When cleverly used and contextually appropriate, a puzzle can be integral to strengthening a game’s story and the player’s experience of it.
Let me be the first to say “OHMYGOD MYST MYST MYST,” because these games are the friggin’ textbook for puzzles that are integrated organically into the gameplay: engaging and contextual.
I definitely agree that too many games toss in arbitrary puzzles to stall for time, artificially boost the “difficulty” of the game, or just provide cheap, easy-to-make content. Selling a game as having 30 hours of gameplay doesn’t mean anything if 20 of those hours involve alphabetizing your weapons or sitting in the final boss’s waiting room doing that ridiculous Cracker Barrel golf tee puzzle.
In a well-designed game, puzzles should serve as “quizzes” that determine how well you’ve been paying attention to the rules and formulas of the game world as you’ve experienced it so far. Like any good quiz or test in any good class, you should only ever be tested on what you’ve been taught by that class. (Similarly, the class shouldn’t be filled with tons of information that “isn’t on the test.”)
In Zelda games, for instance, the puzzles in each dungeon are designed to simultaneously teach and test you on the new equipment that dungeon gives you. First, you encounter a familiar task (like hitting a trigger to open a door). Second, you encounter limitations for which you have no solution (like a trigger you can’t reach without the hookshot). Third, you find the new equipment. Fourth, you’re given a quick task that teaches you how to use that equipment and what clues to look for when you should use it. Finally, you go back to that previous obstacle ready to deal with it. Zelda games tend to be a bit hand-holdy with this in the early dungeons, but later on you’re expected to quickly choose from your “bag of tricks” to fit the given situation.
Puzzles engage you and immerse you in the setting, or at least they should. You’re forced to learn the “rules” of this world–How fast do you fall? How far can you jump? How many uses does this tool have? How much time do you have before this explodes? What do these symbols mean? Do any real-world rules transfer over?–and then you’re put in situations that require this knowledge of you in the context of the game. In this regard, puzzles are a form of “authentic assessment.”
An example of “inauthentic assessment” would be teaching you a set of math formulas and then providing you a worksheet of numerical problems in which you use these formulas to generate an answer. An example of “authentic assessment” would be giving you a word- or story-problem in which you have to decide which formula(s) you’ll need and apply them in coming up with an answer that is useful rather than abstract. It’s not “Do you know this?” it’s “Can you use this?” Game puzzles that are constructed (an instructed) with this in mind can elevate a game from “cute distraction” to “thrilling mental workout” without accidentally introducing plain ol’ tedium.
In response to “Give Me An Axe, I’ve Had Enough Of This Puzzle” from The Escapist Forum: I agree in principle, though I feel the linguistic distinction is arbitrary and limiting. There are in-game puzzles that are wholly a part of the world, and it seems wrong to me to refer to them simply as “obstacles.” Take the God of War puzzles, for example. Using Medusa’s head to freeze a minotaur when it steps on a switch is a puzzle. The rules of the puzzle are built into the world, and the solution is a simple one, but it’s definitely a puzzle. The Rings of Pandora are a puzzle, and a wonderfully devious one at that. It seems to deny a part of their nature if you lump them in with boss encounters and big rocks as “obstacles.”
Also, since the article all but proposes a game design philosophy, then I need to take issue with one part of that proposal:
“A slider puzzle on the kitchen door is just a puzzle; needing to get the key from the cook is an obstacle.”
Please, dear god, don’t let us replace puzzles with fetch quests.
I agree in principle, though I feel the linguistic distinction is arbitrary and limiting. There are in-game puzzles that are wholly a part of the world, and it seems wrong to me to refer to them simply as “obstacles.” Take the God of War puzzles, for example. Using Medusa’s head to freeze a minotaur when it steps on a switch is a puzzle. The rules of the puzzle are built into the world, and the solution is a simple one, but it’s definitely a puzzle. The Rings of Pandora are a puzzle, and a wonderfully devious one at that. It seems to deny a part of their nature if you lump them in with boss encounters and big rocks as “obstacles.”
Yeah, that’s what I was thinking as well. While I do get what the article means, the distinction is largely semantic. What if the strange symbols on the kitchen door were actually hidden in several places throughout the entire game, and you missed it (probably because you were slumped in your chair and your LCD screen was darker)? And maybe if you had wrote down the Ancient Mystical Language That’s Actually Just a Replacement Cypher for English and decoded it you’d see that the symbols are actually powerful runes, causing anything they are inscribed into to become indestructible, but you didn’t bother. And the correct answer to the puzzle is in a bass relief in the Living Room of the Damned which you didn’t see because there is no way you’re spending hours killing 50 munchkins to access it. If only you had collected at least 95 MacGuffins of Forever you’d have heard the prophecy of the Kitchen Door of Doomsday that gives you a smaller hint, at least.
My point is, what’s the difference between a puzzle that’s dislodged from the game and a puzzle that makes sense in the metagame but only to a gamer that has been paying attention to the whole thing. To one that hasn’t, what has been labeled as a ‘puzzle’ vs. a ‘obstacle’ are indistinguishable. Someone has mentioned the AC2 puzzles – they take you outside of the game world if you define the game world as ‘Ezio in Renaissance Italy’, but not if you define it as ‘Assassins looking at the past through a weird machine’. Which is it? (I’d argue the question is moot because of the excellent job the AC series did using the metagame to its advantage. One day I’ll get off my ass and write an article on it. Well, it’ll be hard to write an article standing.)
Although the ability to take different paths to solve a ‘puzzle’ is an exit every genre except for the strict, dance-like adventure game should strive for.
In response to “The Jewel in PopCap’s Crown” from The Escapist Forum: I love PopCap. They just have the basics down so well – no tutorials, no NPC’s, just the basic gameplay mechanic distilled into simple, enthralling games. I’ve got the most hours on Steam logged into Tropico 3 – a complex RTS game. But next comes Plants Vs Zombies and Bejeweled. I just keep coming back to them!
Although I don’t really play Pop-Caps games, I love that they exist. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to go to lunch with my wife and a bunch of her friends (mostly 20 something, married women and their husbands) and see them all chatting about playing Bejeweled and watching the “Zombie No More” song from Plants vs. Zombies over and over again. It might not be hard-core gaming for the masses, but it is gaming: that’s a very good thing.
In response to “Hunting for Mysteries” from The Escapist Forum: Man that sounds sweet. What a drag though, having to organise the whole thing for the following year. Is there any other prize? Other than the heavy yoke of administration?