Balancing the difficulty of puzzles in a videogame can be tricky. While other aspects of the game difficulty can be balanced by adjusting settings such as health and damage points, time limits, number of opponents and so on, with puzzles it's often a case that either you "get it" or you don't. Developers want to make sure that their games aren't too easy to be fun but they don't want players getting stuck on a puzzle and ending up having to choose between Unwinnable or Guide Dang It!.
So in order to include puzzles hard enough for the Hard Core while still giving all players a good chance of beating the game without resorting to a guide, the developer can include a Hint System. It can either give players a small nudge in the right direction or smack them upside the head with the board of knowledge and show them the full solution. Many systems will give progressively more helpful hints until the player catches on, so as to give as little help as they can and therefore preserve as much of the satisfaction of beating the puzzle as possible.
It should be noted that Fan Dumb in general loathes these- even though their purpose would seem to be to help casual players get through less-than-casual games, they will be attacked as automatically making a game far too easy. The fact that it's optional will not deter them.
There are a number of different forms a hint system can take:
- Hint on request: The player has control over when they receive hints, and so can choose to keep plugging away forever or give up immediately as they prefer.
- Hint for payment: Like the above, except the player doesn't get the hint for free, they have to pay some sort of in-game currency in return for help. (Real world currency for help is usually either a help-line or Bribing Your Way to Victory). Particularly annoying when the help you pay for is useless, although it is usually possible to use Save Scumming to buy the hint and then reload your game to get your money back.
- Hint on delay: The game has some sort of timer to track how long you're taking. Take too long and the game assumes that you're stuck and need a hint. Can come across as annoyingly pushy if the player is just spending time exploring or admiring the scenery.
- Hint on failure: If there is some way to fail at a puzzle other than just taking too long (often death) then after a certain number of failures the game starts handing out hints. Can be insulting to players, as much like Easy-Mode Mockery it's basically the game saying that it thinks you suck so much you need help.
- Hint on loading: Random hints that may appear on the loading screen, so as to kill you time while providing useful information. Can be pretty annoying if the loading is too quick, while there are no means to view them outside a loading screen. Some games collect all these hints, and urges you to collect them all.
The hints themselves might appear as text on the screen, your Exposition Fairy making a suggestion or some sort of visual clue such as a glow around the object you need next. Player Nudge is an one-time version of this.
Compare Strategy Guide.
Video Game Examples:
- Later The Legend of Zelda games have some sort of adviser reminding you where to go next.
- Say what you will about the annoyance of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time's Navi, at least she'll point you in the right direction if you wander around enough.
- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past both have a fortune teller who can provide hints for a fee, either on where to go next or where to find Heart Pieces.
- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and the 3DS remake of Ocarina of Time before it, both have the Sheikah Stone, who tells you how to do anything from completing sidequests to fighting bosses if you're having trouble with them.
- Finally, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has the same Fortune Teller as A Link to the Past, who offers useful-if-simple hints for a Rupee fee, and the much more helpful Hint Ghosts, which can only be seen if you wear the Hint Glasses and give direct clues in exchange for a Play Coin.
- Tomb Raider: Underworld has a Hint on request system, though it is of dubious benefit.
- In Ōkami, you can buy hints from the fortune teller about where to go next.
- An Untitled Story features a crystal ball that, for increasing price, will give you hints for finding hearts.
- DeathSpank uses collectible Fortune Cookies to unlock hints about how to progress with quests.
- The Video Game Remake of La-Mulana has Xelpud continually sending Lemeza hints by e-mail. Xelpud also lampshades this by complaining about video games that do this.
- The Speris Legacy has a cat who keeps turning up all over the game world, giving out hints for money.
- In the Xbox 360 installment of the Onechanbara series, death is met with a few tips which are apparently randomly generated, often having little to do with how you died or which stage you were playing.
- Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom would display hints in captions when the player died ("Whip the Thuggee guards!") or needed to make a decision ("Use the swing post at the back wall").
- The Matrix: Path of Neo has on-scren hints for difficult tasks and new moves, sometimes an Exposition Fairy gives a hint out.
- Hotline Miami has a random tip show up before each level, such as "You can shoot through some walls" or "Recklessness is rewarded." This gets an Interface Screw before the "Trauma" chapter, where you character wakes up from a coma; the "tips" showing up before this chapter include selections such as "You're all alone now" or "Stop breathing".
- Machinarium grants you puzzle-solving hints after playing a mini-game.
- The Special Edition of The Secret of Monkey Island has a built in hint system.
- Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure has a Hint on payment system, where the player buys hint coupons to be redeemed later.
- Telltale Games' Sam & Max: Freelance Police games use the "hint on delay" variant. The hints aren't exactly straightforward, though. Dawdling can be fun.
"There's gotta be a way to get a baby to sleep. Without the use of alcohol, that is."
"It's very impolite of that jerk to bust in while we're ransacking his compartment. He could at least wait outside 'til we're through."
- The DS remake of Broken Sword uses the on request variant, with more hints being available over time.
- Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People has a setting to change the frequency of hints. One of the episodes even requires you to have the hints set on "high" at one point for 100% Completion. Also, some of the Drive-Thru Whale's bizarre ramblings are actually cryptic hints. In "Strong Badia the Free", "Immolate your brother, please" indicates you need to burn the flag, constitution, and bill of rights of Strong Sad's country Bleak House in order to conquer it.
- Phantasmagoria lets you click on the Hintkeeper whenever you want, although he warns you that too many will spoil the game.
- Hector: Badge of Carnage uses a hint system that first redirects the player to Hector's partner, Lambert, for some subtle hints. If the player asks for more details, the game will switch to the full-on hint system, which constantly insults the player.
- Myst IV has a hint system which gives different levels of hints in case the player doesn't want to be completely spoiled. Level 1 usually gives you just the most basic idea of what the puzzle is about, level 2 gets more involved and can tell you where to find the clues you need, while level 3 is just a walkthrough of the puzzle. Notably, this actually effects the game to a minor degree. At some point you have to earn the blessing of a spirit guide to enter the Dream World; the guide you get will be either water, air or fire, depending on how many hints you've used.
- The Sierra hint line (see below) was mocked in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. On the jungle of Dinky Island, if Guybrush gets completely lost he will eventually find a pay phone hooked up to a tree, which he can call and ask for advice. The operator will sarcastically answer any inane questions and insult his inability to figure out the solution. If pressed, he will tell you how to get back where you started (just walk offscreen), but not how to solve the puzzle.
- The series Drawn has a system where if you get stuck you can click on the portrait of Franklin and he will give you hints. In the first game once you click for one hint you have to wait quite a while before you can click again; this waiting period is done away with in the sequel.
- The Tex Murphy games series has a hint guide built into the game itself. Each incremental hint cost a certain number of points (gained by solving puzzles) and the system was structured so that it was impossible to "look ahead". Meanwhile, Martian Memorandum has a "Help" option, which, when clicked, allows you to choose any object in the room (including ones you haven't found yet) and tells you exactly what you're supposed to do with it.
- In I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, every character has a psych profile provided by AM that contains information about them as well as actual hints regarding what to do. Problem is, seeing that AM knows the characters so well is a hit on their sanity.
- In Yesterday you can ask for a hint if you are stuck.
- Metroid Prime has an optional hint system that prompts you with the next location to visit in order to progress.
- BioShock has an on demand hint system if you get stuck.
- Left 4 Dead and its sequels have tips that appear during the loading screen when moving onto the next level. VS mode also have tips for its game mode.
- BlazBlue: Continuum Shift added a feature/skit series to the game called Help Me! Professor Kokonoe! as a Hint on Failure system. Should the player finish a character's story mode route on a Bad Endingnote the characters are brought to the Boundary (the in-game World of the Dead) so that Kokonoe can basically tell that character what they did wrong and give them clues on how to get their Golden Ending.
- Sierra used to make a bundle off selling hints for its adventure games. There was a hint hotline you could call for a fee, and they sold hint books where the hints were written in invisible ink and you could reveal them with a special marker. Hints were given gradually, starting with subtle hints and progressing to an outright walkthrough solution. Later, the invisible ink was replaced with an obscuring grid of red lines and you used a translucent red window to read them. To avoid spoiling the game with the questions alone, some of the questions would always be fake ones - and if you read the hints for a fake question, the hint book would mock you. This is parodied in Space Quest IV, where at one point, in order to advance, Roger has to buy the Space Quest IV hint book in-game, which is styled exactly like Sierra's actual hint books, fake questions and all.
- Today there is uhs-hints.com, a website that hands out hints for popular games in the gradual manner, beginning with subtle hints and progressing to more obvious ones. They make money selling their offline UHS Reader software. (This system has been around since the early-mid-90s; they only more recently retooled their product as a website.)
- Donkey Kong Country had this in the form of Cranky's Cabin. Cranky Kong would, in between grumblings on how much better games were back in his day, drop hints. In the sequel Diddy's Kong-Quest, Cranky opened the Monkey Museum and his wife Wrinkly Kong ran the Kong Kollege, where players could pay for hints. While Cranky's tips were on finding Plot Coupons, Wrinkly's hints were more general, such as beating certain enemies.
- Sonic the Hedgehog usually has a supporting character do it on failure of after reaching a certain part of a stage. In the Sonic Adventure series there are hint monitors on the treasure hunting stages. Up to three hints can be used on a single emerald shard and they get more obvious with each hint.
- Nintendo's "Super Guide" feature, used in several games including New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and Donkey Kong Country Returns, allows a player who has failed a level enough times to allow the game to run through the level- you can either let the game finish the whole thing or jump in in the middle to try from a later point. In either case 100% Completion still requires you to do the whole thing with no help at some point. That said, Miyamoto himself has stated that while he loves using the feature in games, he has the same reaction many gamers have to seeing that box/screen pop up.
- Super Mario Galaxy has one secret star in every main galaxy. Thankfully, if you've done all three main missions without finding it, the game will show you which particular mission it can be found in (unless Luigi needs to be rescued. But then again, he'll send you a letter when that happens.). Also, some of the purple coin missions will provide some handy hints, such as one NPC in Sea Slide Galaxy informing you that (thankfully) no purple coins are placed underwater (so very, very thankfully). Guess Nintendo learned their lesson after the infamous Blue Coins in Super Mario Sunshine.
- Alia in the Mega Man X series gives hints about what to do next. Unfortunately, they were unskippable in the first game she was in (Mega Man X5), popping up while the player was in the middle of something to point out something incredibly obvious and forcing the player to stop, even if he was in the middle of jumping over instant-death spikes. Later games had her hints be optional.
- In Mischief Makers, if you shake the pink Clancer Ms. Hint, she will provide a hint in exchange for 10 Red Gems.
- Super Mario Odyssey has three different methods of obtaining hints to moons: Hint Toad (pay 50 coins and the location of a moon will be marked on the map), Uncle amiibo (tap an amiibo figures and, five minutes later, the location of a moon will be marked on the map for free), and Talkatoo (gives you the titles of up to three moons at a time for free, which may help find them).
- Bejeweled, Puzzle Quest and probably many other gem-matching games will indicate a possible match if you take too long to make a move.
- Professor Layton:
- The games use the "hint on payment" system, using coins you find across the game world. Each puzzle has three progressively-better hints, each costing one coin each (the third game introduces Super Hints after these three which cost two coins and usually consist of solving half the puzzle for you).
- The weekly download puzzles aren't connected to the hint coins, so they use a hint on request system instead. Miracle Mask's daily puzzles, however, offer no hints at all, and neither do the Old Save Bonus puzzles.
- Sometimes, when the game notices that you're taking a while about figuring out a solution, it flashes the hints button in the corner of the screen.
- Sierra game series of Dr. Brain has you earn hint coins depending on how well you do on puzzles, though using these decreases your overall score and you can only use a set amount depending on the puzzle.
- The 7th Guest included a hint book in the library, which would give increasing hints to the current puzzle when read for the first and second time. The third time you read it, the puzzle is solved for you. (Which is a necessity for some of them...) On a similar note, its sequel, The 11th Hour, had Carl's GameBook that you could consult for hints or, in AI-opposing games, ask to make the next move.
- In Mummy Maze, you can choose to see the solution to a puzzle that's stumped you, but then you have to restart the game.
- Klax shows a HINT: on the objective screen before each wave.
- Scribblenauts Unlimited gives you up to three hints if you take too long to complete a portion of the starite puzzles.
- Pretentious Game provides a sentence or two that gives a clue on how each puzzle can be solved.
- The Talos Principle: Very downplayed. There are a grand total of three messengers you can find, each of whom can only help you once, and you have to solve a whole bunch of puzzles just to find them in the first place.
- Earthbound had a Recurring Traveller selling hints. This was less useful in the American release which came packaged with a Strategy Guide.
- Paper Mario:
- In Paper Mario 64, you can buy hints on where to go next, or where to find Star Pieces, badges, or upgrade blocks.
- In The Thousand-Year Door, you can get hints for all of the above except upgrade blocks (since they were removed).
- Super Paper Mario has only hints on where to go next.
- Paper Mario: Color Splash has a Toad in a trashcan that you can talk to. He'll tell you what Thing you need to progress, as well as if you currently have it on your person.
- In Tales of Destiny 2, during a Bad Future, you can pay a maid on the edge of town to tell you how to get to the next city. Helpful, since most cities you'd be used to seeing as landmarks no longer exist.
- In Tales of the Abyss, dying to a boss gives you the option of watching a skit between two of the party characters, in which they discuss potential strategies for winning on the next try.
- Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne allow players to be this for each other, by using a special item to write and rate messages from a template. These messages then become visible in other players' games. Though, there's nothing stopping them from putting down downright lies. You'd be hard-pressed to find any cliff or Bottomless Pit anywhere in these games without multiple messages next to it that say "try jumping".
- Mass Effect's pause screen displays a hint randomly selected from a pool of several. Mass Effect 2 relegates them to the loading screens instead.
- Thwaite includes a system not unlike that of Klax. At the beginning of each of the first dozen waves, two lines of text are displayed for five seconds.
- Xenon 2 Megablast allows you to purchase advice at the store between zones. It ranges from being deliberately useless to telling you which of two mutually-exclusive builds you'll want to be playing in the next level.
- In Hitman: Blood Money, you can buy "intel" for in-game money, but players will often kill the targets before they need the hints (they're usually tips on where you can hide or patterns the target/guards take).
- Metal Gear does it with Mission Control on request and occasionally on failure. For example, if you call the Colonel enough times when fighting Psycho Mantis he'll tell you the secret to beating him. If you fight for long enough the colonel will call you to give you the hint.
- The games of the Yarudora series use a "hint upon failure" system. It varies slightly depending on the games:
- In Double Cast, those hints appear not only upon getting a Bad Ending, but also on every Normal and Good Endings but Good End 1 (thus effectively making Good End 1 the game's Golden Ending). The characters giving the hints in the regular route are the resident Large Hams Gouda and Hanazono, while the hints on the Normal Endings of the side-story route are given by Futamura, Haruka, Shoko and/or Mitsuki. The hints they give are overall vague, often telling that you need to be closer to Mitsuki, or that cooperation is crucial to solve the mystery.
- In the other Yarudora games, the Hint Screen appears only on Bad Endings. They're given by the character of focus of the bad ending you get (for example, in Kisetsu o Dakishimete, Bad Endings involving the Sexy Lady will net you hints given by the Sexy Lady; on in Sampaguita, Bad Endings involving Yakuza will have the Yakuza who killed you commenting on your failure). Clarity of the hints vary here: they're rather vague in Sampaguita, but much clearer in Kisetsu o Dakishimete.
- Jake Hunter gives you your current character's train of thought if you make use of his or her Character Tic — Jake lights up a cigarette, Yulia fingers her hair, and Ken adjusts his glasses.
- Fate/stay night has the "tiger dojo" scenes that you get when reaching a bad end. They usually (but not always) explain what went wrong and what you need to do in order to make it right, in varying degrees of specificity. Depending on what the mistake was, the player might even be scolded for making such a dumb error in the first place.
- The Ace Attorney games have either the assistant or the player character giving vague hints if you press a certain part of a witness's testimony that is suspect, nudging you to look further into it. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Dual Destinies and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Spirit of Justice will have your assistant outright tell you what part of the testimony contains the contradiction if you keep fumbling about, but you still have to figure out on your own what piece of evidence to use.
Non-Video Game Examples:
- The Time Machine gamebook series. The last page in each book contains hints that help you in choosing the right path on some pages.