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What defines a good puzzle/investigation game? Based on S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

Playing puzzle and investigation games is always a balance between frustration, fun and reward. So what defines a good puzzle game, how important is the storytelling in the design process and what is the perfect balance for this kind of experiences?

“The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity” -Douglas Horton.

Solving puzzles have always been a popular activity for human beings. Trying to understand the world we are living on and trying to solve the mysteries lying behind every day’s life elements was one of the first puzzles that humans have been interested into. This curiosity led to the emergence of all kind of disciplines that we now call “science”. Some creative minds decided then to create a new kind of puzzles, more entertaining, and test other peoples’ intellectual skills in solving them. This has eventually evolved into games and is still very common nowadays. Most of them used to rely solely in the mental challenge the game represents. However, as the genre has matured, designers started to link puzzles with mysteries and therefore with stories. In the latter example, the player becomes part of the narrative and solving the puzzles becomes an investigation process that drives the story and leads to its conclusion.

S. is one those puzzle investigation games, taking the form of a book where the reader becomes a player and tries to lift the mystery surrounding it. Based on this book, we will define what kind of challenges the designer can encounter while creating this kind of experience, how important is the story telling in the design process and what is the perfect balance between the triality of “puzzle’s difficulty”, “player’s satisfaction” and “designer’s satisfaction”.

Designing an interactive experience is always a challenge. Finding a way to keep the players immersed and interested in the game can be tricky and hard to achieve. This level of difficulty becomes bigger in a puzzle solving experience, where the challenge can repel lowly skilled players. To overcome this problem, designers rely on some tricks to attract the players’ attention. The first goal is to draw attention of potential participants of the experience and then try to keep them interested in it. JJ Abrams did a very good job when designing S to remedy this problem. It is a common mistake to forget the word “interaction” in interactive experience. And Adams knew that to create a believable and enjoyable mystery solving game in a book, he has to provide the readers with means to interact with this story. For this matter, he designed the book in an unusual format, where we find a story in a story. The first is a book in itself called “Ship of Theseus” and written by a certain V.M. Straka, and the second story lies in written commentaries left in the margin by two students trying to solve the book’s mysteries and the author’s secret identity. The reader finds also all kind of materials left by these two individuals inside the book. This strange composition is probably the selling point of this book, and is what arouses the players’ curiosity. And here lies the first puzzle of the game: How to read S? Each person can apprehend the book in a different manner and each person will have a different experience depending on how she read it; this feature defines the experience’s interactivity.

Now that the designer gathered players’ attention, he needs to provide a good narrative to support his mystery solving game. A common way to do this is to provide the settings of the intrigue at the beginning, setting up a lot of questions and mysteries, and solve them gradually as the story advances and finally finish with a denouement, which explains all the questions and represents the final reward of the player. This leads to a linear experience where all the players experience pretty much the same thing, and thus limits the interactivity of the experience. In S however, we find another kind of storytelling that relies on the creation of a story inside a story or a story going parallel to another one. This is often used to create a disturbing scenery where the reader can’t find his landmarks easily and has to read actively in order to be able to situate himself in the story. The first page of the book contains handwritten commentaries on the margin from two unknown people. We then discover that their names are Jen and Eric, they are students and that they don’t know each other. A few pages later, we find a foreword written by the translator of the book that seems to know the writer of the book. As we go through the first pages, we start to know more about the students but in the same time, they seem to be speaking about things that we don’t know yet. “Sign in log says moody was in the archive yesterday with Esme Emerson Plum” (Jen, S., page {viii}) At this point, we have no idea who is moody and why Jen is interested in him. Also we start to notice the different colors used in the margin. When the actual book “Ship of Theseus” begins, it looks like any other fictional novel but the two students seem to be very interested in hidden meanings behind Straka’s words and we get the impression that they are trying to solve a mystery. In the same time, we find footnotes written by the translator and Jen and Eric seem to notice puzzle elements in those footnotes. “Eric – Check this out! First + Last letters in Ch.1 footnotes gives you: [AR GO SY EV ER Y19th 1900 H RS]…” (Jen, S., page 27). At this point, the reader starts to understand how to apprehend this book, but in the same time, he is getting more questions than answers. At this point, the player feels like he is ready to tackle the book and its challenges, the chapter 1 looks like a tutorial for the rest of the book. But as the player continues through the next chapters, he discovers that Jen and Eric are solving most of the mysteries that lies in the footnotes of the book. In the same time, other questions about the identity of V.M. Straka, his past and his relationship with the F.X. Caldeira emerge. I think this is one of the major problems in S. Instead of providing the player riddles and puzzles and give him hints and tools to solve them like in the first chapter, Jen and Eric are solving most of them and the player finds himself in the same situation as these two students. Self-resolved puzzles gives no rewards to the reader, and there’s no satisfaction in finding out what was hidden in the footnotes. In the same time, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions, and these questions need information from a fictional world to answer them. If the students, the professor Moody and all the people looking for Straka couldn’t solve the mystery behind its identity, with all his previous books at reach, how could the reader do it. This inconsistency in the writing leads to a loss of interest from the players. If S was an open ended story, to allow people to interpret it in different ways like in David Lynch movies or Pale Fire… the unanswered questions won’t be a major problem. But in a mystery solving game, where the whole experience is based on finding clues and answers, it’s frustrating to discover that you won’t have all the answers not because you couldn’t find them but because there’s a lack of information or the writer hid them in a way that it’s impossible to find. And I think that the designer of the book realized this frustration after he released the book and thus started to post clues on the internet. This is another bad design choice, because once more the game becomes less immersive due to a lack of consistency in the story. For example Jen and Eric, talk to each other in the book in an SMS style conversation which doesn’t make sense. In page 179 for example, they have a conversation that lasts at least 9 days if we consider that they are reading the book alternating day by day. Also their notes and discoveries seem to be shared at the same rate as Ship of Theseus is advancing which also doesn’t make sense, since they are supposed to have read the book many times. Finally, the twitter accounts created for Jen and Eric represent another inconsistency; why exchange thoughts in a public social media like twitter when throughout the book they seem to be exchanging notes in secret… All of this leads once more to a loss of interest in the story and the game.

In this kind of experience, there is a triality between the “puzzles’ difficulty”, “player’s satisfaction” and “designer’s satisfaction”. The duality between the challenge and the player’s satisfaction is the most important aspect in any kind of games and especially in mystery solving games. First, the designer has to find the balance between the level of difficulty and the skills required. A good balance would keep the player in the flow channel as explained in the chart below.

Challenge/Skills Chart (The Art of Game Design, p.177)

In S, I think that it was a situation of anxiety since the challenge was too high compared to tools and skills that players develop throughout the experience. This situation is often the result from the duality between the puzzle’s difficulty and the designer satisfaction, the more difficult the puzzle is, the more satisfied the writer is about his work since it provides a feeling of accomplishment. But most of them seem to forget that what seems to be obvious to the writer might be not obvious for the reader. So S. readers found themselves in a first situation where the puzzles that could have been solved, are actually totally or partially solved by Jen and Eric and thus they receive no reward for finding out about it. The second situation is where the reader do not have the material or the skills needed to solve the mysteries of the book. All he can do is speculate and generate more questions. We end up having three different situations from this triality: The Simplistic Puzzles, the Impossible Puzzles and the Balanced Puzzles. In which section lies an experience is up to personal preferences, but I think that S. is one of the impossible puzzles experiences where the designer had more fun making the book than peoples reading it.

  

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