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[this article by Ryan Henson Creighton is re-posted from the Untold Entertainment blog, which is awesome. Come hear Ryan speak at GDC 2012 at 1:45 Monday March 5th at the Independent Games Summit! Attendees seated in the first two rows should be aware that this area is designated the "Splash Zone".]
1. Getting the Babel Fish into Your Ear
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1984 Probably the most well-known puzzle of any on the list, the babel fish puzzle is renowned for walking the fine line between fun frustration (or "funstration"), and pure seething evil. Displaced Earthling Arthur Dent has been zapped aboard a hostile alien ship. In order to understand alien languages, he has to put a babel fish in his ear. In the book on which the game is based, Arthur's friend Ford just hands him the fish. But in the game, a few more steps are required.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy text adventure, co-authored by Douglas Adams, puts the fish in a vending machine and gives the player a limited number of turns to acquire it before the game becomes unwinnable. From the Everything2 entry on the puzzle:
After the player presses the button, the fish is vended, but with such force that it flies across the room and into a hole. The sequence of events for the novice player goes as follows: Above the hole is a hook, from which the player eventually decides to hang his dressing gown; this causes the vended Babel Fish to hit the gown and drop to the floor...
... where it falls down a drain ('press button and catch fish' is not a valid input). The player may then decide to block the drain with his handy towel, which causes the fish to hit the gown, drop to the floor, and land on the towel...
... where it is cleaned away by a cleaning robot that dashes into the room, and dashes out again via a small panel. At this point the player realises that the game is toying with him or her. Undefeated, he or she may choose to block the panel with Ford Prefect's satchel, at which point the Babel Fish flies into the gown, drops to the floor, the robot picks it up, runs into the satchel, and throws the fish in the air...
... where it is cleaned away by another cleaning robot, one tasked with maintaining the upper half of the room. It is this additional puzzle that caused players the most anguish, as the solution is not at all obvious - it involves placing some junk mail on Ford Prefect's satchel, which, when sent flying through the air, occupies the second cleaning robot enough for the Babel Fish to arc gracefully into the player's ear.
The game's publisher, Infocom, actually sold T-Shirts for people who managed to solve the puzzle:
It's a small sadness that, thanks to the Internet, a phenomenon like this couldn't really happen again.
2. Guessing the Gnome's Gname
King's Quest, 1984
1984 was apparently a good year for infuriating adventure game puzzles. In the original King's Quest outing, Sir Graham meets a gnome who challenges him to guess his name. The obvious answer is "Rumplestiltskin", since most of the game's characters and story elements are cribbed straight from Grimms' Fairy Tales. But no - that's not the answer. Written on a piece of paper in the witch's house (the witch from Hansel and Gretel, whose person, house, and note have nothing whatsoever to do with the gnome), are the words "sometimes it's wise to think backwards."
That's what you get for NOT MAKING ANY SENSE.
Connecting the gnote to the gnome requires more than a small a leap of faith, to say nothing of logic. But no matter: many intrepid adventurers made that leap, strode boldly up to the gnome, and guessed "nikstlitselpmuR", which is "Rumplestiltskin" spelled backwards. But "no", the parser responds - "that's not the correct answer".
A million things go through your mind at this point. Does the game have it wrong? Did the creators of King's Quest forget that oft-unpronounced "t" in "Rumplestiltskin"? Or did you get the verb wrong? You try "ANSWER NIKSTLITSELPMUR" and "SAY NIKSTLITSELPMUR" and "TRY NIKSTLITSELPMUR". Or maybe you were wrong the whole time? Maybe the note has nothing to do with it? And if that's the case, then what's the answer??
This had better be good, old man.
"What is the gnome's name?" was, by far, the most-asked question of the Sierra Customer Service Hotline. That's because the solution to the puzzle is unfair and infuriating. Here it is. You're supposed to write the alphabet forwards and backwards:
For each letter in RUMPLESTILTSKIN, you need to find the corresponding letter in the backwards alphabet. So R maps onto I, U maps onto F, and so on. The gnome's name - obviously - is IFNKOVHGROGHPRM.
Guessing the gnome's name is a great example of how unfair, unpleasant and unforgiving puzzle design could be in the early days of adventure games. It's very telling that in future releases of King's Quest, NIKSTLITSELPMUR was accepted as a valid answer. Back in the day, the biggest difference between the approach of Sierra designers like King's Quest's Roberta Williams and designers at the rival Lucasfilm/LucasArts shop is that the Lucas designers seemed to want the player to actually succeed!
3. Microwaving the Hamster
Maniac Mansion, 1987
In the original Maniac Mansion, you could steal Weird Ed Edison's pet hamster and, as either Razor or Syd, put the little critter in the microwave and make it pop. If you hand the resulting goop back to Ed, realization of what it is slowly dawns on him, and your character spends the rest of the game as a tombstone in the backyard.
What did i just say about LucasArts designers wanting you to succeed ... ?
When the game was ported to the NES, LucasArts endured a rigorous censorship process that is fascinatingly chronicled by Douglas Crockford in The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for the Nintendo Entertainment System. While the word "pissed" and the Michaelangelo statue had to go, the hamster-in-the-microwave schtick stayed ... that is, until the wrong person at Nintendo caught wind of it. The puzzle was excised from the European version, and all future pressings of the cart.
4. Drinking with Boos
Return to Zork, 1993 Before Internet memes made arrow-in-the-knee jokes ubiquitous, another memorable line from a video game lodged itself in the minds of gamers like a Rick Astley tune. This puzzle involves getting Boos to repeatedly pour you a drink, dumping it in the plant, and waiting until he's soused enough to steal his keys. Each time Boos pours, he asks "Want some rye? COURSE ya do!" It's Boos's exuberant Silliwood performance and the puzzle's repetition that makes the moment stand out.
Here's the rest of Boos's toast, which i thought was a Zorkism, but have now discovered is an old Rabbie Burns drinking song:
Here's tae us
Wha's like us
And they're a' deid
Mair's the pity!
5. Reading the Creation Account
The Neverhood, 1996
Mair's the pity that for its amazing visuals, The Neverhood wasn't a better adventure game. One of its most maddening puzzles wasn't really a puzzle at all. Early in the game, Klaymen discovers The Chronicles of Neverhood, a Biblical-ish account of the creation of the game's clay universe. Comprising eight books, the Chronicles sprawl out across 38 separate screens in the game. Most dutiful adventure game players brought up on Infocom's "feelies" were convinced that the Chronicles must contain important information about how to solve certain puzzles in the games, and read each and every section of the wall.
Well, gosh - THIS is gonna be fun.
The horrible truth is that the Chronicles exist only to flesh out the game's backstory, and have nothing whatsoever to do with any in-game puzzles. The player is merely supposed to walk to the far end of the 38 screens to pick up an object, and then hoof it back to the beginning of the hallway.
6. Creating Fake ID
Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, 1999
Much has been written about the death of graphic adventure games, but one of the most influential articles on the subject is Who Killed Adventure Games? by Old Man Murray, who details an idiotic puzzle in the third Gabriel Knight adventure that has the player assembling a fake ID of a man with a moustache in order to impersonate a man who doesn't have a moustache.
Hmm ... i'm clearly gonna need some double-sided tape, and a cat.
Who killed Adventure Games? I think it should be pretty clear at this point that Adventure Games committed suicide.
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What are the most interesting, shocking, funstrating or memorable puzzles from your adventures?