Adventure Games

Things I Learned From Adventure Games:

  • 90% of the time, you can solve the problem in front of you right away
  • … and the solution is (almost) always obvious in hindsight
  • … but there’s always another hill to climb
  • … and cheating won’t make you happy

90% of the Time, You Can Solve the Problem

The dominant mood of the adventure-game player is one of puzzlement. “How on earth can one get the frob/sneak past the guard/cross the river?” Solving these puzzles is the point, and indeed the essence, of the genre.

When puzzled, it’s natural to conclude that the problem one is looking at can’t be solved right away; that one needs some missing object in order to solve it – that one needs to do something else first.

This is usually wrong. Most (but, of course, not all) of the puzzles you encounter in an adventure game (at least in the classics) can be solved as soon as you encounter them, with the items you have on hand. You don’t need anything else – in fact, nothing else will even be useful – you just need to figure out how to use what you have.

The Solution Is (Almost) Always Obvious in Hindsight

A well-designed puzzle usually has a solution that seems obvious in hindsight. Not only does it make sense, but one wonders how it could ever have been missed. This is normal – it’s a lot harder to figure something out than it is to follow an explanation.

(Of course, some lesser games feature puzzle solutions that don’t make sense no matter how many times they’re explained; I’m just going to ignore those for the purposes of this discussion.)

There’s Always Another Hill to Climb

When stuck on a puzzle, it’s easy to exaggerate its importance. One can grow to feel that, if only this one puzzle could be solved, it must open up other areas of the game, and clear the way to victory. (This is related to the misconception, discussed above, that most puzzles require additional resources to be solved.)

Not only is this feeling usually incorrect, but the disappointment engendered by solving one puzzle only to be immediately stuck on another (or, even worse, stuck on the same set of puzzles as before) can be most dispiriting. This leads me to my final point:

Cheating Won’t Make You Happy

There have always been hints available for adventure games. (Even before the WWW!) These hints have always been a great temptation, especially in light of the misconceptions previously discussed (in the first and third points). Unfortunately, hints are the best way to completely ruin a game:

  1. Usually, solving the puzzle you’re stuck on doesn’t really move you forward by very much.
  2. After reading a hint, therefore, you’re just as stuck (and twice as frustrated) as before. Since you’ve already looked at one hint, why not look at another?
  3. Cue a vicious cycle of hint checking until the end of the game.
  4. Game now ruined. If you’d like to go back to try to solve it ‘fairly’ at some later date – you can’t. That possibility has been foreclosed by your impatience.

Kind of sad, really.


Adventure games are contrivances, and counter-examples can be found to all these points. Nevertheless, these are the lessons that I took away from playing these games, and I think that they stand up well to real-world experience. Not to belabor the point, but the real-world analogs would be:

  • If you have a goal, you can probably achieve it by pursuing it directly. You don’t “need to do something else first”.
  • You can expect to reflect on your past with a sense of wonder at having missed so much. This is normal, and not an indictment of your wisdom or intelligence.
  • Life is a series of challenges; don’t expect that solving one problem will make the rest of your life easy.
  • Ethically questionable shortcuts offer only small advancement, at great cost. Avoid them if at all possible.
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