Helping players help themselves: diegetic hints

A short article about game UX issues that have been on my mind (somewhat succinctly, as it was originally written for Twitter).

Game designers spend a lot of time tuning the difficulty of combat and puzzles, but what about the narrative or campaign?  Obtuse campaigns can be frustrating, while others “hand-hold” – rob players of gratification – if the golden path is too obvious.  How can design balance these issues?

When designing a complex campaign, consider:

  • A diegetic hint system
  • Player control over it
A screenshot of Horizon Forbidden West: Aloy looks over a stunning desert valley with a solar power plant and sunset in the distance.
Aloy would say something obvious right about now (Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

In Horizon Forbidden West, player character Aloy often spontaneously talks to herself to remind the player of what’s going on nearby: “I should go talk to…”, “I need to find…”.  It reinforces engagement with a diegetic method to ensure the player is aware of the campaign’s state.  It can also be intrusive, either by interrupting a quiet moment or precluding the player’s own discovery gratification – by holding their hand. “Yes, Aloy, I know. I’m going there right now!

A setting was added to control the frequency of her reminders, but the semi-random delivery still doesn’t let players get hints when they want them and avoid hints when they don’t.

Instead of Aloy’s spontaneous reminders, let the player trigger them.  Puzzle lovers and eternal hard mode git-gud types can simply never press the button.  But you can always give it a tap if you’re off chasing upgrades and forget your way.

(@multiversemoo had the great idea to use the PlayStation’s touchpad to have Aloy “scratch her chin”, adding a unique interaction that plays into both the character and available hardware.)

A screenshot of Horizon Forbidden West: the glowing and angelic feminine hologram of the computer Gaia.
Guidance is helpful (Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Aloy’s lines are reminders: they’re usually about visible journal items, and serve to nudge you back to major quests when exploring a massive world. What about things the player doesn’t know?  It’s much trickier to preserve player gratification when giving out hints for puzzles and mysteries.

Along with careful writing, there’s a way to limit these while still giving players control and preserving immersion:

  • Commodify diegetic hints

I playtested a game and was asked about two things in particular: the campaign had a steep learning curve, and there was an excess of a resource.  Gameplay was dense with mysteries and rewards, and required a fair bit of self-directed exploration to figure out the golden path.  This was very satisfying for dedicated genre players, but could be opaque and directionless for others.

So, use the resource to buy hints!  Purchases are agency, hints get rate-limited by the economy, and availability can scale in various ways.  (It was too late to consider this, but the designers found solid solutions that led to a great overall UX.)

A screenshot of Cyberpunk 2077:  the elderly fixer Wakako Okada sits in her dark office with a soft lamp in the foreground.
Your friendly neighborhood fixer (Credit: the author)

Games have various methods for this: the “gossip-for-coin” or “local fixer” is a common RPG trope where you can get a new quest or advance an existing one for the right price.  Dungeons & Dragons spells like Legend Lore more or less allow players to ask for hints with costs and restrictions.  Even a simple system to buy text notes or map markers can improve campaign UX with low implementation costs.

Name or describe a person, place, or object. The spell brings to your mind a brief summary of the significant lore about the thing you named. The lore might consist of current tales, forgotten stories, or even secret lore that has never been widely known. If the thing you named isn’t of legendary importance, you gain no information. The more information you already have about the thing, the more precise and detailed the information you receive is.

Legend Lore, Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules

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