Keyhole Game Design: Red Key, Blue Door

I believe videogame design has gone hardly anywhere in the last two decades.

Or at least, you know, the game part. It’s pretty much non-debatable that the video part has advanced by leaps and bounds, even if you’re one of the people who insist on using FMV target renders as barometers and claim outdated hardware is holding back the graphical curve.

Mechanically, the exact same problems we’ve seen in games decades ago have persisted. Part of this as discussed before is because it’s difficult to justify million-dollar developer investments in gameplay concepts. And it’s also partly because “new and innovative gameplay design”, despite being thrown around so often by the gaming press, is hard as balls.

There’s an observation I’ve made with many videogames these days. Just from looking at my PS3 gaming shelf, nearly every game touted as a polished, critical success and high benchmarks for the genre uses something I call Keyhole Game Design. Keyhole Game Design is as old as Doom.

Again and again we as consumers are told that game developers are reinventing the genre, driving new and innovative gameplay concepts, rewriting the rulebook, yadda yadda blah blah industry catchphrases – only to be handed the same thing. We’re using gameplay concepts as old as Doom, for crying out loud!  Doom came out two full decades ago!

I should probably explain what I mean by Keyhole Game Design.

In Doom, you get color-coded keys that unlock doors allowing for further progression through the game. There are also other keys, keys labeled “pistol”, “rocket launcher”, and “BFG”. These keys unlock glorious effects, and the deaths of in-game enemies. Most of your time playing the game is spent in pursuit of these keys.

We are told, in the first case, that the color-coded keys unlock the door with the corresponding color. Of course the red key unlocks the red door. That’s just common sense. In the second case, the keys are weapons. We are not told what the key labeled “rocket launcher” unlocks. It is up to the player to experiment with its usage and discover ways to apply this key to locks everywhere. He may discover that this key is best suited for boss fights. He may discover that this key works as a fantastic shortcut for dealing with mass swarms of weaker enemies.

Keyhole Design is when a game uses “red key, red door” design.  There is no use for the red key other than to open the red door. It is never used again. In the next level, the player has to run around hunting for more red keys to open another set of red doors. The player can’t use the red key on enemies, not even as a makeshift stabbing tool when you’re fucking punching the shit out of parademons with your “fist” keys.

Your hunt for the “red key” is busywork. It makes the game transparent – at some point, even the most thick-skulled of players is going to realize that the game developers sent him on a quest to find a thing he didn’t care about in order to temporarily prevent access to the rest of the content. It’s the definition of busywork, of grinding, of most things that reduce the player into some kind of rodent running helplessly on a wheel wondering when the hell he’ll get to the kind of heaven reserved for anthropomorphic animals seen in Disney movies.

Keyhole design is still – in fucking 2013 – everywhere. It’s just stretched the definition of “key” and “door” more and more as time went on.

One of the biggest offenders of Keyhole Design is Zelda.

Zelda: Wind Waker has a gorgeous plant-themed dungeon. The doors are all covered in vines connected to miniature plant vaginas. The first time a player encounters one of these doors, he will instinctively do a little sliding run at the door, and whack Link against the door helplessly. The player will wonder why the door didn’t open (probably because he or she thought the plant vagoos were cosmetic). Then he will move to the next logical step – trying to cut the plant vines off the door with his “Master Sword” key. The game has offered evidence in its early stages that the sword is good for cutting grass and weaker tiers of plant-based enemies. The player will then stop short when confronted with failure. The reason for his failure: he has been trying to shove the “Master Sword” key into the “Plant Vagina” door.

I’m pretty sure the designers for Zelda watched people play their game from behind tinted glass and ground their teeth at the player’s attempts to fuck the plant vagina with the sword. Maybe the player even held down the B button and charged up for a spinning sword attack in an attempt to get the goddamn door open so they could access the rest of the dungeon.

I believe very strongly that when this scenario was playtested, the player bore some resemblance to a chimp attempting to shove a square peg into a round hole.

Sooner or later, depending on how patient they are, the player will realize that the “Master Sword” key isn’t working, and go through their item collection (“keychain”) to find the right key. “My word!” the hypothetical game designers say from behind tinted glass, taking notes feverishly. “By gum, I think he’s finally going to get it!” The chimp goes back to the tub of wooden blocks to try and find one that fits.

Have you ever traveled a long distance to visit a friend or relative only to find out they weren’t there to welcome you into their home because of work or something? They’ll usually mention where they put the keys. Now imagine you’re standing on the front doorstep, going through someone’s massive ring of keys. You know when you finally get in the door you can put down your luggage, take a long shower to wash off the stench of plane, and probably take a comfy nap after a warm cup of hot chocolate. Only you can’t because the jerkoff didn’t tell you which one was the correct key. You stand there like a fool, your fingers slowly growing numb with the cold, quietly seething.

Now imagine your friend or relative engineered this fucking situation, and is sniggering about how clever he is in designing this scenario. Because you had to try all the keys, you’ll feel all the better when you find the right key! It’ll be fun – just like a game!

Of course, you’ll feel better about caving in his or her window with a brick in order to reach the lock from the inside. Maybe even better once you take that entire bunch of keys and shove the entire jangling bunch right up his or her ass.

Back to Zelda. The player tries the “bomb” key. Triangle peg. Round hole. “Leaf” key. Octagonal peg. Round hole. “Boomerang” key? Round peg… round hole?

Game designers hidden behind glass gasp, hug, and embrace each other. With tearful smiles, they exclaim “He’s finally gotten it!”

You see where my frustration with Keyhole Game Design lies. In Wind Waker, entire dungeons are designed around these keys. Every dungeon usually has a specific key required to complete – disguised as an item. Of course, making red keys require making red doors. Entire sections of the dungeons are locked off, requiring only mass use of the key in order to progress. In extreme cases, such as the plant dungeon mentioned above, the boomerang is required to open all the doors, as well as a giant boss also masquerading as a door (the boomerang is used to cut the tentacled plant vagina off the ceiling).

The reason we forgive Wind Waker for this – and only marginally, at that – is because the boomerang has other uses beyond the dungeon. But it never becomes as useful, or as important, ever again. From a game designer’s perspective, the key is done with. It’s opened all the doors they’ve put in front of it. There are no more doors to design. The “boomerang” key eventually languishes in the player’s inventory, superseded by the next important key/door relationship.

Bah, that’s Nintendo, the fans can say. That’s what Zelda is. Eiji Aonuma even freely admitted he sees Zelda as nothing more than a series of “puzzles” that the player can feel surprised or pleased at when he solves. What he means by “puzzles” are really just red door and red key game scenarios. When you try the blue key on the red door, you’re only going to get stuck, or complain that the game isn’t giving you the adequate tools to overcome a particular door, whether it’s an actual door, a boss battle, or a particularly harrowing platforming section.

It’s not unique to Zelda.

Gears of War, the archetypal template for almost all cover-based third person action shooters today, also has elements of Keyhole Game Design in it. The player is allowed at any time a trinity of weapons (two rifles and one handgun) as well as a few grenades. For the player, this just means a bunch of different keys for different locks – in this case, the Locust, enemy types from deep beneath the earth. It’s still there. Enemies engaging the player avatar from long range? Time to switch to the “sniper rifle” key. Enemies up close? Never fear, the “shotgun” key is at your disposal.


The reason why Keyhole Game Design isn’t as immediately obvious in Gears of War as it is in Zelda is because of the presence of what I like to call soft keys and soft locks. Sure, the lock is still there, but there are often multiple ways to solve a given scenario. It’s not really a red door. Well, it is, but you could try and force it with something close to a red key. That enemy from half a mile away giving you trouble and you don’t feel like using your “sniper rifle” key? Gears offers options for flanking, distraction and assaulting from cover – all different keys that could be used to solve the same lock. Soft keys can be used in a variety of ways. There’s a reason most players of Gears end up hauling around the Lancer assault rifle for most of the campaign – the weapon is a soft key, capable of dealing with a wide variety of locks. It excels at close range thanks to the attached chainsaw, and solves medium range enemies just fine with a high rate of fire and decent accuracy.

A solid base set of locks allows the developers of Gears to mix up the combat scenarios for increasingly complex locks. Some of them may require application of several keys, in organic sequence. A typical Gears setpiece will involve multiple “door” enemies, each requiring a different application of a battlefield tactic or weapon. It sounds thrilling and exciting on paper, but viewed through the lens of Keyhole Game Design it basically devolves into frantically juggling a bunch of keys, trying to find the right key for the right situation. Still, moment to moment it allows the player some freedom to experiment with the keys available.

Of course, some of this devolves into some very artificial sets of locks. Give or take, most games type will have a standard enemy type, a heavier enemy type with larger and beefier weapons or more armor and health, and a type of small, fast enemy that doesn’t take much damage but is comparatively harder to hit. There is usually an optimum key or weapon for each type of enemy or door, and key-juggling can become an exercise in frustration as the game throws multiple doors at you at once. This is often further compounded by the inability of the player avatar to use multiple keys at the same time. The very best of these encounters feel organic and spontaneous.

Of course, Gears is not immune to more obvious moments of Keyhole Game Design. Like so many games these days, all three, now four games in the series have moments that signpost what key you’re supposed to use on a particular set of locks, as if the player is a complete moron. “GET ON THE TURRET”, NPCs scream. “USE THE [KEY]!” A sniper rifle waits, conveniently placed on a tempting high position. Chest-high walls are conveniently put in the optimal route to flank.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this design approach – actually, there are more advantages than there are drawbacks. For one, it’s stood the test of time because it’s functional and not inherently broken. It’s simple for a player to understand. It allows the player to move along a unique kind of guided experience, under the domineering hand of the game designer. It’s easy to design for and create around. Nothing in the gameplay system becomes unnecessary; everything serves a purpose. Experimentation is moot and it becomes a race to find the most efficient key to solve a door. And once we’ve found the key we’re supposed to use, that’s game over.  Repeat ad infinitum every time the lock appears until we’re done.

Personally, I find Keyhole Game Design fucking boring, and I wish we’d move past this, or at least acknowledge that this is an issue in the game development community. Can we at least have a few game designers come out and admit that this stifles the opportunity for players to express themselves through gameplay? In the age of the internet, so many games become less of a game in this exact way. Players placed in close communication with each other aren’t even experimenting with the few keys they have anymore, because it makes them the guy on the doorstep fumbling through a keychain. The internet has allowed us to simply Google the right key to fit into the right door. In this nightmarish future populated by mindless drones, we’re all using the exact same keys to open the exact same doors.

For a hobby, I act as dungeon master for a simple little pen and paper RPG on the weekends. My players are often faced with brick walls, or locked doors. They are repeatedly put into situations where they are faced with incredibly tough or crazy “doors”.  The difference between a game I run and Keyholed Game Design is this: the players are allowed to choose whatever keys they wish in order to open the door, whether it is brute strength, high explosives, lockpicking, or trickery. They are allowed to express themselves in gameplay, any way they want. There is obviously far more freedom in a pen and paper RPG than can be designed for in a videogame, because as dungeon master I’m often adjusting and rewriting entire scenarios on the fly in response to player actions. But the point still stands. Whether or not they open the door is a moot point. How they do it is up to them.

Of course, there are ways that I wish they’d solve the doors, and I can “signpost” it, the same way sniper rifles next to a window signpost that I’ll probably need to take a shot at something some point in the future. But that’s less important than what the player wants to do. Reducing a heuristic, complex bunch of solutions to a particular problem to a binary solution where one solution is the only solution reeks of lazy development.

I guess what I’m really saying is that game developers need to decide what’s more important – playing the game in the precise, exact way it was designed for, or allowing players the freedom to express themselves within a framework? If it’s the first one, good job! There are plenty of games out there that feel like playing game developers’ egos while they jerk their technology credentials and production values off in their faces. They railroad me into particular situations while making me feel like a retard for not wanting to use the key they want to open the doors.

If it’s the second, I wish you’d work in game design.


One thought on “Keyhole Game Design: Red Key, Blue Door

  1. I definitely agree that Zelda focuses too much on incredibly restrictive item puzzles. Every dungeon is meant to test that one item, and it often feels completely mindless – of course I’m supposed to use the gust bellows to blow sand all over the place, because I just got the damned thing.

    I wouldn’t say that Gears of War falls into the same trap, though, based on the first game alone. Shooting enemies with different weapons is just a fundamental part of the design, and complaining about progression by shooting is like saying you hate using the “jump button keyhole” in platformers.

    I think a more natural analogy would be the weapon-locked doors in Metroid games, though I do think that game does a good job of spreading usage throughout the game, so that rooms feel like actual puzzles instead of “got item use item.” Still, it’s rare for games to really let players go about situations in their own way. I think the king is probably the original Deus Ex, and that was released years and years ago.

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