Tuesday 20 October 2009

The Quest for Quests - Part Two (The Puzzle)

(You may want to start this series with part one.)

I apologise again for the authorial ellipsis of the previous part of this series. It was one of those fumble in the dark, looking for a light and likely to be eaten by a grue moments where I had to write out my thoughts and objections before I could get to the gist of what I want to say. I should be far more direct from here on in.

My chief objection to quests is how they impart narrative velocity. Narrative velocity is the reason you move forward through the game - you want to continue to see additional content because you've been excited about the rules of the game and of the world it is embedded in. Your disbelief has been suspended, you're experiencing flow, you have invested in the characters and so on. Think of it as all the good reasons to continue playing.

There are two ways to impart this velocity: you can be pushed, and you can be pulled. A push is direct: you are told you have to move forward, but you don't know the unknown you are moving towards. A push is required during the early phases of the first time you play a game, until you've figured out the rules. But it would be wrong to think of the push as the tutorial phase of the game. Many games use push the whole way through, in the form of quests and quest givers. A push can be mechanically very simple: the push in Super Mario is 'move to the right'.

A pull, however, is indirect. You know what the destination is already - 'finding all the coins' in the Super Mario example. The pull comes from the fact the game has made this destination compelling to you. This destination could be as simple as 'reaching the end of the level' - this is a pull, not a push, because the end of a level is known quantity (a 'you've reached the end of the level' screen) - it's the beginning of the next which is unknown. The pull is the payoff from getting there (loud music, bright coloured lights, operant conditioning).

Both pushes and pulls involve a promise from the designer which keeps you moving forward. The promise of a push is 'I will reveal to you something more impressive than you have already seen'. The promise of a pull is 'This thing I have shown you will be as good as you think it is'. With these promises you can see how a combination of pushes and pulls can be used to impart continuous velocity through a game.

But if the challenge of the designer is to deliver on two quite closely related promises, the challenge for the player is quite different. With a push, the player is given a to do list by the designer - as simple as 'keep moving'. With a pull, the player compiles their own to do list - again, as simple as 'get there'. The payoffs of 'Wow' (amazement at narrative resonance) for pushes and 'Yeah' (gratification of operant impulses) for pulls are psychologically quite similar, but the process of player agency is completely different: either externally applied, or internally generated.

It is this internal generation of pull based narrative velocity which is unique to games and why traditional narrative techniques are only weakly effective in motivating a player to continue playing. The two techniques are diametrically opposed in form: the novelty of push countering the repetition required of pull (See The Function of Narrative in Games: A Theory for further argument on the power of repetition in game narrative). Traditional game design requires a balance between introducing new things, and providing the payoff for each new thing introduced (Giving toys, and letting the player play with them).

And this is why, as I intimated in the previous part of this series, the puzzle is such an effective paradigm for quests in many ways. Puzzles operate mechanically as 'given this set of tools, how can I reach the payoff at the end of this known problem?' - they are almost exclusively pull based. You solve a puzzle because it's there and you have been conditioned to solve it. There is almost no narrative backstory required to push you towards it.

But the strength of a puzzle is not just about the logical deduction necessary to solve the problem - for games it is equally about the psychological rewards for using each of the tools, in reality toys, in solving the problem. That is why puzzle games like World of Goo are so successful, while adventure games have done so badly - the difference in the operant payoff between negotiating with a text parser and stretching a viscerally represented ball of malleable goo.

The quests of Far Cry 2 to me feel so successful because they are essentially the same problem repeated with new combinations of shiny, operantly rewarding toys: the weaponry you unlock as you progress. Far Cry 2 is biased far more to pull than pushed based narrative velocity, whereas most traditional quests are push based.

So for the rest of this series, I'll be looking at the quest mechanics I touched on in part one: quest content, branching dialog, main quests vs side quests, procedurally narrative structure, open world vs hub and spoke, and trying to rewrite them as pull, puzzle based mechanics instead of push, narrative mechanics, and see if the results are more compelling. But first I'll touch on an issue dear to me, script vs data driven design, and give an overview of how a data driven design can solve some of the problems of the traditional scripted quest structure. For that, you'll have to travel far from here, to part three of this series.


Unknown said...

Pushes and pulls are great terminology. This is the sort of thinking that we need to advance the theory of game design - did you come up with these terms yourself, or are they something you've heard elsewhere?

Andrew Doull said...

I'm not aware of any conscious influences (but undoubtedly there are unconscious ones). Playing Puzzle Quest, I felt like I was being pushed around from place to place - this series is an extension of that thinking.