Perplexing Puzzle Design

Man, I love puzzle games. I suspect everyone does, to varying degrees. If there's ever been a more accessible video game genre, I don't think I'm aware of it (which would make it fairly inaccessible, if you ask me). While I could elaborate endlessly on the extremely broad appeal of Tetris or Angry Birds, dedicating an entire blog to those games would probably be pointless. Or at least more pointless than usual.

Instead, I'm going to concentrate on the puzzle games that ask the player to use logic and guile to find a solution, rather than clearly present the tools at the player's disposal and ask them to figure out how to save all the lemmings, help the little bird save his pals or get those darn vikings back home. Specifically I want to get into Fez, as I suspect many have recently, and the influences and decisions behind some of its more interesting Anti-Cube puzzles. I will not be spoiling anything specific, but I do want to mention the presentation behind some of them so, just in case, here is a requisite SPOILER WARNING FOR FEZ PUZZLE SOLUTIONS. There. If I still get too many complaints, I'll replace the offending statements with QR codes.

Point & Click Logic

The most basic form of video game puzzle are the deductive "use X on Y" logic puzzles presented by most adventure games, whether they be text or graphic or FMV, which I guess are simply different evolutionary stages in the technology governing the same genre. You're presented with an environment of "hotspots", which are items in the vicinity that can be interacted with. As well, you are able to collect items strewn about and can interact with them, occasionally combining them with each other or the environment-specific hotspots. Correctly deducing the right combination allows you to proceed with the story. Fairly basic stuff, but it's an entirely germane format for storytellers to create interactive fiction (and there's a reason that's a blanket term for text adventures).

It probably goes without saying here, but the best source for this sort of gameplay are the early Infocom games, the text/graphic bridging MacVenture series, the pitiless Sierra "Quests", the goofy LucasArts spoofs and the present-day homages and FMV games that I've discussed at length elsewhere.

The Layton Method

The Layton Method is a sales pitch technique pioneered by one Herbert Layton, where the idea is to besiege a potential customer with matchstick puzzles until they finally acquiesce and buy a damn boat with an affordable monthly payment plan. Actually, it's just what I've coined the design philosophy behind the type of game that presents its puzzles in-game with very little context, other than "this is a puzzle game with puzzles in it so here you go work this shit out go go go".

Puzzles in the Layton Method mould are presented as individual brainteasers with their own respective governing rulesets that can be found littered throughout their game's world. Sometimes they're necessary to continue the plot, but at other times they're incidental and there to provide backstory or simply a diversion. Due to the success of the Professor Layton franchise, a lot of graphic adventure games are now using this format to present individual puzzles as solutions to problems instead of the once-common "use inventory item on hotspot" format of old, as seen above.

The earliest example of this type of game might actually be The Fool's Errand, a game presented in a random chronological order with a group of puzzles tangentially inspired by the cards in a Tarot deck. The individual puzzles are actually pieces of a greater riddle, which needs to be solved to see the ending.

The Myst Method

The Myst method, which is where all of this was leading to, is a combination of the two adventure game models detailed above. You have environments and things to interact with, but very little context behind them save what you're able to piece together yourself. There are fictional languages, detailed backstories with hidden hints, purposeful symbols and iconography and an overall subtly-demanded requirement for a serious level of dedication (and a pen and paper) to discover the secrets the game holds. It is this model that most closely resembles Fez, as incongruous as the console-friendly pixel graphics might seem juxtaposed with such a heady format. That Fez also thrives on a similar focus on isolation, mellow soundtracks, cryptography and discovery would suggest a clear influence from the Miller bros' CD-ROM breakout hit. Of course, this all applies only the game's "second half", which goes undetected for the majority of the "find shiny" Indie platformer first playthrough. Like a similar head-screw experiment encased in a cutesy platformer shell, Eversion, the true goals and purpose of the game mutate the longer you play it, like a figurative swimming pool with a "safe" shallow end and a slightly more intimidating deep end for those who want to keep going.

But hey, anyone who's gotten deep into Fez the past few weeks probably knows this better than anyone. Besides taking the time to decrypt the square-based number and letter alphabet of that game, there's not much else I can (or would want to) suggest to those still wrestling with its headscratchers. Um, good luck?

And talking of deliberately simplistic art concealing a diabolical intelligence, except the second part, it's time for...

BONUS COMICS!

Fez

Swooping is apparently no longer bad. Take that, Alistair.

Tales of Vesperia

Sure I revisit this concept a lot, but so do RPGs. I'll stop when they do.
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2 Comments
Posted by Mento

Man, I love puzzle games. I suspect everyone does, to varying degrees. If there's ever been a more accessible video game genre, I don't think I'm aware of it (which would make it fairly inaccessible, if you ask me). While I could elaborate endlessly on the extremely broad appeal of Tetris or Angry Birds, dedicating an entire blog to those games would probably be pointless. Or at least more pointless than usual.

Instead, I'm going to concentrate on the puzzle games that ask the player to use logic and guile to find a solution, rather than clearly present the tools at the player's disposal and ask them to figure out how to save all the lemmings, help the little bird save his pals or get those darn vikings back home. Specifically I want to get into Fez, as I suspect many have recently, and the influences and decisions behind some of its more interesting Anti-Cube puzzles. I will not be spoiling anything specific, but I do want to mention the presentation behind some of them so, just in case, here is a requisite SPOILER WARNING FOR FEZ PUZZLE SOLUTIONS. There. If I still get too many complaints, I'll replace the offending statements with QR codes.

Point & Click Logic

The most basic form of video game puzzle are the deductive "use X on Y" logic puzzles presented by most adventure games, whether they be text or graphic or FMV, which I guess are simply different evolutionary stages in the technology governing the same genre. You're presented with an environment of "hotspots", which are items in the vicinity that can be interacted with. As well, you are able to collect items strewn about and can interact with them, occasionally combining them with each other or the environment-specific hotspots. Correctly deducing the right combination allows you to proceed with the story. Fairly basic stuff, but it's an entirely germane format for storytellers to create interactive fiction (and there's a reason that's a blanket term for text adventures).

It probably goes without saying here, but the best source for this sort of gameplay are the early Infocom games, the text/graphic bridging MacVenture series, the pitiless Sierra "Quests", the goofy LucasArts spoofs and the present-day homages and FMV games that I've discussed at length elsewhere.

The Layton Method

The Layton Method is a sales pitch technique pioneered by one Herbert Layton, where the idea is to besiege a potential customer with matchstick puzzles until they finally acquiesce and buy a damn boat with an affordable monthly payment plan. Actually, it's just what I've coined the design philosophy behind the type of game that presents its puzzles in-game with very little context, other than "this is a puzzle game with puzzles in it so here you go work this shit out go go go".

Puzzles in the Layton Method mould are presented as individual brainteasers with their own respective governing rulesets that can be found littered throughout their game's world. Sometimes they're necessary to continue the plot, but at other times they're incidental and there to provide backstory or simply a diversion. Due to the success of the Professor Layton franchise, a lot of graphic adventure games are now using this format to present individual puzzles as solutions to problems instead of the once-common "use inventory item on hotspot" format of old, as seen above.

The earliest example of this type of game might actually be The Fool's Errand, a game presented in a random chronological order with a group of puzzles tangentially inspired by the cards in a Tarot deck. The individual puzzles are actually pieces of a greater riddle, which needs to be solved to see the ending.

The Myst Method

The Myst method, which is where all of this was leading to, is a combination of the two adventure game models detailed above. You have environments and things to interact with, but very little context behind them save what you're able to piece together yourself. There are fictional languages, detailed backstories with hidden hints, purposeful symbols and iconography and an overall subtly-demanded requirement for a serious level of dedication (and a pen and paper) to discover the secrets the game holds. It is this model that most closely resembles Fez, as incongruous as the console-friendly pixel graphics might seem juxtaposed with such a heady format. That Fez also thrives on a similar focus on isolation, mellow soundtracks, cryptography and discovery would suggest a clear influence from the Miller bros' CD-ROM breakout hit. Of course, this all applies only the game's "second half", which goes undetected for the majority of the "find shiny" Indie platformer first playthrough. Like a similar head-screw experiment encased in a cutesy platformer shell, Eversion, the true goals and purpose of the game mutate the longer you play it, like a figurative swimming pool with a "safe" shallow end and a slightly more intimidating deep end for those who want to keep going.

But hey, anyone who's gotten deep into Fez the past few weeks probably knows this better than anyone. Besides taking the time to decrypt the square-based number and letter alphabet of that game, there's not much else I can (or would want to) suggest to those still wrestling with its headscratchers. Um, good luck?

And talking of deliberately simplistic art concealing a diabolical intelligence, except the second part, it's time for...

BONUS COMICS!

Fez

Swooping is apparently no longer bad. Take that, Alistair.

Tales of Vesperia

Sure I revisit this concept a lot, but so do RPGs. I'll stop when they do.
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Posted by Video_Game_King

I'm probably gonna have to steal that last comic of yours when I get around to finishing Persona 4.