Puzzles editorial

If Not Puzzles… What?

Are puzzles necessary in an adventure game?

According to AG's own longstanding definition, they are. In fact, given the genre's three fundamental pillars – story, exploration, and puzzles – it could be argued that puzzles are the most integral. Not most important, but integral. Why? Because story and exploration are shared traits among several genres, making puzzle-solving really the lone defining characteristic that separates adventure gameplay from most others.

So historically and traditionally speaking, puzzles are indeed essential in making adventure games what they are. Perhaps the better question is: should they be? There are two huge problems with making puzzle-solving the predominant gameplay focus of an adventure. Not only does it represent a very unforgiving barrier to entry that limits its appeal to mainstream audiences, it's extraordinarily difficult to design a whole game around puzzle-solving within a narrative framework – or to do so successfully, anyway.

The first issue is unavoidable to an extent. Let's face it, puzzles simply aren't as exciting as action. I've come out of many a virtual firefight with heart pounding, endorphins surging; never once have I had to wipe the sweat from my hands after an intense slider. The pace of puzzle-solving is much slower, more sedate, cerebral. That has its own benefits, but a boost of adrenaline is not one of them. Rewards, too, are much more restrictive in adventures. While every game is designed around challenges of various kinds, most games emphasize smaller, more immediate goals and accomplishments on a more frequent basis. Puzzles are intended to frustrate – not to the point of discouragement (hopefully), but enough to actually impede your progress. Whereas other games tend to resemble obstacle courses, adventures play out more like traffic – overcome one hurdle, roll up a few paces, slow and repeat (probably with lots of honking and swearing somewhere in between).


Now, like you (presumably), I'm an adventure gamer, so I have a certain affinity for that kind of gameplay. I'm not disrespecting it; merely stating the reality, at least as far as the wider gaming world is concerned. The easiest – and laziest – response is simply to dismiss other gamers as being unwilling to think. They're all just fast-twitch thumb jockeys, right? Wrong. (Oh, some are, sure. Just as some adventure gamers are surely elitist snobs who look down on other types of gameplay they're not good at. Such extreme generalizations are entirely unhelpful.) Most strategy games require just as much thought (of another type) as any adventure, often under duress, while the runaway success of games like Portal, Braid, and Limbo show there's a legitimate yearning for thoughtful gameplay when presented in new and interesting ways.

So if mindless gamers aren't to blame, what is? The answer must lie with the types of puzzles offered in adventure games, and the ways in which they're implemented. When you think about it, puzzles are pretty much the antithesis of story and exploration. The latter go hand-in-hand; the former usually tries to hinder them both. The better games integrate puzzles seamlessly into the story while blending item- and clue-gathering intuitively into exploration, but eventually most adventures boil down to a series of bottlenecks choking off more story and exploration. All too often, adventure game puzzles feel less like something to do and more like something preventing you from doing anything else.

Gabriel Knight 3

There's intrinsic entertainment value in solving puzzles just for their own sake, of course, but to truly succeed in an adventure game they must also feel like an organic part of the story, logically derived from circumstance and adequately signposted with all the necessary information provided. The best games strike just the right balance, but it's ever-so-tenuous. It's why even a game as highly acclaimed as Gabriel Knight 3 offers both the revered Le Serpent Rouge sequence and the infamous cat hair mustache puzzle. 

The reason so many adventures get it so wrong so often is that puzzles are so contrived. Life just isn't about jumping through as many hoops as possible to accomplish even the most mundane of tasks. Obviously games are escapism, not real life, but that's a cop-out. The goal of any designer is to make people forget they're playing a game and sweep players completely up in a virtual world with its own set of rules. Breaking those rules just to shoehorn in yet another confounding obstacle is an immersion-killer that can't be redeemed by conveniently falling back on the "just a game" excuse. If it's a world where sharp things cut soft things, then ALL sharp things must cut ALL soft things. If it's a world where normal, everyday people operate shops, then having a door lock made of complex brainteasers is ridiculous. THAT is what turns non-adventure gamers off. Heck, it's what turns me off.

The simple solution, of course, is to design better puzzles. There's certainly room for improvement, but ultimately that may prove to be both too idealistic and too short-sighted. Multiply the number of puzzles in any given adventure game by the number of new releases each year and you soon come up with a pretty staggering number. There's a reason we keep seeing the same paper-under-the-blocked-keyhole puzzle: there are only so many contextual puzzles to realistically go around! If the genre continues to rely exclusively on puzzles as its central gameplay mechanic, it's going to run out of ideas. Perhaps it already has.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes

In recent years, it seems that more and more developers have begun taking this dilemma to heart. Responses have varied widely: Some merely added hint systems and user-friendly devices to minimize player frustration while keeping the gameplay the same. This addresses the symptoms but not the core problem. Others have chosen to streamline progress somewhat, generally resulting in easier games with fewer puzzles. Frogwares, for example, has been scaling back their puzzle difficulty for a much better-balanced experience, culminating with the excellent Testament of Sherlock Holmes. Secret Files 3, meanwhile, eschewed the more preposterous inventory puzzles of the first two installments, but didn't really compensate properly for their absence. If you're going to take a notable element out, you need to fill the gap with something...

Or do you? Some developers have gone another route, choosing to replace puzzles with absolutely nothing. Inspired indie titles like Home and Dear Esther are essentially just stories with barely anything that resembles gameplay. If stories are the main reason many people play adventures, why not just cut out the middle man and remove the obstacles entirely? This approach works well as a novelty, but if it became more popular the lack of any significant player interaction would surely wear thin before long. Besides which, it works best with surreal narratives that don't rely on linear, straightforward storytelling, which isn't particularly conducive to most adventure game plots. Still, there's a lesson to be learned here; sometimes puzzles do nothing but interfere with the story the game is trying to tell.

Continued on the next page...

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Jack Allin
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