Puzzles editorial

If Not Puzzles… What?

Not all elements are enjoyed by everyone, but all too often these changes cause great distress among those who prefer the tried-and-true adventure game formulas. We all have personal tastes and preferences, so that's understandable, but jealously defending the "genre" as if it were an actual THING that needs protection is completely misguided. It's not an entity in danger of being destroyed; it's a concept – a loose collection of ideas that generally morph into something we recognize. But not always. Sometimes games like Portal 2 come along that challenge those perceptions. It fits our definition of adventure like a glove, and yet people still resist embracing it as such because it's so... so... different.

But difference, my friends, is what really makes adventures so great. What other genre offers the incredible diversity that ours does? True, a huge majority of games resemble Myst or Monkey Island clones. They're the meat-and-potatoes of the genre menu, and that's fine. But it's the more forward-thinking, daring games that add the spice. Just in 2012 alone, you could guide a wordless quintet of creatures through a surreal tree world; explore a minimalistic, geometrical dreamscape with no characters, inventory, or discernable plot; remotely guide a robot across alien planets through text; escape a nightmarish blindness solely through sound; secretly assassinate people with demonic powers; traverse time through black-and-white comic book pages; or stealthily creep through a street full of undead zombies. Whew!


There are more examples besides those, and far more throughout the years. In fact, virtually every game we hold dear is the result of bold design innovations at some point. They're old hat now, but at the time they faced much the same resistance that new games now face in our own era. Where would we be if Ken and Roberta Williams hadn't added those crazy things called pictures to text, or Ron Gilbert his unique point-and-click command interface? What would the genre look like if the Miller brothers hadn't dropped players unceremoniously into the midst of an otherworldly slideshow with no direction of any kind, or if Trilobyte hadn't made extensive use of full-motion video? We'd still be typing in unrecognized verbs playing Zork.

Instead of rejecting change, we need to start encouraging it, even if it threatens our sacred puzzle-solving cow. Many already have, but as fellow adventurers we're a community seriously divided. Which is a shame, because there's just no reason to fear progress. We mustn't think of evolution like a straight line, where X turns into Y, then Y to Z, with X and Y never to be heard from again. That isn't how it works. I said the genre isn't an "entity", but if it were, it would be like a living cell that grows and adapts as new ideas emerge. It probes along the edges, incorporating compatible foreign elements within, but the core always remains the same. Even if The Walking Dead sparks a horde of gameplay-lite, choice-heavy copycats in future, the genre will always have a host of traditional adventures huddled in the middle. It's pointless to be so territorial.

Not only would I like to see even more diversity between games, but getting back to the original question, I'd like to see much more gameplay variety within a given adventure. Should there be puzzles? Ultimately I'd say yes, but not all of the same type, difficulty, or frequency. There is such a thing as too much Rube Goldberg, inventory gathering, and absurd mental gymnastics. The narrative should always, always dictate the design, continually adapting itself accordingly. In the vast majority of games, natural laws should matter; dialogue choices should affect the response; character abilities and even ongoing development should factor into available options. You may need to sneak or fight or hide and cower on occasion, and other times run and jump and climb and push. Even hidden object searches have their logical uses – how many adventures ask you to root through the trash, but how few actually require you to get your hands dirty doing it?


This may sound like I'm supporting hybrids, and in a sense I am. A pinch of action, a sprinkling of roleplaying, a dash of strategy, a spot of stealth, and even the odd scavenger hunt sound like tasty seasoning in a healthy dose of adventuring. But none of these are required. A traditional adventure with a better, more diverse mix of gameplay elements would do just as well, so long as they fit the game's own design philosophy. This call for internal variety isn't universal, of course. Machinarium wouldn't improve with random dialogue puzzles thrown in, while To the Moon wouldn't benefit from additional brainteasers crammed into its heartfelt storyline. But that's why those games are among the best at what they do; each is designed specifically around a central focus and rarely (if ever) break character. Most adventures have a much broader scope, but fail to equally broaden their interactive possibilities.

Not every game should strive to be all things for all people, naturally. But they can all strive to be the richest experiences they can be, and too many seem satisfied with the status quo. I have absolutely nothing against puzzles, but puzzles should only go where puzzles belong. If any developer reaches the point of deciding "we need a puzzle here", they've already lost. If an obstacle isn't organic, then shoehorning it in is an immersion-killer from the get-go, and the more convoluted the solution, the less credibility it displays. THESE are the puzzles that other players despise about adventure games, and I don't blame them a bit.

The key point to remember is that immersion is the end game, not gameplay, and puzzles are just an instrument. Who here overcomes every single obstacle with the exact same approach? Nobody, so why do we arbitrarily restrict ourselves in games? Makes no sense. Perhaps there are more puzzles that would fit naturally if developers stopped limiting themselves to a select few problem-solving variations. I'm a proponent of multiple solutions, but that's not what I'm suggesting here. I'm merely recommending that the options best suit each scenario, not a prescribed gameplay formula. Sometimes a situation demands outwitting an opponent, sometimes brute force and ignorance are called for (Zork Inquisitor's Brog says hi). The issue isn't so much a need to think outside the box, but just plain putting more damn puzzle approaches INTO the box to draw from.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Where are the Legend of Zeldas in the "point-and-click" world? Forget the boss fights and tricky physical maneuvers; I'm talking strictly about the open-world exploration and imaginative puzzle-solving. Its inventory puzzles don't feel like puzzles at all, but rather intuitive uses of the tools at your disposal, in increasingly clever ways. Whether it's using a power glove to move heavy objects, a crossbow to activate distant targets, a hookshot to hoist yourself high over obstacles, or a freeze ray to solidify objects that weigh down pressure plates (random examples that barely scratch the surface), these are puzzles that integrate perfectly into the ever-changing environments. And some of them are hard. They force players to think spacially, to plan ahead, to experiment, to strategize. There's no "use everything on everything" solutions here. If I had my way, every adventure game developer would be forced to play A Link to the Past to expand their puzzling horizons.

Ultimately, puzzles may be integral to the adventure experience, and that is still a good thing overall, but it doesn't mean that the mold is forever set. The who/what/when/where/why and how (and how often) such puzzles are implemented must best suit each story's design instead of following a particular pattern just to call itself an "adventure". It's this slavish devotion to the same old puzzle types where the genre is guiltiest of being stagnant, and as more and more games start to branch out and try new things (or old things in new ways), we should all support such developments wholeheartedly. Without such ambition, we'd have no Stacking or Ghost Trick or even Professor Layton. They may not all work, and we won't all like the results, but we should always embrace the creative attempt. The tried-and-true is here to stay, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying now. For a community so devoted to puzzles, why haven't we figured that out?

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Jack Allin
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