Anyone else have trouble coming up with puzzles, or scope creep?

Along these lines, make a simple solution - something like PULL LEVER - but gate it with a check statement: (example in i7)

Check pulling the too-short lever:
    if the player has not met Archimedes:
        say "The lever is too short!" instead;
    if the player does not understand leverage:
        say "You don't have enough leverage. Maybe you'll need an assist from someone who knows these things. That guy in the bathtub in the laboratory looked pretty smart." instead.;

As someone else commented, think about things that might naturally be in that location and then think about how they might be used. In “The Only Possible Prom Dress,” for instance, I put a little pond in the garden because that’s a natural place for a pond. I’ve used statuary quite a lot in my stories (IF and otherwise), so having the statue of an angel gazing at the pond was an easy idea. Now how could a statue of an angel be a puzzle, and how could it relate to the pond. There could be many things that could happen with a pond: Maybe the water has a mysterious power if you drink it.

Here’s a general tip, which I discovered many years ago. If you can’t think of a single thing that would work, open a fresh section of your idea file (or use pen and paper) and list TEN ideas. The key to this technique is, you’re not allowed to censor yourself! You must write down whatever you think of, no matter how weird, creepy, goofy, or boring it is. This technique works because it unjams your unconscious. Instead of rejecting ideas, your unconscious is not in creative mode.

Try it. It works.


I am also very fond of these. (HoDV 3 just came out on mobile, upcoming on Steam.)

I’d say that while the storyline in these games is subordinate to the puzzles, it does provide some of the motivation and pointing. “I need to get inside Leonardo Da Vinci’s house” is a story element. Sure, any locked door is a puzzle, but it’s also part of a story arc. And the fact that Leonardo was an inventor helps orient players about what kind of puzzles they will encounter: lots of physics and mechanical engines.


Some general thoughts on this topic (not all of them original):

Graham Nelson noted many years ago that almost every room should have a puzzle in it, except for a few hallways or other navigation rooms that make the environment more realistic. I like to have a few rooms with two distinct puzzle elements – either a puzzle directly in the location, or one or two items you can pick up, or perhaps an in-game clue to something.

Some puzzles can be remotes – that is, you do something in location A that seems relatively pointless, but it activates or deactivates something in location B. The result is, you’ve solved a puzzle without knowing what you’ve solved.

At least one puzzle should have an alternate solution. At least one object that you pick up should be needed for two distinct puzzles. Possibly one thing that appears to be a puzzle is in fact insoluble and not important.

Some puzzles should be easy, and some should be hard. Puzzles should come in various types: finding something that’s hidden; retrieving something that’s out of reach; removing a barrier to navigation; convincing an NPC to give you something or do something you can’t do yourself; combining two objects to make a composite object that does something; starting (or stopping) a machine; paying close attention to your environment by examining things that seem unimportant; and so on.

Ultimately, every puzzle is a locked door to which you’re trying to find the key. Some doors will open to literally reveal new rooms, but every puzzle, when solved, changes the game state. You may have an object you didn’t have before, or some information you didn’t have before, or your sensorium may have expanded (as when you manage to find the light switch and turn on the light, for instance).

Sometimes it’s useful to plan backwards. Start by imagining the desired ending of the game and then work out what the player will need to get there. Without revealing any spoilers, “Prom Dress” is a good example of that. Only the wizard can solve the player’s problem, and there are six or eight things the wizard is going to need or conditions that will have to be met, so all of the puzzle vectors lead, eventually, to that final scene – including, at some point, meeting the wizard.


My iPad is several generations old. To play HoDV 3 I’d have to spend about $1,000 on a new iPad. That’s a steep bar to entry, unfortunately.

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You do what you have to do. The cocoa-mug puzzle in “Lydia’s Heart” was a nightmare to code, IIRC. In “Prom Dress,” the business with the large pot, the seeds, the wheelbarrow, and the army helmet was disgracefully difficult, and probably still has a bug in it somewhere.

I have also scaled back puzzles that were too difficult to design. In “Prom Dress,” there were originally five card players, but I decided the puzzle (a logic grid that involved figuring out which of the card players was a truth-teller or a liar) was more trouble that it was worth – not to code, but to design. So I simplified it.

The key to coding a complex puzzle is probably to try to imagine every possible combination of things that could happen, and the possible orders in which they could happen. Write out the pseudo-code before you start coding.

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So, I wonder at times that we may mean different things when we say puzzle. I would agree virtually every room should have meaningful interaction and implementation, which, of course, could take the form of a puzzle, but it doesn’t have to.

Hyperbole to make an example: If I were to play as a hospital janitor cleaning an occupied hospital room room, I would consider it memorable and impactful (not necessarily in a good way) if unplugging the life support was fully implemented with all its consequences, regardless if it were part of a puzzle or even necessary to advance the plot in any meaningful way. Instead, if unplugging and replugging (plugging in again?) the life support caused a code blue, which then brought in the doctors and nurses, leaving the entrance to the ER’s nursing station unoccupied and vulnerable to intrusion, thus advancing the plot, does it make the original act any less horrifying and crass? Maybe only in the fact that the former example was entirely unnecessary, enhancing its sense of casual cruelty.

I digress, my point is that would you consider both to be puzzles? The latter is a solution to a problem, however cold-blooded, the former solves nothing.

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Ryan Veeder does this kind of thing a lot. Often the non-essential parts of the game are better implemented than the important ones. One example is the ice cream shop in Taco Fiction; another is the large amount of detail in Nightmare Town (I think?) in A Rope of Chalk. I actually think it’s pretty cool.


Thanks for all the tips! I read everyone’s, and it’s helpful as I dive back into programming tonight. I’m going to make a puzzle based on an NPC ghost needing to resolve their anger. Thanks!


Sometimes adding atmosphere using meaningless interactions is fine, but I would say that your example is so extreme that if I encountered it in a game, I would write a truly scathing review and never touch the author’s work again.

Meaningless interactions such as lighting a stove that’s in a kitchen, sure – arguably that adds to the immersion even if the stove doesn’t do anything. It’s also a good example of something that looks like a puzzle but isn’t. But more than one or two of those in a game would most likely piss off your players, so I would recommend against overdoing it. That’s what “not important” messages are for.

(For puzzle games)

Start with a rough idea of the final goal of the game.

Something simple like “get off the island”

Puzzle Dependency Charts are your friend.

Then think of some chapters. These are self contained blocks of puzzles that unlock some chunk of the game.

Now you have your top-level goals that lead you between different puzzle boxes, think of items that stand in the way of your objective.

If this approach appeals, then seach for “Puzzlon” or “Vizon” on this forum.

Also read about the charts from the Ron Gilbert. I


After watching their target for hours through the spyglass, the dreaded Scope Creep finally learns the combination to the safe, which they can use to rig it with explosives?


Yes… ha ha ha… yes!


In the life support example, a little redesign can help: a good life support has so many safeguards built-in, and I think for generating a blue code is sufficient to press some random button; OTOH, in your example, a janitor must really quickly leave the room, docs and nurses are trained & qualified people, and is easy for them justapoxing the cause of blue code with the janitor, and a janitor charged with messing with a major lifesaving device’s settings is first fired, then questioned… this bring up back the evil of tightly timed puzzles. (Hospital rooms generally have only one exit out, whose is where docs & nurses alerted by blue code barge in, answering to the bogus life-threatening emergency…)

so, if our janitor known, or get to know, that with a particular setting, the life support machine will generate a bogus blue code in, say, five or ten minutes, the puzzle became more merciful, both for the janitor PC and the patient NPC… and this can also create the basis for another puzzle: knowing how to set the support machine into that particular setting, a thing generally NOT in a janitor’s knowledge base.

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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Agreed, I’d like to point out:

If I were to play as a dishwasher working in a busy pub, I would consider it memorable and impactful (not necessarily in a good way) if dumping a full container of cayenne into the giant pot of perpetual stew was fully implemented with all its consequences, regardless if it were part of a puzzle or even necessary to advance the plot in any meaningful way. Instead, if spicing the soup caused an uproar out in the great room which forced the innkeeper to leave his office to see what was going on, leaving the innkeeper’s office unoccupied and vulnerable to intrusion, thus advancing the plot, does it make the original act any less casually mean? Maybe only in the fact that the former example was entirely unnecessary, enhancing its sense of casual cruelty.


I would go for that. Sounds like fun! You’d have to make your character a bit of an anti-hero. Make him a cigarette smoker or mention that he’s hiding out from an ex-wife because of an alimony situation. In that context, and if it advances the plot, this would be a perfectly fine puzzle.

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