The first (major) puzzle of a game

So I’m adapting a browser based text game a friend of mine made a good while ago. There’s this one particular puzzle he designed in the early game that has to do with fiddling around with the url. Well, it’s too unintuitive and hence hard for the very first major puzzle. Luckily, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to implement in the new format! (Please don’t prove me otherwise, I don’t like it and don’t want it.)

So as I’m new to game design, I wanted to ask you guys if this sounds reasonable to you. Keep in mind it’s the very first major one (by minor I mean environmental puzzles that only require you to do one or two specific-ish things to progress). You have to figure it out in order to get the three key items you need to go on to scene 2.
Here goes.

The clue is:

To pass a mystic gate, a riddle to decode,
Seek the number’s alteration, the secret code.
Of five sevens, the last holds the key,
With the change to a 1, the barrier will flee.

There are blank papers in the Salon. There are quills in the Study. These are just west and east from the entrance respectively. There’s an empty inkwell in the Library, two rooms due north from the entrance. You can use spider ichor (Library), snake venom (basement, accessible from the first room due east) or your own blood (cut your finger) as ink. These must be put into the inkwell, otherwise they congeal on your hand. Three rooms due east from the entrance, there are four sevens on the walls around a door with no lock or handle. You need to cover the “last one” (hidden in a shaft hidden in the room) with the paper, write on it (you always write 1), open sesame.


Oh no, this is in the wrong category!!! Sorry, i’ll copy paste and delete.

Oh no, there’s an error when i try to delete and i can’t figure out how to contact a mod to ask them to move it to a relevant category. :sweat_smile: :sweat_smile: :sweat_smile: So embarassing.

It’s hard to tell from your description without some context. But I do agree that this seems difficult. For me, it depends on how many “breadcrumbs” of clues that are dropped for the player to follow through the riddle. If the riddle and the items you listed are the only things and no supplementary clues, I agree that this would seem very difficult.


How about adding some subtle nudges to item descriptions, or when you try to use them in wrong context?

Regular users can change categories - you might not have the ability to do that yet, but if you post the category you’d like to move this thread to, I’m sure someone can manage that! (FWIW this seems a reasonable fit for the general design category to me)

As for the specific puzzle, yeah, it seems tricky to me, especially the need to cover the number with paper - good cues if the player tries to directly write on the numbers could help.


The general design category in authoring should work. I think I don’t have the perm to do that because of the low trust level (just arrived) but maybe I’m just incompetent.

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I think that’s part of the way to do it. What I have learned is that what I think is subtle still isn’t enough help. But I think you’re headed in the right direction.

FWIW I think it’s in the right category as well!


If it’s too subtle, the playtesters will be sure to let me know! So shouldn’t worry too much yet.

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I had a lot of trouble hinting my first puzzle. Since I knew everything, I had a hard time getting in a headspace where I could imagine not knowing everything. That is, being able to see things as a player. I learned that I was taking a lot for granted, and that I needed to be more specific.

It took several rounds of testing before I got it right! Add a bit, test, add more, test, and so forth. Some very nice people here helped me along with that.

I think failure messages are important, in a complex puzzle there will be more failure than success, probably.


Yeah, this is hard.

IMO, the first puzzle should be both representative of the challenges the player will face in the game, AND easy to solve. Giving the player a win right off the bat will suck them in. A deadly first puzzle is a great way to bounce players off the game before they’ve had a chance to sink their teeth into it. Nobody likes to type HINT immediately.

Could you move this puzzle to later in the game and throw a bigger softball for the first puzzle?

Cluing puzzles is SUCH a headache. Everything I think will be easy is hard, and vice versa. Testers will help with the cluing, but I think it’s a mistake to start off this hard, unless the whole purpose of the game is to be fiendishly difficult.


I like the idea of a ‘fiddle with the URL’ puzzle, especially if your game works on that kind of meta-level and there are enough clues - one thing to do is maybe spell out the URL with five sevens in it in the game text - like in the about or credits section so there’s a chance the player will actually see it and realize they can do so. Some browsers will obscure URL fiddly bits after the main domain information by default unless they click, so that URL may not be obvious.

Example, this is what the browser shows for this message in Safari:
Screen Shot 2024-06-01 at 2.37.04 PM

I only see the entire detailed URL when I click the URL field, which isn’t often something people think to do during a game:
Screen Shot 2024-06-01 at 2.37.18 PM

And this isn’t great as the first puzzle the player needs to solve (unless the entire game uses the concept of URLs as world-altering or spell casting and that’s the whole game.) If this isn’t a unique “Easter egg” kind of uber puzzle not required for advancement and has to be done, it might be cool at the end or mid-way through the game, especially if it’s presented at the beginning and “staring the player in the face” until they realize.

I wouldn’t require them to figure out URL-restructuring to get out of the very first room - again unless that’s the entire gimmick of the game and the tutorial to teach them there are meta puzzles throughout.

[EDIT] Another idea for a clue - an NPC might riddle something “Tell me how you got here!” then “If I were to use a magic internet box as you yourself might have, what are the directions I would need to find this Universal Relative Location?” If the player puts in just the main domain, “Nope! I need more detail! I need a detailed address, not just a street name!” … or something. Just to make sure the player realizes where the other riddle is referring to.


Further thoughts: Amanda is right. Puzzle quality is highly subjective, and there’s a psychological dimension. Motivation is part of that, which can come from a lot of things. A growing sense of confidence (in the game, the author, and so on) is one thing. I think there’s also an elusive sense of doing something “cool” that is separate from difficulty. If you’ve played any Arthur DiBianca games, there is a sense of doing cool stuff that is highly motivating.

People always say this, and I think they say it because it feels intuitively correct: many people chase the feeling of overcoming difficulty, which may or may not involve actually overcoming difficult problems. The Babel Fish puzzle in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feels very hard, even though every step teaches you what to do next. The extent of the puzzle, rather than its difficulty creates a sense of overcoming that is really satisfying.

This is all a bit ramble-y (sorry!), but I think motivation is a key consideration re: difficulty. So when is this happening (early)? Will the player feel confident (after the small environmental puzzles)? Curious (based on story/worldbuilding? The setup and context makes a huge difference in terms of the player’s experience.

As a more specific thought, I wonder if having three options for the ink might be confusing. I think people like feeling free, but that can be different from having freedom. Flexibility puts pressure on you to provide adequate hints for multiple solutions, and it may be confusing to pick when more than one thing seems right. Just a thought. Is this an spider ichor kind of game, for instance? If so, maybe push for that.

Testing would bear this all out, of course. Just spitballing. Let us know how things go!


I think this is way too hard for an early puzzle. Even knowing the answer, I don’t see how I would ever work it out.

Firstly, I would not see spider ichor (whatever that is) or snake venom as an ink and I would not think to cut my own finger with a non-existent knife. If you want ink, then just use ink in the inkwell.

Secondly, I don’t understand why there are four sevens around the door and the fifth one is hidden. If it’s hidden, you have to find it, but when you do, how do you know if it’s the first 7 or the last 7? Why not just put all five 7s on the wall in the first place?

Thirdly, the clue says you have to change the last 7 to a 1. If you cover it with a piece of paper, you’re only covering it, you’re not changing it. I imagine changing it to mean that you have to remove the top bar from the 7 to leave only the vertical stroke which looks like a 1.

Fourthly, how do you hold the piece of paper in place? If you just hold it with your hand, I’m assuming the door opens, but as soon as you let go, the 7 is revealed, so the door closes.

Yeah, way too hard for any puzzle and way too obscure for an early puzzle. I do like the riddle, though.

Here’s an alternative idea that should be much easier to hint and to implement. Supposing the third line of the riddle was changed to ‘The number seven holds the key’ and there was only one number associated with the door, but it was in Roman numerals as ‘VII’. You have to remove the ‘VI’ characters by unscrewing them (with a screwdriver if they’re screwed on), chipping them off with a chisel (if they’re stone) or pressing them (if they’re like buttons) to leave only an ‘I’. Hey presto, 7 changed to 1 and door opens.


I agree with @Warrigal 's assessment, and also wish to add that if you can work those early environmental puzzles into clues for what to do with your eventual choice for the first major puzzle, that can be a big help. It can be to do with the descriptions, how they’re used, or the nature of the logic used to solve the environmental puzzles.

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Okay, there seems to be a pretty wide consensus that it’s too hard. How about I remove the finding ink side of the equation and change things up a bit so that you just need to do it before you can leave scene 1? So instead of having to be the first, this could be the second, third or fourth riddle you solve.

As to @Warrigal 's alternative riddle idea, that sounds a tad easy to me. The hint is there’s a seven, you walk to a room and hey, there’s a VII! Why I’m expecting the player to intuit that the hidden 7 is the “last” seven is because it’s the last seven they find. The four others are in plain sight right in the same room with the door so I’d imagine someone riddling it out would immediately go “ok so where’s the fifth one?” As for your point about fixing the paper in place, additional context is that the game takes place in a magical dungeon, think something like Labyrinth from that 90s movie, so laws of physics are not necessarily always 100% realistic. It’s totally feasible that the paper just disappears all together and the 7 morphs into a 1. I like the idea of removing the top bar of the 7, though.


But will players be able to predict this? The main reason to have predictable rules in an IF game isn’t for realism, but so that players can predict the consequences of their actions. Without that there’s no real way to solve puzzles.


That’s fair.

The (static fiction) author Brandon Sanderson is known for integrating very rigorous magic systems into his books, and he once proposed “Sanderson’s Laws of Magic” for aspiring authors. The first one of these is:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

That is, the sort of magic in Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire basically never solves problems for the protagonists, it creates them. To solve problems, the reader has to understand the mechanics of how the magic works.

And imo this goes double for interactive fiction! If you look at the puzzles in the original Adventure, the best ones are where you can figure out the rules of this fantasy world and apply them to your advantage (saying a particular sequence of magic words makes a nest of golden eggs appear at a specific location; there’s a toll bridge that you can’t cross without giving away a treasure; so give away the nest of golden eggs, then summon it back to that location with magic), and the worst ones give you no way to understand the rules before using them (if you try to kill a dragon without a weapon, the game says “with what, your bare hands?”; if you say YES you succeed and kill the dragon).

Which isn’t to say you always need to explain the rules in full. Dream logic is perfectly valid, and ASoIaF would have a very different tone if the magic was laid out like Newton’s laws of motion. But if the reader doesn’t understand the mechanism, it should create problems rather than solving them—or in an IF context, it should set up the puzzles, but shouldn’t figure into the solution.


This is all a bit ramble-y (sorry!)

Not at all! Thanks for the input! A bit late but thought I’d return to your message as it’s very relevant to the whole point of this thread.

So when is this happening (early)? Will the player feel confident (after the small environmental puzzles)? Curious (based on story/worldbuilding? The setup and context makes a huge difference in terms of the player’s experience.

It’s early. The first section of the game. Ideally the player will be drawn in from the get-go through the quality of writing (I like to think I know what i’m doing in that department) and the mysterious atmosphere. So curiosity would be the main motivation.

People always say this, and I think they say it because it feels intuitively correct: many people chase the feeling of overcoming difficulty, which may or may not involve actually overcoming difficult problems.

So I get that this is, by and large, correct. I recently played According to Cain, and that game really wasn’t hard at all, a bit hand-holdy even, but it stringed me along with the feel of natural progression in the puzzles and the joy in figuring out the alchemy system was definitely there, eventhough it wasn’t really hard per se, just good game design.

I however like hard games (within reason!) and I naturally want to make games I would myself enjoy. That is not to say I should intentionally torture the player, I don’t mean to make something unfair and impossible. I have read Graham Nelson’s essay on the Player’s Bill of Rights and am using it as a roadmap. The original browser scavenger hunt was pretty hard though – there exists a single person in this world aside from me who ever beat it. To be fair, the player pool was very limited, somewhere around ten people gave it a shot. But anyways, my own gaming sensibilities aside, in adapting a game someone else made, there is also the consideration of fidelity – something I’m sensitive to, as I am a translator by training. So the game is not going to be an overly easy one for these reasons, although, as i said, I really don’t disagree with your overall point. There are considerations arising from this that I should pay very close attention to; adequate clues, humane difficulty scaling, teaching the player the mechanics, a tutorial, etc.

I wonder if having three options for the ink might be confusing.

My fear was that demanding the player to use any of the three specifically would be too moon-logicky, so giving them a range of sticky fluids to figure it out would be better than have the player have to figure out they should scoop up the dead spider, for example. But yeah, now that multiple people have weighed in on it, I agree that the ink thing is too convoluted. Bye bye ink hunt – bam! shazaam! - the inkwell is now full of ink.

Thanks again for the input, and also everyone else who I didn’t get around to responding in particular. This has been very helpful.

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