All posts by admin

Thoughts on Puzzles in Games

When thinking of games, how do we define puzzles?  The puzzles on may encounter in a game such as Puzzle and Dragons, or Candy Crush,  on it’s surface seems much different then puzzles one may encounter in a game like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.  However, the commonality of language reveals an underlying connection.  I adapted something from this article on Scott Kim’s website which I think could be a useful definition for thinking of puzzles in general in games.

A puzzle can refer to:

  • An original set of problems and solutions derived from the content and mechanics you have taught the player to use.
  • A set of problems and solutions introducing a player to new content as an extension of something you have previously taught them.
  • A scenario designed to lead the player to discover a strategy or new way to use a mechanic they have previously learned.

By extension, puzzle design could also refer to designing or creating any of the above.  I’m sure there are applications and definitions of puzzles I have missed, but I just wanted to get these thoughts down.

Converting Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine to Tabletop

I have played a number of new (for me) games this summer, both board/card and computer, but more heavily leaning towards the latter.


The shortlist (that I remember) goes like this:

Transistor by SuperGiant Games

Dominion by Donald Vaccarino

Fallout 3: New Vegas by Obsidian Entertainment

Monaco: What’s Yours is is Mine by  Pocketwatch Games

Braid by Jonathon Blow

Rogue Legacy by Cellar Door Games

So, it’s a bit of an eclectic mix, both across genres and spanning 5 years for release dates.  Actually though, while I really enjoyed all the games on the list (full disclosure: I haven’t finished any yet), I sat down to write this post about Monaco.


Monaco really made an impression on me. This isn’t to say it is a “better” game then those on the list , or even to make a comparitive statement, other than it stuck in my mind for whatever reason.


One possible cause could be the fact that I played Monaco coop, and I experienced the other games, except Dominon, single player.  Lately, I have been interested in cooperative gameplay and thinking about approaches that could be taken to make coop board games.


Another could be that Monaco feels innovative to me. While most of the other games had a more direct analog in my past experiences, a lot of the features in Monaco felt fresh to me in their context.  I will say, though, that I was reminded of NES Gauntlet (in a good way, I loved playing that game with my brother)


So, I wanted to think through the elements of the game, both as an exercise and to see what steps would be considered if a designer wanted to port it to a board game.


My experience is primarily playing the game coop, so that is the gameplay I will consider.


One way to break down the gameplay is into phases, in which each phase possibly involves its own set of inputs and gameplay (or even no gameplay).

Game Phases:



The experience for the player begins with the setup:

  • Select a stage/map
  • Select a character
  • Additional modifiers can be applied



  • Player makes choices that impact future play experience


Begin game:

  • Scenario for the chosen stage is introduced
  • Player encounters stage layout for the first time


  • Progress narrative with input


Core Gameplay

  • Player assesses situation
  • Completes objectives e.g.:
    • Reach point X
    • Retrieve Treasure or Person Y


  • Input
    • Input JS/arrow keys
      • movement
      • context sensitive actions (e.g. push against door to unlock)
    • Input 1
      • movement becomes stealthed
    • Input 2
      • perform action of held item (e.g. shoot gun)
    • X factor – Unique input of input modifier for chosen character
  • Objectives
    • Main Objective:
      • Reach point X, Retrieve treasure or Person Y
    • Sub objectives:
      • Gather gold/money
      • Complete main objective in a good time.

To refresh my memory I played through a stage or two single-player, and I was interested to find that the gameplay experience was actually quite different, despite the fact that I don’t beleive the stage was adjusted in any way.  My conclusion, which I was rather struck by, is that some of the really cool moments and feel of Monaco are relient on interplay between multiple characters abilities, or just little actions which could pull another player back from harm (I’m sure many reviewers pointed that out that Monaco is best played multiplayer, so I’m not pointing out anything groundbreaking, but I was surprised at what a difference it makes).


With the above in mind, here is a rough first pass at how Monaco’s mechanics could be brought to the table top:


  • The player chooses a scenario (represented by a board, objectives, and arrangement of coins and guards/enemies to stealth players)
    • For ease of use, the placement of coins/treasure and guards/enemies can be wrapped into the board for that scenario via indicators on board spaces for where those should be placed  (e.g. yellow mark for treasure, blue for guards).
    • I think it would be interesting to include the game’s locked stages via a mechanic similar to Risk Legacy in which scenarios are ‘locked’ by putting the boards in envelopes that the player is advised not to open until they complete a specific preceding scenario.  I love the idea that this could give the player the sense of discovery and narrative (shared with a group of friends in this case) that is often present in computer games but not board games.
  • Players choose their ‘player character’
    • This would be like choosing your playing piece for Monopoly or Clue but  would have extra significance as it would have direct effects on play.
      • The character chosen (e.g. lockpick) would have specific abilities
        • This could be represented via probabilities through different valued dice for determining success of things like picking locks
        • Another option which could be used with the above would be character specific action card decks, from which players draw.  (e.g. Only the lockpick draws cards from the lockpick deck and so on)
      • these characters could be represented through character cards or pieces and  made into unlockables similar to how the ‘locked’ scenarios are described above

Begin Game:

  • Players read the scenario’s narrative if desired (likely only the first time or with new players)


Core Gameplay:

  • Player characters take their turn in order (can be determined arbitrarily or dice roll)
  • Player’s turn
    • Player can move
      • Could be set value based on chosen character + modifier
      • Could be determined via dice
        • I’ve found that dice for movement is so familiar as to be intuitive and having a number to look at for that turn can be easier than remembering an arbitrary value
        • different valued dice (1d4, 1d6, 1d8) could be associated with character classes.
      • Items can be picked up by passing through them on movement.  However, in keeping with the computer game, action items would end the player’s movement and consume their action
    • Player can do 1 of the following (these all consume the player’s 1 ‘action’ per turn):
      • Use action item
      • Player can play action card
      • Player can take ‘character action’ (associated with dice roll theoretically to determine success)

End of game:


  • End of game happens if the player achieves the objective or all players are ‘caught’ /dead.


I realize there are some large and important pieces missing here.  The thing I think is especially incomplete is the function of the guards.


Should the guards be controlled by another player (asynchronous game)?

Should the guards be controlled by the ‘game’? (automation) (guards moved at the end of turn determined by dice rolls)

I am sure there are some other things I’ve missed, but I will think about it some more and try touch on that in another post or edit this one!

Scratching the Surface : Keeping Players Playing

Lately, I have been thinking about the factors that keep a player playing a game.  Not the things that draw a player to a game in the first place, but specifically anything in the game that from the time the player first enters the world makes them want to stay there.  What are these elements and how can I recreate and build upon them?

Some background: My thoughts have been this topic for two reasons.  The first reason is because I am working on a game project in which the entirety of concept is not within our control so it is crucial to find effective means for introducing these elements for our target demographic (Grades K-5).  The second reason is I have been playing a lot of the devilishly enjoyable Triple Town by Spry Fox LLC, and naturally I want to dissect the experiences I enjoy so I can learn and add to my toolset (well, natural for a designer I guess).

Triple Town has a strong anti-bear rhetoric. Basically they ruin everything.
Triple Town has a strong anti-bear rhetoric. Basically they ruin everything.

Obviously, this is a broad topic.  The things that keep players playing is surely a long list and variable from person to person and game to game.  But, almost as sure as the topic’s breadth is the existence and reuse of systems and mechanics across games that keep yielding results.

And now, a trivia question:

What was the first console game to save a player’s progress?

Well...maybe not to everybody.
Well…maybe not to everybody.


The Legend of Zelda, released in 1986, is the commonly accepted answer.  I ask this question because the major system in Triple Town which I hold responsible for my habit, and the same consideration which I think is a powerful motivation in many, many, games is the feeling of progress.

I did a quick hunt around the web to try and find related discussions of this topic.  One related article I found, Chris Bateman’s “Mathematics of XP”, which discusses experience point (XP) systems, talks about one of the more frequent direct manifestations of progression in games.

XP systems, which Bateman points out gained their first huge spike in popularity with their use in Dungeons and Dragons, are unapologetically intended to model player progression.  The most iconic use of this system is in the Role-Playing Game (RPG) genre. Another way to look at it, as Bateman notes, is that experience points are the system’s means for rewarding a player for time spent in the game by giving them a feeling of progress.  It’s this psychological reward aspect that contributes to the addictiveness and massive popularity of games like World of Warcraft and Pokemon.

Triple Town is not an RPG.  It is a combination between a match-three puzzler and a town building game.  There are many things to like about the game, but rewarding building achievements in each round of play with persistent gold that can be used to make your life easier in future rounds is one of the little design touches that I think is just brilliant.  The way it works is, you do something in the game, say, make a complex structure such as a castle through multiple combinations. Then, when you inevitably get a game over because you run out of space to build, you are rewarded with 200 coins for your “castle achievement” as well as likely at least a few other achievements.  Then, next round, if you decide you need a tree or some other piece and don’t want to wait for it, you may use those coins to purchase the piece from the game store.

With this mechanism Triple Town effectively has two systems of progression going at once: the progression of your single town but also the growth of your pool of wealth which can be seen as equating to your building power, or even a form of expendable experience points.

I realize I am only scratching the surface of what is a very deep rabbit hole, however, I plan to explore this area further in the future.  Specifically, I have begun to wonder if it is arguable that no game exists without some system of progression.  I realize this is somewhat an issue of semantics, as in order for something to move forward (say, to a conclusion which is necessary for most games) then it must progress, no?  But, outside of theoretical considerations and just from a mechanical standpoint it seems like there are few games without some related system and I would like to further investigate the execution of these systems across genres.

If anyone has seen related articles, blogs, or other materials on the subject I would be interested to hear about it!


Two Stories I Played


I recently played through a game called Gone Home.  Gone Home is described by its creators, The Fullbright Company, as ‘A Story Exploration Video Game’.  While I wouldn’t expect this classification to bring scores of players hustling to download the title, my preoccupation with stories and interactive narrative had me immediately interested.

Home is where the...handwritten notes and cassette tapes are?
Home is where the…handwritten notes and cassette tapes are?

 I played through  the game in one sitting. After toying with it for fifteen minutes or so on two separate occasions, the third time I loaded the game I was able to complete the experience in around three hours.  At the end of the gameplay I felt a curious emptiness.  My reaction was not one of satisfaction or elation, despite the fact that I would say I enjoyed the game overall.  I was puzzled at my own reaction.  I played through the entire game; It had maintained my attention for three hours straight, but at the end of it I felt underwhelmed by the depth of the story.  To clarify, the story was executed well, maybe even brilliantly.  It was an expert use of the toolset and effectively communicated three of the Greenbrier family’s narrative threads in parallel (Sam Greenbrier, your character’s younger sister is the focus of the story).   But, although the story was executed well both from a narrative and interactive toolset perspective,  there was an element of depth missing.  The characters were never quite developed enough or distinguished from their formative tropes (struggling writer, unfaithful spouse) to stay with me at the game’s close.

One of the many examples of Gone Home's beautiful lighting
One of the many examples of Gone Home’s beautiful lighting

I was left with the question, “What about this game held my interest so tightly for it’s duration?” The obvious and complex answer is the execution; obvious because it is clear and easy to say the game was done well but complex in that the game’s execution is comprised of many elements and some help elevate the immersion more than others.  Regardless, this explanation felt incomplete to me.

I was also left with an inclination to compare Gone Home  with Photopia, a similarly well executed stand out in Interactive Fiction by Adam Cadre , the genre that feels like the progenitor for Gone Home’s gameplay.

Photopia's opening lines
Photopia’s opening lines

I think the reason I made this comparison and the answer to my question stem from the same source: elements shared between the two pieces that helped each convey their story.

In Gone Home, the entire story takes is conveyed (trickiness of time flow aside since the story is technically taking place in retrospect) within an eerie mansion at night.  The lighting in the game sucks you in, shadows accent the structure and changes in the light of the areas is really apparent.  Essentially, there is a strong visual element in the game that really drives home the game’s mood.  This mood borders on suspense or being ominous at times, thanks to the game’s hints at the mansion being known as “the murder house” and of its former resident going mad.

Similarly, Photopia gained notice in part because of a strong visual element. Since IF is a text based genre, this could be surprising to someone who hadn’t played it.  Photopia manages its effect by simply coloring text and the display’s frame at pointed times throughout the narrative.  However, it does drive these shifts home with strong moments of transition.  These moments are usually tied to specific events in the narrative which correspond to the color.

Photopia's first color change
Photopia’s first color change

Photopia Sea Blue

A second notable similarity can be attributed to  the interactions both games allow.  This is tied to the IF genre.  Photopia, created within this genre and it’s culture has the customary text inputted actions (i.e. “Look”, “Walk” , “Get”) For the most part you are observing the story rather then playing, however there are some really vivid moments in which the game calls you to interact and it feels impactful.  For example, at one point the character you are currently playing is called on to give his daughter CPR.  Typing “breath into Allie’s mouth,” struck me with this mental image of performing the action, and felt like a moment of immersion rarely achieved even by games using the most modern technology. I would like to look into the psychology of this further, but for now I assume the thought process to type the word “breathe” results in more associations with performing the actual action, then say, pressing a single button.

Gone Home also limits your actions to investigating and interacting with the environment, although the number and variety of items to interact with in Gone Home outweighs that of Photopia. These interactions also provide more immediate and varied feedback to the player then is present in Photopia (or any IF I have played for that matter).  However, this superiority in variety and immediacy ultimately has a price in the amount of space the game can allow.  The user’s actions can affect most of the objects in the game world, but as such he needs to be controlled and kept to a certain area where that reactivity can be fully supported in order to maintain immersion.

Finally, both narrative chose to handle multiple character’s stories in parallel and use non-linear timelines to communicate these stories.

Both stories are executed well and have strong moments.  Gone Home creates an excellent tone through it’s use of lighting and sound, which, when combined with the investigative act of uncovering the plot, does a good job of keeping the player engaged.  However, Photopia’s narrative left me with a more lasting impression thanks to its depth and subtle characterization along with the feeling of unity between it’s visual moments and the story.

Narrative vs. Tone in Games

For a long time I felt that the unique nature of the game medium set it apart as a special avenue for storytelling and championed the idea of story in games.  I knew there were difficulties and had seen first hand failed attempts at mixing narrative with interactivity, but I was convinced it was just a matter of finding the right approach.  But, my own recent attempt to create an interactive story and the games I have played in the past few months have had a decided effect on me.  I still feel a game can be used to deliver an effective narrative, however I think tone is the strongest use of the medium to achieve a desired emotional state for the player.  I believe that the tone of a game should take priority over narrative for the designer.

I realize that within literature tone is seen as an element of narrative, as just a part of the whole.  But in games, and video games in particular, creating the tone of the piece is more analogous to creating tone in film.  I would go so far as to say that the narrative in video games frequently serves as a part of the tone, rather than the inverse, which also feels true for film. Similar to film, in games the tone is the desired effect created through all the medium’s elements. The games creator can direct the sound, visuals, gameplay, narrative, tactile aspect, and many other elements in order to generate a tone which is unleashed on the player with the hopes of achieving a specific emotional state.  The medium’s interactivity and many possible elements present a unique and often trying difficulty to storytellers in the field, but at the same time are alluring for the immersion and potential for strong impact.

Baldur's Gate: Lots of fun, lots of dice, lots suspicious guards.  The Forgotten Realms is rough on law enforcement.
Baldur’s Gate: Lots of fun, lots of dice, lots suspicious guards. The Forgotten Realms is rough on law enforcement.

Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber were two titles that played a formative role in my belief that games can deliver on story.  Story and narrative aspects have a strong presence in both games despite differences necessitated by gameplay.  In Shadows of Amn, the player is largely free to roam about either experiencing the central narrative thread, or encapsulated stories in the form of side quests.  Person of Lordly Caliber primarily delivers a linear narrative with some player choices but the only noticeable results of the choices come at the game’s conclusion.


Ogre Battle 64 Screen shot Go Find Him


I loved the story in both of these games, and was completely immersed in the games in different ways.  However, in looking back I realized that while I enjoyed both the story and and gameplay of both experiences, the two elements operated more in parallel then as parts of a single thing.  And, while I had a strong emotional connection to the story of Person of Lordly Calibur, when the game ended I felt a strange displacement.  I now attribute this to the impression that my agency in the game world was inconsequential.  I was asked moral questions at the game’s start and presented with weighty and seemingly important decisions at different times, but at the end of the day these decisions changed little about the story.  As a result I felt a tension between my affiliation with my avatar in the game, the strong story, and this strange illusion of control which ultimately undermined the impact for me.

Before I played either of those games though, I had one of my strongest experiences with any creative medium  through The Legend of Zelda: The Link’s Awakening.  I originally thought it was the game’s story that had left such a lasting impression on me, bringing me back to play through it again and again.  But I now realize it was the game’s tone ( and possibly my young age to some extent) that still conjures up strong feelings for me now when I think back on playing it.  The story itself was simple; you (or Link) have washed up on an island, shipwrecked, and don’t remember anything.  Gradually you regain your memory while protecting the village and yourself from the monsters on the island that have recently become irate.  It turns out the whole thing is a dream, and if you wake the Windfish, the dream will end (either yours or his, it is somewhat unclear).  The kicker for me was the end of the dream, while your only means of escape, also means the end of existence for the villagers and island inhabitants that you have been interacting with all game long.  The characters generally had a distinct appearance, even on the limited graphics of the original Game Boy, and perhaps their simplistic representation conversely allowed a more detailed existence in my head.  I had become quite attached to the world, and now it was quite literally coming to end on multiple levels, to the point that I couldn’t even imagine these characters having a happy existence once I turned the cartridge off for last time.

It's hard to believe but that raccoon has a bad mushroom addiction.
It’s hard to believe but that raccoon has a bad mushroom addiction.

The memorable, distinctive music, surreal feel of the colorless, simplistic visuals, gameplay, and just united feel of the game world as a whole all contributed to such a strong tone that I will likely remember The Link’s Awakening as one of my favorite game’s indefinitely.

More recently, I enjoyed played Limbo and Bastion, two games that I think achieve a similarly strong impact on the player because they focused on using a unity of their game elements to achieve a distinct tone.

These experiences in isolation wouldn’t have convinced me to see narrative and tone as carrying different priority in games, but a few months ago when I worked with a team to create an interactive piece for a class I felt first hand the tension that can exist between story and interaction.  Our game, or experience, used the PlayStation Move and the Oculus Rift in an attempt to put the player in the role of a former musician struggling with drug addiction.  One of the large barriers to strong interactive storytelling is the efffective use of the interactions.  If the interactions are not used effectively to immerse the player or tied in a meaningful way to the story, then a disconnect occurs.  For our experience we used the PS Move controllers to allow the user to experience or act out cello playing movements and hypodermic needle injection in an attempt to not only convey loss but a visceral element.  But not only were we limited by a desire for a simple and strong effect, but our inability to completely master the technology we used resulted in some small disruptions in the movement of on screen arms which was enough to weaken the whole thing.

One scene from my team's interactive story effort, The Cellist.
One scene from my team’s interactive story effort, The Cellist.

Obviously our own technical issues and difficulty with storytelling have no bearing on the medium as a whole.  But we were successful in certain ways which affected me more than the failures.  There were mixed responses from those watching the experience, but the majority of the feedback said they liked it because the lighting, visual setting, sound, and concept made them feel something, even those who were unsure of the story.  Based on the feedback, I felt that the emotional response we got was stronger then if we had made a clear story with less substantial tone.  Amongst the other games shown alongside ours those who had a strong tone, even those whose story was sparse, were the ones which stuck with me.  On the other hand, in the experiences which conveyed a clear narrative the interactions did not particularly bolster the story; they just coexisted with it.

After this experience I looked back on the catalogue of games I had viewed as strong interactive narratives and realized that, more often than not, the lasting sentiment had from from the game’s tone rather than specifically it’s narrative.

I still feel that an effective narrative can exist in games, but a designer concerned with maximizing their influence on the player would do well to consider story as just one of the many elements at their disposal which must fit into the tone as a whole.


The Windfish tells Link about tone.  He thinks it is important.
The Windfish tells Link about tone. He thinks it is important.