Are there any "just bad" puzzles?

Which puzzles out there have no common sense whatsoever? Are there any that are quite big (not necessarily in terms of famousness) but you really dislike because you don’t know how you you would have thought of that, or just generally dislike?

(I don’t mean like the Babel fish, where it’s known for just being difficult, but maybe not necessarily stupid.)


The Longest Journey is a sublime game. But the whole rubber duck puzzle is an obtuse and dumb time-waster. Even when you know the solution, it’s just not something a person in April Ryan’s shoes would consider: a bizarre, implausible solution for what ought not to be an obstacle in the first place.


A “bad” puzzle is any one that the player quits the game entirely before solving it, or resorts to looking at a walk through, and thinks “that was just dumb. I never could have solved that on my own.”

Given that definition, different puzzles might be experienced as bad puzzles for different players. But there are some “worst practices” for authors seeking to write puzzles which will seem bad to the widest audience.

-poorly clued
-poorly implemented (for a parser game, a challenging puzzle that will deliver only dull default responses for anything except the correct solution)
-tedious (Tower of Babel puzzle, or the central mechanic of my own 2019 game “Roads Not Taken”)
-puzzles based too much on the concurrence of random events.
-puzzles based too much on specialized knowledge outside the game world (chemistry puzzle in “Starcross”)

Babel Fish (from the original HItchhiker’s guide to the galaxy) is not a bad puzzle at all. It is well implemented, and to a degree well clued. It becomes exasperating because each time you solve one piece of the puzzle a new one is introduced.


Most are just bad puzzles, requiring me to look at, look under, look in, look behind everything. Sometimes twice!

Also, look, examine, and search are different verbs!

Don’t even get me started at oddballs such as “search near”.

To me, that’s even more frustrating than pixel hunt with cranky, hesitant mouse.


It’s very important to note that this isn’t frustrating because of some inherent design principle, or the nature of the parser. It’s frustrating because players and authors agree that EXAMINE should cover all these actions, so players should not expect to SEARCH every object in the game. Whereas players and authors do agree that players should expect to EXAMINE every object in the game.

This agreement was arrived at through a cycle of writing and playing games. There was no great Nicene council where it was all hammered out. It could have gone differently, and then we’d be talking about different unspoken rules.

Furthermore, every puzzle game tries to balance following the unspoken rules with breaking them just a little, to surprise the player.

Hitchhiker is generally adjudged to be a little off-balance in the direction of “breaking the rules”. (The Babel Fish, the “you don’t really want to go south” puzzle, etc.) But the designers clearly wanted to lean that way, because it fit with Adams’ writing style, and it was a reasonable thing to try in 1984.

(Never describing the Thing Your Aunt Gave You violates another unspoken rule, but that one went down in history as funny and apropos, not frustrating.)

All puzzle design has this problem: what do players expect, and how do you surprise them? Almost inevitably it means that most puzzles are written for experts and have an entry barrier for newcomers. (Are you a fan of cryptic crosswords? Remember how hard it was to explain the first one you tried?)


Well, I’m a culprit of using SEARCH sometimes, but it’s something that (in my mind) works. Like if you see a pile of something for which an exterior inspection would reveal nothing. I think of SEARCHING as RUMMAGING THROUGH and this doesn’t sound unfair to me. But YMMV of course.

Adding to former posts: LOOK and EXAMINE have always been completely different commands since Infocom and later on in Inform. The first is just for rewriting the room’s description. Right?


Most implementations of Towers of Hanoi in IF are pretty bad – without any twists it’s just a lot of busy work. I’m struggling to think of other examples but I’ve definitely seen other puzzles that fall into the same trap where they’re not challenging to solve, just boring and grindy.


I’m with you, @Jamespking … I think the difference between X (as meaning look at) and LOOK IN (search being a synonym for this) is fair as long as the game advises the player of the difference. There is no need to LOOK IN every object that you X, (I would consider it bad design to give something important on “searching “ an object that didn’t already suggest containment in its ‘x’ description) but I can’t see why it should be deprecated in an adventure game to provide one extra level of cognitive association that can lead to discovery.
At any rate, I learned IF through some TADS games of the mid 90s, and I felt gleeful triumph discovering new inventory items in rational hiding places, so that’s how my conception of text adventuring was formed.
Not every genre of parser game needs LOOK IN/SEARCH, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that no genre should be able to use it! But to be clear, I think the design/use of it should be such that lawn mowing is not necessary…

Agreed that LOOK AT should be synonymous with X…


It’s true that LOOK by itself is different from EXAMINE, but in every Infocom game I’ve checked, LOOK AT an object goes to the same action routine as EXAMINE.


LOOK AT runs exactly the same routine as EXAMINE in all Infocom games.

Only one game I’ve played (The House on separates LOOK AT and EXAMINE, and I can’t see the difference between them. For example, LOOK AT MAP in that game will show the map in image form. Whereas EXAMINE will give a vague text description of what the map is for. Which is strange because if anything I would expect EXAMINE to be more closely examining the photo whereas LOOK AT should give a vaguer description. But unless it’s for a purpose, I think the two should be synonymous.

On X and SEARCH, all I’ll say is, say, if you’re searching an unconscious/dead body then yes, SEARCH BODY is different to LOOK INSIDE BODY and EXAMINE BODY.
(For some reason there are two unconscious people of them used for searching in Milliways! And both require knocking them out as the main puzzle. I don’t know what that says about me…)


I just can’t stop beating this dead horse.


Maybe we should all just draw a line and switch to a new look verb going forward. Perhaps, REGARD? /s



Almost any puzzle can be enjoyable if clued right and programmed right.

Of those that maybe can’t…I have to agree that I rarely enjoy Towers of Hanoi, and it was, along with mazes, the first thing I thought about. I did see it recently in the game whoami where it was actually reasonably scoped, easy to work with, and had in-game justification. And of course there are some brilliant mazes.

So I think it would be really hard to find anything that’s always bad. Here are some that I’ve had frequent bad experiences with due to poor planning or just throwing it in the game with no explanation or logic:
-Mazes and towers of hanoi (see above)
-Using newspaper and poky thing to get a key (especially when there’s no real hinting, because it assumes you already know this puzzle)
-randomized combat
-Having containers of liquids of different measures and pouring it back and forth
-That puzzle with connecting 9 dots in 4 lines
-arbitrary time limits on long puzzle games that don’t significantly differ from replay to replay (optimization games are different!)
-realtime events
-having many identical copies of an object around a map but exactly one of them is different if you look at it
-a LOOK UNDER puzzle for an item not prominently mentioned in the room description

All of these can be good, and I’ve used several of these myself (maze, time limit in puzzly area, LOOK UNDER an obsucre item, riddles, randomized combat). But when I’m playing an under-implemented game or a game by an inexperienced author and one of these come up, I feel like it’s going to be a bad time.


Does 9:05 get a pass for this? Given that, ideally, you aren’t meant to solve it the first time around?


I think any of them can be good! If someone went out of their way to make a game using all of them, it could be one of the best games ever, if they tried to think about how to make it enjoyable for players.

But I also suppose that part of the reason 9:05 works is it’s supposed to be a gotcha, and that only works if people don’t tend to LOOK UNDER random scenery. Given the success of the game, I’d say that most people just don’t do that unprompted.


I don’t like tedious puzzles or tasks, like having to periodically stop what you are doing to go find something to eat, or replenish your light source, etc. Inventory limits can also be tedious. Some types of realism make a game less fun.


I’ve said this before elsewhere, but I’ll say it here again… anyone who is a parent knows intrinsically that… when it comes to trying to find an object… LOOKing and EXAMINing are definitely not the same as SEARCHing.

Your kids may well have looked for something in their room. They may well have even looked very closely at things. But did they actually bother moving stuff around to do a proper search? No. And that’s why they didn’t find that object that you went in and basically then found straight away.


As a grown adult regularly humiliated in this fashion by my spouse, I sometimes wonder if some of us are searching impaired.


My wife calls it “man eyes”.


@8bitAG You might find this blog post by Adventuron creator Chris Ainsley interesting.

Edit: And I don’t mean it to contradict anything you’ve said. I think it coincides for the most part.