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"The Legend of Kyrandia I" in terms of flow and pleasure

Submitted by Jakob on 29 September, 2006 - 15:42.My Blog | Computer & Video Games | Human-Computer Interaction | Psychology | Usability

I occasionally indulge in computer games. It is not something I do regularly, but I'm always on the lookout for new titles that seem promising and spend my money on those instead of buying what's popular. I love the games that do not get as much attention as they deserve, but are brilliant and in many ways better than the big selling titles. Sometimes I play old games, often adventure games, just to marvel at the graphics or at what the game creators achieved with the limited hardware they had in those days. One of my all time favorite classic titles is the first of the Kyrandia games from Westwood Studios.

The Legend of Kyrandia (Book One as it was later called) is in many ways naive, that it's aimed at younger adolescents is clear, not that I mind as I've always considered it important to play regardless of your age. The naivete shows rather in the game's design, as if the designer made his or her first adventure game, and had little experience to rely on. Language is also moderated and though there's not really any graphic violence the hero of the game can suffer several gruesome deaths depending on your actions. In a way the game seems amateurish, the story deep as a puddle feeling a bit like your standard fantasy tale, which may just have been the intention. The failings in its game design also shows in its puzzles which do not connect well to the story at all and make it all seem rather haphazard, or even ad hoc.

The Beauty

Despite its shortcomings, I love this game for its music and graphics and the often surprising and fun cutscenes and animations. It's a lush world with beautifully painted views and landscapes, forests and caves, many which feature superb 3D pre-rendered anti-aliased beautifully rendered in the limited 256 color palette. It shows a high level of artistic talent, the kind of talent and style that we don't often see in games nowadays. Westwood's top notch artistic team really set the bar in the industry, and it's clear if you look at titles such as the Kyrandia games, Dune II and Command & Conquer.

The Beast

Sadly though it seems Westwood's game designers had very sketchy ideas about what it took to make a good adventure game. While graphics and music, as well as voice acting is very important, they will not break a game like poor gameplay and Kyrandia has its share of bad and good. The bad will however outweigh the good more often than not, and frustrate a lot of players.

We have to take into account that this is a fourteen year old game and game design has come far since then. When I played it now again, and before I continue I must express my gratitude to the ScummVM team since I played it again thanks to the excellent ScummVM engine which allowed me to play the game in Windows XP without having to mess with DosBox or bringing one of my old computers back to life.

Playing it I reflected over the failings and why they were and how they related to some basic tenets of adventure game design because several of the failings of the game are fundamental flaws. In fact, I realized that these tenets have a lot to do with usability principles, of supporting the user, and anticipating actions as far as possible. Kyrandia 1 deviates from these principles in several ways, and by learning why and how we can see how adventure games can become better at being fun than being just plain frustrating which they often are. In fact, many of the rules I list below are broken by many modern adventure games which might explain why these games are losing popularity.

Gameplay Issues and Rules of Adventure Games

My critique of Kyrandia I consists of several points that are all related and have one thing in common: irrevocability - what has been done cannot be undone. It can be redone but redoing it will cause a lot of frustration, negative emotions and quite the opposite to what the game should, and is intended, induce in the player. Further, each point is expressed as a rule of good adventure game design. Rules are, as they say, meant to be broken and nothing's chiseled in stone, but as they also say, you need to know the rules before you can break them right.

Death and Replay

By making the wrong move, or clicking the wrong spot at the wrong time you can die, irrevocably so. An old rule is to save often, but many new players don't, and there's no auto save feature. Having come far only to die because you happened to click on a pair of yellow eyes in a scene forcing you to replay the game only causes frustration. As a rule, I don't. When I was a kid I uses to replay games only to beat one level boss, I don't anymore, I put it away and focus on something else. Forcing replay can be okay if the rules of the game are clear, "if you die you have to start over". A game that's designed in such a way that our hero can die at any point without any warning to the player has been poorly designed. Let me also say that if some prick in Westwood Studios's old PR department said this failing extended the game's "replayability" or "total playing time", he most certainly should be fired.

Rule: In adventures games, players should not be able to die unless given fair warning or the game automatically saves first.

Tidying Up Kyrandia

Many of the quests in Kyrandia I requires certain items, these items can be found throughout the game and if you're smart you keep them. Your pockets can only hold ten items at a time forcing you to drop items, again if you're smart you have place to keep them all collected. For what seems to be technical reasons, a scene can only hold so many items so keeping them all in one spot isn't working either. Also, players aren't always comfortable with dropping items knowing it means they could disappear. Indeed in some games items dropped on the ground disappear after a while or after you quit the game. This means that when you've played the game for a while you will have collected lots of items, many of them gemstones in all sizes and colors of unknown purpose (another issue I will discuss later) and you will be forced to drop items as you pick up new. Eventually you will have items spread throughout the game and when you finally discover that you need one of those items to finish a quest you need to search for it. Now wouldn't it have been smarter to give Brandon (the hero) a rucksack and save the player a lot of frustration?

Rule: Allow the player enough inventory space to carry all the items he/she needs to complete the game.

What's All this Junk For?

Like I mentioned earlier, you get lots and lots of items. Emeralds, peridots, onyxes, sapphires, diamonds, rubies, garnets, aquamarines and lots of other gemstones. You will only need a few of these to finish the quests. In one quest you need to do some matching, figure out what gemstone to put when and where but once you've completed it I'm wondering what the rest are for. Decoration perhaps? I love gemstones, they're pretty, I have no problems with them but it adds to the aforementioned problem. The game should get rid of them, let someone rob Brandon of some of his possessions, that would be a nice plausible way to lose them!

Rule: Do not give the player more items than her or she needs, fewer items means less combinations and that makes it easier to figure out what to do in order to complete quests.

Destroying Items

Another not so well-thought-out feature is that the game allows you to lose and destroy items. You can lose items required to complete quests in the game and the game doesn't stop you. Well one might think a player should be wise enough not to throw stuff away and if they do, make a save point before so they can go back but I think that's asking too much.

What's worse however is that some quests result in items being destroyed, items you need later in the same quest, which means you need to save the game before and reload until you use the right item. This also assumes the player has some sort of "I know when it's wise to save the game"-intuition, which again is unreasonable.

Equally bizarre, or rather not so brainy, is that you can destroy items and you're being encouraged to do it too. If you find an apple, you can eat it, ending up with a useless apple core. Brandon even makes a stupid comment about a good snack and keeps complaining about being hungry. How surprised aren't you when you realize you needed that apple to haggle with an obnoxious faun! How you wish you'd saved before you ate that apple outside the cave!

Rule: Do not allow items that are necessary for the completion of quests to be destroyed, or altered to such extent that they become useless.

Too Puzzling Puzzles

Adventures games usually consist of a series of quests, and quests can consist of one or several puzzles. A good adventure game offers enough hints to give the player a clue what to do. Kyranda I doesn't and the player is usually forced to either find an FAQ or walkthrough or try every permutation to figure out the right combination. The potion making quest in the game suffers from this problem. Brandon complains that he doesn't know what's he's supposed to do and why his friend who's wise in the ways of magic doesn't have any written recipes! Well duh! Did the game designer decide to mock the player?

Rule: Puzzles are puzzles, not combination locks. Offer hints, or better yet devise a system that offers more and more hints as the player struggles with the task. The game Max Payne altered the difficulty based on the player's performance which made the game very fun to play, never making it too hard or too easy, and I think it's something adventure game designers need to look into. After all, the game is meant to be enjoyable for everyone and not supposed to be a test.

So what's wrong with replay and frustration?

Replay is not always wrong but it depends entirely on what kind of game you're making. The replaying was an integral part of the platform console games on the NES and Sega Genesis consoles, the players were aware of it, it was part of the challenge of beating the game and added to the euphoria when you finally did.

Adventure games are a different breed, and players play them for entirely different reasons. Replaying an adventure game is very repetitive, not still challenging in ways of reaction time or trigger finger speed like most platform games, but just a pattern of going there, doing that etc. In adventure games, replay must be avoided at all costs since it only causes frustration.

As for frustration, it's entirely down to the player but most players do not like being frustrated, especially in the spare time when they intend to relax with a fun game. Frustration is a common problem in HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) and there are hundreds if not thousands of theories on how to anticipate and deal with it. People's threshold for frustration varies however and a player may not be as tolerant towards a game as he or she is against his word processor application.

As for games, it all boils down to a very simple rule: games are applications that are designed to offer pleasure and stimulation, a game that isn't pleasurable to play is not a game. A good game allows the player to reach a mental state by some researchers referred to as "flow", meaning the player is entirely focused on the task and remains in that state for a long time, one-two hours even, without paying attention to anything else. Being in a state of flow is very positive, the player has a sense of control and in research experiments, one of which I've taken part as a test participant, many positive emotions have been reported as being attributed the flow state of mind. The spell can however be broken, and very easily. A program crash, a game bug or annoying and frustration game design flaw will take the player out of the flow mental state, resulting in a negative response.

A lot of research is being done on flow in order to learn how to induce it by looking at games and applications that do so successfully and by incorporating those principles in applications which people find frustrating and boring to work with. If you're interested in learning more, see the links at the end of the article.


Despite my heavy criticism, Kyrandia I is quite an interesting and fun game after all since you can get around a lot of the frustrating item chasing by using the "give" debugger console command in ScummVM to directly add any item at any time. Some may call it cheating but you're only cheating yourself of things that aren't fun such as replaying big parts of the game. By skipping the bad and annoying parts you can enjoy the game's true qualities such as its music and artwork.

The game is also an interesting subject of study in the art and science of adventure game design. By looking at it we can learn a valuable lesson by gaining insight into what in this game that works and what doesn't. Game creators should learn from its beautiful graphics and environments, animations, the characters' weird antics, and relatively good voice acting. The voice acting was rather unique at the time of its release even though it was only available in the CD-ROM version due to the limited storage capacity of diskettes.

Game designers should look at how this game fails to make sure the player has fun all the time by encouraging the player to irrevocable actions that, unless you have saved recently, might lead to a lot of boring and frustrating replay time if you intend to finish the game. It is also interesting to see that many of the rules that Kyrandia I fails to meet are well incorporated into modern adventure games such as Dreamfall which I reviewed a few months ago, but even Dreamfall features puzzles that are almost impossible to crack, puzzles that lack sufficient hints, puzzles you cannot solve without resorting to testing permutations. In fact, it seems the adventure game designers have some way to go before adventure games are as enjoyable as they could be. In the process of getting there I think they would do right to look into modern HCI research and the theory of flow and how they need to design games to support flow rather than prevent it.


Here are some links to sites with related information.

Articles about flow

These are of varying quality and expresses many differents points of view on flow, some of which I do not agree with. Some is pure psuedo-science but each to his own and whatever floats your boat! :)

Information about Kyrandia I, screenshots, reviews and information on where you can get it and the ScummVM game engine

Frank Klepacki's site

Very talented composer of the soundtracks of most Westwood titles. The site features an audio player at the bottom of the page. Scroll the left-most menu to the bottom to find "Legend of Kyrandia". You can now play all the songs from the game

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