Help with writing puzzles

Help! I suck at solving puzzles and can’t think of any good ones to put in my games. I’ve read Emily Short’s post on puzzle design and am looking for more resources.

So…just on a conceptual level, think of a puzzle as a motivation. The player has a goal, they must figure out the method to achieve it.

It doesn’t have to be as literal as solving a cryptogram or a rubik’s cube - in fact most games tend to work better if the “puzzles” are actually a series of organic plot elements the player must figure out how to traverse.

The simplest puzzle: The player encounters a locked door. To get through they need a key. To motivate the player is often the job of the plot: Are they a prisoner trying to escape? Are they a thief and is there a treasure behind the door to steal? Is it a mysterious locked door in their new house they weren’t given a key for and they don’t know what is behind it?

More complex puzzles usually consist of simple puzzles layered together: I need the key to get through a door. That key is held by an ogre, so what methods might work to obtain the key? Do I fight the ogre (in which case I need to obtain a sword, which means I need money to buy it from the blacksmith, which means I need to get a job…)? Do I talk to the Ogre and convince it to give me the key (in which case I need to learn about Ogre psychology, which means I need a book, which means I need to find the library, and then fill out the form to obtain a library card to check out the book, which requires an electric bill to prove I live in the district…)? Do I romance the Ogre (in which case I need an Ogre costume and a good deal of alcohol…)?

So in essence, consider your plot. Where does the player start, where do they need to get to, and what steps do they need to accomplish to get there? The route through this in essence can be the “puzzle”. It needn’t be mind-bending. In fact, I’ve found players appreciate when you make them feel smart and puzzles make logical sense within the environment with solutions they would naturally come up with. Occasionally you can throw a curveball like real life: normally I would unlock my car with the keys, but the keys are locked inside. What do I have in my inventory? A teacup, a stick of gum, and a wire hanger. Hm. What to do?

There’s much more to puzzle design and you’ll surely get more responses, but that’s kind of how I do it.


Ogres and electric bills in the same game… I for one, good sir, applaud your worldbuilding flexibility.

Here you go: Craft - IFWiki.

Articles on general game-design, making-of testimonials by many, many authors, a section specifically devoted to puzzle-design articles, and more stuff.


Jon Ingold wrote a really helpful article on puzzle design for the If Theory Reader (which is a free download).

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My take on puzzles is that ought to be part of the mystery and exploration; also puzzles should also support the narrative.

how puzzles support the narrative ? I understand that this can led to excessive linearity (solving a puzzle for accessing the next aerea/chapter/day etc.) but the reward should be mainly on the narrative (e.g. when you get rid of a guard (another classic…) the player can find in his/her pocket not only the stereotypical key to the guarded door, but also a notebook shedding light on baddies’s motivations and scopes… perhaps opening new, unexpected narrative and even story pathes; so, in this case, an classical overcome-the-guard-get-the-key can became, for example, the opening of a “persuasion”/“diplomatic” alternative in solving the “defeat-the-baddies” objective (whose can even reveals itself NOT the main objective…)

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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The way I think of the relationship of puzzles to story is best illustrated by an example from Wodehouse. Spoilers for Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit follow:

In the short story Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit, Bertie Wooster has fallen head-over-heels in love with Bobbie Wickham, a mischievous and somewhat high-spirited young lady. Bobbie suggests that Bertie plays a trick on Tuppy Glossop, a mutual friend, and eager to impress her, Bertie agrees.

The trick involves sneaking into Tuppy’s bedroom in the middle of the night and puncturing his hot water bottle with a darning needle tied to a long stick. Unfortunately Tuppy has swapped rooms with Sir Roderick Glossop and all manner of chaos results.

But here’s the thing - obtaining some thread, a darning needle and a long stick, tying one to the other, obtaining access to a room and puncturing a hot water bottle are absolutely the stuff of text adventure puzzles. But it’s the motivation behind these actions that ties the puzzle to the story - Bertie’s not doing all this stuff arbitrarily like the protagonist of Zork, he’s doing it because he wants to walk down the aisle with Bobbie Wickham.

The parser game is very good at modelling physical objects, and very bad at modelling things like love and deceit and persuasion, but it’s easy enough to tie one to the other.

“You mean to say that, after she had put me up to the scheme of puncturing Tuppy’s hot-water bottle, she went away and tipped Tuppy off to puncturing mine?”

“Precisely, sir. She is a young lady with a keen sense of humour, sir.”

I sat there, you might say stunned.

– Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit by P. G. Wodehouse


The polar opposite is the trope called “Solve the Soup Cans” which is named after a puzzle in The 7th Guest where the only way to progress was to rearrange soup cans on a kitchen shelf, each with a letter on the label, to spell out a phrase. The soup cans had nothing to do with anything before or after this plot wise other than being scenery, and it made very little sense why soup cans on a shelf in the wrong order would prevent someone from simply walking into the next room except - that’s how this game worked.

Unless you’re intending to create a “puzzlebox” game featuring non-diegetic puzzles (and this has been and can be done successfully in games like Sage Sanctum Scramble, Ad-Verbum and Threedeeopolis), many people get frustrated with non sequiturs where solving a slider-tile puzzle is the only way you can obtain a bus ticket.


Finding Martin seems to follow this trope while the player is getting to know the house layout. With a little (with unknown values for “little”) perseverance though, everything gets pulled into the story.

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