There’s always those moments in games where you’re having so much trouble continuing. The enemies might be too difficult to progress further. Could be there’s a puzzle you have nearly cracked, but you just can’t figure out the final turn of the key. Maybe it’s just a fiendishly difficult level which throws trips and traps at you from every direction. With enough skill and practice, these kind of obstacles can eventually be overcome with a triumphant sense of self-worth. You learn from the situation and can potentially re-use this knowledge further on down the game so as to be more prepared for similar challenges.
Then there’s those moments in gaming where you just think, “What the hell is going on here…” That feeling of knowing that there’s definitely something you should be doing, but what that thing is, is simply beyond you. You’ve used that weapon, you’ve tried flicking that switch, you’ve tried dashing past the goat and STILL no luck. I’ve had moments like this in my gaming experiences which aren’t down to my simply being oblivious, but due to poor story-telling, programming, and decision making. Let’s get to it.
Thought I’d go back to a very early example of this to start us off. King’s Quest was one of the first graphical adventure games. Sierra were the developers and created a quest of a game which featured vibrant scenes filled with fantasy characters and puzzles that had even the more gifted players scratching their heads in wonder. It also featured one particular conundrum that makes me wonder to this day how anyone playing this back in the ’80s could have known the answer without somehow getting help without the use of the internet.
You come across a gnome in the forest who is the next block in your journey through the realm, and for him to bestow his item to you, you simply have to guess his real name. I don’t remember if he even gives you a clue as to what it is, but I’ve read other players say, “Well of course you’d guess Rumplestiltskin!” I wouldn’t have ever thought that but anywho, on the face of it you’ve simply got to guess along these lines because it is in fact related to the classic fairy tale. No amount of guessing would have you hit the right answer. A clue in a house about 10 – 15 screens away implies you should think backwards. The clue DOESN’T suggest it has anything to do with this gnome by the way. Now, say you DID guess ‘Rumplestiltskin’, and say you DID then take that clue and try to be a bit clever by guessing ‘Nikstlitselpmur’, you’d still be wrong. He’d tell you you were very close.
Most people would never have figured this out and probably would have given up by now. Those who did get it right, did it by guessing ‘Ifnkovhgroghprm’. How in God’s name could this ever be the answer? Well, by clueing the player with the idea of the answer being backwards, it wasn’t suggesting you type his name backwards; it was suggesting you reverse the alphabet and replace the letters in ‘Rumplestiltskin’ by swapping them for their reverse alphabet letter.
You know what’s even worse? The game uses an incorrect spelling of the fairy tale character’s name. It’s actually spelt ‘Rumpel-’ in the original story, but the game uses ‘Rumple-’. YOU HAVE TO GUESS AN INCORRECTLY SPELT ANSWER USING A BACKWARD ALPHABET. How did anyone figure this out?? Luckily, if you did get the 3 guesses wrong (and let’s face it, you have about as much chance of nailing this as you do getting the toothpaste back in the tube) you could still proceed but you’re then presented with an enemy who can take your important items away from you, and permanently. Thus rendering your game unwinnable. Classic game.
Let’s leave that horror behind and get to Broken Sword. Anyone who’s played this classic point ‘n’ clicker will know exactly where I’m going here, and yes, I already mentioned a goat earlier. The goat which will get your goat, so to speak. Classic adventure games like this work on a tried and trusted idea that everything you do throughout is uniform. You’re always going to be clicking the screen to view things, converse with characters, interact with objects, all classic adventure games for the most part follow the same simple set of rules. Broken Sword broke its own rules in creating the fiendish goat puzzle.
Broken Sword follows the tale of a reporter, George Stobard, in Paris investigating the mystery surrounding a bombing carried out by a clown. The game sees our hero travelling round the world to solve the case, at one point stopping off in Ireland due to a possible link to the Knights Templar. He needs to visit a particular castle due to it containing possible important information; if only he can get past this goat first. I’m not even going to try to explain what the correct answer is to this puzzle which sees the goat knocking you on your ass time and time again because trying to do so would leave you more confused trying to picture the scene.
The problem we have with this is that the solution to the puzzle, which involves correct timing, is something that hadn’t been encountered anywhere else in the game. Having to click on a totally unrelated part of the screen at the exact correct moment that something else is interacting with you means you’re essentially doing something which does not make sense within the rules of the game. In fact, I can’t think of any other adventure game which involves such an awkward timed puzzle as this one.
Adventure games are simply notorious for puzzles which often times don’t make any sense. The Dig is full of them. Simon the Sorceror has its fair share of nonsensical conundrums and I’ll forever resent the Australian guy in Escape From Monkey Island. When an adventure game gets it right, it’s a beautiful thing, just ask Indiana Jones & the Fate of Atlantis. When it gets it wrong, man is it a painful thing, moreso if you’d been enjoying it up to that point.
It’s not just adventure games that get this simple stuff wrong though. How could I do an article without mentioning the Sonic of Hedgehog barrel of doom? Found in Sonic 3 on the Sega Mega Drive, this simple looking obstacle had Sonic standing on a red and white barrel platform which felt a little bouncy. Jumping made the barrel bounce up and down, and the idea was to reach the visible platform above. However, no matter how you jump, you just can’t make it. Many gamers gave up at this point. Some put it down to a glitch, a dead end with another secret way through elsewhere, others persisted, on and on they tried to reach that exit of glory, but failed miserably.
What happened? Like what Revolution Software did in Broken Sword, Sega had failed to introduce the player to a mechanic that up to this point, had never been used in ANY Sonic game. When Sonic was stood on the barrel, you were meant to simply press up and down alternately. This would start bouncing the barrel even more than you had been by jumping on it, and eventually you’d reach your stairway to heaven. It is so simple when you know, but by introducing a mechanic that didn’t even get mentioned in the manual, Sega alienated lot of players who possibly to this day have never gone back to the game in their frustration.
Some games like to break the 4th wall and ask the player to manipulate something outside of the game to carry on, and this can be a really cool experience. Take Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 for instance. We all remember the whole ‘check the back of the CD case’ for Meryl’s frequency. Grab your physical copy of MGS and there it is on the back, a small screenshot of the number you need. Still, some gamers struggled with this. Some had pirated the game early, and so didn’t have an actual box to look at. Granted, there’s ‘only’ 200 frequencies it could be, but some couldn’t be bothered or some wouldn’t have realised and simply assumed they had no chance of guessing. Others got mixed up by the fact that in-game, you would have just very recently come across a ‘data disk’ item, which naturally one would be forgiven for thinking was the item in question. Either way, it was very innovative and something that gamers remember fondly.
X-Men on the Mega Drive is a whole different story. One level sees you reach a computer which you are to destroy. Simple enough task, but on carrying out the deed, you’re then asked to ‘reset the computer’. What, the one you just destroyed? Apparently so, there’s no other computer nearby. Search high and low across this area, but you won’t find a single button or switch anywhere. Give up and if you’re VERY LUCKY, you may just tap your reset button on the Mega Drive, because this was what the game was trying to suggest you do. Reset the ‘computer’, which no-one called their Mega Drive. Literally reset the system you’re using, and you will find the next level loads up. Guess what? Hold that button even a split second too long and you will actually reset the console anyway, never knowing what that next level looked like until you play it again months, years, decades later. Or never.
There’s stuff like this everywhere. Anju and Kafei’s mask in Majora’s Mask was an absolute horror to work out on your own. There was Barret’s awkward warning in the first boss encounter of Final Fantasy VII. Speaking of 7, the 7th Guest had a few awful puzzles which went totally against normal conventions in unfair ways. RPGs can be a right pain in the ass when they force unwinnable ‘boss fights’ on you, and you end up throwing all your resources at them thinking you can win. Silent Hill 3 has a hard mode puzzle which requires you to know Shakespeare inside out. One could argue that the Myst series is one loooooong lesson in mental suffering.
Games need to stick to their formulas. Don’t get me wrong, It’s ok for a game to go crazy with its ways, but only if it’s to be expected. Playing a game one way for 3 hours only to be presented by one unique instance of doing something that doesn’t appear again later on is too derailing. Imagine playing Crash Bandicoot for 3, 4 hours, you meet a dead end, and the game asks you to choose the right item to use on it. You’ve never had items in the game so have got no idea what the heck is going on. It’s too disjointed and can ruin an experience to the point you give up on it altogether. It’s a trend which in recent years seems to have dissipated a bit, but the odd situation comes up where gamers cry foul over something that just goes over their heads.
In my case, the most recent example I personally experienced was not figuring out that to do a stamp on your sea chart in The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, I simply had to close and re-open the DS I was playing on. Looking back, I cannot for the life of me remember any such instance of a clue as to how I was supposed to do that, and it seems I’m not the only one judging by the results Google shows up for the puzzle. On the other hand, plenty of other players scoff at those of us who struggled, saying it was obvious as hell, and I’m just an idiot. I probably am.
It’s times like this that the internet, for all the faults and troubles it can cause, is also a beautiful shining light of hope for those of us tearing our hair out trying to figure out how to obtain the Zodiac Spear in Final Fantasy XII. Don’t spoil the game out right by using game guides to plow through it, but at least consider a helping hand when you feel there’s no other option ahead; you could potentially miss out on playing the rest of one of the best games you’ll ever experience.
As for the Babel Fish… let’s just whip that with a wet towel.
Follow Carl on Twitter: @Auto2112
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