Preventing Backtracking


Back in the early days of Adventure Games, backtracking was almost seen as a design feature.

Trekking through the forest, back through previously visited areas to get to a previously visited destination to do something you couldn’t do before because you didn’t have a specific item-well that was par for the course.

The main reason for backtracking is that it artificially lengthens the game, because time being spent going through already created areas is ‘free’. You have already created those assets, so you are extending the time the player spends in the world for no input on the side of the designer.


Now in the so called ‘golden age’ of AG’s, where things like ‘Walking Deads (where if you are missing one item, you cannot complete the game-but there is no way to obtain the item once you have passed an area), and highly obtuse ‘ I need to buy the hint book for this’ puzzles were common place, backtracking was a design choice. But no more. Personally, I think that its a cheap trick, and something that has no place in a modern adventure game. People no longer have the luxury of spending 3 months on an Adventure Game, nor do can we, as game designers, expect them to. Now I’m not saying that we need to pander to the lower common denominator, and start making McAdventure Games for the every-man, but we must keep in mind that our audience has changed. We OWE it to our customers to create the BEST EXPERIENCE POSSIBLE, and to make sure that their precious time ISN’T WASTED.


One thing that I have spoken about before is using big AAA titles as a reference for how to do things. For all of the flack that those large titles get within the indie community, we can learn a LOT from them, in terms of making a slick, polished product that has appeal.

While playing through Dead Space 1 a while back, I noticed how little back tracking I was doing. So I started to really study how they got rid of it. Now, you do have certain ‘home bases’ in Dead Space that you revisit, and that form as almost spokes of a wheel to your other destinations. Dead Space works by showing you a problem, and then sending you on your way to solve it (very much like an Adventure Game). But I don’t ever remember long times of walking through areas where that you have already cleared out. The wonder of a new area was kept, because you never went back there. It exists as a memory, which is much more visceral over time than reality.


Their approach to the problem is actually remarkable simple. Doors. In Dead Space, one thing that always shows up in any level are the doors. They are similar in design, with the exception of the holographic icon showing a door being locked or open. When you enter into an area, the door closes behind you. Somewhere in that area will be another door, that has a red lock icon on it, making it impassable. Once you have completed your objective in the room, the door that you entered into becomes locked, and the other door becomes unlocked. There is no internal logic as to why (sure sometimes, they will have an NPC say something like “I managed to get the office door open”, but when you are playing through the game, generally you just don’t notice it. The doors look the same, except for the hologram. Once it changed, you automatically see that as your exit, ignoring the door that was your entrance.

It is an extremely simple and effective way of keeping your game moving forward. Now I’m not saying that you should have NO back tracking. Sometimes it can be a very effective design tool-but only when its used as a design tool, and not as a way of adding length and time to your game.

  • Jim

    I know I appreciate having my game experience feel valuable and intentionally crafted. It is not only cheap to keep sending me back to the same areas, those are also the times I’m most likely to quit a game. If I get stuck once again within the same area where I’ve been in the past it only amplifies that feeling of being stuck. That in turn leads to me eventually giving up.

    I’m glad you’re carefully thinking through all aspects of the game play experience.

  • Chris

    I’ve always thought that I’m making STASIS for me. Its the type of game that I would get excited about, and that I want to play – so I’m really looking at every puzzle, room, and part of the game experience from the point of view of a player!

    I’ve generally kept a ‘3 room’ theory with regards to puzzles, which is something I’d be happy to write about later on (if people are interested). In a nutshell, everything you need to solve a specific puzzle is in a 3 room radius of that specific obstacle. Its usually closer, but never further. This keeps the game tight, and stops the endless ‘walking around too much’ gameplay that sometimes plagues Adventure Games.

  • Rust

    I dunno… System Shock 2 pulled off backtracking pretty well.

  • Chris

    Oh yeah-it has been done before, and been done correctly. But more often than not, its done in a ‘were gonna milk this for everything’ kinda way.
    Granted I’m more focused on Adventure Games when I come up with the gameplay mechanics-other games can still inject certain elements into the games to make backtracking work. Different monsters to eat you, powerups that are only available when moving back through a space, etc.

  • Brakespear

    I think the backtracking thing is a very mixed issue. As “Rust” mentioned above; System Shock 2 managed it very well. Backtracking to retrieve chemicals for research in that game became a new source of fear; somehow, the fact that you had “cleared” a deck made it creepier when you returned to it. The fact that you *could* go back also made it feel more like an actual ship, and less like a dungeon level. Which is what it was, deep down.

    Similarly, the Dead Space franchise handled most of its backtracking quite well (and there was quite a lot of it) by either throwing new jump scares at you (repeatedly) on the return journey, or by changing the environment to reflect a story event.

    But yeah…having to run aaall the way back to pick up one arbitrary item, or to unlock a door you arbitrarily couldn’t open earlier, is a right pain in the arse.

    Unless you can do it well, backtracking *does* tend to be the result of lazy design.