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  • How To Write Low-Spoiler Hints For Adventure Games

    [04.15.21]
    - Meghann O'Neill
  • When I was a kid, I spent years not-beating Space Quests and Monkey Islands. My Year 8 Computer Studies classes were all debating the best way to sword fight with insults, not learning BASIC. My dad secretly kept those old hint books, with the magic pens, in his study. He told me he had a "friend at work" who played games. He relayed my questions to his (imaginary) friend and then made me wait weeks for the tiniest hint. My Year 1 teacher, Ms Watling, was even less useful. She was playing The Black Cauldron, but I had to give hints to her (at the age of 6).

    The entire reason to play a point and click adventure game is to solve puzzles, right? These days, I'm not so sure. I still play a lot of adventures. I didn't find The Darkside Detective, for example, overly difficult, but I was totally there for the story, art and music. I played Thimbleweed Park with my kids, who were absolutely delighted by Ransome's beeped out swearing. My younger son still says, "Oh sure, make the beeping clown climb the beeping ladder," every time I ask him to do a chore. I played that for the sheer delight of introducing my kids to a nostalgic experience.

    In 2021, guides will appear online within days of an adventure game being released, usually in the form of walkthroughs, text or video. I vastly appreciate every person who creates guides for adventure games. It takes such effort.

    Game developers, people who create guides are supporting your players by encouraging them not to give up on your game. Why would a player give up on your game? Your puzzles are logical, your tutorial is detailed and you have a cool method of tracking objectives. And I'm sure you've reflected on the fact that your players might be busy with life, new to the genre or just interested in the goofy story you're telling alongside your puzzles. I'm genuinely not blaming you, but as a game reviewer of 14 years, my feeling is that many games carefully address all of these things through design, but not everything is communicated well enough for everyone. Perhaps your vision is to create an authentic, hardcore adventure game experience, so "handholding" is irrelevant. I love those kinds of games too. But I stand by my absolute conviction that people who make guides are supporting your players beyond the ways you've supported them yourself.

    After reviewing Thimbleweed Park before release, for PC Powerplay magazine, I decided to create an incremental hint guide in Twine. I pictured creating something like Universal Hint System, which I used extensively while I was busy studying at uni (and playing adventures like The Longest Journey.) UHS is still a great resource for classic game guides, but it hasn't been active in a long time. Their tagline is, "Not your ordinary walkthrough, just the hints you need." For Thimbleweed Park, I wanted to create a system that could deliver players a tiny nudge, one nudge at a time, like friends nutting out Monkey Island together, in Computer Studies, or Ms Watling bothering me at lunchtime for hints on how to meet the Fair Folk. As I mentioned, I appreciate people who make linear walkthroughs for games immensely, but I have accidentally spoiled myself via use of them, many times, while trying to find the nudge I needed. 

    My Twine guide for Thimbleweed Park got tens of thousands of views in the first few weeks after release and Terrible Toybox asked me if they could use the Twine to create what you may know as The Hint-Tron 3000; an in-game, incremental hint system that you can call from any phone. Creator, Ron Gilbert, explained his thought process in a blog post here.

    After this, I was commissioned to write a very large Twine guide for Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, which formed part of a Kickstarter promise. Thankfully, the developers lent me all of their game's code so I was able to search literally millions of words and variables, as part of my process. You can find it here. 

    Recently, software developer, Juho Rutila, got in touch to invite me to make something for Nice Game Hints, which is an immediately impressive site and concept. It is structured like UHS and aims to provide incremental hints, via a flexible structure. Incredibly, Juho has made all of his development tools available for guide creators to use. I simply downloaded his demo, learned a few things about Github and Markdown, then made a guide for Henry Mosse and the Wormhole Conspiracy, to be published on Nice Game Hints. The file structure and syntax looks like the below. You can see the page, shown by the last screenshot, live, here.

    My "day jobs" are reviewing games and teaching game composition at a couple of universities. The intersection of teacher and reviewer (as well as a lifelong love of the adventure game genre) has allowed me to learn a few things about the best ways to communicate low spoiler hints to players, as I've been creating incremental guides. I'd like to share these lessons with you.

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