In an adventure game, a puzzle is basically any obstacle that demands some kind of thinking to overcome. Puzzles vary in scope – some span over many locations, involving various characters and an arsenal of objects, while others are more similar to the original sense of the word “puzzle”; a contraption, a cypher, a lock or a riddle, something confined, something discrete.
Puzzles can be broadly categorized as lateral or logical, depending on just what kind of mental labour is involved. Lateral puzzles require you to be creative, to think outside the box, and to use things in unexpected ways. Lateral puzzles aren’t “constructed” by anyone in the game world, but occur there coincidentally. Logical puzzles, on the other hand, are thought out and presented within the game universe, for the sole purpose of being solved.
Pulling the levers in the correct order is a classic logical puzzle, and it requires no creativity at all – that’s why we can’t have too many of them, or the game would be considered a mathematics game, and would end up on the edutainment shelves (and nobody would touch it).
The latter sort will probably predominate in realistic games, while comical games may feature more or less exclusively the former variety. The reason for this is that there’s a limit to how much lateral thinking you can squeeze into a puzzle before it gets silly. If we are required to think creatively, outside-the-box-ly and unconventionally, then you can’t stretch it too far before a more straightforward, down to earth option will be a more obvious alternative.
This poses a problem when designing highly realistic games. How do you keep it fun and challenging, without making it silly and Monkey Island-ish? How do you make puzzles that have unconventional solutions that can’t be worked around simply by going to the hardware store and purchasing the appropriate power tool?
Designers may use the following methods for implementing good lateral puzzles:
- A (sudden) physical confinment. This is rather common. By isolating the player, s/he’s left with a limited amount of objects and/or characters to interact with. This is why most games intermittently entrap the character, or put them on desolated islands, ensuring that they don’t have access to all the tools and instruments any normal shoppping mall has to offer. Outside-the-box-thinking ensues.
- Artificial confinment. This is a variation of the first, only the player is not physcially isolated, but rather asked by the game not to leave the immediate area for any other reason. Usually the character will say something like “I’m not done here yet” when trying to leave the scene, or explain that he must hurry up or the chance will be lost. Shortage of time is often a key element here.
- Puzzles that don’t involve physical, mundane objects. Even though the vast majority of puzzles are about gaining access to a restricted area, some puzzles are about pursuasion or emotional manipulation. There’s a caveat here; any game, book or movie that starts treating human emotions too light-heartedly runs the risk of becoming parodical and silly (like when the workers in Grim Fandango organize themselves after you give them a book on Marxism), but it can sometimes work in a realistic setting as well.
Dialogues are a hugely important part of 3). Most games tend to throw in a complicated dialogue-tree at one point or another that the player must navigate successfully. I’ve seen plenty of resentment toward this type of puzzle through the years, but I believe it stems from the fact that the player is, due to poor puzzle design, often left without any indication or motivation to try certain options, rendering the whole affair a trial-and-error exercise. Far too often does the player encounter an obstacle in the shape of a shop owner, a clerk or a bridge-guarding ogre, that he must overcome by choosing the correct dialogue option, without any guidance of background information, visual clues or common sense.
If the correct dialogue path results in a security guard, suddenly overcome with hunger, leaving his post in search of a sandwich, the player should have been given a clue that the guard in question is a known glutton, and that it was too long since he had lunch.
My point here is that the path should not be navigated blindly.
If you combine several non-player characters, you can stage complicated intermezzos. I would like to see this used more in games. The player might spread rumours to A about B’s love interest in C, inciting a conflict between A and B.
Again, use caution, or the game will appear silly. Real humans are complicated, and not all are driven by sudden impulses.
I plan to have, at one point, some kind of smell-related puzzle. By producing the smell of a certain flower, the player can make another character start reminiscing about his/her childhood, and in that way manipulate him/her to visit a certain location, or perhaps become more likely to accept a proposition, or agree to help out in a certain manner. The scent of a flower can’t easily be fabricated, so finding the right specimen is crucial.