Here follows some statements on puzzle design. I was prompted to write this by the ongoing manifesto jam. I recommend reading some of the other manifestos people have come up with.
EMBEDDED PUZZLE MANIFESTO
A puzzle is a problem with a nonobvious solution.
A satisfying puzzle is multistep: the solution to the problem requires solving a different intermediate problem.
Creating puzzles is easy: your protagonist wants something, problematise them getting it. And then problematise the problem. Repeat until sufficiently complex.
A puzzle is nonobvious. Using a key on a door is not a puzzle. Finding a screwdriver to unscrew the hinges might be a puzzle. Using the butter knife as a screwdriver to unscrew the hinges is a puzzle.
There is no necessary distinction between a narrative game and a puzzle game: puzzles should reveal the narrative.
Puzzles can be dramatic. A puzzle and a dramatic situation are both impediments to the protagonist’s goals. The solution to a puzzle, like the resolution of a drama, tells us something about the protagonist’s character. “Really good at sliding-tiles” isn’t an interesting character facet. “Prepared to steal and lie” might be an interesting character facet. “Will destroy gifts made by loved ones in order to finish this thesis” is an interesting character facet.
Moreover, a puzzle can serve the role of gating narrative until the player understands the dramatic situation. For instance, if they need to know the name of a suspect in order to look them up in the phone book. Or they need to have visited a place or spoken with a character as a part of a puzzle-chain, and those places or people, or the items they had to pick up or disturb, are later narratively important.
It is clear how to make puzzles conflict with a narrative. Here’s how:
1. Encourage the player to perform unmotivated actions because they know its a puzzle and puzzles must be solved.
2. Include elements at odds with the setting because of a need to include puzzles.
3. Include solutions that require out of game knowledge.
4. Rob the story of urgency by encouraging the player to wander between multiple locations repeatedly in search of a solution.
Thus, it is clear how to make puzzles cohere with a narrative. Here’s how:
1. Bound the actions available to the protagonist’s motivations.
2. Embed puzzles in the setting of the game.
3. Contain solutions in the setting of the game.
4. Ensure that the intended player experience is the one that you are enabling.
1 – Motivation
The protagonist’s actions should be motivated by their goals in-the-fiction, and as such what the player can make them do should cohere to these motivations. In some games fiddling with everything is motivated by a quest for greater understanding. But in most games, the character has specific desires and it makes no narrative sense for them to solve nearby problems just because they look like puzzles. In real life and in stories, we don’t try to break into the liquor cabinet until we want a drink.
2 – Embeddedness
Unembeddedness is rampant in games with puzzles. There are anachronistic elements introduced in a spirit of zaniness. There are machine systems or locking mechanisms that closely resemble classic puzzles like pipe-turning games or the Tower of Hanoi. These aspects are artifacts of arbitrariness. They take the player out of the fiction, and force them to experience the game as a puzzle set by the game creator.
Embedding a puzzle is about making the difficulty that faces the player believable in the setting while not boring or trivial. A rope across a door is an unbelievable impediment; a locked door is a boring impediment; a snowed-in door that opens to a wall of snow is a believable and interesting impediment.
3 – Containedness
The player shouldn’t need to know the rules to baseball to proceed in your fantasy cavern crawl, or know specific English idioms in your futuristic platformer. If they do need to know these things, they should be contained within the setting of the game. If you need to search a haystack to find a needle you didn’t already know was there, then a character somewhere in the game needs to use the phrase “like finding a needle in a haystack”. And even then, this would only work in a fairytale setting where objects were expected to be placed by idiomatic logic.
What might seem obvious to you as a writer may not be obvious to someone from a different culture or educational background. Moreover, it better serves a narrative if the player is using knowledge their protagonist is supposed to have, rather than knowledge the player must have. Puzzles shine when they act also as a mechanism for ensuring that the player knows what the protagonist is meant to know at that point in the narrative.
4 – Experience
Unless your intended game experience is “frustrated wandering”, implement hints or dynamic events such that the stuck player is recognised by the game and guided before they’re encouraged by the game design to try everything with everything everywhere. An expected flow for an adventure game might look something like this: the protagonist has a problem; the player recognises a number of sub-goals that must be achieved in order to solve this problem; the player directs the protagonist towards these sub-goals; they work on one set of problems whenever they’re temporarily stumped on another set and in doing so usually find a hint that helps them elsewhere. In this expected flow, the problems are nonobvious (i.e. not immediately solved) but the player is rarely bottlenecked and always has something that they can be working on while even they’re stuck elsewhere. The desired flow will look different for a platformer or a JRPG (random menu combats can be dynamic puzzles when well-formed).
Often we see developers decry puzzles. They don’t want players to leave their game and look up a walkthrough. Or they make puzzles so easy (but often narratively arbitrary) that the player is going through the motions to pad out the game. But there is no need to leave puzzles out of our toolbox. We should not be afraid to create difficult puzzles if they are fair and can be broken down into progressively less difficult steps. When implemented well, puzzles are satisfying, further the narrative, tell us something about the characters and are fun to solve. Let us embrace embedded puzzles!