Puzzle Box

Puzzle Box
Give Me An Axe, I've Had Enough Of This Puzzle

Jonas Kyratzes | 14 Dec 2010 13:12
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Don't misunderstand this. I don't hate them a little, like scratchy pullovers, but with the full unreasoning hatred I reserve for Margaret Thatcher, broccoli and postmodernism. They are stimuli that provoke in me a reflexive emetic reaction and an instinctual drive to set things on fire. More than one game has made me go from very happy to very grumpy in a matter of seconds by throwing a puzzle at me, and some games went so far that I completely lost interest. "Oh great, it's a puzzle!" is not an exclamation of joy.

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This might seem odd coming from a game designer, especially one whose work is mostly - five out of six games - in adventure games. On top of that, my favorite two types of games, if you were to ask me, are adventure games and RPGs. Aren't puzzles an essential part of those genres?

Well, that depends entirely on your definition of a puzzle. To me, a puzzle is an artificially set up conundrum, a riddle, a brain-teaser. It's having to figure out the correct order in which to pull the levers, or where to move the blocks, or which button makes which other button inactive. It's making me play Towers of Hanoi or forcing me to solve mathematical problems.

A puzzle will invariably throw me out of the game's narrative, turning gameplay into something that reminds me more of being in school than of a genuine artistic experience. It's the ludic equivalent of those people who think the greatest fun in the world is to go around saying things like, "So, ten people get onto a bus, and seven get out. Then two more enter, and three get out, and the bus has forty-seven seats, and ..." just before getting punched in the face.

If all of these complaints sound like the ravings of an anti-intellectual fool who wants games to cater to the lowest common denominator, they're not. First of all, there's nothing terribly intellectual about puzzles, even if that particular myth is often repeated by obsessive puzzle gamers (and puzzle-game-making companies). A person who has a good memory, or who is good at math, or has a perfect sense of all things geometrical, does not have greater insight into the philosophical, ethical, theological or practical matters that confront humanity and the individual. The action gamer shooting mutants on his computer and the random person solving sudokus on the train are both using their brains; neither can claim to be superior to the other on the basis of their brain's ability to crunch numbers of one type or another.

Why do I still play (and make) adventure games, then? Here's why:

I hate puzzles, but I love obstacles.

The difference is in integration: A puzzle is a purpose unto itself and follows its own rules, but an obstacle is part of the game world and the gameplay. An obstacle, while still created by a designer as a gameplay element, is organically derived from the world that the game presents. A slider puzzle on the kitchen door is just a puzzle; needing to get the key from the cook is an obstacle. Having to learn base 16 math because the designers want to test your intelligence is a puzzle; needing to learn it because you're on a giant ship built by aliens to test the intelligence of various species is an obstacle.

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