If there’s one thing that you can expect from an adventure game, it’s puzzles. They’re part of the genre, and even the slew of choice-based adventures we’ve seen in the past few years have at least one puzzle in them, a little challenge to break the pace from the monotony of watching interactive cutscenes.
If the above sentence makes it sound like I don’t like choice-driven games, you’re getting close, though it’s not exact either. I like challenges and puzzles in my videogaming, and when it comes to adventures, I want puzzles, be it logic, inventory or even conversation based. It’s why I loved Life is Strange, it didn’t sacrifice the puzzling for the choices, finding a good balance between them.
But as I sit here contemplating adventure games I realise there are different approaches to puzzle design, and while this might a gross oversimplification and generalisation, I believe you can put the overall design approaches into two categories: Narrative Driven and Challenge Driven.
Narrative Driven Puzzle Design
Narrative puzzles, much like their counterparts will follow the plot and offer a challenge and certain points of the story, but differ in that they’re based on the logic of the setting. If a character is getting out of jail, then there won’t be a complex lock using gems or stones that they’ll need to arrange to form a pattern that unlocks the cell. No, they’ll have to deal with whatever’s handy from a jail cell and the adjoining room.
Narrative puzzles can be challenging and can often deal with riddles, but these too will fit in the setting, in the scene, the overall intellect and education of its characters and above all, common sense…at least the that of the people living where your story is happening.
If your game takes place within an alien culture, then there will be an alien logic at play. If it’s a story in a hick town in the butt end of nowhere in Alabama, then it will follow the rules of that setting.
The solutions will often also fit the characters solving them. Their approach will go in line with their morals–even if that sometimes makes all adventure game protagonists villains–and you’ll get to know them a bit more through their puzzle solution approach. Some will dress up as Priests to get an old lady to spill the beans about a secret cult, for example.
Pros: The major advantage is that the puzzles will fit naturally with your setting and your audience won’t have to suspend their disbelief very much or at all, and it can even aid your storytelling by telling them things about the place and its people you don’t want to say explicitly.
Cons: Because you constrain the puzzles to the setting and its logic, anyone who understands the basic logic will see through the puzzles. Common sense usually means inventory swapping and bringing thingy A to slot B.
Challenge Driven Puzzle Design
Again, much like its counterpart, these puzzles will fit into the stories as challenges to progress at certain scenes.
But what makes them stand out is that while they can fit the game’s overall theme, and even link important plot elements, the basic principle in their design is to give a challenge to players, by making them piece together what at first glance are separate pieces of information and push their brain power to the limit with complex riddles, pattern sequences and every other variety of puzzle in the book. Under this puzzle design style, inventory puzzles are a welcome break as they offer a bit of logic that you can easily figure out.
Challenge driven puzzles often only barely fit their settings and push the disbelief factor strongly. If you find yourself staring at the screen looking at this impossible ancient contraption saying “really?” then you’re likely dealing with challenge driven puzzles.
If you wonder at any point if all NPCs have an Engineering degree or are master coders, making everything into a complex cypher, then you’re probably dealing with a challenge driven puzzle.
Challenge driven puzzles are always logical though, and the facts and instructions needed are right there in front of you. You just have to figure out how they piece together.
Pros: You can make some hardcore puzzles that really tax your players’ minds. Your game will probably be memorable, if not infamous, for these puzzles. Some of us like that!
Cons: The puzzles might push the players past the natural boundaries of suspension of disbelief, losing their investment in the game. They might also become fatigued from the challenge.
There are, of course, the games that straddle the fence between these two major categories, offering a bit of both. Monkey Island is a clear example, with some puzzles that are there clearly for a challenge, to entertain with their complexity, and others that instead fit the admittedly whacky setting.
I would like to say that Challenge driven puzzles do not, and I reiterate, DO NOT mean moon logic puzzles. These are a separate category, one that blurs the lines between these two and corrupt them for artificial difficulty, one based on breaking common sense altogether.
I’ll also take the opportunity to correct a mistake I made years ago, when I called Monkey Island 2’s Monkey Wrench puzzle moon logic. It is not, it’s merely a puzzle using clever wordplay to hide the solution, which is admittedly zany, but still fitting its setting and the cartoonish common sense.
That’s it for these two major categories, but there are two other design categories I want to explore for the adventure genre, which tie directly into this one, but you’ll have to wait for that one.
Yes, I am being mysterious.
Sound off in the comments with your thoughts on these categories and just how badly I’m misrepresenting puzzle design! Or which games you think fit into these categories!