Wednesday 16 May 2018

Discussion Point: What kind of game deserves a high score in Puzzles and Solvability?

By The TAG Team

It’s certainly easier to make a bad than a good adventure game, and therefore it is no wonder that we’ve seen a lot more examples of the former than the latter. Indeed, our reviewers feel that they have no problem deciding when a game deserves a low score in some category. On the other hand, since we have less examples of good games, it is more difficult to say when a game deserves 9 or even 10 in some category. Thus, we’ve decided to do a series of six discussion points, each dealing with a simple question: what would a game have to be like to deserve a high score in this particular category?
Puzzles and Solvability

We begin with Puzzles and Solvability. Puzzles are clearly the most distinguishing part of adventure games. What games have excellent puzzle designs? And more to the point, what makes puzzles in these games so satisfying?

This is NOT what we are looking for

Other questions you might consider:

  • Should it be possible that a game with only a few puzzles or even none at all could get a high score in this category? In other words, is a visual novel always destined to have a low puzzle score?
  • One factor to consider in this category is solvability. Which is worse: a game with only easy puzzles or a game with too tough puzzles?
  • What are we to consider as puzzles, when scoring this category? Inventory-based puzzles are a clear instance, but we’ve sometimes considered also story-based puzzles, such as problems determining the guilty party in murder mystery games. And what about Myst-like puzzles, secret codes etc.?
  • In addition to individual puzzles, we might also consider puzzle dependencies, in which solving one puzzle requires first solving another puzzle. Should we prefer games with complex chains of puzzle dependence?
  • Perhaps in judging this category we should also take into consideration how the puzzles relate to other categories, especially the story. Is it important that puzzles make sense within the narrative of the game?
Let the discussion begin!


  1. Replies
    1. And the very funny article, that has become the perfect example of bad adventure game puzzles...

      [SPOILER WARNING - Don't click unless you have played already or don't mind being spoiled on one of the puzzles in Gabriel Knight 3]

    2. Forgot about the Cruelty Scale, which is a very useful concept when critiquing puzzles:

  2. My opinions:

    To score REALLY high (9 or 10), there should not only be little to no actual flaws, but also something that elevates it above generic adventure games. It could be extraordinary (but fair) difficulty, having one or more particularly creative puzzles, or even a whole unique gameplay system. Fate of Atlantis had the multiple solutions and Indy Quotient, which justifies the 9 it got. 8 would be my soft limit for technically flawless but ordinary design.

    I think instances where interpretative thinking is required, where the correct course of action is not necessarily immediately obvious, qualifies as a puzzle. Conversely, no-brainers (like the filler puzzles in Serrated Scalpel) should be defined as a chore. Too many chores in relation to puzzles could lower the score. Having (almost) no real puzzles at all should result in a low score, but I dunno about amount of puzzles relative to game length. What if the game has only five or so puzzles, but amazing ones, in a longish game (not mostly focused on those puzzles, and no chores)?

    Difficulty should be favoured over ease, but a distinction should be made between fake and real difficulty. Fake difficulty is when a puzzle is hard for reasons other than requiring thought.

    I think the puzzles should integrate reasonably organically into the story or setting. I'm not a big fan of arbitrary logic puzzles, exemplified by Zero Escape, which is practically a series of individual escape-the-room sequences containing devices specifically as puzzles. A counterpoint to this is Myst and Riven (haven't played the remaining Myst games yet), where the clues and puzzles are spread in a larger area so more effort is required in piecing together the information, and in Riven especially the puzzles make more sense within the setting.

    IMO the gold standard for puzzle design is Day of the Tentacle. It's got a great premise - time travel - which is exploited really well. The way you mess with history provides endless amusement, it has a solid non-linear structure, and there's this twisted yet self-consistent logic throughout.

    Riven is also worth a mention, especially regarding difficulty. It's one of the most difficult adventure games I've played, in a good way I think. The clues are cryptic but eventually solvable by logic and persistent attention to detail. I only resorted to severe trial and error with the animal stone circle.

    Resonance is similarly difficult (IIRC its developer was inspired by Riven), with multiple areas to explore at the same time and even alternate solutions, and has a unique memory system - but it suffers a lot from the clunkiness of having four controllable characters, each with multiple kinds of inventories, memories and abilities, and it's all very tiresome to micromanage - although this is arguably an interface problem.

    There's also the Japanese adventure game YU-NO. It has way more gameplay than the typical visual novel: there's this unique yet fiendishly difficult system of time travel, where you have to jump back and forth within a huge, sprawling & branching timeline, limited with "charges" available. Some situations require an item or piece of information from another scene, possibly days apart or in another branch entirely. I thought this was challenging but fair, and had a lot of fun making notes and managing my resources. Unfortunately, some major flaws of the game are that there's a dozen or two filler scenes where you have to click everything multiple times on the screen before the story can continue, and that the last part becomes a linear, essentially gameplay-free storybook.

    Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments also has a fun, unique system. You combine clues and facts to form conclusions, and combine conclusions to form further conclusions. Clues can be interpreted multiple ways, and the challenge comes from identifying which one of the possible ultimate conclusions is correct.

    1. Time, Gentlemen, please! is a game I would rate at least at 8, possibly pushed to 9 for a few creative puzzles. You've got a large area to solve nonlinearly, the puzzle types are richly varied (not just "use item on object"), and if you ever get stuck you can talk to your sidekick for hints. One element that comes to mind in particular is a device that makes objects older or newer. There's also a sequence where you interact with a text adventure in two ways: you enter commands at a computer, and you physically visit the text games' universe itself.

  3. >Should it be possible that a game with only a few puzzles or even none at all could get a high score in this category?

    Definitely. Detective games in particular are often built around the fact that they only have a single puzzle, the case you have to solve, and there's rarely a way to incorporate multiple puzzles unless the game contains several cases, or there's some sort of code you need to solve that could technically count as a puzzle on its own, and insisting detective games need this to score high is silly.

    1. That's true, a single big overarching puzzle can be every bit as engaging as multiple smaller ones. As long as it's causing the player to get lost in thought for a satisfying duration over the game.

  4. Well, visual novels seldom even try to have puzzles, so they'll have to excel in other areas.

    I feel there is value in having a satisfyingly large number of puzzles. Puzzles are in fact the component most demanding interaction and engagement. It's not enough to just be able to move your character around, or pick dialogue options from a list. Only a puzzle really makes the player wake up and pay attention.

    Then of course, Discworld has a ton of puzzles, but too many of them are irrational, so there's not a lot of satisfaction to be gleaned from them. Or, sometimes, overused puzzles like the old slip of paper under the door then push the key yawn.

    Puzzles requiring thinking outside the box feel the most satisfying to me. I am reminded of one in Simon the Sorcerer 3D, which requires you to apply action game logic to a situation that at first seems like it would have a normal adventurey-type solution. But it's eminently fair, because you've already been shown the solution earlier more than once, if you just realise it's the key. (Simon 3D is totally underappreciated IMO. Still a fair way away for this blog...)

    Multiple solutions are great, if available. Quest for Glory is a good example, if a little different from the competition.

    Having a reasonable good idea of what you're working toward is important. Consider Larry 2, after being lifeboat-wrecked. The only way you're prevented from going has a KGB agent guarding it. A disguise seems like a not unreasonable solution. Then, each time you add to your disguise and get caught again, the agent makes a disparaging comment clueing you in on what's still making you look suspicious, so you can look for a way to fix that.

    1. I totally agree on having a good idea of what you're working toward being important.

      Something I don't think I even noticed about adventure games before doing the final rating of King's Quest V was that, in that game in particular, I almost never deliberately tried to solve a puzzle - I was just collecting items in random places.

      I find myself much more likely to enjoy puzzles and want to give it a higher "P" score if I get a number of 'eureka' moments as I play. When given an obstacle I need to be thinking about how to solve the puzzle and for the solution to hit me.

      An example from King's Quest V that I'm writing from memory so forgive me if I get some details wrong:

      Problem: I'm kidnapped when I try to enter the tavern and tied up in the basement. I can't escape and am killed.

      1. Randomly find a shoe while exploring the desert
      2. When a cat chases a rat as a ?random? encounter on a screen I'd been to before, quickly throw the shoe at the cat before he catches the rat
      3. Get captured in the tavern and the rat will pop out of a mousehole and eat through the ropes.

      A better solution that would have me thinking could be to have seen a knife somewhere that was hard to reach, and perhaps a description of it includes its sharpness or its small concealable size. Then I'd be trying to solve the puzzle by attempting to get that knife. The puzzle could be further enhanced by having another mouse hole outside the tavern and allowing me to push the knife through that hole so I could use it to free myself once in the basement.

      Or at least make the cat-rat scene repeatable so I'm not dead-ended if I don't think of throwing the shoe in the 1.5 seconds I have to think about it. (Yes, I'm still annoyed at all your dead-ends, King's Quest V - I'm doing the sequel soon so I hope you've upped your game since then.)

    2. Musing on well-structured puzzles with clear goals, and getting towards a more precise definition of puzzles, puzzles consist of three elements:

      GOAL - Self-explanatory. This is very story-related and often told in cut-scenes or NPC dialogues.

      OBSTACLE - What is preventing you from achieving the goal. In detective games, this could be lack of information, when faced with a multiple-choice question or similar.

      SOLUTION - The action needed to bypass the obstacle. Often the solution becomes the goal for another puzzle you need to solve first.

      In good design, the relationship between these is made clear. The player knows what they're trying to achieve and why.

      In Secret of Monkey Island, you

      *need to find the treasure, (GOAL for puzzle A)

      *but don't know here it is, (OBSTACLE for puzzle A)

      *so you need to buy a map, (SOLUTION for puzzle A & GOAL for puzzle B)

      *but don't have money, (OBSTACLE for puzzle B)

      *so you need to perform at the circus, (SOLUTION for puzzle B & GOAL for puzzle C)

      *but you don't have a helmet, (OBSTACLE for puzzle C)

      *so you need to use the pot from the kitchen, (SOLUTION for puzzle C & GOAL for puzzle D)

      *but the kitchen guarded by the cook, (OBSTACLE for puzzle D)

      *so you need to sneak in when the cook is away. (SOLUTION for puzzle D)

    3. One problem is that this definition could be applied also to action sequences:

      GOAL: Getting to Ulence Flats on skimmer
      OBSTACLE: Rocks keep hitting my skimmer
      SOLUTION: Avoid rocks

      I am not sure, if this is a real problem, though.

    4. Well, yeah, my comment was more focused on providing a framework for puzzle relationship analysis and identifying which part of a puzzle may be faulty. But you could add that the solution needs to be cerebral in nature (or you could even accept it as a puzzle but claim the solution is too obvious, although it requires technical execution ability which in turn might qualify as fake difficulty).

    5. The SOLUTION needs to be UNOBVIOUS. In a comment above I said: "I think instances where interpretative thinking is required, where the correct course of action is not necessarily immediately obvious, qualifies as a puzzle." The solution is UNOBVIOUS when

      * there are many possible courses of action (interactive possibility space),

      * only one (or a few in the case of multiple solutions) is correct, and

      * the player doesn't know which one is correct.

      The interactive possibility space consists of all possible actions in a specific situation, and is typically determined by the interface and amount of interactable objects. It could also be things like inputting a code, or a multiple-choice question. A larger interactive possibility space makes the solution harder to brute-force. In a parser game, it is practically infinite.

      To arrive at the solution, to properly narrow down the interactive possibility space, it has to be fair. It's fair when there is no fake difficulty involved (pixel hunts, dead ends, trial and error, bad logic, difficulty of execution). The player needs to understand the solution, to be able to predict that a certain action results in the solution. One goes from ignorance to understanding. Ideally, a hypothesis is tested, and feedback given, without brute-forcing, and the player realises the solution beforehand and not in hindsight. In an action sequence, the player already knows what to do and it's a matter of execution; there is no narrowing down, never was a state of ignorance.

  5. "In other words, is a visual novel always destined to have a low puzzle score?"

    Well visual novels aren't really even games, let alone adventure games, so it seems like kind of a moot point. It's a little like asking whether a movie can score highly in puzzles. It's simply inapplicable, not to mention outside the scope of this site. So my answer to this one would be, "don't worry about it."

    1. I think the point of this question lies more in the general principle whether less puzzles is always a bad thing. Visual novels, puzzleless IF and the fabled interactive movies could be seen as limit points of certain forms of adventure games, and we might come across even some fringe cases where it might be difficult to decide whether a game has enough puzzles to be considered a game. The case of detective games with only big puzzle Adamant mentioned is a good example - should a reviewer penalize the game for not having more puzzles or just consider the merits of that one puzzle?

    2. Now, I started thinking about too much what Laukku said about the puzzle and game length ratio and how to develop that idea into a proper measure. The problem is how to measure game length, since different people might use different amounts of time for the same game (back in the day, people might have spent years for one puzzle, a game might have alternative routes, which not everyone sees etc.).

      I guess we could still always determine for each game an Idealised Playing Time (IPT) – that is, the length of time that it would take for a person knowing all the puzzle solutions of a game to click all the hotspots, read every bit of text, watch each cut scene, check every alternative route etc. Basically, IPT would be a measure of all the non-puzzle-related content in the game (of course, only a quantitative measure, since there would be no accounting of how boring stuff it all is).

      Then we could define the puzzle/content –ratio of a game as P : IPT (P being the number of puzzles in the game). The closer the ratio goes to zero, the less there are puzzles in comparison with the other content. The big question then is could we determine a point, in which the ratio would always be too low to even be called a game (that is, when the game had too few puzzles compared to everything else)…

      …But I’ll leave figuring the rest for some professional game scientist!

    3. I think edge cases can be discussed & determined on a case-by-case basis. I also think the criteria for the various scores should be treated as guidelines rather than hard rules, due to the amount of subjectivity inherently involved, although there should be a reasonable attempt to be objective and follow certain standards (a reviewer should have very good reasoning for deviating from a guideline). No matter how thorough we think we are when crafting a rating ruleset, there will almost definitely be some unforeseen exception. Furthermore, explicitly measuring and calculating ratios of how different aspects of a game take of the total time is starting to get too technical.

      But if a games has zero (0) puzzles, it should generally receive a score of 0.

    4. Rest assured, my suggestion was made tongue firmly in cheek. What I might have been suggesting was that lines between adventure games and certain puzzleless interactive pieces (interactive movies, visual novels etc.) is quite fluid and therefore we could even end up seeing some of the latter on our site. They would most likely receive 0 (or at most 1) for Puzzles, but might fair quite well under other categories.

  6. I hate being cliche, but, like all art, we know it when we see it. That said, I think that puzzle variety and solvability using information within the game is most important (the manual is part of the game, for older games that were generally distributed with one).
    - Inventory puzzles, if used well, are certainly not a problem. (DOTT: the puzzle for warming up the ice-cold hamster is a great example of inventory manipulation, combined with logic.)
    - Timing puzzles and arcade puzzles certainly deserve lost points. SQ3, for example, and the game of Astro Chicken. While not necessary to win, if you don't win the arcade game, you don't get a clue that will help advance the plot. Codename: ICEMAN, the submarine fails on both parts.
    - Alternate solutions deserve more points. (Even some games that weren't as liked by the reviewers here, such as the early KQ games, had a few alternate solutions to puzzles, which was, and still is a rarity.)

    Just some quick thoughts.

    1. Agree that KQ1 especially was underrated in this regard. Almost all puzzles in it have an alternate solution, with varying score rewards, and a secondary challenge comes from trying to maximise you score. I also think having a score works particularly well in that game. The non-linear structure is a bonus too. Some of the less good puzzles (gnome's name) were fixed in the remake.

    2. Indeed, lot of early Sierra games had alternative solutions to at least one puzzle (in addition to early King's Quests off the top of my head I remember Black Cauldron and Space Quests 1-3 - Black Cauldron had even various possible endings, depending on how you had played). The obvious problem is, of course, that the reviewer must stumble on these alternative solutions - or then some commenter must know the game so well that they can enlighten the reviewer - or otherwise they cannot be taken into consideration.

  7. You guys might be surprised at the rating I gave Quest for Glory III in this category . . .

  8. One thing we haven't discussed is whether we should take into account the intended audience of the game. I am mostly thinking about children's adventure games - should we expect them to have easier puzzles and score them accordingly?

    1. I think a useful way to look at it is to ask "How strongly would you recommend this game specifically for its puzzle design?". That is, a person looking for games with best puzzles should find them by sorting the spreadsheet. That would be the blog's audience. That said, I think difficulty should be a minor factor in scoring puzzles, as different people get suck on different puzzles and more objective criteria exist.

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