What Makes You Tick.

Last night, on a recommendation from Jay Is Games, I tried What Makes You Tick, a graphical adventure game built with LASSIE and meant to emulate things like the Monkey Island games.

It’s quite a pretty game, but I was disappointed: some of the puzzles were of a kind I will call “obscurantist goal seeking”. For example: you know you want to get past NPC X. To do this, you have hints that you’re going to need object Y. To get object Y, you need to bribe NPC Z — but there’s only very obscure cluing that you need Z’s involvement on this project — and to bribe Z, you need objects P, Q, and zeta, two of which are sufficiently hidden as to require a bit of pixel-hunting. And as for object P, you have to get that from *another* NPC, by choosing a dialogue option that on the surface looks completely useless and unrelated to any of the other NPCs or puzzles in this chain.

I used the hints a lot. Fortunately they’re pretty thorough.

Other disappointments: 1) Jay Is Games billed it as historical and atmospheric, but it’s got some silly modern life insertions that undermine the force of the story, such as it is; and 2) more seriously, I got all the way to the end and I think I was supposed to get to see some kind of epilogue cut scene, but it didn’t show up. Instead, my computer sat there churning away with a black screen for quite a while until I force-quit the game. At that point I had no save to go back to and I wasn’t willing to redo the whole thing just to see whether I could make the cut scene work this time around. So there may well have been some big cool revelation at the end — actually, I have the sense there must have been, from clues earlier in the game — but I didn’t see it.

Possibly I’m taking the whole thing too seriously, eh? It’s a pretty game. It has very nice sound effects. I enjoyed playing it, though I wish I’d gotten to see the ending. And I suspect it would appeal to some of the same people who bemoan the “artsy” quality of much modern IF, and who want to get back to un-self-conscious games that pit the player’s wits against the author’s. I enjoy that sort of thing myself from time to time, but there’s a point at which bad puzzle design is just bad puzzle design, and I get frustrated and grumpy.

11 thoughts on “What Makes You Tick.”

  1. Well
    “meant to emulate things like the Monkey Island games”

    The puzzles are just like in the Adventure Classics, IF you’re familliar with those. So maybe you should judge the game by what it’s meant to be. Since you make games yourself you should know that critique should be constructive, I guess. Being grumpy is a bad excuse.

    You should treat the work of others, who invest much work in their games too, with a little respect.

  2. Mr X, I see from your email address that you’re the game’s author. (Or else mysteriously using the same email address he does.) It wasn’t my intention to hurt your feelings: I did enjoy “What Makes You Tick?” enough to (try to) play through to the end, and enough to want to mention it here, though I had some troubles with it as well.

    But as for “Since you make games yourself you should know that critique should be constructive” — no. Not everything written about a game needs to be a workshop-style critique. Reviews come in a variety of flavors; some are written to help the author, some to help players identify whether they would enjoy playing the game; some are designed to be entertaining reading in themselves. Those all seem like valid goals for a review. There are also people who write reviews for the pleasure of tearing something down — I’ve seen some quite nasty ones. But this is not that kind of review, trust me. If you want to compare and contrast, I can show you some samples.

    This particular entry was meant to be the player-oriented kind of review, and, what’s more, I wrote it for the kinds of people who tend to read my blog. The interactive fiction community has developed certain conventions about puzzle fairness, which this game violates. You may not agree that they’re reasonable conventions, but if I’m describing games to readers here, I’m going to assume those readers are used to modern IF, and so that’s what I’m most likely to use as a point of comparison.

    Even taken as a critique, though, I don’t think this was particularly unconstructive. I was specific about the things that made the work less effective for me; I could have gone into more detail, but only by spoiling parts of the game for people who might want to play it. But to my mind, pointing out problem areas and explaining why they don’t work *is* constructive. (Even if you disagree that those are problems. I’m still describing what I had trouble with and what you would have to change about your game design in order to make me like it better, if that is a goal that interests you. You’re of course free to decide that I’m crazy/delusional/not a member of your target audience.) By contrast, neither “Yay, I loved this game! You are a genius!” nor “You clearly worked very hard on this!” is constructive criticism. Praise and acknowledgement of effort is pleasant to hear and provides motivation for the author to write more (and please note that I did really like the art and sound effects!), but listing positives alone gives nothing to build on.

    Forgive me if I’m misreading, but from what’s been said on the Lassie forum, I have the impression this is your first game release and that it hasn’t yet had a very extensive reviewing. If you release more games and they are widely played (and I hope you will and that they will be), you’ll inevitably encounter a much wider range of feedback. Some of it may be genuinely rude and disrespectful, but much of it (like this) will be the player’s honest attempt to say what about your game could have been better. And that’s not disrespectful; it’s just the opposite, in fact. It assumes you’re sufficiently talented to improve your work, and sufficiently committed to want to.

  3. Thanks for explaining what I was not able to understand. Now I know what you are aiming at – although I still don’t see how using you rules on a somehow different genre should help. I don’t think you “violate” a rule if that rule contradicts the concept. The LucasArts-Adventure classics were the lawbook and bible for this game. And if using the banana-metronome with Jojo the monkey results in hypnotizing him and using him as a wrench then that’s unfair – but great. So if it doesn’t follow your rules then maybe that’s because it never intended to. And it’s interactive fiction … maybe outdated and not part of a new IF dogma.

    :) But thanks for playing.

    PS: The good old “Mr. X” riddle was too easy to solve, Sigh. At least that was a fair task.

  4. To be fair, I don’t think that objections to this sort of puzzle design are or ought to be constrained to one or another interactive format. Nothing about the interface differences between interactive fiction, point-and-click adventures, and, to produce a distant, occassionally related descendant, first person “shooters” necessarily dictates differences in puzzle design approaches. The only exceptions are trivial aspects such as Emily’s reference to pixel-hunting; adventures in other formats have their own equivalents to that task.

    No, the brand of puzzle design being criticised here is abstract and as likely to be found in IF as in graphic adventures; in both formats it can be dismissed as archaic from an a priori perspective.

    I also would like to mention that point-and-click graphic adventures are often recognized as featuring absurd and unfair puzzle design that appeals only to an entrenched, nostalgic audience. For an example, see this Old Man Murray piece: http://www.oldmanmurray.com/features/77.html

    If a title is created with the intent of tribute or homage, that’s fine, but its designer really ought to expect to receive this kind of criticism as a necessary side effect of producing a work out of its time.

  5. My argument would be roughly along the line of Skye’s. I enjoy a puzzle game (in any medium) if it’s just hard enough that I have to put some thought into it, but I come away feeling that all the clues were fair. I dislike puzzle games that require a lot of tedious or undirected work (e.g., searching a lot of areas when there’s no reason to think there’s anything there, just to find the one spot that *does* contain something; or mapping a conventional IF maze).

    This is all to do with the basic principle that a puzzle should continue to be fun for the duration of the time that you’re working on solving it. It doesn’t much matter what kind of game or puzzle it is. (I once solved a few Sudoku puzzles and then have never played them since, because there are time-consuming but reliable ways to work them out and therefore the entertainment value drops to nearly zero.)

    Things I thought were positive, in What Makes You Tick?:

    — the way NPCs will throw in amusing comments if you explore rooms in their presence. That was unexpected at first, and also amusing, and provided a good incentive to keep exploring.

    — the amusing comments when the player tried to use certain inventory items in obviously absurd places.

    — the fact that certain inventory items get reused for different puzzles, sometimes in different states.

    — the several puzzles that involved combining objects into a new kind of tool or item, especially when there were nifty illustrations of the stages of building (whatever it was).

    What I found especially irksome:

    — items that required finding smallish hot-spots, especially when those were next to other larger items and so it was easy to think that the change in cursor state was because the little hot-spot was part of the bigger one. This happened to me three times in the game that I can recall, and every time prevented me from solving a puzzle on my own. To my mind this is roughly equivalent to a text IF game in which you diligently explore every room and LOOK UNDER every major piece of furniture, and then find later that you missed an important key because you did not also LOOK BEHIND the furniture as well.

    — having an NPC that I’m explicitly told is not important to the game, and who seems to have no obvious bearing on anything, who nonetheless turns out to be holding an item that we need. And there’s no external clue to this anywhere. Misleading the player like this is a form of unfairness; I don’t think the fairness of it is genre-dependent.

  6. Well, actually I think you’re right here. Now that you have explained in detail what you mean I have to admit that these things could and will be improved next time. Now you see why I don’t see much use in firing into a general direction with critique … you might just hit the wrong spot.

    I see why you concentrate just on puzzles and theory – you really figured out for yourself what you like what you think makes a good puzzle. I can really learn in that respect from your critique. But for me background drawings, sounds and animation are also an essential (!) part of gaming. Maybe that’s why your critique seems a little foreign for me. Different basis and viewpoints, I guess. Anyway don’t feel bothered. But a little less grumpy (as you said) might help next time. Especially when the game is only 3 days old. Grumpiness is not healthy. :)

  7. And a little more humor might help, too. Skye, you sound serious – I feel like I’m going to be sued.

  8. A well crafted “player-oriented” review of any game, from a SCUMM-style adventure to a text game to a blockbuster FPS, does two things: it tells what the critic thought of the game, and it tells why the critic thought it.

    The central purpose of a player-centered critique is to make the opinions of the reviewer clear (at least as far as they relate to the subject of the review). That is to say, it makes some claim as to the quality of the reviewer’s play experience – “I enjoyed this game thoroughly”, “I want three hours of my life back”, and everything in between.

    Just as important as giving the reaction, a well-crafted player oriented critique gives clear evidence of the things about the subject that led to the reviewer feeling this way. “The story took me in and wouldn’t let me go.”, “The control scheme made it impossible to do anything. I now know how parapalegiacs must feel, and recommend this game to anyone who wants to build empathy with the disabled.”

    The REASON that a good review does these two things is because there IS no accounting for taste. There’s no way to look at the back of a box or even at a list of numbers in an arbitrary review and tell, without a doubt, that you will like or dislike a given game.

    A slight detour, we’ll get back to the main line in a second.

    Imagine yourself in the following situation: a new blockbuster game has come out with some astronimical price tag. You’ve heard a lot of buzz about it but you’ve heard both good and bad. Two of your friends have bought and played it. One, lets call her Rene, says its a life changing experience, the other, let’s call him Skip, says that this game is the worst thing he’s played since ET on the Atari. Skip rates the game a 1. Rene calls it a 5. Neither one of them is lying.

    How do you judge whether or not you will like the game? Well first, you’ve known both people for a long time. You know that your taste is much closer to Skip’s than to Rene’s. You and Skip played tons of Starcraft, Quake, etc. together when you were younger and Rene always turned up her nose. On the other hand, there was Myst — Skip just couldn’t get into it and you weren’t going to play it but then Rene bought you that copy for your birthday, so sure was she that you would like it, so you played it. And loved it.

    In other words, you have some ideas on where your opinions are likely to match with Rene’s and with Skip’s — on more strategy oriented mainstream games, you tend to side with Skip. In adventure games and games with exploration and atmosphere, you tend to side with Rene.

    This new game is a deeply immersive strategy game. You build bases to protect against mysterious otherworldly things while trying to uncover the mystery of the what the strange things are and where they come from. It is defined by both its interesting atmosphere and story and by a sophisticated base building strategy mechanic. Given your friends opinions, it seems like the strategy elements could be better but the story is really very engaging – engaging enough to get Rene to overlook the fact that the game is in a genre she doesn’t usually play.

    So, the strategy part is probably pretty weak and the story is probably pretty strong. You get this information knowing the angles that your friends are coming from. You still however, in your opinion don’t have enough information to drop $80 on something that is hardly a sure thing ( Skip would have given you his copy but he apparently got angry at it and tried to return it, discovered that he couldn’t return it on a technicality and so got more angry, then got escorted out of the mall by security, accidentally leaving his copy of the game on the counter of the EB Games ).

    In order to get the confidence you need to buy the game, you need to know WHY your friends felt so vehemently about it. You talk to renee first and your suspicions are confirmed: without going into detail she tells you that the story of the game is incredible, comparing it favorably to FFX and Photopia, both of which you routinely mutally gush about to the general consternation of Skip.

    You then talk to skip who reveals that he hates the game because of long strings of ‘exploration quests’ that get away from the base building and resource management, because of the circa-1995 style RTS command conventions, and because there is no multiplayer support and the developers have announced that there never will be.

    Knowing these facts, you are confident that you can allocate your gaming budget for the quarter to this game. You do, and you are pleased.

    End detour.

    There is, as mentioned before, no accounting for taste. While we tend to associate with people whose taste is highly congruent with ours, there are always imperfections — places where something matters to one person and just doesnt to another.

    The above example illustrates a common occurance in at least my life – where I have to determine based on conflicting reports from different sources whether something is worth buying or, more importantly, whether something is worth sinking my rapidly dwindling gaming time into playing.

    I personally like to be on the vanguard ( at least out of my friends ) of playing what’s out there — I don’t usually like to wait for enough of my friends to play something for me to know whether or not to spend time on it. As a result, I often read reviews of both commercial and non-commercial games in order to determine what’s worth spending time on. While reviewers tend not to be people I’ve known since forever, I can usually pick up either from other reviews or from the opinions shown in a single review, what is and is not important to a reviewer in terms of game play. If the reviewer is good, I can then look at the specifics of the game cited and from those pieces of information make a fairly accurate guess as to whether playing a game is worth my time.

    In this particular instance of Emily Short reviewing ‘What Makes You Tick’ she gives a fairly specific example of what grumps her out about the game: “You know you want to get past NPC X. To do this, you have hints that you’re going to need object Y. To get object Y, you need to bribe NPC Z …” She also, however, mentions that the game is trying to emulate the Monkey Island series.

    Now I can recognize that her complaints are valid: that kind of obscure fetch questing just wouldn’t fly in the higher circles of IF. It represents an older, I-am-the-designer-and-you-will-do-what-I-say mentality to game design ( and design in general but that’s another post ) that went out sometime in the late 90’s.

    I can also recognize that I loved, and still love, the Monkey Island games. If I were designing a game today I would never put in a puzzle where you have to somehow realize that you need to make a potion that you used in a completely different context earlier in the game from only tangentailly similar ingredients to cure a fundamentally different ailment ( as was the case in Curse of Monkey Island ). I also would be a different person had I not solved that puzzle, and I love that game for such memorable anti-logic puzzles as that and a thousand others similar that I’ll admit I FAQ’ed from time to time.

    In other words, despite the fact that I agree with Emily’s review and believe it to be accurate, I know exactly where her taste differs from mine because of the quality of the review, and am convinced by a fundamentally negative review, to give the game a try.

  9. Sorry this is a bit late, but upon reading this I downloaded and played the game, so I thought I would leave a note.

    I didn’t mind the “obscurantist goal seeking”… that is the sort of game play I am used to in Graphic Adventure Games since I was weaned on The Secret of Monkey Island. To be honest, I prefer that to puzzle-based games. I find that OGS games require you to remember and integrate a bigger picture of the plot and setting, making the game more immersive. I didn’t really mind the pixel searching either, because I see that as a motivation to appreciate better the details of art.

    My main complaint was the fact that the game had too many “this is what’s next because that’s how adventure games work” moments, as you mentioned in your first post, Emily. That sort of thing can be appreciated in small amounts, but too much of it in a short game really distracts from the atmosphere. I also found the ending to be a little abrupt.

    But those are simply meant as constructive criticism for an artist who obviously has a lot of offer the adventure game genera. Overall, this game was very enjoyable, and it really brought back a lot of fond SCUMM memories, so cheers to the author.

  10. Good to hear that the review led some people who otherwise might not have to try out the game — that’s part of the reason I write these things.

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