Puzzle Box

Puzzle Box
Puzzling Worlds

Katie Williams | 14 Dec 2010 14:13
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This is where Homecoming faltered. The sudden break in the monster-clobbering gameplay had been too sudden, snatching me from a fantasy and unceremoniously dumping me back in reality. After a few hours of tense, solid combat, the rhythmic grind I had begun to settle into crumbled in the face of a sliding puzzle that had no contextual logic, other than as a commonly-used trope of the survival horror genre (really, who locks their doors with a sliding puzzle instead of a key?). Most unfair about the situation was that there was little in the preceding gameplay to suggest I would later be required to solve a puzzle of such difficulty. Previously encountered puzzles, though equally obscure in their context within the game, had been fairly easy to solve through trial-and-error, minor annoyances that didn't detract much from my path of destruction throughout the town. The sliding puzzle was an abrupt change in difficulty that halted my progress in the game until I finally surrendered to the walkthrough.

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This is in direct contrast to many combat-focused games, and to the careful design of player experience, with challenge being ramped up incrementally in accordance to players' earlier experiences within the game. Homecoming was a rough ride after games like the similarly gory horror-themed action game Dead Space, the core mechanics of which are introduced step-by-step through the beginning of the game, with those same mechanics used to solve puzzles later on.

Some of Dead Space's puzzles may even be what you could call sliding puzzles, though the genius of them is that they never do feel like the obscurely tricky sort that you'd encounter as door or casket locks in other survival horror games. Dead Space smartly utilizes something unique to videogame worlds: the ability to do what one cannot in real life. The protagonist, space engineer Isaac Clarke, is granted superhuman strength with kinesis and time-slowing abilities, which he can use to manipulate certain large objects, enabling his path through a monster-infested maze of a spaceship in lockdown. Rather than a direct break from the game's world, these large-scale puzzles are integrated into the world itself, dropping the player right into the middle of them to solve during the course of natural gameplay.

The Uncharted series, too, is exemplary of a game that preserves players' engagement in its world while still managing to incorporate puzzles that are enjoyable and commonsensical. Puzzles tend to comprise wide environments rather than smaller, more specific parts, putting protagonist Nathan Drake (and the player controlling him) amidst the action, instead of having to get down and dirty on his knees to fiddle with a lock. Getting to a certain landmark may involve maneuvering through hallways, across rooftops, and around patrolling guards. Doors may be locked and armed with alarms, but sensibly, the alarm's wires can be traced to a fuse box for simple disablement. Such puzzles are not only rewarding at completion, but also during the solving process; most can be conquered with knowledge garnered during the player's natural exploration of the world.

Such puzzles are especially important to consider alongside Homecoming, as similar puzzles, if necessary, could easily have been implemented throughout the game world without breaking whatever immersion the player had been building. The Shepherds' attic, like most real attics, had enough boxes and shelves within it to form a far more realistic obstacle; slapping the sliding puzzle in there felt a rather forced means of adding challenge, and was a sudden change in pace and gameplay.

Though the videogames we play today owe a lot to traditional puzzles, they have since evolved greatly. We enjoy solving puzzles that are representative of the three-dimensional worlds we inhabit, and we like to feel as though we are accomplishing something that can't be offered to us in the real world while we're doing it. Scaling buildings in Istanbul or navigating the remains of a deteriorating spacecraft is a breathtaking and immensely enjoyable way of getting around obstacles. Picking at a sliding puzzle simply doesn't feel the same.

Katie Williams is a worldly traveler, author of two dozen unfinished speculative fiction novels, connoisseur of Japanese candy, and fan of hyperbole. Her blog is at Alive Tiny World.

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