The Narrative Trap

More things to say about narrative!  Hope I don’t repeat myself too much.  Today I’m thinking about how narrative and theme are kind of tricky in puzzle-based events.  With regular games, you might imagine “I want to make a game about the zombie apocalypse,” and then the constraints of that theme inspire the mechanics of the game (the zombies, the survivors, the chase, and victory).  With puzzle events, I feel like it often starts from the other end, with “I want to make a puzzle event,” but the act of designing to fit within a certain narrative or theme comes a lot less naturally.

A theme might inspire specific puzzle ideas, but the core function of the game will always be puzzle-solving, and puzzle-solving is hard to justify within a narrative.  Puzzles are such invented things, I think it can be really hard to come up with an immersive and sensible narrative that explains why groups of people are trying to solve a bunch of puzzles.  When I ran Jefferson’s Lost Invention, I made an effort to design a motive into the game and have it fit together nicely with my theme, but I think it all felt kind of contrived and I had to just ignore a bunch of parts that clearly couldn’t fit in.  Since designing a robust narrative is so difficult to do, I think narrative is more often just used to supplement the event rather than define or justify it.  Narrative is an afterthought, something that helps tie everything up nicely in a cohesive package, but is rarely used to dictate the experience.

Maybe there are three or four tiers of narrative usage:

  • Tier 0:  No narrative —  Here are your puzzles, here is your time limit, have fun solving them.  I can definitely see the appeal of this kind of game which lets you just focus on the puzzling and nothing else.  I’d like to play in one sometime!
  • Tier 1:  Loose narrative — A theme for the sake of one.  Something to put on the T-shirts, something to make things a little more interesting and memorable.  Makes no pretense of immersion.
  • Tier 2:  Contrived narrative — An effort at immersive narrative that doesn’t quite cut it.  Puzzles are contorted to fit within the narrative, the narrative is stretched to accommodate the puzzles.  Heavy suspension of disbelief required, abundant plot holes.
  • Tier 3:  Robust narrative — The narrative is incorporated into the game naturally, and in a way that truly enhances, and even defines, the game experience.  (I’m reminded again that I need to read up more about Doctor When, which apparently used narrative wonderfully!)

I think I’m okay with all of these tiers except #2, the trap I’ve been falling into.  I love narrative, and I would have thought that more narrative always equals better, but I think trying too hard (but not quite hard enough) and falling into that in-between place creates a disjointed experience for the player.  The narrative is constantly distracting players with the promise of immersion, but can’t deliver.  Better to present the theme candidly as a decoration and let players parse it, file it away appropriately, and focus on the puzzles than to split their attention like that.

In summary, when it comes to narrative, go big or go home!

9 comments on The Narrative Trap

  • tabstop

    I was just reading the write-up by the winning team from the Great American Race, and thinking about the point they made that a lot (comparably to west coast things, at least) of attention was paid to the framework, specifically things like the daily clues printed nicely, wrapped in a ribbon, etc. Coming from the raw puzzle side of things, that can seem like fluff that doesn’t affect the solve at all; and yet it can lend a sense of atmosphere and/or consistency and/or professionalism and/or a lot of things that you can’t get with a stapled packet of papers (or an e-mailed PDF). As I’m thinking more and more about live events (as opposed to the on-line/distributed/whatever you want to call it puzzle world that I mostly live in) the more I think that having an “experience” is a big part of the job. Will any of that matter the next time I run an online puzzle contest? No. But I also don’t want to fall in the trap of thinking that since I don’t need it run an online contest, I won’t need it to run a live event.

    Illustrative story: About two weeks ago I was an actor in a live puzzle event up ’round DC. There were four actors for five puzzles (one puzzle was on posters, but the rest had an actor). The other actors had a script, and more importantly, had clues to give out (buried in the script natch), but I didn’t — all the clues were on the tables in the room; I was just ad libbing my part and making sure people didn’t steal any of the stuff. Even though I was completely irrelevant to the puzzle — and quite a few teams solved it without talking to me at all — it was a very different atmosphere in the room with me there. (If nothing else, they could talk with me while letting their brain chew on the problem subconsciously.)

    Also: the other actors were all working professional actors in DC, and they all commented that it was one of the most intense gigs they had done. There were maybe two hundred solvers (students at a scholarship retreat) (and four puzzles so we didn’t have all two hundred in the room with us at the same time, but it sure felt like it), each focused on every word we said, critiquing, looking for patterns and clues, etc.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Style is worthwhile =) Atmosphere and polish can really make a huge difference, experience-wise.

      I was talking to a fellow Ravenchaser the other day about how the smallest detail can change a player’s train of thought (one word added or removed from clue text, for example). Your acting story reminds me of something my husband and I keep encountering, which is that we’ll be stumped on a seemingly impossible problem (a puzzle or just something for work) for minutes or hours, but the moment person B declares they have figured it out, our brain somehow instantly manages to make its own connection and find the answer. In one instance, person B was actually bluffing, and in another I misinterpreted a vague statement to mean they had solved it, no answers had actually been found. The mind is a crazy thing, and it’s weird to think about what an influence our surroundings and interactions can have on how our brains work.

      Trying to solve something in front of someone who already knows the answer is also always a really weird experience for both parties I think… the person who knows the answer trying not to influence the solver (or maybe just trying to help make sure they have a good time and don’t get stuck), the solver trying to interpret silences, smiles, etc. from the person who knows the answer.

      I can only imagine how closely you actors were studied that day, haha! That does sound exhausting…

  • Ellen

    To quote John Carmack: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”

    For Doctor When, the story/script was developed over several years, and even the first time I read the script, I felt it was strong enough to stand on its own. Writing good stories is hard, and developing a new storytelling medium is even harder! It can be easy to underestimate the importance of a good story when creating a compelling, “believable” experience for your fellow human beings, but I’m hoping we can bridge the gap between puzzle hunts and alternate reality games to create some really interesting puzzle-game-story things.

    • clavicarius (author)

      “Writing good stories is hard” is an excellent point! And it’s so easy to forget.

      Man, I am always somehow forgetting that alternate reality games exist! I think it’s because I have a hard time getting into them, so I don’t play very many. I’d love to work towards bridging that gap and focus more on the “reality” part to help people like me stay engaged.

  • Steve

    I think there’s a tier 1.5 where the theme is used in some of the puzzles, but perhaps not all. Where it’s used it’s fine, not distracting, and a little fun. Sometimes the theme is applied to the flavor of the puzzle, sometimes to how it’s solved, and sometimes the answer is theme-related. Yet it’s not shoehorned into all the puzzles, which can lead to the discordancy of “tier 2.”

  • Persona

    I come to sing the praises of Type 2 Puzzles. Where you see narrative stretched and puzzles contorted, I see creativity and consistency, a structure to build around. There’s still no organic reason to be solving -these- puzzles in -this- place, that’s the price of the suspension of disbelief. But once you accept that, then you get a set of puzzles that do feel like they could only be created for this event.

    I’m heavily biased, because the biggest puzzle events I regularly solve in (Dash, Mystery Hunt, NPL extravaganzas) seem to fall into this category. It spurs a lot of creativity. It’s how you get a Rapunzel-themed puzzle that uses combs as grills. It’s how you get an Art Gallery extravaganza that has one puzzle embedded in a mobile and another tied to a paint-by-numbers the entire room collaborates on unknowingly. It’s how you get an entire hunt stuffed into a single four-page newspaper. It’s where you see innovative and inspirational techniques that are too artificial for type 3 puzzles, but far more informed by the setting and theme than type 1 puzzles.

    • Larry Hosken

      Persona, your Type 2 puzzles sound to me like Type 1 🙂 . What do you consider to be an example of Type 1?

      • clavicarius (author)

        I was going to say the same thing, and DASH specifically was what I had in mind when defining Tier 1. At least for this year’s DASH, I felt that most of the puzzles could be separated from the theme with no consequence (though some may have been originally inspired by the theme), and the characters and storyline were just fun bits of fluff.

        My puzzle hunt experience is extremely limited though, so my tier system is likely off. Like Steve mentions, maybe a Tier 1.5 is in order, or maybe Tier 2 can be done well in a way that enhances without distracting.

      • Alex Pearson

        Ahh, to me, the Type 1 puzzle is (for example) the average Mystery Hunt puzzle: it was constructed just to get to the answer, which probably isn’t thematic to the hunt as a whole, the mechanism and flavor generally isn’t in general thematic to the round that it’s in. A pile of type 2 puzzles would be able to be sorted in their correct hunt by someone who knows the themes.

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