Thursday 21 February 2013

Puzzles, what are they good for?

I recently came a across this article from AdventureGamers about puzzles, and it got me thinking. The article covers the different ways in which puzzles have been swapped for other activities over the years, something that I am very interested in. There is so much great about adventure games that just seem to be held back by their puzzles. It always seem that they break the flow of the experience. I find that many adventure games are more engaging to play when you have a walkthrough close at hand. Of course, consulting a guide has it own share of problems, and is far from an optimal way to play. Some other solution must exist.

Ever since we started Frictional Games, a big goal has been to try and fix this somehow. With each game we have incorporated new ideas in order to deliver a more streamlined experience; to try and minimize the problems that puzzles tend to cause.

When we started our Super Secret Project our initial idea was to get rid of traditional puzzles entirely. A focus from the start was to have levels where the goal was very clear. We wanted to create "scenes of drama" where the player would be free to role play without worrying about solving puzzles. But as the project has progressed, more and more traditional puzzle design have slipped in. I have been aware of this for quite a while, but the AdventureGamers article slapped me in the face with it. Despite all our efforts to the contrary, we seem unable to remove the puzzles entirely. There is just something that makes them a crucial ingredient.

The three main reasons seem to the be following:
  • Goal. They give the player a goal. When a situation is set up in the form a of a puzzle it is so much easier for the player to understand what to do next. It sets up a framework on how to behave, act and what outcomes to strive for. Actually, it is more accurate to say that setting up situation in a comprehensive manner gives you a puzzle. So the puzzle-element is simply a sort of side effect. (For those interested, here is an entire blog post dedicated to this subject).
  • Structure. It is an excellent way to set up a structural framework and provide flow. It is impossible, and story-telling wise unwanted, to allow the player to go in whichever way or do whatever they please. It is necessary to set up scenes in such a way that it confides the player to a certain path (or paths). Puzzles provide bottlenecks that are implicit and goes along with the narrative. If you want the player to visit rooms A, B and C before going to room D, you can set up a puzzles that achieves this. This system also lets the player drive the story forward. Instead of it the game telling the player when it is time to move on, the player is the ones in control. It also sets up a nice way to control the flow of the narrative. For instance, if the player is required to slow down and remain in an area for a while, you can have them searching for clues or engage in other puzzle related activities.
  • Immersion. Puzzles are a great way for the player to become part of the story. When solving a puzzle players use their knowledge of the game's world in a way that has an effect on the narrative. Players become one with the story and base their decisions on that. The puzzle is not there to test the player's wits and/or hinder progress, but to increase the sense of presence. By having something that requires the player to connect the dots often makes it much more engaging. Like how a description in a book can be more compelling if written in an indirect and/or metaphorical fashion.
I find all of these strong arguments for having puzzles. But at the same time the problems of puzzles remain. The AdventureGamers article point a few ways in which games have worked around puzzles; but the problem is that this mostly also removes what is so good about puzzles. For instance, The Walking Dead uses important dialog options to make the player part of the story. But in order to this, the game needs to have long cut scenes and reduce its scope of interaction. Players no longer push the story forward or get implicit goals. The game simply tells them what to do and when it is time to move on. For all its accomplishments, The Walking Dead fail to deliver a game where you play all the way through. This is not the kind of experiences we want to make at Frictional Games.

Instead of thinking about what to replace puzzles with, it is more rewarding to consider how to evolve them. How to improve them in a way that keeps the good traits and removes the bad. The first step towards this is to consider why we have puzzles at all. I think a major reason many adventure games gets problems with puzzles is because they are never justified. Every puzzle is seen as a "fun challenge", a feature with intrinsic value that should not be questioned.  I think that simply asking the question: "how does this puzzle serve the overall experience" is bound to be a good start.

Once it has been decided that a puzzle is really needed, the next question is what kind of complexity it should have. If you want a game that is about engaging the player in a narrative, you really want the puzzle to be as simple as possible without losing any of the benefits  So what is simple enough? My current gold standard is:

"A puzzle should make players to do something in such a way that they feel they came up it themselves."

This means that the puzzle must give the player some kind of "revelation" and must not feel spoon fed. The path from encountering the obstacle to performing the solution should not be too obvious or simple. However, this often means puzzles become too complex and/or difficult. The solving problems then devolves into "guess the designer" which ruins the intended effect. The player should be kept inside the game's world and never be forced to think outside of that. What follows are some of the ways we try and solve this:
  • Locality. All ingredients for solving a puzzle should be in close proximity to one another. This makes sure the player does not get stuck because of missing a clue or an item at a now distant location.
  • Multiple Solutions. Having many ways to solve a puzzle is often used as a replayability feature. In our games, it is instead used to make sure that the solution feels natural and intuitive to a wide range of players. In many cases we have actually implemented whatever fitting approaches that testers have tried (to the point of even allowing button mashing as a way to progress). 
  • Low Item Density. By making sure there are not too many locations, objects, characters, etc, one can avoid confusing the player and leading them on stray paths. Too few items can also be a problem of course, so one has o have a bit finesse.
  • Coherent Simulation. This means that mechanics work globally and are consistent throughout the game. For instance, a pickax is able to break any object made of ice. Most of the recent great puzzle games like Braid and World of Goo use this approach; however all these games are set in fantastic realms where the mechanics come before the story. In a narrative driven game aimed to have a sense of "reality", it is much harder to be 100% consistent. We have tried it with physics and it comes with all sort of trouble. More info here.
  • See it as an Activity. When possible it is often rewarding to think of puzzles as an activity. This push you out of mindset of just thinking about having clever solutions. If you want to have puzzles that are there to enhance our storytelling, they need to stop being seen as challenges. 
  • Part of the World. The most obvious, and also hardest one: puzzles should always stay consistent with the story. If not, it will be painfully obvious when one is encountered. Resident Evil is a poster child of this; very few of its puzzles make sense in the game's world.
  • Story Coherent Hints. I think the best way to make sure that the player is not stuck is to have protagonist comments, notes, or whatever auxiliary means, show the puzzle from different angles. This in order to make sure that the player has not misunderstood some concept and is seeing the puzzle in the "right way". If players get stuck, the most common cause is that there is some step in the logic that they failed to catch. By having subtle hints it is possible to minimize this from happening
The above tips are meant to facility a smoother experience for the player while trying to solve the puzzle. Another important issue is how to make it clear that there is a goal at all. Player often get stuck in games because they do not realize what their objective is, what puzzle it is that they are supposed to solve.  Here are three ways that can help overcome this problem:
  • A Clear Goal. This is probably what we have tried to use in most of our games. It basically means that you make sure players know where to go next. In Amnesia we always tried to have some obvious obstacle or let some kind of note/vision give a hint. As a back-up we also employed a somewhat immersion consistent todo-list, where further hints where given. 
  • Hidden, but guided. Sometimes it is possible to never tell the player exactly what to do, but guide and/or confine them in such a way that they will stumble upon it eventually. A simple, but effective, example is in Silent Hill 2 where you need to escape a well by finding a loose rock. It is a great way to create a sense of panic, and since the solution is so easily found it never becomes frustrating.
  • Spelled out Solution. This is when you just tell the player front up exactly what they are supposed to be doing. This might seem kind of of boring, but can work really well in some situations. A perfect example is the food rationing in The Walking Dead. Here it is obviously clear what you need to be doing, but a quite hard to decide who to give food.
Despite following all these rules, it is not sure that you come up with a puzzles. It is vital to not see them as stumbling blocks along the players's journey. You want something that enhances the player's time in the game's virtual world. Not something that reduce it.

A very bad example of this is in the remake of Broken Sword. When encountering a locked door, a sliding puzzle pops suddenly pops up. Disregarding that I loath sliding puzzles, this is really bad. It has nothing to do with the game's narrative. I gain nothing in terms of a connection with the story by solving this. It is simply there to hinder my path. What makes it worse is that the obstacle itself, a locked door, is not really interesting. The designer has taken an uninspiring set up and made it worse. This is a bad usage of puzzles.

A good example is found in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where you need to open a passage to a priest's secret hideout. Upon arriving at the church you are not aware of there even being a hide-out and need to read this in a note. Here is also a clue on how to access it; the church bell must be rung in a certain order and opening up a secret passage way downstairs. I think this sort of puzzle is great; it requires a combination of lore, exploration and force the player to make narrative connections. It also lets you interact with the environment in an interesting fashion. By both discovering and opening the secret passageway the player has an active role in the progression of the story. 

There is a catch though. The mechanism for opening the hideout makes little sense. The whole town would notice whenever the priest wants to go to his lair. But in the end, it does not matter. It satisfy enough criteria to still be a good puzzle. This is a really important aspect of the craft.

Coming up with puzzles is hard. Coming up with puzzles that are coherent, engaging and fit with the flow of the narrative is extremely hard. If you want to make an engaging and varied adventure, it is impossible to make every puzzle perfect. Above all else, the puzzle must fit with the experience that you want to create. Players can see past strange mechanics (like the above bell puzzle), live with simplified inventory system (like in The Walking Dead) and other sub-optimal solutions as long as it serves to enhance the experience. This is very important to remember when creating a puzzle. 

The goal is not to make players think you are clever or to do the most complex set up. The goal is to make sure all parts serve the experience as a whole. It is very easy to forget this (I have done so many times myself) and it does not help that puzzles are fiendishly hard to evaluate. But I think that with the right mindset, it should not be an insurmountable challenge.

As mentioned in the start, over the years puzzles have been pushed aside for other mechanics. Games with more progressive design either push the puzzle elements into the background (eg Uncharted) or base all around a specific mechanic (eg Portal). I do not think it is time to give up on the more classical adventure game puzzles yet though. By this I do not mean that we should go back to the interconnected puzzle design of old days (as explained here). Instead we should try and look at puzzles in a different light and see how we might change them and reinterpret their role. This post has been an attempt to do just that, but I think there is a lot more to explore. It would be very bad to abandon the quest to combine storytelling and puzzles just yet.

Those interested in more puzzle discussion might want to take a look at series of articles on puzzle that I wrote a few years back while working on Amnesia. They can be found here. The posts go through some other aspects of puzzles design that should be of interest..

I am also interested in getting your input and/or links to other articles on this subject. It is not easy to come by good writing on puzzles, and even harder to find something that discuss narrative-serving puzzles, so I am very grateful for any feedback and tips!


  1. I love these posts. With every word I find myself agreeing more and more with each sentence and some of these things should be second nature to every game designer. Sadly, this is not true with the way the industry is today. I think Lone Survivor did an awesome job creating immersion through puzzles. The following isn't an article on puzzles, but I think it is an amazing solution to evolving them. Skip down to Nathan's thoughts halfway through the article -

    1. Lone Survior is interesting because it almost has puzzles in a simulation sense. Like the scavange (and dare I say "crafting") of food, or always having the choice to do drugs instead of solving your problems. It is perhaps easy to just focus on the very local and scene based puzzles and disregard the more global ones.

      Problem with having stuff like this is that enter balancing hell. Both sanity and light are sort of global puzzles in Amnesia and was diffcult to make fit with the game. And these are really simple systems. Still that sort of stuff should not discourage :) After all they can have a very different effect as the RPS stuff hints of.

    2. Yes, Bryne definitely had a different way of handling it. By no means was it perfect but I thought it was a cool experiment. Can't wait to see how you guys tackle these issues in the new project.

  2. This reminded me of a puzzle I did not like much from The Walking Dead episode 1, when you're trying to break into a truck without making too much noise and attracting zombies. The solution was to pick up a pillow and use that but I never even saw the pillow. It would have been nice if the game had given me a hint about where the pillow was. I think a system where more and more obvious hints over time are given to the player can work well to solve issues like I had. If only a character had said, "I think I see a pillow behind that brick wall." I could have continued on my way without needing to resort to a walkthrough. And I agree that having a walkthrough handy seems to be the best way to play an adventure game.

    1. Sadly my friend, it gets even worse. You don't use the pillow for opening that window. Instead, you use it to kill a zombie. The pillow, while was a very obvious method of breaking a window without making ANY noise is not used. Instead the player has to pick a small gizmo from a car (don't remember the name of those things right now), break it and throw a little piece of metal into the window, making a hell of a racket.

      I have no idea why they didn't went with the pillow. It was weird and unnecessary. Almost like the Back to the Future puzzle where you are asked for a wrench... when the... tool box is next to you. Now that's what I call "easy mode ON".

  3. Yeah its true, puzzles just always held me back and harmed my experience in adventure games, "Scratches" comes to my mind. Theres nothing worse than having to go back and search every inch of each screen for items cause you dont know what to do.

    I think Botanicula or Walking dead are handling it well, very easy puzzles which are more like realistic problem solving and a way of "doing" the story and interacting with the world.

  4. Great article. Totally agree with the necessity for puzzles to be an engaging activity rather than a challenge to block progression.

    Do you think it might be sensible to actually make 'puzzles' almost exclusively *not* necessary to the main progression of the game?

    I find nothing breaks immersion quite as effectively as trying and failing to play 'guess the developers mind', so if we are going to have to compromise in order to retain the engagement with less risk, making puzzles side-objectives seems like a good solution - provided of course that there are other engaging activities along the way.

    We then get a slight problem with reward - if progression is not the reward, then we would need to include something else relevant. Aside from being drawn further into the world by engaging with and resolving the issue, giving a narrative reward like extra information and locations to explore seems like the best way.

    As a side note, I think you guys have a distinct advantage in terms of being able to think about puzzles differently, due to the method of interaction you have developed. Direct physical control is such a fascinating and engaging experience anyway that you don't need to have a serious challenge in order for it to be engaging. For a traditional Point&Click game, pulling on levers, ropes and pushing objects is not, in itself, an engaging experience because the means of interaction is so abstract - wheras just opening desk drawers is engaging in Amnesia, let alone using ropes, levers etc.

    1. - "Do you think it might be sensible to actually make 'puzzles' almost exclusively *not* necessary to the main progression of the game? "

      Because of how puzzles help with Goals and Structure, I think that puzzles should not always be optional. We actually tried this at first, but for reasons outlined in the post some stuff did not turn out very good. Puzzles help provide a lot of backbone to the narrative storytelling, which is partly what the I wanted to explain :)

    2. Interesting! That makes a lot of sense, given the previous articles you have written suggesting much the same. I wonder what other means of establishing goals and structure could be used, in order to free the player from that restriction to the narrative, and what other restrictions would have to come in instead...
      I wonder if that would even still make for an engaging experience, certainly Dear Esther was, but as you said in the last article, it - and others like it - are short, perhaps due to an inherant limitation to the approach...

      Excellent food for thought, as always! Your response is much appreciated

  5. I have an example of a game that went against the low item density rule and worked very well (from what I remember).


    There were hundreds of items in this game; you could pick up discarded food containers, every house had cutlery, sometimes you could pick up individual peas off the floor. Most items were common and useless, but I think it added to immersions (I mean, who really picks up everything they find and carries it all around with them?).

    This worked around a common problem with puzzles in adventure games that I don't think you mentioned: That there is usually only one object for a specific task. For example, in Zak McKraken, you need a crayon to draw various symbols, but there's only one crayon in the entire game (where the game world spans several countries and even another planet). In the real world, finding a crayon isn't a challenge. In Dreamweb, however, if you needed a knife for a puzzle, there were loads lying around. This does mean that locality is very important for one-off items though.

    1. I never played dreamweb although I was partly inspired by it (most gfx wise) for my first proper game (fiend) :)

      Did not know about the "any knife will do" aspect which sounds really cool. I guess you just have to teach the player to not do the usual adventure game kleptmania when playing a game like this.

      However, I have memories of hearing that it is quite hard (gonna read up on it tonight), and partly because of this high item density. Perhaps it is hard because for some puzzles, like key to lock, there is only one unique item that does the trick. When there is a huge amount of items, then that becomes really hard.

      This also reminds me of those old, black and white, shadowgate-like games, that flooded the mac for almost 30 years ago. There you could pick up any object in the scene and it got hard to progress really quickly. I was quite young when playing them (a lil over 10) and might be because of that, but me and my friend could not progress at all.

      Still I love the idea of consistency in items, so that everything small enough can be picked up. But I think that as soon as your needed item cannot be local (pick up the key to warehouse at the bar) then it becomes very hard to not have players getting stuck.

  6. Thomas, I normally always agree with you, but why was your goal to remove puzzles completely? I can't believe that a game without puzzles would be a good game. It just would be like Dear Esther, where you absolutely couldn't do anything.

    Puzzles are the most important thing in a game, even more as the story! Looking back to Penumbra: Overture, there excellent puzzles were placed in. Or the Silent Hill series shows that a puzzle never could be too difficult. Silent Hill has extremely hard puzzles, but that's exactly what a good game needs.

    Puzzles should be so complex and difficult that you often couldn't solve them without to use google for help.

    Don't think it is bad when the player will pull out of the game in this moment. A hard puzzle just presented an intellectual game that requires a big brain mass by know something about physics and logics.

    That's what marked a good game by involving and immersing the player. I LIKE it when I don't know what to do as next!!!

    A game with less or easy puzzles isn't an experience at all.

    I like your games because they know to combine good puzzles with scary atmosphere. I like that combination of both.
    I also like other adventure games like "Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine" because of the good puzzles and open world mechanics where you have to use your brain what to do and how to get forward. There are no hints, no helps, no tutorials. The player has to do it alone and that makes a game plausible ans feels like a real experience instead of a typical "game".

    Puzzles also should be plausible and placed with sense, that they even don't looks like a classical puzzle you call as "fun challenge". A puzzle never should seem like a fun challenge, a puzzle has to be because it is a part of the environment.

    It never should be placed just to challenge the player, it must be placed where it's logical to find it there.

    The best example is Penumbra Overture, where the environment looks like it were real and not a "game setting". This is also why the puzzles are plausible and challenging by using real physics.

    This is the experience, when you have to think on what to do next. If that feature doesn't exist or just in a simple form, then the game wouldn't be a masterpiece.

    Puzzles also should be intertwined each other.

    For example you need power for a generator, but before power can be fitted, you need an idea how to get the battery and then the fuse is broken, but it's on the top of the shelf. The room is locked and the key is broken or at the other side of the door. Then you need a paper and put it under the door and get the key by using a screwdriver. Then you have to repair the key first before it can be used. To repair the key you need other stuff...

    Well, puzzles shouldn't be the main challenge in the game, but they just should be realistic complex. The mein goal is the experience with dramatic story, but you have to solve puzzles to get through the game.

    When it's easy to get through a game without thinking what to do as next and without using interaction to build up a way out, then this game will just be a short experimental picture book story like Dear Esther, but nothing challenging.

    You also said we should see games as challenges.

    When you rip out all puzzles in your super secret project, then it will never be better as all previous games your company made. And I think people will expect a better game, even when it's hard to top yourself.

    So I hope you will implement very mich challenging puzzles in your next game. I think you also played Silent Hill, when you know about the grade of puzzles.

  7. The guy who wrote the article from AdventureGamers is totally wrong with his opinion.

    "Puzzles simply aren't as exciting as action."

    Pah, he should go playing his Call of Duty crap and shoot the enemies heads off when he prefer action!

    "it does represent a very unforgiving barrier to entry that limits its appeal to mainstream."

    Here again... he should play his dumbed down Call of Duty what is made for mainstream. Only dull games are made for mainstream, because the goal is not to make a good game, the goal is to make big money. This is why little indie developers make better games than all the hollywood blockbuster action garbage!

    "Rewards, too, are much more restrictive in adventures."

    Rewards are fun-game elements. To get rewarded for a puzzle means the game is not plausible because it is like a typical game. I solved a puzzle? Where is the reward? People are totally wrong to understand the true meaning what a game wants to mediate. To get rewarded and rewarded again is also not the goal of a dark horror experience!

    "puzzles are pretty much the antithesis of story and exploration."

    Hahaha, totally wrong again. Puzzles are a VERY important feature for exploration!

    "Life just isn't about jumping through as many hoops as possible..."

    What adventure games is he playing? Must be totally banal.
    I think, he's talking about adventured for children?

    "having a door lock made of complex brainteasers is ridiculous."

    Locked doors are very good puzzles!

    "There's a reason we keep seeing the same paper-under-the-blocked-keyhole puzzle."

    The only game I remember with that puzzle is Penumbra Overture and this was one of the best challenging puzzles.

    Sorry, I can't read this article any further.
    This guy isn't even worth to scribe an article about puzzles in adventure games when he don't know anything about to involve and immerse the player. Exactly the contrary of his words is the fact!!!

    Thomas, how can you believe this article?

  8. I think the “goal” itself is enough to keep one from playing puzzles. Everyone wants to complete something and playing puzzles give you just that.

  9. What I gathered from this post is that the essence of good puzzle design is to unite the puzzle with the story, to make the act of solving the puzzle not an obstacle to progression, but an act of progression. For example:

    "Your father left you a note on the study door saying he urgently needs your help. You'll need a key to open the door so you can get in. You wonder where a key might be."

    The player is told they must now look for a key, and then make their way back to the door, so the story can continue. The puzzle is an obstacle, and the solution, the key, exists outside of the story. The player doesn't feel like part of the story, they are searching for an insignificant key when they want to move beyond a door they have already found. The goal and story are out of sync.

    "Your father's old study key is lying on the floor. Next to it is a note telling you he urgently needs your help. You wonder where the study might be."

    The player decides, based on this evidence, that their current goal is to find and open the study door and help the protagonist's father. The puzzle of searching for the study door exists inside the story. The player feels like part of the story, they are searching for something significant - the door they want to move through, but haven't yet found. The goal and story are in sync.

    1. Important here, which I tried to say in the article, is that doing this kind of thing without a puzzle does not give the same effect. If you just do a cut-scene (or some other automatic way) the player will not take part in a significant part of the story. And if you simply lay out the bits in a very simple manner then the player might not take not to what they are actually doing.

      To use your example: When the players is in the study, they must feel as if it was them who made it happen. That they were the casual agents that made the story progress. After completing a puzzle the player can say "I did that!", but if it was a cutscene or a spoon fed experience that cannot say that.

      This link between casuality and puzzles is quite interesting and something I might write a post about :)

      Also, to just further clear my thoughts on this: What I outline in most of the article, are ways to make sure that you get this feeling of being a "casual agent" without letting it ruin the flow of the experience. So the problem is twofold:
      - recognizing WHY the puzzle is needed.
      - design the puzzle that it functions in this fashion (with as little chance as possible of backfiring).

    2. So, designing the puzzle in a certain way will make the player feel like the story's causal agent. It follows, or so it seems to me, that the next step is to identify a particular approach to puzzle design that gives the player a strong sense of agency.

      It's interesting you say "backfiring", to me that implies designing a puzzle in a certain way can seem to improve player agency, but actually takes it away, or ends up taking it away in the long term.

  10. Puzzles are a problem, and I mean that in the best way possible. A game by design is a series of choices from a series of problems functioning by rules of what is possible (can I jump? can I climb? can I communicate or interact by choice? etc). The idea of taking out puzzles in a game is as impossible as it is foolish (unless you want your only mechanic to be walking like in Dear Esther). Narrative is the mood and soul of a game, but games are not books or movies, they are games. Games require rules (IE mechanics) or they cease to be games. You and Frictional makes physics-based puzzle games. You built your engine around it, you built your gameplay around it, and the narrative is the icing. Which is good. If the stealth and puzzles didn't work in Amnesia, if mechanics were intrusive, there'd be no reason to play it. Remember the only weapon Frictional made? Penumbra's physics-based pick axe? The high reliance on physics made combat awkward and you felt more empowered with a means to protect yourself. That didn't work for a Horror puzzle game. But I'd never knock combat for solving problems (when violence itself is not glorified); it is one possible solution in a myriad of solutions. Combat however is a very rare solution to everyday life. If you want to drink a cup of coffee you're not going to stove it in with a brick, you just pick it up; *physics*, problem solved. So interacting with nearly everything in the environment was a logical extension to puzzle games instead of the old guard of McGuyvering everything in the damn room together with duct tape to drink a cup of coffee. So take the same degree of logic into a game. Something wants into my room, it hisses and spits behind the locked door as it tries to break in, what do you do? Just as simple as that. Do you try killing it (can it even be killed)? Do you try going out the window or finding/making some kind of exit? Do you hide and wait or sneak out when it's not looking? But then those choices come back to mechanics for establishing what is physically possible for the player in the world and what you want them to be doing. In my opinion, I think you and Frictional should start looking back at early Horror games to forge a future. Doctor Hauzer for instance? Not a great game; but the idea of walking into a house, essentially one big puzzle, that immediately tries to kill you is very appealing. Or the Portopia Serial Murder Case? Or Sweet Home? There's really an extraordinary amount of possibilities, and as many puzzles as solutions.

  11. Thomas, here's a couple of interesting thoughts on puzzles from the creators of The Walking Dead:

    1. Read this in the rock paper shotgun interview. I think THe Walking Dead does a lot of stuff right when it comes to combing puzzles and story telling. What is the best is easily these sort of decisons that you make. These are at their best when they are sort of implicit too. I like the food chair, and the choice of whether to deal with the zombie by the train a lot better than the binary "who do you save puzzles". I think that kept my sense of involvement in the story a lot better. This constant feel that your actions was great in the game.

      I do think it sort of failed at many puzzles though. Many times because they were too simply. It did not feel like I was the one that figured this stuff out, but that I just interacted were I needed. I think a problem is that when your game is 90% pre-animated cutscenes it is so easy to rely on these whenever you cannot come up with interesting actions for the player. A lot of time the protagonist solved the puzzle. This of course keeps the pacing going, but I felt like it made it somewhat lacking too.

    2. Let's be clear about one thing: as much as I love TWD (one of the best games of 2012 for me), the puzzles - that limited amount that exists in the game - suck. Or, more precisely, they're not there to to really be puzzles.

      TWD is cleverly hiding the fact that it's "just" a very well written and very well designed interactive movie by having these bits and pieces of action (shooting zombies), exploration (pseudo free-roam in a limited area) and puzzle-solving (couldn't imagine them easier). They are the game's metaphorical fig leaf, allowing TWD to call itself a game and lose the stigma of an interactive movie.

      However, that's also what's smart and great about the game.

      As designers, we're looking for player engagement and interactivity in our games, and we always - in the old school design - achieve it by making our gameplay about "obstacle removal", be it an enemy we have to kill or a puzzle we have to solve.

      TWD dropped that. They have removed the necessity for manual skill (action games) or brain/logic skill (puzzle games) and offered a completely new kind of challenge: a choice (with its consequences). No more this is about "obstacle removal" of any kind, and that's the genius of this solution. You keep the players engaged, but you don't really require mad finger or brain skills from them, and you never ever kill the pacing.

      On a completely side note, I highly recommend playing the Blackwell series of adventure games. I have played 100s of point & clickers, and done a couple as well (in the 90s). So trust me when I say this: these are the only adventure games in existence that have such well designed puzzles. It's a magical balance between puzzle solving and never really stopping the player's progress. They're not 100% perfect, but they're 95% incredible. If you can get past the archaic visuals, Blackwell is a proof that it's not really that puzzles need to die, it's just that it takes a real skill to implement them well.

      Just like TWD proved that it's not that interactive movies are crap, it's just that it takes a lot of skill to make a great one.

    3. Agree, the puzzles in TWD are not really good by themselves, but they are very important in terms of pacing and to make the player feel a sense of agency. But that does not take away the fact that they could have been better, so the interesting question is how to improve them.

      TWD is, as you say, very much an interactive movie at its core. But what I think makes it so good is not just the feeling of consequence. I think a much greater part is the ability to interact and feel present at key moments. They use their cutscenes to set up situations where the player is forced to be the one in charge as something emotional take place. The consequences (or feel of) play a part, but I think it is just a side-thing. The real heavy hitter is to use the same thing that makes a horror game so scary and channel it in all kinds of other moments.

      I think puzzles are an extremely important element in order to make this happen (which I tried to explain in the blog post). But there is still this nagging feeling that TWD is severely under-using the potential that seem to linger here. Most of the game is just looking at cutscenes and the player only takes part in few actions.

      Would it be possible to design TWD and have the player play the game from start to finish? You could of course not have the narrative play out exactly like in the games, a very different approach is needed in many places. Still, I believe that there is a way to achieve this, I am just not sure how. But part of the solution, I think, is to understand the how's and why's of puzzle better.

      Regarding Blackwell: Well now I MUST play them :) Been thinking about playing, as I have heard good things about them, but the story did not really interest me.

    4. I partially agree about the consequences: we, humans, are not very good at predicting them (we'd live in a completely different world if we were), so they are not the honey that draws in the players.

      However, I wouldn't underestimate them either. Take a look at the last comment to your post about "goals and story-telling". The commenter mentions that "a reasonably supported theory is that the goals people set for themselves (in real life) are based on the interaction and strength of (roughly) three basic "motives" that people tend to not be consciously aware of: achievement motive, power motive, affiliation motive".

      Puzzles take care of the "achievement motive", but, most of the time, nothing else. So here's one of the sources of TWD's success: not only their game is about the "achievement motive" (you progress on your road to the goal, survive difficult situations, etc.), but the "choices" challenge takes care of the "power motive": deciding who lives or dies is an extremely powerful core fantasy.

      Also, the more I think about it, the less I am sure that horror and puzzles go together very well. Horror is about being afraid, about running out of options to get rid of the evil you have been metaphorically cursed with, and about - again, metaphorically, "running out of air". In most cases, even if the horror ends well, the protagonist's proof of superiority and victory only materialize at the very end of the book/movie. Before that, it's all gradually increasing doom and gloom.

      Puzzle solving as a main or ever-present gameplay activity goes against that, because the player experiences a series of small victories all the time (i.e. every time they solve a puzzle). This results, at best, in in a "cat and mouse" experience, where evil is the (brutal) cat and the player is the (smart) mouse.

      It can be countered by following every small victory of the player with even stronger sense of loss and defeat, i.e. for every win the player gets punished with the increased "doom and gloom", but I believe that is truly hard to achieve.

      Not impossible, though.

    5. "Also, the more I think about it, the less I am sure that horror and puzzles go together very well."

      I agree with your sentiments, but the same time puzzles is a very common elements in works of horror. A classic example is getting the drunkard to talk in "Shadow over Innsmouth" by giving in booze. Many Poe stories also have puzzle elements, it is in many ghost stories and modern horror such as "Saw" and "Cube".

      I think the way to do puzzles then is not to "overcome the system" but to "reveal the true horrors of the system". Either the puzzle reveal something sinister (as in "Shadow over Innsmouth" or the activity itself is horrific as in "Saw". I think this is basically what you meant :) But unsure if it is _that_ hard, I think that it almost comes naturally in some cases.

      In Amnesia I think both the water lurker and antidote puzzles worked pretty well in a way to enhance the horror instead of decreasing it and that the puzzle aspect was a vital component. Had these moments been FMVs or just non-brain QTEs they would have lost their impact.

    6. Agreed. As long as one avoids ludonarrative dissonance, and the puzzle solving either "makes the walls close in" or reveals deeper and deeper horror, the puzzles can work well. I think we're talking about the same thing, just from a slightly different angle. I guess when I said "hard to achieve" I meant not just the imagination needed for the design of these puzzles in their relation to the narrative and immersion, but also the strict design discipline needed for this kind of endeavor.

      Unfortunately I cannot address the Amnesia example directly, as I stopped playing it when the enemies appeared. It was both too intense (as in: pants were in danger of soiling ;), and too much of a hassle (I'm kind of a big opponent of deaths in video games, as they ruin immersion etc., but that's a whole different story).

      Still, I believe I know what you mean. Who knows, maybe puzzle solving is the reality hook in the dark world full of madness; that desperate belief of the player that the world around them is still governed by certain logical rules, giving them (often false) hope that ultimately they can prevail.

      Sharing the research, I recommend playing a little indie horror game called Eleusis - at least for a while. It's not the worst looking open world semi-non-linear horror puzzle solver, with UI owing a lot to Amnesia. It's also a perfect showcase of how not to design puzzles, and is a great testbed for pinpointing the problems that may frustrate the players with these kind of games.

    7. Regarding puzzle design: A problem might be that many designers take "puzzle" to literally. I know I did :) You can see in games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil where many times there is a lot of focus on simply creating a riddle. Even classic adventure games have this problem where designers have gone to great lengths to make the puzzle as complex as possibly. In the Double Fine Adventure documentary, Time Schafer says that he thinks a good puzzle is doing something that is not the obvious approach to the situation, but requires the player to "think outside the box". While this sort of thinking is good in theory, I think it is a big cause for the cat-hair-mustaches and inflatable rubber duckies that plague adventure games.

      Regarding Eleusis:
      Oh no! More games I need to try :) I know about it, and meant to play, but sort of slipped my mind. Playing flawed games can be quite enlightening at times, especially with the sort of thing you mention.

      Btw, started blackwell last night and the writing is ace. Only gotten a lil bit in and encountered a single puzzle (which was good one!), but enjoying a lot more then I thought I would.

    8. Absolutely agreed that "outside the box" is wrong. I mean, obviously there cannot be an obvious solution to a puzzle, because then it's not really a puzzle: if there's a closed door and there's a key on the table nearby... Hmmm, what to do?.. :)

      But: relying, on the other hand, on "outside the box" thinking can result in a great frustration of the players. This is the mistake we have made with Painkiller when I still run People Can Fly. The first mini-boss (in the Catacombs level) was unlike anything else you met earlier in the game, i.e. you could not really kill him with brute force, you had to figure out a trick (namely: shoot the ceiling to let in some light to weaken him). This was very "outside the box", and even though it totally made sense in the context of the world (so it's not the case of the cat hair mustache) and even though the game did offer a lot of hints, there were so many players who could not figure it out that the official Painkiller forum was getting a "How to kill the Catacombs boss?" posts every day for a couple of years, *literally*.

      Glad you enjoy Blackwell. Second installment is the weakest, but the series gets back on track in the third and later. If only Dave Gilbert went high-res with these games, he could break out of the ghetto he's in and enjoy his own version of Telltale (which, to a degree, he does enjoy with Wadjet Games, they do release external games after all).

      Anyway, just wanted to sum it up but saying that I think your research and thoughts just saved me a bit of time getting to the same conclusions. I was looking to drop puzzles from our game, but I am beginning to change my mind. After all, TWD has proven that it's not that interactive movies are shit because they feature an ultimate, irreparable flaw in their core design - it's just that no one has done them any justice before. It is very probable that the same can be said about the puzzles: it's not that they ruin everything, it's just that we have to do them "right", whatever that means.

      When doing my own research, I have noticed that in the last 10-15 years no one has ever questioned the need for puzzles, and any "how to design puzzles" article focused just on the obvious ("use logic", etc.). But no one has asked: "Why the hell do we have the puzzles in the first place? Are they making the game better, or do we have them just because it's the thing to have?". In other words, everyone has been focusing on "how", instead of "why". I think it is only in 2011 (the PC Gamer article and comments), and then the last few months (your blog, Adventure Gamers article and comments) when some people realized we need to get to the root of the problem in order to unleash this one last attempt to save the puzzles as a core gameplay experience.

      The paradox is that not many people who love puzzles also love solving them. Take a look at Sherlock Holmes: he is extremely popular, but who does actually stop reading a Sherlock short story before the killer is revealed and tries to first figure it out on their own? Almost nobody. People love the idea of a puzzle, but they love surprises and shocking revelations and twists even more.

      Same with adventure games. Not many buy them thinking "I cannot wait to twist my brain", most buy them because of the promise of a great story and graphics and hassle-free gameplay (i.e. no manual skills required). Again, not saying that we do not have true "puzzle lovers" out there, but in my opinion they are a minority.

      This absolutely does not negate the need for the puzzles, but this different approach - a deep, holistic, honest look at the puzzle design (that the above two paragraphs are just an example of) - that has surfaced only recently will ultimately help us make them "right". So thanks for the inspiring posts.

    9. Glad you found my writing helpful! That should make us even as your post on immersion was the last nail in the coffin for having first person hands. :)

      - "I have noticed that in the last 10-15 years no one has ever questioned the need for puzzles, and any "how to design puzzles" article focused just on the obvious ("use logic", etc.)."
      This is really, really weird. Adventure game was the biggest game genre for the longest time, and adventure game puzzles still exist in some form in today's biggest titles. Yet, there is nothing written about it. I could find 3 or so articles.

      Have you done any research in Interactive Fiction? Her is a good list otherwise: (Shade, Photopia, Shrapnel & De Baron are quick and good). I find that interactive fiction often has lot more advanced puzzles than graphical adventures and are a lot more progressive in their design. But even here, where there a lot of non-puzzly games, there is not much written about it, other than the stuff that you mentioned like "use logic dammit" or just categorization. But playing the games, one can find a lot of good stuff. However, the problem is often that IF has so much more verbs at their disposal that many of the really great stuff are translate to other media. But in any case I think it is good inspiration.

    10. Thanks, I'll give it a try. I thought about it a couple of times, but my gigantic research backlog (today's special: Spycraft!) and the dislike for the overload of written words in games never made me go beyond "maybe one day" :) But if you're saying it's worth it...

      (Also, as for the first person hands, they can work well if the protagonist is wearing gloves. Just saying ;) - but so far the consensus here is that we're not doing them for our game).

    11. Sorry if this is going a little off topic, just wanted to weigh-in on the FPP hands/legs for immersion...

      I totally agree with what you say Adrian, but I feel you've left out the other part of the story.

      If a player looks down, one of two things will happen...

      A - They see their hands and legs, and realise they are at home and are not part of the game world, and are infact controlling a puppet, as you say,


      B - They don't see their hands and legs, they realise that they are at home and are controlling a puppet, and they realise that their character is also not in the game and is merely a camera that exists to provide them with a perspective instead of being part of the world.

      I don't think this is a battle that can be won by including or not including hands and legs, but in terms of creating dissonance between the player and their character, I feel that not including them is more destructive.

      Either way, super interesting discussion, only just found that blog series you do so lot's more reading to catch up on!

    12. Sam, when the players look down to see what's there, it does not matter what they find. You have already lost them by this point. So there may just as well be nothing.

      Also, never allowing full 90 degree Look Down helps.

    13. Thanks for the response.

      Your may be right there, but there is a great example in the ARMA series of how it can work when implemented right (along with many more examples where it's pretty ruinous (Tresspasser...)) - in ARMA you can 'free-look' independant of your character model, looking down you can see your whole body with the camera in the position it should be. I found that greatly enhanced the feeling that my avatar was part of the world, and ultimately I feel that cosistency is the most important groundwork for immersion.

      Movies don't require me to feel like I'm part of the world in order to immerse me in the fiction, only that I think that the people in it are part of the world - which is why badly implemented green-screens are so destructive to the experience, its impossible to stay convinced. On the other hand, well implemented green-screen scenes, whilst clearly fake, can look convincing enough to not to ruin the experience.

      Limiting the 90 degree look down definately helps games without a player character model when it doesn't feel restrictive (i.e. the game doesnt make you want to look down)

      I totally get where you're coming from, I just think it's not worth giving up on the concept just yet.

  12. Thomas, you ever played "Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine"?
    Which is in terms to puzzles and mechanics the best game I ever played and that means a lot.
    Don't compare this game to the other Indiana Jones titles, because Infernal Machine is unique. I'm not a fan of Indiana Jones as the typical Hollywood hero, but the game is different, it is a very well made 3rd person adventure with challenging puzzles, exploration, story and immersion.
    This game also shows how to make a very good surrounding atmosphere by using sounds instead of music. You always felt alone and immersed.

    When we talk about puzzles, I think the Infernal Machine is one of the best games where puzzles working great and involve the player without breaking the story.

    The old game has a 16-bit installer, so it is impossible to play on actual operating systems. But you can find an installer here which allows not only to install and play the game, it also patches some game files to fix compatibility problems on modern hardware.

    It's a german site, but the installer is in english.
    When you have some free time and are interested to play a very good old adventure game, it's a must to play. You will definitely get some inspirations in terms of puzzles and atmosphere. Well, the atmosphere is fantastic when explore the pyramids of Salomon or the old temples in Peru.

  13. Puzzles can be important to provide a bit of variety, or even a break from action. This is especially true in the action game and shooter genre. After about a half hour of shooting mutants, a puzzle section can provide the necessary breather to prevent the action from becoming mundane or routine.

    Of course, you need to think carefully when designing a puzzle. It's quite easy to screw them up by making them too obscure or just plain boring.

  14. Dangerous Beans24 March 2013 at 18:35

    To me, puzzles are about the most essential part of gameplay, and it is what keeps me playing your titles. As of now, my favourite game by you is Black Plague, but I got stuck twice right at the beginning and had to consult a walkthrough:

    (1) I did not pick up a soda can from the vending machine, so when I came to the freezer I tried to turn it off with what was available. It was obvious that I had to cool down the thermostat, so I picked up a box (those things even look a bit like cold packs), held it into the leaking coolant to freeze it and pressed it against the thermostat. Of course it did not help, but I still think my idea feels more natural than the actual solution for a physics-based game.

    (2) Right after that, when I came to the blood-lock door with a syringe and found out that my own blood won't get me through, I idiotically jumped to the conclusion that I had to get blood from the infected who had chased me from the neighbouring corridor. Got me killed multiple times, obviously. I had completely forgotten about the dead man lying just a few steps behind. This one can only be attributed to my own stupidity, and I can honestly not think of any way the game designers could have made this any more clear.

  15. Definitely a great read, I mostly agree with everything. However in Resident Evil 1 the game does give an explanation for the obscure puzzles, even if it is hidden in the narrative.

    But I also feel this was the appeal of the game, Resident Evil 1 felt like a horror fun house where nothing made sense and monsters were lurking around every corner, aided by camera angles that look like paintings. Usually I like puzzles to make sense within the narrative but for Resident Evil I make an exception, it's part of the charm.

  16. Hi,

    As usual this is really interesting.

    I am looking for more reading about the game design of adventure games and puzzle games (like Monkey Island), especially is they try to analyse the way you do.
    Do you have some links of books to recommend ?

    Also, what could be the reading on game design you would recommend in general ?

    1. There is not a lot of stuff about adventure game design. First off, you want to check out Emily Short's stuff:
      check categories selection to the right to find posts with the subjects you are in to. It is mostly IF related, but should still be useful.

      Here is a good breakdown of puzzles:
      and here is another:

      That is what I could come up with now.

      I do not know any good books on these subjects I'm afraid.

    2. I will look at these links.
      Thanks for your (quick) answer.


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