I’ve written a couple of times in the past about individual elements of puzzle design, but I wanted to have a bit of a ramble about it in a blog post as it helps me to be transparent about my development process, and also to reflect on it as I “think aloud” while I write.
On that note, I never pre-plan any of my posts. I probably should get a bit more organised but currently I just sit down, start typing and let my brain spew out onto the page.
For this I apologise! Please don’t mistake anything written below for a rigorously-considered opinion.
When I first started looking at building a full-length game with a certain degree of seriousness (way back in…when was it?…2020) I was also in the process of building up a social media community and was beginning to surround myself with a lot of people significantly more “qualified” in these matters than myself. There are a lot of strong opinions and a wide variety of approaches to adventure game design. From hyper-organised methods involving spreadsheets, flow charts and years of planning, to more organic, and experimental paths.
As a newcomer to the industry, this world of opposing methods made me doubt my own approach and knocked my confidence early on. No-one was mean about my games or puzzles – the adventure game industry as a whole appears to attract an overwhelming majority of creative, empathatic, supporting and constructive thinkers – but every time I saw someone doing it differently to me, I automatically assumed that they were doing it the “right” way and I was doomed to fail at a far-off hurdle I hadn’t reached yet because I hadn’t prepared myself sufficiently.
In all honesty I still don’t have an organised method for puzzle design myself, other than using my own intuition to push them as far as I feel they need to go between certain pillars.
To my mind (and please bear in mind that I have not thought about this in any concrete way until now) these pillars are something like the following:
- Fun – The puzzles need to be entertaining and the player needs to care (to a degree) about the outcome of the puzzle in order to have the motivation to continue. When I say “Fun”, I don’t necessarily mean “Funny” or “Upbeat”, but ultimately a game is created to pass the player’s time in an entertaining way and there’s nothing more boring than something…well, boring.
- Difficulty – I feel this needs to be varied throughout a game to prevent the player from feeling utterly stuck too often, and to allow them to progress through the narrative without getting really frustrated. That said, without a certain amount of challenge there’s no point in creating the puzzle in the first place, you might as well make a short film instead. Every player’s difficulty threshold is different, so varying it means that most people will have fun at least some of time.
This is probably where I use intuition the most. I will start with an idea for the bare bones of a puzzle, but if it’s significant to the narrative I feel that the difficulty should somehow match its importance. This way the player feels their biggest senses of achievement during the parts of the story with the most gravitas. To this end, I will adapt the puzzle until it feels as if it has the right level difficulty to warrant the outcome.
I find it deeply unsatisfying to simply put an object in one scene to be picked up and then used elsewhere, so I usually try to put at least 1-2 levels of interaction in the way (even if it’s just opening a drawer, looking under something or even just surrounding the object with many other objects and “red herrings” to make the intended object stand out less.) These steps can be increased or made more complex depending on the stage of the game.
- Logic – This is the real deal-breaker for many players. There has to be a logical method, motivation and outcome for the puzzle which doesn’t solely rely on prior knowledge. I have come unstuck with this in a couple of places (although not to the point where it’s been a real problem), for example in the Lucy Dreaming demo you can interact with some electrical appliances in the house – turning them on and off at the socket. This is obvious to me where, in the UK, all electrical sockets have an on/off switch. It wasn’t until after the demo’s launch that it was pointed out to me that in the US and most of Europe this just isn’t the case, so if I was going to make it a necessary component of a puzzle I would need to handle that cultural difference accordingly.
Moon logic (essentially a lack of any discernable logic) is a big no-no in modern point & click adventures, but doesn’t mean that a puzzle can’t be obscure. Many puzzles and scenarios in adventure games are otherworldly and utterly ridiculous, but as long as you have a logical breadcrumb trail that players can follow to succeed, anything is possible. This process involves not only providing subtle hints along the way, but also closing off other potential logical solutions in a way that congratulates the player for thinking of it, but ultimately sends them back out of the door to try again.
- Context – I originally called this “Humour”, which for me is critical, but really it could be any theme(s) that are important to a game. The puzzle needs to fit with the overall tone of the game and work with the narrative and the other puzzles around it. There are a certain number of go-to puzzle types which are commonly found in adventure games (fetch quests, dialogue-based puzzles, time-sensitive actions etc.) but I feel it’s important to mix them up and not rely too strongly on one particular type to the point where it becomes obvious to the player. Fetch quests are fun and are often multi-dimensional (fetch quests within fetch quests) but as soon as the player starts to think “Hey, I’ve been doing a lot of these.” with any kind of puzzle the spell is broken and the game loses its potency. I always try to mix things up a bit.
After I have built a puzzle, I play it through and try to get into the head of someone who has no previous knowledge of how it works (this is tricky, but I used to work in advertising where getting into the mind of the target audience is par for the course). As I play through it, I look around the scene and make a note of the other objects and characters I am drawn to, and what other logical solutions present themselves. I then tweak any dialogue or command responses to gently nudge the player in the right direction.
My favourite kind of hint is one that sounds like it’s talking about something else, but it actually providing a valuable clue. Not a word-play, but off-hand remarks which make perfect sense on their own out of context, but subtly keep the player on track – even if it’s just reinforcing a running joke or an attitude that the protagonist has towards something. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times where I feel I have done this well, and they may well never be found by the majority of players, but they are enormously satisfying to write when they work.
Once I have tested it myself in isolation I move on, but go through the same process mutiple times as the game evolves around that puzzle. So when I have created the puzzles or scenarios before/after a puzzle, I will play them all in sequence to ensure that it still makes sense and that I have closed off as many other alternative logical solutions as possible.
Once the game (or section of the game) is complete I will then pass the torch onto my testers and ask them for their feedback. This is where the puzzle really gets a grilling in terms of all of the pillars listed above, and if it’s not popular, fun or logical it either needs to be fixed or removed. Often the difference between a logical puzzle and an illogical one is just the way that 2-3 responses or lines of dialogue are worded.
This doesn’t cover the planning of the game’s overall structure and narrative, but in terms of individual puzzles, this is pretty much my process. I always try to bear in mind the balance between those pillars for each puzzle in the game.
This is not intended to be a guide, but an insight into what works for me. Needless to say, it is a million miles away from some of the methods I saw and presumed were probably “correct” when I started on my journey, but as long as the game-maker enjoys creating the puzzles and people enjoy solving them, I honestly can’t see how that could be a bad thing, even if the exact same method doesn’t work for everyone.
Be organised, be chaotic, be serious, be silly, be diligent, be slapdash but always try to be logical.