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Killing the Flytrap

The bright leaves of the venus flytrap (Dionae...

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I was eight years old when I got my hands on a copy of Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos. I had no idea what it was.  Luckily, neither did my parents.  It must have seemed like harmless fun to them (“A text-based adventure? Interactive fiction? Just like a Choose Your Own Adventure—he loves those!”).  Had they known the content of the game, and the profound influences it would have on my sense of storytelling and pre-pubescent sex dreams, they’d have never let me anywhere near it.  Then again, these are the same folks who got me Leisure Suit Larry for my birthday.

Leather Goddesses of Phobos was a campy, intergalactic sex romp through the science-fantasy world of the 1930s pulps.  It was definitely not for children.  But unlike Leisure Suit Larry, there was no age-verification quiz to pass before you played.  There were, however, three different content settings (“tame” and “suggestive” being the first two) in case parents wanted to let their kids in on the fun.  I promptly set the game to “lewd” and set about thwarting the plans of those busty, leather-clad world conquerors.

In case you haven’t gathered, I adored this game.  I literally played it for years.  No hyperbole there—I played for years, because I still had the problem solving abilities and abstract reasoning of a tween, and there were some puzzles I could never figure out. I’d reached a point where I’d explored all the rooms I had access to, combined all the objects I could carry in every logical and amusing way, and spoken to every character in the world.  I’d hit a wall—there was no other way forward.  The game had stopped.  The narrative was in stasis.

It wasn’t until I printed out an internet walkthrough at 17 that I was finally able to complete the game.  I’ll never forget the day I read that walkthrough.  It was a total bucket-of-ice-water-in-the-face moment, because I discovered there was a whole section of the game I’d never even known was there.

It was behind the giant Venus flytrap.  I even knew there was a way past it, because the moment you warp to that spot in the Venusian jungle, the flytrap starts shambling after you, and unless you went east—the only path through the jungle—you were two actions away from being snarfed and digested.  But just on the other side of that carnivorous plant—west ­through the jungle—lay the entrance to another entire wing of the story.  One I never knew was there.

Not only was it there, mocking me just out of reach, but there were two ways to kill the flytrap and reach it.  One I admit I should have figured out: you run east, luring the flytrap after you; you put the trellis over the hole in the ground, pour the leaves over the trellis, and get the flytrap to fall through your ersatz pit trap; duh.  The other way was a clue revealed only if you put together the leftover letters from a word find game handed to you by your bumbling sidekick, Trent (or Tiffany, if you’re playing as a girl*), after you’ve found all the words in it that correspond to the different parts of the Super Duper anti-Leather Goddesses of Phobos Attack Machine, which you spend the adventure collecting.  How was I supposed to figure that out?  It still pisses me off.

Anyway, to the point, since I’m already 500 words into this post: I’d reached a place in LGoP that no gamer wants to be—stalemate.  We’ve all been there.  You can’t move forward.  You don’t know how to progress.  When you know what your goal is, obstacles are fun, challenging.  When you don’t, they become frustrating, tedious.  Too much like real life.  I get enough static dissatisfaction in my daily life, thank you very much.  This is the point where players turn to cheats, or put away your game and start playing another—probably a first-person shooter.

I keep that in mind while working on March 32nd.  Stasis is bad—don’t stalemate the player.  It’s harder than it sounds.  There’s a delicate balance to be struck.  If a player needs critical information to proceed, you don’t just want to hand it over.  Such information doesn’t feel earned; it’s not an achievement.  But at the same time, you don’t want to make your puzzles so conniption-inducingly hard to solve that the narrative grinds to a halt and all the fun dissolves. (If you ever want to see a grown man go into a shrieking primate frenzy and throw his own poop, ask Irfaan or James about pixel hunting.)

Yes, you have to keep your players working towards their goals—the game isn’t fun otherwise.  But if the story bottlenecks unless the player achieves X, Y, or Z and no progress is possible otherwise, you have a problem.  And before you argue about how games are supposed to be hard and good players learn how to beat them, remember that this isn’t a jump puzzle.  Story- and decision-driven games require a consistent logic to their worlds, and if the solution to a puzzle lies outside or flies in the face of the logic you’ve established, you’re going to enrage your players.

The ultimate goal in a branching narrative is to provide different, equally entertaining and satisfying paths through the story.  So that when players reach moments they would otherwise be stalemated, there have other options, other routes to take.  Thus the game never becomes tedious, but at the same time isn’t freely giving up its secrets.  Stymied players have other routes to explore, and successful players who figure out the puzzles feel they’ve achieved something.  Which they have—because not everyone is going to figure out how to kill the flytrap.  I certainly didn’t.

* Yes.  I played through LGoP once as a girl.

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