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How to Make Puzzles with Purpose

Musings on Puzzles in Video Games

Have you ever hated puzzles in a video game, not because you don't like puzzles, but because it gated off the segments of the game that were your reason for playing in the first place? This was something that happened to me often and at first, my solution was simply to remove puzzles from games that didn't explicitly focus on puzzle solving. However, after some more thinking, I decided that the problem wasn't that puzzles cannot be integrated with non-puzzle games, but that puzzles are often designed to be vastly different from other parts of the game they're in. Puzzles that are designed for non-puzzle games should not serve just as a change of pace from the core game mechanics, but instead complement them.

Puzzles in Non-Puzzle Games

Bomberman 64

So earlier, I mentioned that puzzles can complement the core game mechanics of a non-puzzle game, but what exactly did I mean by that? Basically, the core game mechanics of a video game can be designed to not only be utilized for the "main" parts of the game but also for the puzzles.

An excellent example of this is how bombs are utilized in the action-adventure game Bomberman 64. While bombs in Bomberman 64 do the standard things you would expect, like damaging enemies and destroying the terrain, they can also be used as a springboard to get to higher or farther areas with a technique dubbed the "bomb bridge." This means that the same variables that affect combat and exploration also affect puzzles such as the size, strength, and type of bomb the player uses. Employing the same game mechanics for puzzles that the player uses for the rest of the game prevents puzzle solving from feeling like a separate part of the game. Another excellent example of a game that utilizes the same game mechanics for every part of the game is the side-scrolling beat 'em up Viewtiful Joe. In Viewtiful Joe, besides punching, kicking, and jumping, the player is bestowed with "VFX Powers," which are abilities that affect your attacks as well as the environment. For example, the VFX Power "Slow" increases the strength of your attacks and slows down enemy attacks but it also can lower flying platforms by slowing down their propellers. Puzzles that are designed around the core game mechanics of a game are even more intuitive because the player is already familiar with the methods to solve them. Something can also be said about games with puzzles that test your motor skills rather than your lateral thinking. The puzzles in the action platformer Iconoclasts are more like obstacle courses than brain teasers that force the player to stop and think. Puzzles that test the same skills as the rest of the game are less likely to stump the player, allowing them to progress at a quicker pace.

Puzzles in Adventure Games

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

Up to this point, I have been writing about puzzle solving in non-puzzle games but I also have issues with games that isolate the puzzles from the narrative. Even if the puzzles are well designed, if they aren't integrated with the narrative, it can often feel like you're playing two completely different games.

I experienced this dissonance between the puzzle solving and narrative when I played the puzzle adventure game, Catherine. In Catherine, there are two distinct parts in the bar, where you talk to NPCs and the dreams, where you do puzzle platforming. Most, if not all, of the narrative is delivered through cutscenes and dialogue that occur while you are at the bar or directly after the completion of a dream section. This makes the dream sections feel disconnected from the narrative even though they're a direct result of what's happening in the plot. This problem could have been fixed if what you did in the bar had more effect on what happened in the dream and vice-versa. Another game that fails to link the narrative and the puzzle solving is the puzzle adventure game Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Just like in Catherine, the game is separated into two distinct parts the adventure segments that involve exploration and the puzzle segments that involve brain teasers. Now, this on its own isn't an issue but the problem is the brain teasers often have no context within the narrative and are simply arbitrary puzzles you have to solve to progress the story. An excellent example of an adventure game that has its narrative and puzzles in sync is the puzzle adventure game Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. In Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, you play as a ghost that has the ability to save lives by traveling in time four minutes before a victim's death. However, before the player can attempt to save a life, they are forced to watch the events that led to the victim's death. This not only functions as a vehicle for the narrative but it also provides clues that help the player figure out how to save victims.

Iconoclasts

While I did explain what I consider good and poor ways to implement puzzles into video games, I didn't explain what I think makes for a good puzzle. Even if a puzzle complements the game's core mechanics and narrative, if it doesn't provide the player with a feeling of triumph and discovery, I wouldn't call it a good puzzle. I believe when designing puzzles for video games, it is important to consider both the kind of puzzle you're making as well as how it should be implemented.

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