Designing a good video game puzzle is a challenge. It’s not just a matter of making it too hard or too easy. It takes a lot of iteration, pulling the right levers to make the right changes so that players come to the right conclusions.
Mark Brown from Game Maker’s Toolkit has spent some time thinking about what makes a good puzzle. He spoke with game designers, tried his hand at making his own and analysed countless examples.
The result of his labour is this video, which uses examples from games like Portal 2, The Talos Principle and Lara Croft Go to highlight six key elements that go into making a great puzzle and shows how these elements play off of each other.
First comes the mechanics. Puzzles come from the rules and limitations set by the game’s mechanics. So far so simple.
Next comes the catch. The catch comes from an apparent contradiction in ideas needed to move forward. A classic example of this is that the player needs to stand on a button to open a door. Once the player moves off of the button, the door closes and the player is trapped.
Resolving the catch can be done by rethinking the approach the player is taking, causing them to come to the revelation. In the button example, they would need to weigh down the button with a box or some other object. Revelations can also come by having the player realise how different mechanics interact, pushing them towards a greater understanding of the game and enabling them to solve more complicated puzzles.
More importantly, the catch makes you feel like an idiot and the revelation makes you feel like a genius. It’s a great sensation when done right.
Revelations don’t always work if the interaction the game is pointing you towards is too obtuse or unintuitive. These can be seen as failures and are a source of frustration. Finding the right balance here takes significant testing and iteration from the designers.
Players will make assumptions based on their previous experiences. These assumptions are another key part of a good puzzle as they can be used by designers to lead players towards the catch.
Presentation also pays a huge part in helping players solve puzzles. Put the right pieces in the right place with clear visual cues and players will come to the solution after a bit of work. Make it too obvious and the player won’t have to work for the solution at all, robbing them of the satisfaction of feeling like a genius.
Finally comes the curve. Building on the past puzzles gives the players more to work with and allows for further use of the catch and revelations.