I Click Therefore I Think

I Click Therefore I Think

I’ve talked before about my love of RPGs. I like games which require thought and decision making. But RPGs aren’t the only games which force you to put on your thinking cap. Another game genre I enjoy is puzzle games, though they seem to be on the low end of most gamers’ esteem. Perhaps because they don’t have as much action going for them as most other video games. Some people might think that defies the point. But every now and then you want something relaxing that doesn’t involve killing massive swarms of enemies (either with guns or swords), and puzzles often fit the bill.

When I say puzzle game, I’m not just talking about games like Zuma or Bejeweled where you repeat the same task for half an hour at progressively faster intervals (though I do enjoy those games from time to time). I’m talking about point-and-click puzzle adventures. These typically have stories, which is one of the things I enjoy most about video games. The stories tend to be simpler than those found in RPGs, they tend not to branch and they’re usually quite short. But when what you want is to sit down for a few hours and feel you’ve accomplished something while you relax, point-and-clicks tend to be more satisfying than most RPG quests.

The first point-and-click I ever played was the original Myst. At that point, it was already in its first remastered stage with upgraded graphics and a built in guide in case you got lost (which I did, in that damn underground sound maze. I’d probably still be trying to figure it out without the guide). I was a teenager at the time and we’d just gotten our first family computer with Windows 98 and 2 whole gigabytes of hardrive space. Since the storyline was about falling into a book, and books were the things I cared about most as a teenager, I was instantly won over by the game’s premise. I remember sneaking on the computer while my mom was napping on the couch, fiddling with the different puzzles while trying to keep the sound low enough it wouldn’t wake her.

Those were the days.

Myst was followed by Riven and Beyond Atlantis and The Crystal Key. Then I discovered Exile, the next story in the Myst sequence. Even if the graphics are flat and spin around when I click the arrow rather than allowing me to walk around a 3D environment like most other games, I find these games immersive. I get lost in their worlds and I get so focused on the puzzles presented to me that I often lose time (I was supposed to make dinner half an hour ago? Um… oops).

Then came the ultimate puzzle game. The game I love probably more than any other game ever made or yet to come; Portal. The first person shooter puzzler. You have a gun. And it shoots portals. And instead of killing people with it, you solve puzzles while an insane computer tries to kill you. Instant love people! In fact, the intensity of my love for Portal was so great that I pre-ordered the second game when it came out for PS3, beat it within four days and forced my husband to play all the co-op with me (and when I say forced I mean pouted and he was like yeah sure).

I like to use my brain.

When I returned from my recent vacation, I fell into the usual post-vacation funk. I didn’t really feel like doing anything, but I also didn’t feel like doing nothing. Browsing through my Steam games, I realized I possessed Machinarium, a point-and-click puzzle adventure that one of my favorite Youtubers (TotalBiscuit) highly recommended. What the hell? I installed it. Phenomenal. That little robot is one of the most adorable video game characters ever. It’s amazing how a developer can create a touching story and characters you care about without ever using words.

But on my play-through of Machinarium I encountered the same problem I’ve had with every puzzle game I’ve ever played. If I had one complaint about puzzle games it would be this: when you get absolutely stuck – I’ve clicked everything I can find to click five times what the hell am I missing stuck – there’s no way to get a hint. You either have to look up the answer, spend countless hours growling in frustration, or give up on ever getting past that point. I know I’m not the most intelligent person to ever walk the face of the Earth, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person to ever get stuck on a puzzle every now and then.

Like with every game out there, when you get stuck you can turn to the Internet. With puzzle games you have two choices. You can look at a walkthrough, which sucks all the fun out of the game, or you can look for hints. Hints are hard to find. When you DO find them, they’re obscure to the point of not being useful. And instead of each successive hint getting closer to being useful, they go from obscure to HERE’S THE ANSWER! Hints built into the game are the same way. For example, when I got stuck in Machinarium, I clicked on the hint box with some trepidation. It told me I needed to electrocute the cat. A completely useless hint since I was trying to get the piece the owl stole from me, and I needed that before I could electrocute the cat.

Sometimes I just want to know if I’m on the right screen. Sometimes I just want to know what element I’m overlooking. I don’t want someone to tell me the answer, that’s no fun. But sometimes you need someone to say ‘have you looked upstairs?’ or ‘did you try clicking on that box?’ The greatest thing would be if the game could shoo me onto the proper screen or draw my attention to a particular element if I’ve been stuck for a long enough time. That’s how hints would work ideally. Instead of showing me the solution to the puzzle, it would be great if the game could intuit how far along in the puzzle I was and draw my attention to the element I require next. Often pointing to the room or area of the screen to be concentrating on isn’t enough to give away the answer, but would let me know if I’m on the right track. (For instance, if Machinarium pointed to the owl, I’d have known I was on the right screen.)

But, like asking for a game in which everything you do actually affects the outcome, a complex hint system for puzzle games might be asking too much.

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