Hard Puzzle

by Ade McT profile

Episode 1 of Hard Puzzle Trilogy
Science Fiction

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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
deliberately bad game design is still bad game design, May 19, 2016
by matt w (Matt Weiner) (Burlington, VT)

First a confession: I did not finish this game. Perhaps when someone reveals the solution to me I will slap my forehead and reconsider this.

However, this is a game that deliberately commits any number of sins against design. A key verb is hidden in the ABOUT text. An action that puts new objects in your inventory doesn't tell you what those objects are, forcing you to type in an extra command and scroll through a long inventory list to see what you've just obtained. Several descriptions are unhelpful. The game has an enormous number of objects in it, most of which appear to be irrelevant, and very few of which give you cues how to use it. A critical action has to be repeated several times before yielding anything. It has at least one thing (Spoiler - click to show)(the tape) which can be interacted with in a way that seems to give you progress... but the interaction is shakily implemented (Spoiler - click to show)you can ATTACH TAPE TO THING but not ATTACH THING TO TAPE, and if there's a way to use it to attach two things together it's not well clued) and doesn't appear to lead to anything significant. And it is full of bugs in the world model--things that can be put in spaces they shouldn't fit in, things that are takeable and shouldn't be, things that mysteriously disappear when you perform an unrelated action (Spoiler - click to show)(when you break or reassemble the stool, anything on/in it gets whisked off-stage with the completed stool or stool base, and can only be retrieved by re-assembling/re-breaking the object).

All, or many, of these effects are deliberate and cued in the game in various ways. But that doesn't make the game any better to play. A game that wastes your time for satirical/parodic reasons by making you examine twenty irrelevant objects is still wasting your time by making you examine twenty irrelevant objects. A game full of deliberate bugs, some of which you must exploit to win the game, is still making it impossible to predict the consequences of your action and forcing you into try-everything-on-everything gameplay; which, given the massive number of things involved, is incredibly tedious.

It's possible to have good game design that simulates bad design. I've played and enjoyed a game (Spoiler - click to show)(9:05) that withholds critical information from the player. I've enjoyed games like Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die and Annoyotron that are shallowly implemented in order to frustrate your expectations deliberately. I've even written a game, "The Coming of the Mirthful Messiahs," that deliberately exploits a bug. But all these games restrict the possibility space enough that it's possible to find out what's being concealed from you, or light upon the solution just by trying a limited number of things, or know that you're progressing (through Annoyotron) even when you're mindlessly repeating actions. Hard Puzzle is more like Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die 2, which includes a lot of systems that are irrelevant to the solution in order to send you down blind paths.

Good game design finds a way to lead the player to be aware of the possibilities of the game, even where those possibilities involve apparent glitches or misdirection. At the very least, it rewards the exploration that the player must do on the way to stumbling across those possibilities. By these criteria, Hard Puzzle is not good game design. It is designed to deliberately waste the player's time.

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Doug Orleans, January 5, 2016 - Reply
I still have not yet finished it myself, but I don't agree that good game design necessarily means not deliberately wasting the player's time. The name of the game is Hard Puzzle, and there are plenty of explicit warnings (almost to the point of parody) that yes, this is meant to be a hard puzzle. Sure, you can argue that there are better ways to make a puzzle hard than to waste the player's time, but I think it's clear that the entire point of this game is to waste the player's time. Or, more accurately, to not prevent the player from wasting time by giving any clues that would shortcut avenues of exploration that turn out to be wastes of time. I will reserve judgement about whether this design gambit is successful until I've actually solved it, but I can certainly imagine ways the game can end that would maintain my respect for the time wasting. (I can also imagine the opposite... which potentially could make it even more satisfying if it turns out my fears are unwarranted. I think the impact of the very existence of this uncertainty is what CMG is getting at in his review, though I don't yet have faith in CMG's puzzle taste to know if I will end up agreeing...)
matt w (Matt Weiner), May 18, 2016 - Reply
Or, more accurately, to not prevent the player from wasting time by giving any clues that would shortcut avenues of exploration that turn out to be wastes of time.

Well, this is exactly what I would describe as its fatal design flaw. I take it that the solution to the puzzle is going to require some exploration--it's not available from the beginning. So if it doesn't shortcut avenues of exploration that turn out to be wastes of time, then it actually is forcing you to waste your time, unless you happen to luck across the right avenue of exploration (and recognize it) immediately. blank's analogy of a maze is accurate here; what you're describing here is an exploration space that's shaped like a maze with a lot of lengthy dead ends. You have no way of telling which way to proceed without wasting a lot of time exploring the dead ends. And that's a bad way to make a puzzle hard, because it shows a fundamental disrespect for the player's time.

[I've written a pretty successful fake-out puzzle; but the thing about it is that the resources to solve it are there the whole time, and the futile exploration that it requires is both limited in scope and also not a total red herring, since there isn't anything that could be eliminated from the game while still leaving the puzzle solution intact. Now, maybe this is more true of Hard Puzzle than I think; I'm not very good at puzzles. But it doesn't seem that way.]

(I'll also add, about the disclaimers: Ade announced this as a game that would take fifteen minutes or so. The disclaimers about how hard the puzzle is are so parodic that it's hard to know whether to take them seriously. And in many cases I don't know whether any given element is there deliberately or due to the author's not taking the time to remove it--things like the behavior discussed by Deboriole in her comment. This makes it impossible to trust the game--which again seems like the point, but again is a case of deliberately bad game design still being bad game design.)
Doug Orleans, May 19, 2016 - Reply
I have now finished the game, thanks to some generous hints in private correspondence from the author. I asked his permission to share a gentle hint but haven't heard back yet.

I rated the game 3 stars, for mostly the same reasons as Deboriole. I don't want to say too much because I do ultimately agree with CMG that a large part of the value of the game is in the multiple levels of uncertainty. I will say that I think the game is fair, but I think there are some ways in which the game could be improved to better meet its goals. I'm also not quite sure I agree with the game's goals! But I respect them, more than in, say, Taghairm. (Sorry CMG!) And, ultimately, I enjoyed the experience.

I do agree in general that "deliberately bad game design is still bad game design". But I don't think that's quite what's going on here. For one thing, I don't agree that a lengthy dead end is necessarily a waste of time just because it's not required to finish the game; there are many reasons to include optional content in a game, some obvious (it's funny) and some not-so-obvious (it contributes to a theme or meta-theme). And, again, part of the point here is the uncertainty of whether a dead end is a dead end or not.
<blank>, January 24, 2016 - Reply
You seem to be saying that "since the game's supposed to be hard, it's ok for it to throw everything at the player without any consideration for them". I would respectfully disagree; a good hard puzzle is fair, keeps you interested and engaged, encourages experimentation, makes you work for the answer dangling it like a carrot always ahead of you.

A bad hard puzzle, one that just says "it's hard, so deal with it", will not bother with all that, or even with giving a player the necessary tools to solve the puzzle.

To put it another way - a game riddled with mazes and guess-the-verbs and inconsistent implementation is hard the way that matt w is saying a game should not be. I would agree. Difficulty is a difficult thing to design!

CAVEAT - If that is not at all what you were saying, apologies!
Doug Orleans, May 19, 2016 - Reply
That's not quite what I was saying; I think there should be some consideration for the player, but I don't think that has to include helping the player avoid wasting time (in a game where it's understood from the start that you will probably waste a lot of your time). My problem with mazes, guess-the-verbs, and inconsistent implementation isn't that they make a game hard, it's that they make the game less fun, and largely I don't think that's true about Hard Puzzle. But that will depend on how fun you think it is to be totally stuck and unclued.
Deboriole, December 16, 2015 - Reply
I totally agree with you on ALL points. I ran into the exact problems you outlined and it made me just as frustrated. I cannot figure out the solution because I don't even know what I'm trying to accomplish. (Spoiler - click to show)Do I have to make the stool, or is there a way to escape that has nothing to do with the stool at all?

Since neither of us can figure the darn thing out, I want to mention one thing I found that you didn't mention. Maybe it's a bug and maybe it's helpful. Who knows. (Spoiler - click to show)One time I was trying to put everything into the first hole and then put the stool together. I put two of the legs on but left the third leg off deliberately so I could pack the hole with all of the other stuff. But oops, I wrote "put all in first hole" and forgot to omit the last leg! So what I got was as my entire inventory was being added to the hole, some items went in, then the leg went in (thus the stool was completed and was placed on the ground). Then I received this message several times: "You cannot reach inside the house" as each remaining item in my inventory was attempted to be put in the hole. Weird, huh?
matt w (Matt Weiner), December 17, 2015 - Reply
About your spoiler, that seems pretty recognizable from the standard Inform library.

(Spoiler - click to show)What that probably means is that, as soon as the stool is completed, its parts (the base and legs) are moved into a room called "the house" and the stool itself is moved back from "the house" and into the room you're in. After that, you're trying to put the tape (or whatever) into the hole, but the hole is in the room called "the house," and the reaching inside rules standardly prevent you from reaching into other rooms with the message "You can't reach inside [room]." Unfortunately, I don't think this tells us anything about the puzzle solution; it's not uncommon for an author to put objects that will be used later into the game into a special room, the room itself might not be accessible in the game, and the name of the room doesn't necessarily mean anything.
Deboriole, December 17, 2015 - Reply
Ah! Thanks for that explanation. :)
<blank>, December 16, 2015 - Reply
Finally. Thank you very, very much - I was hoping someone would post a more critical review. All the other reviews and feedback are glowing, which is good, but they told me next to nothing about the playing experience, and what made it such a hard puzzle, and whether playing it to completion would be a masochistic act.

I'm still going to try it, of course, and form my own opinion, but it's great to finally have a more critical take on the game.
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