Puzzles in horror games Part 2: Common problems with adventure game puzzles

Before continuing to dig deeper into the world of puzzles, I would like to clarify a thing from the last puzzle post: When I said that I thought puzzles were the best way to have as core gameplay in a horror game, I did not mean that it excluded all other kinds of gameplay. I rather meant that the basic design was based on puzzles and that other mechanisms are there as extras. Penumbra: Black Plague is a game that uses that approach while Resident Evil has a clear focus on action with puzzles as extras. Now on with the post.

In this second part I am going to discuss some problems with puzzles. The common thread of these issues is that while other mechanics usually have a very fixed set of available actions, “puzzle games” are not always clear on what is possible in the game world. In a shooter the world usually reacts as one wants when firing a weapon and when encountering an enemy the player does not feel restricted or unable to do sensible actions. When it comes to puzzles though, it is often not obvious what can be done and many puzzles ends up as an exercise in reading the designer’s mind.

Now for a brief list discussing some common problem:

The hidden action

When facing some puzzles, the player might be unaware that some form of action is valid. Sometimes this is because the game has not allowed the same action in a similar situation and sometimes it is not obvious that the object can be interacted with. An example for this is the “rock catapult”-puzzle in Monkey Island. Here it is not very clear (at least was not for me…) that the player can rotate the see-saw-like catapult contraption by using the “push” and “pull” actions, mainly because no other objects had had a similar action available.

The missing item

At times an encountered obstacle will require something not yet discovered. At its worse it requires simply some information for the player character in order to perform the action, meaning that the player has all the means to complete the puzzle but the game is not allowing it. Here the example (to our shame..) comes from Penumbra: Overture which has a puzzle where the player needs to pick up a cotton string from a box but can not do so unless a book (explaining why the thread is needed) has been found. This is not very good design and we promise to (at least try to) never repeat such an abomination again!

Non sequitur

This is mainly a problem of not making the result of an action clear enough. The player might realize that a puzzle is encountered but not the use of the solving it. An example of this comes again from Monkey Island. Here the player encounters an ape in a jungle and by feeding it bananas it will follow the player and can be used to hold down a lever. In this puzzle, it is not even clear that feeding it bananas will accomplish anything and using the monkey to hold down a lever requires more trial and error than actual puzzle solving. Hotel Dusk also has something similar where solving a Rubik’s cube lets the player escape an elevator.

Guess the action

At times it is obvious to the player what needs to be done in order to solve a puzzle but can not make the game perform the wanted action. This is most obvious in text adventure games where the player needs to write an action in English, but can also be present when there are very few possible ways of interaction. An example from Penumbra: Overture is when placing an explosive barrel in front of a cave in. Certain mechanics required the barrel to be a in a specific spot and some players, knowing exactly what to do, were unable to find it and thereby solving the puzzle.

Obvious solution is not correct

This has got to be the most annoying and common problem in all games that have puzzles. The player is faced with a puzzle that has an obvious solution (at least to the player), but then some more complicated solution is needed. The most common variation would be a thin wooden door needing a key to be opened when the player has a rocketlauncher at hand. Sometimes this type of problem can be hard to spot for designers though, mainly because once a solution is found others are blocked out. It might also be that the obvious solution is not supported by the game mechanics, like splashing nearby water on fire, but then the puzzled should perhaps be replaced or the environment redesigned.

Most of the time, it just takes some extra thinking to get rid of these problems, but they can also be hard to predict at times. An option is to make the way the game world more clear by letting all puzzles come directly from the game mechanics. A way to do this is by using physics, but doing so gives a lot of other problems! These issues is what will be discussed next week.

Do you know any other types of problems typical for adventure games? What puzzles in the Penumbra games were worst? Finally, I am really interested to hear about the worst puzzles you have encountered in a game!

PS: Sorry for all of the Monkey Island examples, but it was just a recently played game. I still like it for all its flaws though 🙂 There sure are far worse puzzles in other adventure games.

EDIT: Thanks to biomechanical923 for reminding me about the “”Obvious solution is not correct” puzzle in the comments! I think this kind of puzzle problem is the most major issue when not having coherant game mechanics for the puzzles.