By gamer_152 22 Comments
Note: This article contains mild spoilers for The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit.
When we solve a smartly-designed puzzle, we get a little dose of dopamine not just because games explicitly frame this as a success but also because there's a part of our brain which responds to us clicking together seemingly disparate pieces in a way that makes logical sense. It's that same feeling of accomplishment that we find in working out how to make programming code more efficient or deducing who the murderer in our murder mystery novel is before the investigator. It's normal to think that the more dimensions a puzzle has and the more pushback it gives against us trying to crack it, the more those pleasure centres will light up when we finally do, but that's not true for puzzles that have illogical solutions or are just composed of busywork. When we beat them, we might be happy that we've progressed or be relieved that we can put the frustrating puzzle back in its box, but we can't apply our pattern recognition to a bad puzzle; there's no sense of the pieces meshing together.
In this article, we're going to talk about puzzles where the clues are misleading, and the design fails to communicate the solution effectively, and through that exploration, hopefully, learn what high-quality puzzles look like and how they work. Our lab rat for this experiment is going to be the "Hawt Dawg Man" puzzle from The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. This article isn't a commentary on Captain Spirit as a whole which is a heartfelt story coming from an achingly real place, but it does contain an example which shows all the levels on which a puzzle can be misleading.
The Hawt Dawg Man challenge is basically this: The protagonist Chris needs to finds the "PIN code" that will unlock his father, Charles's, phone so he can play a mobile game called Mustard Party 2. The solution is entering "42983294" into the phone because we play Mustard Party from the perspective of a character called Hawt Dawg Man, and if you spell out "Hawt Dawg" on a phone pad, that's the number you get. The "42983294" answer is, in the context of the game, exceptionally obtuse and runs counter to the logic the play encourages us to employ. When we, as players, devise solutions to puzzles, those solutions don't come from thin air; games always tell us in one dialect or another what the solution is, or at least, drop hints that allow us to narrow it down to a small range of possibilities. However, the information that Captain Spirit plies us with misleads us about this solution. Here we're going to look at three different sources of puzzle clues that games utilise and how Captain Spirit serves us an example of what not to do with them.
Source 1: Real-World Context
Much of the time, we know how gameplay elements will react to us and interact with each other because the objects and systems in the game world resemble objects and systems in our real-world and they both run on the same ruleset. E.g. In both real-life and most games, keys unlock locks, elevators move us between floors, and telescopes allow us to see into the distance. If you introduce a key, elevator, or telescope to your play that does not perform its respective real-world function and you don't tell the player that, you damage the audience's comprehension of your systems. Captain Spirit references the real-world concept of PIN codes, which are typically four characters long, especially when those PIN codes are, like Charles's, used to lock phones. This parallel creates the impression that the solution to the puzzle is a four-digit passcode, when in fact, we need to be looking for an eight-digit one.
I also wouldn't blame anyone who doesn't realise that the character who you'd expect to be called "Hotdog Man" is, in fact, called "Hawt Dawg Man", particularly if they have subtitles off. It's another example of a game designer deciding that something which works one way in the real-world arbitrarily works another way for the sake of their puzzle. Even once I knew how DONTNOD intended me to complete the puzzle, I wondered why my spelling of "Hawt Dog" didn't work, and it's not because it was any less sensible a solution to the puzzle than "Hawt Dawg". We also know from the real-world that individuals often set their passwords to reflect people or things that matter to them, but Hawt Dawg Man is a children's cartoon character. There's nothing about what Charles says or the possessions he owns that suggest that animated barbecue food created to entertain kids would play on his mind. None the less, that's his PIN.
Source 2: Context via the Medium
Games, like all media, have an internal language, but as uniquely interactive entertainment, their language not only conveys meaning but also prompts you about what to do next. We know from our previous exposure to games that if there is a pressure plate in the floor, we should put something heavy on it, or that patrolling guards generally won't detect us unless we fall within their vision cone. Reliable designers ensure that when elements like pressure plates and guards appear in their games, they behave the same way that we're used to them behaving in other games, or else, they go out of their way to teach us that that's not going to be the case. Otherwise, their game fails to gel with our understanding of the medium.
Captain Spirit is far from the only title with a keypad puzzle; they're all over immersive sims and the keypads in those games almost always bar entry using a four-digit code. It's another way in which Charles's eight-digit code confounds the player to no productive end. In other games, keypad puzzles are also usually solved by looking for graffiti or documents in the environment and using strings of numbers found within them to gain access to the door, computer, etc. Captain Spirit breaks from that pattern, and there's nothing to inform the player that it is doing so. We'll talk more about the headache this creates in the next section.
Source 3: The Game Itself
Sometimes the interfaces of puzzles will provide the clues we need to solve the puzzles themselves. Think of numbers on a Sudoku grid or the lines scratched onto the sun temple panels in The Witness. The lock screen on Charles's phone drops no such hints beyond informing us we need a numeric sequence to access it. To be fair, the designers aren't obligated to give us anything else. It's just as valid to craft a puzzle that relies on environmental or narrative cues as it is one that relies on the UI. However, the environmental design and story of Captain Spirit only serve to confuse us about the keypad's solution.
One puzzle set in the family garage has you solving a four-digit combination lock. The correct input for it is "2|0|0|5" as 2005 is the year that Chris's mother and father met, and the year his father's basketball team won the championship. There are a newspaper and a photo in Charles's and Chris's home which provide us with this information, and it makes sense that Charles would set his lock combination to a date that carries significance in his hobby and relationship. After that discovery, it's natural to think that the phone puzzle would also require you finding a number in the environment that matters to Charles and is four digits long. It would explain why the house is full of letters and other dated paraphernalia from a mortgage notice to a photography magazine his wife perused. As it turns out, none of these dates is relevant to this puzzle, and apart from the basketball photo, they're not connected to any other puzzle either. You can spend half your time with Captain Spirit searching around the house for a clue that you could reasonably expect to find but does not exist because the design lacks consistency.
You may have noticed that as we discuss puzzle clues, the concept of red herrings keeps bobbing to the surface. Miscommunications in puzzle designs tend to mislead us, and any solution we're misled towards is, by definition, a red herring. This category would include the "Hotdog Man" solution or the dates scattered around the Eriksen abode. False answers to puzzles are not inherently a weakness in the design; sometimes they're a compulsory safety measure which stops puzzles from surrendering their solutions without some prodding, but in a competent design, any player who puts the work in should be able to tell the difference between the bait and the real solution.
In many instances, it also helps if, when the player attempts to solve the puzzle using an incorrect method, they uncover a hint as to the correct one. E.g. If I'm playing Bridge Constructor and I see that my bridge collapses when a car reaches the far end, I know I should reinforce the far end of the bridge. Or if I step into any enemy path and die in Volume, I know one more route through the level which I may want to refrain from using in the future. Failing to design your puzzle in this manner is failing to reward the player's investigative abilities, and if you don't want to do that, you should at least make it so that players can quickly identify that an incorrect solution is incorrect, allowing them to discard it as a viable option and move on immediately. The Hawt Dawg Man puzzle is tedious because there are so many numbers printed and scribbled across Charles's and Chris's house that tracking down every one and trying them out is a time-consuming process. That process also fails to motion in the direction of the puzzle's actual solution, and these scattered dates, the game's red herrings, are more plausible as solutions than the real answer.
Now we understand how and why the puzzle fails to challenge us fairly, we can start devising changes to fix it. Game design is a creative pursuit, and just as there's no one correct approach to designing a puzzle, there's no single right approach to redesigning one, but that doesn't stop us from throwing a few at the wall. We could make the PIN number that Charles's phone requires four figures long instead of eight, or if we still wanted an eight character sequence, we could design a phone UI which displays eight slots for the eight digits. The interface could even throw an error that tells players the passcode needs to be eight characters long when they enter one shorter than that. It would also be of benefit to both the design and the narrative if Charles set his passcode to something that was important to him. It would tap into players' intuition and expectations, and provide another angle from which the writers could talk to who Charles is. Maybe the passcode could be the name of his favourite basketball player or his favourite beer brand. The drama of Captain Spirit is in us confronting Charles's barely concealed alcoholism, and this could be a way to do it which catches audiences off-guard.
Given how unconventional it is to expect players to convert a word to numeric form to solve a keypad puzzle, Captain Spirit would also find itself in better shape if it gave clues that that's what it wants players to do. As designers, we could show Charles using this encryption scheme with other possessions or implement another puzzle which more gently introduces users to this concept. We could also print the corresponding letters onto each key of the phone's keypad, as is standard practice in the real world. As for all those red herrings, the puzzle would cause a lot less grief if there were fewer dated documents around the house, or better yet, if we redacted the dates on the majority of Charles's paperwork.
So, a quick recap before we finish: Puzzles are satisfying when they work with recognisable logic. Where elements of puzzles resemble real-world objects, they should conform to the real-world behaviour of those objects, and if a title's mechanics resemble those of other games, developers should ensure that they follow the rules those other games have established. Alternatively, designers may stray somewhat from established real-world, in-medium, or in-game rules, but when they do they should be transparent and open with the player about the new ruleset for the puzzles. They should also make sure that the internal logic of their game is consistent and that the player isn't taught to use play elements one way and then expected to use them in another. Finally, if they use red herrings, an observant and intelligent player should be able to separate them from the intended solution quickly. Thanks for reading.