Mechanics I: The Lock and the Key

Locks and keys. They never stop showing up.

I see it a lot in reviews— locks and keys are repetitive, or off-brand, or not in-theme. And that is true. They are repetitive, but that is because they do what they do so well: provide a puzzle. I know folks don’t think of a lock and a key as a puzzle, but that is because they are just very easy puzzles.

For the sake of this blog, I will be using a schema and set of terms for describing my process and work, and this is a good chance to lay out those terms, and also argue for my love of locks at the same time.

Annendum: I do not talk about the ‘fun’ factor much here. I mean, come on, it’s locks and keys. I am starting with the basics here. For fun, see later posts.

Obstacles

The great secret of all our immersive entertainment and game work is to place a series of obstacles before a player or guest, and then some time later, they finish it. The subtext of every conversation I have with a player of any game is this:

Me: I hope you enjoyed doing this strange set of actions and tasks today.

Player: I did! I was uncertain before, but very curious. While I now know all the secrets you mostly kept from me, I now feel smarter / excited / more capable than before / amused by the amount of nerdy attention you gave to this production (choose 1 or more).

Me: That was my explicit goal.

Player: Although I am about an hour (or insert time of game here) closer to death than I was before, what you did to distract me during that time felt productive, even if it wasn’t.

Me: I am glad to arbitrarily test you and be paid for it. Tell your friends to come be arbitrarily tested as well.

Stripped down like that, it sounds oddly bleak. But it is what we do. Make obstacles. Those things that take up time, mental energy, attention, or more. Weirdly enough, it is exactly what we are paid for at a foundational level. They are puzzles, doors, performed scenes, dialogue, videos, sounds, jump-scares, illusions, distractions, and, of course, locks and keys.

In this case, the obstacle is the lock itself. We see the lock and know we must open it. We want to open it. Doesn’t matter what kind, but a key lock, in particular, gets our attention. We say to ourselves ‘only a fool would ignore this lock. I know this because I feel that I am an expert on locks. I have seen their kind before.’ It is a goal to complete, and we will spend time doing whatever is needed to get it open, and feel that it may be ‘worth it’, depending on what is on the other side. Yet opening the lock itself, for many, is satisfactory. It is a physical moment of accomplishment. I see many guests fight over who’s turn it is to open the next lock.

While it doesn’t get its own section, obstacles almost always involve containers. The spaces the obstacles obstruct. Doors or chests or whatever. Usually we put rewards inside. Or nothing, when we are particularly awful.

Components

The other part is the key. It is somewhere, and perhaps we are maddened by its absence. I once heard a player say they ‘loved’ the key once they found it. I understood this on a fundamental level.

When faced with an obstacle, sometimes we need a component to complete it. This extends to any number of objects needed to complete an obstacle, but for this example, there is just the key. Simple as that.

Keep in mind that components are not always physical. A code or riddle is a component, although it may be a more difficult component to use.

Tasks

It is not enough to have a key and a lock, and this is where the puzzle part sneaks in. We must identify,if we somehow can with are giant mammal brains, that the key goes in the lock. Besides this feeling obvious (and it isn’t— I have had countless individuals try jamming a key against clearly solid surfaces), it is the part that makes what is happening a puzzle. You can even tie the key to the lock, and I argue it is still a puzzle. It, again, is just massively easy to do. All puzzles require a task, the part where you ‘do something’. In this case it may be just putting a key in a lock and turning it (But which way is it oriented? Which way do I turn it? Should I run to the other side of the room and try the other lock first rather than the one in front of me, thus wasting time? Yeah, I should do that.).

Direction

It may come intuitively, or through a component, but the players also need direction. With a lock and key, it comes intuitively because we are used to the obstacle and task and component needed. Something that looks like a lock gives direction. Finding something that looks like a key gives direction. Finding both and remembering, somehow, what they might do together is a direction.

This is very different from the task, and where my schema might get contentious for some. The task is always the action, while direction is always what helps define it. A message on the wall saying ‘put the key in the darn lock you fools’ is a direction. Looking at your
fellow fools, shrugging, and doing what the wall says is the task.

Puzzle Type

Another part of my schema is using some keywords to help summarize the common interactions of a puzzle (obstacle, component, task, direction). While I contend that all puzzles have the above, not all puzzles have the specific types below, usually helping define one of the four above parts. Let me touch upon them in brief. Note that many overlap and interplay, but try to express some common facets of the obstacles we make for players and guests.

Observational: Either the component or obstacle identified through a physical sense, often sight, before it can be used (e.g. A key is hanging on a peg on the wall). This one applies to just about every puzzle.

Locative: Either the direction, component, or obstacle is hidden, and must be found through more than simple observation (e.g. Now the key is under a table).

Manipulative: The task involves moving components or obstacles physically (e.g. Turning the key in the lock).

Logical: The task involves understanding components, directions, or obstacles mentally (e.g. The hole for the lock must be revealed through a series of sliding tiles).

Motive: The task uses the player as a component or obstacle (e.g. The key only appears when a player stands in the right spot).

Coding: The task involves turning one component into another component (e.g. The key folds shut and must be altered to become the real component). This most often has to do with code locks.

Interactive: The task involves a staff member (e.g. The players must bribe the staff member for the key).

Connective: A component is split into similar pieces and separated, adding an additional task of combining them (e.g. The key is split in half in some weirdo way, and must be reattached before using it. To be fair, I have never seen such a key).

Semantic: A direction or component is disguised through word-play or trivia knowledge (e.g. The location of the key is alluded to through a riddle).

I throw the above words around quite freely. Some more often than others. For a lock and key, I would call it a manipulative and observational puzzle, and perhaps locative, if the key is hidden.

Familiarity

This is where the lock and key gets a bad name. Familiarity is a massive part of the design, and necessary at times to gauge difficulty. This is because familiarity with a puzzle is a type of direction.

I had this happen when I saw a puzzle involving a scale. The moment I saw it, I felt the direction come in. Not the direction to use the scale to weigh things and see what number I got, that was intuitive. It was that the scale was electronic, and needed to be tared (reset to account for its own error). This was because I was familiar with electronic scales as components in real life, and knew to tare it. As my group finished the room rather quickly, the staff noted that players don’t often tare, and are reminded to, or might find a later clue that gives that direction. But I was able to give myself direction, because of familiarity.

Keys and locks are familiar. It is why we don’t have to explain how they work (usually— I am often impressed when this hypothesis is tested). Players get bored by them. They get more bored when there are multiple locks, and the task becomes ‘try the key in every lock’. The mystery of the experience is totally gone. You see a lock, and think ‘well there is a key hidden around here somewhere’ and even if the key is hidden in the mouth of a dragon or whatever, a player still comes out saying, ‘Hey, I know you didn’t solicit this feedback, but there were too many locks.’

Because of that, there are some obvious takeaways: Limit lock usage. Attach locks to bigger or weirder things, so players ignore the lock in favor of what they are opening. Be picky about lock types. Use unusual locks, or things that don’t look like locks or keys. Certainly don’t have one key open a bunch of locks, or give them a ring of keys to search through.

Why I Love Key Locks

I get why locks are tough. I don’t want to seem unoriginal, but I do see solutions that continue to surprise me. It goes back to the puzzle types above. I mean, until writing this post, I didn’t think of a key that came in two pieces. I know what I will be working on next.

The familiarity can be messed with very easily, and you can get away with it. Hide the lock rather than the key. Make them convince a staff member for the key. Give a key with a keychain, and it is the keychain that opens something, not the key. Mess with expectations. The easiest way to keep an object from a player is a clear obstacle on some container.

I would just push that, every time you add a lock, match it. Find something non-lock to have in there. Consider how the task can be altered. The key is stuck in a maze. The key is on a string. The lock is blocked. The lock is out-of-reach.

Key locks provide incredibly clear direction to players, so much so they even become blinded to whatever else is going on. The are a standard— all your puzzles and tasks and experiences can be held against the measuring stick that is the lock and the key. I find this useful in making a puzzle harder or easier. The less the component and obstacle both look like a lock and a key, the sooner the player is left scratching their head or peeling up floorboards. As you tweak it, or the players finish the puzzle, the truth should dawn on them that they are almost there, that they are about to succeed at something, even something very small. The sooner they see they are holding the key to some potential lock, the sooner they say ‘Ah ha!’ -JN

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