Game Design: Support the Story Experience

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More than once I’ve been asked what advice I have for people who want to design games, and everytime my first piece of advice is make sure everything in the game supports the story/experience.

I have usually just said “story”, but not every game’s main thrust is the story–hence, story/experience. What does that mean? Even if your game is open world exploration or a MOBA fighting game (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) or an FPS, and not an adventure game (as is my wont), there’s still a specific experience you want players to have. A mood, a frame of mind, a social interaction, or whatever else. I would add that I believe most people unconsciously add their own story to games that don’t lay out a specific one (ask me sometime about the narrative I’ve decided to paint when my husband plays World of Tanks!), but even if they don’t add their own, there is still the experience.

That’s what it means in theory. In practice? It means don’t add anything to your game that doesn’t support the story you’re telling. Don’t do it because when you do, you waste your time (and money and resources) and you waste the player’s time on something that is superfluous, unimportant, and may even remove them from the gameplay experience. This is why you should never add a puzzle for the sake of a puzzle. Only add a puzzle if it reinforces a point about the characters, the world, or the plot. If it’s there just to kill time, then that is all you’ve done. Killed time. And with the modern game audience, that’s all it takes for them to move on to the next thing.

My favorite examples of these are, of course, from adventure games. In that community, it gets called “moon logic” a lot, or puzzles where your true goal is to “figure out what the designer was thinking.” At the peak of this in my book are three puzzles from King’s Quest V: cheese in the machine, pie at the yeti, and emeralds in honey.

Emeralds in Honey

King Graham is lost in the dark forest. He’s defeated the witch, but he’s still stuck here. What do you do?

Squeeze honey on the ground and then toss some emeralds in it to lure the elves out of hiding, of course.

It’s what any sane person would do.

What do you mean you don’t get it? I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s not like anyone told you there were elves in the forest, or that they crave emeralds, or that honey is an unexpectedly adhesive substance when you’re under three feet tall…

How to fix it: This one has an easy fix, actually. The elves have been mentioned, in a version of the Shoemaker and the Elves story. Had the shoemaker mentioned the elves enjoying sweets and shiny things, problem solved. To hint at their location in the forest, he could’ve mentioned tiny muddy footprints, or we could’ve just seen the elves themselves in the background, rather than unidentifiable eyes in the shadows.

Pie at the Yeti

King Graham is in the frigid mountain pass. His companion has been taken hostage, and to free him, Graham must defeat the fearsome yeti. Upon nearing the yeti’s cave, the ferocious beast rushes at him, and you have only seconds to react. What do you?

Throw the custard pie at him so he falls from the cliff’s edge, of course.

Yetis hate pies. Everyone knows that.

What? That wasn’t your first thought?

How to fix it: I would have gone with some other idea entirely. Axe the pie and find a new inventory item to use here, one that makes sense–water to throw on the ground, creating slippery ice; A heavy object to drop on the ice and shatter the cliffside, which the yeti heedlessly rushes into and falls; heck, sacrifice your own warmth by throwing your cloak over his face and that causes him to fall! The pie just in no way fits as a solution to this one. It almost feels like someone belatedly realized they had a puzzle with no solution and a leftover pie in the inventory, which…isn’t a way to design puzzles.

Cheese in the Machine

Graham’s search for his kidnapped family is nearly at an end. He’s found them in the evil wizard’s workshop, but shrunken down. Any hope of restoring them means restoring magic to the busted wand he’s been carrying around. The strange machine might do the trick, but it’s got no power and won’t turn on. What do you do?

Electrici-what now?

You throw the moldy cheese you found in the dungeon into the machine, of course.

Doesn’t everyone know about the magical power of moldy cheese?

How to fix it: This one’s a toughie. You’ve got a dead wand, a live wand, a crazy machine, and nothing to power it. It doesn’t help that getting the cheese in the first place involves going out of your way to be thrown in the dungeon in the first place, and only for the purpose of getting this item, which is very easy to miss. It would’ve been great to have something more magical in here, or at least mad science-y to match the machine itself. Run in a wheel to generate lightning, or just open a window to do the same. Maybe your otherwise useless traveling companion could’ve made himself useful here! As cool as the art is, I’d probably start over on the design of this screen entirely to get something that worked better here, at the finale of the game.

While King’s Quest V was made in another time, there’s a reason people still talk about this infamous puzzles to this day. There’s nothing in the narrative to point you in the right direction, and getting to them is total guesswork of trying every item in your inventory on every item on the screen until, suddenly, something works! But they’re completely nonsensical–even silly–they break the mood and atmosphere, distract from what is otherwise a good game with a good story.

Ideally, when you’re designing, you want to avoid this completely. It might take having others play your game to realize you’ve done it–and that’s fine!–but when they point it out, take that note to heart and change the puzzle if at all possible. Make sure the atmosphere is kept. Make sure the player is still going to be rooted in that moment, in the story or the experience, as they try to figure out how to proceed. Make sure they have all the information they need to continue forward, again and again, until they’ve reached the end of the story, and had a complete and satisfying story.


Yes, I’m back! After quite a lengthy absence from the blog here, I’m attempting to make a comeback and get back to some more regular posting about game design, writing, PR, indie studios and whatever else comes to mind that I feel vaguely qualified to jabber on about. 🙂

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4 responses »

  1. Would you consider the Gabriel Knight 3 Cat Hair puzzle to be part of this list, a puzzle with a completely unintuitive and quite mad solution? It helps reinforce the view that Gabriel can be a bit of a sleazebag, even to his close friends, but that is usually lost when the frustration kicks in.

    Not related, but I do like moon logic when it’s based on wordplay such as the Monkey Wrench in Monkey Island 2. The weakness is that the players doesn’t know the idiom (for example they’re not native English speakers) they’ll miss out on it entirely.

    Lovely article! Can’t wait to read more!

  2. Both of those aren’t quite moon logic. MI2 I actually didn’t play, but reading your recap of it, it fits a certain logic that exists in that game world.

    GK3…ugh. Well, it’s an AWFUL puzzle, and yes, should have been cut. The puzzle should’ve been vastly simpler, at the most to just put your picture on Mosley’s ID and call it done. The fact that you then need to draw on a stache you don’t have and then also create said stache for yourself from the most nonsensical material possible…gah! I get mad just thinking of it. The aim of the puzzle overall is pretty simple, but yeah, the execution is awful moon logic. I feel bad mostly that Jane gets blamed for that one when she didn’t write that puzzle.

  3. Pingback: Adventure, A Genre of Virtues and Vices | The Mental Attic

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