Since players spend most of their time in role-playing games exploring and fighting battles, developers might make it a point to keep things outside those various aspects more interesting, which is where puzzles and minigames come into play. If done well, they can be enjoyable diversions, but if not, they can really distract from the player’s experience with a game. This editorial will explore how to do things right in terms of puzzles and minigames and how to make things go wrong.
Some videogame franchises such as Zelda and Wild Arms are partially puzzle-centric, with both series having riddles centering on the use of tools necessary to solve them. Some puzzles may require swapping between tools to solve, while others actually don’t involve tools at all, the game sometimes providing a clue on what to do to solve one of a game’s many tricky riddles. Sometimes, puzzles may come to the point of being difficult and drive a player to seek guidance from a walkthrough, in this writer’s opinion a sign of bad game design. Solutions to this problem include adjustable difficulty that not only affects the challenge of battles, but puzzles, as well, or making puzzles skippable after a few tries or a certain intervention, five or ten minutes being a good benchmark for skippability, or let the player skip a puzzle for a penalty, for instance, as done by Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Then there are minigames, which can come in a few varieties. One notable gameplay cliché (yes, gameplay like story can be clichéd as well) is the need to sneak past guards without getting caught, in which situation the game may make the player start over in a room of a dungeon or encounter a battle, after which they must restart the mission to successfully sneak past the guards. The Zelda series does this a few times, as do some of the Tales of titles, although in Tales of the Abyss, if the player fails enough times, they can simply kill the guards to get past them.
Another instance of skippability in the Tales of series comes in Phantasia, at one point where protagonist Cress must simultaneously press switches with his ally Arche, which can be daunting due to the latter’s erratic movement. After enough tries, their other companions will simply do the puzzle for them, and such an anti-frustration feature in this writer’s opinion would be a boon to other RPGs. Visible encounters in dungeons that feature puzzles are another savior from frustration, with random encounters in the middle of solving puzzles undoubtedly making some more difficult or throwing off the player at times.
Many times, however, minigames are mandatory and unskippable, for instance in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, with one particularly frustrating diversion being an ice cream rhythm game with Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Fortunately, in other instances minigames are completely optional, for instance in Final Fantasy X, which has a few frustrating diversions that at one point provoked this player into breaking a controller. In that particular title, however, the difficulty of its minigames is in some instances just, since they can lead to the acquisition of weapons that can easily break the game’s balance.
In the end, puzzles and minigames at times can be tricky to do right without driving the player to frustration or using a guide, although some titles mercifully implement them well, thus accounting for more enjoyable gameplay experiences. Implementing some of the aforementioned anti-frustration features such as skippability, adjustable difficulty, and optionality would certainly go a long way in making the role-playing game genre more accessible to mainstream players, perhaps save the sometimes-troubled category.