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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Adventure game puzzles we have known and hated
In King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, the rock on the left side of the screen leads to the minotaur's liar, but the game will not let the player character move it until he goes through the entire labyrinth.
Adventure game puzzles we have known and hated
In Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge, beating the root monster does not make for a good adventure.
Adventure game puzzles we have known and hated
In Leisure Suit Larry III: Passionate Patty in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals, missing the magic maker in the lower left corner of the screen will cause the game to be unwinnable.
Adventure game puzzles we have known and hated
In Riven: The Sequel to Myst, the marble puzzle is a poor example of adventure game puzzles.
Adventure game puzzles we have known and hated
In Snatcher, which option in the dialog tree is the correct choice? The answer is all of them!
Adventure game puzzles we have known and hated
In Countdown, only trial and error can yield the correct chain of dialog to trigger the correct response from the informant.

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 computer and video games. Electronic gaming is still such a new form of artistic expression that only about a single generation's worth of historical exhibition is available today. The result is that computer and video gaming is largely an unexplored medium, offering ample room for experimentation with new storytelling, gameplay, and player feedback mechanisms. Such an experimental form of art is not without pitfalls, however. For every game that breaks brilliant new ground with innovative approaches to computer and video games as an art form, there are multiple games which, for various reasons, fail to be entertaining or illuminating.

Adventure games are certainly not immune to design pitfalls. Because of a misplaced emphasis on more obvious elements such as artwork and storyline, good puzzle design sometimes ends up being a secondary goal of the adventure game design process. The results of this diversion can be regrettable, since in a typical adventure game experience, players spend more time thinking about the puzzles than any other tasks. Indeed, the puzzles are what distinguish an adventure "game" from a more passive adventure "experience".

In this article, I intend to enumerate the most common pitfalls in adventure game puzzle designs and how such pitfalls can be avoided. I will also briefly discuss criteria that distinguish well designed from badly designed puzzles. Where it is instructive to do so, pertinent examples of adventure games are given to illustrate these points in context.

Puzzles that lack understandable clues

Perhaps the most obvious and commonplace failure of adventure game puzzles is the failure to provide adequate information to the players. For any action in a game to be logical and reasonable, there must be some rational process of thought that will eventually lead players to perform the desired action. Thus, players cannot be reasonably expected to commit the correct action to solve a puzzle if no indication is given that such action is either appropriate or useful.

Examples are too rife in the genre to choose the most egregious offenders, but the problem dates back to the earliest adventure games. In the documentation (1) for the adventure game creation toolkit Gamescape, creator Dennis Drew criticizes an adventure game he has once played:

"I remember one game I played where I found an Egyptian statue that would kill me every time I got near it. I could find no way around this. When I started asking around and tore the game apart, I finally discovered that a ruby found earlier in the game (which the game stated was a treasure) was actually the heart of the statue, and had to be thrown into a lava pit. There were no clues that this should be done, no hints. Totally illogical. I hate an adventure game that requires the player to be stupid and do ignorant and dumb things in order to make the game work (there is a difference of course, between stupid things and sneaky things). So ask yourself as you write the game: If I were playing the game, would this be a logical thing to do, something that I might actually think of doing? If the answer is 'no', eliminate that thing and do it some other way."

Although Drew has consciously chosen not to name the specific game in question, it is clear that the game is Pyramid of Doom, a classic Scott Adams adventure game.

Puzzles that are obviously contrived or clearly made to lead players

Recognizing the prevalence of not having enough clues in adventure games, many games go to the opposite extreme in being excessively leading, leaving players with little doubt as to what ought to be done next. At times, having some clear instruction as to the next task is appropriate, but in order to maintain suspension of disbelief, a game must strive to avoid the feeling of an artificially created world that has been constructed with the intent of players walking through it. Puzzles must be incorporated in such a way that they feel natural to the game world, even if they are not.

Admittedly, this immersion is sometimes difficult to achieve. In order to feel real, game environments must fill themselves with a great deal of window dressing so that the game is not populated strictly with objects that are essential to the game's completion. With all of these objects in existence, however, games must sometimes nudge players in the right direction with additional hints ("You see a rock sitting nearby."). Such subtle direction is entirely inconspicuous in itself, but the fact that a game feels the need to mention a particular object specifically is a blatant giveaway that the said object has some significance to progress. Implementing clues like this into a game and making them palatable enough to be useful without making them so obvious that the game starts to feel like it is simply leading players by the hand is part of the delicate balance needed when designing adventure games.

For example, in King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, there is an unusual puzzle that relies on a cut scene to communicate an important piece of information. Near the end of the game, players must choose from among a variety of lamps to bring into a castle. There is no way for the player character to know what the correct lamp is. However, players may determine which lamp is correct by means of a cut scene which must be invoked. Such a puzzle feels unreal because there is no way for the player character to know what the correct choice is. If players know what the correct choice is, it is only because of the cut scene of which the player character is unaware. While such hinting is preferable to no hinting at all, it still destroys the sense of immersion in the player character's shoes.

Puzzles that expect you to only think of what the designers think

Adventure game designers need to understand that every player thinks in a different pattern. A well designed adventure game anticipates multiple different reactions that gamers may have to a given situation. Lack of foresight leads to games that assume every player will think in the same way as the designer. This leads to games that require gamers to try to read the designer's mind.

Perhaps the earliest and most prevalent examples of this shortcoming are puzzles that require players to "guess the verb" that are common in text adventures (interactive fiction) that rely heavily on command parsing. Most games understand that "take object", "get object", and "pick up object" are equivalent, but too many games falter at interchanging "leave", "exit", and "get out".

The inherent complexity and difficulty involved in making a comprehensive text parser that understands a wide variety of common verbs and nouns is part of the reason why adventure game designers prefer not to design games with text based interfaces. However, inflexibility in game design is not endemic to text based interfaces, although to be sure, it is much easier to get away without thinking from players' perspective with point-and-click interfaces, since players' options are simpler and more limited. Even so, assumptions regarding players' thinking can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences. In Police Quest III: The Kindred, clicking a gun on the player character is an instruction for him to draw his gun, but in Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, clicking a gun on the player character causes him to shoot himself.

Puzzles that enforce inactivity based on the player character's ignorance

Most adventure games take a long time to play because players must determine the lengthy list of tasks that need to be completed. Once players have finished an adventure, the game can typically be replayed very quickly because the players know the solutions to all the puzzles already. A good adventure game allows players to do, or at least attempt to do, what the players wish. Some adventures, however, assume that players know no more than the player character, leading to situations in which the game forces players to perform an action or not, simply because of what players are not supposed to know.

An example of this shortcoming is in King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, where the player character must go through a series of catacombs to find and defeat a minotaur. Once this is done, he emerges from the minotaur's lair by pushing aside a rock, which turns out to lead to the room where the catacombs' entrance doors are located. The effort of going through the catacombs can be entirely averted, and the minotaur quickly dealt with, if players are simply allowed to move aside that rock and go directly into the minotaur's lair. However, attempts to move the rock are refuted simply because the game states that there is no apparent reason to move the rock. Whether or not the players know where the tunnel behind the rock leads, the game will not let players perform this act just because players are not supposed to tackle the puzzle in that order. As such, this approach feels contrived, since players are clearly being forced into a certain course of action based on what the game designer believes to be appropriate.

Puzzles that are clear abuses of the game engine

A graphical adventure game which allows players the freedom to walk around a landscape is a powerful attraction. It grants a feeling of motion that cannot be entirely captured by a text adventure in even the most vivid language. However, it also creates the possibility for game designers to create puzzles which require players to perform tricks of movement that rely more on dexterity than clever thinking.

This problem appears in the earliest graphical adventure games. An infamous example is the beanstalk climbing and stair climbing sequences in King's Quest: Quest for the Crown. A similarly devious movement challenge is the root monster in Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge. Furthermore, the inclusion of brief arcade action sequences or reflex dependant sequences are frequently met with mixed reactions from adventure gamers, though such inclusion has sometimes been seen as a welcome relief from puzzle based gaming. Some critics insist that gamers play an adventure game for adventure gaming, and if they want to enjoy arcade gaming, they ought to play an arcade game instead.

Mazes are popular in adventure games. While the original Adventure (also known as Colossal Cave) has only 2 mazes, both mazes include tricks which make their navigation easier. Unfortunately, plenty of other adventure games feature traditional mazes without any gimmick or solution other than to map out the entire maze the old-fashioned way. Another example is in Hugo II: Whodunit?, which includes a rather extensive hedge maze.

Perhaps among the most egregious abuse of an adventure game engine is the atrocious spellbook in King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human, which is really a form of copy protection that requires players to type in several lines of instructions and incantations from the manual included with the game. These lines must be typed verbatim, as any error results in instant death. While a few gamers may actually enjoy this experience as an engaging challenge against all expectation, most gamers rightly detest it.

An inexcusable puzzle in Adventure is the dragon. When players attempt to attack or kill most creatures in the game, the parser responds "With what? Your bare hands?" Players must be more specific in detailing how to kill creatures. The dragon, however, is slain by first typing "kill dragon", then when the game asks "With what? Your bare hands?", replying with "yes". The game then congratulates players on killing the dragon with just their bare hands. There is no clue given anywhere in the game that this must be done, especially given that there are very few, if any, other instances in the game where players can respond to a prompt from a previous command in the same way. The puzzle may be considered clever or innovative, but it is still an abuse of the game's interface.

Puzzles that fail due to technical problems in game logic or program code

Computer games are vulnerable to the same technical failures and limitations that bedevil other computer programs. It is an unfortunate fact of reality that sometimes the best adventure game design can be offset by poor programming that transforms a good game into a game that is buggy or downright unplayable.

Perhaps among the most infamous examples of this principle is Quest for Glory 4: Shadows of Darkness. As an ambitious follow-up to a successful series that includes more vividly realized characters than those in the preceding games from the series, the game suffers from several significant programming bugs (mostly relating to timing issues) that cause the game to run too quickly in some sections, fail to execute vital game activities, or simply stop running altogether. A similar bug also exists in King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella before patching which causes the game to crash when the player character is in the waterfall screen.

A related problem is puzzles that do not cause the game to crash or glitch but create problems within the game world because of failures in logic sequences. An example of this is in Quest for Glory 4: Shadows of Darkness. If players walk into the monastery basement and examine a statue there, the game describes it as matching the description given by the Chief Thief, even if players have not met the Chief Thief yet. Thankfully, this particular bug does not cause the game to become unwinnable, but it is a simple flaw in logic which has escaped the designer during testing.

Puzzles that cause the player character to die unexpectedly or players to get stuck

There are differing schools of thought on the age-old (or genre-old) question of whether the player character can be allowed to die in an adventure game or whether the player character can be treated as an immortal. A related dilemma is whether players are allowed to get stuck in a situation from which they cannot win the game. Historically, adventure games from LucasArts are generally more forgiving, as most of these games neither permit players to die nor to get stuck in an unwinnable situation. By contrast, adventure games from Sierra On-Line are of the opposite, becoming so famous (or infamous) for having many ways to die that humorously unpredictable deaths have now become a cliché of the adventure game genre that is still parodied today.

Proponents of more forgiving adventure games argue that games are supposed to be fun and no enjoyment or benefit is gained for punishing players for incorrect actions. Opponents maintain that a game in which players cannot die is not realistic and it cheapens the gaming experience by making the game world feel obviously fake and contrived. Indeed, the idea of players narrowly escaping death through a "deus ex machina" stroke of luck is so prevalent in adventure games that this idea has also become a parodied cliché, with games inventing humorous ways for players to perform blatantly lethal acts and still evade death by improbable means.

The correct answer to this problem likely lies in balancing out the extremes. A game in which it is impossible to die tends to feel unrealistic and staged, but conversely, players must not be unfairly penalized for performing reasonable actions. Walking off a cliff or attempting to pet a hungry bear ought to be justifiable cause for killing the player character, but simply trying to explore places or handle objects ought not to cause unexpected death. A classic example of unreasonable death occurs in Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon when players attempt to pick up a piece of sheet metal near the beginning of the game. Doing so results in the player character severely cutting himself on the metal, resulting in instant death.

Similarly, while it may not be realistic to expect games to allow players to backtrack as far as they wish at any stage of a game, designers must make an effort, where reasonable, to avoid allowing the game to get stuck if certain actions are forgotten or not taken. If any actions are required at a certain stage of the game which, if neglected, can cause the game to become unwinnable later, reasonable clues that such action is necessary must be given. In Leisure Suit Larry III: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals, it is incredibly frustrating to reach the very last puzzle of the game, only to discover that the necessary magic marker, which is encountered about halfway through the game, is needed. To be fair, the magic marker is not a particularly hidden object and a reasonable search of the game's environs will turn it up as an obtainable inventory object. Even so, designing a puzzle such that inattentive players may have to replay half of the game for lack of a single inventory object is a poor and cruel choice that the designer has taken.

Like many other abiding adventure game flaws, this shortcoming is founded in the very earliest adventure games. In Adventure, the eponymous cave is populated by dwarves, who typically throw an axe at the player character upon sight. While these thrown axes usually miss, it is entirely possible for the game to instantly kill players by having a dwarf enter the room, throw an axe at the player character, and have the axe meet its mark all in a single move, before players can react to the dwarf's presence. Subsequently, some text adventures mimic this behavior of wandering, random death.

Puzzles that unimaginatively attempt to artificially extend gameplay

Another problem lies in games that use obvious gimmicks to artificially extend their length. Designers are frequently pressured to make the gamers feel as though they have gotten their money's worth rather than wasting money on games that end too quickly. A simple way for a game to feel longer is for it to get players stuck in an unwinnable situation, requiring players to replay portions of the game to make up for missed actions.

Similarly, some games make use of repetition, requiring players to repeat the same actions (or a sequence of similar actions) several times for no apparent reason other than to make the game seem longer. An example is the sequence of ghost encounters in King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella which require players to repeatedly go into a cemetery and dig up buried artifacts to bring to the ghosts. Even worse are puzzles which require repetition with no indication that they do so, leaving gamers to simply try repeating the same sequence of actions several times in the hopes that doing the same actions repeatedly will have different consequences. In Grim Fandango, players are required to extinguish the burning beavers thrice in a row, with no indication that such must be done. After repeating this action twice with no apparent progress made, players may mistakenly assume that the approach is incorrect and give up prematurely without realizing that the exact same sequence of actions must be repeated a third time.

Puzzles that are based on trial and error

It is reasonable to expect that adventure gamers will be observant players. They are, after all, playing a game which expects them to solve puzzles based on logically piecing together clues. These clues may be visual, textual, or even audible in nature. In return, it is reasonable to expect that adventure gamers will be rewarded by their keen observation such that those who pay close attention to subtle clues will realize that the little nuances together constitute the solution to a puzzle.

Unfortunately, because it is sometimes difficult to incorporate appropriate clues into adventure games, designers have been known, on occasion, to simply rely on the expectation that players will try everything in the course of solving a puzzle. Because adventure games are typically not timed, players have free reign to simply use every available verb and noun in combination in attempt to trigger the correct response. Sometimes, solving puzzles boils down to the tedious act of trying every choice on a list until a particular choice works.

A common example of this problem is puzzles that reply on pixel hunting. Many graphical adventure games devote a tiny mass of only a few pixels in a screen to a specific button, piece of paper, or other object which is the key to solving a specific puzzle. While it may be appropriate to make such objects small (after all, pushbuttons and scribbled notes are not large objects), it is reasonable to expect there to be some indication that these objects, when present in the graphical screen, are important and not mere window dressing. In the absence of such, players are reduced to slowly scanning the mouse cursor over the screen in a systematic pattern until they discover every screen location that the game will recognize as an operable hotspot. Pixel hunting is obviously a problem unique to graphical adventures, but text adventures can suffer from similar problems in which players are simply expected to try out every word choice possible until a certain word finally works.

In graphical adventure games, the tedium of trying inventory objects on each other is mitigated somewhat by the return of humorous, unique messages as feedback. Some games simply provide a generic message ("These objects don't work together.") when players attempt to combine inventory objects that have no meaningful relationship together. Other games have a full complement of unique, interesting messages that appear when these objects are clicked on each other, even if the combination is entirely useless. For example, in Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work, players acquire a matchbook and a napkin early in the game. Clicking the matchbook on the napkin reveals that the napkin is printed on asbestos to prevent a fire hazard. Attempting to perform this action has no purpose in the game, but the messages indicating failure are entertaining enough to warrant trying every permutation of using an inventory object on another just to read all the messages. If players are expected to engage in some amount of trial and error, some reward for gentle experimentation with similar appreciation for the effort is warranted.

The puzzles in Dreamweb are particularly unpleasant examples of puzzles that require excessive trial and error. Packed with plenty of atmosphere, the game's gorgeous graphics and music cannot rescue it from fundamentally failed inventory management. The game allows players to pick up almost every trivial object that is encountered. A majority of these objects are utterly useless, yet a few of them are vital. The game allows no obvious distinction between what will be useful and what will not be, yet the game's inventory is of a limited size, meaning players must simply guess what objects they will need later. If they become stuck on a puzzle, they may be forced to restore the game, simply to try carrying different objects with them to the puzzle to see if another trial with a different set of objects is more effective than the previous trial. There is some justification in allowing players to pick up random useless objects, as this augments the realism of the game world since the same free choice applies in the real world. Similarly, there is justification in having a limited inventory size, since it is not possible to carry an unlimited number of objects in the real world. However, when these design decisions collide, the result is among the most egregious offenders in living memory of exploiting bad game and puzzle design in order to artificially extend play time by forcing players to keep restoring.

Puzzles that belong in a puzzle game and not an adventure game

The word "puzzle" has certain connotations and preconceived notions. Within the framework of adventure games, certain types of puzzles are typically expected. However, most gamers have had experiences with other types of traditional puzzles such as crossword or jigsaw puzzles before their first experience with adventure games. As such, it may sometimes seem natural to include logic puzzles within adventure games.

However, critics are quick to complain that the completion of a logic puzzle in a game in order to achieve some unrelated goal makes little design sense. Moreover, adventure gamers are often willing to accept unlikely consequences for solving seemingly abstract puzzles. A classic example of abstract puzzles is in Myst, in which playing a correct sequence of musical notes causes a spaceship to start working, setting the time on a clock causes a bridge to appear, and programming a sequence of abstract symbols into a control panel causes a walkway to open. These puzzles are challenging to solve, and the exhilaration of successfully solving them is enough to make players feel satisfied for solving them instead of questioning their relevance. Yet, upon further examination, it becomes readily apparent that these puzzles are utterly contrived. An even more blatant example is in Riven: The Sequel to Myst. Few gamers who have finished the game can forget the marble puzzle near the end, which presents 6 marbles and a 25x25 grid of holes and requires players to determine which marbles to place into which holes. Even though the game provides clues as to what is the correct solution, such a puzzle has no place in an adventure game.

Puzzles that want to copy from other games

Before the fall in popularity of the adventure game genre, the majority of available adventure games are original commercial titles. This contrasts to the large library of fan based adventure games that exist today. It is an inevitable consequence of such an arrangement that copycatting occurs. Successful games have had their ideas borrowed in the hopes that the same idea can sell again.

Sometimes, this process has been successful, as in the adventure game industry's standardization on the third-person 3D perspective pioneered by Sierra On-Line in King's Quest: Quest for the Crown. Other times, it has not been so successful. Arguably, Myst has had the single biggest impact on what defines adventure gaming today. In fact, the game has created an entire subgenre of first-person adventure games which contain puzzles that are closer to traditional game puzzles than adventure game puzzles. Although the game itself is decent enough, it has spawned an entire subgenre of clones which, in many critics' minds, have helped to destroy the true spirit of the adventure game genre.

Puzzles that badly succumb to the basic forms of adventure game puzzle design

Adventure game puzzles tend to fall into an unfortunately limited set of forms. Perhaps the most basic and prevalent of these forms is "use inventory object on other object". Early adventure games are arguably little more than a long succession of this same puzzle format. Players gather various objects which are apparently unrelated or useless and store them in an inventory for little apparent reason other than simply that the game permits them to do so, only to later discover that a key puzzle is solved by the mere act of using a particular object they have randomly collected. Such puzzle solving processes require little reasoning other than liberal application of the classic adventure game adage to "pick up anything that is not nailed down", then randomly trying to use different objects in each situation until a useful response is found.

A vivid example of puzzles falling into this trap, to the point of parody, is in Shadowgate. Although the game is largely a standard adventure, it has an extensive list of inventory objects that players can collect, many of which are not actually used in the game. The majority of the game's puzzles simply consist of using the right inventory object to bypass some barrier or defeat some monster, but in most cases, clues regarding which object is appropriate to use are vague or nonexistent. Death is so instantaneous and unpredictable, and the puzzle solutions so illogical, that the game appears to actually be self-consciously lampooning these adventure game clichés in deliberate fashion. As such, this game stands as an artifact of the adventure game industry providing its own social commentary.

Another popular form of adventure game puzzles is the conversation tree which requires players to choose the right responses in order to advance. An example of this form is in The Dagger of Amon Ra: A Laura Bow Mystery, in which the act of pulling out Laura's notebook to choose a conversation topic to ask other characters becomes such a routine act that players may feel like they spent most of the game trying every conversation topic in the notebook to see which leads are useful. The frustration arises from the fact that while most conversation topics are useless, there are still a few specific topics that must be asked from specific characters in order to advance in the game, and the process of finding which questions are the right choices is mostly a matter of trial and error.

A related problem occurs in adventure games that require players to choose every available option in order to advance the plot. Unfortunately, this puzzle design model seems particularly prevalent in Japanese adventure games, such as the cyberpunk classic Snatcher, which consists almost entirely of choosing every item from a menu of choices, including thoroughly useless items, simply because the game requires players to choose each available item before the plot will advance.

Even worse is the conversation system in Countdown which, aside from a list of known topics, allows players to choose 1 of 4 possible options to advance the conversation ("Help", "Hassle", "Pleasant", "Bluff"). As the game does not reveal what the player character will actually say until an option is selected, unlocking advancements in the game hinges on following the dialog tree in the right order. Conversations in the game are thus sometimes reduced to simply trying each of these options in random order until a correct sequence is found.

While good conversations can lend much to an adventure game, such arbitrary dialog trees do not. If a conversation is required, the game may choose instead to simply run the players through that conversation automatically rather than forcing them to select random topics from a conversation tree until the right options are found.

Puzzles that rely on obscure or tight timing

Most adventure gamers prefer to solve the puzzles in a leisurely fashion or at least in a deliberate fashion so that possible solutions can be devised and considered before being executed. They appreciate being able to solve these puzzles without the constraints of time limits or having to perform certain acts quickly.

The implementation of a real-time day/night cycle in an adventure game can help in making the game world seem more vivid and realistic, since the game's environment continues to advance as players move through it. However, such a time cycle must be handled carefully. This is because if puzzles in the game depend too strongly on players acting quickly or simply being in the right place at the right time, then the game experience may become uncomfortably rushed.

An example of awkward timing puzzles is in L.A. Crackdown, a crime investigation game in which puzzles primarily hinge on players being in the right location at the right time so that certain events may be witnessed or recorded. While it may be an enjoyable puzzle experience to piece together a timeline of events in the game so that players can understand exactly what sequence of events transpires and when each event occurs, clues must be made available so that players will know when to expect those events to happen. Another example where there is an unfortunate failure to provide these vital directions is in Batman Returns. This game not only runs on a strict schedule that requires players to essentially follow a scripted timeline but also provides few, if any, indications as to where and when the next key event will take place, thus leaving players to simply rely on loitering in random locations until some important event happens, then restoring the game under the assumption that the wrong place has been picked to wait for that event. Once again, trial and error as a puzzle solving model is preferably avoided.

Even in the absence of a specific schedule table, many adventure games have a set time limit in which certain actions must be performed, such as when a time bomb has been set and players must escape before the bomb explodes. While it is understandable that a time limit is expected to be involved in such a situation, it must be considered that requiring players to solve puzzles within a specific amount of time can add unnecessary stress and punishment to gameplay. In Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, the first act has no time limits and allows players unlimited time to explore the game's environs and examine specific objects. However, the second act consists mostly of a series of disasters which must be dealt with under a time limitation. If the crises cannot be resolved before time runs out, the game simply ends. Again, while there is some justification in imposing a time limit for the sake of increasing realism, it must be understood that adding such constraints to an adventure game does little to improve its enjoyment.

What puzzles?

As the different fields of popular entertainment, such as music, movies, and video games, converge, it is natural that each will begin to take on characteristics of previously unrelated forms of media. Recognizing that many consumers of such entertainment are comparatively passive in nature and turned off by the complexity inherent in adventure games, some game designers have sought to produce greatly simplified game experiences which consist of little more than prodding players through the game and watching a series of cut scenes.

Among the most significant examples of this phenomenon is in Dreamfall. This game is the sequel to The Longest Journey, a comparatively traditional adventure with the usual adventure game interface and perspective. The sequel, however, has been widely criticized for having simplistic puzzles which are more of a distraction than the main focus. Gameplay consists primarily of perfunctory and obvious actions in between watching non-interactive cut scenes. While the storyline that unfolds in these cut scenes is immersive, genre purists have derided this title as scarcely deserving of the status as a "game".

Characteristics of good puzzle design

Much has already been written about what constitutes good adventure game design. As a list focusing primarily on what not to do, it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive counterpoint on the elements of good puzzle design, but the following list is a brief summary of counterpoints to the puzzle shortcomings listed in this article.

Reasonable clues

The game should give players some idea of where they need to go or what they need to do, while still leaving enough uncertainty that they will have to figure out some things for themselves using logic or other problem solving skills.

Freedom to explore and make mistakes

The game should allow players some freedom to try various approaches to solve problems. Players should not be prohibited from making a certain choice simply because the game thinks that they should not do it that way.

Relevance to the game world

The puzzles should feel like they fit in naturally with the game world. They should not feel artificially added. Players will spend most of their time interacting with the puzzles, so it makes sense to make those puzzles fit in with the rest of the game.

Sensible exploration and discovery

The game should require gamers to walk around and find different people, places, and objects. The game should not just lay out the goals in front of the players unless that is the intent. The game should allow players to piece several pieces of information together in an intelligent manner.

Adventure puzzles only

The game should avoid arcade sequences and arbitrary mazes. If a design decision is made to include such, players should be allowed the option of skipping them, unless there is a specific intent to create a hybrid that is not merely an adventure game.

Adequate testing

The game should be adequately tested. Moreover, any action that players can reasonably attempt should be met with a reasonable response.

Be original

As with most art forms, the relative decline of adventure games as a commercially popular game genre has been good news for the purists. No longer are adventure games typically made for the purpose of making money. No longer are they cranked out by flustered designers who must simply turn out a product that is expected to sell well. Adventure games are now made by those designers who do so for the simple love of the art form itself, without earnest regard for how popular the game will be. This means that they are free to be original, without pressure to imitate a popular game title in order to sell more copies. Even so, unpaid amateurs can fall into the copycat trap as well as paid professionals.


Making mistakes is a fundamental axiom of the human experience. Adventure game designers are certainly not above this limitation, and not every adventure game ever created is bound to be perfect, excellent, or even good. What is ultimately important is that game designers learn from their mistakes, and that as computer and video games continue to evolve as an art form, these artists learn from both the mistakes and successes of the past to develop a deeper understanding of what makes a good game.

It is my belief that a computer game is as much an art form as a painting or a piece of music, and it is my hope that as computer games continue to develop many of years of history behind them, future generations of game designers will be able to learn from both the successes and failures of those who have gone before them.


1. Drew, D. (1988-1993). Gamescape manual. In Gamescape ver C.4.

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