Locks and Keys.

Recently I've been playing Shadowrun Returns, a solid PC RPG with a cyberpunk setting. I'm nearing the end of game and my crew of cyberpunk hackers and mercenaries are trying to bring down a shadowy cult (as one does). The cult is hiding out in a secret area of a commercial building. My mission is to explore the building, find out what's going on and discover their hiding place.

I talk my way into the building and then, like any RPG, I start exploring rooms looking for clues. I find a storeroom near the entrance. Great - store rooms always have loot! Poking around the shelves I find some lard and a prompt appears asking if I want to pick it up. Shadownrun is not a game that let's you pick up just any object, so at this point the game has taken a wrong turn!

Lard Problems

We're in game-logic territory; this is a game, I can pick up an item, therefore the item has a use in the future. Instead of playing in the gameworld I'm now second guessing the puzzle designer.

As a hardened mercenary I can believe certain scenarios when exploring a store; do I want to grab a pipe to use as an improvised weapon? Sure. Grab some kind of keycard? Yep. But a packet of lard? Not really.

Has my character suddenly gone crazy? Out of all the items in the store room he wants to take the lard. Ok. The storeroom is full of chemicals, we could make an improvised bomb with that bleach - do you want that? No, you're good with the lard, right.

I continue to explore the building, carrying my brick of lard (in my pocket I presume). Soon enough, I've explored everywhere apart from a guarded door in the kitchen. I put some kerosene (which may have also been pilfered from the store room) on a stove top causing a distraction and allowing me to slip through the door.

The next room is a utility room with a broken vending machine. I can interact with the vending machine and I'm given the following dialog.

The broken vending machine seems like it can be pushed out of the way.

  1. Try and push the machine.
  2. Rub the floor with the lard and push the vending machine out of the way.
  3. Leave

A lock before a key.

Ok, so obviously option 1 is going to fail and option 2 is available because I have the lard, so I pick option 2 and of course the machine is moved out of the way. A particularly unsatisfying puzzle.

Why was it unsatisfying? Because I had the solution before I was even aware of the problem. This final room is hard to access therefore it's a lot of players arrive here carrying a brick of lard, not entirely sure why, then they click the vending machine and they too will immediately slide it out of the way. The puzzle may as well not have been there.

Lock and Key Puzzles

The vending machine is an example of a lock and key puzzle.

An impediment to progress in the game.
An item that removes this impediment.

Lock and key puzzles are standard building blocks in game design. Doom has is color coded keycards, Zelda has it's bombs and cracked walls, Monkey Island has it's rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle and so on.

It's a chicken with a pulley in the middle.

Shadownrun fails here by providing the key - the lard - before the player is likely to encounter the lock - the vending machine.

That brings us to our rule, well known by the Point Click Adventure Game Designers of the 90s:

Repeat after me, lock before key

For a puzzle to be fun, the player needs to be aware of the challenge before they work to overcome it. If Doom gave you a bag of key cards at the start the of the level it wouldn't be very satisfying.

Games like Shadownrun give the player a lot freedom to wander about but it's still possible to design puzzles so the lock is generally encountered before the key.

This isn't to single Shadowrun out, it's the game I've been playing recently.

Fixing This Puzzle

When a problem is clearly defined a solution often presents itself. The problem in this case is that the lock is much harder to access than the key, the player is more likely to find the key before the lock.

My simple solution would be to keep the store room locked with only a single access card on the table next to the vending machine.

Another fix might be to comment on the lard when player first sees it but only allow it to be picked up when the lock has been discovered.

Nothing too complicated in these solutions but they'd make the game more enjoyable.

You can use this rule to fine tune puzzles in your own game. Let me know how you get on at @HowToMakeAnRPG (or if you have an alternative or better fix for the lard puzzle).