Must puzzles be at war with stories?

In the thread about conversations, I said that my favorite conversation systems in games were ones where I wasn’t trying to manipulate the NPC in order to change the game state in a certain way, but those in which interaction with the NPC was the whole point of the game. Which is to say, roughly, that I like conversations that aren’t puzzles but are in service of a story.

Which made me think – are there a lot of games that you’d praise for their stories, where it was really important that they have puzzles? Hard puzzles, where the player is likely to spend a lot of time thinking “What do I have to do to get to the next part?” And was the story itself significantly improved by those puzzles, or would the story have been just as strong if the puzzles had been easier? --By the way, I don’t mean “story” in a necessarily linear sense; I’d count Galatea as having a good story, though there are many ways it can go. “Narrative element” if you prefer.

My worry is that puzzles really interfere with the story (my topic title riffs on Graham Nelson’s description of IF as “a crossword at war with a narrative”). When I think of the IFs whose stories I’ve found the most satisfying, they weren’t ones where I spent a lot of time figuring out what to do next. Getting stuck on a puzzle can bring the narrative to a halt. And sometimes advancing the story feels like a reward for solving a puzzle, but even if the puzzle arises organically out of the story it doesn’t seem as though the story couldn’t exist without the puzzle.

But overcoming frustration is a part of playing a game, and it should be possible for IF to harness the frustration of puzzles in the service of narrative. To pick a non-IF example, the punishing platformer Don’t Look Back has a lot of narrative power that couldn’t be attained if it weren’t so hard; the difficulty is part of the story. Whereas a great game like Cave Story is more of the “narrative as a reward for success” mode; it has a good story, but I feel as though the story would be just as good if it were a little easier or a little harder. (And if it were a little easier I might be able to see the end.)

Maybe one of the ways in which IF can harness this is with the accretive PC, as in Varicella and Broken Legs, where (so I’ve heard) you learn to be a master manipulator by trying and failing to manipulate the NPCs, until you succeed. The games wouldn’t be the same if they handed you the solution, because then you wouldn’t be the master manipulator, the game would be doing it before you.

Any (other) examples of IF that puts puzzles at the service of story?

Have you tried Make It Good? It’s a little like Varicella and Broken Legs in relying on the accretive PC concept (and also in being insanely hard); the puzzles are essential to the story and carry a lot of emotional weight, and they feel organic. I enjoyed Broken Legs, but some of the puzzles there definitely stood out as Things The Author Designed To Be Puzzles, whereas Make It Good does a better job of presenting a holistic problem situation that you have to find a way to resolve.

Well, that’s the hitch – I often kind of suck at puzzles. Which may be part of my feeling that the puzzle is at war with the story, because in many cases the puzzle is keeping me from reading the story, which sometimes means that by the time I reach the end of the story I’ve forgotten what the beginning is like. I mean, that happened to me with “All Roads” for crying out loud. Which also means that generalizing from my own experience is a bad idea.

I probably didn’t make this clear in my original post, but I haven’t got very far into either Varicella or Broken Legs. Part of it is that I’m especially awful at timed and cruel puzzles, and it seems like this sort of approach requires them. If the puzzles require you to keep restarting until you’ve found an optimized route, then by the last playthrough the PC will be a master manipulator who knows exactly what to do (because you learned it through all your failures). If you have a bunch of untimed puzzles with difficult solutions like, I don’t know, A Flustered Duck, then in your playthrough the PC will be a bumbling fool who spends a lot of time wandering in circles and trying to put things on other things and realizing his pig has wandered away because he forgot to tie it up (not to mention reading the hints), which is of course entirely appropriate for the PC of A Flustered Duck but which doesn’t make for a super-compelling story; the point is the puzzles.

Another way to exploit puzzle frustration for story purposes is found in a couple of games from the JayIsGames Escape Comp, Critical Breach and Lurid Dreams. Both have sequences where there’s basically only one thing you can do, and it took me a fair amount of guessing to figure out what that was – but that was justified, because the PCs there were heavily constrained and were supposed to be frustrated and lashing out at their confinement. I don’t know that that would work very well in a much bigger game, though.

(I especially liked Critical Breach, by the way, and I think it’s a shame no one seems to have noticed it much. One thing is that the puzzles in the other scenes of the game are a bit fussy, and you really have to play through both endings to figure out what’s going on.)

Reading this, I now think I misunderstood what you said in that other thread: I interpreted you liking conversations better when there is no goal for the player, as referring to both puzzle goals (solve X) and story goals (find out X): but you clearly meant it only in the sense of puzzle goals. Makes more sense to me now.

I would praise Jigsaw for its story and the puzzles are really integral to it, and they get REALLY hard, like walkthrough hard, for me. I am not very purist these days about not ever getting a hint, although I used to be. I’m not really trying to test my faculties when I approach IF puzzles anymore — I am just trying to have fun, so I will bang my head a certain amount, and then if I resort to hint or walkthrough then it’s actually a compliment to the game, because it means the story’s hooked me and I need an answer. Maybe if you took as casual an approach the puzzles wouldn’t interfere as much? (Hmm I think I just talked myself into adding a hint system to my game – I’ve been debating it.)

For me the puzzle and the story each exist both for its own sake and to help make the other more interesting. If they are not serving in this regard then I suspect malfunction. Sounds simple and obvious, but it helps me to remember that this is actually four separate things to keep track of and try to bring into alignment with each other: Is the puzzle a fun, solvable puzzle? Does the puzzle matter to and/or help say something about the story? Is the story sequence intriguing? Does the story sequence intensify one’s involvement in the puzzles?

When something is working on all those cylinders, I think it’s magic. And it’s not an easy thing to do and I would only hope to be able to touch this territory that I think some authors have been to. A Mind Forever Voyaging is still one of the greatest examples, I find. A game that is a puzzle without really containing puzzles, and whose puzzle couldn’t exist without the story — a puzzle whose reason for being is to investigate the terms of the story. I think Shade went there, too, though I wouldn’t class it ‘Hard’. Sargent’s Fragile Shells goes there, mostly by bringing the mountain to Mohammed — choosing a story and environment in which puzzle solving is key to survival. Within its small pocket of reality, it really works.

But I’m not sure I enitrely buy the widely-sold dichotomy that a game/puzzle is at war with its story, for the reason that a puzzle is a story. They’re the same thing. It’s like you can convert mass into energy and you can encode almost any story into a puzzle, and vice versa. If they’re any good. At least, that’s the way I like to think of the world — but hey, I’m a bithead. 87


Defining ‘story’ is kind of boring, but the term gets abused a lot, usually when people are bagging something for ‘having no story’.

What is a puzzle? To me, a quick definition would be it’s where you have to consciously manipulate the game environment in some way to progress the game.

My bias is towards these games being gamey. Puzzles make things gamey and interactive. They don’t have to be killer hard, or even conspicuously feel like puzzles, but I like them to be there. By the same token, I have a scale where I consider a game a failure if it has not been completed without any hints by at least one human, who reported that they did so. The thing about that is of course I can’t prove it or know it for any games except ones I write myself, or where the author can tell me. But I have my suspicions!

(Some betatest guides say ‘give your betatesters hints as needed.’ I am opposed to that. I advocate giving no hints and verifying that one of them at least clears the game without hints. If you picked your betatesters well and nobody clears it without a hint, I’d say your game is at fault. I feel like the game is guilty of being uncompleteable without hints until someone verifiably demonstrates otherwise, and that folks should probably get this verification before the game is released.)

As you can see from my avatar, I agree on AMFV – probably my favorite IF of all time… :wink:

It’s pretty easy to put a story into an IF game. It’s pretty easy to put puzzles in, too. Where the real war exists is in trying to balance and synthesize an immersive experience out of the combination of the two. I’ve played pure-story IF that was good, and had fun with pure-puzzle IF, but to me the best IF combines the two into an experience much greater than the sum of its parts.

For me, reading a story, even one written in second-person with some environmental agency (such as being able to move around at will, examine items at will, etc.), does not give me a strong sense of immersion unless the story is so powerful that it would have grabbed me just as strongly reading it in a book or magazine. Photopia qualifies under this rubric, and there have been one or two others, but it’s rare. Although I feel story is essential, the inclusion of challenges or puzzles in a game helps to build that sense of immersion and provide a sense of accomplishment, leading to identification with the PC. This is something you don’t get in a printed story – it’s one of the unique strengths of the gaming paradigm.

Spider and Web is a great example of this. To make progress, you have to figure out a lot of fiddly details and unforgiving timings in a nice twist on the accretive PC. But the game is structured such that you keep getting story details as you progress in small chunks, and you feel a burst of triumph each time you surmount a puzzle. By the endgame, you’ve not only mastered the mechanics of your gear and have a pretty good idea what’s going on and what you need to do to win, but you’re strongly engaged in the plot and identifying with the otherwise-faceless protagonist.

Spider and Web without the puzzle-solving aspect would be a competently-written story about a futuristic secret agent raiding an enemy base. Without the story aspect, it would be a tough, generic puzzler with some interesting technological devices and game mechanics. With both present and integrated, it’s one of the best IF experiences available.

I realize that I set up a sort of Catch-22; my original post stipulated that the puzzles had to be hard, and then my response to Emily’s suggestion of “Make It Good” was “I haven’t played that because it’s too hard.” Not THAT shaggy! Seriously, I think what I’m looking for can involve something that’s puzzly – you have to stop and think about the puzzles – without being overwhelming. But I am hoping for something where you might say the story is paramount. Anyway…

See, I’d call Shade a no-puzzle piece – I did get stuck in it when I examined something out of order, but what would you call a puzzle in it? And Fragile Shells seemed to me like a pretty straight-up puzzle game with a story as decoration – essential decoration, if that makes sense, in that the game wouldn’t have been nearly as worth playing without bits of story, but still the story was in service of the puzzles instead of vice versa. (My contemporary take was “a solid puzzler with a story that’s nicely integrated but incidental,” and Emily said “It’s puzzlicious; there’s a story there, but not a lot of story.”) AMFV I haven’t played.

I don’t agree with this view of Photopia – see this great essay on it. But this is the question of whether story-driven IF needs puzzles, and that’s another issue, maybe…

This is interesting; Spider and Web was one of the games I was thinking about when I wrote my original post. I was originally going to characterize it as puzzle-first, but that’s not quite right. The first most striking thing about it is the absolutely amazing framing conceit and its use; the second is the puzzles, especially That One; the plot for me is a distant third. I played it with heavily using a walkthrough,* which may skew my view, but I wanted to succeed in order to succeed in the game, not because I was heavily committed to making a difference.

But this may not be fair, and this maybe goes back to what Paul said about puzzle being story and vice versa. S&W’s framework and its puzzles all fit into a way of telling a story, and the puzzles are certainly essential to that. If the plot per se isn’t the most compelling element of the game, often the plot isn’t the most compelling element of the story. So maybe this is an example of what I’m talking about.

Another one I was thinking of is Gun Mute. At first I had it pegged as like Fragile Shells, a puzzle game with just enough story, but with the story developed further in a couple of scenes (in which you aren’t in danger) – sort of the Cave Story model of getting more story when you complete some stages (which of course goes way beyond Cave Story). But the more I think about it, the more I think that the puzzles are essential to the story. The story is that you’re rescuing your lover, and to do this it’s important that you fight through obstacles, and that the obstacles not be trivially solvable. That’s the Don’t Look Back model, in a way, though I think it’s important to the story of Gun Mute that the stories aren’t as hard as in Don’t Look Back – Don’t Look Back really needs to push you to the edge of ragequitting (or in my cast past that edge, several times), Gun Mute doesn’t. Partly because in IF you have to save manually, but also because of the different natures of your quests. So maybe that’s an example of a game that puts puzzles in the service of a strong story without getting too hard for me.

*(Spider and Web was one of the first games I played, and just now I see that the place that sent me to the walkthrough was really my fault; I didn’t know that you could type


as a command, but it was heavily hinted by the interrogator. Later on I don’t think that I realized that if you failed often enough you’d get another hint from the interrogator. I did almost get That Puzzle, except

I flipping forgot which was “waltz” and which was “tango”

but then I was pretty confused in the endgame. So maybe my view of the plot should be taken with a big grain of salt.)

Oh I definitely would. I’m not at all a purist about using the hints either, and it’s way more frustrating to hit a walkthrough than a well-designed hint system. In some of these games I’ve felt like I shouldn’t sully them by using the hints, but I probably need to get over that, since the alternative seems to be not playing them. severedhand is probably right that it should be possible to clear the game without hints, but there are people who won’t be able to.

I’ve read that essay. I agree, a bit, in that you can exercise some control over pacing and presentation in the IF format that you can’t in the short-story format. That may have heightened the impact of playing Photopia over reading the hypothetical short-story version. And certainly puzzles don’t necessarily have to be hard to give people a rush when they overcome them. Photopia had at least two “puzzles” that delivered direct emotional payoff, outside the greater context of the story.

I’m probably being too nonspecific when I use the term “plot” – maybe what I really mean is “storytelling”. I would certainly maintain that the “framing conceit” in Spider and Web is at least as much associated with the storytelling aspect of the game as with the puzzle mechanics. You are correct that without considering that conceit, the remaining plot diminishes in significance.

When I played Spider and Web I wasn’t trying to make a difference so much as defeat the interrogator. I identified with the agent due to the oppressive interrogation and the difficulty of the challenges required to progress, and I took the interrogation personally. For me, That Puzzle delivered huge emotional payoff. I consider solving it as where I truly won the game; the rest was trying to figure out how to make the game finally acknowledge that. :wink:

I agree with you about immersion, but I mostly don’t put it in those terms. I think about things mostly in terms of narrative questions. They are what lead me forward. I see a TV teaser – now I want to watch the whole episode. I had no interest in it earlier. I don’t even like that series. But after seeing the teaser, suddenly I want to see it. Why? It’s not because the people were so good-lookin’, it’s because of narrative questions.

It may be possible to construct an interesting puzzle with no strong central narrative question, but I’ve never seen it done – it would seem tantamount to breaking the laws of physics. Most amateur writers are trying to get their ideas out and are not experiencing things in anything close to the same order their readers do; as a result, they tend to have the most trouble with setting up narrative questions so that they grab us effectively and are properly paid off and the next question (whatever it is be it situational or emotional or psychological, as long as whatever it is, I am meant to wonder about it) is set up,

For that reason, I think it would be perfectly possible to create a highly immersive, puzzle-free game, but it requires a sort of ‘high’ art and storytelling aplomb that most people don’t have – there are a lot of writers in the world, but few actual great narrators. Adding puzzles sort of forces the game into a mode where one can’t escape narrative questions, at least eventually, when the puzzles surface (sometimes I am at something of a loss to understand why the author thinks I should be interested, before then, considering the way a lot of these games start off, essentially in ‘waiting for puzzle’ mode which is not a great narrative question at all).

So it’s not that puzzles are a necessary evil because I think they can be brilliant, but it’s not like puzzles are the only way to grip a person’s mind and not let go, either. They’re just the easiest way, if interactivity is available. 87


P.S. Total agree on Spider and Web, in fact the only reason I didn’t mention it is that I may have mentioned it too often by now whenever people say, ‘What’s the best IF’?

Interesting that you would say Shade is puzzle-free, since I couldn’t figure out how to ‘solve’ it for a while. I was definitely stuck there for a bit. Some people also say AMFV has no puzzles but I also disagree. Are there things that you have to figure out how to type in order to get an optimal ending? Yes? Then that is a puzzle. Some of what people call no-puzzle games I actually just consider to be games in which the entire game is a single puzzle. That pretty much describes both AMFV and Shade (although there are some things in Shade that I would consider ‘sub-puzzles’) and the two games could not be more different in size and scope – which is interesting.

Your take on Fragile Shells is pretty accurate in its details even if I don’t agree with the conclusion. It had a strong story – it’s just that the story wasn’t separate at all from the puzzles. The puzzles were the story and it was a fine survival story that made complete story sense on its own terms. You have to subtract the puzzles to not see a story there. But you can’t subtract the puzzles in Fragile Shells since they are integral to the story being told – that’s why I called it out. And that’s what I meant by ‘bringing the mountain to Mohammed’. Rather than trying to twist a bunch of puzzles into ‘naturally’ evoking a story, Sargent instead chose a story that naturally involved puzzles – and it worked, and I think that method is just as valid a way of bring the two things into harmony. I’m not going to say it was a Harlan Ellison-class story, but everything in it was in complete harmony and there were strong narrative questions from beginning to end. It wasn’t a very psychological story, but that’s a different issue – perhaps one closer to what you (and perhaps Emily) are driving at.


Hm, this is an interesting take. So the story you have in mind is a story of your character (I’ve forgotten his name) surviving by doing this and this and this, rather than all the business about the impending war and big Suze and like that? That’s a reasonable take, but it reminds me more of the stories I get out of nethack – like the story of Jane, the pretty but fragile tourist who could only defend herself by flashing her camera at monsters and making them run away, but who gradually learned to take care of herself

[rant](stumbling through the mines in the dark till she was able to liberate a dwarven short sword), surviving a particularly harrowing encounter with a horde of Mordor orcs with arrows by hiding behind a door until they got in range one by one, until the light came on and she was able to take on the whole Sokoban zoo – and then standing on Elbereth while her awesome cats Thumpy and Foof fought off a horde of demons (I usually hate standing on Elbereth, but when you get a demon that summons other demons that summon other demons… stupid polymorph traps), mooching around Minetown until as she was just leaving the Lady gifted her with Thor’s lightning hammer and she rolled over everything the rest of the way[/rant]

the story as the gameplay, more or less. The thing is that I’m not sure that this plays to IF’s strengths anymore. For one thing, I think that here procedural generation really helps, because it lets you face real danger, and for various reasons IF isn’t great at procedurally generated gameplay.

Not really. If that were true, then even a game whose walkthrough consisted of “N. N. N. W. S” would be a puzzle. In the case of AMFV, there does happen to be a puzzle later on, in the third part, but in the first part you’re asked to record some experiences. Those experiences are freeley available to you, there are no obstacles. All you do is go there and record them and then get back - and that’s not a puzzle. If anything, it’s an objective, a “quest”. I will agree that “puzzleless games” are one gigantic “quest” (or, in the case of Photopia, several small quests), but not that they’re one gigantic puzzle. A puzzle involves an obstacle. You’re not describing obstacles when you talk about AMFV, you’re describing the flow of the story.

After all, if AMFV isn’t puzzleless, what about Photopia? Photopia’s maze segment is actually a puzzle, and so is the segment where you meet and help the wolf - but can it really be a puzzle when it’s all as obvious as that? The only way for it to be more obvious would be unlocking a door with the key you started off with. Technically it’s a puzzle, but if that’s the only puzzle of the game, then the game is practically puzzleless.

Yeah, precisely. It’s the perceived dichotomy between puzzle and story (as if they aren’t fundamentally the same thing, which they are) that is kind of giving all of these authors the idea that there is a war. There is no war required. There is only a pre-existing notion that they are two separate things. Once that notion is accepted, there cannot help but be a war, but that notion doesn’t have to be accepted. Examining ones terms is a great way to avoid going down the same road as everybody else, because you know? Everybody’s pretty smart (at least, around here). If the terms in which they see things were amenable to a great, perfect solution, then not only would it have already been found – it would be popular. To the extent that it is perceived that there is a war (meanng things cannot be reconciled) it means popular perfect solutions have not been found and that means that terms in which the problem is conventionally seen are probably not the best terms to take seriously if you are looking for the solution few have considered. And there are fascinating solutions out there, but to my mind they depend on considering puzzles and stories to be equivalent, just different facets on the same gem and not at war at all.

Heh heh, that was funny. And it makes your point. However, i have no problem with this example: what it demonstrates to me is not that stories based on puzzles are kind of reductive – what it demonstrates to me is that the puzzles are reductive. Your story needs better puzzles, is my conclusion. I think a lot of people would conclude that your puzzles require a better story, but that’s the conventional way of thinking that leads in most cases (Fragile Shells being an exception) to rather unrelated stories just being grafted on a bunch of puzzles, with the two goals served separately: the two things aimed at different sorts of people for different sorts of purposes. That’s the situation where there is a war, but it’s not a consequence of IF itself, as a medium: it’s only a consequence of how some people currently see IF.

No, I wouldn’t consider that walkthrough to be a puzzle because the direcitonal commands are already a known factor. I’m talking about figuring out an unknown factor.

In AMFV the things you record change the information that will be revealed later, so getting enough information to understand the direction of the simulation is a puzzle. What I am talking about is not the same thing as a quest – it requires interactivity and an obscured path to an optimal solution. As long is the path is obscured, someway, somehow, so that you have to choose to do the right things to get the information or reward you desire, and which are the right things to choose (or to record, in the case of AMFV) are non-obvious and not merely a consequence of the standard IF commands, then it’s a puzzle – how is it not? A puzzle is just something non-obvious you have to figure out in order to get to where a game has managed to get you to want to be. AMFV is great for that – all of the introductory material about the simulation really raises one’s curiosity as to what this simulation is going to prove, and not every playthrough will get you the answers you need: you do have to do the right things and they are not completely obvious.

Agree that a puzzle is an obstacle to getting something you want out of the game, though it doesn’t necessarily have to prevent you from getting an ending. All it has to do to qualify as a puzzle is prevent you from getting the particular ending that you want, the one you have been led to desire by the story. (I hope the reason I see these two things as so undisentanglable is coming clear.) Disagree that I was only talking about the story in AMFV, see above.

A super-obvious puzzle is not really a puzzle even if it resembles the usual standard key-in-lock puzzle. Like say if you find the key and the lock plainly and not hidden in the same room, then that’s not a puzzle. I agree. Hide the key and then it’s a puzzle.

I can’t really comment much on comparing Photopia with AMFV, because it’s been way too long since I played Photopia – like, 90s – and I don’t recall it in the detail that would be required of this sort of conversation. (There is a fairly good chance though that if I re-examined the game, I would find puzzles in it that meet my definition, since I often depart from the conventional view on this point. Truly puzzleless games are really rare I find. Galatea is one, mainly because although there are plenty of obstacles to getting certain information out of Galatea, one is not led to want any particular piece of information out of Galatea. One is just led to sort of wonder about what she is, which she never really reveals it seems. If there were an optimal conversation that reveals exactly what she is, then that would be the puzzle. If I were led to want some other piece of information out of her, that is solvable out of her, then it would be a puzzle. But I don’t think either of those things are true, so the two pieces required for a puzzle – an obstacle and a goal for the player (not just the character) – are never there simultaneously so it’s a truly puzzle-free game. And it was satisfying on its own terms, once I realised what it was trying achieve and more importantly what it wasnt.)

Here’s an interesting question for you though. If hiding a crucial key somewhere in the maze turns a simple key-in-lock into a puzzle, then why doesn’t hiding crucial information (that you have to figure out whether it’s relevant or not) somewhere in the extensive map of Rockvil, South Dakota (back to AMFV now) constitute a puzzle? Why do buried keys that affect the outcome of the game have puzzle precedence over just buried information that affects (when your character has seen it) the outcome of the game? They shouldn’t, IMO. They are both necessary to get what you want out of the game, and they are both things you have to actively dig for, not knowing where you’ll find them. In its simplest form it could be just a Where’s Waldo puzzle (AMFV is more complex than that because there are various conclusions depending on various events that you think might resemble ‘evidence’ that you manage to record, and some of those conclusions are more satisfying to the original, stated goal of the PRISM simulation than others), but even the simplest Where’s Waldo is still a puzzle — unless Waldo takes up like a quarter of a page. 87


Don’t underestimate my ability to forget about my starting inventory. In “Eruption” from the 2009 comp

I spent a fair amount of time twiddling around looking for a way to get whatever it was out of the sailcloth before I remembered that I’d started the game with a knife.

I don’t agree. Just as bad art is still art, an easy puzzle is still a puzzle.

Yes, this leads “ad absurdum” towards the position where anything the player has to do counts as a puzzle. But this is a useful position, not a trivial one. We put puzzles (and puzzle-like constructions, if you insist) into games in order to make the player engage with the game world and think about his/her actions. By this view, you can’t divide games into “puzzle-y and puzzle-free”, but you can ask how puzzle-y they are. What does the player have to think about? How closely related are those things to the story events? Are they momentary distractions or do they consume the game experience?

None in my case. I can think of only one work of IF I’d praise for its “story,” and it had no puzzles (or indeed, player agency or interactivity) at all. :frowning:



That’s the one.