Puzzles in horror games Part 7: Penumbra puzzles

Now it is time for the final part in these series on puzzles in horror games! This post will be about some puzzles in Penumbra that I personally find especially interesting. Because of this, the post will be filled with puzzle spoilers so if you are planning on playing any Penumbra game and have not yet done so, do so before reading!

First I am going to go through some basic guidelines we had when designing the puzzles though.

General puzzle design

Our main rule when implementing puzzles was something we called the “Island approach”. What this means is that all things needed to solve a puzzle are located in the same area, the “island”, and connections between islands should be very few and quite obvious. An example of this kind of connection was the hand and head needed to open the door the in residential area in Black Plague. The puzzles to get hold of the head and hand where both confined to their respective islands and where then linked together, hopefully obviously, at the biometric panel.

I think we managed to stick by this rule pretty well and it was just some instances, like at the end of Overture, when the connections became a bit too obscure. Considering the feedback we have gotten, the appraoch worked quite well and the island approach is something we will use for our upcoming game too.

Having gotten some critique after Overture that there where too many locked door puzzles, we set out to minimize the number of locked doors in Black Plague. Our main goal was to not have a single key-and-door puzzle and while we did not fully succeed, it did force us to come up with more interesting obstacle than we probably would have otherwise. Also, when having a locked door we tried to mask it as much possible or at least make it a bit more interesting by using other means of opening it. It was also interesting to see how many obstacles that boiled down to locked doors when one thought about and how hard it was to not include them.

Now for the puzzle examples:

Invisible Ink (Overture)

This started out as a puzzle where the player had to read a note written in invisible ink by using a uv-lamp and then our writer, Tom, suggested that the uv-lamp should also show text all over the walls. I really like how this combined the puzzle element with a strong horror event and from feedback we got it, people seemed to consider it one of the most frightening moments in Overture.

Exploding Potion (Overture)

At the end of of the game, the player needs to clear a cave-in by using homemade explosives. This is done by first mixing something called Armstrong’s Mixture, a highly sensitive explosive, carry it through an “obstacle course” and place it at the cave-in. A fun fact is that we had to censor the real receipt for the mixture as we had to get a 16+ Pegi rating and our publisher where worried that learning kids how to make bombs would give it a higher rating. This is also the cause why dextrin was renamed to the nonexisting substance “baxtrin”.

The puzzle was supposed to be solved by looking up the mixture in a book found earlier. However, it was made harder by not properly labling the chemical and a kind of cypher had to be solved. Because of some bad design in this, many people did not make the right connections and got stuck at it. Luckily, there where only 6 different chemicals and it was easy enough to solve it by brute force, something many seemed to do.

Trying to get the chemical past the obstacle course is a favorite of mine. I think many did not like it as it could be quite frustrating, but I think it did what it was intended to. It was quite tense and worked as a sort of physical endurance test as it could be quite exhausing to keep the mouse pressed down, knowing that releasing it for only a fraction of a second could make the solution explode.

The Blood Lock (Black Plague)

When designing Black Plauge another goal we had was to give the puzzles themselves a horror feeling. This puzzle does exactly that and connects quite nicely to the story giving the player some forshadwing of things to come. It is also an example of a locked-door obstacle that we tried to make more interesting and less generic. The desing of the device, where the player needs to inject blood in order to unlock a door, is not very realistic though and a silly way to lock a door in a facility overrun by alien creatures. Player’s did not seem too bothered by this though and I think that as long something fits the game world and is fun enough, one can take a bit of implausibility.

The Cryogenics Chamber (Black Plague)

This is another puzzle where the element of horror was used as a base for design. To complete the puzzle the player had to nearly kill himself (making Clarence very disappointed) and then grab a severed head from a thawd cryogenics container. Hopefully this helped sending some chills down the player and still worked as a puzzle.

The Tuurngait Trials (Black Plague)

What made this series of puzzles different from any other puzzle in the Penumbra series was that it tried to convey an idea. The main goal of these puzzles was not to challange the player mentally but rather to have her think as a hivemind organsim and learn to see things their way. This was quite experimental and many people either did not get the theme (and just saw it as some puzzles) or thought that the whole section was out of place. A few people seemed to get the message though and this was very fun for us as we where worried nobody would like it. The segment was far from a success, but was at least a fun experiment and given that some people got the point it might be worthwhile to try the approach some other time (if we do, it will be in a totally different way though…).

Camera Puzzle (Requiem)

This puzzle starts the second leve andl is worth mentioning as it is probably the puzzle with the most possible solutions. The player can choose to take a different path at the beginning and if she decides to tackle the camera head on there are at plenty of ways to do so. Jens spent a lot of time with the puzzle and I was not aware of some of the solutions until after Requiem was released. This puzzle also shows that physics does not mean that puzzles have mulitple solutions “built in”, instead it requires time and hard work to implement them. We put more and more time into this for each release and Requiem contains more multiple solution puzzles than the other two games combined.

That marks the end of this post and the horror puzzles series. Hope you all enjoyed it and at least gotten something out of it! As always please tells us what you thought about it and what you would like to see in the future.