Playing against the game.

Or: flipping the script on em’

Just a quick note about how approaching puzzles as a gamer can play out to your detriment. It has to do with the puzzle/survival horror game Penumbra: Black Plague, my own presuppositions, and how they foiled me. I will also spoil the first couple of puzzles, consider yourself warned.

The problem with these puzzles was that the objects necessary to complete them have pre-established meanings in the ‘video-game’ world, which differs from their intended use in this particular game. Let me give you the two cases:

The first room you arrive in has several pertinent items in it, a matress, some lockers you can open and close, a vice, a pencil, a locked door, a *gasp* air duct… and a hidden coin. Here’s where my assumption did me in. Games, especially a survival shooter (which Penumbra partially is), often have ways by which the user can upgrade their weapons/abilities, one of the ways a designer can dole out these upgrades fairly is by giving them a cost (be it in XP level, or money etc..). I assumed the coin was part of this reward/cost system and as such I put it in my pocket and didn’t consider using it as a tool to help solve the room. Much frustration while trying to fit the pencil into the vice occurred. Turns out the coin needs to be used in the vice to flatten it and can then be used to loosen the screws on the air vent, which I figured out eventually, but it took much longer than the first puzzle of a game should take to solve.

Soon after, I discovered a soda machine in a room and I was able to obtain a can of pop from it. Dumb assumption number 2: in games where you have a health meter, food items are used to recuperate health, save them for when you need them. Penumbra has a health meter, so I packed the soda away looking forward to future combat wounds I would be able to heal away.

Wrong again. Turns out a room or two down you need to use the soda (described as being especially cold) to trick a heat sensor and thereby get past an obstacle. A second assumed roadblock.

As a designer, aware of the established meaning of ‘video game’ items to players, you can design puzzles that can be more readily intuited by the player, but you can also design puzzles that go against those pre-established meanings – when done properly this could be an effective ‘meta’ design choice to vex your players.

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