Categorising puzzles

An interesting question was recently raised on the Adventuron Telegram group. Essentially, has anybody attempted to categorise puzzles?

The example given was a ‘key-door’ puzzle. The most obvious implementation of this is that you have to find a key in order to unlock a door, but there are many more examples of this type of puzzle whereby you have to find object A in order to use it on object B. For example, you have to find a coin in order to use it in a vending machine.

It strikes me that this is somewhat like patterns, as used in software engineering. Those in the industry would be familiar with the ‘gang of four’ book on software patterns. With some thought, it would probably be possible to identify puzzle patterns as used in text adventures or parser-based interactive fiction. Has anybody ever tried this? Is it easy or hard? What are the advantages and disadvantages of coming up with such a scheme? Should we even bother?

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

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This guy (who’s making’s making a very promising indiana Jones 4 clone) has started this thread here: https://www.adventuregamestudio.co.uk/forums/index.php?topic=56612.0

It seems relevant.

In my experience, I like to subdivide puzzles in a completely different way:

  1. “pure understanding” puzzles. Examples: understand that Jack is actually the king’s brother; understand that the trap in the woods was actually put there by Roger; understand that X shot himself because he believed that the cop, whom he saw coming through the window, had come to arrest him, when in fact he was only coming to tell him they found his strayed dog.

  2. “do something” puzzles : these are the “classic” puzzles , i.e. those where you use an object on another object for a specific purpose, or where you operate a single object for a purpose. Example: wear the tinfoil hat in order to shield yourself from the radiations; stick the leaflet with Kate’s face on the wanted poster, in order to have Kate arrested.

(2) can be further subdivided into

2.1) “proper puzzles”, i.e. puzzles that require an explanation, even after they tell you which objects you need to combine. Example: in order to take the carpenter’s hammer, saw the pirate’s peg leg with the handsaw, because then (explanation) the carpenter will leave the shop to fix the peg leg, and you’ll be able to sneak in the shop and take the hammer. Without that explanation, you would be baffled as to why using the saw on the peg leg would help you get the hammer.

2.2) “non-puzzles”: puzzles that don’t require an explanation , when they tell you which objects to combine. Example: use axe on door. It is obvious why this works; there’s no additional reasoning to make to explain it.

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I was just working on this very thing last week and was able to find two or three scattered references on both IF puzzle patterns and Graphic Adventure puzzle patterns. I consolidated the information and added a couple of my own and finished a very rough draft of puzzle patterns on Friday. I have a couple of other IF people looking at it and I believe we might discuss this subject at our next SeaTac IF meeting as well.

And yes, I agree with you, patterns and a lexicon to discuss those patterns would make it easier to understand, analyze and reimagine puzzle ideas. There is information out there but it is a bit scattered and needs to be consolidated. That’s the philosophy I have been following. It is still in it’s preliminary stages right now, but I am thinking about it.

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Here’s one good existing reference for Adventure Game puzzle patterns to get you started:

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Oooh, that’s a great article. I like how it references older articles (I reference Bob Bate’s article a lot).

That article was written in 2003. I wonder, since then, if there are further articles written in the adventure game world.

It’d be great if all the information and articles were consolidated, as you said. I’d be interested in seeing your draft, @lkcampbell!

There are a lot of puzzle design articles in the Puzzle Hunt world and the Escape Room community. I’m more involved in the latter, and we keep all design related articles we find in one huge google doc.

I know the ifarchive has some archived, but I’m not as familiar with the IF community. Is there an online library of ‘Adventure Game Design’ articles?

Yes, there is an online library. It’s pretty outdated (from before 2007) but for parser games, it’s not like what works well has drastically changed (besides limited parser games).


Edit: Actually, these aren’t the old ones, it’s the ‘rec.arts.int-fiction posts’ that these link to that are old. These pages actually have a lot of stuff after 2007!

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Oooh, thank you! I, admittedly, didn’t dig around the IFWiki, and didn’t know there was a whole Theory category! That’s great!

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Thank you for bringing this subject to this forum. I am the one who raised the question on Telegram.
But I have a little correction to make: when I talked about the key+door puzzle I mean an object that actually opens the way to other locations that were previously closed. So a key and a door are the most obvious example. But other variations are an axe to chop a fallen tree that blocks the path or a fire extinguisher to extinguish the fire that blocks the way to a room. The goal of this very common type of puzzle is always to reach a new location.
Other puzzles that I thought about were object for object. Bring the lost axe back to the dwarf and he will reward you with a magic ring. Here you can include the above mentioned coin and vending machine.
Unreachable object. A key hanging from a tree branch, too thin to climb. Maybe you have to shake the tree or hit the branch with a stick? Or you know that there is something inside a safe and you have to find out how to open it.
Examine things to find new things (either objects or information). This one is very straight forward. But I am specially fan of the examine inside examine. Example: examine wardrobe, there are coats hanging inside, examine coats, you find a key in one of their pockets.
I like the pure information that mike_stallone mentioned. My adventure is quite heavy on narrative and there is a lot of pure information that you can unlock doing things (mostly talking to the characters, but reading a hidden diary or watching the news too).
I am sure there are other types too, but I haven’t think deeply about it.
I have been reading other classifications and I see that different people focus the point of the puzzle in a different way, so the classification can be totally different.
Anyway, I think it is an interesting subject.

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I would include Language Puzzles and Optimization puzzles as categories, as well as Sudden Insight puzzles (like Spider and Web).

And maybe ‘complicated system’ puzzles like 15 Minutes by Ade McTavish.

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This is very good. Thank you for sharing.

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I finished reading that article and it is basically what I was looking for. I may differ in one or two types of puzzle… and there is no mention to my beloved key+door! This is because, as the author say, it is classified by actions and not by goals. There is literally my “object for object”, that is called “Quid Pro Quo”.

But besides that, I think that is pretty much what I was looking for. From that article I can make my own list. Anyway, it is good food for the brain, I think it is a good thing to be aware of the puzzles you use in an adventure, and try not to stick just to a couple of types.

I found this, but it is too long too read! And English is not even my first language…
I will share it anyway, just in case you like it.

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There are several good articles in the IF Theory Reader, which is available as a free download. Jon Ingold’s article on puzzles is particularly good, but the topic crops up throughout the book.

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I think of three categories, but they can all be broken down further:

  • Object Based - You need a thing to do another thing - open a door to access new location, open a locked chest to get a thing, find all the missing piano keys, or attach a broken lever to a machine to turn it on.
  • Observation - You need to figure out via observation how to complete a task “This planet is actually round, I can go the other direction to get where I want to go!” Often these are solvable right from the get-go but requires a player to deduce via game-acquired knowledge or lore what to do without requiring a physical thing. Usually provides an “A-ha!” moment.
  • Self-Contained - You have to solve a slider puzzle, or Towers of Hanoi, or win a game against another player to proceed, or answer a riddle that is not clued in the environment.
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Did nobody else have problems modeling these kinds of puzzles? if your puzzle is “understand something”, to model it you need to find an action that the player would only take if they understood that thing. But often there is no such action. Sometimes there is an action, but the player is likely to do that for other reasons. Very often there is no action that proves the player has understood that link.

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Another one could be a skill-based puzzle based on your characters RPG stats.

Some characters are able to ‘ace’ the puzzle, others will have to make some dice-rolls, and finally those who are SOL will have to crack the puzzle using minimal hints and clues.

For escape-room purposes, I usually categorize in terms of inputs and outputs. What does the player need in order to solve the puzzle, and what do they get from solving it? The classic locked door, for example, needs a key object, and gives you a new location.

The main reason for this categorization was an experiment in “puzzle shuffling”: automatically coming up with new ways to combine existing puzzles that were still guaranteed to be solvable. But I’ve found it useful for tracing puzzle flow in general and figuring out things like the “breadth” at different points (how many different puzzles the player has available to them at once). Cf PlotEx.

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It could be something like a password on a note (that isn’t simulated as a variable) or written on a wall that the player has to see and remember (or write down). Perhaps they could observe that action being taken by NPCs. In an extreme example in The Gostak which includes made-up language, the player has to watch what NPCs do and try nonstandard verbs and nouns that they learn. In Cursed Pickle of Shireton (spoiler) The player needs to perform an action and physically wait an entire minute of real time for a new link to appear. The hints are given by people in the world at different points.

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Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island, Thimbleweed Park, …) has a very good method of designing puzzles, which technically speaking is not enumerating the different puzzle types, but it’s a good general method of designing puzzle (and optionally narrative) flow - which is often more important than the quality of individual puzzles.

I personally design puzzles from the point of view of flow. Early puzzles should be relatively easy, the pre-game should give some quick wins, and certainly should not result in the player getting lost (gate off the rest of the game). After the pre-game, make sure there are at least 3 puzzles that can be worked on at the same time, then gate your progress through the “acts” of your game. Each act leads to multiple new puzzles that can be worked on.

Types of puzzles I like to use are observational puzzles (notice that a dog follows you for one turn after you pet it, notice state in one room changing in response to something you did in another room), transformation puzzles (identify something you might need somewhere then realise that you might need to combine items in the game to create that item), state puzzles (notice you need to change the state in a room in order to be able to get past a barrier), conversational puzzles (notice what an npc might want you to say to them in order to achieve a goal), mutual exclusion puzzles (solving one puzzle will remove the solution to another puzzle - how do you resolve it), groundhog day puzzles (give the player knowledge of future death, and then the player must mitigate the death as they approach it - note that sudden death mitigation must be in place for this), … and more.

Puzzles (in parser games) are intrinsically exclusionary. If there is a single puzzle that a player can’t solve, then they can’t make forward progress. It does help to have multiple things to do at the same time, but ultimately, you will always hit that bottleneck. It is essential to have a system in your game, or on your game page that rescues the lost player. It is also important that every solution should make sense in hindsight and does not evoke a reaction of “oh, that’s impossible, how was I supposed to know that?!”.

Other types of games have the ability to respond to poor player skill levels by covertly modifying difficulty levels, I think text adventure games really need the same sort of mechanism, but perhaps in the form of truly intelligent context-sensitive help.

I actually wrote a little-read article where I postulated that puzzle dependency charts, laced with hint metadata could be used to provide level 1, level 2, level 3 hints for every “puzzle”. The game would know what hint to provide by checking the currently open puzzles, and looking up hints per puzzle.

Choice based games may be simpler in that you may engineer a game to always result in an “outcome”, but the outcome may or may not be a “good ending”. I’d argue that a bad outcome in a choice based game is the same as sudden death - but that’s a tangent.

Enough of my rambling, here is the link to Ron’s blog, yet again:

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Has anyone mentioned the Rube Goldberg machine puzzle type? You set up several objects or events that will produce a chain reaction that gets you what you want. Typically you’ll have to advance one step in the chain before you can tell what next step will be required. The archetypical example is the Babel fish dispenser in HHGG. The pizza puzzle in Detectiveland is an attempt.

edited to add: This can be particularly cruel if there aren’t enough resources to figure out the whole thing in one playthrough - like when, in the HHGG example, the dispenser runs out of fish.

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Thanks for all the contributions. This certainly makes interesting and thought provoking reading. And isn’t that what adventures are all about?

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