The Grim Fandango Puzzle Design Document

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Puzzles and Challenges

Since the main gameplay revolves around solving riddles and puzzles, there are many different types of puzzles and challenges in adventure games. While there are different sorts of puzzles, they mainly aim towards lateral thinking (Rollings, Adams 2003:460).
Many puzzles consist simply of finding keys to open doors, but these can be disguised in various ways to make them seem different. The abstraction is still the same thing, and the puzzles consist simply of finding an object that removes an obstacle (Rollings, Adams 2003:460). Inventory puzzles are puzzles that make you combine items that you have collected, or using them on top of each other in different ways with the environment. There are also environmental puzzles as mentioned earlier. Environmental puzzles are puzzles that force the player to interact with the environment. This can for example happen by having to drain water from an area to make it accessible. Dialogue based puzzle solving is created with the purpose of having the player interact with the NPCs (non-player characters) that populate the game.
One of the most famous dialogue puzzles is the “insult fight” in The Secret of Monkey Island. The player must defeat pirates not by strength, but by wit; by choosing the correct comeback dialogue option after the opponent delivers an insult to the player. The insults themselves contain clues to what the correct response should be (Rollings, Adams 2003:472).
Exploration in adventure games is also something that the player will spend large portions of time with. This includes both exploring the world inside the game by walking from area to area, but also scanning the screen for objects that the player can interact with, the latter not being available in text-based adventure games (Bronstring 2012). How the exploration is done by the player depends on the type of graphics, the interaction model the game has, as well as the camera perspective. In text-based adventure games the player is often given a list of possible paths to walk. The player chooses a path by typing in a command such as “go west”. In graphical adventure games the two most common controls are “direct control” and “point-and-click”. With “direct control” the player has control over the avatars position and rotation on the screen, while in a “point-and-click” interface the player clicks on an open area and the avatar simply walks there (Bronstring 2012; Rollings, Adams 2003:462-463).


Story is an important part of adventure games and some of them are as detailed, involving and structured as a novel (Rollings, Adams 2003:89).
Figure 4: The Story Spectrum (Rollings, Adams 2003:90)
Adventure games are a practical application of interactive storytelling, though the way the interactions and narrative are applied, varies from game to game. The stories became highly popular when they first were released, and there was a wide range of different stories for the customers to choose from, such as: fantasy, detective stories, film noir and so on. The first game in the genre, Adventure, did however not have a very deep story, and only offered exploration and puzzle solving (Rollings, Adams 2003:445-447).
The settings in adventure games are more important than any in other genres of games. It gives more entertainment value to the game, whether it is depressing or cheerful. The setting creates the world that the player is going to explore and experience, and is therefore the reason for playing the game altogether. The core of any story is dramatic tension, a situation or dilemma that is unresolved. This is what keeps the players attention, by having them wanting to find the ending to the story. This does not always have to be clear, but can instead be vague and filled with mystery (Rollings, Adams 2003:447-448).
The resolution will occur near the ending of the story in a so called “dramatic climax”. Longer stories will have several dramatic climaxes, while shorter stories usually one have one. In adventure games the puzzles are there to create dramatic tension in the game but they are often not enough. They may be fun, but the reason the player is playing the game in the first place is the story (Rollings, Adams 2003:458).

Previous Work

Adventure Games

According to Tracy Fullerton one of the most common flaws, that disrupts the gameplay in the adventure game genre, is dead ends. If a player is unable to solve a puzzle, whether they are missing an item or not, the gameplay will come to a halt, and the player gets stranded (Fullerton 2008:285). This is a frequent problem within the adventure game genre. When the progress is slowed down or has completely ceased, there emerges a stagnation that leads to players eventually giving up. This kind of stagnation is a type of “fun killer” that diminishes the enjoyment of a game. In adventure games this can be a common occurrence, when the game has poorly defined objectives, or when the player is roaming around with no idea of where to go, or what to do. This can be caused by different things such as a lack of information, or having to looking for something that the game has intentionally hidden (Fullerton 2008:334-335).
Game designers and authors Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams also write about the lack of information in some adventure games. In those cases the goal of the puzzle is not clear at the start, and the player has to not only find the solution for the puzzle, but also to figure out how the puzzle works (Rollings, Adams 2003:229).
In the days when all adventure games where text-based and without any graphics, the actions that the player could perform was in the form of verbs that were typed in as an action in the game. In the 1970s and 1980s text adventures were very popular and sometimes included hundreds of possible actions in the form of verbs. With the rise of graphical games the number of possible actions that the player could perform decreased drastically. This was because it was not feasible to support hundreds of actions with visual feedback (Schell 2008:143).
In text adventure games the number of possible actions in the game was unknown to the player, and trying to figure them out was part of the game. Frequently the solution to a puzzle was trying to figure out an unusual verb. This was both seen as very creative and very frustrating at times. This is because of the fact that even if the game supported hundreds of verbs, there were still thousands that were not supported. This shattered the freedom that text adventures pretended to give to the player and possibly led the genre to decline in popularity (Schell 2008:144).
This also gives many adventure games a diminished readability. Readability is a measurement of how easy it is for a player to understand the dynamics in a game, both in text-based and graphical adventure games. A game can allow the player to pick up one object but not another similar object, the player will simply have to try to pick up everything he stumbles on to, just in case it is possible. This makes it impossible to steadily get better at playing adventure games, since the only thing you learn is that you should try to pick up everything that is not bolted down to the floor (Anderson 2009).

The Puzzle

By incorporating puzzles into games you can create interesting choices. According the puzzle designer Scott Kim, there are two key characteristics that define a puzzle. The first characteristic is that puzzles are fun. This means that puzzles are a form of play. The second defining principle is that a puzzle has a correct answer. This differentiates puzzles from other forms of play, such as games or toys (Fullerton 2008:35).
The one thing that most puzzles have in common is that they cease to be fun once you have solved them, meaning they are only fun the first time you solve them. This differs from most games since there is usually some type of dynamic element in games that gives them replay value and offers a new challenge. This can be done by having an intelligent opponent, such as in chess, or by the game being able to generate new challenges for the player, giving the player an ever-advancing goal by a high score list (Schell 2008:209). Game designer and author Chris Crawford distinguishes four different types of play, each one built on top of the other.
Stories, toys, puzzles, and games. Games often have a winning goal and differ from puzzles in the sense that puzzles are about finding a solution and not beating an opponent. Puzzles also offer little replay value in comparison to games as earlier mentioned. Toys can be manipulated, by the player, but unlike puzzles they have no fixed goals. Lastly, stories cannot be manipulated or changed by the player, but involve imaginary play (Fullerton 2008:38).
Figure 5: Four types of play (Fullerton 2008:38)
The puzzle is a significant element in creating conflict in single player games. They can add value to choices the player makes, by having the actions move the player further or closer the solution. Looking through a treasure chest has more meaning if you are searching for a key, rather than just looting the chest. Puzzles can also add drama to a game if there is a reward for solving the puzzle and a punishment for failing (Fullerton 2008:324). When it comes to incorporating puzzles into a game Fullerton believes that you should only use puzzles that progress the player towards his overall goal. If a puzzle does not progress the player towards that goal, the puzzle becomes a mere distraction. By weaving the puzzles into the gameplay and the story, you (the player) will not think of them as puzzles but rather interesting choices you must make to progress the game (Fullerton 2008:325).
Most puzzles offer only one solution but adjunct professor and game designer Roger E. Pederson (Moby Games, 2011) presents his method for designing puzzles. It is a three-part solution system where the parts are categorized as “physical”, “intellectual” and “reasonable”. He demonstrates this in an example from Homer’s odyssey, where Ulysses is opposed by a Cyclops (Greek Mythology n.d.).
Pedersen (2008:21) writes:
The physical solution is to fight the Cyclops. The two outcomes would be to either cause the Cyclops to submit and let Ulysses pass by or have the Cyclops defeat Ulysses, cause severe physical damage, and/or capture and imprison him, which would set up an escape puzzle.
The intellectual solution is to challenge the Cyclops to a game where the loser must drink an entire flask of ale. Eventually, one of the contestants would get drunk and pass out. If the Cyclops passes out (after drinking an enormous amount), Ulysses may pass by. If Ulysses passes out, he’ll awake inside the Cyclops’ prison with an awful hangover.
The reasonable solution is to walk through the miles of treacherous mountains free of Cyclops and monsters. This solution wastes valuable time but causes little physical damage.
Many young people think that puzzles are old-fashioned, and the only games that feature puzzles are old adventure games. This is an understandable argument but this does not mean that puzzles have perished. In a game, a puzzle is anything that forces the player to stop and think. With the growth of the game industry, puzzles have been merged into the gameplay more seamlessly so that the player does not have to stop completely when encountering a puzzle. Some modern games have puzzles that are incorporated into the environment of the game (Schell 2008:209-210).

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The Ten Principles of Puzzle Design

Some people think that puzzles in games are dead because of walkthroughs, which are available everywhere on the internet. Author and game designer Jessie Schell does not think so. According to him there are ten principles to making a good puzzle (Schell 2008: 211).
The first principle is to make the goal of the puzzle easy to understand, to get people interested in the puzzle at the outset. If players are not sure what they are supposed to do they will lose interest altogether (Schell 2008: 211).
The second principle is making it easy to get started. Once the goal of the puzzle is clear, it must be easy to get started with solving it. If the puzzle is too hard to begin solving, people will begin to either use a trial-and-error approach, or abandon the puzzle completely (Schell 2008: 212).
The third principle is to give the player a sense of progress. This is what makes puzzles different from riddles. A riddle is simply presented to the player and expects an answer, while a puzzle often involves manipulating something. These gives the player the feeling of one getting closer to the solution even if it is bit by bit, and hope that they will be able to figure out the puzzle eventually. In early adventure games the player could encounter riddles and the player would have to think hard to solve the riddle or start making guesses (Schell 2008:213-214).
Principle number four is giving the puzzle a sense of solvability. This is tied to the previous principle of progress. If the player starts to think that the puzzle is not solvable, they will think that they are wasting their time and move on from the puzzle. What you need to do is convince the player that the puzzle is solvable. This can be done both by using visible feedback of the progress the player is making, or by going straight out and say that the puzzle is solvable. Even if the player gets frustrated they will never doubt that there is a solution (Schell 2008:214).
The fifth principle is increasing the difficulty gradually. It is complicated to make a puzzle slightly increase in difficulty from a previous one. But by looking at a puzzle as a series of actions, or small steps, taken towards the ultimate solution, it is easier to achieve an increased difficulty. It is the actions within the puzzle that should gradually increase in difficulty. One way to make the level of difficulty to increase gradually is to player control the have the order of the actions within the puzzle. This is how crossword puzzles are built up. The player is faced with several questions that can be answered in any order and the answer for one question will provide hints for solving the other questions (Schell 2008:215-216).
Principle number six is to have parallelism to let the player rest. When a player encounters a puzzle that they cannot solve and are therefore not being able to make any progress in the game, there is a chance that the player will abandon the game entirely. To ensure that this does not happen, you can give the player several different puzzles at once, and give the player the option to leave a puzzle that they are unable to solve. Players can than try another puzzle for a while and sometimes by giving the player a break from a puzzle, it can be just what the player needs in order to try again and succeed (Schell 2008:216).
The seventh principle is having a pyramid structure to extend the level of interest and this is something parallelism leads to. By having a series of small puzzles that each give a clue to a larger puzzle, you can combine short and long term goals (Schell 2008:216-217).
Principle number eight is to have hints in order to extend the level of interest. When a player is about to give up on a puzzle, a hint can revive their attention and hope. Although this can devalue the satisfaction of solving the puzzle, it is much better than not being able to solve the puzzle at all. This is also more effective than having to look up the answer online, since it does not break them away from the game completely (Schell 2008:217-218).
Principle number nine is giving the answer. This can sound strange but the joy that comes from solving a puzzle is the “Aha!” feeling get when you figure out the answer. That feeling is not actually triggered by solving the puzzle but rather seeing the answer. Solving the puzzle by yourself gives a greater satisfaction. But if you have tried hard without being successful, your brain will want the answer no matter what, in order to get a rush. Since the player will most likely give up or look up the solution online, it would be better to just give the answer to the player (Schell 2008:218).
The last and tenth principle of puzzle design is that perceptual shifts are double-edged swords. A perceptual shift is a shape or a word what can look like different things depending on how you look at it, almost like an optical illusion. One example of a perceptual shift is the classic figure “Old woman or young girl”, that can be seen in Fig. 6, that was created in the late 1800s (IllusionWorks 1997). The problem with using perceptual shifts is that the person solving them can have one of four reactions. The person will already have encountered the problem before, thus solving it will give no satisfaction. The person had a so called “perceptual shift” and came up with the right answer, giving an “Aha!” experience. The person could not figure out the problem and had to be told by someone, giving them no joy and feeling embarrassed for not seeing the solution right in front of them. Or lastly they gave up in frustration. The thing about perceptual shifts is that either you get them or you do not. When the player is able to solve them, they will get very excited but if the player cannot see the solution they will get nothing out of it. Puzzles like this offer no progress and cannot increase in difficulty, they just have to be stared at for a long time, until the person solving them become conscious of the answer. This makes perceptual shifts almost like riddles (Schell 2008:218-219).
Figure 6: Do you see a old woman or a young girl? (Anon 1888)

Materials and Methods

This thesis will be based on data collection through the following means:
1. Books and articles that talk about the adventure game genre, storytelling and puzzles.
2. A puzzle design document from the adventure game Grim Fandango.
3. A survey that contains questions regarding adventure games.
The reasons for choosing these three methods are that it will be easy to draw conclusions between the previous published work and the puzzle design document. By adding the survey I will be able to find out if what I have concluded from my research, is the public opinion or not.

Books and Articles

I have chosen to have a variety of game design books, and published game design articles in order to have valid data that I can compare with the survey and the design document. To be capable of being sure that I would have both valid and relevant data I have tried to find a mixture between both old and new sources. When I have sources from the internet I have tried to stick to officially recognized sites such as Gamasutra, a site that is aimed at people working in the video game industry. However, I have used a wide range of references to be able have all necessary references, some of which may not be seen as “official”.

The Grim Fandango Puzzle Design Document

In 2008 Tim Schafer, designer and writer, released the puzzle design document for the 1998 adventure game Grim Fandango. This 72 page document contains all the puzzles with in-depth descriptions, and how to solve them. It also includes other information such as brief character descriptions, and scripts for the cut-scenes in the game. With this document I will compare the design behind Grim Fandango’s puzzles, and the data gathered from other sources. Together with the studies from previous works I will be able to see if there is a difference between the puzzle design in Grim Fandango, and the puzzle design that is suggested by other authors. I have chosen to focus on a few puzzles from the document and I will break down five puzzles from the game to analyse how extensive the information is provided to the player. I will also look at how logic, readable and clear the hints are that the player is given, if given any at all.

The Survey

The survey consists of ten questions regarding adventure games. The survey is directed to anyone who has played adventure games and therefore has more than no experience with the genre. Eight of the questions are multiple choice questions and the last two are text questions. The questions I have asked in the survey are focused around the experience of solving puzzles in adventure games rather than the narrative experience. The full survey is available online (Survey 2013) and can also be found in the appendix.

Table of contents :

1 Introduction
1.1 Background
1.1.1 Adventure Games
1.1.2 Puzzles and Challenges
1.1.3 Story
2 Previous Work
2.1 Adventure Games
2.2 The Puzzle
2.3 The Ten Principles of Puzzle Design
3 Materials and Methods
3.1 Books and Articles
3.2 The Grim Fandango Puzzle Design Document
3.3 The Survey
4 Document Analysis
4.1 Structure
4.2 Intercept Message
4.3 Get Signpost & Find Way Out
4.4 Distract Beavers & Trap Beavers
5 Result
5.1 Experience
5.2 Looking up Answers
5.3 Trial-and-Error
5.4 Player Knowledge
5.5 Difficulty
5.6 Completion
6 Conclusion


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