Imagine, you’re playing a new game that you just bought. It’s a great experience with an immersive world and a lively cast that feels like they could jump out of the screen at any moment. The game feels terrific to play and you’re having a blast going through this new world.
Then it happens, a puzzle. It’s somewhat complicated but also not something you can’t figure out with a bit of thinking. You spend a few minutes taking note of each element of the puzzle and how it works. You’re slowly figuring things out and about to try out a solution and then suddenly-
“Have you tried-”
“Maybe you should-”
An unpleasant feeling crawls over you. You ignore the voice that just rang across the room and solve the puzzle, yet a sense of unease dawns slowly creeps into your mind. You stifle it back.
“Put a lid on it, Atreus” you mumble under your breath as you continue your journey into the game’s world. The illusion of the game’s enchanting universe is mildly shattered as you feel the designers subtly trying to curate your experience.
For the past few years, unnecessary handholding has been one of the most frustrating aspects of modern gaming. From Uncharted to Plague Tale to God of War Ragnarok, it has started to become an annoying trend in many big-budget titles.
Plenty of people have complained about it over the years and God of War Ragnarok even had the great foresight to add an option to turn off Puzzle assists from Atreus (Even though it doesn’t work too well since Atreus still gives you hints or solutions either way.)
So… why do games do this?
I am no game designer, and my game design knowledge solely comes from watching hours’ worth of Matthewmatosis and Game Maker’s Toolkit videos.
However, it’s clear that AAA games are usually designed to be finished by every kind of player while also maintaining a consistent pace and ensuring that the player is constantly moving forward and seeing new content.
With that respect, it makes perfect sense why games do this. It’s a way to slowly nudge the player toward a possible solution without giving away the entire answer, so the player still feels some sense of accomplishment in figuring out the full solution. Despite this reasoning, it feels like a rough band-aid to a bigger problem.
The bigger problem has to deal with the puzzle design itself, but that’s something that I’d rather not get into. As for the rough band-aid, there are a lot better ways than to make the NPCs automatically tell you the solutions if you wait too long.
“The solution i-”
“Hey maybe I sho-”
No. Get out of here Aloy!
God of War Ragnarok almost has the right idea with the option to turn Puzzle assists on or off, all it needs is the option to turn off these assists entirely.
A recent example of a game that does this much better than God of War Ragnarok is the newly released indie survival horror game SIGNALIS. The game has a puzzle where you have to equalize a water tank. It’s the first puzzle of the game and it’s immediately a fair challenge.
Instead of dropping random hints, there’s a note on the side of the room that just tells you how to equalize the water tanks. Players can choose whether they want to follow the note to a T or try to figure the puzzle out themselves.
Of course, the latter method is more satisfying because it takes actual math and logic to figure out how to do it. The former is there for players who’d rather not be stuck at a tough puzzle for an hour.
While this method isn’t perfect, it works, and it offers the player the agency to choose.
The opposite extreme of this is found in one of my favorite games of 2022.
Scorn, unlike most games, quite literally throws you on the deep end and basically tells you “Good luck, sucker!” with zero hints or clues as to where to go or what to do.
The puzzles are usually obtuse with no hints on what to do. If you aren’t willing to sit down and figure things out, then your only other options are to either brute force your way through the puzzles or use an outside guide.
Meanwhile, what games like Horizon Zero Dawn do, and I use Horizon here as an example because it’s particularly bad at this, end up frustrating players on both ends of the spectrum.
Players who just want to get things moving will be fumbling around for a few minutes until the game tells them what to do, meanwhile, players who enjoy the puzzles will feel insulted by what these games expect from the player, and I feel the latter is a particularly worse result.
A lot of these issues are resolved by just giving the player the agency to choose whether or not he wants the solution or wants to get moving.
This is also why many cited Elden Ring as one of the best games of all time. A game that broke conventional game design wisdom to bring a fresh take on the open-world genre just as Breath of The Wild did 5 years before it.
That was my obligatory excuse to insert Elden Ring and Breath of The Wild in some form, anyways, the point is, as proven by the success of games like Elden Ring and BOTW. Players don’t mind getting lost or figuring things out. I love figuring things out in such games, it actually feels like the game respects me as a player.
Many big-budget titles, however, are aimed at the largest common denominator. Designed to be finished by anyone. They’re not unlike the glitz and glamour of the latest Hollywood Blockbuster, meant to entertain and impress up to the lowest common denominator.
I have to emphasize that I don’t mean this as a criticism, there’s something genuinely spectacular about seeing some crazy set piece in a game like God of War or Uncharted and just wondering how was this even possible to make.
Furthermore, accessibility is always good, and Sony has been at the vanguard of pushing accessibility in games and for that, they deserve the utmost credit.
But robbing the player of the satisfaction of solving a problem by themselves is one of the worst things you can do. It’s not worth it and it never will be worth it. AAA developers, please don’t do this, it’s not fun or satisfying, it’s annoying and frustrating.
God of War Ragnarok is extremely close to having the right idea, and perfection is only a block away.
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