on puzzles

Tue Oct-31st-2006 // Filed under: Games

I am getting increasingly tired of the puzzles in computer and console games. You know the type — or possibly, you don’t and don’t particularly care either, in which case skipping this post might be a pretty smart move. It’s a kind of a long one, too.

Essentially, my puzzle problem is twofold. First of all, they are far too easy, and secondly, they make no sense.

I’ll tackle these issues right away, but let me first lay down some covering fire for the inevitable counterarguments — chiefly, the well-known and often referenced “lol it’s only a game shut up” thesis that inevitably pops up in discussions like these. Let’s take that one as read and assume, if only for the sake of the argument, that games with at least reasonably realistic characterization or environments benefit from a consistent and believable game world. (There are various arguments against this assertion, but never mind them for now.)

So, first of all — puzzles tend to be way too easy. I will give an example.

An average puzzle in a game consists of three huge stone blocks, numbered one, two and three. When you maneuver your character in front of one of these blocks, the game informs you that if you trouble yourself to press down the “X” button, you can drag these blocks around. Provided that you deign to do as the game suggests, you are more often than not then rewarded with a satisfying display of a ridiculously muscular man (or an extremely boobalistic woman, in one of the more tasteful and artistic games that are so mature that they are suggested for equally mature players) grunting and groaning as he or she bodily drags a huge block of stone around. It has, I admit, certain elements of the awesome about it.

Now, in addition to the blocks themselves, there are also three indentations on the floor. They are also numbered one, two and three. They are probably in a different order, though, such as three, one and two. It is then your job to figure out which block should be maneuvered into which indentation. Once you have done so, you can progress in the game. Congratulations! You have now solved the puzzle.

If the puzzle is particularly devious, a form of poetry may be involved, which may contain a message that somewhat complicates the placement of the blocks. For example:

Ho, ye adventurer hearty!
The road ends for your party
unless you, and you alone
correctly place the blocks of stone!
But bear in mind, in name of fun
backwards must the numbers run!

(Yes, you’re right — many of these games have an amazing and stunningly beautiful lyrical quality to them — AS DO I.) Whoo boy, that puzzle sure is a head-scratcher, isn’t it? They’ll never crack that one at the GCHQ. Backwards, you say? Hmm!

A seven-year old could figure this out. And this is, of course, the point, because the game can’t be too difficult, or it won’t sell. Some very, very stupid people play video games, and they don’t want to be stuck. Having a difficult opponent in a fighting game is one thing, but no one wants to feel like a halfwit. (I believe it’s also likely that a lot of the puzzles end up in games because game designers feel that there should be some, even though they can’t really think of any particularly good ones — and thus we drag blocks and throw switches.)

Naturally, many puzzles are more complex than described above, in that they have more moving components… and often ones that are set fairly far apart from each other, so you need to run around quite a bit in order to solve them. Calling them puzzles is rather generous, though. I mean, putting your clothes on in the correct order could technically be called a puzzle, but in practical terms, it’s too simple and too well-known to qualify. Blocks have been dragged around for years and years now. Every even remotely experienced gamer is familiar with the practice and knows how to solve them by rote.

Therefore, rather than puzzles, these are just time sinks. You encounter one and you go, “oh, this is the one where I have to match the symbols on the blocks to the symbols on the floor.” They require no real problem solving skills beyond “count to three” or “match the colors”. I believe trained chimps routinely complete similar exercises when they can be bothered to — but then, they are rewarded with fruit, the lucky bastards.

So, rather than add to my gaming experience in a positive way, these puzzles merely prolong my gaming experience by being, at their best, tolerable. Of course, I may be wrong — perhaps most gamers really want to spend time on asinine block-related activities, as opposed to doing something inherently cool, like shooting Nazis in the face or punching monsters with cars. I suppose it’s possible.

Another problem with most puzzles is that they make no goddamn fucking sense whatsoever. None. Yeah, yeah, they’re still only games, but I still feel that it’s not unreasonable to expect a certain minimum level of consistency and intelligence.

Let us assume that you are a very evil person who threatens the entire world, and thus, having reached such a rare position of power and prestige (or at least notoriety), most likely at least a moderately intelligent human being. Either that, or you have your very own Dick Cheney backing you up. Let us further assume that you hold the world hostage with a doomsday device. And because this doomsday device — or rather, the threat it poses — is your primary means of power and intimidation, you undoubtedly want to take care of it, rather than forget it in the bus or something. You want to guard it extremely well, because you know that if anything happens to it, you can kiss your evil ass goodbye.

So why, pray tell, do you put it said weapon in a vault that can be opened by any fucking first-grader who happens to come along and match three colors or drag some stone blocks around or something? Why don’t you put in a huge fucking lock and a state of the art alarm system? Y’know, maybe a fingerprint reader. And an automatic gun that shoots anyone who isn’t you, while you’re at it, Mr. Genius.

Case in point: just the other day, I was playing Marvel Ultimate Alliance, wherein the mighty Thor and friends were having some epic adventures in Asgard and falling off ledges whenever they were controlled by the AI, which accurately captures the sense of wonder the very best of Marvel comics offer, thanks for asking.

In this particular scenario you have to rescue Balder the Brave, who has been imprisoned by the evil Loki. To rescue Balder, you first need to rescue two other Asgardian good ole boys, Tyr and Heimdall. Because, uh, Balder is being held down by two chains of magical energy, and these chains are linked to Try and Heimdall’s respective methods of imprisonment. Why? I don’t know. Let’s be nice and assume there’s a sensible reason for that, even though we know there isn’t, it’s just an excuse to send the player off to another map and beat up some more bad guys — but you can’t really fault the game for that because the point of the game is to run around various maps and beat up bad guys. It is what it is, and it does that part reasonably well. I don’t mean to make the game look like it’s somehow dumber than average, because it’s not.

Anyway. Now, to save these two, some puzzles need to be solved to gain entrance to the areas where they are imprisoned. These puzzles come with instructions, because Loki has seen fit to leave behind plaques that explain the puzzles in somewhat vague but unmistakable terms.

This is remarkably stupid of Loki. This is not unlike putting a violent career criminal who suffers from a wide variety of sociopathological problems in a prison cell and then telling him that there’s a key that opens every door in the facility, a guard uniform in his size, a bulletproof vest and a Tommy gun, as well as a presidential pardon for any future crimes the prisoner in question might commit, hidden somewhere in the cell, and then adding that “the secret lies under where you lie at night”. Very mysterious, Mr. Warden. I’m sure he’ll never break out now.

In order to gain access to Heimdall, you need to rotate two statues as per instructions you are given, and in case you’re just too miserably stupid to get the obvious clue, or decide to skip the dialogue that explains it, there are two bigass arrows painted on the floor, indicating the directions the statues must face. In order to gain access to Tyr, you need to… aw, shit, now I can’t even remember what you have to do. Rest assured that it’s equally inane. Point is, you’re asked to perform a simple task, which is explained to you by something the bad guy left behind, so you can foil the bad guy’s plan.

Of course, there are other methods. Sometimes the answer is obvious simply because you can do it — in a game world that is otherwise static, the ability to suddenly affect something tends to be meaningful. An example of that from a little earlier in the game involves three bonfires. Each bonfire has a lit torch right next to it. You need to grab the torch and light each bonfire. Once all three are lit, a gate will open. Why? Why does this thing happen? It just does.

From a game design point, it’s also weird that at times you are asked to make decisions — oh, hey, and now I remember the Tyr thing, too. You are told in that plaque that sometimes Tyr will stick his hand in the mouth of the Fenris Wolf or something. You have to find Tyr’s hand. (It’s conveniently marked on your map right away, but inconveniently not attached to Tyr — don’t worry, he’s the god of war, he doesn’t need two hands to slap the shit out of something. It’s cool.) Then you need to stick the hand into a Fenris Wolf statue’s mouth in order to proceed.

That’s about par for the course, of course, but in a weird move you’re asked if you want to do do so, and you can choose yes or no. Why would anyone choose no? This is not at all unusual — the Silent Hill games, which are blessed with downright awesome atmosphere and cursed with fucking senseless puzzles, also often ask if you want to throw a switch or something. And as in Silent Hill, you have the option of declining to do so, but if you do so, you can’t proceed until you choose “yes”.

So why even ask? Why not just say, “okay, now that you have found the hand, go forth and kill some more trolls until the next time sink puzzle” and be done with it? It’s not a choice any more than opening your eyes is a choice when you want to see something — sure, you can decide to keep them closed, but you’re not seeing a damn thing until you do. Is it supposed to give the player an illusion of control or variety? Maybe so, but it’s not working. If anything, it underlines the fact that you don’t have either.

Of course, it’s easy to just laugh this stuff off as silly. “Ha ha, look at the stupid stuff!” Sure, I guess it can be funny, but I think that’s missing the point. It’s sloppy game design that could be considered insulting to the players’ intelligence… except most players don’t seem to even notice, so I suppose that’d be stretching it. Not that players are necessarily too dumb to notice, they have just been conditioned to not question or criticize these things — or maybe they really just don’t care.

But I do. I find it increasingly annoying that perfectly serviceable games contain incredibly dumb elements. If puzzles are required, couldn’t there at least be some pretense of integrating them into the game world? Surely it’s not that hard. Much of this could be solved — or at least improved — with simple changes in presentation. If, instead of the rotating statues, you had to somehow disable a locking mechanism for the doors, that would seem considerably more sensible. Why is it that the villain is designing his own locks so stupidly and leaving hints behind? Couldn’t the hints at least come from someone who’s on your side?

The thing that really pisses me off is that it’s all just so… sloppy. The puzzles superficially conform to the themes of the game in question (in Asgard, the symbols you must match are appropriately, uh, Asgardian runes, for example), but there’s no logic or even real game design behind them. They’re just slapped in because you gotta have some puzzles.


  1. Yeah, most of the mainstream commercial games are sloppily made and designed so that the gameplay would stretch up to 6 to 10 hours, even though there’s material for maybe two.

    But, wouldn’t you say that all the point-and-click adventures of the 90’s consisted of puzzles of roughly the same “quality”? No way of dying, limited number of objects to manipulate, making no fucking goddamn sense at the plot level. And that was the only thing the gameplay consisted of. How did we manage to like them?

    I still occasionally have the patience to go through these repetitious chores in games (I think Gonzalo Frasca once desribed playing these kind of games to having a real shitty job) if the other content in the game is interesting enough. I guess it’s about the pacing of the story; it would be boring to just watch the cut-scenes ;)

    Surely we need more meaningful challenges in these kinds of games. I don’t think that increasing difficulty is a good option, though: for example the Sokoban levels of NetHack are quite difficult, but they bored the shit out of me. Maybe the gameplay should be more related to the plot so that you could actually influence the events on the storyline instead of just trying to get to the end as quickly as possible.

    What do the game developers think we are, cut scene addicts? ;)

    Comment by wanmansou — October 31, 2006 @ 1162289871

  2. You’re right, the old point-and-click adventure games weren’t necessarily that much better in terms of puzzle design. But at least they often required you to get something. I mean, of course you could just use every item in your inventory on every item in the game world, but what with the game worlds being as big as they were, that usually just wasn’t feasible — and it often wouldn’t do the trick anyway. You actually had to think.

    Of course, this depends what games we’re talking about — the Lucasarts games generally had a twisted logic to them, and many of the old Sierra games consisted of solving fairly concrete problems in the game world. Of course, many of the games could also be characterized as “wacky”, which of course gives you certain additional leeway, as far as making sense goes.

    But what really made the gameplay more palatable was that many of them were fun and stylish games. The classic Lucasarts games were just plain entertaining. The writing was witty, the dialogue was sharp… I mean, I’m sure you could argue that from a game design point of view they were no better, but presentation and style count for a lot. So does storytelling (which, incidentally, is also an increasingly lost art in video games, but that’s another rant).

    Comment by Mikki — October 31, 2006 @ 1162294699

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