The importance of multiple solutions

How important is it to you that an IF game contain multiple viable solutions to puzzles?

  • At least some puzzles should be designed with multiple solutions.
  • One solution by design; but a second solution can be added in beta if it makes sense with the objects already included.
  • Puzzles should only have only one solution.

0 voters


Ooh, you’re biasing your results with that last question. “To keep the overall complexity low” is a design goal which may or may not have anything to do with puzzle construction.


True; I should edit that out. Single-solution puzzles can be a design goal of their own.

I should clarify also when I say one solution I mean one ideal configuration and use of game objects and resources. I do not mean “the command has to be entered in only one specific way.” Synonyms are allowed.


Hard to choose also - puzzles should be solvable and can have a “correct” solution but should also reward lateral thinking. Sort of like the Cragne Manor situation of “you have to have the correct sharp object to cut this specific thing instead of one of the twenty other sharp things that would ostensibly work.”

I’m a big fan of puzzles where it’s more about which way you solve the problem as opposed to figuring out the only way. Someone’s going to specifically miss the hedge-shears mounted over the fireplace that they’re supposed to use to prune the shrubbery to access another room, but if a player wants to spend twenty turns clipping them with the nosehair scissors they already have in inventory, that’s awesome too. Especially if the author/parser takes note of it and gives feedback “Why it might take you all of twenty turns to clip away those branches with those tiny scissors.” “Oh…well you’re committed, more power to you.” “I’ll just work on my shopping list here till you’re done…” “Hm…milk, eggs, bread. Oh good job you!” “Continuing to cut the hedge with those tiny scissors…very committed of you since you haven’t examined the fireplace mantle closely…” Discovering a weird interaction that the author accounted for and acknowledges is always the best.


I ask this question because I’m back to contemplating a game concept that I’ve never had the time to develop, due to college coursework: a Conan-style puzzle-based adventure game.

Rather than design a pile of lock-in-key based puzzles, I wanted to make it a low-inventory game. I can’t imagine Conan solving problems by hauling around a sword, a lantern, a basket, a newspaper, a strange fungus, a dented crown, a silver tooth, two zorkmids, a rubber life raft, a ladder, a portrait of the chairman of the First Bank of Frobozz, a bone amulet, and a bottle of distilled water.

Instead of buying the old man a drink to get him to reveal the location of the treasure, you boast of your own exploits, or you threaten him. Instead of needing the key to enter the wizard’s tower, you can intimidate the door guard, or climb the wall. Solutions have few objects, if any, and those that exist are small (a lost ring, a jeweled eye) or must be carried with two hands (a big boulder, a pneumatic princess).

That design goal raises the question of how many solutions there should be for each puzzle element, and in particular, what solution should remain if the “wrong” solution is applied (eg, praising the door guard or mocking the old man).

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Treasures of a Slavers Kingdom solved this by making the game limited parser: your verbs are only REGARD (examine, consider), SEIZE (take into your possession), USE (make use of in some way), PARLEY WITH (converse with peaceably), and ASSAIL (do violence upon).

Limited-parser games solve the problem by cutting down the possible actions. If there are only five things the PC can do, there are only five potential solutions. Perhaps they have to be stacked - you have to ASSAIL the robber before you can PARLEY with him to reveal where he’s hidden your loincloth. (That’s a guess, I haven’t played through this particular game.)

Write the story you want though. If you can’t think of multiple solutions, it’s likely others won’t either. But there is always that one pesky beta tester who’ll think of a way to accomplish something that never crossed your mind. That’s the importance of transcripts - inside the author brain, it can be difficult to objectively see your world for the first time as players will.

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Limiting the parser is an interesting solution. I hadn’t thought of that.

I was thinking more along the lines of making different solutions possible, based on the player’s choice of PC. The PC is defined on three axes: whether he is known to be Honorable (or Devious); whether he is Famous (or Obscure); and whether he is Civilized (or Barbaric).

The prototypical Conan would be honorable-famous-barbaric; the assassin character is devious-obscure-civilized, and so on. If the PC is Honorable he can make bargains and people trust him, but he can’t break his word and people of the underworld avoid him. Multiple solutions exist — but not necessarily for every character.

I voted “should be designed with multiple solutions” but I just kinda prefer there to be multiple solutions; a game can be great even if all of the puzzles have only one solution.


Depends on the theme. The old King’s Quest games (which are graphical, true) often had at least two solutions to certain problems: an obvious, violent solution which gained fewer points, and a non-violent solution which often took more work but gained more points.

I don’t think multiple solutions should ever be necessary; they’re nice to have if they can be reasonably managed, but are totally optional. Exception: if multiple solutions should be possible, either because of realism or because existing resources imply it, they should be implemented. If you have both hedge clippers and nail clippers, both ought to work to trim the hedge.


Depends on the game! Multiple solutions can be nice, but it can be OK to have one solution. Sometimes multiple solutions prevent you from getting brickwalled when you can’t figure out one of them… sometimes they don’t. And sometimes when you have multiple solutions, and one is more annoying than the other, everyone finds the annoying solution and gets annoyed at you.

The issue with Conan you describe sounds less like a question of how many solutions a puzzle should have, and more (to me) like a question of reusing inventory items–if Conan can’t carry much, then the things he carries will have to be versatile. And having inventory items with multiple uses is very good. Single-use items that are effectively just keys for locks are annoying (except in Cragne Manor, where they are great), partly because they lead you to lawnmower through every item till you find the one that works. Things that can be reused in lots of different ways are great, because they make you think about what you have and what you’re doing.

By the way, have you played Tower of the Elephant, which is a literal Conan adventure, adapted from one of the stories? There’s also Conan Kill Everything, but I understand it’s not very faithful to the actual Conan.

This is very true. I am giving the player an automagical carryall (a sporran) to hold small and useful items, like maybe a stylus, a string and a knife, or something.

I can also do a lot with puzzles based on non-portable items and things in the environment. Seal a barrel with hot tar to make it float enough to cross the raging river; or close a sluice to raise the water in a canal; or push a boulder to block a path. These seem more like single-solution set pieces.

Another form of puzzle is with very large objects. I wrote a routine for Heavy Things to calculate how many hands you have free. If you’re carrying a heavy thing requiring two hands, you first sheathe your sword; if you’re carrying the princess over your shoulder you can fight but you can’t climb the ladder, and so on. The player has to figure out to wrestle the bear before trying to carry off the golden idol, or whatever.

I haven’t. I have read the story, and it would make a good IF, though.

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I’m reminded of the (apocryphal?) story of a physics exam which included a question, “How would you determine the height of a tall building using a barometer?” One student offered 3 answers:

  • Drop the barometer off the top of the building, time how long it takes to hit the ground, and work it out from that.
  • Tie the barometer to the end of a long piece of string, lower it from the top of the building till it almost reaches the ground, swing it and calculate the length from the period of this improvised pendulum.
  • Find the building manager and offer to give them a shiny, new barometer if they’ll tell you the height of the building.