Stolen Pixels #167: The Solution to All Puzzles

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Feb 9, 2010

Filed under: Column 56 comments

Of course, the definitive explanation on what killed adventure games has already been written.

However, this sort of thing didn’t exactly help.


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56 thoughts on “Stolen Pixels #167: The Solution to All Puzzles

  1. DaveMc says:

    One new-theme note: I no longer get any indication, on my screen, of which words are part of a link, unless I mouse over them. This makes ordinary text into a kind of Easter egg hunt, but as fun as that is, I think I’d rather just be told where the links are. :)

    Oh, and good comic.

    1. mneme says:

      Hmm. I do–they show up in a different color. You sure it isn't your browser?

      1. yd says:

        It’s in a different color for me (Chrome, Linux), but it’s really subtle. I’m partially color blind, but so are about 1 in 12 males. A little more distinction would help.

        1. Vegedus says:

          Certainly. The links are VERY dark blue in Chrome.

        2. Volatar says:

          I am not colorblind, but use Chrome and they are very dark. Too hard to see against the grey background.

    2. DaveMc says:

      It does appear to be at least partially my browser: I was using Safari, and when I view the same text in Firefox, I can now see the links. The distinction of the colours is a bit subtle, even in Firefox, but in Safari it’s completely invisible. On the bright side, Safari has little browser share, so this won’t be an issue for many people out there.

    3. Alan De Smet says:

      The color distinction between links and normal text is incredibly subtle. My color blindness may be part of the problem. You may want to tweak it some, Shamus. Perhaps a bit brighter?

      1. Robyrt says:

        For me (Firefox 3.5) the link color is a very dark blue, the onMouseOver color is a somewhat lighter blue, and the visited link color is virtually black.

      2. swimon says:

        I too have trouble seeing the links even though I’m not colour blind.

    4. spicey says:

      Old jedi webdesigner I worked with once told me something along the lines of “you’re not a designer, so don’t pretend to be one. Don’t mess with the link decorations: they’re there for a reason. Link = underline. Underline = link.”

      It made so much sense, that it pains me everytime I see links with underline removed. It kind of feels as if author has no regard for the links and treats them as irrelevant “” who cares if the user sees them or misses.

      Shamus, it would be wonderful if the links in your posts would be underlined :)

      1. scragar says:

        Userstyles will fix that for you if it’s a problem. Personally though I find the colours easy enough to see.

        These can be installed on chrome as well as firefox from what I hear.

      2. Dragonbane says:

        I’m less bothered by missing underlines, than I am by underlined text that isn’t a link. Not sure why. :)

    5. Bedurndurn says:

      The unvisited links aren’t so bad (though they could certainly use some more contrast), but the visited ones might as well be the same color as the rest of the text by my eyes.

    6. DaveMc says:

      Hey, this looks much better, now! The link text colour is lighter, and now clearly visible to me. I assume this is a change you’ve made, so thanks!

  2. mneme says:

    I dunno; I mean, even back in the day, there were hintbooks — and eventually, they started integrating hintbooks into the game itself (the version of Hitchhikers had that feature, certainly).

    I prefer to think that the death of adventure games comes from the combination of factors that involved a very small number of companies producing such games, and the games being very niche once there were enough other types of games available. So Lucas stopped making them, EA stopped making them…and, well, what was left?

    Mind, they’re still not dead; I’ve been playing < 1 year adventure games pretty regularly recently.

    1. Volatar says:

      The game in the comic, Machinarium, actually has a built in hintbook within the game itself!

  3. Actually, I’m having trouble seeing the links, as well.

    I’m using Firefox 3.5.7, and the links appear to be a shade of dark blue that is VERY close to being black. I can only see them if I squint, which makes me feel old!

    When I mouse-over the links, they turn a lighter shade of blue.

    Hope this helps.

  4. Sheer_Falacy says:

    I see it as a different color but it’s a very similar color – more so than the links on the right.

  5. SoldierHawk says:

    Oh this is so true Shamus–I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been frustrated in a game (in my defense, for much, much longer than 15 minutes), said “fuck it,” looked it up in the guide…and instantly regretted it. It just makes the experience not worthwhile. These days, I only consult the guide to avoid the ol’ ‘lost forever’ items trope, or to find the last couple collectibles I can’t find after I’ve scoured the game world to the point where its long past fun to hunt. But as for quests…well! Let’s just say I’ve learned my lesson. (I’m currently stuck on a quest in Fallout 3, unsure how to advance–yes I’m late to the F3 party, sue me–but am bound and determined not to look up what my next move should be. (Unless it really does become impossible–one of the problems with avoiding spoilers in Bethesda games like this is the possibility of a quest-breaking bug cropping up that you’re not aware of. I know Oblivion inside and out at this point so its no longer an issue there, but I don’t know Fallout 3 from Adam, so we’ll see how it goes.)

    Edit: Gah, I totally forgot to add just how clever the comic itself was! Anyone could have gotten the same idea across I think, but the way you executed it was just brilliant, and very, very fun. Well done sir!

  6. Don Alsafi says:

    I know the website has “Old Man” right in the name, but it might have been at least slightly enjoyable if not for the full-boil ranting. Hint: Blindingly insulting your readership is not good enticement to come back.

    And, correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like he’s saying adventure games fell out because the genre had some titles which featured plot holes or bad writing. (No mention at all of acclaimed classics such as The Secret of Monkey Island, The Longest Journey, Trinity, etc.) And as you can certainly attest, Shamus, that’s something that’s true of nearly every genre….

    1. Shamus says:

      That was the OMM style. You kind of had to read them for a bit to get that the OMM persona were deliberately crazy and unhinged.

      Fun fact: The guy who wrote that article? That’s the guy who went on to write Portal.

      1. SolkaTruesilver says:

        Portal was a very interesting Puzzle game by itself, but a different kind of puzzle. And the writing was awesome.

        Now, I am imaginating an adventure game that would be myst-like, in 3d, 100% immersive (“Half-Life” immersive = no cutscenes) that would not be about action, but purely adventure..

        I don’t dislike the idea.. :)

        1. Alan De Smet says:

          RealMyst pulled it off quite well. I played it as recently as 2008, and it aged quite well. The full 3d freedom does help with the immersion. It’s not for every game, but it worked well there. I believe Uru did the same, but I haven’t played it in a while to confirm it.

          1. Miral says:

            Myst V is probably a better example. Uru was third-person, which reduces immersion a bit (though it did have character customisation, which helps). Also Uru’s graphics were weaker since it was targeting online play.

            Another couple of games worth mentioning for immersion are Twin Sector and Mirror’s Edge. Sadly both suffered from fairly unforgiving physics engines (and in places, aggressive opponents vs. unarmed hero), which were sometimes a drag. Still, I loved them both, primarily for the immersive story.

    2. Sander says:

      I think any adventure game features its share of hair-brained, obscure solutions. Sometimes it’s something as simple as having to go through an elaborate procedure to get through a gate you could step over, other times it’s Gabriel Knight 3.
      If everything were entirely logical, the games wouldn’t be all that challenging, either, and an adventure game you can just go through with no trouble whatsoever

      I think another thing that killed adventure games was the tendency toward pixel hunting. While it got less prominent in later games, it never really disappeared and is one of the most mind-boggingly annoying features.

      Adventure games seem to have moved to a shorter, episode-style business plan. Or at least, they have if we can see Telltale as the main source of modern adventure games (I think we can).

      1. mneme says:

        It’s true — most of the Telltale games can be finished in one long sitting or several short sittings (admittedly, the same thing was true about Leisure Suit Larry V, but LLV was way too short & easy).

        Pixel hunting is a big issue (and one of the reasons I am satisfied with my “try for a while, check the hintbook when you get frustrated” approach to adventure games. Amazon Queen (which I played in the scumm emulator on Android last year) was actually pretty low on pixel hunting — but certainly had some, and I was glad to have gamefaqs to tell me “get the lighter” or whatever” at which point I could put the hintbook down and try to solve the rest of a given puzzle on my own.

  7. Meredith says:

    Gah, the guide problem! I’ve ruined so many games for myself with this. I’m insanely impatient and prone to look things up rather quickly, then refer to the guide more and more frequently as the game goes on until I’m completely missing the point. It’s nice to have help and I love the internet, but yeah it can ruin the experience too. Don’t know if it ruined the whole genre of adventure games, but I can certainly see where it would make them less fun/challenging.

    Love the comic. Having the in-game character using the Google f-you was a nice touch.

  8. midget0nstilts says:

    Allow me to present theory numero tres: with the advent of the Internet, hintbooks were rendered obsolete. With income coming from frustrated adventure gamers trying to figure out how to PUSH THE GODDAMN BUTTON EVEN THOUGH YOU TYPED EVERY POSSIBLE VARIANT OF THE PHRASE “PUSH BUTTON”. Maybe it sounds far-fetched, but I submit to you: did they honestly think that anybody would figure out you were supposed to confuse the Labion Terror Beast with the Cubix Rube?

  9. Factoid says:

    There’s a cool site call that does interesting kinds of hints. They give you piecemeal walkthrus that start with subtle hints and end with a full explanation if you’re still not getting it.

    It’s perfect for puzzle games because sometimes a subtle hint is enough to make you think about what’s going on and you get the satisfaction of figuring the hard part out for yourself.

  10. Nico says:

    What I loved most about adventure games is when you could sink 8-10 hours into the thing, finally get near the end, and find out you’re missing the item that lets you win… and you can’t backtrack. ~fun~

    1. midget0nstilts says:

      And yet, it’s still preferable to most games they make these days! :)

    2. Volatar says:

      That is the very reason I don’t play any of these games. I hate that. Its like being good all year just to get coal in your stocking on Christmas for some minor thing you did January 1st.

    3. Axle says:

      I still hate sierra for doing so in king’s quest 4… and 3…. and the rest of them.
      Later games (mid 90’s and later) were not as punishing as the old ones.

      But still, despite being cruel and unusual, they were my favourite games during my teenage years.

  11. Peter says:

    About the theme: Below the post title, there’s a bit containing the post date and category and such. The first instance of the word “by” seems redundant:

    Posted by in Stolen Pixels by Shamus on February 9, 2010 ““ 12:23 pm

  12. Vegedus says:

    I always figured Adventure games was overtaken by RPGs and Action/Adventure games. Zelda is essentially an adventure game with more combat and no point-and-click.

    1. Zerai says:

      I’ve gotta agree with this, I mean, Mass Effect 1/2, for example, you have some puzzle scenes (now based in twitch instead of brainpower) and you’ve got scenes where the story progresses, true, there aren’t puzzles, but that’s because of google

  13. swimon says:

    Personally I don’t think I’ve ever felt as if I ruined a game by looking in the guide. I suppose I never really cared about the puzzles in adventure games ^^. On the other hand a haven’t played that many adventure games except the Myst and Sam & Max series.

  14. ngthagg says:

    I didn’t play many adventure games around the time of their (supposed) demise, but based on the one in the comic I noticed something that definitely took a lot of the fun out: boring failure. As far as I could tell, if you aren’t taking the correct action in that game, you aren’t doing anything. The world, despite being very pretty, is also very empty, and that makes for a boring game, especially when you’re stuck on a puzzle.

  15. tremor3258 says:

    Something to be said for Infocom’s old ‘invisiclues’ booklets, where the hints got more and more bleedingly obvious (general ideas where to go down to USE RAMP ON LEDGE for the last one typically)

    Also usually a few hints to problems that didn’t exist for people who would click on stuff they didn’t need.

  16. rofltehcat says:

    Have you tried clicking on the book?
    It is basically a walkthrough inside the game, you only have to do a little minigame so you don’t look inside all the time.

  17. LintMan says:

    Man, I miss Old Man Murray. Their “start to crate” benchmark, their coverage of the whole Ion Storm/Todd Porter/John Romero fiasco, the evisceration of Trespasser, deflating James Wagner Au, etc, etc. They were crass and rude, but nothing was sacred and they were unafraid of taking on the sacred cows of the games industry, or of pointing out hypocrisy and pretentiousness where they saw it.

    As far as getting stuck in puzzle games in the old days, I always thought the solution was to head over to the local Electronics Boutique at the mall, pull the fat “Solutions for 75 games!” book off the shelf, and nonchalantly look up the answer while pretending to browse. That’s how I solved all my Infocom text adventures.

    Machinarium was really cute and had great music (I love the robot band song), but some of the puzzles where ones I would have never gotten without looking up the answers. (Nothing as bad as that Gabriel Knight nonsense, though).

  18. David V.S. says:

    More applause for Zelda here! I’m in the middle of Minish Hat and agree that most Zelda games are a great balance of puzzle solving and something to do when you’re stuck on the current puzzle.

    Of course, as Shamus has noted earlier games like WoW have created most of their appeal from small things to do when you’re not pursuing the main plotline. Some day we’ll have a game with fun puzzles like Zelda, but skill and hobby increases and socializing like WoW.

  19. Steve C says:

    I used to love adventure games. I remember the exact moment adventure games died for me. I played Kings Quest 5 years ago got frustrated and gave up. Years later I picked it up again after finding a full guide. A few hours later the genre was dead to me.

    On one screen when you first entered, a cat would chase a mouse, catch it and run off with it. The puzzle was that you had to have an old shoe in inventory and throw it at the cat to save the mouse.

    The mice are sentient, something you have no way of knowing when the cat chases one. And you can’t do anything about it if you do care if you don’t have the shoe yet. Later you would be captured and not die because grateful mice chew your ropes and set you free. Thus giving you a rope that you’ll need many HOURS of gameplay later. But you’ll purposely avoid getting captured after the first time because it’s an instant game over. You’ll never realize that you HAVE to get captured to get a rope.

    It bothered me that walking onto a screen and not doing something extremely arbitrary caused you to lose with no way of realizing it. It bothered me so much that it soured me on the entire genre of games. Lucasarts games were awesome, but even their awesome got overshadowed by that kind of bullshit which was common to the genre.

    1. mneme says:

      That said, this was why I played Lucasarts games, and largely ignored the rest of the genre. Sierra fairly commonly had stupid deaths and crazy-impossible puzzles, but those were a lot rarer in Lucas, so what I got soured on was, well, Sierra.

    2. ngthagg says:

      I’d have to fire up the game to be sure, but I don’t think the cat and rat will appear unless you have either the shoe or the stick (either of which will work) in your inventory. But there were many other spots in that game where you could get yourself stuck.

  20. midget0nstilts says:


  21. Stranger says:

    Okay, King’s Quest 5 was pretty bad at times . . . (ANY puzzle involving food items). A Let’s Play I saw recently pretty much lampshaded it well and showed how weird it would be.

    King’s Quest 6 on the other hand, felt much more intuitive to me when I played it. Granted, that was a game where the “Guidebook” which came in the box was an essential part of the copy protection.

    Myst was, in my humble opinion, a rather well-done game. I enjoyed playing it, and the sequel was also entertaining for some hours of walking about and looking at things.

    “The Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time” was hands-down my favorite out of the adventure games I remember. Reading and gathering information was pretty important to figuring out the puzzles; there were only a FEW which struck me as pretty bad to navigate. There was a built-in hint system, but you had to locate it: an AI assistant downloaded into your computer memory. Furthermore, it wouldn’t outright give you an answer most times. It was also, I’ll note . . . hilarious commentary.

  22. Atarlost says:

    It’s the arbitrariness that kills. Zelda you have a gameworld populated by objects with consistent behaviors and a set of tools that behave consistently. The only dirty trick played on the player is “guess where to put the bomb”

    With adventure games worlds are populated by unique objects that behave in unique fashions.

    Adventure games are not for scientists or engineers. They’re for Art or English Lit majors. The kind of people who don’t play computer games. That is why they died.

  23. IronCastKnight says:

    I both love and hate adventure games. I love them because figuring out a difficult puzzle without a guide is so satisfying, because they generally present a story with conflict minus the necessity to engage in literal combat, and because most of them are well written. On the other hand, I hate them because, more often than I would prefer, the puzzles either 1. require me to take the first express train to Crazy Town in order to figure out what the flying fuck the developer was thinking, and 2. require me to do their lazy-ass, tedious sliding block picture puzzle things, and one, or both, of those tasks being absolutely mandatory to progress in the game.

  24. axilet says:

    Curse you, Shamus! After playing the demo,I feel compelled to buy the game now XD And I haven’t even played adventure games before…

  25. Macil says:

    Haha. Great comic … I haven’t even played the game, but I totally got it.

    I love adventure games. Some of my fondest memories are from adventure games. Ironically enough, I missed quite a few of the Sierra/Lucas Arts titles. I played most of Space Quest, and some of King’s Quest.

    My favorite adventure game has to be by Westwood Studios (before they were gobbled up by EA) — Kyrandia 2: The Hand of Fate.

    Other favorites were the Star Trek series and Full Throttle.

    A good adventure game to me, like most games, is comprised of several elements. It must have logical, satisfying puzzles, not obscure, arbitrary tasks. There must be no “game-essential” items that can’t be picked up well-after-the-fact. It must have a likable player-character and a good story. And it has to make fun of itself (or the player) whenever possible, by any means possible (mis-clicked items, intentionally bizarre player actions, wrong solutions and inevitable deaths, one-liners, etc.) :)

    1. vukodlak says:

      Gods man, go out and find them, those games are still around. Steam has the remake/re-release of the original Monkey Island – that should be your first stop. It corresponds to most of your criteria perfectly (well the puzzles are kinda logical :)). There’s even a way to die in it (takes some effort though)… Sanitarium from would be another good one. I would stay well away from Sierra’s titles though. Random leaps of “logic” and instances of getting stuck for fogetting a single item at the start are plentiful.

  26. Bryan says:

    …Wait, you had to look up the puzzles in the Machinarium demo? Wasn’t that hard: just look at whatever you can click, and click it. Note that “stuff you can click” moves around, and keep looking for new things to click. Worked for me (though I haven’t run the full game, just that demo).

    But maybe I’m just weird… :-P

  27. LassLisa says:

    You just got me to buy that game, by the way.

    As for the whole ‘theme’ conversation, I don’t have a problem on most of the browsers I use (IE6 at work, Camino at home) because the text all shows up as black for me. So the unclicked links stand out at light blue. They don’t change colors when I’ve clicked on them either.

  28. someboringguy says:

    The answer to your question, Shamus, is “because you sometimes want to see what happens next” or “because you want to explore the game content that the crazy/ilogical puzzle keeps away from you”.

  29. Burning says:

    I generally only check hint guides when I am so blindingly frustrated that I’m liable to break something if I continue to keep on trying. So I’m not inclined to blame checking the hint guide for the games I abandon.

    Sometimes I will abandon a game after checking a guide without trying what it has to say. That generally happens when I read the solution and can’t understand how anyone is supposed to figure it out without a guide. At that point I start to anticipate having to return to the guide in the near future for the next totally obscure puzzle. I don’t blame that on the guide, I blame it on the game.

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