Riddle me this Fat Man…

What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?

Self Portrait
Self Portrait

A sleep deprived game developer trying to push through a new build.

This is a blog about puzzles in games. I personally love puzzles and while writing this blog I discovered just how much I have to say about this topic. This was originally a footnote in my piece on “Game Design for Player Interaction” but became a 4+ series on mechanics. I could probably write a book on puzzles but that is one project too many. So this will be a very high overview of my thoughts on the topic.

Anyways… I had more thoughts about game design in puzzle games like Sam & Max. What is the design? Many would argue that the main mechanic is using the right verb (look, touch, pick up, use, etc) with the correct noun (items, people, etc) to solve puzzles. Visa ve, the game design would be classified as a puzzle game. I’ve seen many flame wars online about whether that is good design or not or even actually counts as video games at all. No matter how many hateful tweets go out or how many people are attacked in the end there are still games using puzzles and video games that use puzzles as there main mechanic.

The popularity of the Game of Thrones and Borderlands adventure games are proof that there is a market for these kinds of products. Arguing about whether they are a game or not only serves to hurt developers and players. Puzzles are still relevant and interesting mechanics so why throw them away? Why throw out perfectly fine bathwater?

More on this in the future.

Via Telltale Games

Researching puzzles for the upcoming twin-stick shooter I’m working on brought up several interesting articles about mechanics. One major feature of puzzle based games included having a dominant strategy and having low replay ability. In addition, puzzles should strive to be created out of mechanics that make sense but also aren’t given away too easily. Designing puzzles for games take time because of their complexity but the payoff can be great if done well.

So, puzzles are game mechanics that have a dominant strategy. A DS is a way of solving a problem that is always right. A Rubix cube is solved when the sides are each a solid color set. In Skyrim you can open certain doors only when the correct symbols on rotating columns are lined up in the right order. To get passed the Green Door you need a Green Key. Find the exit in this maze. The list goes on. The main point is that there is only one true solution for a puzzle.

My problem is that I think this is limiting. First, with enough skill you could theoretically find the dominant strategy for every game ever. Form my examples on StarCraft and Tic Tac Toe to Perfect Dark’s “Perfect Sim” AI. In case you weren’t a glutton for punishment, the Perfect Sim could time their shots so perfectly that they could kill you from across a map while running blind folded with one digital hand behind their back. Give them a Far Sight and just walk away.

I'm a reasonable AI. Via The Road Warrior
I’m a reasonable AI. Via The Road Warrior

Though you could beat it, the Perfect Sim represents the possibility of a machine that can reach the skill ceiling. That unreachable perfect player who would be able to perform at the absolute best every time. For a first person shooter we would likely say it is a game and not a puzzle. If you are at the level of the Perfect Sim, however, is it still a game or just mechanical puzzle solving?

Elvis not with standing.
Elvis not with standing. Via Rare

I think the key ingredient most people leave out of a puzzle’s definition is if it is dynamic or static. Yes a Perfect Sim could play a static “perfect” game of Perfect Dark and it could be a puzzle but some pieces of the game are randomized to make it a little dynamic. For instance gun spread, random respawn points, and the number/skill of the other players would affect the outcome. Just running in the same way to the same place and firing will not “solve” Perfect Dark.

What I think game designers (myself included) are missing when designing a puzzle is the tiny element of chance. Consider Threes. The new tile isn’t guaranteed to always spawn as the same number. Each time it could be different (1, 2, 3) so while there is a better way to play, there is no sure fire strategy to win every time (especially difficult when there isn’t really a win condition outside of the physical and mathematical limits of the game). To make puzzles work well in a game their mechanics have to have consistency while remaining engaging.

Via Sirvo

I think of Elder Scrolls’ Oblivion did it right. You could do a mini puzzle in order to change an NPC’s opinion of you through Speechcraft. By choosing one of four answers from a list of possible answers you had to gauge how much you would raise or lower someone’s opinion while mitigating the negative impact you might have because you had to chose all four responses at least once. It was voluntary, short, dynamic, and consistent.

In stark contrast Bio-Shock did it completely wrong with their water pipes hacking. The puzzle itself wasn’t bad. It was consistent, dynamic, and short but it wasn’t always voluntary. In addition while Oblivion’s conversation puzzle was a non-combat mini game Bio-Shock could be a mid-combat break. One minute you are taking heavy fire and a Big Daddy blows through a wall BUT WAIT–I need to hack this gun turret. The two puzzles are similar but the way they are presented within the game is extremely different that make or break the feeling of the scene they are made for.

Back to puzzles in general. I think puzzles are the foundation of all games. In truth they are part of the continuum of play that games are a part of. Puzzles would occupy the one end of the spectrum with static play and dominant strategy while what we think of as games would be on the other end with dynamic play and no consistent dominant strategy (even though certain games have strategies that are better than others alla StarCraft for example). In order for puzzles to stay relevant I think game designers should strive to create interactive experience problems that are more dynamic and invite the player to creatively solve them through play elements.

What if you had to align two space ships for docking as a puzzle. The are spinning and sliding through space. It would be like solving a moving Rubix cube. The player would have to control for spin, angle, speed, and not crash them into one another. What if you had to complete a Threes like puzzle but while dodging a hail of gunfire? The possibilities are endless. Each technically a puzzle but each a dynamic ever changing style of play.

Now you're thinking with portals! Via Valve
Now you’re thinking with portals! Via Valve

There are so many games using ideas like this that I think we will see puzzles as integrating farther into the background of games till we don’t even know they are there. It will be all game play. There will always be puzzlers out there too–and there is nothing wrong with that. In the end it comes down to how you want to play (or interact) and what is available.

Thanks for reading!


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