I've been doing some thinking about what 'puzzles' in IF are.
Gatekeeping devices, pacing devices, immersion devices. A lot of them
don't, however, seem to be what I think of as puzzles? But I've tended
towards low-puzzle games, and use walkthroughs often, so I think it's
possible I'm just plain wrong. For example, a bird's nest in a tree
with an item inside. Is this a puzzle? If so, can a satisfying puzzle
be something as simple as that?
Specifically, a puzzle where the solution is 'pay attention to the
setting and do the obvious thing once you've explored enough' while
being something I deeply enjoy in a game doesn't seem to be, well,
puzzly in a traditional sense; it rewards immersion and a methodical
or intuitive nature, but does not particularly require creative
Is this okay? Is it a puzzle if you can scatter, say, sunflower seeds
to distract the mama bird, then climb the tree and get the diamond
from the magpie's nest? Is it a puzzle if that's only one of three
possible solutions? Is it more of a puzzle if nothing in the game
informs you that the magpie likes both shiny objects and sunflower
seeds? Is it not a puzzle at all if that information is unavoidably
obvious? Or does having to look around the kitchen and in the back
seat of the car to find the bag of sunflower seeds make it a puzzle?
What gives a feeling of accomplishment, and what is simply tedious?
I'm going to describe some scenarios and how I, as a player, would
There's a door.
o Walking through the door is not a puzzle, and is mostly invisible.
The door is locked. I have the key in my inventory.
o Not a puzzle, but a bit bewildering. I certainly notice the door and
the key. Vague satisfaction at unlocking a door.
The door is locked. The key is hidden under some item nearby.
o Not a puzzle. If the location is reasonable or thought-provoking, I
take note. If it's random, I simply write it off, use the key, and
The door is locked. There's a glacial pond nearby with something
glittering at the bottom.
o Puzzle. If a couple of attempts to understand more or solve the
puzzle result in unhelpful 'Nope, sorry' messages, I start to get
frustrated and turn to hints. If there are helpful 'warmer/cooler'
messages I play around more.
The door won't open. There's a set of colored bars on the door, and a
number of levers on the wall beside it. There's also the mysterious
letter fragment with the word 'magenta'.
o Yum, levers. Experimentation ensues. Hopefully the different colors
produced by the lever combinations do different things! Only
puzzle-like, however, because of the specific goal of 'magenta' to
understand and strive for. Understanding the device is the deeper
goal; if it's pretty straightforward, I enjoy playing with it
immensely but if I wouldn't list such a device among the puzzles in
The door is locked. If you feed some whango juice to the marsh rat it
dies. You can then feed the marsh rat to the lion with a tooth ache,
which will make the lion tranquil enough for you to reach its maw when
it yawns and yank the tooth out with a pair of pliers fashioned from a
clam on the beach. The tooth has decayed in such a way that it makes a
perfect lockpick for the door. None of this is particularly clued.
(The marsh rat doesn't indicate thirst, or that whango juice is bad
for it, just skittering. The lion doesn't indicate hunger, or even a
toothache, just grumpiness. The clam is hidden in the sand on the
beach. The tooth isn't described as key-like in any particular way.)
o Ick. Ick. Ick. If the text informs me I succeed in my fiendish plan
when in fact I was bumbling around desperately or exploratively, I may
quit then. I almost certainly resorted to a walkthrough. A puzzle, oh
yes, an insane maddening puzzle that infuriates me.
I've found that often in games I've played, I get points or narrative
rewards for solving puzzles that I didn't know I was solving-- from my
perspective, I was just poking around, exploring. This usually only
bothers me when I end up feeling dumb for not realizing I was solving
a puzzle. But it makes me question my assumption that puzzles need to
be gatekeeping devices that require either creative thought proven by
unconventional use of objects or interpretations of imagery, or a
chain of tasks sideways to your goal that you must pursue in order to
achieve your goal.
As a tangential side note, my favorite kind of hint in the world reads
like this: "Don't worry about it now. You can come back later." I get
all happy and glowy. /I can come back. It will make more sense later.
Yay yay yay!/
So. There's my questions and stuff.
> As a tangential side note, my favorite kind of hint in the world reads
> like this: "Don't worry about it now. You can come back later." I get
> all happy and glowy. /I can come back. It will make more sense later.
> Yay yay yay!/
This is why I love the Invisiclues-style of hint where they say things
If you haven't been inside the pigpen yet, stop reading.
... which tells you, ah, this puzzle may make more sense to me once I've
done something else in the game. Okay, I'll go tackle that first.
Heh. If the hint system is built into the game, it can sense whether certain
conditions have been met. If you ask for a hint about a puzzle that can only
be solved by using something from the pigpen and you haven't been there yet,
the hint system can simply say, "You don't yet have what you'll need to
solve that." The pigpen doesn't need to be mentioned, which is nice because
it avoids giving you too much information.
And no, I'm not going to toot my own horn by mentioning the game in which I
did it this way. But if I ever finish another game, I'll do it again.
Note to evil IF programmer-demon:
Change the "*** YOU HAVE DIED ***" message in your latest opus to also tell
the player that they may NOW go back to all those areas that we told them
they could go back to later, as soon as they restart the game. We never
told them they could go back WITHOUT restarting, did we?
> This is why I love the Invisiclues-style of hint where they say things
> If you haven't been inside the pigpen yet, stop reading.
> ... which tells you, ah, this puzzle may make more sense to me once I've
> done something else in the game. Okay, I'll go tackle that first.
Additional note to evil IF programmer-demon: Please remove the pigpen from
the game, and insert a wandering pig NPC. Leave the hint that refers to the
pigpen as it is ... that'll drive 'em nuts!
It also tells you that, most likely, something you get from the pigpen
is relevant to solving the puzzle. Which is much too spoilerish for
my tastes. This is why I prefer in-game hints which check themselves
whether you've been to the pigpen yet and, if not, simply say "Don't
worry about this one yet."
Daniel Schepler "Please don't disillusion me. I
sche...@math.berkeley.edu haven't had breakfast yet."
-- Orson Scott Card
I would say that a puzzle is anything that requires manipulating one
or more objects in a certain manner to advance the plot of the game,
under the condition that said manipulation is non-obvious (e.g.
unlocking a door with a key is not a puzzle, looking under the doormat
for a key to unlock the door is borderline, sliding a newspaper under
the door, then using a coathanger to poke out the key that is in the
lock on the far side and pulling it out with the newspaper is
definitely a puzzle) but can be solved using only information that
both the player AND the player character have (e.g. needing to put a
lion to sleep with a certain plant that the character might know is a
sedative, but that the game has never mentioned to the RL player is
unfair, and therefore not a valid puzzle).
Examples of categories of puzzles (there are spoilers for Anchorhead
and T-Zero at examples number 5 and 6, since I couldn't come up with
anything better out of my own head):
1) Use an object for something it is not usually intended. Using a
pot to carry water is not a puzzle. Needing to wear it as a helmet is
2) Circumvent an obstacle in a non-obvious way. Jumping over a chasm,
or using a rope, is not a puzzle. Finding a way to drain the nearby
lake into the chasm to flood it so one can swim across is a puzzle.
3) Something that appears to be an obstacle but is actually a solution
to a completely different puzzle. Again, jumping over a chasm is not
a puzzle. But if said chasm has something seemingly desireable on the
other side that is just a red herring (you'll never be able to get
across) to make it look like an obstacle to be avoided, but the real
purpose of the chasm is that there's a bear chasing you later on that
you can lure into falling into the chasm, then the chasm is part of
the bear puzzle.
4) Something where it is fairly clear what needs to be done, but doing
so requires some mental effort nonetheless. For example, a simple
maze is not a puzzle, because it requires no mental effort, just
tedious busy-work. A math-based puzzle, a cryptogram, a riddle, a
cryptic crossword-style clue, etc. does count as a puzzle.
5) Something where the information to solve it is not given directly
in the game, but a bit of psychology or intuition can bring you to the
correct answer. For example, in Anchorhead, you can determine your
character's wedding aniversary by removing her wedding ring (it's
engraved inside the band). Later, you need to get access to your
husband's computer, but it's password protected. On a hunch, I tried
the wedding aniversary, even though it was never hinted directly in
the game that he used that (just because it's the sort of thing many
people would use). It worked. I found that a satisfying puzzle.
6) Puns, a la T-Zero. There is a field of stones, with terns circling
overhead. The stones clue you that you might be able to turn them
over. Doing so reveals nothing, until you "LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED."
At this point, though, the terns get angry, so you need to then "LEAVE
NO TERN UNSTONED" (or just "STONE TERNS"). A punny puzzle like this
would be unfair in many games, but the whole game of T-Zero is based
on such plays on words, so the player expects it.
Anyway, that's about all I can think of for now, but you get the idea.