The mystery of the missing paper
When I was a young ‘un, my parents’ study probably looked a lot like any study from middle class suburbia. It was always tidy, despite my best efforts to make it look like it had been raided by an intelligence agency. On the surface, it probably didn’t look like the sort of place anyone would have fond memories about, and it certainly didn’t look like the batcave I conjure up in my mind. But that’s because its secrets were — as all good secrets are — hidden. Open up the bureau or one of the innumerable cupboards or drawers and you’d be faced with piles and piles of paper; loose, in binders, in post-it form, legal pads, re-appropriated school jotters. A whole forest must have ended its life in that study. And what was on these myriad bits of parchment? Indecipherable nonsense, to most people.
Eldrich script and arcane letters framed sketches of huge maps of subterranean cities or the geography of an alien world. Letters and numbers laid out in no obvious sequence were crammed into folders, whole documents had nothing on them other than riddles with no context. In the dark recesses at the back of some drawers one could even find crumpled, useless bits of paper filled with confusing scrawl and doodles that stop abruptly. To the untrained eye, it might seem like they’ve stumbled onto the study of a confused conspiracy theorist or amateur treasure hunter. In reality, all they would really be seeing was my childhood spent playing adventure games and RPGs and my penchant for working everything out on paper, from puzzles to maps.
Back in those distant days, I wouldn’t switch on the PC without ensuring I had a pen and paper handy. This was when adventure games still killed you all the bloody time. Just walking around could cause the Game Over screen to mockingly appear. There were even games where doing something innocuous, like taking a drink, could stop you from finishing the game, but you’d only find that out as you approached the end, wasting hours. Being a prolific scribbler was a defense mechanism, it might not always have ensured my survival the first time around, but it certainly meant I wouldn’t get caught out again.
Even in titles where the player wasn’t punished quite as often, if at all, I still found security in my note-taking. In Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge, I’d take notes just so that I knew what the hell I was doing. The game was so large, and at the time, very non-linear, especially for an adventure game. I would jot down all the puzzles I came across, the solutions I attempted, and what I thought I was missing. So whenever I found a new item, I could make a more educated guess about where it could be beneficial.
In RPGs, my sheets of paper were primarily tools for cartography. So many maps. Not limited to, but certainly more often than not, dungeons. I am, unfortunately, the victim of a terrible sense of direction. In reality, I rarely found myself in strange places without a clue how to navigate, but in RPGs that happened all the time. That’s where all the graph paper I got to do my mathematics homework went. It didn’t improve my grades, but I still think it was a better use of school stationary. I liked to place my drawings inside the more artistic (often cloth) maps that came with the games, so that when I’d unfold them, I’d have every bit of direction I needed.
It got to the point where I was taking notes even thought I could probably figure a significant portion of the challenges without them. I was creating safety nets without even wondering if I needed them or not. But the truth is, it felt good to be making tangible progress in the game. With adventure games I would continue to solve puzzles even when I wasn’t actually playing, which made going ahead and proving my solution in the game all the more satisfying.
I honestly can’t pinpoint where things changed. I don’t have a study anymore, but that’s not the reason. My PC desk does have paper on it still, some notes from an interview I did a few months ago (I don’t tidy), an ash tray that needs to be emptied, my keys and a fruity, fizzy beverage that keeps me awake when I don’t have time for sleep. But no maps, no riddles and certainly no symbols sketched from confusing puzzles. It’s been like that for a long time now. Undoubtedly it started with the decline of the adventure game genre. In the mid to late 90s, the popularity of FPSs and 3D action games over some of the more traditional titles made publishers wary of taking a risk on something where one points, clicks and solves puzzles. On the rare occasions when a publisher would take one on, they’d market it so poorly, confusing consumers or not engaging with them at all, that their lack of confidence would become a self fulfilling prophesy. Old fashioned dungeon crawlers suffered a similar fate.
The myth that people have increasingly terrible attention spans, don’t like to be challenged and don’t like to think, took hold. The large number of people who aren’t like that at all didn’t suddenly die just because action packed 3D gaming became a big deal. The games that forced me to think even when I wasn’t playing them didn’t die, either. But they did change. They made sacrifices and concessions and became less than they were as a result. The sense of mystery and the drive to experiment became greatly diminished, and there was simply no reason for me to go the extra mile. The games became more about the experience of going through a series of scenes, instead of engaging your brain.
Among developers the general consensus seems to be that puzzles are integral to the genre, but there’s always a caveat now, a caveat that didn’t exist before. They don’t want to scare people away. My natural reaction to that is: Hogwash. If someone is scared away by puzzles, they shouldn’t be playing these types of games. But it’s not really as simple as that, unfortunately. Apparently dearth of worthwhile titles in the genre between the late 90s and now means that there’s a massive chunk of gamers who aren’t particularly familiar with these sorts of games, but they are still potential users. Developers and publishers want these folk on board, and perhaps pandering to them will create more players.
However, I think that the massive number of incredibly popular casual games that are built entirely around puzzle solving shows that is demonstrably untrue. If the casual market, the one that people love to sneer at and look down on enjoy puzzles so much, then surely the rest of us should be even more comfortable with it. I can think of very few games that don’t require at least some puzzle solving ability, actually. From learning enemy patterns and patrols, to finding the right gear or weapons to beast a specific enemy. Even the rock, paper, scissors combat in games like the Total War series is built on a foundation of solving simple puzzles.
Thankfully it seems that the winds are changing. On the RPG front, games like Demon’s/Dark Souls, Etrian Odyssey and Legend of Grimrock favour challenge and map making skills and remind us of a time where skill and perseverance were exceedingly important. Demon’s Souls really took me back, when I first played it, and not just due to the surprising difficulty. The messages left by other players or the vision of their death reminded me of the times I’d show up at school and dispense advice to classmates or receive some words of wisdom from them relating to this game or that in return. Like those instances, it felt a lot more personal than searching for hints online.
Adventure games are also becoming increasingly more popular, a great deal due to efforts made by indie developers and small publishers. However, the focus is more on the narrative than the puzzles. I’ve probably played more adventure games in the last two years than I did in the whole previous decade, but the stacks of paper are still noticeably absent. As games draw more and more inspiration from film and literature and become increasingly cinematic, the way they tell a story becomes increasingly mundane. Since games are interactive experiences, there are so many avenues for storytelling that other mediums don’t have. A puzzle doesn’t just have to be a mere obstacle, it can be part of the narrative. However, I can understand the fear of losing players due to obfuscation, but the feeling of overcoming a tough head-scratcher can drive a game forward.
That said, I do have a single notepad which I’ve used a few times. However, I fear that might have more to do with my decreasing intelligence and increasingly shit memory. Also, I despise taking down notes, so I’m clearly a masochist.