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  • How To Write Low-Spoiler Hints For Adventure Games

    [04.15.21]
    - Meghann O'Neill

  • You need to know what players are thinking.

    If you're serious about not spoiling players, writing an incremental guide requires you to have a range of ideas about why players may not understand literally every puzzle in the game. Consider this hypothetical example. The player finds a crying baby and they need to quiet it because it's scaring away the birds needed for another puzzle. They may wonder if the baby needs food, or its mother. They may wonder if they need to play the panpipes they found in the jungle to soothe the baby to sleep, but the panpipes are broken. They may wonder something you can't imagine. Or they may have no ideas at all.

    The player goes to an incremental hint guide and sees a question reading, "How do I get the candy back from Bob?" This makes the player think of the saying "it's like taking candy from a baby" and (without even exploring the guide) they go in search of the baby's candy, having potentially been more spoiled than they wanted to be. Perhaps all they needed was to be pointed to a clue in the game that suggested a thief has been stealing things, and therefore perhaps the baby was a victim of this crime. Or, they could be pointed to a character who will reveal the baby has a sweet tooth. The hint they want and the hint they get may not align.

    I'd probably try to mitigate this accidental spoiler by creating two topic headings. One could be, "The baby is crying." Another could be, "Bob has something I need." (The candy.)

    Also, if the player is not a native English speaker (and the game is not localised), the way you explain the "candy from a baby puzzle", via incremental hints, may need to address that this is an English expression and not assume they understand it. Similarly, aspects of the UI may need to be made explicit for newcomers to the genre. Neurodiverse players maybe bring other approaches to puzzling and understand language differently, too. Not every incremental guide is going to get everything right for every person, just as no game can do that, but this is a quick overview of why "knowing what players are thinking" requires a lot of thought, both on the part of developers and creators of game guides.

    You need to know what designers are thinking.

    Henry Mosse was a first title for Bad Goat Studios. I'm not sure what prior design experience developers have, but some of the puzzles seemed a little backwards intuitive to me. (It's not really a criticism. I loved the game, and the puzzles were very enjoyable, overall.) Nonetheless, one of the optional puzzles involves you helping a sad/angry Beast, but there is no way (that I could find) to guess why the Beast is sad/angry until you happen across the item the Beast is missing and, at that point, Henry tells you to take it to the Beast, so it's no longer a puzzle.

    This kind of thing is difficult to hint at in an incremental guide; when the player knows they're supposed to be doing something, but have no way to connect to the solution. In the Henry Mosse guide, I had to be honest about the non-puzzles, the puzzles I didn't understand, or those I had solved accidentally. It's entirely possible that a clue about the Beast is embedded in the game somewhere. I often find myself highlighting or repeating clues that the game has already provided, including explicit tutorial instruction, because people WILL miss these, from time to time, even for the world's most cleverly constructed puzzle.

    Incremental guides require testing.

    As incremental guides rely on complex logical structures, I test them thoroughly to look for accidental spoilers, like telling players they need candy via a question. I'm still learning how to perfect this. Spoilers give me nightmares.

    Another thing I've learned from testing, however, is to repeat keywords. If someone is using an incremental guide occasionally, they might get a hint along the lines of ... Q. Where is the spaceship? A. It's in the forest. ... The next hint in the structure might start with ... Q. Where exactly? .... but they've been working on another puzzle on the way to the forest and come back to the open guide later. If they come back to finding the spaceship and choose ... Q. Where exactly? ... and the hint is ... A. The far left hand side ... they may have no idea that you're talking about the forest and the spaceship, any more. I'd write ... Q. Where in the forest can I find the spaceship? A. The spaceship is found in the far left of the forest area. ... so that every hint is coherent and clear, in and of itself. Additionally, does the player know where the forest is at this point in the game? Or is it a new location they need to find? Or, will there be players who know where the forest is, and others who don't? All of these questions are relevant to structure.

    It's also important to know when you've exhausted hints for a particular puzzle and have to provide a spoiler. I always try to make sure the player knows the spoiler is coming, often by phrasing the question as something like ... Q. Show me an explicit screenshot of the location of the spaceship in the forest. ... This ensures the player has agency over how much they are spoiled. (Nice Game Hints also has a built in function for turning the question red, from yellow, when you want to signal a spoiler.)

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