In that vast nebulous category of games we ill-define as adventure games, there are two fundamental problems that the designer can make, and indeed, does make. This is natural and acceptable, because we all make mistakes, but these mistakes are the sort of thing you need to move past, or recognise and think around.
These are both problems of conveyance, and I summarise them as Cheesegrater Problems and Clawhammer Problems.
The game’s giving you some freedom. You can probably move between a few locations, and poke at puzzles that seem unrelated to one another. There are items in your inventory that you’re pretty sure relate to things, but you can’t quite work out what does and doesn’t work. You’ve tried all the options you can think of, you don’t know what you’ve missed, so you take that one object in your inventory that you’re pretty sure will interact with things – you can’t tell how – and you try it on everything.
This happens when you have a non-obvious device that surely has to interact with things, and the player starts to consider it as a game item and not as a thing that exists in the world. The player gets frustated, runs out of possible options for what they can do to progress, and they start to try anything. When this happens, players will usually take the item they are pretty sure will interact with anything, and it should do something. Without any guidance of how to proceed, then, they look through items for the one thing that’s most likely to let them progress, and they’ll usually do that, lacking other guidance, by eliminating things they’ve already used or know will work for a particular reason.
And so, you have a character roaming the world, rubbing their metaphorical cheesegrater on everything, trying to find the one thing that it’s actually meant to react to.
I’ve written a more interactive piece on this problem. Simply put, the Clawhammer problem is when you present a player with an item that’s so obviously useful in a huge number of contexts, and then let them keep it. A swiss army knife. A smartphone. A gun. A knife, a crowbar, a rope ladder, a grappling hook.
There are few things more frustrating in a videogame than holding a knife, and standing before a rope that you need to cut, and knowing that the game isn’t going to let you cut it unless you cut it with the pair of scissors that you haven’t got yet.
Cheesegrater problems come when the player doesn’t have a clear path to proceed. Clawhammer problems come when the player does have a clear path to proceed, and you don’t want to let them use it.
The Root Of The Problem
The nature of the inventory-driven, puzzle-solving adventure game is one where many entities, normally complex and emergent, are reduced to keys that open specific doors, and their simplicity means that there are mistakes that come when you look at the items as game entities, and not as objects within the world.
You’re going to use your characters as a lens for the world. How they react to things, what they interact with, those things express who they are. Guybrush Threepwood can carry a gun but probably never point it at a human because he’s a gigantic wuss, and Ben can carry a laptop and never use it to unlock a digital lock unless he’s wedging it in the door. You need to have a clear idea of these things – both why a character does them, and why they wouldn’t.