Games and Puzzles

Work continues to crawl along on Duet, however I have been banging my head against a few things recently. Notably I have this question of “How do I know if a game is worth a person’s time to play?” I have been reading some literature on the subject of games and puzzles, so I felt it would be pertinent to share some of my thoughts:

On games, versus Puzzles…

Duet is a puzzle platformer. But that really just describes the mechanics of the game, without really delving very deep into the definitions of such mechanics.

So, in the worst style of writing, let’s define these terms with help from the internet.

A Platformer is a type of video game “mostly presented in 2D” which features “jumping to and from suspended platforms or over obstacles” Requiring the character to start from point A and get to point B by jumping and traversing various obstacles.”

A Puzzle is a type of problem that “tests the ingenuity of the solver”, and according to puzzle collector Stan Isaacs, it is “fun, and has a right answer.”

So, these definitions seem about right to describe Duet. But my research seems to suggest a divide between games and puzzles. So the question that I’m proposing, is where do I draw that line? Is Duet a puzzle or a game?

There are many definitions of what a game is, but my favorite is:

“A Game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” – The Game, The Player, The World: Looking for Heart of Game-ness

Games typically are designed to be as replay-able as possible, the idea being to explore the nebulous space afforded by the game’s mechanics. Once that exploration is completed to the satisfaction of the player, Playing the game is no longer necessary or interesting. Therefore all games must be inherently educational and interesting, but one must remember that a person’s prior experiences in and outside of games can reduce the novelty of an previously unplayed game to a point where she may find it not worth her time.

Puzzles–as defined earlier–however are intrinsically free of replay value. Once a puzzle has been solved–deliberately and with understanding–it is no longer valuable to the solver. This is to say that puzzles are only replayable if the solver does not understand why he solved the puzzle in the first place. Puzzles are similar to games in that prior experience with similar problems can nullify the intrinsic value of a puzzle to the point where the intellectual gain from solving it becomes trivial. However, the primary difference between puzzles and games is the goal.

The goal of puzzles to find the solution, the goal of games is to win against an opponent. However, there are still contradictions within these definitions. What exactly is an opponent in a single player computer game, what exactly is a solution?

Duet, as well as other games (Braid, Portal) are (perhaps uncomfortably) straddling the line between games and puzzles. On one hand, they quickly fit into the earlier definition of a game, they are based on formal systems and rules, they do have quantifiable outcomes with different values assigned to them, the player does exert effort to influence the outcome, she feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences are negotiable. However, the games also fit the definition of a puzzle, they have a solution–solvable only once– having limited replay value.

So where do these games lie exactly, are they really games at all? Is a game a type of puzzle? Is a puzzle a type of game? Are puzzles, by their very nature, inferior to games?

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