Monday 19 October 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 7.

Now it is time for the final part in these series on puzzles in horror games! This post will be about some puzzles in Penumbra that I personally find especially interesting. Because of this, the post will be filled with puzzle spoilers so if you are planning on playing any Penumbra game and have not yet done so, do so before reading!
First I am going to go through some basic guidelines we had when designing the puzzles though.

General puzzle design
Our main rule when implementing puzzles was something we called the "Island approach". What this means is that all things needed to solve a puzzle are located in the same area, the "island", and connections between islands should be very few and quite obvious. An example of this kind of connection was the hand and head needed to open the door the in residential area in Black Plague. The puzzles to get hold of the head and hand where both confined to their respective islands and where then linked together, hopefully obviously, at the biometric panel.

I think we managed to stick by this rule pretty well and it was just some instances, like at the end of Overture, when the connections became a bit too obscure. Considering the feedback we have gotten, the appraoch worked quite well and the island approach is something we will use for our upcoming game too.

Having gotten some critique after Overture that there where too many locked door puzzles, we set out to minimize the number of locked doors in Black Plague. Our main goal was to not have a single key-and-door puzzle and while we did not fully succeed, it did force us to come up with more interesting obstacle than we probably would have otherwise. Also, when having a locked door we tried to mask it as much possible or at least make it a bit more interesting by using other means of opening it. It was also interesting to see how many obstacles that boiled down to locked doors when one thought about and how hard it was to not include them.

Now for the puzzle examples:

Invisible Ink (Overture)
This started out as a puzzle where the player had to read a note written in invisible ink by using a uv-lamp and then our writer, Tom, suggested that the uv-lamp should also show text all over the walls. I really like how this combined the puzzle element with a strong horror event and from feedback we got it, people seemed to consider it one of the most frightening moments in Overture.

Exploding Potion (Overture)
At the end of of the game, the player needs to clear a cave-in by using homemade explosives. This is done by first mixing something called Armstrong's Mixture, a highly sensitive explosive, carry it through an "obstacle course" and place it at the cave-in. A fun fact is that we had to censor the real receipt for the mixture as we had to get a 16+ Pegi rating and our publisher where worried that learning kids how to make bombs would give it a higher rating. This is also the cause why dextrin was renamed to the nonexisting substance "baxtrin".

The puzzle was supposed to be solved by looking up the mixture in a book found earlier. However, it was made harder by not properly labling the chemical and a kind of cypher had to be solved. Because of some bad design in this, many people did not make the right connections and got stuck at it. Luckily, there where only 6 different chemicals and it was easy enough to solve it by brute force, something many seemed to do.

Trying to get the chemical past the obstacle course is a favorite of mine. I think many did not like it as it could be quite frustrating, but I think it did what it was intended to. It was quite tense and worked as a sort of physical endurance test as it could be quite exhausing to keep the mouse pressed down, knowing that releasing it for only a fraction of a second could make the solution explode.

The Blood Lock (Black Plague)
When designing Black Plauge another goal we had was to give the puzzles themselves a horror feeling. This puzzle does exactly that and connects quite nicely to the story giving the player some forshadwing of things to come. It is also an example of a locked-door obstacle that we tried to make more interesting and less generic. The desing of the device, where the player needs to inject blood in order to unlock a door, is not very realistic though and a silly way to lock a door in a facility overrun by alien creatures. Player's did not seem too bothered by this though and I think that as long something fits the game world and is fun enough, one can take a bit of implausibility.

The Cryogenics Chamber (Black Plague)
This is another puzzle where the element of horror was used as a base for design. To complete the puzzle the player had to nearly kill himself (making Clarence very disappointed) and then grab a severed head from a thawd cryogenics container. Hopefully this helped sending some chills down the player and still worked as a puzzle.

The Tuurngait Trials (Black Plague)
What made this series of puzzles different from any other puzzle in the Penumbra series was that it tried to convey an idea. The main goal of these puzzles was not to challange the player mentally but rather to have her think as a hivemind organsim and learn to see things their way. This was quite experimental and many people either did not get the theme (and just saw it as some puzzles) or thought that the whole section was out of place. A few people seemed to get the message though and this was very fun for us as we where worried nobody would like it. The segment was far from a success, but was at least a fun experiment and given that some people got the point it might be worthwhile to try the approach some other time (if we do, it will be in a totally different way though...).

Camera Puzzle (Requiem)
This puzzle starts the second leve andl is worth mentioning as it is probably the puzzle with the most possible solutions. The player can choose to take a different path at the beginning and if she decides to tackle the camera head on there are at plenty of ways to do so. Jens spent a lot of time with the puzzle and I was not aware of some of the solutions until after Requiem was released. This puzzle also shows that physics does not mean that puzzles have mulitple solutions "built in", instead it requires time and hard work to implement them. We put more and more time into this for each release and Requiem contains more multiple solution puzzles than the other two games combined.

That marks the end of this post and the horror puzzles series. Hope you all enjoyed it and at least gotten something out of it! As always please tells us what you thought about it and what you would like to see in the future.

For those of you who have not checked all parts. Here is a quick round up:
Part 1: Why are puzzles so suited for horror games?
Part 2: Common problems with adventure game puzzles.
Part 3: Why physics puzzles is not the "promised land" of adventure games.
Part 4: Backtracking and why it is essential.
Part 5: Things to consider when desinging puzzles.
Part6: On "brain boosters" and hint systems.


  1. I liked the Tuurngait Trials, it was funny that I failed them all the first time I did them.
    But I liked them because they showed how predictable humans are.

    Even after I passed the first trials and I said to myself "ok, think NOT as a human. Think as a creature that is actually good and trusty by nature" I still couldn't trust or be good.

    SO it would be awesome if you guys put more "Human Nature" puzzles like that in the future.

  2. I also loved to carry the liquid explosive passing and jumping through the wooden plates, it was nice. Despite the most tremendous and excitement ones, in my case, were all the ones related to the worms.

    I also liked a lot the fact you had to find out a door code in Overture listening to the Morse Code. Wow, that were hard, an absolutely "pencil and paper" one!. : ) Fortunately, Wikipedia came for my help (

    Related to Requiem, the ones related to the "cybernetic" ball had become my favourites.

    Let's see what brings the Unknown... What I would like to see in the future?.
    -The very first of all, that the spirit of your games remains the same. The world doesn't need another dumb linear FPS-Rambo-like-style game with last generation graphics (that's right, that would be a very extreme change, but...).
    -The second one, that basic Overture-like-style fight to come back (not contradicting with the former one, just saying trying to defend yourself, run away the place and hide is part of the fun).
    -The third one, keeping on stealth needed situations and multi-solving puzzles.
    -The fourth one, expanding the chance of exploring (making the extreme comparison, not falling on Clive Barker's Undying flaming linearity -for being a mansion-).
    -And the last one... I hope meeting a friendly ALIVE NPC someday. ;D

  3. A lot of the puzzles in Overture and BP were good, challenging and fun. I understand that there will be some implausibility with the puzzles in-game (like with the blood-lock), but the one puzzle that seemed TOO implausible for me was the cryogenic lab. You can only enter the back room if the heartbeat sensor doesn't detect a pulse? That just seemed a bit silly...couldn't I have just turned the sensor on without going through the rigamarole of nearly getting myself killed, and being able to just slip on through the door when the sensor doesn't detect ANY pulse? I think a keycard/password thing would've made more sense if anything...

    I did, however, throroughly enjoy the Tuurngait trials. I didn't think it dragged me out of the moment, and the sense of being more than just myself, I thought, was really profound. Who would ever think to solve a puzzle by sacrificing myself, so that another person could live...who just so happens to be me as well? I don't know about any of you...but I really found myself questioning exactly what life is, and how relative our perceptions of existence can be. Red might've been crazy and deranged, but who is to say his perception of reality is entirely wrong, and Philip's perception of reality is the god's honest truth?

    And to respond to Anderson_JAG's comment (a l'il)...meeting a living NPC could be nice, but it'd have to be done right. It'd get entirely repetitive and predictable if everyone you "encounter" from a distance ends up dying right before you meet them...but at the same time, meeting an NPC has the possiblity of taking the edge off of the horror. Just knowing the fact that you're not alone could be enough to pull you out of the grip of true horror (although if done right, it won't necessarily do this). I'll guess we'll see how FG decides to handle it...I'm putting my money on there being no live NPCs, though.

  4. I found the puzzles in Penumbra to be pretty good, and that's coming from someone who doesn't particularly like puzzle games. The Tuurngait Trials didn't lead to a spiritual revelation for me, unfortunately, but there are a few puzzles I'd like to bring up.

    I really liked the invisible ink and the blood lock puzzles from overture and black plauge respectively. They added a lot to the atmosphere, rather than just lengthening the gameplay. Also, bashing open the fuse box near the blood lock puzzle I found to be a small detail that blended very well in to the gameplay.

    Of the puzzles I did not paticularly like, the "fix the computer" puzzle in Black Plauge was not very enjoyable experience. I had to use guess and check quite a bit to figure out the programs for each card, and the whole idea of fixing BSODs inside a game environment brings up a lot of annoyances(although my opinion on the subject is somewhat biased, since I had been dealing with real BSODs on my laptop almost right before that puzzle)

    The other puzzle that sticks out in my mind as being kind of "meh" was the mining cart puzzle in black plauge (or was it overture? I don't quite remember). I missed the bolt cutter earlier on, and so I tried to break the chain with a pickax, hammer, dynamite, and then tried blowing up the wall with dynamite, all of which would probably work in real life, but to no avail. I guess this was partly my fault, but the puzzle seemed rather contrived in the first place.

    And on the subject of NPCs, I agree with Greykin that alive NPCs could work, but it would be a very risky maneuver in terms of what it would do to the horror feeling.

  5. Anderson_JAG: Hehe, there was a note in-game describing Morse code... I would think requiring people to look up things on wikipedia to solve a puzzle would be bad design.
    For me the best moment in Penumbra was when you where locked in the computer room with the good doctor Eminiss - purely because of a misunderstanding on my part. At first I thought I had to solve the computer puzzle WHILE avoiding him. This made it really panicky and actually frightening for me. I usually don't find horror games very scary so that will probably be a memory that will stick with me.

    Anyway, it makes me wonder if you have considered making puzzles you have to solve while at the same time having to hide? I suppose it might be very hard to balance well, but if done right it might have the same effect for some players as my encounter with Eminiss had for me.

  6. Nehacoo:
    I think we always thought it would be too stressful/annoying to have some hiding + puzzle situation, but I cannot really recall that it has been discussed. In Overture there was a dog near the blot clipper in an early version and although not a puzzle really, there was a code panel there and an item to pick up. It turned out to be too annoying to sneak past the dog so we skipped it.

  7. Actually, I think that hiding and puzzles would be a very good combination. The very beginning of Overture, I thought the dogs were invincible, so I was sneaking around for a long time after the first dog came, and it was an intense experience. With some gameplay balancing and a decent stealth system, puzzles and hiding would actually be legitimately scary.

  8. The Tuurngait puzzles at the end of Black Plague were awesome both in the intension and the Lovecraftian ruins setting. At the "think as a collective and sacrifice yourself in place of another"-puzzle however it happend to me that I messed up by simply running forward instantly so the hive accused me of acting as a selfish human - it was rather acting as a clueless human from my side :)

    The most intense thing about Black Plague was the fact that there was no way to battle the Tuurngait incarnations - in Overture the dogs lost their horror for me when I figured out how to kill them (dynamite, pick...). If you put aside the frustration aspect for the moment then the best puzzles in my opinion were those including the indestructible enemy creatures like the Tuurngait drones or giant worms in reality or virus visions.

    Combining such invincible monsters with a hiding puzzle would be excellent. It would be a situation where you have enough time to think but you have to make sure to do things right. Take a situation where you have to move objects (or to "pluck" them like the frozen head in Black Plague) while not to knock over other noisy stuff because it would reveal your presence.
    Or you could substitute the element of noise with the element of light. You have to handle somehow a light crystal or some other shining gadget that causes weird shades all over the room arousing the monster's attention.

    In addition to that a variant of a chasing puzzle would be interesting: you are running from a monster which is faster then you and would catch you after some time. The only thing to hinder it would be to throw some oil at the monster causing it to slip or to make a ramp inaccessable.


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