Quest Design Lessons from Monkey Island
How veteran designers create a satisfying series of doors & keys.
Fetch quests deserve their bad reputation.
Doing NPC's deliveries was never the peak of entertainment and boredom awaited at every corner. Yet, in essence, a point & click adventure is just a series of fetch quests that has their players look for items and give it to the correct character.
How do expert designers make you enjoy such type of gameplay?
In this issue of The Arcade Artificer, we examine the work of Ron Gilbert & David Grossman in Return to Monkey Island and how to avoid the (many) pitfalls of such games.
The Door & Key problem
Most fetch quests are boring because they present no challenge. You just go somewhere, grab something, come back.
In contrast, point'n'click wants you to explore the area and figure out by yourself how to find items and what to do with them. It’s more fun for the player this way, but it can lead to various issues. This sort of situation is known in game design as the ‘door & key problem’ (even if it often doesn’t involve litteral doors).
It's a tricky balancing act, and I'm sure we've all been confronted with games where it fell apart. When handled well, however, both the doors & keys are fantastic opportunities to engage the player with a compelling puzzle.
The first scene of Return to Monkey Island features such a situation for tutorial, and right away, I noticed the mastery of the veteran designers. The goal is simple: you want to buy a ‘scurvy dog’ from the shop (it’s a sort of door) but you need a coin (the key). You don't have money, but you get the hint that you could check the toilets for dropped coins, and to get there you need to borrow the key (a litteral door & key!).
So, there are actually two intertwined doors, an intelligent setup to avoid accidentally solving the puzzle: however you approach it, you can't get the coin before discovering its use. At worst, you may notice the locked toilet door and wonder what’s behind. It's a basic situation, yet designers accounted for the possibility that curious players explore the whole area before getting to the designated objective (I certainly play like that).
However, when you start putting many doors & keys in a bigger environment, the risk that players get confused or frustrated increases exponentially. Fortunately, Monkey Island's creators have many aces upon their sleeves.
Chests Are Like Doors, But Better
To not spoil you all, I'll focus on half of the first chapter of the game for the remainder of the analysis (~10% of the game).
Guybrush Threepwood wants to fund an expedition to find the infamous secret of Monkey Island. After three introductory dialogues, both the player and the protagonist narrow this abstract goal to two concrete objectives: obtain a mop & get a disguise (so you can get secretly hired as a swabby on LeChuck's ship). And already the designers are setting you on the right track.
Many games skip this process of funnelling the narrative into game objectives (or have unwelcoming walls of texts as “missions briefings”), so the player has a hard time understanding what he has to do and why. In recent games, the omnipresence of characters who spit out info through the radio is a poor band-aid to the lack of meaning in the game's activities, but I digress. Here, we know exactly what to do, we just don’t know how (yet).
Below is a diagram representing the structure of the “get a mop” objective. All of this happen in the same open zone, no locked area, so “doors” are more like “chests” here: you get new items by finding the correct key.
As you visit the island and talk to the characters, you put the pieces together and understand what are the chests and what sort of key you’d need to find to open them. To make a mop, you learn that you must find a specific piece of wood.
Then you realize that the key you need is inside another chest (you can’t get to the correct tree without a map of the forest). And the cycle continues.
As you progress, you anticipate the domino effect that'll trigger once you finally put your hands on the last key and can open all the chests successively. Such a structure has the advantage of building up to a satisfying conclusion compared to small independent areas.
In an open setting, you may circle around the same content but still get a sense of renewal as you progress in your quest. It doesn't feel the same to visit the town seeking a way to distract a cook than when you first explored it looking for a mop.
This is technically the same objective (bring an item to a NPC), yet you do not feel as such. Of course, all the funny dialogues, beautiful art and sound design contribute to making you have a pleasant and varied experience.
Linear quests in an open environment still present some challenges: there are many ways the player can get confused and lost, so in the final part, we'll look at the strategies the designers use to keep them back on track without ruining the fun.
5 Solutions to the Door & Key Problem(s)
Problem #1 - Getting a key before knowing how to use it
Easy solution: hide the key in a chest. As we've seen, when each key is obtained by completing the previous step, there is no way to skip a bunch accidentally.
Harder solution: restrict the player from using it until a certain noticeable event occur (otherwise it’s extremely frustrating).
Example: in Return to Monkey Island, it might happen if you somehow collect the cookbook before having all the dialogues. You won’t be able to distract the cook directly (he has to tell you how to craft a mop first!), but you’ll be able to do once the exigent client arrives and he’s panicking.
Problem #2 - Discovering doors in the wrong order
Solution: reconnect loose ends to send the player to the original door (which is easy to conceal when you have dynamic dialogues)
Example: if you try to go to the forest, Guybrush gets lost and he needs a map: you’re a smart one, you figure a map maker would help! Even if you don’t know exactly the purpose of the forest, you may go talk to him and he’ll innocently ask “did the cook sent you here?” Hum, no, but thanks for the tip bud, I'll check on him now!
Problem #3 - Not realizing that something is a door or a key
Solution: have a lot of this type of items
Example: in Return to Monkey Island is when you see ten books in the governor's mansion or a shop full of maps, you immediately get that it'll play a role eventually.
Problem #4 - Not finding hidden items
As mentioned earlier, some items are simply up for grabs in the environment, which proves trickier since there are no dialogues to point towards them. Well, a smart technique they use is to provide more than needed: for instance there are four different items you can use as a mop's head, which increases the chances that the player stumbles upon at least one while exploring.
Problem #5 - Still struggling to know what to do
Solution: give gradual hints
Early on, you receive a hint book, which essentially acts as a super-dialogue tree that progressively exposes the deduction steps: the player decides how many hints (and how precise).
The joy of subtlety is that different people figure it out differently. So, when all else fails, Ron Gilbert & David Grossman know better than anyone that there's no point locking the player out of the enjoyment, each person has a different time & patience level.
Creating problems for the player is easy.
Creating solutions is even easier.
The hard part in design is to ensure players find the solution while still maintaining the illusion they figured it entirely by themselves.
I send a new issue of The Arcade Artificer every other wednesday: subscribe now to never miss your dose of game design!
If you liked the topic of this article, I’m sure you’d also enjoy this one: