Portal 2, Puzzles and Roleplaying


So I’m playing Portal 2, up to chapter six I think and not unlike Portal 1, I’ve been thrown out of the simple fun of solving totally self-contained puzzles into a world of exploration of haunting environments, first-character roleplay and well-written plot. And while the environments are pretty and the writing good, I am cranky because all I goddamn want is my puzzles.

Why? Because puzzles are, ultimately, relaxing. Everything is known, except the solution. You have to move from point A to point B using only the tools provided.

But when you’re in Adventure Land, it’s hard to know where you have to go. It’s a big, beautiful world and there are no clearly marked goals or exits. Everything could potentially be a tool provided. Mark it too clearly and the story falls apart, it looks false. It has to be a seamless, realistic feeling world to explore and poke until you see the puzzle.

In other words, I just got shunted from a gamist experience into a sim one, much to my eternal annoyance.

And this is of course, why riddles and puzzles tend to suck in most RPGs – because they suddenly thrust players out of a nar/dram/sim environment violently into a gamist one. Now, in theory there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as everyone enjoys each style equally and enjoys shifting between them. Generally, I go to rpgs to get away from puzzles and too much thinking, I want to explore and poke things and blow them up, and pose awesomely afterwards (which is also why I play City of Heroes).

What’s more, puzzles are very hard to do in RPGs because unless you really force your story into the kind of artificial environments seen in the Portal series, the whole point of these games in imagined realities is that you can imagine beyond the frame. You’re not forced to follow the rules of narrative or game. Portal tells me the only way out of the room is by opening the door, but you and I both know that if I pick up the bot and break off a shiv, I can hone it into a blade, pry open the lock mechanism and short-circuit the doors. And as tradition goes – and rightly so – any GM who says “no you can’t do that” deserves a good punch in the hooter.

This applies widely as well. Don’t design adventures like puzzles, with only one solution. By all means have the goal being to get the door open (figuratively speaking) but let them figure out how. Unless your players would rather be doing mind puzzles, of course. But I don’t think rpgs support them very well, because they are either massively forced to come into existence, or full of railroading to stop people imagining their own solution, or both. And thus most players find them unwelcome.

That’s not to say you can’t have a few tiny drops of gamism to add spice to a story, or indeed, have a fun plot ticking on behind your puzzles, like the start of Portal is. It’s the total genre shifts that suck.



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