Puzzle Design (Brainstorming Needed)

I’m working on a game for the Spring Thing, and I’ve hit a stumbling block. I’m not going to put spoilery details on the forum – what I’m hoping for is to do a little brainstorming with someone who has released a couple of games so we can bounce some ideas back and forth.

You will receive copious thanks in the Credits, of course – and if I win the competition, I’ll send you a check for (mumble) some small amount, depending on the extent of your creative contribution. If you’d like to help, please email me: midiguru23 [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

What I’m dealing with, in general terms, is that three college students are confronted by three ancient warriors armed with swords and shields. The students need to get past the warriors. The warriors are an essential part of the story, and can’t be ditched.

In my original design document, I came up with a method that, now that I’m trying to implement it, proves to be a Very Bad Idea. It would have been a timed puzzle that required the player to read the author’s mind and also probably die and restore the game a number of times to get the sequence of commands right. Put those two elements together, and you have a puzzle that should never see the light of day.

I need a puzzle that will give the player one of those “aha!” moments – like, “Oh, I get it. All of a sudden it’s obvious.” But as they say, violence is not the answer to this one. There is no way the college students can defeat the warriors in direct combat. Something tricky will be needed.

I guess you’re not taking ideas in the thread, but just to throw it out there maybe some variation of trolls before dawn?

Googled that phrase, came up blank. Searched for it on IFDB, ditto.

I’m certainly open to people tossing ideas into this thread, including far-fetched ideas. But there are some specific story elements that I’d rather not disclose, which may (or may not) affect the desirability of proposed solutions. I’ve made a list of at least 15 ideas of my own, including “read Harry Potter to them until they fall asleep,” but nothing has yet jumped out at me.

I assume you’ve considered (and rejected) the puzzle which requires the students to go on a wild goose chase and then, having caught the goose, pluck some its feathers and trim the ends into writing instruments, which can then be used to defeat the warriors (since the students will be armed with pens which everyone knows are mightier than swords).

Robert Rothman

Where you have to keep the warriors doing something until some critical event occurs; like, keep the trolls talking before dawn when the sun turns them to stone.

Good idea … except that this story happens to be entirely serious in tone.

Are there things that the students could legitimately know as students that might help? I.e., someone’s an anthropology major, and with sign language and such, can decipher enough of the symbols on the warriors’ shields and clothes to give a sign that the students are friendly/dangerous/whatever. Or a biology student who can save one of their animals, or something? Obviously a lot depends on the warriors and what they want, but making a connection with them (either through intimidation or friendship) would be where I’d want to start as a player.

They don’t actually want anything except to make you turn around and leave. They’re not actually bad guys, although they can be provoked into taking hostile action. They’re … not fully human, although they can be killed. I doubt they have animals. They might easily have symbols on their shields, that’s a good idea. Also, one of the students is carrying what might turn out to be a magical weapon, but just pointing the weapon at them and saying the magic word would be way too easy.

Perhaps you’re stuck on your puzzle because you’re focused on dealing with the warriors directly. Should the player be interacting with the environment instead at this point? For example, one of the students could light a small fire to set off the fire sprinkler system, which then rusts the warriors’ ancient armor, which in turn immobilizes them.

Are there commands or ways of interaction that you have already implemented that are unique to your game? Your answer could lie there, too.

Good idea, but I’m quite sure there’s no sprinkler system in this place. I’m not really focusing on dealing with the warriors directly. All I want to do is have them chase the PC and his friends into a trap that the PC has laid.

The command ‘attack warrior’ will probably be enough to provoke them. I’m trying to figure out a trap that makes some kind of sense. It has to be something that won’t kill the PC and his friends, but will kill the warriors. And there are a lot of things (because this is a very particular environment) that I can’t use. A friendly crocodile, for example, who loves the PC and his friends but thinks warriors would be tasty fresh meat … I don’t think there are any friendly crocodiles to be had in this story.

Poison gas is possible. Quicksand is possible, but not very likely, as this particular location is probably indoors. A furnace whose door you could throw open would be very possible. But I need something that a player can figure out, and that makes sense when coded. If the furnace burns the warriors to a crisp, why doesn’t it burn the PC and his friends to a crisp? They don’t have time to don fire-resistant garb, because they’re being chased by warriors! That’s the kind of difficulty I’m fussing with.

Could the warriors be much heavier than the students (wearing heavy armor, for instance)? Then perhaps the PC could do something like lay some flimsy boards over a hole in the floor, so that the students can run away across it but the warriors crash through.

My idea was for them to give you a sidequest that is absolutely stupid and a waste of time. You leave, get the item, and they let you through… sort of like the “TEA” item from Pokemon RGBY.

This type of idea can work in some situations, but not here. I need the warriors to end up dead, for reasons that would be a spoiler to explain.

I think I’m going to go with a variation of the flimsy boards idea … heh-heh-heh.

Find the objects TEA and POISON, then go to a witch doctor to mix them together, and then give it to the guards.

I disagree with this — there is nothing intrinsically wrong with dying often in a puzzle game and requiring knowledge obtained via death to solve the puzzle. What has been wrong with this form of puzzle, in the past, is that it takes so long to recover after death. The frustration-producing element is neither the death nor the occult knowledge – it’s the delay in getting back to the same point to try again. Parser-based adventures have been particularly big offenders in this regard, but a significant reset burden is not a necessary element of a parser-based puzzle game; it’s merely a consequence of the prevailing conventions on how to reset the player after death. These conventions are very old, yet seem (to me) insufficiently re-examined. An artist could ditch the reset conventions instead of ditching puzzle cruelty – if the life-death loop could be made short enough and quick enough, the cruelty ‘problem’ disappears: the players will happily try a single act repeatedly and use postmortem knowledge to improve – they will not even blink at this – in fact, they may even think of this episode, in retrospect, as a pulse-pounding highlight of the game (even though from the in-game perspective of the actual character, that pulse may have pounded only once).

It’s not something that would work in any situation: just something to keep in mind. Best-practice conventions develop for a reason: locate that reason and make sure it is served; but you do not have to serve it in the same way that the convention does.

As for an alternate solution, it seems a form of parley is in order. If you can’t fight your way out, keep talking until an opportunity presents itself. The talking buys time and the warriors can let slip with clues that formerly you could only discover by dying. Ideas: break a pipe and release steam that fogs the room evening the odds; what about magnets – is armour magnetic; what about electricity, couldn’t guys in many types armour be easily electrocuted (water on the floor plus a fork in a socket?); what about stealth – does it make sense to spot them before they see you, and go around.


The second sentence is rather odd in a genre where you can save your game anywhere, but I agree with the first - sort of. If you’re building a strong player character who discovers, along with the player, everything about his story as he goes along; if, unlike Varicella, the PC’s and the player’s knowledge stand side by side; if you’re telling the story of a person who went through this ordeal and came through (which implies continuity, a continuity broken by die-and-restore puzzles); if so, then a die-and-restore puzzle is not desirable.

However, in different circumstances, “die and restore” isn’t all that different from “try to solve a puzzle and get an enlightening error message”, which Infocom actually encouraged in their games (or so it seems from their manuals).

So the issue isn’t cruelty, unless the death happens a long time after some key element has been done/not done/undone/taken/worn/whatever. It’s another direction, one which has been shunned for a long time now, but is still taken occasionally - I remember a game (though not the name) that took only one turn to finish (I think it was a tennis match), and successfully completing the game meant lots and lots of wrong commands (which is to say, different failures), which nevertheless clued the player for his NEXT try.

And of course I needn’t bring up Varicella… which is another direction altogether.

Finally, this was just a little digression, brought on by Laroquod’s post… but I happen to agree with your sentiment, Jim, those two elements put together sound like a huge turn-off, especially the read-the-author’s-mind bit. But a timed puzzle OR a die-and-restore (if an UNDO or two could bring the player back to the starting point) would be ok. You could always either split the puzzle in two halves - one a timed puzzle, one a die-and-destore - or scratch one of the elements and keep the other.

Rather moot, since everyone’s been thinking up new stuff for a while now, but them’s my 2 cents.

It takes too long to restore a game and I have to know in advance where to situate my save for as rapid a replay as possible. Graphical games solved this problem ages ago; they largely no longer rely on the cumbersome save/load process to close a retry loop. It’s the wrong tool for the job.

To me this is like insisting that every camera angle in a movie be a POV shot from the top of the main character’s shoulders. ‘Aren’t I supposed to be identifying with Tom Cruise? If so, then how come I can see the villains executing their secret plans – Tom Cruise wasn’t even there for that!’ Hyperconcern over maintaining continuity even where it has no emotional import, tends to tie an artist’s hands – and the history of film could have been nipped in the bud, if the literalists had won a very similar debate.

People will accept cognitive dissonance regarding omniscient narrators; so long as the difference is glossed over, instead of belaboured. This is where the Restart, Restore, Quit process fails and why I question its utility – it belabours the dissonance of dying.


Wow. I wrote, just the order day, an open letter to developers and designers explaining all my frustrations with the checkpoint system.


Unless you’re talking about the “Try again” button which places the player back at the sticking point. That I like, and a similar alternative in IF might minimise the issue.

“Takes too long” also sounds strange to my ears, maybe because I’ve gotten used to saving a lot - a LOT - and keeping different save files. Restoring a lot is par for the course, and takes me all of, oh, two seconds? Possibly I’m more lenient because I’m used to old-school and have learned to deal with some of its issues.

I only care for speed when I’ve stopped caring about the game. And I only care about the validity of my savegame if I’m worried I may have inadvertently left things behind, or things undone, in sections I can’t revisit. Or, as in Avon, when I’m trying to figure out exactly where a timer started.

I’m not laying out an obligatory formula. I’m saying that if you want to go that way - and if so, it’s perfectly allright to use “Meanwhile…” sequences as long as the player isn’t supposed to be able to act out on that information until the player character has found it - then it’s probably not a good idea to use meta-session information, because you’re no longer telling a coherent story. Unless you WANT the player to be an omniscient character that uses that information to help the PC. Which is - again - another direction.

You’re confusing me. Your previous arguments were against “suspension of disbelief”, and this last one is for it - because if the PC uses information he can’t possibly have access to, it’s a lot more jarring than if the PC dies and the player goes back a few turns, in an established and widespread convention that “we’ll just pretend that never happened”.

Did you edit your original post a lot? 'Cause you say some of the things I wanted to get across in my reply. I either didn’t see them or you added them later… which is a shame, because if that’d been your original post I’d probably never have replied at all.

I’m not sure which post you’re referring to. I’ve made some edits in this thread to improve my examples/arguments with details I thought of after-the-fact but I don’t think I changed the actual meaning of anything significantly. Apologies if the effect was disconcerting – it was not intended. I did not edit anything you replied to after I had already seen your reply.

Thanks for the link. Looks interesting. It’s a little long for me right now – but I have added it to my reading list for later. I’m not talking any specific button – I am talking about the presence vs. the absence of ‘try again’ buttons. I prefer the absence. Obviously I am going to try again, so let’s just go directly there, do not pass GO do not collect $200, do not make me hit buttons, do not make me type RESTORE and navigate to a save file; this stuff all just wastes my time. Either I’m going to try the exact same thing I failed again, or I’m going to quit. Quit doesn’t need a button; a quit can be achieved by the operating system itself. Therefore the only option is ‘try again’. When there is only one option, why ask the player? Just do it.

Well, yes, you’ve explained your own habits here. Simple things sound strange to ears acclimatised to complex things. That doesn’t prove the complexity is necessary. I find it wholly unnecessary. And unlike you, I am not only impatient when I don’t like a game. I am also impatient when the game is very exciting and the storyline very fast-paced, but the puzzle-solving processed is nitpicky and slow. Those two things are not emotionally congruent. Emotional congruency is what I value – not perfect technical or narrative continuity, which are red herrings.

The problems you point out could be true but are not necessarily true. If I use postmortem information to solve the puzzle, it may merely appear as if the protagonist is more intelligent than the player. t only falls your way in the specific case where the postmortem information is absolutely unfigurable otherwise – which doesn’t seem me like the most common instance.

In fact, most games rest upon this dissonance: the player begins as incompetent and only achieves competence slowly; nevertheless, the protagonist is often portrayed as highly skilled the entire way. How do you tell a story about a highly skilled character? You can’t actually, without breaking this rule that you support.

What I am saying is that suspension of disbelief is not nearly as brittle as a lot of people seem to assume, and the way the filmic arts have developed shows massive evidence for this. I’m not saying that suspension of disbelief is unimportant; I’m saying that it can be successfully glossed over, as long as things remain emotionally congruent. The emotional arc of a retry loop is completely derailed and destroyed by too much futzing over the save process or redoing old actions not immediately relevant to the loop. A retry loop requires rotational speed to function emotionally for the player.