Yo Dawg, I heard you like Puzzle Games…
Sometimes when I’m talking to people about games, I describe myself as someone who likes puzzle games. What I tend to fail to communicate without much further effort is that I dislike almost every puzzle game that I have played. I straight-up loath some of them. If I’m talking to someone who says that they don’t like puzzle games, I almost always have the same misgivings about them that they do. There are very few puzzle games that I think are very good, and most puzzles in general are terrible and uninteresting. So what I really mean when I say I like puzzle games, is that I like a very specific kind of puzzle game with a very specific kind of puzzle.
There are two major categories of design from which puzzles can arise. The first category, which tends to be the most common category, is that of the puzzle as obstacle. This type of puzzle is intended to halt the player’s progress until they can solve the puzzle, at which point they will be rewarded with more of the story or perhaps a tasty nugget. The typical adventure game puzzle is of this type. Solutions to these puzzles can often feel arbitrary, even ludicrously so. (As in the cat-hair mustache puzzle) Almost the entire difficulty of the puzzle is due to how illogical they appear from the player’s perspective. The player approaches from the point of needing to unlock a door, but the designer approaches from the other end, coming up with an elaborate obstacle to prevent the player from getting into the castle gardens. Working backwards from there, the designer layers on complexity:
“Okay, the player needs to get a key to unlock the door, but just finding a key is boring, so what if instead the player finds a mold of a key? And of course, all good keys are made of gold, so the player needs to get some gold! But where will the player find the gold? Well, the player still has the golden Magician’s Chastity Belt from the joke at the end of Act 3, so we’ll just have them melt that down! Aha!”
(And so on…)
I do not like this type of puzzle in general.
The second category is the puzzle as illustration of the natural consequences of a system. In this approach, the designer defines the rules of a system and explores the space created by and surrounding those rules. Puzzles are created in order to express the interesting discoveries found by the designer. These types of puzzles are almost guaranteed to be better than puzzles designed using the first method, because a deep system gives you back more than you put into it, whereas a puzzle that comes from the head is only as clever as its designer.
This is a complete shift in approach. Here the puzzle is not an obstacle to the player’s progress, but is the fulcrum of their entire experience. In the previous method, the designer works against the game, hoping to disguise the truth of a series of locked doors and keys. But when a puzzle comes out of the subtleties of a system, it already contains something deeply valuable embedded within it, and the goal of the designer is to work with the game to express that value as well as possible.
These are my favorite type of puzzle, and there is a broad spectrum even within this approach, with better and worse puzzles. But the best puzzles are those that express something fundamentally true. Something that resonates with you. The unmistakable joy of discovering fundamental truth is what separates the great puzzles from the average ones. Without that Richness, a puzzle is just a puzzle. It fails to be memorable and fades into the background radiation of mediocrity.
I would not have played The Talos Principle if it wasn’t for Jonathan Blow streaming the game on Twitch. Even when I first watched him playing it, it still seemed uninteresting, but as happens sometimes when you hear a lot of people talking about a game: you start to feel left out of the conversation. There are also similarities between The Talos Principle and Jonathan Blow’s upcoming game The Witness, and since that is the game that I am presently most excited for, I took some time to sit down and play Talos.
I was pleasantly surprised at first. The early puzzles, although straightforward and not particularly difficult, had some cute aspects to them that hinted at a deeper thought process and approach towards design than is evident in most puzzle games. But as I continued on through the game, I started to find the game lacking. I hesitate to use the word boring because I think that is a personal value judgment which fails to contribute to the discussion, but the game did begin to feel flat and repetitive.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of “that’s now how I would design it.” However, since several other people have had similar misgivings with the game, it leads me to believe that I am not entirely up my own ass.
As my father would say, “You either like it or you don’t”, and in that sense I do like The Talos Principle, but there is a certain disappointment that looms over my experience of the game. The Talos Principle is an average puzzle game with a few great puzzles. That is more than enough for most people, but I felt as though the game fell just short of greatness.
One of the biggest design failings of the game is that the puzzles tend to approach difficulty by becoming more elaborate while still remaining relatively straightforward to solve. These “harder” puzzles are simply collections of concepts borrowed from earlier in the game, and they rarely give rise to any unique insight that was not found in their predecessors.
One puzzle in particular is exemplary of this issue.
But First, a Trip Down Memory Lane…
After I had designed a portion of the puzzles in Duet, I started to feel a bit insecure about the games difficulty. Part of what I enjoyed so much about Braid was that the puzzles could be quite hard at times, but here I was with a puzzle-solving game in which almost all the puzzles were easy to solve. Some were so trivial that it was hard to call them puzzles really. I had explored the consequences of the mechanics and assembled some interesting puzzles that I felt good about, but I wondered if people would find the game unsatisfying simply because it wasn’t that difficult.
So I sat down and built a few puzzles which layered concepts from earlier puzzles to form more elaborate sequences. These puzzles certainly took more time to complete, but I found them unsatisfying. Sure, they had a few interesting structural aspects to them, but they felt like a slog and were the worst puzzles in the game. Although I continued to struggle with the feeling that the game was missing something (and that maybe it was that level of difficulty), I ultimately cut the puzzles, feeling that they just didn’t live up to the standard I wanted.
I never really knew what to call those puzzles. They had a certain feeling to them, but I could never put my finger on a word. “Tinker Toy-box,” I thought. But it just didn’t really communicate much.
Then I played the puzzle in The Talos Principle called “The Labyrinth” and I knew what the word should be.
A Labyrinth is a puzzle with nothing new to say. It is, like its namesake, a long and arduous road with no branches. As a player, you simply must proceed from the beginning to the end. It is a puzzle whose difficulty lies entirely in execution. It is a thoughtless puzzle. Is it even a puzzle?
Unfortunately, this puzzle is not an outlier but is indicative of a core design problem. The game wears out and obscures the beauty of its concepts through repetition. Although the design of the game follows the design method of a great puzzle game, it is as though the designers didn’t see the truth revealed through the puzzles to be something to admire in and of itself, but rather as a building block for some sort of higher level “puzzle gameplay.” How many times did I have to remember that I could pull a fan off its gears and use it to depress a button? Four times? Five times? I can’t remember. It was brilliant the first time. It stumped me for at least half an hour. But the second time it felt like a cheap prank, and the third time it felt like a betrayal.
I don’t think there was a single puzzle concept in The Talos Principle that didn’t get reused at least once.
A Smart Puzzle
Jon Blow has stated that a good puzzle “knows what it’s about.” Without asking him to elaborate on what he meant by that statement, I can only offer my rough interpretation: I believe that a puzzle meeting this standard must exhibit deliberate intent on the part of the designer to avoid extraneous elements and clearly highlight what makes the puzzle interesting and unique. A puzzle that knows what it is about feels elegant and to-the-point, where one that doesn’t feels overwrought and confusing even after you solve it.
If you are a designer, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of understanding why your puzzles are worthwhile. On the receiving end, the player will be able to tell if you had a clear idea of what the puzzles in your game were about or not. The player is putting trust in you as the designer of the game, and expects that trust to be repaid. They want an interesting and beautiful experience, and since they are already sitting down to play the game, they believe that it is likely that you are going to give that to them. So your job as a designer is not to let them change their mind. This is similar to the suspension-of-disbelief concept in films. Engagement from players must be earned, and not just up front but continually across the entirety of the game.
So what is The Talos Principle about after all? I think the common approach to game understanding would say that the game is about robots attempting to prove their humanity and an omniscient God AI in the sky. I think it’s safe to say that the puzzles have equal presence in the game as the story and thematic elements, so what I’m really talking about is, “what are the mechanics about?” This is a strange way to think about mechanics in games, but I think it applies particularly to this type of puzzle game. I will cover the story in a bit, but since two rarely overlap—A design failing in my personal opinion—it is probably fine to treat the puzzles as their own independent entity. After all, as Thomas Grip said in a conversation on Twitter, “A horror game where an evil man forces you to solve sliding puzzles all day is still a game about solving sliding puzzles.”
There are a lot of mechanics in The Talos Principle, and to cover them all in-depth would probably be the subject of a thesis. I think it will suffice for my present purposes to highlight just one set of mechanics: the laser redirection puzzles.
Laser redirection puzzles are nothing particularly new, and maybe even their implementation in Talos is not out of the ordinary, but I found it to have some very interesting things to say.
I have been thinking about occlusion in my day-to-day life a lot after having played The Talos Principle, and in large part due to the laser redirection puzzles. The puzzles require the player to have line of sight in order to connect the redirection prisms from one point to another, and since the lasers cannot pass through solid objects, the prism must be placed at a position with a clear view of all its connections. This set of mechanics cause you to think about the environment in a different way, to pay attention to how things go from being hidden to being revealed as you move around. So in some sense the puzzles say fundamental things about what it means to observe from a fixed point of perspective inside a three-dimensional world.
Part of building a great puzzle means that you take that understanding, that core revelation, and you design the puzzle as an artful presentation of it. You architect the experience of discovery, and you can be sure that what is discovered is interesting because you had the same experience of discovery yourself. The puzzle is just an artifice which points in the direction of the truth. It beckons the player to pursue and reveal it. I would say that Talos does not do as good of a job at this as it could. There are a few puzzles that really hit on something deep, but the aimless feel of the rest of the game makes the poignancy feel like it was just luck on the part of the designers.
It is very important to maintain the clarity of your puzzles as the game goes through an art treatment, because art can have subtle impacts on how the puzzle is perceived by the player. One way in which Talos’s laser redirection puzzles fail at this is in maintaining a rigid correlation between what is visible and where a laser can be directed. Since the puzzle rooms can often be maze-like, there are some windows in the walls to allow players to find their bearings. But because lasers could be redirected through those windows, in order to construct proper challenges it is required to have some sort of window through which the player can see but lasers cannot be redirected.
This perhaps could have been accomplished with some sort of force-field, or even a glass that absorbs lasers. (Which would have allowed for glass which lets one color laser pass and not another, opening up more puzzle possibilities) Instead, the designers of The Talos Principle chose to have these walls be iron bar fences, which somehow do not allow lasers to be passed through the spaces in the bars. According to the mechanics of the game, a laser should be able to be directed towards any spot which is visible, but there is a direct clash between the art and the mechanisms of the game. The art says there is open space between the bars of the fence, but the mechanics say that the fence is completely solid and lasers cannot pass through it at all. In a sense, the art is lying to the player. It is confounding why such a poor decision was made in the art treatment.
It is not my ambition to shit all over the game or it’s designers, so I’d like to highlight one other aspect of the laser puzzles that I found insightful. There are puzzles in Talos where you sort of bootstrap something into working that otherwise would not have worked at all, by providing a laser that is only temporarily required. The power is applied and then it can be safely removed. It’s another fundamental concept, and I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s similar to jump starting a car, or the way in which static friction takes more force to overcome than kinetic friction. It takes more force to get an object moving than to it does to keep it there. Whatever it is called, it is another beautiful and sublime puzzle concept. It resonates because it illustrates something that is fundamentally true, not just within the confines of the game world, but also in the real world.
A lot of what I’ve said here could be interpreted as a suggestion that there is a recipe to greatness in puzzle game design, but I don’t believe that’s true. Although systemic behavior is a necessary ingredient, sometimes decisions must be made on just gut instinct. This dichotomy between logic and intuition can be difficult to reconcile.
In Talos, the laser redirection puzzles were extended by allowing for a second laser type of a different color. This means that a decision had to be made as to what the rules of interaction between the two lasers would be. There is no real right answer here. Although the decision was made that the lasers would not be allowed to overlap, they could have just as easily passed through each other. There are other gameplay possibilities which could have been possible under these rules that are not possible under the chosen rule-set. For instance, there easily could have been more colors of laser. Perhaps multiple colors could be shined through the same redirection prism, producing a composite color laser. However, the decision was made by the designers that there would only be two colors, and that they would not be able to cross each other, and out of this decision comes a certain set of gameplay.
We can look at all the decisions that must made as part of the design process as branches on a great tree of possibilities. At the far ends of all the branches are a certain number of leaves, which are the life of the puzzles. If we were to start at the base of the tree and trace our way up, we must make decisions along the way about which branch we choose to follow. Some branches may seem large at first, but perhaps they are broken off at some point and there are not many leaves on them to be found. Perhaps an unassuming branch is just full of leaves that we wouldn’t have expected to find. It is the nature of puzzle game design that you can never truly know all of the possibilities that you have missed out on based on a decision you made earlier in the design process. There is art to all good game design, but there is also an element of luck that should not be discounted.
On To the Story
Similar to the design of the puzzles themselves, I think there are two basic approaches to narrative design in puzzle games. The first type of design is to come up with a story independently and attempt to marry it with the mechanics of the game. This can be successful perhaps in rare cases, but I tend to think that the only real benefit that this type of design can guarantee is that, if your story is good, it can be a welcome break and rest for your mind between the hard work of puzzle-solving.
The second type of narrative arises from and is therefore integrated with the mechanics of the game. I would call this Illustrative Narrative. Comparable to illustrations in a book, this method sees narrative not as an alternative to puzzle solving, but as a layer of interpretation on top of it. It is story used as a different avenue of expression to enhance the players overall understanding. It stands outside of but lacks meaning without the text, which in this case is the gameplay.
A great example of this type of storytelling is found in The Swapper. The mechanics of the game involve the player using a device to make clones of themselves. This creates a ton of interesting gameplay, which would be totally fine without any sort of narrative framework. However the game creates effective storytelling by also exploring the moral and psychological consequences of such a device.
This type of story makes the game better because it offers a different perspective on the mechanics of the game. It encourages the player to step outside the abstract mode of puzzle solving and think about the puzzles in a more literal way.
The Talos Principle uses the first method, and is left with a story that, although enjoyable, fails to connect to the puzzles in any meaningful way. The mechanics are mostly talking about movement through and partitioning of space, while the story is about consciousness and what it means to be human. The gulf between the mechanics and the narrative is a huge missed opportunity, but I don’t have any great suggestions for alternative stories. The mechanics of a game of any complexity will always be the primary focus of the player’s attention, and good game storytelling involves embracing this rather than fighting against it. Although the game does well by providing multiple levels of engagement with the story, it is sometimes preferable to forgo story if the alternative is to create something incoherent when taken as a whole work.