On Puzzle Design

(First of all, sorry for the somewhat long absence from the blogger-sphere, settling in a new country isn’t easy, and unsuccessful job hunting is very tiring…and depressing; but now I’m back in the saddle)

This piece was inspired by a Japanese animation, Anime, series I’ve been watching for the past 3 years called Phi Brain: Kami no Puzzle (Puzzle of God), and as the title suggests, it’s a show about puzzles and solving them and their craft, with feeble stories and a mixed-bag of characters enveloping them, and taking place in the most insane world ever, where there are Mega-corporations centered on puzzle making and with more money than all the countries in our world; where a particular puzzle might involve death traps, man-made islands and aircraft with labyrinths built in…or all of them combined.

The series does introduce two concepts that stuck with me, and are central to this article: Givers & Solvers. A Giver is someone who designs and builds puzzles, and a Solver is someone who solves them; and a clear distinction is made between the two, with only a handful of Givers being Solvers, and the ability to do both being considered extremely rare. That got me thinking if that was really the case in the real world, if skill in solving puzzles really had no part in the process or skill of creating them.

Now, Adventure games, text or point & click, or action adventures, like the world of Phi Brain, are all about puzzles. Yes, story, and action and excitement are very important, as are good characters and sometimes even the visuals; but the real meat of the gameplay, what makes an adventure game an adventure game are the puzzles you find in them; the teasers, the brain sizzlers, the headache inducers and those that make you cry bloody tears.

While I can’t ask the makers of Phi Brain what their position is, not only because there isn’t a chance in hell that they’d reply, but it might just be the same as the one presented in the show; I can ask Adventure Game designers, the amazingly creative and devious people behind those same puzzles I enjoy solving; in other words, why not ask real Givers?

To get my answers, I asked designers two questions:

  1. As a player, what’s the hardest puzzle you’ve ever encountered? – There is no such thing as a pure Giver in real life, less alone in the Video Game Industry as we are all, above all else, Gamers, and I thought it would be interesting to know what puzzles have stumped the people behind the puzzles that stump us.
  2. Do you think being skilled at solving puzzles makes you better at creating them, or are they two different skill sets? – The real question and the one I’ve been talking about so far.

I want to thank all the designers for taking time from their busy schedules to reply to my questions. I want to make special mention of Igor Salnitsky, Frogwares’ Puzzle Designer, and one of the people behind the Sherlock Holmes Adventures series, including the upcoming Crimes & Punishments, as well as the recently announced Call of Cthulhu game, who due to being not only busy but in Ukraine, wasn’t able to participate. My thoughts go out to him and hope he stays safe.

I would also like to thank Emily Morganti for helping me get in touch with some of these amazing designers.

Cesar Bittar & Katie Hallahan – Phoenix Online Studios (Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, The Silver Lining)

cezmastree21)      Katie: Almost anything in Myst jumps to mind, but mostly figuring out that underground maze, where you were driving a sort of submersible. I could not figure out which way to go in that thing at all! That was more difficult from a directional standpoint, though, not as much intellectually. But I think Myst had the most intellectually challenging puzzles for me when I played it as well.

Cesar: Hardest puzzle– I’m not sure –Maybe not much a puzzle but I could never deduct the answers right at the end in Laura Bow 2. On the other hand, most memorable puzzle would have to go to Le Serpent Rouge from Gabriel Knight 3 for being such a multilayered work of art

2)      Katie: It helps, but specifically because the more you learn about solving puzzles, the more ideas you get for how puzzles can work. They’re related skill sets, but overall the wider variety of puzzles you experience is what can be a huge help to being able to design more interesting and complex puzzles

Cesar: For me, they go hand in hand. It’s because I love to solve hard puzzles that I also like to create very intricate ones. I have less patience for them these days but I still like to be challenged

Dave Gilbert – Wadjet Eye Games (The Shiva, The Blackwell Series)

gilbert1)      Hm! It’s difficult to answer this question these days, since the solution to any puzzle is just a Google search away and I can’t remember the last time I spent ages on a puzzle. So I will have to go with almost anything from Infocom’s “Spellbreaker.” I got stuck so many times in that game, but the solutions were usually fair (if a bit evil!)

2)      They are definitely different skill sets. I’ve created puzzles that I think are really difficult, but then they get solved by everybody in about five minutes. By the same token, I have designed areas that I didn’t even think had real puzzles, and inevitably people would get stuck on it.

Thomas Busse – Order of Dagon Publishing (H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon)

dagon1)      There have been a lot of hard and unfair puzzles especially in older Sierra adventures, but the one that stuck most with me – and I guess with a lot of people – is the one in Gabriel Knight 3 where you have to rent a motorbike.

Because all the cool bikes are already rented out, you need to convince the rental clerk that you are the guy who rented the only nice bike that hasn’t been picked up yet.

In order to do that you have to disguise as the person who has originally rented the motorbike – you know who he is as he stays in the same hotel as you. And so you have to steal his coat, passport, and then – most bizarrely – create a fake moustache made of cat hair in order to look like him.

Creating the moustache took me forever because the way how to do it was so outrageously bizarre that I couldn’t figure it out. I could have probably grown a real one in that time 🙂

2)      Yes, I think especially having played lots of other adventures helps in designing better puzzles, simply because you see which kinds of puzzles are fun and engaging rather than just boring or, even worse, frustrating.

Jane Jensen – Pinkerton Road Studios (Gabriel Knight, Moebius, Gray Matter…frankly, too many credits to list, but all amazing)

Jane_Farm_11)      I found Myst really difficult. I had to use hints to get through at least half of those puzzles.

2)      I think you do need to enjoy solving puzzles and have a good feel for them in order to design puzzles.

With the exception of Dave Gilbert, the designers agree the skills are related in one way or another, from just experiencing different puzzles types and styles to simply loving them. A couple also agreed on Myst being rather difficult, which just means I have to try it out for myself.

Yes, I haven’t played Myst, ever. I usually have problems with the old 1st Person Adventures, where you need to click to move to the next screenshot set piece, because the lack of free movement irks me. But since playing the Dracula games and Dracula 3 in particular, I’m more open to them…but that’s beside the point.

Once more, I’d like to thank all the designers and I invite them to further expand on their answers if they wish, to help us fully understand their points of view, either sending me an email or in the comments below.

I also wish this to become a recurring feature, to know the points of view of puzzle designers around the world, so if any designer reads this, please contact me to feature your replies (and those of your team, no matter how large it is) in a future issue.

Finally, even if you’re not into Anime, watch Phi Brain, the puzzles are really brilliant and the adventure gamer in you will squeal with joy with every one of them.

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I love everything readable, writeable, playable and of course, edible! I search for happiness, or Pizza, because it's pretty much the same thing! I write and ramble on The Mental Attic and broadcast on my Twitch channel, TheLawfulGeek

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