Blog: Understanding the 'illusion of ease' in puzzlers
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One of the greatest challenges when creating adventure games, or puzzles in any genre, is ensuring that those puzzles are challenging, but fair.
A good example of a challenging, but fair puzzle in Zork: Grand Inquisitor.
There are lots of reasons this is hard, but one of the big ones is the Illusion of Transparency.
The illusion of transparency is a tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others.
Since how we feel, and why we feel that way, is so obvious to us, we tend to assume it’s obvious to the people around us.
We don’t instinctively understand that what’s clear from the convenient perspective of inside our own minds can be entirely invisible to others, who have to rely on their distracted memory and social cues.
This fallacy can lead to problems in interpersonal relationships.
It also makes designing puzzles difficult.
Closely related to the illusion of transparency is the Illusion of Ease.
This is when the developer of a puzzle thinks their puzzle is straightforward and fair, while meanwhile the players find it impossibly difficult.
The developer is hobbled by having all of the information about their puzzle. What they think is obvious is only obvious because they already have the answer. Clues they think should be helpful are too vague, or put in places where the player does not notice them.
They cannot comprehend the player’s perspective.
This chasm between perspectives leads to puzzles like the snake/bridle situation in Kings Quest 2.
Kings Quest 2 was an early adventure game made by Roberta Williams with classic inventory based “use items on other items” puzzle solving.
At one point, mid-game, the player is confronted with a poisonous snake.
You can kill the snake with a sword, but this solution is wrong and actually renders the game unwinnable.
What you need to do is throw a leather bridle at the snake. This will break a curse and reveal that the snake is actually an enchanted pegasus.
If you think that sounds random, you are not alone.
According to the Official Book of King’s Quest the developer’s idea was that fans of Greek mythology would be able to figure this puzzle out by thinking about the legend of Pegasus, where a winged horse sprang fully grown from the head of Medusa, a woman with snakes instead of hair. They’d have an association between snakes and horses, so using the bridle on the snake would make sense.
There are no hints referencing the myth in the game. There is no information about the snake implying it is anything but a snake.
This is an extreme example of the Illusion of Ease. A developer with all the information assumed that a puzzle was logical, without considering how unintuitive it was from the player’s perspective.
There are five ways to combat the Illusion of Ease:
Keep it in mind.
Include a variety of hints.
Have puzzles build on each other.
1. Keep it in mind.
Just being aware of the fallacy is a powerful thing. Merely having a term for this mistake turns it from a nebulous difficulty into a simple issue you can account for.
Check yourself while you work. Pause to consider the game from the player perspective. Remember that your puzzles are harder when viewed from outside the confines of your brain. It will help!
2. Alpha testing.
The best way to get out of your own head is to talk to other people. The best way to get player perspective is to ask players for it.
Testing is important for a variety of reasons, and sanity checking your puzzles early on is high on the list.
3. Branching challenges.
This is a way of designing adventure games that lets you include puzzles of different levels of difficulty without making your game frustrating or inaccessible to casual players.
The idea is to construct a linear through-line of basic puzzles, but to include extra content and different endings that are unlocked by more challenging puzzles. That way even if your more challenging puzzles are unfair, or too difficult for certain players, they won’t stop the flow of the game.
I’ll discuss Branching Challenges in more detail in a future post.
4. Include a variety of hints.
The snake-bridle puzzle would have been rendered less absurd by a timely, in-game reference to the Medusa myth. It might even have been redeemed by a conversation about the plight of the Pegasus.
Incorporating multiple clues to guide players to solutions is wise because people think in different ways. A hint that might be obvious to one person will just confuse another.
In addition, having a few hints for every puzzle ensures that players will encounter at least one of them.
5. Have puzzles build on each other.
Consider how much more intuitive the bridle-snake puzzle would have been if there had been an earlier puzzle establishing the curse-breaking properties of the bridle.
Maybe the player had to put it on a stallion who had been cursed by a witch to be wild. Combining a bridle and a horse is a leap many more people would make, and seeing it counter that spell would teach them to use it on other creatures they suspect are enchanted.
Having earlier puzzles act as cues for later puzzles creates an organic feel of growth, ties your game together, and makes things more obvious without feeling forced.
That’s the Illusion of Ease, how it appears in adventure games, and the things you can do to avoid it. Thank you for reading!
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Blog: Understanding the ‘illusion of ease’ in puzzlers