A good puzzle, like a good joke, has a surprising solution/punchline, but it feels inevitable in hindsight. If it’s good, you’ll think to yourself, “ohhh, I should have seen that coming!”
That’s why there’s a big difference between reaching for a walkthrough when you’re stuck, which just tells you exactly what to do, and reaching for hints, which are designed to give you gradual help to solve the puzzles yourself.
It’s typical, when you reach for a walkthrough, to see a series of steps that make no logical sense when you follow them that way. For example, you might see a walkthrough for a game where you have to go north to see clues that will help you decipher a numeric code, and then go south and enter the code. Many walkthroughs will just say:
GO SOUTH. TYPE 108.
At that point, the puzzle is solved, but it’s not at all clear how you were supposed to solve the puzzle; the puzzle solution doesn’t appear inevitable in hindsight. You don’t slap your forehead and say, “Ah, of course, 108, I should have guessed it myself!” You say “What…? 108?? How was I supposed to figure that out?”
This leaves you feeling “like a total IF wannabe.” The walkthrough was supposed to help, but by speedrunning through the game, without explaining the thought process, a walkthrough can actually make your feeling of competence worse.
By contrast, gradual hints are designed to slowly lead you to the answer, bit by bit. Gradual hints for a puzzle like the one I described might look like this:
How do I open the vault?
- Did you go north and read the note in the laboratory?
- The note in the laboratory is a clue, telling you how to open the vault.
- As the note says, all three of the digits look the same in a mirror.
- The three digits that look the same in a mirror are 0, 1, and 8. (At this point, you could just try all of the three-digit combinations of 0, 1, and 8, but there is a cleverer way.)
- The note says that the code is divisible by three. That means that the digits must sum up to a multiple of three.
- The answer isn’t 111, so the solution must involve all three digits, 0, 1, and 8.
- “0” must not be the first digit or the last digit, or it wouldn’t be a three-digit number when written backwards.
- That means it must be either 801 or 108. The solution is even, so the vault code is 108.
In addition to making you feel less bad for revealing these hints, gradual hints like this teach you how to win games like this in the future. It’s like the difference between watching the Olympics and training with a personal coach.
So! As everybody’s saying, play games with hints, but specifically gradual hints. All of the old Infocom games had them (they’re called “Invisiclues”) but most popular modern games have in-game gradual hinting or else someone like me has written them here on the forum. https://intfiction.org/tag/invisiclues
Lost Pig is a particularly interesting game, because, although it’s designed for newbies to play, its puzzles are actually very difficult. I couldn’t solve Lost Pig without the in-game hint system, and I’m sure very few people ever have, despite the fact that it’s one of the most popular “games for beginners” ever made.
If you play Lost Pig and you think, “whoa, this game is hard, and if this game is supposed to be easy, then I must really suck!” well, take my word for it, that game is tough.
If you get through Lost Pig, if you work hard at its puzzles and reach for the hints only when you think you absolutely need them, you’ll be a much improved player of IF, ready to face the rest of the best IF ever written.