Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Continuity... A fun little puzzler within a puzzler

Whilst procrastinating from doing some work (and judging IGF entries) I came across Continuity via a tweet from @raphkoster. It's a student game that sucked me right in.

It's a fun puzzler within a puzzler that introduced controls and complexity in an engaging and well paced challenge. The "inner puzzler" was a standard find key, unlock door puzzle. You have a stick man and need to first grab the key and then unlock the door to escape the level. The "outer puzzler" was a manipulate the tiles game. Each "inner puzzle" was a tile. So you needed to switch between inner and outer puzzle (via the spacebar) to complete levels.

For me, it had just the right mixture of brief "this can't be right..." or "I don't understand why I can do X, but not Y" moments such that new concepts were puzzling and not frustrating.

Analyzing this game reminds me of my experience playing Braid. I loved Braid even though many of my usability professional friends hated it because it seemed to violate expectations about how people should be introduced (some would argue "spoon fed") to new puzzle mechanics. For a few moments early on in Continuity I thought I had uncovered a major usability flaw: I couldn't understand why I could move my avatar between some tiles and not between others even though there appeared to be a valid path. Because I didn't understand the logic behind the game (you can only move between tiles if ALL paths link up cleanly between tiles -- not just the path you want to traverse) my initial response was "this seems arbitrary" and therefore required better graphical affordances to let you know when you could vs. could not traverse a path (uncrossable paths should look -- well -- uncrossable).

For such a clean design, I realize that adding extra "this path is valid" affordances might clutter the visuals and over-fix the problem. Ensuring players figure out the logic could be done through a sequence of puzzles designed to illustrate the problem (which is mostly what happened in my case). That said, a simple idea worth trying might be to make the white tile walls transparent when two validly matching tiles are adjacent to each other. This will eliminate the initial confusion that exists when the player realizes that "some white walls I CAN move through, but some white walls I can NOT move through" because now clear = CAN and white = NOT. 

The other thing I quite liked about the game was its similarity to the board game Zendo. The game presents you with a set of tiles that ALL look valid and useful, but you quickly figure out which is the the one truly useful tile through game play reasoning and puzzling. 

Sweet stuff.

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