A prison without walls. A puzzle without rules.
Broadly speaking, puzzles fall into two categories when dealing with the rules: The ones that tell you about the rules, and the ones that don’t. Puzzles that tell you the rules provide instructions on how to manipulate the puzzle, but expect the puzzler to combine those moves to defeat the challenge. Puzzles that don’t tell you the rules make a game of figuring out just what those rules are. After the player figures them out, the puzzle takes on the characteristic of the known rules puzzle with the added uncertainty of the puzzler being unsure if they’ve found all the rules. Video games often present themselves as a known puzzle, but later evolve into an unknown puzzle without telling the player. It is here that frustration lies for the players seeking to understand their favorite games.
…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To understand why the distinction matters, one must understand the differing skillsets needed to appreciate known and unknown puzzles. For a known puzzle, the puzzle explains all of the relevant rules so that the player can focus on combining those rules to succeed. Players may discover important rules as they play, but the foundational rules are laid out at the beginning. For example, a crossword puzzle may say that puzzlers should place answers in the predefined grid that match the clues and the boxes available. The puzzler later discovers that the overlapping boxes give additional clues about answers the player does not yet know. Completing a known puzzle focuses on combining puzzle pieces in new ways. The puzzle makes a pact with the puzzler to ensure that the rules are stable, but deep enough that simply knowing them is not sufficient for optimal play. Many known puzzle games can, technically, be completed with just an understanding of the rules, but superior play means building on those rules.
Unknown puzzles operate differently, and so require that the play do the same. Player energy is not only invested in applying the rules, but discovering what they are. Unlike known puzzles, the tool belt is hidden and the player must discover it before making meaningful progress in the world. I recently completed a metallic object puzzle where I was told the objective (take it apart and then put it back together), but not how to achieve it. I latter figured out that I each piece had interlocking pillars that I had to disengage to separate and combine the pieces. Unknown puzzles make the player aware of their own ignorance and, by doing so, forces them to focus on dispelling that ignorance. There is no pact between puzzle and puzzler on having a basic set of tools because the player doesn’t start with them. Furthermore, the ruleset is often less complete than the known counterpart. The more complex the ruleset is, the more difficult it is for the player to discover. Unknown puzzles will often keep the rules simple and rely hiding those rules in the wide variety of possibilities to produce the challenge.
Video games start off as known puzzles and end as unknown puzzles without acknowledging the shift they make. When most games begin, they have a tutorial that lays out the rules of engagement and mission scenarios that walk the player through each new game mechanic. Players often get to the end of the campaign with a feeling of mastery over the various game concepts and the sense that they understand the game they’ve just played.
…and then they hit multiplayer.
For many deep strategy games, multiplayer is the graveyard of dreams. Players who dominated the campaign discover that they don’t actually understand anything about the game they thought they knew. The rules are (often) the same, but players develop and refine them to such a degree that they are unrecognizable from their original form. This shift undermines the compact that the known games make with the player. Yes, the rules are technically the same, but they’ve advanced so much in the multiplayer arena that they feel brand new. New players not only face learning these new rules, but also unlearning the ironclad rules they thought they knew.
The resulting shift can unmake a player’s resolve to continue with a game. Multiplayer often acts as a freight train where new players can’t even find a purchase upon which to improve their skills. They go from a secure environment with explicit instructions to a brutal, amorphous world with 13 year olds insulting you because they think cuss words are clever. I suspect that one of the most common drop points on a game is when the player advances to multiplayer and discovers that they’re learning the game all over again without help from anyone. Games that want their players to stick around should try to ease that landing and give players a purchase upon which to hoist themselves into this brave, new world.