When a puzzle is "cheating"

The glass maze puzzle in Sorcerer has 2 solutions- either figuring your way back out, or carful use of the resurrection spell. Some have called the 2nd use “cheating”, though it seems like a valid solution.

I was considering a puzzle somewhat similar to this. Like in Zork I, when you die, you could become a ghost and have to go around to get your body back. A vault door would be closed, with the combination inside the vault. To see it you would have to die (and thus become a spirit), go in and read the combination, and then go get your body back.

Would this be considered “cheating”, or does it seem like a valid solution to a puzzle (if properly clued).

If you can get your body back in a well-clued way within the game, it’s probably fine. If you have to UNDO or RESTORE to an earlier game file, I suspect many people will feel that’s cheating, because it requires you to go outside the fictional world for a solution. It’s no longer tellable as a story that makes sense: “I died, then my ghost found out the combination, and then… I… uh… well the world sort of started over…”.

There are a few games that break even that rule: Shrapnel and Slouching Towards Bedlam both do interesting things with making the out-of-game actions a part of the conceptual universe of the game. But you have to be willing to make your backstory pretty odd in order to support that, and it feels gimmicky unless done carefully.

If I were writing that puzzle, I would probably randomly generate the combination after the player was in the vault, to prevent a pre-bodily-death saved game from even being useful once you’ve gotten the combination. But then again, if I were writing that puzzle, it’d probably be in a game that was short and Zarfian-forgiving enough that you wouldn’t have a whole lot of other reasons to be doing much saved game engineering, so it might not be a good move for your particular game.

The real question is: how do you make it clear to the player that they should put off their clear and urgent goal - getting their body back - to go walking through closed and locked doors? As long as you do that, then I don’t think it would be a “cheating” puzzle.

I have a habit of restoring the game any time the PC dies, even if there is some implementation of an afterlife. I’m always afraid it will detract from my chances of getting a perfect score, or even worse, put the game in a more difficult or unwinnable state.

I guess I’m old school, but what I’m saying is - always make it clear that when something ‘bad’ happens, it’s supposed to happen.

One other consideration is that you have to ensure that the player character dies at some point. I mean, most players will try pretty hard to avoid character death most of the time, so they might not even discover the incorporeal side of the game unless you force the issue somehow.

Planescape: Torment handled player deaths fairly well in the few spots they were mandatory for game progression, like the Nameless One’s Tomb. The usual penalties for death - resurrection outside the area, inventory items dropped near corpse - were set aside to cue the player that this death was different and that restores were unnecessary and counterproductive.

Also, World of Warcraft had a quest in one of the dungeons that you could only obtain as a ghost. If you died in the dungeon, you were resurrected at a graveyard nearby. When you ran back for your corpse, you would pass the quest giver along the way. Completing the quest gave you the key necessary to unlock the next stage of the dungeon.

I thought it was a nifty idea in its day, but it didn’t scale well with MMO inflation. More powerful characters running the dungeon would never die, so the only way to get the key was to know it was there and take a deliberate lava bath, something that goes against the grain of normal gameplay.

Many games of different genres have taken that concept and implemented it in various ways. For instance, in 3DR’s innovative shooter Prey your PC could do the so-called “Spirit Walk” after he was dead. He could also do the spirit walk during lifetime to enter a ghost-like state where he could pass impassable obstacles, such as closed doors, walls, etc. It wasn’t considered cheating but a serious gameplay element.


In this video spirit walk in Prey is briefly demonstrated when the PC leaves his body to pass some laser tripwires in a corridor to reach a console on the other end and deactivate them. (Skip to 1:16)

Such a feature could also be implemented in an interactive fiction adventure. Why not. I think it’s a good idea.

Why would the combination be inside the vault? Isn’t that terribly counterproductive?

Maybe it’s a failsafe in case someone gets locked in?

There’s a chapter on safecracking in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.” The details are hazy to me now, but I seem to remember that he was able to figure out at least one number of the combination by looking at the lock when the door was open. Certainly being able to look inside the lock would help you if you knew what to look for.

Or someone had the combination written down, entered the vault, and was somehow struck down and locked in? Or just dropped it inside.

The idea was that you would have a spirit body and could fix your regular body, rather than using a save/restore trick, which I agree would be cheating in that case.

As far as being inside the vault, the owner of the vault would have had the conversation memorized and not need the written down combination, but all his paperwork and notes would be inside the vault, amongst which would be the invoice for the vault itself, which included the combination scribbled on it.

The puzzle of course, as people mentioned, is that people don’t want to die. In Zork you can become a ghost, but it’s useless to you and the puzzle is getting back your body. In this, the counter-intuitive puzzle is that have to die. Though it would be clued in game.