# In a puzzle game, how can we put pressure on the player without using a time limit?

We're currently working on a game inspired by "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes" for the gameplay and "Lifeline" for the narrative part. Our game is named "Are You There?"; it's a game where you play an agent in a bunker who is the only person who can help an astronaut in her rocket.

In the first version linked above, we first added a timer during the alert phase for putting pressure on the player, and to reinforce the narrative way.

But we don't like timers in puzzle games :D. We found it artificial and counterproductive to ask to the player to "think fast" (even if our game is more a memory game than a puzzle game).

So here is our question: how can we put pressure on the player without using some kind of countdown (and which will fit with the narration)?

Our last hypothesis is to set up an "integrity gauge" for the rocket, which will decrease for every error. But, will it be enough to simulate gameplay and narrative pressure?

• As presented, time is what creates the pressure, so you probably cannot avoid some kind of time issue. But rather than a time limit, what about using a reward or score system? Play the old Zork text game. Players competed to see who can finish the game with the fewest moves/commands possible. A score system (instead of time) can also add another factor" "Oops! The astronaut vented the left airlock as you instructed, but forgot about the load of adorable puppies in there! Billions of puppy lovers now want you dead. -250 points to your score!" Jul 3, 2021 at 17:39
• "how can we put pressure on the player...?" What behaviour/feeling do you want to evoke in the player? Time pressure generally adds anxiety and can cause players to make mistakes. It also gives a clear time period to gameplay. Sounds like you don't want that anxiety, but what do you want to introduce? What about lesser amounts of anxiety? Could you have an invisible timer conveyed by dialogue? Jul 13, 2021 at 17:57

There are a lot of tricks you can pull to create the impression of urgency without actually having a real urgency in your game mechanics.

## Writing and presentation

First of all, do not underestimate the power of a well-written and well-presented narrative. Just having NPCs state in a convincing manner that time is running out and the player needs to act fast can create a sense of urgency. It's not like the NPCs have to get specific about how much time there is actually left. "Please rescue me quickly" can imply anything between "Please rescue me within seconds" to "Please rescue me within weeks".

But keep in mind that urgency through narrative alone only works as long as there isn't too much ludonarrative dissonance! One example of ludonarrative dissonance in this case could be to offer the player less urgent sidequests and nobody calling them out for wasting their time with those instead of taking care of the more pressing matters.

Music, sound effects and visual effects can also enhance the sense of urgency by contributing to the atmosphere of the game.

## Giving the impression of a hidden time limit which does not actually exist

If writing and presentation alone are not enough to convey urgency, then there is another trick you can pull to give the player the impression that they are under a hidden time limit while they are actually not: Have scripted events conveying urgency which are triggered by the players progress. Like stuff "spontaneously" breaking on the ship as soon as the player reaches certain milestones in the current puzzle.

The trick is to not trigger those events immediately when reaching a certain milestone, but to do that with a delay of a few seconds. That way the player does not immediately realize that the event was connected to their actions. So the player will assume that the event was triggered by a hidden timer running all the time, and that this timer might trigger more bad stuff if they don't hurry up.

This works even better when said event isn't just cosmetic but actually has an effect on the current puzzle. That way the player will actually believe that they are now suffering from direct consequences of their tardiness, even though that event was going to happen anyway. So they are going to try to act faster in the future. This of course bears the risk that the player might end up sequence-breaking if they are too fast. So only do this when events which matter at the end of the puzzle, but do not affect the beginning. when you have an event which changes a puzzle in a way which starts to matter at stage 3 of said puzzle, start the timer after completing stage 1 but if it hasn't happened yet when completing stage 2, trigger it immediately.

## The number of options available to the player affect the perceived pacing of a scene

And then there is an entirely different trick I recently heard in the development commentary of the point&click adventure series Deponia and which I wholeheartedly agree with:

• If you want a slow scene where the player gets immersed in the world, analyzes the situation and thinks before they act, then give them a lot of options of what to do. Lots of places to go, lots of objects to interact with and multiple ways of interacting with them.
• If you want to have a fast scene with a sense of urgency where the player acts quickly and intuitively, then give the player very few things they can do, perhaps even just one. The player will think and act fast because there is not much for them to think about. This results in the player progressing as fast as the timing you wish to convey.

Note that this effect is most efficient when you regularly switch between the two. The complex scenes will feel more immersive and the simple scenes will feel more urgent. And these two different moods will also bleed into each other. The player will feel the need to act more analytical during the fast scenes and be more confident to act on their intuition during the slow scenes.

• There is a game in a different genre that uses the first point very effectively and in the same manner: the game tells you that if you fail (die) enough times then it is a perma-death. The thing is, the prompt is delivered in a diegetic manner (we hear what the character hears) and the "failure progress" is presented on the character (again, diegetic). Turns out not to be true, but people admit to save-scumming to avoid potentially losing. I think Dead Rising used the timer well in that it didn't end the game by ignoring it, but it upped the stakes allowing the choice to chain activities Jul 1, 2021 at 20:04
• Limits, if not time, what other kinds of limits can you add, an integrety limit is already on your mind. but there are others, an action limit, attempt or "move" limit or similar is one. No limits no pressure. Jul 1, 2021 at 21:17
• Haha, the first part is spot on! One of only two real issues I have with the otherwise great Witcher 3 is exactly this dissonance of main narrative and side-quest gameplay; the main story makes me want to do the main quest fast but then the side-quest gameplay throws nnoying stumbling stones at me - interesting ones, but totally immersion breaking when you're captivated by the main story. Otherwise: All good options. For the last one, I'd add: make the two different types of scenes very obvious, so the player doesn't start looking for options where there are none. Jul 3, 2021 at 0:16
1. Time the overall game (or phase), a middle-ground and less intrusive than timing each turn. This is commonly done in e.g. room-escape games, text adventure games, puzzles. Your final score is determined from a lookup table of 'time to complete', 'hints taken' and 'number of collaborative players' minus any penalties. This reduces things from a hard 'time limit' to a soft time limit. Often scores are quoted as 0-5 stars or 0-20 points or whatever.

• this allows you to have 'soft' time penalties for doing the wrong action, setting off traps or alarms, wasting resources or time etc.
• sometimes you graduate the hints as cryptic, hard, easy, spoonfeeding. Can assign different penalty for each
• you could even have a soft reward: "if you completed Phase (n-1) in < X minutes, you get a clue/helper/object/money/ally/hint/headstart on Phase n" Or just "go online to get some secret ending video/message/flair/badge/highscore board".
2. Audio and visual cues, gradually get more urgent:

• the app companion for FUSE (2-5p real-time coop dice game about defusing bombs) has atmospheric music with audio cues about time ticking or passing, timer beeps, gradually increasing tempo and pitch, raised voices. Listen to it, it is very good.
• the digital implementation of boardgame Pandemic has parallel 'doom tracks' of 0..8 outbreaks (8=fail) and epidemics (increased infection rate, which leads to chain-reaction outbreaks in multiple adjacent cities). The game subtly changes the world map background color according as you get more epidemics, see video @8:30. I think it may also increase the spin speed with which disease cubes are displayed.
• "Time the overall game" made me immediately think of the original "Prince of Persia" game. There was no time limit to a level, and you could die as often as you wanted to - but the game itself was on a one-hour timer. If you can't rescue the princess in one hour, game over. Made for a nice sense of urgency while not artificially telling us "you have to get this jump right in 3 tries / 10 minutes" or such. Jul 2, 2021 at 12:22
• @Syndic If I remember right, prince of persia also made great use of the soundtrack. If I'm not imagining things I felt at some places very pressured for time just by the background sound. Jul 3, 2021 at 0:18
• @Syndic that sounds awfully stressful - after each death you'd be asking yourself "have I screwed myself over yet?" And modern games are longer than an hour, and such a mechanic would render any sort of saving useless. Giving a player a carrot in the form of a higher score for finishing the full game quickly is alright, but beating them with a stick for not doing so is antiquated. Jul 3, 2021 at 13:01
• @MaciejStachowski: that's why I'm recommending the 'star rating' graded-score approach. I don't like platformers. In puzzle games asking for hints incurs penalties.
– smci
Jul 4, 2021 at 4:57
• @MaciejStachowski granted, nowadays this would not be good game design. But in those days, "try, fail, learn from it, repeat until you master the game" was how you did things. Many platformers or shooters were impossible to solve until you died to each ambush and trap at least once (slight exaggeration). So when starting prince of persia, nobody expected to finish the game on the first try - the first dozens of tries were just to learn the first couple levels. Not something you can serve the main target audiences these days, just an interesting anecdote. Jul 4, 2021 at 20:34

I think that the "time is running out" concept is not itself artificial in nature, it just feel artificial when you put a big flashing countdown clock in front of the player. Kind of like how sanity meters in (Lovecraftian) horror games feel artificial if they are too mechanical. But if you make it a lot more fuzzy, then I think it helps immersion.

So you could do something centered around various systems in the rocket failing, with varying impact, and convey urgency through emotional reactions of the astronaut, and/or vital signs, and various other sensor readings, that allow the player to estimate how dire the situation is, etc.

But this is trickier than it sounds. You need to make sure that the game doesn't feel unfair to the player. E.g. you can't make it too random; there needs to be some level of predictability (at least in the statistical sense), so that players can form heuristics (rule-of-thumb "best practices") and strategies. (Hell, you could even throw in a couple of these in the "Operator's Manual" available to the agent). This in turn may mean that you need to rethink your puzzle design - maybe the solutions and failure conditions shouldn't be entirely clear cut. E.g. maybe this calls for allowing several solutions to the same problem, or even emergent solutions. Or maybe a randomized failure event (like a breakdown of some system in the craft that serves to increase the sense of urgency) shouldn't prevent the player from completing the puzzle they are currently working on, but should instead reduce the overall positive impact of them completing it.

Another thing that can be effective to increase tension and drama is to have puzzles that involve making tradeoffs. E.g. in order to fix something, the player has to give up something else, and has to evaluate the cost of that. This also has potential to introduce narrative conflict - e.g. maybe the astronaut disagrees with what the player wants to do. You could expand on that idea in different ways. For example, maybe in the first few introductory levels the astronaut is a calm and experienced person, and their remarks could serve as hints. But in a level (or a scenario) later on in the game, the astronaut could be hurt and scared and could insist on doing something that has an immediate benefit to them, but is not a good long-term strategy. Or they could go completely nuts, demanding from the player to do something completely irrational.

Again, getting this right could be quite challenging, both in terms of modeling these behaviors and in terms of achieving the right balance - so maybe a good way to approach this is to try and make small (possibly throwaway) prototypes to serve as a low-cost way to test these ideas, and learn and make mistakes, before you go all in.

Annoy them after a while. I had a game where I sometimes dropped an angry cow on the board which jumped on your pieces and blocked your view (it was actually programmed to tend to hop towards the piece you were manipulating). Tapping unreliably knocked it away and tapping several times completely removed it, with an extra-long delay for it to come back. So it wasn't any real penalty at all.

As you might guess, at first it was an "attractive failure". I tried to get the cow, stopped playing and watched it, and so on. But after a while I hated the thing and really, really wanted to make a move quickly before the dumb thing plopped itself down and cowed the place up. It was somewhat irregular, which somehow made it even more annoying. Without having any actually effect, it generated time-pressure (and you do not want to get 2-cowed! How bad do you have to be for that?)

• A better type of random annoyance is one that steals a random item/money/food/clue, or blocks movement.
– smci
Jul 4, 2021 at 21:45
• @smci That's another option, but my point here is how an annoyance which has no long-term effect can get the job done. Blocking movement for a few seconds as an animal wanders by is an option, but then it wanders away. Or it sits on a clue and you have to shoo it to reread the clue. Jul 5, 2021 at 0:54

It depends on the nature of the puzzle.

For some types of puzzles, you can think of it in terms of marginal cost and marginal benefit. In other words, what does the player gain by spending more time, vs what do they lose by spending that time.

Suppose a game like the cups and balls. This probably wouldn't normally be considered a "puzzle", but just consider the moving of the cups to be equivalent to any method of obscuring information (which could be done through more "puzzling" logical challenges).

The rules of the game are simply that the player must tell what cup the ball is under after a certain minimum amount of time (and therefore minimum amount of obscurity) has occurred. Now, they can choose to answer at that point, or they can choose to think about it and delay their answer to think it over more. The catch is that if they choose to delay, the cups will periodically be shuffled again and again.

Back to the model of marginal cost and marginal benefit. We can see that in some cases, the player will want to delay so that they can think over their logic to make sure they are confident in their answer. Therefore, we can say there is a marginal benefit to spending more time. For the more time you spend, the greater your confidence will be about which cup is the correct one, and therefore your chances of success increase.

At the same time, we can see that the player doesn't want to spend more time, because every time the cups shuffle, more obscurity is created and the player becomes less confident in what the correct answer is. Therefore, we can say there is a marginal cost to spending more time. For the more time you spend, the lesser your confidence will be about which cup is the correct one, and therefore your chances of success decrease.

Now the puzzle has two opposing forces, both of which will dictate how much time the player is willing to spend. So long as the marginal benefit is greater than the marginal cost, the best course of action (by definition) is to spend more time on the puzzle. In order to put pressure on the player, you want a mechanism whereby the marginal cost will gradually rise and overtake the marginal benefit.

In this case, since the marginal benefit is proportional to the player's problem solving ability, we can consider it to be somewhat constant. The marginal cost, meanwhile, is proportional to how fast the cups are shuffling, which can be precisely controlled (again, this is equivalent to any logical puzzle which obscures the solution, or adds more work). The solution to put pressure on the player then, is to have the shuffling frequency progressively increase.

Consider the chart above. The green line is the marginal benefit of spending time, or the player's solving ability. The red line is the marginal cost, or the rate of obscurity. As long as the green line is higher, the player is gaining progress or confidence in their answer. As long as the red line is ahead, they are losing progress or confidence. As the red gets closer to the green, it may be beneficial on average to keep working, but the potential detriment of individual mistakes also gets higher.

The green line is only dictated by the player's ability to solve the puzzle, but the red line is what you get to control in the design of the game (namely through the difficulty and frequency of puzzles). Use these mechanisms to control the red curve in a way that you think is fair and enjoyable.

• So this is "gradually make it more difficult"? The cup game seems like a not-so-great example. After watching you either think you followed the switches, or you don't know and no amount of thinking will help. Jul 2, 2021 at 2:48
• @OwenReynolds I thought the "cups and balls" would be the simplest example to illustrate the point, but the switching of cups just represents any logic puzzle that creates some obscurity of the true solution. Instead of switching cups, imagine that it's adding steps to a math equation. If you're only 50% sure of your answer, it might be worth it to double check your mental math, but maybe it's not if another step is about to be added. Again, whether this reasoning applies or not depends on the nature of the "puzzle". Jul 2, 2021 at 4:30

Do not present a timer, make it part of what motivates the player.

You are in space with an astronaut - where air is scarce and CO2 needs to be recycled. For that to happen (solar) energy is needed to work the ductwork and provide for the apparatous that removes CO2 / pumps O2 / works the repair drones for ship maintenance.

• the astronaut uses air up: the available O2 storage is slowly decreasing - this provides a slow sense of urgency

• rising CO2 levels will make breathing impossible when ever they reach a certain threshold the air simply is not breathable anymore (real danger)

• energy may be sparse due to malfunctions of solar sails, being shadowed by a moon, malfunctioning energy lines, ...

• microastroids puncture sections, they drain of O2 before shut off
• malfunctions of the CO2 regenerators: CO2 removal is decreased
• contamination: septic line broke, that part of the ship is now poisoned unless cleared
• electricity shortage due to shadow, malfunction, arcing where it should not, solar sail gets punctured, ...
• sometimes good things happen:

• you stumble over an unused O2 container
• solar sails got cleaned by solar winds and work more efficiently
• you are able to deploy some emergency sails
• rerouting energy through those other handwavium paths circumvents burned out sections and more energy reaches the areas it is needed
• you are able to fiddle some rescue capsule battery into your stations system for a boost of energy
• scrubbing the CO2 algae clearing tanks makes them work 110% for some limited time
• a O2 bubble flashes over the puzzle and the player clicks it for some O2 gain
• you defrost your favorite plant and it helps you with CO2->O2 conversion
• you find the prototype of a new kind of spacesuit that has build in recycling capabilities
• certain things might be beneficial (solar eruption -> more energy from solar sails) but on the other hand averse (damages the hydroponic - so less CO2 conversion)
• ...

You got multiple ways to further / diminish urgency - some of them by dropping random O2 bubbles or CO2 cleanups on the player to click it. You can have puzzles related to fixing equipment, gather resources. You can have random events that influence any one of the 3 angles for time pressure - you can even have the player choose: is it better to take the puzzle to get the energy rerouted or to search this darkened section for O2 canisters.

The player needs to balance the 3 things (O2, CO2, Energy) between certain min/max levels and chooses puzzles accordingly - if things get out of those areas change up the game mechanics:

Low energy leads to dimmer / fluctuating lighted screens, low oxygen tints everything in red and makes things on the borders of the screen blurry and wavy. Too much CO2 makes the mouse react sluggish (0.1s) and sometimes needs a second/third click to make things work.

Nothing major - just some influence is enough.

Points decrease after a set amount of time. The faster you player, the more points you make. The longer you take, the less points you get for a correct move.

• I think this is a great idea, but you may want to expand upon it (add explanations of the benefits and drawbacks) in order for it to be seriously considered as an answer. Jul 2, 2021 at 21:27

It should probably be situational and be based on making the situation progressively (with a taper of course) more miserable for the player, the longer they take to solve the puzzle.

In the case you've presented, I might have the astronaut grow progressively more distraught, perhaps they're freaking out because they only have just so much oxygen, or because the fuel is leaking, or whatever, and you're not moving fast enough. Perhaps they start out nagging, then pleading more urgently, then getting desperately loud, and eventually they move up to screaming constantly at you to "FIX THE #^@\$% THING BEFORE I DIE!".

Edit: As someone else suggested, any music playing could amp up with their despair. Also, perhaps they remotely trigger lights and klaxons in your bunker to "get your attention".

It's psychological stress, but no actual time limit is involved.

• Haha. At first I thought you meant make it more miserable for the user, not the character. Might want to clarify :)
– Evorlor
Jul 13, 2021 at 14:44
• @Evorlor - I did mean the user. What is pressure if not unpleasantness that you want to get rid of? Jul 24, 2021 at 2:41