When do you give yourself permission to look up a hint while playing an adventure game? You can’t do it each time a difficult puzzle gets in your way, because you’ll deprive yourself of the endorphin rush when you come back the next morning and solve that doozy on your own. Puzzles are weird that way. Even when you put them down, something in your brain keeps doing the work.
But you also can’t never look up a hint, unless the game just “clicks” with you, like Myst did for me in college, when I finished it over the course of a single day, hint-free. That’s the only time I’ve ever done that, and yes, I am bragging about it.
Here’s my personal hints policy:
I’m allowed to look up a hint after I’ve spent at least 24 hours not making progress. Only some of those 24 hours have to be spent in front of the game. If the rest of the 24 hours are spent agonizing over whether the 24 hours are up yet, I’m doing the work, and I deserve the hint. I’ve honed this hints policy over years of gaming, and I think it’s just about perfect for me. Feel free to steal it.
While playing Bob Bates’ new text adventure, Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way, I looked up a hint once. I won’t spoil the puzzle, but if you’d like to compare my experience to yours, I had 64 points at the time. I was tempted to break my policy and look up many more hints — any game you’re hooked on will trigger that urge — but I resisted. I knew that Bob Bates had designed Arthur and Sherlock, two classics from Infocom’s twilight years, and I miss Infocom so much that I wasn’t about to squander this opportunity by violating my hints policy. When’s the last time an Implementor released a text adventure, let alone a commercial one, on Steam, with Achievements, for $14.99? It’s thrilling to see that audacious price tag. The going rate for a text adventure in 2017 is zero dollars. $14.99 is like 15 iPhone games! This must be good!
Thaumistry is exactly what you want if you’re an Infocom fanboy like me. It has that thoughtful, funny writing Infocom spoiled us with, dozens of just-hard-enough puzzles, a cast of characters with enough personality to be interesting, an over-the-top set-piece climax, and all the refinements you expect from a modern adventure game. You can’t break it and make it unwinnable. You can’t die, with one obvious exception, blatantly telegraphed several turns before it happens. But this isn’t posturing, hipstery “art house” interactive fiction — it’s a hardcore, puzzles-first design. The heart of a 1980s text adventure throbs beneath all the 21st-century niceties.
Speaking of 21st-century niceties, there’s a built-in hint system, but the names, icons, and descriptions of the Steam Achievements are hints too. They’re just cryptic enough that I’m sure they were intended that way. Another hint is the data that Steam provides on what percentage of players have earned each Achievement, because that’s your guide to the rough order in which they appear in the story. Go ahead, feast your eyes on all these “hints.” I did. I needed them. They don’t count toward my one-hint-a-day limit. Executive decision.
Bob Bates held onto the text adventure dream longer than most of the Infocom guys, creating Legend Entertainment, which soldiered on making text adventures into the ’90s. Legend’s games had graphics, but they were still text adventures (most of them, anyway), with parsers and everything. Other than a used copy of Superhero League of Hoboken I picked up a few years ago — the name was irresistible — I’d never played a Legend game, so when I was done with Thaumistry I looked up some interviews with Bates.
That’s when I learned Bates is a game industry lifer — he even did time at Zynga, of all places, which I’m pretty sure is in my game dev thesaurus as the antonym to “Infocom.” In the interviews I found, Bates kept saying Thaumistry was what he made when he wanted to recapture the most fun he’d ever had designing a game. That game was Eric the Unready in 1993. When I read that, the very next thing I did was order an old CD-ROM anthology of Legend classics including Eric the Unready. No hints, please. Not yet, anyway.