the “candy from a baby puzzle”, via incremental hints, may need to address that this is an English expression and not assume they understand it. Similarly, aspects of the UI may need to be made explicit for newcomers to the genre. Neurodiverse players maybe bring other approaches to puzzling and understand language differently, too. Not every incremental guide is going to get everything right for every person, just as no game can do that, but this is a quick overview of why “knowing what players are thinking” requires a lot of thought, both on the part of developers and creators of game guides.

You need to know what designers are thinking.

Henry Mosse was a first title for Bad Goat Studios. I’m not sure what prior design experience developers have, but some of the puzzles seemed a little backwards intuitive to me. (It’s not really a criticism. I loved the game, and the puzzles were very enjoyable, overall.) Nonetheless, one of the optional puzzles involves you helping a sad/angry Beast, but there is no way (that I could find) to guess why the Beast is sad/angry until you happen across the item the Beast is missing and, at that point, Henry tells you to take it to the Beast, so it’s no longer a puzzle.

This kind of thing is difficult to hint at in an incremental guide; when the player knows they're supposed to be doing something, but have no way to connect to the solution. In the Henry Mosse guide, I had to be honest about the non-puzzles, the puzzles I didn’t understand, or those I had solved accidentally. It’s entirely possible that a clue about the Beast is embedded in the game somewhere. I often find myself highlighting or repeating clues that the game has already provided, including explicit tutorial instruction, because people WILL miss these, from time to time, even for the world’s most cleverly constructed puzzle.

Incremental guides require testing.

As incremental guides rely on complex logical structures, I test them thoroughly to look for accidental spoilers, like telling players they need candy via a question. I’m still learning how to perfect this. Spoilers give me nightmares.

Another thing I’ve learned from testing, however, is to repeat keywords. If someone is using an incremental guide occasionally, they might get a hint along the lines of … Q. Where is the spaceship? A. It’s in the forest. … The next hint in the structure might start with … Q. Where exactly? .... but they’ve been working on another puzzle on the way to the forest and come back to the open guide later. If they come back to finding the spaceship and choose … Q. Where exactly? ... and the hint is … A. The far left hand side ... they may have no idea that you’re talking about the forest and the spaceship, any more. I’d write … Q. Where in the forest can I find the spaceship? A. The spaceship is found in the far left of the forest area. … so that every hint is coherent and clear, in and of itself. Additionally, does the player know where the forest is at this point in the game? Or is it a new location they need to find? Or, will there be players who know where the forest is, and others who don’t? All of these questions are relevant to structure.

It’s also important to know when you’ve exhausted hints for a particular puzzle and have to provide a spoiler. I always try to make sure the player knows the spoiler is coming, often by phrasing the question as something like … Q. Show me an explicit screenshot of the location of the spaceship in the forest. ... This ensures the player has agency over how much they are spoiled. (Nice Game Hints also has a built in function for turning the question red, from yellow, when you want to signal a spoiler.)

Some games are harder to write an incremental guide for than others.

Writing any guide for an adventure game with a large open hub and interlocking puzzles is trickier than for a linear game. In a walkthrough, however, the writer can present their one, straightforward journey through the game. It might be difficult for the player to find what they need without spoilers in a linear walkthrough, but the guide remains entirely functional.

In the case of an incremental hint guide, individual players will arrive at any puzzle with divergent understandings of the context and interacting puzzle pieces. In the Henry Mosse guide, I made a very general topic heading; “Dealing with the Dockworker”, for a puzzle that could be approached at any time during a large chapter. After selecting this topic, you can branch into hints for either reaching the character’s location or accessing the item they are holding, if you can already reach them. The player could also be trying to find this item, and/or not know what it is, before they have seen the character holding it, so a separate hint chain addresses that, under a different topic heading. Or, they may see the character and not know what the item is for. Or, they may not be able to see the character without solving an additional puzzle, if they made a divergent choice in the previous chapter, so there are branches to the second set of hints which can lead to that puzzle, if there’s no route to seeing the character yet.

Hero-U is the most complex guide I’ve written. It had around 600 passages in Twine. (It actually broke Twine at about 150, due to the squillion arrows no longer rendering, and I had to continue in Twee.) I loved writing the Hero-U guide, but it was difficult and it took months.

Incremental guides are harder to plagiarise.

As I mentioned above, I’ve been a game reviewer for 14 years. I know what it feels like to have content get lifted and published elsewhere, word for word, without attribution. (It’s not nice.) People steal linear game guides, either explicitly, or by using yours to create theirs. Why? Hits? Advertising? I’m not sure, but I’ve seen this happen to guides a fair bit. Someone is much less likely, or able, to lift something from a site like Nice Game Hints. Take a look at any of Juho’s incremental guides (he’s very prolific) and you’ll instantly become exhausted by the idea of stealing it and go look for a walkthrough to steal instead. As you may be coming to appreciate, writing an incremental hint guide can be time consuming. You’ll work hard to create it. Thankfully, it’s also more difficult to steal.

We need to foster a culture of appreciation for hints.

If you’re a player and you’ve used a game guide that has helped you, either a linear guide, or an interactive one, consider tipping the creator. I didn’t make the Henry Mosse guide for money. I did it because I love Australian games and I want to support the game’s players. But, it took me around 20 hours to create, not including two playthroughs and sharing process in this Gamasutra blog. Juho has built a tip function into NGH. I’m hoping to eventually get enough tips from this guide (on kofi) to pay a saxophonist to record me some parts for an adventure game I’m making myself. It’s an experiment. If it doesn’t happen, that’s OK, too. It seems that people who make guides often get a lot of hits, but can’t always turn hits into reasonable recompense for their labour. Perhaps that’s just the way things are, or perhaps cultures can change.

Developers, people are going to make guides for your game for free. You know that, I know that. I literally just make a guide without pay for Henry Mosse. But (if you don’t already), you could consider giving keys to sites like Nice Game Hints, or to established guide creators. Perhaps you’d pay an experienced person to write an official guide, too. The Thimbleweed Park and Hero-U developers valued the well-structured, low spoiler hints I was able to provide. I’d expect official guides would be something game developers would want to explore, given developers have clear ideas about what kind of engagement they’d like to encourage in their players.

Could the narrative designers on Thimbleweed Park, Hero-U and Henry Mosse have written better incremental hint guides than me? This is a question I honestly don’t know how to answer. I feel like they should be able to write better guides than me, given how well they know their own content, but (specifically) guide creators seem to bring a fresh eye to problem solving that makes their content uniquely valuable. I wish I had more time for making incremental guides.

Thankyou to creators of guides.

To the people who create game guides, thankyou. I use them. And I’m getting better at tipping, where I can. I think of you as fondly as I remember the kids in my Year 8 Computer Studies class. And, I picture a retired Ms Watling enjoying reading your guides in her retirement, too. (Ms Watling wasn't actually annoying. She was a teacher who played videogames when I was 6; my hero.)

I’ve learned more about adventure games by making these three guides than I have in all my years of reviewing and playing them. Making an incremental hint system for a point and click adventure game is basically like doing deep dive analysis into design. It’s challenging, but fun. Consider whether a low spoiler structure is good for the game you're making a guide for and its players. And, if you need a place to start making one, Nice Game Hints is ready to provide you with all the tools you need. 


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