Note: This article may contain spoilers for a number of popular and not- so-popular video games. I’ll try to keep my discussion oblique, but you have been warned.

The study of puzzles is one that consumes some people. There are brilliant folks who spend most of their waking hours thinking about historically significant puzzles, trying to develop novel puzzles, and who have a deep, analytical sense of what makes a puzzle challenging and enjoyable.

I am, I confess, not one of those people. Neither, apparently, are many of the people designing video games for the consumer market.

I play a lot of games (video games and otherwise), and I enjoy a good puzzle when I come across one in that context, but personally I’m much more interested in the narrative of a game than in the mechanics of any specific puzzle therein, as this series of articles demonstrates. So I don’t speak with authority as an expert on brilliant puzzle construction, but merely as a player who encounters too many tired puzzles in the games he plays. Let’s start with a touchy-feely definition of puzzle to distinguish it from a game. I’m happy wiith the first two definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary:

_1. Something, such as a game, toy, or problem, that requires ingenuity and often persistence in solving or assembling. 2. Something that baffles or confuses. _

In a video game context, I’m speaking of puzzles as being parts of games. The typical puzzle implementation is self-contained (“Solve this puzzle to advance past this door,“) but that is a matter of habit, not a requirement. A puzzle can have a scope that encompasses all of the non-narrative parts of a game, or can even be intimately intertwined.

Knights of the Old RepublicI’ve been enjoying BioWare’s Star Wars fantasy game Knights of the Old Republic, lately. It’s very well balanced, has a better story than the past three Star Wars movies, and most of the time is very satisfying. I think it’s a good game, and everyone should play it. Go buy it, for the PC or Xbox, if you don’t have it. I’m saying that up front because I plan on mercilessly criticizing Knights of the Old Republic (“KOTOR”) for the next week: even though it is a truly great game, it also has some very evident flaws. It is precisely because I enjoyed the game so much that the flaws irritate me to the extent that they do.

The thing that I’m thinking about today is KOTOR’s lackluster puzzles. Periodically, the player is confronted with puzzles – generally very self- contained, narrow puzzles – to solve. Some of these are optional; some are required to pass gates. All of them are uniformly terrible; it’s like the designers ran across the street to the Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy of “Encyclopedia Brown’s 100 Most Tired Brain Twisters.” There’s the “complete the pattern of numbers” IQ test puzzle, (“Complete this pattern: O T T F F S S…“). There’s the “tribute to Gollum Riddle Game” (complete with riddles taken straight out of The Hobbit), where the player faces the overwhelmingly daunting task of being asked a riddle that is easy to begin with and then has to choose the right answer from a list. There’s the “You have two buckets, one holds 5 gallons, and one holds 3…” puzzle.

In between these embarrassingly bad puzzles, I was actually having a really good time swinging a lightsaber around. The puzzles were so transparently artifices that they actually destroyed my immersion in the narrative of the game, and I had to spend a few minutes after each one re-acclimating to the game world to recover what the puzzle took away.

And then we got to the Towers of Hanoi puzzle. Which I now officially dub the “lava level” of puzzles: if Towers of Hanoi is in your game, you should just eliminate it and instead put a big sign in your environment that reads “I am completely out of ideas.” Word to the wise: if Emacs ships with a module that solves the puzzle you’re putting in your game, that’s a good sign that the puzzle isn’t actually any fun.

So am I saying that it’s never legitimate to include a classic oldie like Towers of Hanoi in your game? Well, yes. I am.

What you should do is develop a completely new, novel type of puzzle that no one has ever seen before, that is perfectly integrated into your narrative, and that is neither too difficult nor too easy to solve. That’s ambitious, and a lot of work, so I can already hear the commercial game designers muttering under their breath “That’ll never happen.” So therefore, let me suggest some guidelines for puzzle development, selection and use (at least in games where narrative is paramount; obviously, if you’re making a game whose raison d’etre is “to be a collection of classic puzzles”, you will and should ignore these guidelines):

The puzzle has to have a reason for existing. I mean, here, a good reason, not the stupid one you just came up with. Is it a lock on a door? Does the owner of the mansion (Hi, Strahd!) sit there and play “jump the pegs and leave one in the center” every time he wants to open the lock?

The existence of the puzzle should move the narrative forward somehow, even if only by a little bit. If a puzzle is a lock on a gate, then at least make it a lock that the player will further the narrative by opening in a way other than “now he gets to go through that door.” Make the solution rely on some other element of your narrative, or some knowledge the player’s character should have picked up elsewhere.

MystThe more integrated into your game world the puzzle is, the better. Myst is the gold standard in this regard; even though the puzzles themselves were mostly not very innovative (“Press these buttons to make this number reach this value.”) there was an aura of believability about them that came from the care with which they were placed. A corollary to the integration guideline is “puzzles that you are in are better than puzzles that you are standing in front of.” Myst accomplished some of this with tromp l’oeil -- even though sometimes you were just standing in front of “the puzzle” as a control panel, the game went to lengths to convince you you were inside (for example) a power station. Likewise, even the puzzles in Myst that were just keys to gates often opened a gate somewhere else, and part of the fun was figuring out where (for example, following the power transmission lines from the generator room to the spaceship.) Myst had the advantage of being the first of its kind to achieve wide success. Guess what? You don’t have that advantage. If you want us to like your use of puzzles in your game, you’ve got to do better than Myst.

This one is debatable, but I believe that where possible, the puzzle should be to figure out what the puzzle is. That is, if you have to explain the rules to the player when they start, you’ve already lost. Ideally, once the player recognizes that they have encountered a puzzle, they should be able to solve it within moments of figuring out how to solve it. For example, most of the puzzles in the “Selenic age” in Myst had this nature; once you realized that you needed to pay attention to your ears rather than your eyes, you could make steady progress; even the maze is actually an anti-maze (you can brute-force your way through, but then you’re doing it wrong). Contrast this with Towers of Hanoi, where a player who knows exactly how to solve it still has to spend 20 minutes moving rings around because the designers were lazy.

I suspect that at this point these puzzles appear in games like KOTOR because designers believe that players expect them. I don’t believe that players do. As the success of the Final Fantasy games show, players are content to put up with even the most stultifyingly horrific and boring gameplay if it is attached to a compelling narrative (preferably involving sullen teens and large hair). The inclusion of tired textbook puzzles doesn’t just frustrate and bore the sophisticated player, it actually does violence to the quality of the story you are telling. The only people that aren’t bothered by bad puzzles are the people who have never seen them before, and frankly, that’s not a market worth capturing (especially since it’s likely that they will enjoy your game just as much without the Riddle Game as with it.)

Tread carefully. We’re counting on you. Bioware, please avoid making the same mistakes in Jade Empire.

Is it a deal?

Additional Resources

Here are some games with puzzles that don’t suck.