Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Puzzles, what are they good for?

I recently came a across this article from AdventureGamers about puzzles, and it got me thinking. The article covers the different ways in which puzzles have been swapped for other activities over the years, something that I am very interested in. There is so much great about adventure games that just seem to be held back by their puzzles. It always seem that they break the flow of the experience. I find that many adventure games are more engaging to play when you have a walkthrough close at hand. Of course, consulting a guide has it own share of problems, and is far from an optimal way to play. Some other solution must exist.

Ever since we started Frictional Games, a big goal has been to try and fix this somehow. With each game we have incorporated new ideas in order to deliver a more streamlined experience; to try and minimize the problems that puzzles tend to cause.

When we started our Super Secret Project our initial idea was to get rid of traditional puzzles entirely. A focus from the start was to have levels where the goal was very clear. We wanted to create "scenes of drama" where the player would be free to role play without worrying about solving puzzles. But as the project has progressed, more and more traditional puzzle design have slipped in. I have been aware of this for quite a while, but the AdventureGamers article slapped me in the face with it. Despite all our efforts to the contrary, we seem unable to remove the puzzles entirely. There is just something that makes them a crucial ingredient.

The three main reasons seem to the be following:
  • Goal. They give the player a goal. When a situation is set up in the form a of a puzzle it is so much easier for the player to understand what to do next. It sets up a framework on how to behave, act and what outcomes to strive for. Actually, it is more accurate to say that setting up situation in a comprehensive manner gives you a puzzle. So the puzzle-element is simply a sort of side effect. (For those interested, here is an entire blog post dedicated to this subject).
  • Structure. It is an excellent way to set up a structural framework and provide flow. It is impossible, and story-telling wise unwanted, to allow the player to go in whichever way or do whatever they please. It is necessary to set up scenes in such a way that it confides the player to a certain path (or paths). Puzzles provide bottlenecks that are implicit and goes along with the narrative. If you want the player to visit rooms A, B and C before going to room D, you can set up a puzzles that achieves this. This system also lets the player drive the story forward. Instead of it the game telling the player when it is time to move on, the player is the ones in control. It also sets up a nice way to control the flow of the narrative. For instance, if the player is required to slow down and remain in an area for a while, you can have them searching for clues or engage in other puzzle related activities.
  • Immersion. Puzzles are a great way for the player to become part of the story. When solving a puzzle players use their knowledge of the game's world in a way that has an effect on the narrative. Players become one with the story and base their decisions on that. The puzzle is not there to test the player's wits and/or hinder progress, but to increase the sense of presence. By having something that requires the player to connect the dots often makes it much more engaging. Like how a description in a book can be more compelling if written in an indirect and/or metaphorical fashion.
I find all of these strong arguments for having puzzles. But at the same time the problems of puzzles remain. The AdventureGamers article point a few ways in which games have worked around puzzles; but the problem is that this mostly also removes what is so good about puzzles. For instance, The Walking Dead uses important dialog options to make the player part of the story. But in order to this, the game needs to have long cut scenes and reduce its scope of interaction. Players no longer push the story forward or get implicit goals. The game simply tells them what to do and when it is time to move on. For all its accomplishments, The Walking Dead fail to deliver a game where you play all the way through. This is not the kind of experiences we want to make at Frictional Games.

Instead of thinking about what to replace puzzles with, it is more rewarding to consider how to evolve them. How to improve them in a way that keeps the good traits and removes the bad. The first step towards this is to consider why we have puzzles at all. I think a major reason many adventure games gets problems with puzzles is because they are never justified. Every puzzle is seen as a "fun challenge", a feature with intrinsic value that should not be questioned.  I think that simply asking the question: "how does this puzzle serve the overall experience" is bound to be a good start.

Once it has been decided that a puzzle is really needed, the next question is what kind of complexity it should have. If you want a game that is about engaging the player in a narrative, you really want the puzzle to be as simple as possible without losing any of the benefits  So what is simple enough? My current gold standard is:

"A puzzle should make players to do something in such a way that they feel they came up it themselves."

This means that the puzzle must give the player some kind of "revelation" and must not feel spoon fed. The path from encountering the obstacle to performing the solution should not be too obvious or simple. However, this often means puzzles become too complex and/or difficult. The solving problems then devolves into "guess the designer" which ruins the intended effect. The player should be kept inside the game's world and never be forced to think outside of that. What follows are some of the ways we try and solve this:
  • Locality. All ingredients for solving a puzzle should be in close proximity to one another. This makes sure the player does not get stuck because of missing a clue or an item at a now distant location.
  • Multiple Solutions. Having many ways to solve a puzzle is often used as a replayability feature. In our games, it is instead used to make sure that the solution feels natural and intuitive to a wide range of players. In many cases we have actually implemented whatever fitting approaches that testers have tried (to the point of even allowing button mashing as a way to progress). 
  • Low Item Density. By making sure there are not too many locations, objects, characters, etc, one can avoid confusing the player and leading them on stray paths. Too few items can also be a problem of course, so one has o have a bit finesse.
  • Coherent Simulation. This means that mechanics work globally and are consistent throughout the game. For instance, a pickax is able to break any object made of ice. Most of the recent great puzzle games like Braid and World of Goo use this approach; however all these games are set in fantastic realms where the mechanics come before the story. In a narrative driven game aimed to have a sense of "reality", it is much harder to be 100% consistent. We have tried it with physics and it comes with all sort of trouble. More info here.
  • See it as an Activity. When possible it is often rewarding to think of puzzles as an activity. This push you out of mindset of just thinking about having clever solutions. If you want to have puzzles that are there to enhance our storytelling, they need to stop being seen as challenges. 
  • Part of the World. The most obvious, and also hardest one: puzzles should always stay consistent with the story. If not, it will be painfully obvious when one is encountered. Resident Evil is a poster child of this; very few of its puzzles make sense in the game's world.
  • Story Coherent Hints. I think the best way to make sure that the player is not stuck is to have protagonist comments, notes, or whatever auxiliary means, show the puzzle from different angles. This in order to make sure that the player has not misunderstood some concept and is seeing the puzzle in the "right way". If players get stuck, the most common cause is that there is some step in the logic that they failed to catch. By having subtle hints it is possible to minimize this from happening
The above tips are meant to facility a smoother experience for the player while trying to solve the puzzle. Another important issue is how to make it clear that there is a goal at all. Player often get stuck in games because they do not realize what their objective is, what puzzle it is that they are supposed to solve.  Here are three ways that can help overcome this problem:
  • A Clear Goal. This is probably what we have tried to use in most of our games. It basically means that you make sure players know where to go next. In Amnesia we always tried to have some obvious obstacle or let some kind of note/vision give a hint. As a back-up we also employed a somewhat immersion consistent todo-list, where further hints where given. 
  • Hidden, but guided. Sometimes it is possible to never tell the player exactly what to do, but guide and/or confine them in such a way that they will stumble upon it eventually. A simple, but effective, example is in Silent Hill 2 where you need to escape a well by finding a loose rock. It is a great way to create a sense of panic, and since the solution is so easily found it never becomes frustrating.
  • Spelled out Solution. This is when you just tell the player front up exactly what they are supposed to be doing. This might seem kind of of boring, but can work really well in some situations. A perfect example is the food rationing in The Walking Dead. Here it is obviously clear what you need to be doing, but a quite hard to decide who to give food.
Despite following all these rules, it is not sure that you come up with a puzzles. It is vital to not see them as stumbling blocks along the players's journey. You want something that enhances the player's time in the game's virtual world. Not something that reduce it.

A very bad example of this is in the remake of Broken Sword. When encountering a locked door, a sliding puzzle pops suddenly pops up. Disregarding that I loath sliding puzzles, this is really bad. It has nothing to do with the game's narrative. I gain nothing in terms of a connection with the story by solving this. It is simply there to hinder my path. What makes it worse is that the obstacle itself, a locked door, is not really interesting. The designer has taken an uninspiring set up and made it worse. This is a bad usage of puzzles.

A good example is found in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where you need to open a passage to a priest's secret hideout. Upon arriving at the church you are not aware of there even being a hide-out and need to read this in a note. Here is also a clue on how to access it; the church bell must be rung in a certain order and opening up a secret passage way downstairs. I think this sort of puzzle is great; it requires a combination of lore, exploration and force the player to make narrative connections. It also lets you interact with the environment in an interesting fashion. By both discovering and opening the secret passageway the player has an active role in the progression of the story. 

There is a catch though. The mechanism for opening the hideout makes little sense. The whole town would notice whenever the priest wants to go to his lair. But in the end, it does not matter. It satisfy enough criteria to still be a good puzzle. This is a really important aspect of the craft.

Coming up with puzzles is hard. Coming up with puzzles that are coherent, engaging and fit with the flow of the narrative is extremely hard. If you want to make an engaging and varied adventure, it is impossible to make every puzzle perfect. Above all else, the puzzle must fit with the experience that you want to create. Players can see past strange mechanics (like the above bell puzzle), live with simplified inventory system (like in The Walking Dead) and other sub-optimal solutions as long as it serves to enhance the experience. This is very important to remember when creating a puzzle. 

The goal is not to make players think you are clever or to do the most complex set up. The goal is to make sure all parts serve the experience as a whole. It is very easy to forget this (I have done so many times myself) and it does not help that puzzles are fiendishly hard to evaluate. But I think that with the right mindset, it should not be an insurmountable challenge.

As mentioned in the start, over the years puzzles have been pushed aside for other mechanics. Games with more progressive design either push the puzzle elements into the background (eg Uncharted) or base all around a specific mechanic (eg Portal). I do not think it is time to give up on the more classical adventure game puzzles yet though. By this I do mean that we should go back to the interconnected puzzle design of old days (as explained here). Instead we should try and look at puzzles in a different light and see how we might change them and reinterpret their role. This post has been an attempt to do just that, but I think there is a lot more to explore. It would be very bad to abandon the quest to combine storytelling and puzzles just yet.

Those interested in more puzzle discussion might want to take a look at series of articles on puzzle that I wrote a few years back while working on Amnesia. They can be found here. The posts go through some other aspects of puzzles design that should be of interest..

I am also interested in getting your input and/or links to other articles on this subject. It is not easy to come by good writing on puzzles, and even harder to find something that discuss narrative-serving puzzles, so I am very grateful for any feedback and tips!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bullying, what is it good for?

You know what the thing about bullying is? I don’t like it.

“Great,” you are probably thinking (rolling your eyes), “this is sure going to be deep and insightful post.”

But I have thought about it and that is what I’ve got. I thought about it because I was – I’d like to say fortunate enough but I guess I can’t – to receive an advance copy of Emily Bazelon’s new book, Sticks and Stones, subtitled Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. This is a book written for adults and, indeed, all adults with some responsibility towards kids. And as one of those responsible adults, I came away from the book thinking that “bullying really sucks and really I would prefer it didn’t exist. It’s just so unfair.”

However, if my teenage daughter can whine to me about things that are hard to deal with that she just would prefer wouldn’t be there – such as the cost of paintballs or why her clean clothes haven’t emerged from the magic basket that transports them to her closet or the fact she has to write another poem in iambic pentameter – I don’t see why I can’t just join her.

Bazelon is not an unfamiliar person toreaders of this blog. Her kids must be about the same age is mine and so for a good eight or so years, her issues in Slatewere my issues too. I didn’t always see eye to eye on her approaches but I was forced to think about my own after reading her work.

This time it was different. Bazelon was not motivated by anything that was happening to her kids – or if she was, she didn’t say. Instead, she was motivated by the criminal trial of six teenagers accused essentially of bullying another teenager, Phoebe Prince, to take her own life. This turned out to be a case of prosecutorial over-reach that makes what happened to Aaron Swartz look very tame in comparison.

What Bazelon does is centre a broad investigation of bullying focussing on three children. The first, Monique, is a straightforward (if that is the right word), case of a bullied child. The second, Jacob, is the bullying of a gay kid. And the third is not Phoebe Prince but Flannery, one of the six accused of bullying her. Bazelon does something that, when you think about it, is surely extraordinarily difficult. In each case, she investigates and tries to work out what really went on.

I cannot imagine what that was like. The easy case would have been Flannery because there were court documents that assembled evidence and testimony (including texts and Facebook posts). But the other cases, she would have been forced to be the judicial investigator; basically disentangling the hearsay, the inferences, the judgments, the interpretations to find out what was real and what wasn’t. All by interviewing and talking to teenagers. In reading this, I kept wondering what kept Bazelon herself from just shouting at them all asking them “to get a grip.” I know there were times I was doing that, rolling my eyes so much that they hurt. “Oh please, you cannot be serious.”

But Bazelon kept her cool and ploughed on. She took us back and forth from the stories to the academic literature on the subject. She touched on cases written about in the past. And she kept an eye on where she wanted us all to go.

And where I ended up was: I was essentially grateful; which I know contradicts how I seem to have begun this post but bear with me. Right, at this moment, my kids are not being bullied and have never been bullied to the extent of the stories Bazelon tells. It is just hard not to breathe a sigh of relief at that because what was happening to the kids in Sticks and Stones was a parental nightmare. To be sure, we, as parents, have had to deal with a bullied child (I’ll come to that in a bit) but it was dealt with and things are very good now.  But it is hard not to read this book and really just think that we are currently very lucky. Not just to not have bullied children but what personally would seem much worse, to be the parent of a bully.

To cover this, I am going to reverse the order that Bazelon chose and start with Flannery. Flannery was not bullied but, as I am pretty sure Bazelon wants us to conclude, she was bullied be the system. She was the victim of a culture that finds it easy to assign simple blame in the face of tragedy. She was also the victim of a enforcement approach that now values “making a public example” of would be wrong-doers. In that she disproportionately is harmed by the system trying to minimise future enforcement actions. Again, the analogy to Aaron Swartz would not be lost on anyone. This time, however, it was another, essentially troubled kid who died. The problem is that in some ways more lives were taken with her. All of this perhaps could have been avoided.

But this also reveals the difficulties associated with bullying. It can be mis-diagnosed. Accusations of bullying may be made where none exist. Bullying may be ignored or passed off as something else where it does exist. And this is all made worse by the fact that it is all hard to deal with even when it is properly diagnosed. This is because teenage social existence involves an awful about of pain and learning. The issue is when to intervene.

The second case of Jacob is an insidious one. Jacob was openly gay at school in much the same way as other kids are openly geeky or otherwise express a preference from differing from the norm and thereby drawing attention to themselves. It is so easy to cringe and plead for conformity just to avoid the pain. But that is precisely the wrong response. One does not necessarily expect Jacob to be popular as a result of his chosen style but when he is subject to trauma as a result of it we are creating a less free society if it is allowed to continue. The appropriate response isn’t to hide or to bide your time until you can move to an accepting group; creating social ghettos. Instead, it is to bake acceptance into the pie early.

The first case of Monique is, in many respects, what should trouble parents the most. There is a sense in which it is typical. Basically, Monique seemed to be doing just fine at school until one day, it all changed. And by one day, I mean one day. Monique went to school an unbullied although not necessarily popular kid and came home a bullied and isolated one. And it never stopped. And it was miserable. And for some reason, it seems to happen in almost every grade of almost every school in the world. I saw it happen and it happened for a time to me when I was in high school. And when it is bad, to the beleaguered parents there is no easy course of action.

The problem parents face is that they usually suspect it will pass. They advise changing strategies, avoiding the bullies and reassurance it will get better. The problem is that the reason this has occurred is that there is a bully playing this game. The bullied child is a unwitting victim of a bully’s desire to exercise power. For them to rise to the top of the social heap, they have to demonstrate some form of superiority over another. The bullied child is their victim and, moreover, they just don’t do it once and move on. Instead, it seems to be a continual target. In other words, bullies don’t spread the pain around. Not only is it wrong for obvious reasons, it is fundamentally unfair. Why my child and not some other? If it is some other, then I wouldn’t have to deal with it.

Dealing with it is hard. My daughter became the target of a bully a few years ago. The bully wasn’t popular and had a history of bad behaviour. But she made my daughter miserable. Eventually, like Monique’s parents, this was only solved by moving schools. In our case, we had other reasons to shift schools than the bully but she was at the top of our daughter’s list. Indeed, she vetted new schools herself to see if there were likely bullies among them. Somewhat ironically, during the time we were in the US, the bully actually moved schools herself – to my daughter’s new school! It won’t surprise you that this was one of the things at the top of her list advocating a move to Canada rather than going back to Australia. And to tell you the truth, we were grateful with a by-product of that decision not having to deal with the bully issue again.

Bazelon covers a lot of ground with all sorts of strategies that can be deployed to mitigate the bullying problem. It is all good advice. And it is all hard work. And it has to start early and continue on while involving the kids, their parents and the school. She spends an entire chapter on social media that concludes that those running Facebook and the like should also be part of the conversation. Bazelon has shielded her own sons from Facebook for the moment. As you may know, this is where I partsignificant company with her. I want my kids on Facebook early and with some parental supervision. That way I have a chance of helping them work through these things. Moreover, in social media, all of the evidence is in writing. That makes a difference in many ways. But importantly, and I have seen this, there is much mutual support and good social behaviour there as there is bad. And to have perspective you need to see it all and not just hear about things when there is a problem.

My point is this. For the most part, incidents of bullying are fundamentally random from the perspective of the parent. It would be awful for someone to read these cases and cocoon their child. For the vast majority of kids, they won’t be subject to the worst cases. Freedom socially is an important thing that they must have in order to really learn.

That said, it seems to happen all of the time to someone. If it is happening to your kid now, I suspect this book isn’t going to help much. You probably have already investigated the literature, talked with teachers and anguished at the situation. Once it happens, you are no longer an objective player in this as a parent.

But it could happen to you. And the message of this book is that you need to think about these things in advance. Sticks and Stones may break your heart on the way, but being forced to think about this when you are less emotionally invested, will never hurt you.

So I don’t care if you, like me, don’t like bullying. But deal with it today by taking a few hours to prepare yourself with this book.

Friday, February 15, 2013

An allergic story

A well-known economist friend of mine wrote the following post on Facebook. It follows an algorithmic bent typical of those in my tribe so I asked for permission to post it here.
How to have your very first allergy attack when you have just turned two, by [a two-year old].

0. Prepare for incident by refusing to have your nails filed. 
1. Try new food. 
2. Start breaking out in hives. Scratch yourself with your pre-sharpened nails. Scream "tummy itch!" Draw blood. Repeat.
3. When adults try to give you spoonfuls of Benadryl, spit it back in their faces. Scream "mess!" Make sure it is distributed widely so no one has any idea if you swallowed any. 
4. When adults hold you down and put a dropper full of Bendryl in the back of your throat, stay quiet for a moment until they think you must have swallowed it, spray it in their faces and all over yourself. Scream "Mess!" again and smear Benadryl on the bleeding wounds where you gashed yourself. 
5. Scream and scratch yourself all the way to urgent care. Get increasingly red and puffy. 
6. When you arrive at the doctor's office, recognize the place as the same place where you got a shot last month and start screaming "Poke leg! Poke leg!" Allow this to distract you from ripping at your clothing. 
7. Writhe in your mother's arms as she attempts to explain to person at counter that you need to see a triage nurse. Scream "Lady no poke leg!" at her just to be sure she will not give you a shot.  
8. Run around to see all the toys that the very ill looking children are playing with. Try to grab their face masks and get angry when your mother prevents you from getting near. Resist when your mother suggests you should sit in a chair with her. 
9. Calm down when your mother pulls out the iPad. Play a game for 30 seconds. Switch to videos. Notice that some annoying adult has turned off the sound. Turn the sound back on as loud as it goes. Immediately attract a crowd of very ill looking children. 
10. When your mother turns the volume down, scream "Loud!" as loud as you can. Hurl iPad to the floor. Hurl yourself to the floor. Scream "I fell down!" as loud as you can. Attempt to rip your clothes off, revealing that your entire body is now even brighter red, puffed out, streaked, and punctuated by self-inflicted gashes. Notice that parents of very ill looking children now look alarmed and are holding their kids back from you. 
11. Remain on floor thrashing and scratching until nurse calls you in. Shout "Lady no poke!" to be sure you will not get a shot. 
12. Behave nicely while getting examined. Listen to your mother breathe a sigh of relief that your airways are fine. Listen to lady discuss whether you can be restrained to get Benadryl or whether you need a shot of Benadryl.  
13. Start scratching and flailing again. Wriggle out of your mother's lap and throw yourself on the floor. Bang your head on the way down. Scream and scratch more. Make sure to also rub your face so that any germs on the floor make their way to your nose and eyes. Scream louder when your mother wipes your hands. 
14. Wonder why the lady decides you should get a shot. 
15. Remain on the floor until the doctor comes in, screaming whenever your mother speaks or moves towards you. Repeat steps 12-14. 
16. Scream bloody murder when more ladies arrive with shots. 
17. Receive shot. Decide mother's lap is better than the floor. Curl up there and fall asleep while completing observation period.
To all this I added: 19. When wake up, ask for new food.

This kid is alright although the parents are somewhat traumatised. As it turns out the food in question was Indian masala sauce and so the reaction was likely to cashews there. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Canadians Irrational Fear of Snow Days

My 13 year old daughter walks to school yesterday.
Just before we were going to move to Canada, many people in the US told us how different those Canadians were. Now we had met many Canadians and, to us, they seemed pretty darn normal and definitely polite. So we put it down to the Americans being the different ones.

During our first winter here there wasn't much or really any snow. But yesterday, a snow storm hit (as it did later on for the North-East of the US). This storm generated about a foot of snow, exactly as forecast. Now when we were in Boston that forecast would have triggered a snow day. Basically, school would be cancelled and we would be expected to stay home and off the roads. We must have had about four or five of these during our two Boston winters. 

But here in Toronto, things were different. I would have conversations like this:

"So do you think they are going to call a snow day tomorrow?"

"No way. I can't remember there ever being a snow day. The University of Toronto has never had one and neither has my kid's school."


"The whole time I was growing up, we had only one snow day. My parents were so upset they marched us to school anyway just to check and left us standing at the school gates for an hour."

"Wasn't that terrible."

"Noooo. We wanted to go to school. What was terrible was that the teachers didn't show up."

The Canadians take pride in the fact that they don't let snow interfere with their intention to pursue normal activities. I say intention because when you get a foot of snow, it interferes with normal activities. This was driven home to me literally yesterday morning as I tried to drive the kids to school, ploughing through the snow as we went, windshield freezing up in the negative 10 degrees Celsius temperature. What were these people thinking? No one should be out on a day like this. 

Thomas Schelling in his Nobel prize speech remarks at how amazing it was that for more than 60 years, no nuclear bomb has been dropped in anger. His thesis was the longer time went without a bomb, the more repugnant the idea of using it became. Jerry Seinfeld posits a similar way of keeping count on activities as a way to avoid procrastination. 

For Canadians, this is encapsulated in the 'days since the last snow day' count. Yesterday's storm was the worst in five years. Five years ago, therefore, they had a worse storm. It was so bad that they had to bring out the army to clear the road. And did they have a snow day then? Noooo. The kids remembered the army on the streets as they drove or trudged by. In the real world, when the army is on the streets the public shouldn't be there save for an Armistice or Remembrance Day parade. For these Canadians they behave like the dark night in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "it's just a few flurries. That won't stop us" as their arms fall off from frostbite. 

Now, as it turns out, my kids go to a more international school than is usual. So when they got there, half the class hadn't shown up. Why? They knew better unlike ourselves. 

So what did they do that day? Well, and remember it was negative 10 degrees and a snow storm out, they increased the number and length of recesses and played outside! Basically, they doubled down on the snow day. Not only did they not stay away from the snow, they took it as a signal to get down with it. Suffice it to say, my two youngest kids had the best day ever.

That was until the drive home. That is something that usually takes about 15 minutes from my work as I navigate through the Toronto streets to pick up scattered children. Yesterday, it took 2 hours. Why? Because there is a hill going north in Toronto. Not a big hill but a hill nonetheless. And cars were just struggling to get up it. Not most cars but one or two without snow tyres etc. People got out to help push only for the car to slide back towards them. It was chaos ... the sort of chaos that would normally cause people to stay at home. 

I proclaimed that we would 'go rouge' on our definition of snow days in the future. I would look at the forecast and if it seemed insane to go out, we would all stay at home and bugger the consequences. They can send the army for us for all I care.

"No way you can do that Dad."

"Why not?"

"Well, I'm not going to hold to it. My school has never had a snow day and everyone showed up today. I am not missing a minute of class!"

"Then you are on your own ..."

"I'll walk [it would be 8 kilometers]. I'm not stopped for just a little flurry."

"Or a flesh wound."


I guess you could say, at least for one member of our family, assimilation achieved. Well played, Canada.