Must puzzles be at war with stories?

We have been overlooking matters of degree, and I’m glad you pointed that out. Not sure, say, framing GO NORTH as puzzle with 1% difficulty is really necessary to get there — I am content to call a puzzle with 1% difficulty not a puzzle, but it’s really semantics because in the large, I do agree about the things you say we should examine.


Sure. But there are necessary tasks that aren’t “easy puzzles” at all … they’re just necessary tasks.

Puzzles are your only true input to a story, the only way to make you feel like you’ve had any active role within the game world.

IF is not merely about reading a story: it’s about role-playing and feeling and thinking like the protagonist.

No. I want to put together a longer post about this later, but no.

I am sure there are games where this is the case. But there are also games where it’s not the case. In particular, some of the best detective / mystery IF stories (Witness, An Act of Murder) are really not laden with a lot of puzzles. There are some logical things the player needs to deduce, but most of that is done from interrogation of suspects and some observation or discovery of clues. There’s no real head-scratcher types of puzzles. But for fans of detective stories, they are very immersive. Lives hang in the balance, after all. Depending on how good a job the player does in figuring out the mystery, the criminal may be arrested or locked up, or they may go free.

And that’s the style I’m working on in my own game. I’m writing an awful lot of dialog to enable the player to immerse themselves in the story and uncover the mystery and so I certainly hope it gives the player a feeling of having an active role.


isn’t solving a mystery the same as solving a puzzle? Just that it depends on dialogues rather than keys

What about role-playing and character development? There’s not really much puzzle-y about your choices in The Baron. There’s certainly things you might miss, but the trick isn’t to think of something that works to produce an end game. Menu-based conversation is even more obviously not-a-puzzle, but still produces change.

What some people seem to be arguing is that story progression is always based on a puzzle, which just isn’t true. Some story progression feels more interactive than others, but I don’t think that interactivity relies on puzzles per se, but on feeling like your character has agency. I’ve had satisfying experiences with games that are just phenomenally juicy, and games that left it open to me to make up my own progressing story, and games that tried really hard to present open storylines. Alabaster has some puzzles, but you can play in a near-puzzleless state, following suggested cues, and still feel like you have an impact.

And what about games like Aisle, where you might never figure out all your options, but figuring out a sizeable number of them is trivial? The puzzle figuring out endings is entirely external to the story and player, not character dependent.

In general, I’d say story progression, even if it doesn’t depend on a puzzle, increases investment, especially when it appears to react in response to the character. I don’t think it needs to be puzzle-based. Poorly done, puzzleless story progression can feel like a cut scene or railed - think about games where you need to press “z” seven times in a row to get through dialogue - but that’s just a poor design choice. That same dialogue, with you “participating” can be engaging, even if the result is always the same, even if it’s always clear what to type.

Think about classic western RPG’s. Most of them have conversation options even when there’s no choices. The villain is always going to attack you in the end, but you often have different lines you can deliver. Often they’re variations on the same theme (“die, scum!”). Why do that? Well, because interaction, even trivial interaction, helps immersion, and well-written choices help role-playing. You feel like you have an impact in western RPGs because the story progresses in response to your actions, even if those actions are little bulletpoints in a journal.

As a player, some puzzles make me feel connected with the game/story/character, and some don’t. Being stuck hardly ever feels like an in-character thing - it is actively disengaging for me. Poorly designed puzzles can require external knowledge. “Thinking like the protagonist” is often way less helpful than I’d expect, and sometimes a really bad idea. (I love Lost Pig. A lot. But it requires you to be way smarter than Grunk could ever be on his best day.)

I’d say puzzles are one tool for connecting players with the game, but they’re a double-edged sword. Good writing, juice, story progression, offering clear choice that changes the world - these are other ways of making people feel invested and involved.

(Sorry if this was disjointed - I’m on some pretty heavy duty meds at the moment, and everything’s all foggy and vague.)

And, conversely, I’ve played games with lots of puzzles, but where I felt little agency in the story. Done badly, a puzzle can just feel like a padlock closing off the next scene, or a needless hurdle in the natural progression of a story. (As a pacing mechanism they’re also highly suspect, as different players will solve different puzzles more quickly than others, and some will go to the hints after the first stumble.)

Very well put. I think any sentiment of the form “a game must X to Y” (or even just “a game must X”) is really just a rephrasing of “I only like games that X” - which is fine, but of no use to authors or players who like, prefer or only like things other than X.

I used to play a lot of adventure games, so I tend to have a love/hate relationship with puzzles.

The problem with puzzles is that they’re the proverbial hammer in an otherwise empty toolbox. That can work (people seemed to like Myst, for example) but it gets old fast. I sat down to play a random adventure game online (Aurora) and despite the awesome visuals and atmosphere, about five minutes in I was thinking “get me out of here I’m playing an inventory game.”

I have to think about this more, but here’s how I’d put it:

The joy of a game comes from the discovery and mastery of something new. That’s why I played through Caesar II so many times - at first, because the world was new and novel (discovery), and then because I wanted to try and master the process of optimizing a Roman province (mastery).

In some story-based games, there’s a certain joy of discovery that comes even when you haven’t gotten any further. Maybe if you try and use the wrong inventory item, you get a funny dialogue response. That feedback - that discovery - is what keeps me playing. Game with good writing get that.

Inventory/puzzle games are interesting to discover, at first, but now that I’ve played through a lot of them, there’s no feeling of deep mastery of the kind a strategy game would provide. Puzzles become a standard game mechanic ticket of admission to a good story. If the puzzles are really good/connected, I may feel like I’ve earned my progress, which is rewarding. But it would be nice to see innovation with other mechanics. Are there any great games which go beyond puzzles?

Except for those who take joy from other aspects.

Well, yes, that’s true, except when it isn’t. :ugeek: In all seriousness, though, I can think of a few things that I would agree fall outside that realm - socialization is the biggest one I can think of. But I can’t think of a story-heavy game I’ve played where discovery and mastery weren’t at least up front and center. What else would you suggest?

Nothing polite.

Well, in Rameses there’s the discovery of the plot, and the discovery that (oh I guess I should spoiler this)

you can’t get Alex to do much of anything in response to your commands

but I don’t think there’s much mastery going on, unless you count the realization that the thing I spoilered is true as a form of mastery. (OTOH I didn’t enjoy it that much.)

I would suggest a great IF is one that engages one’s reader-mind rather than game-playing-mind. While I’m no stranger to the pleasures of mastery – Street Fighter scratches that itch – in a story-heavy work I’d like mastery to come early in the game, say by the end of the first Act, so that I may concentrate on the plot & characters henceforth… and influencing the plot via that mastery. Story can sometimes be slow-starting; it takes time to emotionally invest, after all. But once the story is in full gear, wrestling with mechanics is an unwelcome distraction. IMHO.

Traditional gameplay’s whole fail-retry mechanic really dilutes the hell out of a story anyway. (Specifically, the repetition of the same scene/chapter/whatchamacallit.) I know that isn’t news to anyone, but it supports my point: mastery should come early, on the first playthrough.

I give Spider and Web somewhat high marks here, as mastery comes in the form of knowing what your utility belt tools do, although I dock it points in that it isn’t really told to you ahead of time IIRC, so there is a bit of die-retry going on, even if the framing story ameliorates it somewhat.

I like that model. It certainly explains my frustration with certain story-driven games.