Adventure game puzzles: unlocking the secrets of puzzle design

Posted by Mark Newheiser.
First posted on 05 December 2008. Last updated on 28 June 2010.
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For a lot of games, you can figure out most of what you need to know about them from simply looking at an in-game screenshot or watching a gameplay trailer. With a quick glance at the head-up display and the quality of the graphics, you can get a good sense of what kind of monster killing mayhem you will be engaging in and what kind of experience you will likely get from playing the game.…

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Jonathon: That's tricky. It doesn't appear to be an example of a key puzzle, since nothing external is required to come back later and solve the puzzle. I'd agree that riddles and minigames are the closest analogues.

One way to think about it is that riddles and minigames are both special cases of Interaction Puzzles. You can solve it on your own without any help, but for minigames the interaction takes the form of exploring the mechanics of a system, and for riddles the interaction takes the form of providing a precise answer. The interactions you're describing (which reminds me of a puzzle in Escape from Monkey Island btw), I might prefer to classify as a minigame since it's more sophisticated than a trivial interaction and involves more interaction with the state of the system than a simple riddle.

It is tricky though, I tried to set up these categories as generally as I could but a lot of them could stand to be divided further, the whole category of implicit information puzzles, or puzzles depending upon an internal change to the game's state, could be divided up among puzzles where your player learns some new information or gains some ability that makes something possible, puzzles where flipping a switch in one room opens a door in another, and puzzles where new opportunities arise as a complete non sequitur.

United States By Mark Newheiser • On 29 December 2008 • From United States

A game can't really be all that interactive if everybody always gets the same puzzle. Also, certain kinds of puzzles are just annoying to certain people, not fun. A game should allow one to have more of the puzzles a player likes and fewer of the annoying ones. Also, it would be nice if difficulty would adjust to player speed and ease of getting through puzzles.

It would also be nice if you could toggle the game not to make you have to jump through "action" hoops if you didn't want to do them. (I just had to stop playing a mystery game I liked, because there was no way I could move my mouse fast enough to get through some stupid action segment. If I wanted to play an action game, I would have bought one.)

United States By Maureen • On 29 December 2008 • From Dayton OH


I really like this way of organizing puzzles. It triggered a lot of memories as I mentally tried to fit different game memories into your categories. There is one kind of puzzle which I really enjoy but which doesn't seem to fit neatly into any of your categories. I'll call it a 'systemic' puzzle.

The key to a 'systemic' puzzle for me is that the player is presented with a sandbox operating under a set of simple but deep rules. Part of the puzzle process might be figuring out the rules, but most of the process is trying to understand the implications of the rules and manipulate the state of the sandbox to a particular end.

The best example I can think of is "All Things Devours" (Google "All Things Devours" "interactive fiction"), a text adventure game which allows limited time travel. The player may travel back in time a short while, and take action in parallel with their previous self. But if the player ever takes an action which causes a change in the perception of the previous self, the game is lost. This includes being seen by your previous self, causing an object to be in a different state at the time it was seen by your previous self, etc. This single addition to the standard text adventure physics is spun out into a small game where the puzzles involve figuring out the implications of this mechanic and how to use it to good effect.

For another example, see the last puzzle in "The Magic Toyshop" (Google "The Magic Toyshop" "interactive fiction").

This basic type seems to fall midway between riddles and mini-games. Like riddles, there is a definite epiphany required. And like mini-games, it is a matter of pursuing the mechanics to their logical conclusion once you understand the implications of the rules.

How would you classify this?

United States By Jonathon Duerig • On 29 December 2008 • From Salt Lake City, UT


i like the games alot

United States By richard murchland • On 25 December 2008 • From adams

That's a very good point shay, even though all the individual puzzle you solved were self-contained riddles or minigames, you had to rely on some clues from the story to know when a new location had opened up or a new conversation was possible, which all took the role of "implicit information", since no inventory or external information was managed by the player. Let's hope the other games in the series get an english version someday.

United States By Mark Newheiser • On 20 December 2008 • From United States


Wonderful article,
One thing to not that while almost all puzzles in layton's curious village were self-contained the main story line operated on an implicit knowledge type puzzle to open previously unaccessible areas

United States By shay wilson • On 18 December 2008 • From juneau,ak usa