Game becoming easier and easier. Can the game never narrow down?

I am a fan of the Gilbert puzzle style where you have a wide world to explore in parallel. (So the difficulty does not come from the puzzle being illogical, but from the fact that you have so much choice and the amount of possibilities is overwhelming. This creates the sensation to be “in a world”.)

What I don’t like, though, is that as you solve puzzle after puzzle, the game becomes easier and easier. You start thinking “clearly in this location there’s nothing more to do… here there’s only this one thing to do”. And also, 2) the game feels “emptier” and emptier. And it stops being real, it stops feeling like “a world”, because there are too few objects left to interact with. 3) Also, you get a sense of “desolation” that comes from realizing that the game is about to end.

In other words, I like when the game widens, but not when it “narrows down”.

I thought that it does not need to be so. Can the game widen without ever narrowing down? I can think of two solutions:

  1. in each location, you should put many, many useless things. So, after you solve puzzle after puzzle, the number of apparent puzzles does not decrease in a significant way. Even when you are about to finish the game, it looks as if there are dozens of things still to do, even if it isn’t in fact so. You don’t feel that “emptiness” in the rooms that you usually feel when you have solved most puzzles. That sense of “desolation” when things are about to end.

  2. you don’t put a lot of useless things, but, each time you solve a puzzle, you also add an apparent new puzzle (red herring puzzle). You add some character in some location, even if it’s useless. Or a new character behavior. Or a new object. So you keep constant the amount of apparent puzzles you still have to solve.


It seems as if you would like to artificially fill up the space to make it seem more alive than it really is. If that is the case, than perhaps the problem lies in the world being sterile to begin with.

In my opinion, a desolate world should be desolate by design, meaning that there is no need to try to tone down its desolation by filling it up with stuff. If the world is not intended to be desolate but it turned out that way inadvertently, then adding stuff to it won’t fix it – perhaps it’s a flaw in the design and a more holistic approach to the environment and atmosphere is in order.

I think I understand what you are trying to say, and taking Thimbleweed Park as an example, I would agree that the game feels emptier and emptier as you progress. Mr. Gilbert has already stated multiple times how this is absolutely and wholeheartedly by his design, so there’s that.

In my opinion, it is a sign of unbalance; of trying to tighten up the pace much too aggressively in the end-game, overcorrecting it and removing any non-essential (read: not part of a critical puzzle) interaction. Once you complete those critical puzzles to advance that ending (which, being linear, are not much of a challenge), there’s nothing else to view, explore, or experience, because the world by that point was a mere empty shell to contain those puzzles. It’s desolation in the most prosaic and pedestrian way.

Given that this is all ostensibly by design, there’s no way to “fix” it. Perhaps a different vision or approach, but then that wouldn’t be Mr. Gilbert’s game. Then again, you have to consider, as Mr. Gilbert has also stated multiple times, how do you keep the pace in such a non-linear story, and how do you bring closure to such an expansive world, and do it all in a way that satisfies the player while retaining the story’s integrity? There are no easy answers.

Making games is hard. :slight_smile:



Why on earth would he want that? What did I miss? :slight_smile:

Ok, maybe I see. You need to narrow down in the finale. And move all the characters together. Ok, I can see that. But not more than once in the game… and before you do it, there is no need to have the world feel empty. It needs to look like there are still many things to do.

Apparently, it was an artistic decision:

I read that thread, but it talks about something else. The final locations have fewer items than the previous ones, to preserve the pace. This makes total sense. I was talking about something else: before you arrive at the final locations, it does not need to look like there are few puzzles left.

Well, that seems to be the design aesthetics of Mr. Gilbert and the nature of non-linear puzzles.

I guess I don’t agree with your point then. Apart from the very empty ending, I didn’t feel the game to be “desolate” at all. As a matter of fact, that was my biggest complaint in that thread and others: that the game is so chuck-full of interactions and so lively all the way to the end, where everything just feels rushed and perfunctory.


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in other words, here is what happens: near the end of a “part” you will tend to be stuck a lot, because the puzzles that remain are necessarily those that are more difficult for you. And it’s not nice to to be stuck in a world that feels “empty”. (because as I said you have solved almost all puzzles).

That is true, and I did experience that. However, I do not take that as being “an empty world.” I think it more as flaws on those puzzles that prevented me from solving them in a timely or logical manner that fits the plot.

I have pointed this out in the past: there are some puzzles for which the solution comes before the actual problem is encountered, potentially leading the player astray or causing him to lose focus on the really important and immediate puzzles – especially when they are puzzles which cannot be solved at all within the current game stage. I don’t know how to solve this, but I know it happens.

Filling the world with “stuff” when I am stuck does not fix the real problem, which is, to wit, getting stuck in the first place. On the contrary, I would argue that it would just add to the noise and distract me even more from the important things.


True, but it fixes your feeling while you are stuck. I am thinking of Ultima 7: you can get stuck but it never feels like the world is empty, it always feels alive.

Yeah, but you’re still stuck. The game doesn’t advance at all, and you make no progress. It’s artificial. Sure, it may feel like the world is alive, but once you explore that, you are still nowhere closer to getting out.

I submit that getting the player “stuck” is not a game mechanic, but a side-effect of a flaw in puzzle design – a missed detail, too much noise/clutter/red-herrings, confused interactions, etc.

Sometimes it is inevitable; some players will get stuck because the brain works in mysterious ways and everybody thinks differently. The key is in minimizing not only the number of such, but their overall impact on the game.

In my opinion, there are very few such puzzles in Thimbleweed Park and I only experienced three. However, of those, at least one got me so severely stuck that it almost made me quit the game in desperate frustration. That is some heavy impact right there.


All that said, I still don’t know how those puzzles could have been improved. I have ideas, but all of them will impact on other parts of the game. It’s not easy.

Game design is hard. :slight_smile:

Ok, suppose you fix the problem like you say. You make better design so that it never happens that you are stuck. But then we have the first problem: the game becomes easier and easier. Because as you solve puzzles, the number of possibilities shrinks.

I know, game design is hard :slight_smile:

But I don’t see how you can escape the need to put many useless things…

When I decorate my living room, I have a specific goal in my mind: I want the space to feel comfortable, homely, and warm. I also want it to be functional so that I can sit on the furniture and put my drink within arms reach on the table.

For everything a place, and everything in its place.

If I find that something is missing, it’s probably because I did not achieve my goal. Perhaps the couch is not as comfortable as I’d like, or the pictures on the wall depress my mood, or the coffee table is too small and far away from my chair, whatever. It just does not feel right.

Adding random stuff will never solve this problem, inasmuch as I wouldn’t expect to magically hit a combination or arrangement that hits the spot without proper thought or design.

Instead, I should take a step back and figure out what actually bothers me. Is it the couch? Is it the mood lighting? Is it the paintings? I should try as best as I can to articulate – to myself at least – what is wrong. Perhaps I can take a fresh approach, see what others have done and how their arrangements make me feel.

In the end, every single piece of furniture in that living room should be there for a reason, even if that reason is as simple and prosaic as “I just like looking at that thing, it makes me smile.”

I say, the same is true for an adventure game (and any other game for that matter). Every item, every color, every character, every joke, every room – everything – is just part of the furniture that makes that space a living breathing world, and is there for a reason.

There should never be “useless” things, in the sense that they were added randomly and wantonly. They are there to make the world complete. How this is achieved depends on the specific goals for that particular room. This means that some rooms may necessarily be more cluttered than others just because their reasons for being so are important to meet some end.

If you are arguing that Thimbleweed Park is an empty world filled purely with puzzle paraphernalia and that once you complete those puzzles there is nothing but an empty shell; I disagree with you (except for the end-game, on which I already stated my opinion).

If you are arguing that Thimbleweed Park is lively and thriving world replete with so many puzzles that it feels like there’s nothing else – well, I don’t think I can agree either, but I can see how you could feel that way.

If you are instead trying to articulate your sorrow at getting closer to the end of the experience, which feels like emptiness, especially when you have spent considerable time getting to know its characters and environs; then I guess I could agree.

However, that is unavoidable for a game which tries so hard to make an emotional and psychic connection with the player. I would even say, that’s not a problem but a feature. :slight_smile:


When I say “useless” I just mean “it has a purpose other than to be part of a puzzle”. I don’t really mean “useless”. The purpose of something can simply be to create immersion.

When I say “put useless object or persons or events” I mean “objects or persons or events that are integrated and natural in the story, but whose only purpose is to create detail, interaction and immersion”.

Also, you did not directly answer the problem that the game becomes easier and easier. Maybe you don’t feel it’s a problem?

Then we agree, but that’s not adding “many useless things,” that’s just normal world-building. That should come first as part of design, not as a solution to some other problem.

I guess I don’t see the game becoming easier and easier. If I understand you correctly, I believe that what you are referring to is not that the game gets easier, but that the multi-faceted non-linear solutions and the many ways in which you can interact with them are resolved until there aren’t that many paths to take.

If this is indeed what you mean, then I say it is not a problem. In fact, even Mr. Gilbert’s old musings on puzzle dependency charts in his old blog suggest that the chart gets big and fat somewhere in the second act and narrows towards the end. This is just the nature of adventure games, the nature of storytelling itself.

All story points should converge towards a unified conclusion by the third act; this is normal and expected.


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Well, at some point a game has to end (well it doesn’t HAVE to but it does in this genre), and I think TWP does a great job of opening up in a big way and not locking itself much into finite boxes or cages before narrowing down to its controversial finale.

The main solution I can think of is red herring puzzles, or puzzles that are not required to complete the game. They’d serve to enrich the experience of the world and make it more interactive. Although they would be optional for completing the game, those curious would seek to solve many or all of those additional puzzles which further some subplots and the like. The solving of these puzzles might even offer additional bits of information that lend more clues to all the mysteries of a story, even if they are not required to understand the underlying principles and processes of the plot. Some of the puzzles could be extremely difficult or obscure or even act more like easter eggs than puzzles which provide some secrets of a world.

The important thing in including such puzzles and “side quests” would be to make sure the gamer is never led astray on what their core actual goal is. For example, you can’t have a puzzle that’s too difficult, random and obscure which reveals a delightful secret or whatever if it also convinces the player that they cannot progress without it. In other words, additional puzzles should not do much to obfuscate the true path that is intended in order to reach the finish. This is less important with more standard off-shoot puzzles included as they would be seamlessly integrated and not truly get in the way of the game but rather enrich the experience.

Perhaps the game would be of suitable difficulty that additional hints and clues offered by completing optional puzzles would help them progress on a mandatory puzzle for game completion. The gamer won’t always know that they are optional if they can indeed aid in the quest even in a small way such as offering a hint on a mandatory task.

For example, there could have been an additional puzzle that breaks something in the sewers which leads to radioactive waste dripping/pouring into the sewer water, turning it green and that in turn would have been an additional clue for the radioactive waste-puddle puzzle. This might not be the best example but it’s to demonstrate what I’m getting at.

So, that’s one strategy that could be adopted but even though they would be loose end branches (so not so complicated to integrate into more critical dependency charts – at least not as complicated as the “need to do” puzzles) it would still be a lot of extra work.

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you are right, we have a problem both ways. If the player knows that the puzzle is optional, the purpose is lost. (the game will get easier and easier). If he does not know, he risks to focus on that and be frustrated. (because the puzzle must be insoluble, otherwise we can get back to a situation where there are few puzzles left ). :slight_smile:

i.e. originally I was thinking of a game where only 1/3 of puzzles can actually be solved.

I updated my post a bit.

It would be possible to properly signpost this process while still allowing the super obscure secret puzzles to exist that players wouldn’t even realise are puzzles (like some moon logic stuff that leads to a surprising result which adds further interaction in the game and reveals something deep and curious about the game world). As long as there are many tasks to solve the gamer is unlikely also to believe they’re stuck and with appropriate enough storytelling they will understand the main direction of the main branch.

The key to the more normal puzzles which act as optional/red herring puzzles is that they wouldn’t actually be useless and would reveal some sort of clue or hint that can help later in the game with a mandatory puzzle… just that they don’t need to be completed to finish the story. They could be seamlessly integrated as to never lead the player off the right path in that everything at least aids them toward the final goal.

As said, this would all be considerable extra work, but given they’d be “loose end” branches that act as hints their integration would not be as complicated to balance as the mandatory puzzles.

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on the other hand… it does not make sense to say “but the player could focus on the wrong path and be frustrated”. I mean, the game is precisely figuring out what path is right!

You can have optional puzzles which aid the player but are not required to solve the story and you could have some true red herring puzzles that actually can’t be solved. Generally though, I like the idea that additional puzzles would still aid and help the player in their quest so that they still serve a pragmatic purpose for the completion of the game. If you have no red herring puzzles (or objects… we often get red herring objects) then the game inexorably narrows down in the end – an inevitable consequence of solving a finite amount of puzzles.

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