Monday, 17 August 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 2.

Before continuing to dig deeper into the world of puzzles, I would like to clarify a thing from the last puzzle post: When I said that I thought puzzles were the best way to have as core gameplay in a horror game, I did not mean that it excluded all other kinds of gameplay. I rather meant that the basic design was based on puzzles and that other mechanisms are there as extras. Penumbra: Black Plague is a game that uses that approach while Resident Evil has a clear focus on action with puzzles as extras. Now on with the post.

In this second part I am going to discuss some problems with puzzles. The common thread of these issues is that while other mechanics usually have a very fixed set of available actions, "puzzle games" are not always clear on what is possible in the game world. In a shooter the world usually reacts as one wants when firing a weapon and when encountering an enemy the player does not feel restricted or unable to do sensible actions. When it comes to puzzles though, it is often not obvious what can be done and many puzzles ends up as an exercise in reading the designer's mind.

Now for a brief list discussing some common problem:

The hidden action
When facing some puzzles, the player might be unaware that some form of action is valid. Sometimes this is because the game has not allowed the same action in a similar situation and sometimes it is not obvious that the object can be interacted with. An example for this is the "rock catapult"-puzzle in Monkey Island. Here it is not very clear (at least was not for me...) that the player can rotate the see-saw-like catapult contraption by using the "push" and "pull" actions, mainly because no other objects had had a similar action available.

The missing item
At times an encountered obstacle will require something not yet discovered. At its worse it requires simply some information for the player character in order to perform the action, meaning that the player has all the means to complete the puzzle but the game is not allowing it. Here the example (to our shame..) comes from Penumbra: Overture which has a puzzle where the player needs to pick up a cotton string from a box but can not do so unless a book (explaining why the thread is needed) has been found. This is not very good design and we promise to (at least try to) never repeat such an abomination again!

Non sequitur
This is mainly a problem of not making the result of an action clear enough. The player might realize that a puzzle is encountered but not the use of the solving it. An example of this comes again from Monkey Island. Here the player encounters an ape in a jungle and by feeding it bananas it will follow the player and can be used to hold down a lever. In this puzzle, it is not even clear that feeding it bananas will accomplish anything and using the monkey to hold down a lever requires more trial and error than actual puzzle solving. Hotel Dusk also has something similar where solving a Rubik's cube lets the player escape an elevator.

Guess the action
At times it is obvious to the player what needs to be done in order to solve a puzzle but can not make the game perform the wanted action. This is most obvious in text adventure games where the player needs to write an action in English, but can also be present when there are very few possible ways of interaction. An example from Penumbra: Overture is when placing an explosive barrel in front of a cave in. Certain mechanics required the barrel to be a in a specific spot and some players, knowing exactly what to do, were unable to find it and thereby solving the puzzle.

Obvious solution is not correct
This has got to be the most annoying and common problem in all games that have puzzles. The player is faced with a puzzle that has an obvious solution (at least to the player), but then some more complicated solution is needed. The most common variation would be a thin wooden door needing a key to be opened when the player has a rocketlauncher at hand. Sometimes this type of problem can be hard to spot for designers though, mainly because once a solution is found others are blocked out. It might also be that the obvious solution is not supported by the game mechanics, like splashing nearby water on fire, but then the puzzled should perhaps be replaced or the environment redesigned.

Most of the time, it just takes some extra thinking to get rid of these problems, but they can also be hard to predict at times. An option is to make the way the game world more clear by letting all puzzles come directly from the game mechanics. A way to do this is by using physics, but doing so gives a lot of other problems! These issues is what will be discussed next week.

Do you know any other types of problems typical for adventure games? What puzzles in the Penumbra games were worst? Finally, I am really interested to hear about the worst puzzles you have encountered in a game!

PS: Sorry for all of the Monkey Island examples, but it was just a recently played game. I still like it for all its flaws though :) There sure are far worse puzzles in other adventure games.

EDIT: Thanks to
biomechanical923 for reminding me about the ""Obvious solution is not correct" puzzle in the comments! I think this kind of puzzle problem is the most major issue when not having coherant game mechanics for the puzzles.


  1. biomechanical923@gmail.com17 August 2009 at 13:48

    I'm not sure if this qualifies as a "puzzle", but I really hate it when I'm playing a game, and I push a button or flip a switch and there is no indication of what it does. If the button unlocked a door on the other side of the map, then it needs to be clearly understood that "this button unlocked a door somewhere".
    Also, unless the player is in a place run by crazy people, an alternate dimension, or hallucinating, then the puzzles should mostly make sense. I shouldn't have to travel through the medical lab, the armory, and the warehouse just to press a button that unlocks the cafeteria. Why would there be a door unlock button for the cafeteria inside the warehouse?
    The worst (not the hardest, just the worst) puzzle from Penumbra was the "crowbar", (although I liked the Freeman reference). Why did I need to saw the frozen hand? I remember trying to break it with the hammer and it didnt work. If you're going to put a tool in a game, realize that players are going try to use that tool for all of it's practical purposed. If I swing a hammer at a frozen hand, and it doesn't shatter, then immersion is broken. If I shoot a lightbulb and it doesn't break, immersion is broken.
    Basically, my definition of a "bad puzzle" is any puzzle you finally solve, and say to your self "How in the hell was I supposed to know that??"

  2. biomechanical923:
    The crowbar puzzle is an excellent example! How could I have forgotten that type... This "Obvious solution is not correct" kind of puzzle got to be the most common problem. I need to add that to the post!

    Was the "button in warehouse" from a game or was it just a theoretical example btw?

  3. A puzzle in Penumbra Black Plague that's kind of broken is the one with the monster in the walls (in the dog kennel) where you had to block the holes by covering them with crates. You could only use some specific crates to do this, putting for example a barrel in the hole did not work. That was a bit confusing.

    But generally, the puzzles in the Penumbra games were good. I never really got stuck at one for long.

  4. biomechanical923@gmail.com17 August 2009 at 20:25


    The "button in warehouse" was just an example that I thought up. However, it came into mind when I thought about the impractical design of the facilities from Quake 2.

  5. The only puzzle I had a serious issue with in the Penumbra games was the string from box bit you already admitted to. Well, at least that was the only major problem with Overture and Black Plague, but I'm sure you guys have all heard enough complaining about Requiem by now. ;)

    That does remind me, though, that I want to call attention to another example of your guess the action problem; the oft-maligned jumping puzzles. These are reasonable ways to challenge players in 2-D games because they demand precise timing and mastery of the game mechanics, but become problematic when put into a first-person perspective. This is because, while the obvious solution is the correct one and the player knows how to do it, in most such games you physically cannot see your own bloody feet so you end up just guessing at where the right point to jump is. The common design approach to this situation seems to be either making them so forgiving that they end up being more contributions to the atmosphere than actual obstacles (such as in the first appearance of Overture's worms), or just accepting that there will be a lot of quicksave and quickload at this point and it's okay to disrupt the flow of your game like that because it was easier than thinking of a real puzzle.

    Guess the action is a much broader and more common problem than I think most people realize.

  6. I suggest also a game very important in the puzzle POV: the THIEF saga.
    Thief is simply one of the best game ever, but also a very strong puzzle involved and, also a lot of atmosphere (good horror, steampunk but also lovecraftian). Take a look to the Thief Universe, a very good point of inspiration for your next game!

  7. If memory servers, the catapult im Monkey Island, when first activated, misses the target but lands close. This would lead the player to assume that some sort of modification is needed and because of the simplicity of the catault (a board) the solution of physically pushing or pulling the board is not far away.

    This is one of the best kind of puzzles - the player can figure out what needs to be done and then figure out the solution by logic thinking. Much, much better than find key A and go to door B to progress which is kind of cheap and lazy.

  8. On a side note: please(!) modify the design of this blog, cause it's a pain to read - make the text column wider (specify it as eg 80-90% of user's screen width) + align the text to left and right. (A screenshot to illustrate what I mean → ).

    Right now I end up reading the blog posts in my rss reader and I miss out on the comments there :-).

  9. Tobias:
    I agree that it is pretty good puzzle compared to others. It was just that I completely missed that a certain action was available to me, which was the problem that I wanted to illustrate. Now this time it might have been that I approached it the wrong way as I thought the catapult shot too far (and not in the wrong direction) and worked from that.

  10. I agree with an above poster's comments about Thief. It did a lot of things very well. I don't remember much in the way of jumping puzzles, but the game did require minor acrobatics on behalf of the player. Unlike almost all other FPS games, Thief allows the player to grab onto a ledge and pull himself up during a jump. I think the Thief series and System Shock 2 are perhaps the only FPS games of notability that have done this.

    Speaking of System Shock 2, there's another unbelievable horror game. I like BioShock, but it saddens me to see so many people unaware of it's far superior predecessor.

  11. First let me just say I'm really in awe of the blog you put up here. I'm a big fan of the Penumbra games (plus att jag är svensk :D) and just the idea of actually getting to read your observations (and the fact that you can read mine) is cool.

    Anyway, I wouldn't exactly call it a puzzle, but playing Penumbra I was a bit annoyed at one part, in the room where you switch on some UV lights (you probably know which one I'm talking about). There's a huge hole in the wall which leads further into the cave but for some reason it won't let you through. Just making the tunnel caved-in or something would have made it much more obvious that you're not supposed to go there (as I tried numerous times to do so).

    Anyway, that wasn't really a puzzle, but it sounds a lot like the "obvious solution is not correct"-problem you were talking about.

  12. Anonymous:
    You crazy! A rockworm obviously lives there! :)

    On a more serious note: Point taken, teasing with interesting locations where one can not venture is a bit annoying. For some reason it is very common in games though and "invisible walls" are complained about quite a lot.


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