Puzzle Games – Open vs Sequential

Last week I spoke of the two categories I separate puzzle design into, those being the story driven ones, the ones with a close tie to the game’s narrative and game universe common sense, and the challenge driven, those placed in the game just to give players something meaty to bite into, often tied to the game’s plot by theme rather than adhering to the plot, the locations, the character’s common sense, etc.

With those two in mind, I’d like to talk to you today about two other categories, but these are the ones in which I separate the games that feature these puzzles. Despite the article’s title, I don’t like to call them puzzle games, as puzzles in both categories can be in a variety of genres, with the puzzles being just another challenge offered to players, without them being the core of the experience—take the Resident Evil franchise for example, the first and latest titles heavy on complex puzzles but not their defining feature.

I base these two categories on how the players interacts with the puzzles in the world. They can be Sequential or Open.

Sequential Puzzlers

The Sequential puzzler takes you through the challenges one at a time, or places several in your path that work as a checklist. You either need to complete them in order, with every solution giving a clue or crucial item for the next one, or the puzzles act as a barrier that keep you from the next chapter in the story or the next puzzles until you’ve solved them.

It could be that story events that open new clues, items and challenges trigger only when you solve the sequential puzzles. What separates this category from its counterpart is that the pattern repeats itself every time, the progress broken down in a series of sequential puzzles.

Broken Sword 5
In broken sword you go from one puzzle to the next in a fixed sequence.

The upside is that it focuses the player on one problem at a time, lets them give one challenge all their attention, without bothering with the rest until they have solved it.

The downside is that if a player is stuck, frustration will sink in faster, as the player will have no alternative paths to pursue, which could clear his head enough to solve the original puzzle.

Re-released on Gamecube when PS1 version were no longer available, and then on PC when the Gamecube was long gone!
Really don’t like calling them Puzzle Games, to be honest.

Examples: Nancy Drew Series (depending on the game), Sherlock Holmes Series, Monkey Island, Broken Sword, Resident Evil.

Open Puzzler

The Open puzzler gives you everything you need. Every clue, every puzzle and every solution is right there in front of you, leaving it up to you the order in which you want to tackle them. Sure, some of the puzzles will drop clues to complete others or open new routes, that’s standard rewards for the player, but overall, you will never be without things to do, and the games will never lock you into a linear path.

And if it does, it’s just until you trigger a major checkpoint in the game, at which point everything will open once more.

Rising from the depths!
Every door has a key, and they’re all around you!

The upside to an Open Puzzle video game is that it’s a giant playground. Your player knows he has every tool at this disposal, he just needs to go explore. If he gets stuck, he can move onto the next in a myriad of challenges.

The downside is that if the player gets stuck in most puzzles, the lack of direction can kill the mood and momentum, making the player lose their interest.

The Witness
They’re essentially ONE puzzle, but they’re open!

Examples: Myst, Obduction, Nancy Drew Series (depending on the title), The Witness.

But having described these two broad categories, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention there are of course Hybrids, such as The Talos Principle, where access to the puzzle worlds is sequential, and you can’t escape the linear path, but one you reach a new area, you have complete freedom in how you tackle the different puzzle rooms.

Though having said so, the expansion to The Talos Principle, Road to Gehenna is much closer to an Open Puzzler game than it is to the other category.

Is it just me who thought of The Mummy after looking at this?
The worlds, sequential. The challenges, open.

What do you think of these two categories? Do you know any game that would fit in them, or perhaps break this mould? Let me know in the comments!


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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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