I’ve gone to hell and back (like, literally. It’s full of lava and machinery down there). As Silent Hill: Homecoming‘s war-weathered Alex Shepherd, I have defeated all manner of enemies, from run-of-the-mill scythe-headed fleshbags to the monstrous, porcelain-doll reincarnation of a murdered child. I have survived everything this labyrinthine horror of a town has built around me – a crumbling hotel, stinking sewers, and a graveyard teeming with ravenous, skinless dogs. I have finally found my way back home, where I am to discover the gruesome secret my family has kept for generations – the reason for my younger brother’s disappearance and the town’s rapid decline into disrepair.
After all I have been through, however – after all the terrors I’ve endured and the monsters I’ve barely escaped – I am finally defeated by what lies behind the attic door. It is no monster. It is something much, much worse.
The key to the Shepherd family secret is a sliding puzzle.
After twenty minutes of this exercise in frustration, any semblance of immersion I may have felt has dissipated, fog turned to a cold, hard rain. I turn on the lights, scrambling for a walkthrough. Alex Shepherd and I are no longer a resilient team of grim and steely determination. He is merely my avatar, a somewhat grumpy mess of pixels – and I am the player, suddenly reminded of why I chose videogames over my plastic sliding puzzles as a child.
Traditionally, puzzles are a game in themselves – a test of one’s cleverness, used as a defined distraction from the more tedious aspects of life. A good puzzle encourages its player to think differently, and rewards him upon its completion. A good puzzle should not rely on luck or random chance, and conversely, it should not have to rely on a specific area of knowledge to be solved (a puzzle that relies on mathematical knowledge, after all, is little more than an equation). A good puzzle aims to be interesting while avoiding contrived difficulty, does not aim to frustrate its player, and may be as easily solved by a child as by a fully-grown adult.
So how do puzzles set in the context of a videogame differ? While the term “puzzle” may be increasingly applied to obstacles in games that may once have not been considered puzzles at all, it’s important to recognize the origins of the puzzles we find in games today. Videogames exist in a different space, and it’s only natural that puzzles have evolved to fit that space.
This is why we have jumping puzzles, inventory puzzles, and the ubiquitous crate-pushing puzzles. As an obstacle to overcome, and as a break from the more action-oriented parts of a videogame, these obstacles still adhere to the traditional definition of a puzzle, but having grown far from their original, standalone form into a virtual world, they have far transcended their origins.
Puzzles’ shift into videogames represents their shift into a narrative-based art form; when cleverly used and contextually appropriate, a puzzle can be integral to strengthening a game’s story and the player’s experience of it. It’s something that makes puzzling in videogames special, and isn’t something you’re likely to find in your newspaper’s daily sudoku puzzle.
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.
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.