Adventure game puzzles we have known and hated

Posted by Adam Luoranen.
First posted on 18 March 2009. Last updated on 28 June 2010.
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The classical forms of human artistic endeavor have millennia of precedent backing them. Book writing, music composition, and visual arts have been such a fixture of humanity's history that any artist in any of these media today has nearly countless sources of inspiration and examples on which to draw upon. The same is true for theater, and to a lesser extent, cinema.

Such is not the case for…

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An excellent discussion by all. Thank you.

Although I too have my list of adventure game puzzles I hate and love (and some I love to hate), I am open to all kinds of puzzles and adventure games. All I ask of any puzzle, whatever the type, is that it be challenging and "fair."

I have been saddened in recent years to watch the general decline in puzzle difficulty in most commercial adventure games. Unfortunately, most people prefer easy games. It won't be long now, I fear, before puzzles are entirely eliminated.

As the article points out, adventure stories have been around for centuries. So have puzzles. Many people say, if you want an adventure story, read Treasure Island. If you want a puzzle, play Suduko. Why ruin one with the other in the first place? Isn't it absurd to stumble across a story while playing a puzzle, or a puzzle when reading a good story? (Agatha Christie might argue with that last point.)

It seems to me that most people who buy and play adventure games now have no real understanding of what makes the combination of puzzle, story and exploration so powerful in the best games of the adventure genre. These people are adventure story lovers, not adventure game lovers.

The whole point of an adventure game is to explore an environment for the clues which will allow you to unlock areas that you are otherwise barred from. The magic of an adventure game is that it is truly an interactive story. The reader is not simply sitting back being entertaned by a rollicking good tale. You, the adventurer are there yourself. And if you want to get anyplace you must work for it, must explore, must hunt for clues, must pool your information, must find the hidden doors and learn how to open them. That is what makes a great adventure so much more exciting and rewarding than either a story or a puzzle alone.

And, yes, the very best examples of this are Myst and Riven. The lazy adventurer encounters a logic puzzle in Riven and thinks, why should I have to bother with this silly lock mechanism? While the true adventurer knows that the answer to that lock is lying about someplace, and he or she has only to explore to find it. The thing that makes both Myst and Riven so great is the extent to which both reward exploration and experimentation. That's the fun, not the puzzle. The answer to the puzzle is obvious to the adventurer who has been paying attention, has been truly exploring.

The fire-marble grid in Riven looks to the casual observer to be just a logic puzzle. But it is so much more than that. That puzzle is the culmination of all your exploring of the four interconnected islands of Riven. You need to have collected a wealth of information before you can even think to tackle this puzzle. But for those who have been actively participating, not just wandering around looking at the pretty scenery, this is the great climax of their whole adventure.

This sort of brilliant integration of game environment, story and puzzles is not easy to do. But when it all comes together, as it does in Cyan's two landmark first adventures, it produces a sum for greater than the storytelling and puzzle-solving parts.

United States By GregC • On 15 July 2013 • From New York City


I meant to say lever not level.

silly me :P

United States By Michael MacDonald • On 26 June 2013 • From Sydney


I didn't mind any of the puzzles listed.

Especially the one from riven.
that wasn't too bad.

With Myst games you just have to make sure you read everything thoroughly .

Anyways, my top worst puzzle of all time I've run into would top all of these if you tried it.

The gas collectors puzzle from schism.

That was ridiculous.

The combination took over 100 clicks to do and you weren't even done there.

That and the clue they gave you was clearly wrong.

They said that every next level you hit has to be twice as much as the last one (I'm paraphrasing),
but it was actually 1 more each time not twice.

That drove me crazy when I was younger :P

the other puzzle we all hate was monkey kombat obviously.

You could always get it by saving and loading whenever you make a mistake, but it was incredibly annoying.

United States By Michael MacDonald • On 26 June 2013 • From Sydney

I don't think you represent the majority of people in disliking the freedom to take all kinds of items in DreamWeb, Adam. In fact, it is sometimes mentioned as one of the high points of the game and I think your article is the first time I've read about anyone having serious issues with it.

Trying to guess what inventory items might be useful, for example when you go about planning an assassination, is just a slightly different form of puzzles and not a purposeless hindrance in the traditional item using. Of course, not everyone has to like it and it requires some patience, but I'm convinced this was intentional puzzle design on the part of DreamWeb creators.

Poland By Igor Hardy • On 24 March 2009 • From Poland

Thanks for your comments everyone, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. :) It's true, of course, that there is a lot of personal bias in the article, but I believe that that is unavoidable in an article like this; after all, there is no one way that an adventure game "should" be, there are only ideas and opinions about what is best for a game, and different people have different tastes.

As an extreme example, I've actually spoken to people who said that they enjoyed typing the spells in King's Quest III. I honestly cannot conceive how this could be possible; simply copying text word-for-word from a printed manual and typing it into the computer seems like an act of pure drudgery to my mind, and I cannot conscientiously call it anything other than bad game design simply because the vast majority of people dislike it. However, if someone enjoyed it, that is their prerogative, and it is fair for them to disagree. Similarly, I don't see why it would be fun or enjoyable at all to try and guess what inventory items in Dreamweb might be useful later in the game, but if anyone honestly enjoyed it, I'm glad they found it fun; most people, unfortunately, did not.

Thanks, Mark, for your extensive comments. There's no question that there is some overlap between some of these categories. The distinction that I make between a puzzle that simply does not provide enough clues and a puzzle which is based on trial-and-error is that I consider the former to be a simple lack of foresight or planning on the designer's part, while the latter is a deliberate decision. In the case of a puzzle without sufficient clues, the designer has presumably failed to anticipate what players will think when confronted with a situation, while a puzzle which depends on trial-and-error has willfully decided to withhold clues from the player with the intent of requiring them to guess randomly at a solution.

I generally dislike the mentality that rules must rigidly be followed, so I wouldn't want to say that an adventure game which violates any of the principles in the article is automatically doing something "bad." If an adventure game designer wishes to incorporate a Myst-style puzzle into a game, that puzzle may well end up being an enjoyable little distraction from the storyline, and if it doesn't break up the flow of the game too much, I see no real problem with incorporating something like that. I think the real problem people have with Myst is that those puzzles form a majority of the game rather than a minor aside. I'm fond of games like Soko-Ban, but even if those games have a plot behind them, they are not adventure games, just as Half-Life is not an adventure game even though it has some degree of plot development and character interaction; it is a first-person shooter that happens to have a storyline.

Going in the opposite direction, I would hesitate to say that a game absolutely cannot be a good adventure if it has no puzzles, but it must be understood that people have certain expectations about what an adventure game should require the player to do. A Mind Forever Voyaging is arguably one of the most brilliant interactive-fiction experiences ever made, yet it has almost no puzzles; the majority of the game consists simply of allowing the storyline to proceed. This is not "bad" design since it is a design decision that has been consciously and carefully made. The result is fantastic, but is it a game? Likewise, while I confess that I quite enjoyed Dreamfall, I am not certain it is really a game, and even less so an adventure game.

Mark, your final comments rather insinghtfully highlight an apparent self-contradiction in my article: In one point, I state that games shouldn't force players to be unable to do something simply because there is no obvious reason to perform that action. In another point, I criticized King's Quest VI because it requires players to solve the lamp puzzle based on what they know rather than what Prince Alexander himself knows. I think I understand your point, but the real difference is that in the lamp puzzle, there is no way at all for Prince Alexander to ever find out what the correct lamp is. If he could stand on a high hilltop with a telescope, spy through the Vizier's window, and thus see the correct lamp at any point in the game, then all would be well because the game would then contain a mechanism for players to solve the puzzle without breaking the fourth wall. As it is, the game tries to handwave this inconsistency by Alexander concluding "I suppose it was intuition." As you observe, this is humorous in intent and not meant to be taken too seriously, but it still breaks the gameworld's ability to be believable.

On the other hand, is it really wrong to allow players to sequence break? If you already know the solutions to the puzzles in Myst, you can finish the game in a matter of moments as long as you know the correct pattern of squares to press in the fireplace. I've done this myself in the past. If you consider the fact that there is no logical way for the game's player character to know the solution to this puzzle at the beginning of the game, you're correct that this seems to break the believability of the game, but it would be even more unbelievable to say "You can't do that now" or provide some other artificial excuse why it is impossible to use the fireplace at the beginning of the game. If players want to enact a true role-playing experience, they are welcome to do so, but if they are thinking about information that they've learned on previous plays of the game, they are already thinking like a game player rather than the actual game character, and forcing them to act based on the ignorance of the game character will only frustrate them. Should people be incapable of using debug modes? Many adventure games include debug modes, which are typically intended for testing during development of the game but nonetheless included in released games and usable by players to gain any inventory item they wish or teleport to any room in an instant. This completely breaks the continuity of the game, but for advanced players who have already beaten the game and want to experiment with different "what if" scenarios, I believe that it should be allowable to do this. As I mentioned in the article, a computer programmer can rarely go wrong by allowing users the power of choice, and the more things the player can make their character do, the more immersive the game will be, not less.

United States By Adam Luoranen • On 22 March 2009 • From United States

I enjoyed your article a lot, I'd just like to offer my thoughts on the distinctions you laid out on bad puzzles.

I consider three of your categories to be related: puzzles lacking clues, puzzles based upon trial and error, and puzzles that succumb to bad puzzle design. In each case, the basic problem is that the player has no real way to infer what to do to solve an illogical puzzle and is forced to resort to trial and error. Your category describing puzzles that expect you to think as the designers do is similarly a problem which gets players stuck, but that one is a special case where the player knows what to do but is unable to communicate that to the game through the interface.

From the opposite end of puzzles being too obscure you have some criticisms of puzzles being too unimaginative: being too forced and artificial, or unnecessarily lengthening gameplay with repetitive actions. These puzzle may even be solvable, but a game isn't enjoyable if it's too easy, just like puzzles that are too hard or illogical can be a drag.

Some of your criticisms are for things you consider to be contrary to the way an adventure game should work: relying on reflex sequences, precise timing, and self-contained logic puzzles rather than related puzzles. I personally think the type of self-contained logic puzzles Myst and some other games feature is a valid form of a puzzle, you just have to realize that it represents a different type of puzzle-solving than the usual King's Quest or Lucasarts style of games. Myst relies much more on puzzles of information and self-contained challenge than inventory. Similarly having no puzzles falls outside your definition of an adventure game. A game can legitimately have no puzzles I suppose, it just won't be a good "adventure game", it may be trying to be a work of interactive fiction or something else entirely.

Your two criticisms about adventure games requiring you to die to solve a puzzle or playing a puzzle under a time constraint make a lot of sense, it's basically saying that games shouldn't waste your time and make you repeat yourself, puzzle-solving is best done at your own leisure and not wasting your time any more than is necessary in thinking through the game.

Your criticism of puzzles being too derivative strikes me as a fairly broad criticism of adventure game a whole rather than specific puzzles, but is certainly a true statement about game design in general.

I'm not sure I share your opinion however that limiting the player's action by what a character is capable of is poor adventure game design. You cited in your article the example of the puzzle in King's Quest VI in which Prince Alexander chooses a lamp based upon a clue received in a cutscene as breaking the immersion of the game. I considered it more tongue in cheek myself, but if players were allowed to do things that their characters had no reason to know how to do, you would have that kind of immersion-breaking gameplay occurring all the time.

In the original Myst, if you wrote down or memorized all the codes from the previous game, you could beat the game within minutes, and get either bad ending despite not having collected all the pages up to that point. Because of the game's system of relying on information rather than an inventory, you can "sequence break" or do things that your character technically shouldn't be able to do. Limiting a player by his character's knowledge allows Quest for Glory IV to incorporate a few puzzles based upon what you as a character know which helps avoid some of the problems of making all puzzles based upon inventory interactions and thus being easy to brute force. The consequence is that it forces the player to "role-play" his character more and be limited by what that character knows enough to do at a particular point in the story. In short, I'm not sure it's always a good idea to let the players do whatever they want, sometimes you have to tie them to their character for the purposes of the story.

United States By Mark Newheiser • On 20 March 2009 • From California


Very well written article. Although I must say there is a lot of your personal subjective preferences in your puzzle flaws evaluations. For example, I know adventure gamers who consider it a must for an adventure game to include at least one or two logical, Myst-like puzzles.

As a more specific example, I can say that personally I didn't experience any problems with managing inventory in Dreamweb. The important items were fairly obvious. The slight additional challenge that the large amount of random items did present to the player was actually a source of enjoyment for me.

Poland By Igor Hardy • On 18 March 2009 • From Poland


Great article! When I think about puzzles I've known and hated the first that comes to mind is from Simon the Sorcerer 3D. At one point in the game you're supposed to get into the sewer hideout of a gang of children thieves and to do this you have to knock a certain rhythm on the door. This puzzle is very unforgiving and apparently even a bit random in what it accepts (I ended up creating timed keyboard clicks in a macro on my G15 keyboard and using the same macro thrice it got through on the third time for no apparent reason). To me timed and rhythm puzzles are things that definitely don't belong in adventure games, I like going through them at a leisurely pace :p.

Finland By Axel • On 18 March 2009 • From Helsinki, Finland