June 4, 2006

More Riddles to Solve, Part 2

by Nick Montfort · , 10:45 pm

When people play and try to figure out games, they work at learning to see and understand in new ways. When they seek help from others, asking people who have solved the game to supply hints, they give others the opportunity to teach, and to try to understand how to draw a solution out from a player who is puzzling over it.

For instance, the person offering a hint has to understand the problem that the player is encountering, and must also have some idea of the player’s previous experiences and current mindset. Offering a suitable hint without giving everything away involves many of the same determinations that a teacher makes in choosing challenging but answerable questions. This sort of hint-giving litters all sorts of online forums and blogs, but consider a specific case on the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.int-fiction in September 2005: A player sought help with a specific puzzle in Emily Short’s intricate Savoir-Faire and received a prompt reply. One person quoted the player’s stated assumptions and wrote “Only one of the three assumptions mentioned above is correct.” Then, after leaving traditional “spoiler space” (so that the player wouldn’t accidentally see the rest of the message, if this wasn’t desired), he made three more specific points that corrected these assumptions without giving away the solution to the puzzle. This reply, typical of hint-giving, makes it clear that the process of providing hints is, when carried out well, more a sort of education (a drawing out of a new way of thinking) than a simple handoff of a key or answer.

Posting a request for help is one way to collaborate with others in solving a game, but people can also directly work together to meet a game’s challenges. In collaborating and discussing a puzzle, players can learn from each other’s ways of thinking. At times, a player’s partner may solve a puzzle for the two of them without much discussion. But even in these cases of individual solution, there is still the opportunity from one player to learn from the other’s example, and from that player’s visible process. The player who solves a puzzle can also explain to the other what sorts of thinking led to the solution.

As best as I can tell, much of the most interesting riddle-work in today’s computer games is not found in mainstream, commercial production, but in work done by amateur developers – a group that includes Andrew Plotkin and Emily Short. Non-commercial interactive fiction attain results that are as technically proficient as commercial games in this form have been, are about as polished, and are often conceptually much more sophisticated; they are also drawn from a significantly wider range of themes and subjects than the marketplace had supported. Significant amateur development of graphical adventure games has been undertaken in recent years as well. In the cases of both text-based and graphical adventure games, the development of new games has been facilitated by very capable, free development systems. These have allowed a small but meaningful percentage of game players to participate in the ecology of gaming as developers. But the shift of computer adventure gaming to a space outside the marketplace – really a return to such a space, since the original adventure games were also created by amateurs working in non-commercial contexts – has also allowed players all sorts of opportunities for participation in the gaming ecology that would usually be based on employment. Players volunteer to test games, for instance, finding bugs and helping game authors and programmers to determine what in-game hints are necessary and when puzzles are too difficult or too easy. Players also write reviews, often doing so with the game developer in mind and including a critique of the game that goes beyond a quick assessment of its playability.

While these posts have only sketched out how the figure of the riddle can be of further use, it does seem that recognizing the riddle-nature of computer games can help us to do more than reconcile the literary and the solvable. People’s ability to solve profound and difficult riddles, whether presented in language or in the form of a computer game, depends not only on their own minds, but also on their cultures, past teachers, fellow players, and hint-providers. Understanding how this system of solving operates can help to enlighten how games – as well as the people who play them and who help others play them – provide new ways to transform player’s perspectives and new ways develop powerful types of thinking.

6 Responses to “More Riddles to Solve, Part 2”


  1. Laurie Taylor Says:

    I don’t have my copy of your book handy, and I can’t remember if you covered it in the book, but in these posts you don’t mention the visual implications of the riddle as a framework for seeing games.

    I think you’re absolutely right that riddles can serve as conceptual frames for games and game play in many ways and–because I’m most interested in horror games where vision is simultaneously facilitated and obfuscated in particular ways–riddles also offer a framework to discuss the ways that games facilitate and complicate sight. Riddles can be seen as an example of game space iconology (with the icons and representations referencing specific things, but only within the context of the game space, or the known context for the riddle) and riddles can be seen as the means for finding/seeing particular aspects of the game world. Ruth Burke notes a similar function in _The Games of Poetics: Ludic Criticism and Postmodern Fiction_, “Closely related to poetry in its wide sense is the riddle. In order to break the spell woven by the poet, the reader must know the rules of the game, be they grammatical, poetic, or ritualistic. In other words, the reader has to know the secret language of of the adepts and be initiated into the society of those who understand the significance and the interpretation of the symbols” (15). The same can be said for the visual frame of many games, both the interfaces and the narrativized game worlds.

    Applying the concept of riddles to games is really useful and I’m curious as to thoughts on other forms of riddles as applied to games, with charades (after all, players are often asked to view enemy’s actions and to then figure out how to complete certain tasks based on the pattern established by the enemies, sort of a charades game that is figured out and then executed by player action) and pictorial riddles in the game interface and display.

  2. Chris Says:

    Interesting. This system of giving hints by helping someone rethink the problem from a new angle was, of course, there even in early commercial games — Invisiclues would give hints by reframing the problem in progressively more specific ways, and I seem to recall even the old Scott Adams games having (less elaborate) tiered hints (but I might be wrong, it’s been a few decades).

    Games often have in-game hint systems, but they’re generally “outside” of the main text. I’m trying to think of examples of games that are written so that they will “realize” when a player is stuck or could use a new angle on a problem, and then — in-game — provide that sort of hint. And whether that would function the same way that a hint found outside of the game, from an external voice, functions.

  3. Raph Says:

    This is the same analogy that I was making in A Theory of Fun, only I used the word “puzzle” instead of riddle. You can abstractly see any given riddle as a system that will accept certain inputs and reject others. The more complex challenges may have multiple states that must be met, multiple stages to pass through, and so on.

    In your first post you state that riddles are qualitatively different because they cannot be solved by simply running through a detection process; I would argue that this is incorrect; every riddle could in fact be solved that way, but the detection space is so large that we intuitively know not to bother trying. (Also, many riddles are typically architected as “you get one chance,” to specifically eliminate this approach).

    In some ways, I would say that the act of hint-giving is core to game design; all games should provide intermediate feedback as well as success and failure states, so that the player can continue to assess the situation and correct their assumptions. You wonder about examples of games that accomplish this — there’s tons. From platform games that give more lives when people are doing badly, to racing games that provide “catch-up” mechanisms when you’re behind, to games that give bonuses or incentives for doing things a particular way — think of the Achievements system in XBox Live as a “hint” system, and it suddenly opens up new ways to think of getting that Starflower badge in Hexic.

    I ended up putting several more thoughts on my blog as I was in the midst of writing this comment: http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/06/08/hints-and-riddles/

  4. nick Says:

    Laurie, Chris, Raph – many thanks for the comments.

    My bias is certainly very textual, and the riddle traditions I’m familiar with are those of the verbal (folk) and literary riddle. So I have overlooked visual riddles, and have not thought as much about “puzzle” as a concept. This was because I was originally looking for something that could explain IF’s literary and solvable nature, and the literary riddle stood out as something that could also be both good writing (expressive, engaging with language in literary ways) and fun to solve.

    Laurie, I agree that visual riddles can exist and can intrigue, with charades being a good example of something that at least shares some qualities with riddling. I have to say that I think the sentences of Ruth Burke’s that you quoted over-emphasize the esoteric and hermetic, though. Learning Masonic secrets or the secrets of Scientology doesn’t have much to do with the riddle as I think of it. You just learn the esoteric texts, are told the secret password and handshake, and then you know these secrets, often by rote. In contrast, I can think about an Emily Dickinson riddle all by myself as well as with others, trying to figure it out. The experience may be educational or transformative, but it doesn’t have to involve any sort of ritual; I don’t become elite or enter a secret society by virtue of figuring out the answer.

    Chris, there is certainly a long tradition of computer game hinting going back to Invisiclues and before. Even before the first commercial games there must have been a tradition at certain labs or schools of verbally giving hints to Adventure or even earlier games, such as Hunt the Wumpus. Brining this hinting into games in a way that is enjoyable and effective is indeed a big challenge, for those who want to do that.

    Raph, I didn’t mean to say that riddles can’t be solved by simply running through a detection process, but, as you say here, that this isn’t how they are best solved (or usually solved). When it comes to human riddle-solving, I don’t consider searching exhaustively to be solving, even if it does turn up the answer.

    I agree that your treatment of “puzzle” and learning in games is quite relevant to and in harmony with this idea, although I think there are things to be learned from both “puzzle” and “riddle” analogies, which have some differences. If the analogy is to something like a jigsaw puzzle specifically, it is one that emphasizes fitting together. “Riddle” offers more of an emphasis on carefully reading. Another similar but not identical perspective could start with “problem.” In all of these cases, relations between parts of some sort have to be learned, someone giving you the answer is not the same as your learning it yourself (or at least trying to learn it for a while), but it’s harder for me to see how puzzles and problems can be aesthetic as well as challenging (fun!), although I can see that in the case of the riddle.

    As you say, a riddle is “a system that will accept certain inputs and reject others,” but this also describes mechanical locks, password protection, formal languages, and all algorithms that solve decision problems. A riddle not just this; it offers a system that can be figured out, one that was created for the purpose of figuring out.

    I suppose that I see the riddle as distinct from the challenge of racing games or rhythm games or other physical challenges because there is a concept behind it. Words are not necessary for a concept to exist. But there should be some sort of new understanding provided by a solution for something to be a riddle. I suppose it’s possible to speak of a continuum, or hierarchy of “understandings” that go from the motor system up to the theorem-proving and poem-writing functions. I think of the level of concept as separate enough from that of motor skills, though. I see that computer games can effectively engage this level as well, which particularly interests me. And in some of the best games, I have started to see how this understanding can extend outside the game to the world.

  5. Raph Says:

    Ah, but racing games and rhythm games cannot be won by reflexes alone; there’s a mental model there that is critically important. This becomes very evident in the racing games in particular, which go to great lengths these days to show you shadow races, ideal track trajectories, and things like that.

    Consider the etymology of “problem”:

    [Middle English probleme, from Old French, from Latin problma, problmat-, from Greek, from proballein, to throw before, put forward : pro-, before; see pro-2 + ballein, bl-, to throw; see gwel- in Indo-European Roots.]

    It comes from a physical action! :)

    I agree that starting fom puzzle or riddle or problem each offer slightly different yet broadly similar takes on the issue. All three words aren’t quite right, but we don’t seem to have the right word at the moment; all those words are essentially analogies.

    Perhaps it is time for a coinage.

  6. Jess Says:

    I’ve a royal cousin (he thinks he’s the best)
    But I’ve got an advantage he doesn’t
    And I have my own genus, apart from the rest
    Because of my footprint, so unlike all my cousins’

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