Thursday 17 September 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 5.

Due to illness and an unhealthy obsession in making rendered water look nice this post is a little late. Hopefully no harm has been caused :)

Figuring out a good puzzle is often a hard and tricky process. Sometimes a puzzles presents itself from story and environment naturally, but more often it is put in just to add some gameplay and/or slow the player down. This means first coming up with some kind of obstacle and then designing some sort of solution for overcoming it. During this process, and especially when "forcing" a puzzles into the game, one has to consider a couple of things. The most important of these are:

How fun a puzzle is to solve and how unique is it both determine the level of enjoyment a player gets from trying to figure and actually solving a puzzle. Solving the same kind of puzzles over and over is never fun and any appearance of a sliding puzzle is bound to bring forward feelings of unhappiness.

While a bit related to Enjoyment, a clever puzzles does not really need to be fun, it just needs to have a solution that makes the player think out of the box. A clever puzzles often includes using something in a non-obvious way and/or piecing together several fragments of information. If a game mainly relies on solving puzzles (such as Professor Layton), having clever solutions becomes extra important.

World Coherence
This means how well the puzzle fits with the story/world and is often the hardest part to accomplish. A puzzle with good world coherence adds realism and immersion to the game, while a bad one pulls the player out of the experience. In order to obtain high coherence a puzzle must fit with the story and also suite the world and not feel out-of-place.

When designing puzzles for Penumbra and our upcoming game, it is always a balance between these. Sometimes a puzzle might fit perfectly with the story but just be really dull and sometimes a fun puzzle does not fit at all with the game world. It is almost impossible to come up with a puzzle that "score" high in all the above criteria, so one has to concentrate on something.

In horror games, where immersion is key, it is probably best to always make sure that no puzzle feels out of place. For some reason many action based horror games seem to forget this and are filled with mood breaking puzzles. In Penumbra we did our best to have as high world-coherence and often had to sacrifice other criteria in order to do so. This is one of the reasons why Requiem contains so little story, we wanted for once to concentrate on the making fun and clever puzzles.

Most (at least we hope so!) puzzles in Penumbra where not dull and stupid, but often we concentrated on either making it clever or fun. In the cryo-chamber, getting the head out of the jar was not a very rewarding puzzles to solve, but the main idea there was to let the player do something fun (who does not like playing around with severed head?), instead of teasing the player's brain. Figuring out how to enter the cryo-chamber was instead an attempt at making a clever puzzles and required several pieces of information to be linked.

By trying to vary puzzles like this we hope to have made the experience more interesting. As discussed earlier, games does not need focus on creating joyful feelings all the time. By letting the player sweat over a more complicated task, more emotions can be added to the game and end up being a more rewarding experience. Adding instances of more fun and simple puzzle in between breaks things up and make the brain-teasing parts stand out more.

This brings me to the final issues one has to consider. Difficulty. I did not include it in the list above because, while an important thing to ponder, it is quite a different beast. The main problem lies in that when a solution is known it is no longer hard to solve, and thus it can be hard for designer to now the difficulty of a problem. Even so, it is a very important part of the gameplay and the time spent pondering a puzzle plays a large role in the gameplay flow. At times it might be fitting to throw a harder challenge at the player and other times the player should be able to solve it quickly. Especially when a situation is meant to be frightening, having the player scribbling on a note in the "real world" is not good for the mood.

Pretty much the only thing that can be used to test difficulty is extensive play testing, but this being time consuming and expensive (especially since the same person can not reliably test something twice) other methods are needed. I usually try to "wipe" my mind, think myself in the situation of the first time player and imagine the moves she would make. This is actually not far from the tactic used when designing scary situations, something that also greatly relies on an unknowing player. Designing puzzles is actually kind of related to creating a horror atmosphere in that one has to try mess with another person's mind and supply hints, confuse, etc in order to create a satisfying experience. This is yet another reasons why horror games and puzzles are such a good fit.

What do you think is most important criteria for a good puzzles? As always we are also eager to hear feedback on puzzles present in Penumbra with the above in mind!


  1. I really like puzzles with some twist at the end. Like in Half-Life2 Ep.2 where player must connect 1 cord to 2 sockets. When he is done then he realised that he need one more cord to connect to the elevator to get out of that room. When he find a new electrical cord then he realise it is too short for connecting to the elevator socket (the twist!) so he must unplug the older cord and switch it with the new shorter one and plug that long old one to the elevator. If you played HL2Ep2 you should know what part I mean.

    That puzzle is really clever because it has some twist after player finds out the solution (which is wrong). I don't think I have found a similar twist in Penumbra's puzzles.

  2. Well, I disagree about the phrase "...and any appearance of a sliding puzzle is bound to bring forward feelings of unhappiness." because I see sliding puzzles like-style as some of the best ones for the situation you have to "open something" (opening a security door, opening a security box containing some crucial object, etc). But maybe a good choice could be two forms of solving: the "hardcore", which means solving the like-style sliding puzzle in question, and the "less hardcore", which could be finding some code or passkey, more or less hidden on the scenario, that solves out the puzzle automatically.

    Litte offtopic:
    Nothing to do with keeping up the hard work on what's presented here as World Coherence, just to mention that, from a "Frictional Games & gamers" perspective, we're talking about PC Gamers (at least for now) ; ) and, for that reason, we're talking about tenacious gamers who doesn't like things get easy, so that there's no reason for being afraid of if some kind of puzzle makes sometimes the gamer to get stuck in for a few days.

  3. Hi there,

    I just beat the Penumbra series three days ago. I have to congratulate you on creating such a great game. It ranks very high on my "Best Games Ever"-list and not many games make it there.

    I especially enjoyed the puzzles, so I find it a great honor to be able to comment about them to their creator. Also, your article was a fine read and covered all important aspects of how to create excellent puzzles. However, you just missed to mention one tiny, yet important one: logic. It's of the utmost importance that puzzles are logical. While you didn't mention it in your article, you honored this principle in Penumbra and that's why I liked it so much (apart from the excellent plot). Penumbra enabled me to solve many puzzles according to my style thanks to the included physics. For example, to overcome the electric fence in Overture, I managed to roll a barrel over the obstacles nearby and used it as a platform to jump over it. I'm sure you had a totally different solution in mind. Another example would be the puzzle of how to add gun powder to the fuse. I read of players who widened the far too small hole in the black powder barrel to get the fuse in. I just destroyed it and used it on the now exposed black powder. Excellent puzzle thanks to an excellent engine and an excellent developer :)

    I found myself only having to resort to a walkthrough once for Overture and that made me feel pretty good. I had to use one a little more often for Black Plague, but still, the puzzles were solvable just by using logic thinking - the best way of thinking there is :)

    However, I hated Requiem for the same reason that you loved it: a bunch of strung together rooms that did nothing for the storyline. Even worse, many puzzles weren't logical at all. For example the level where you are in a shaft and have to ascend by using transporter pipes. This was the horror and that was the point where I got sick of the game. The only thing that kept me playing was the fact that the first two episodes were so damn excellent and because I expected more explanations regarding the storyline. Thank god the ending was excellent which kind of made the whole experience a lot less painful. Back to the shaft level. You get a bunch of switches and pipes. you don't know what is happening, but you know you somehow must get to the upper platforms. This level combined everything Penumbra shouldn't have been. It required the player to quickly jump on the hooked up moving act that the gameplay of the game just isn't laid out for. The controls are too finicky for these kind of stunts. Took me several tries just to jump on a few crates in time to finally do it. If the controls would have been more accurate as in other FPS-games, then this would have been ok. I didn't mind Penumbras laggy controls up to that point. Also the fact that the player had to backtrack if he didn't take the obviously useless metal platforms on his first way up with him. That's just bad and no fun at all. The level was already stressful as it is. Backtracking made it boring twice. All in all I have to say that Requiem was no fun at all. The levels I most enjoyed were the last one, the second, the ice level, the tomb and the sewer level in that order, because they were tied closer to the first two episodes in both design, gameplay and puzzle logic. I could have done without the levels with the power ball, especially the part where you had to push it past the laser grid. Again, a nice example of a puzzle that relied on the weaker side of the gameplay.

  4. Now, I don't want to say that unrelated puzzle rooms are bad. Portal basically proves that this concept can be very fun if the puzzles are laid out logically, something that Requiem didn't achieve in some levels. How was the player supposed to know that he had to climb the ledge in the first level to open the door with a laser? How was the player supposed to know that throwing objects into the blue laser grid in the shaft level would teleport them? This goes against all normal gamer behavior. You're glad that you were able to drag the stuff with you the way up, then the least you want to do is to throw it down. Additional pain was caused by bugs that I encountered, such as accidentally dropping the conductive pipe in the snow level while carrying it to the generator room. It fell through the ground... thank god that was just the beginning of the level. Imagine that happening to the metal staircase that you had to take with you in the shaft level. This way, players would have been punished twice: by having to solve a seemingly endless puzzle which is also a lot more prone to break thanks to the many components involved. A certain fun killer.

    After I beat Requiem and saw the stats, I felt no attraction to re-play the game just to max them out just for the additional ending. I rather went to youtube to find a clip showing it. I also want to add that adding easier puzzles is not necessarily a bad thing. I know you want to slow the gamer down and want to give him that warm fuzzy feeling that you get when you mastered a hard puzzle, but don't underestimate the power of small and more obvious puzzles. If a game only consists of complex puzzles (Myst to name a terrible example), then gamers will only give up faster and rely more or even completely on walkthroughs. An easy puzzle still gives the player the feeling of having progressed in the game and will motivate him further to hold out on longer puzzles. I also have to disagree with Anderson_JAG on the following opinion:

    "PC Gamers (at least for now) ; ) and, for that reason, we're talking about tenacious gamers who doesn't like things get easy, so that there's no reason for being afraid of if some kind of puzzle makes sometimes the gamer to get stuck in for a few days."

    It's hard arguing about opinions, but this one is clearly wrong. Our society is fast living and so are gamers. No one will waste hours, let alone a day on beating a single puzzle. The internet not just makes it easier to get solutions quickly, it also proves that people do not want to waste that much time. That's why we have walkthroughs, that's why forums fill up quickly with people asking for how to get past certain parts. Usually, it only takes a few minutes until they give up and look for help, not hours. That was back in the old days when the internet was hardly accessible, expensive and almost empty regarding gaming help. The fact is: people want things easy, but they also want to feel smart, so its more about finding the right balance between easy and complex and so far you did a great job, so please don't change it. If you want to know what kind of gamers played your games, then check out the Penumbra forums at gamefaqs where people exchange tips, or check the youtube comments of the Penumbra walkthroughs. You will see that Anderson_JAG belongs to a very tiny minority of very patient gamers. That's admirable, but unfortunately not the reality.

    As for the sliding puzzles: I couldn't think of one that had ever been well implemented in a computer least not in a fun way, but that has to happen some time ;)

    Alright, that was a lot of babbling. I hope you keep up the good work. In the end, it's not important what I think, or anybody else, but only what you feel is right. You've proven to be an excellent designer and puzzle creator and I have no doubt that your new title will be on par with Penumbra's intelligent puzzles :)

  5. I agree with Xiaopang333 about logic in puzzles and about that sliding puzzles look pretty dull nowadays... and even worse - banal. They are meant only for slowing player down and don't even make a try to conseal it. As for me, I don't really find exciting discovering the fact that someone is trying to JUST slow me down without any other porpose, I guess, many players share my opinion because sliding puzzle in a game mainly understood not as a challenging thing, but as a clear sympthom of short storyline. And, of course, very little people will be pleased to know that they're actually playing a short game. Besides, such puzzles completely break any atmosphere - they can be fittable for quests (and even there I hate them), not horrors.

    And one more thing: I wouldn't forget about such an important criterion of implementing puzzles in a game world like motivation. Players motivation to, for example, take something what later is apparently going to be useful or neccessary for playing the game further. Like if while playing I see a "takable" object, say, a shovel - I take it. But not because I consider it a useful thing for character, but because I understand, that IF it is here, it WILL be useful. And I make this conclusion 'cause I remember that this is just a game and all the events in it are prewritten and, consequently, unnatural - it breaks the immersion, belief in game reality. To my mind, player's motivation shoud match (at least partially) character's motivation. There are two ways of solving this problem: either all the objects in game must be takable and\or operatable (wich you greatly realised in you-know-where)or - the 2nd way - to make player think, that he should take the shovel or smthg else not because "it is possible, therefore it needs to be done", but because his CHARACTER obviously needs it (perhaps, knows where to dig or whose skull to try to break with it). I always found absurd and frustrating the neccessarity in several games to collect all the rubbish I see because it's there not just so. Such karmic faith in higher order of things can hardly be called character's motivation.

    P.S. Also, I guess, world coherense is the most important principle of that you mentioned. Especially for horror games based on atmosphere of some kind...

  6. I agree with silkworm. I hate games that slow me down just for lack of storyline. Better a sweet and short game, rather than a long game with little content. I also remembered that the last sliding puzzle I played was the one in Prey, where you were in a cube that you had to rotate in order to close up all its sides with expanding metal. I hated it...

    As silkworm said, Coherence is the most important aspect. He also has a point by saying that players shouldn't just take objects because they are of later use, even though it doesn't even make sense to the player yet. That reminds me of Ultima 8. It allowed the player to take ALL objects in the game, useful and useless ones. It was the gamer's choice which ones might come in handy later, although the style of the game made it obvious most of the times. Another great example (also for puzzles) is the Thief series. There, you can also take many useless things. Of course, the game's orientation makes it perfectly clear which things are useful and which not, but it's a start.

    Another aspect that goes hand in hand with such gameplay is trying to make the game as realistic as possible. That doesn't mean that you have to abandon fiction, but only that the gameplay seems realistic in the game's own world. This way maximum immersion is possible. Compare that to games that constantly rely on unrealistic behavior and puzzles that don't link with reality. A great example is the Leisure Suit Larry series. The puzzles are over the top and basically require the gamer to find the solution the hard way by trial and error. Only rarely make the solutions sense. For example in LSL6 you have to get a case of glasses just to get the glass cleaning cloth inside which you have to use with dental floss to make a bathing slip, so that you can finally access a pool. Of course a glass cleaning towel would never be big enough to suit as a bathing slip, so the puzzle is not just unrealistic, but also illogical and only solvable through trial and error. Although the game series is fun, these kinds of puzzles should be avoided nowadays, as they frustrate gamers more than the gain in progress actually motivates them. There's a reason why the adventure genre died in the United States with Lucas Art's last adventure game Grim Fandango. Although it wasn't this game's fault - it's actually great - but it shows that gamers were sick of solving unrelated puzzles, just as they were sick of playing games with no storylines. That's why in the same year Half-Life was such a huge success. Games have to go with the times. Oldschool gameplay is nice, but only if it is adapted and fit into modern gameplay experiences.

  7. Anderson_Jag:
    The sliding puzzle hatred a bit of personal thingie :) I gotta admit I do not enjoy them in their pure form either and they where pretty much the only puzzles in Professor Layton I did not enjoy solving. I think u need some kinda of hyper-mind in order to solve them without using trial and error (or perhaps I am just bad at em :P) and so it does not appeal to me. Also, in games they always seem to out of place, like the one in RE4 and a Monkey Island (or was it Broken Sword?) But taste differs I guess :)

    Glad you enjoyed the game and thanks for sharing your thoughts on requiem!
    About logic, I think it is a bit tied to into coherence as it that also includes behaving as the game world would. But your point is still valid I think, and saying a illogical puzzle is okay cause "it's a wacky game" is wrong.

    While I do not enjoy the scavenge hunt in classical adventure games I think it is better than being able to pick up everything. It might be the design of previous games that is to blame, but leaving items behind is annoying and also one is never sure what might be useful. Dream web had this and while I did not play much of it, I found it annoying to be overwhelmed with objects. Also, I think there is some pleasure in finding some new item and wondering where it might be useful. Still, as u say picking up some mundane item like shovel since game design dictates that it will be important later on, no mater how useless it feels at the time, is immersion breaking.


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