What Makes a Good Puzzle Game?
Puzzles in games are a string of epiphanies… if made right. But, what makes a good puzzle game? The answer to that varies greatly, however this article tries the best to answer that question by putting together all the patterns and rules followed in other games that got the point across as a good puzzle game.
Players visually observe and understand what to do(Visual Design) — They interact with it and learn how to do it(Mechanic) — They see a pattern and an epiphany is born(Epiphany) — The epiphany might or might not work based on the feedback from the game(Feedback) — And finally the dopamine. All the aforementioned points will be compared side by side with an amazing masterpiece of a game called Gorogoa, this game will serve as the good example against four bad examples corresponding to the four points mentioned earlier.
Puzzles are solved visually and Rubick’s cube is a great example for it. Had it not possessed the colourful pattern that requires a solver to spin and assemble each side with similar colours, things would have been difficult to comprehend. In the same light, when the players are looking at a puzzle, they must have the slightest idea as to what to do in any given scenario, this is why visual cues are important.
Gorogoa is an interactive puzzle game developed by Jason Roberts and is a recipient of multiple awards that is adored by gamers and critics. Gorogoa is about fitting, arranging and making sense of things between four grids and finding synergy in them which have their own individual world. The game has a lot going on, but its visual design makes our brain see what the designer wants us to see.
The GIF above is a great example to illustrate to players that one can move a picture to a different grid to solve puzzles. The game starts off with a single photo on a single grid, after some time, four grids appear and the photo automatically sits on one of the grids and the player immediately grasps the idea. This is the main catch of Gorogoa, these four grids may or may not be connected, but there is definitely more to what meets the eye.
An example from one of the levels should give more wisdom to this topic. Following two images are totally different and unrelated, but that’s the beauty of Gorogoa. The game is about finding synergy in things just like the image below. On the first grid we see a city town hall like building in the background and on the right side, we see a man reading a book, but what connects these two is wonderfully fabricated through visual design.
Notice the yellow banner on the building on the left and another yellow banner besides the man’s study table above the pot? Zooming in and placing grids in such a way will look like this.
In order to get to the image seen above, the game was building upto it’s big picture of how things fall into place and solve a problem. This moment before finding out that this might be a possible solution is the moment of epiphany, which is explained in a different section called “The Epiphany ‘’.
Bad Example: 50 Rooms
Gorogoa shed some light on how a game’s design should guide players subtly in navigating or even solving problems, let’s look at 50 Rooms game and how it didn’t get some things right.
Right off the gate a creepy music that tries to build tension for no reason at all, but this article is not about sound design, so I will stick to the visual design aspect of it. Breaking down the entire level is a tedious process, so one puzzle from this level should do with a bit of backstory. New 50 Rooms Escape 4 is a point and click escape room puzzle game where a character is mysteriously locked away in some creepy place and the players(who are in turn the character) are supposed to escape. The game’s artwork looks like a real photograph of a room that is painted over to give a “gamey-feely”, so all the objects look realistic and this will be a major challenge for the Game Designer to show the areas that can and cannot be interacted, since it’s a real room and you can interact with anything possible. This is why puzzle games set in realistic environments are a hit or miss if there is no proper visual design.
The above image is from one of the puzzles in the game where a clue that we find has a triangle-like shape drawn on a piece of paper with letters “S” and “N” corresponding to the ones on the board. After a lot of tries, the solution came out as a surprise to me where there shouldn’t be a ball in the middle and that is not in the clue. The clue suggests a triangle and naturally a player is going to fill all the holes or the game could have had an extra ball so that ball won’t be missing in the middle and make it a whole triangle without confusing things up.
There is another example to bring more wisdom in visual design miscommunication. Following image is the result of using a hint that shows numbers from different monitors serving as a passcode to breach a door to get to the next level. According to the solution given, I am supposed to add up numbers seen on the monitor to get a passcode and these numbers should be entered in such a way that they match the colors. Like: blue color area in the passcode device should have number 6 and so on.
Puzzles have their own mechanics unique to their game to set ground rules for players to know what can and cannot be done. Monument Valley is about making the character move towards a goal through optical illusions, The Room is about solving various puzzle boxes which have their own mechanism by interacting with them in 3D dimension. At the heart of each puzzle is a mechanic or a set of mechanics that players understand to solve puzzles with the help of visual design. However, some games have a concrete set of rules and some don’t. If a game doesn’t have these sets of rules, the experience can be quite perplexing.
We will look at both Good and Bad examples to shed some knowledge on this topic.
Gorogoa shines in this department without any particular mechanic or set of mechanics holding the entire game together. There are no rules to solving puzzles, this might sound confusing, but it is not and we will see how it is not in the next set of paragraphs.
Gorogoa uses the visual design to communicate what it wants and sways players into thinking what the designer wants them to and that becomes the mechanic. This way, the player constantly learns and unlearns new concepts throughout the game to keep them on their toes.
The game constantly exposes bits and pieces of a puzzle throughout the environment before the actual puzzle comes on and the player then puts those pieces together and voila! They have the answer.
The above images are one of the opening acts where the person is in search of fruits of colors as shown in a book he is referring to. Once the person moves away, the window becomes separate, we can see one of the fruits scribbled on the door in the distance on a different frame.
Naturally, our brain goes “Aha” and we know for a fact that the door has something to do with the fruit we are searching for. The camera zooms in on this door in one frame and the person in search of this fruit is inside a storage room.
If you look closely, the storage is lit up on the inside and the room is a bit darker and on the other frame, the door is closed and it’s brighter since it’s on the terrace. In a GDC talk by the Game Designer of Gorogoa Jason Roberts suggested that he used frames focused on something the narrative is trying to tell and in this case, it’s the two doors, there is some form of synergy that exists for players to figure out.
A little bit of playing around reveals that the door frame on the left can be laid over the storage room’s door and enables the character to look as if he teleported, but in reality it’s just us players that helped the character by shifting our perspectives from one frame to another.
If we look at the game’s mechanics at a deeper level, it’s constantly evolving its rules and mechanics to tell a story and not the other way around. Jason Roberts himself has quoted regarding the theme of Gorogoa stating that “Adapting story and theme to mechanics and form, even if it should be the other way around”. Gorogoa accomplishes this style of flexibility by getting players familiar with a particular puzzle beforehand using all the visual cues as we saw in the previous section and from there on, once players get it they play around to get the solution. Let’s look at a game that has got it wrong.
Bad Example: Tiny Room Mystery
Tiny Room Stories is one of my favorite puzzle games in the PlayStore, the developers have checked almost all of the boxes in terms of puzzles, engaging gameplay and immersive ambience. However the game’s mechanics are easily understandable, but in certain areas things got a bit confusing and one among them is the Church seat puzzle.
To give a bit of a context, the game is about a detective who investigates an abandoned town of Redcliff. Players need to rotate the environment to get a better perspective and to solve puzzles and in such a place is the church that happens in Chapter 3 of the narrative where the player is in the hallway of the Church and they need to find out why they have the clues they found before leading them here.
The game usually gives hints to the player through notes that can be found in the environment when exploring and there are four notes to finish this puzzle.
These notes say the order in which the benches need to be arranged, but the problem is once you reach that particular area with benches, a player won’t most likely know that the benches can be arranged because of how the environment is designed. And the benches move to the left most, middle and right most of the hall which takes some playing around to figure out.
This could have been easily avoided if the benches had some form of platform underneath that suggests some kind of possible motion to them. One good example for this is the God of War: Ascension puzzle where Kratos is pulling a lever that clearly has a platform that it can move on and limit to its range of motion.
Like I explained earlier that I love this game, but this is one of the mechanics that confused me among others, but take a look at this forewarning of what happened to the town.
That moment of genius between understanding visual cues and figuring out how to do a puzzle is when an epiphany is born or in simpler terms “The Aha Moment”. As usual we have Gorogoa as a quintessential game where one finds quite a lot of “Aha” moments and another game that finds it hard to place its footing. Epiphanies can happen by any means, it can be accidental or an idea that pops up in the player’s head after seeing a pattern in solving puzzles.
For the most part they are intentional and supposed to ring a bell when a player comes across a particular situation. Portal 2 is a classic example, players enter a random room and are locked from the inside, but there is a door on the other end and a huge button in the middle. What the huge button does, we don’t know for sure, so the player walks over it to see that it opens the door, but as soon as the player walks off from the button, the door closes. At the corner of the room, the player finds a huge box and this is the “Aha” moment because placing this huge box on the button will hold the door open for the player to leave the room.
Gorogoa should give more wisdom to this topic.
Gorogoa relies heavily on visual cues to make players understand the idea behind any upcoming puzzle by foreshadowing them, this way Gorogoa provides players with “Eureka” moments to solve puzzles.
Take this puzzle for example, there are four frames provided and on the frame 2 where we can see cog with four photos in them that contains four different places to explore in them, but the character seems to be standing on a damaged balcony and on frame 2 we can see a picture with similar patterns on them, this is one of the “Eureka” moments.
Now, the players know where they are supposed to go, but there is a problem, the photo in frame 2 is flipped upside down, so the photo has to be straight inorder for the character to walk from frame 1 to 2.
Although this might sound a bit outlandish, the core concept of Gorogoa is finding synergies between frames and the world that exists within them.
The solution is simple(not so at first). The game already throws a lot of hints beforehand and in this case, the bell seems to be the common theme. Following the bell will lead players to the bottom frame on the left where a book has a bell on it, which again is a cue for another “Eureka’’ moment. And for the last piece of the puzzle we see a bell itself on the table that has a scenery engraved on it, zooming in on it takes players to place where a person is walking on what feels like shrine and taking a pause to ring the bell we can observe that it is a continuation to the frame on the left.
There is an image on the 3rd frame on the left bottom with sun and the wall, interacting with it zooms in on the book which is the continuation of the man with bell on the bottom right frame.
Moving the second frame top right will merge with the walls and this happens(Check GIF).
This brings us to the guy standing on the damaged platform, now that we found a way to get this person across, this is what happens as shown in the image below.
Gorogoa used visual cues and foreshadowing for the most part to plant the “Aha” moments in the player’s mind, but in some cases, players need to explore around to get to the “Aha” moment.
Bad Example: Haiku Game
Allied Spies is a Hidden Object puzzle game by Haiku Games that quite did not give any “Aha” moments with their puzzles, there were few, but that’s a result of random tries to solve a puzzle.
Even the puzzles at the beginning of the game are difficult, like this puzzle where one of the characters enters a dark forest and finds a cabin in there.
The objective now it seems is to signal a resistance team using lanterns, but the player needs to get inside the cabin as there are no other options. In order to enter the cabin, there is a lock that has a keyhole and a button around it, there seems to be no sign of the key around, but going back to where I started in the game seems to reveal some carvings on the trees with a lock symbol on it.
Now apparently the solution is to carefully observe the dots in the middle for order in which the buttons should be entered. With the image below as example, the second button press sequence on the lock is top left.
Let me explain why this wasn’t such an easy thing to grasp. One, the lock had a key hole, so naturally a player would search for a key and number two, the lock with buttons usually have either numbers on it to press them sequence and they also won’t have a key hole for the most part. This is why applying real world logic in game would work better and in this the solution could be either finding the key or having number near buttons on the lock.
Good Example: Gorogoa
Feedback is basically the game giving output to the player’s interaction in the game. Touching a button in-game slightly expands and contracts to let players know that they have touched this particular element in the game, the same way puzzle games should give feedback according to what it is.
Feedback in Gorogoa is based on exploration and understanding what the game tries to tell you by observing the game carefully. A real world example for feedback would be an ordinary 3x3 Rubik's cube for example that can be rotated in three axes namely x, y and z. The product is also designed such that it becomes obvious for users that it can be rotated only in the aforementioned axes. Once when a user has their hands on it, the lines that separate color cubes are apparent and makes it obvious as to diagonal rotation is not possible. Same way games must provide appropriate feedback to the user’s input to avoid wasting time figuring out whatever they are looking at.
In this image we see a character in the dark with a thought bubble that says they want some light to read the book.
In the next frame we see a circular window pane and a star beaming light through the window and is pulsating. Since the game’s mechanic has already taught players that different frames can be joined/overlapped on top of each other, the player just needs to interact with the lamp and place the photo on top of the star to light it up.
From the images below in order from left to right. The frame with a thought bubble is moved to reveal that the lamp has no background and is hollow. In the second image, we see the frame with a hollow lamp is moved onto the star to get the light and voila!
Bad Example : Hotel of Mask
Hotel of Mask is a hidden object puzzle game with a dark narrative. The game has no set mechanic and the feedback is always surprising.
In this level, the player character is locked in a room and they need to get out. Observing the door, players can notice that there are two locks that keep them inside.
Let’s break down the puzzle step by step. In order to solve the first piece of mystery, the player will have to interact with the locks first and doing so reveals a color coded set of buttons, in order to solve this a little bit of looking around reveals that there is a box with color coded buttons which requires a person to input number combinations to open them. So, now the objective is even clearer and that is to find the number combo.
After a lot of exploring around, the way to go about is to apparently place a chair in front of the closet, get the kettle that’s on top of it, pour them onto the vase near the entrance and miraculously a plant grows with colorful petals where the color of petal and the quantity of it is how to crack this puzzle.
Now there are so many things that don’t add up over here, the chair to get items that’s on top was never established in the game previously, if that needs to be conveyed a character has to be controlled by the player to know the physical limits, this defeats the whole purpose of point and click genre. Was really surprised to learn two things: one, the kettle had water in it and two, pouring water into the vase makes a plant grow almost instantly. This was never conveyed in the game before, in real world plants actually take time to grow.
The key takeaway from all the examples above is to provide the patterns I have observed so far in the puzzle games and want to visualize them with good and bad examples among them. Now findings are not the bottom-line for how a good puzzle game should be, but if you think there are more things to be added/modified into this article, please share your opinion with me.