If Not Puzzles… What?
Opinion & Special Features
Musings on the adventure genre, developer columns and other special features
Jul 11, 2014
Are puzzles necessary in an adventure game?
According to AG's own longstanding definition, they are. In fact, given the genre's three fundamental pillars – story, exploration, and puzzles – it could be argued that puzzles are the most integral. Not most important, but integral. Why? Because story and exploration are shared traits among several genres, making puzzle-solving really the lone defining characteristic that separates adventure gameplay from most others.
So historically and traditionally speaking, puzzles are indeed essential in making adventure games what they are. Perhaps the better question is: should they be? There are two huge problems with making puzzle-solving the predominant gameplay focus of an adventure. Not only does it represent a very unforgiving barrier to entry that limits its appeal to mainstream audiences, it's extraordinarily difficult to design a whole game around puzzle-solving within a narrative framework – or to do so successfully, anyway.
The first issue is unavoidable to an extent. Let's face it, puzzles simply aren't as exciting as action. I've come out of many a virtual firefight with heart pounding, endorphins surging; never once have I had to wipe the sweat from my hands after an intense slider. The pace of puzzle-solving is much slower, more sedate, cerebral. That has its own benefits, but a boost of adrenaline is not one of them. Rewards, too, are much more restrictive in adventures. While every game is designed around challenges of various kinds, most games emphasize smaller, more immediate goals and accomplishments on a more frequent basis. Puzzles are intended to frustrate – not to the point of discouragement (hopefully), but enough to actually impede your progress. Whereas other games tend to resemble obstacle courses, adventures play out more like traffic – overcome one hurdle, roll up a few paces, slow and repeat (probably with lots of honking and swearing somewhere in between).
Now, like you (presumably), I'm an adventure gamer, so I have a certain affinity for that kind of gameplay. I'm not disrespecting it; merely stating the reality, at least as far as the wider gaming world is concerned. The easiest – and laziest – response is simply to dismiss other gamers as being unwilling to think. They're all just fast-twitch thumb jockeys, right? Wrong. (Oh, some are, sure. Just as some adventure gamers are surely elitist snobs who look down on other types of gameplay they're not good at. Such extreme generalizations are entirely unhelpful.) Most strategy games require just as much thought (of another type) as any adventure, often under duress, while the runaway success of games like Portal, Braid, and Limbo show there's a legitimate yearning for thoughtful gameplay when presented in new and interesting ways.
So if mindless gamers aren't to blame, what is? The answer must lie with the types of puzzles offered in adventure games, and the ways in which they're implemented. When you think about it, puzzles are pretty much the antithesis of story and exploration. The latter go hand-in-hand; the former usually tries to hinder them both. The better games integrate puzzles seamlessly into the story while blending item- and clue-gathering intuitively into exploration, but eventually most adventures boil down to a series of bottlenecks choking off more story and exploration. All too often, adventure game puzzles feel less like something to do and more like something preventing you from doing anything else.
Gabriel Knight 3
There's intrinsic entertainment value in solving puzzles just for their own sake, of course, but to truly succeed in an adventure game they must also feel like an organic part of the story, logically derived from circumstance and adequately signposted with all the necessary information provided. The best games strike just the right balance, but it's ever-so-tenuous. It's why even a game as highly acclaimed as Gabriel Knight 3 offers both the revered Le Serpent Rouge sequence and the infamous cat hair mustache puzzle.
The reason so many adventures get it so wrong so often is that puzzles are so contrived. Life just isn't about jumping through as many hoops as possible to accomplish even the most mundane of tasks. Obviously games are escapism, not real life, but that's a cop-out. The goal of any designer is to make people forget they're playing a game and sweep players completely up in a virtual world with its own set of rules. Breaking those rules just to shoehorn in yet another confounding obstacle is an immersion-killer that can't be redeemed by conveniently falling back on the "just a game" excuse. If it's a world where sharp things cut soft things, then ALL sharp things must cut ALL soft things. If it's a world where normal, everyday people operate shops, then having a door lock made of complex brainteasers is ridiculous. THAT is what turns non-adventure gamers off. Heck, it's what turns me off.
The simple solution, of course, is to design better puzzles. There's certainly room for improvement, but ultimately that may prove to be both too idealistic and too short-sighted. Multiply the number of puzzles in any given adventure game by the number of new releases each year and you soon come up with a pretty staggering number. There's a reason we keep seeing the same paper-under-the-blocked-keyhole puzzle: there are only so many contextual puzzles to realistically go around! If the genre continues to rely exclusively on puzzles as its central gameplay mechanic, it's going to run out of ideas. Perhaps it already has.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes
In recent years, it seems that more and more developers have begun taking this dilemma to heart. Responses have varied widely: Some merely added hint systems and user-friendly devices to minimize player frustration while keeping the gameplay the same. This addresses the symptoms but not the core problem. Others have chosen to streamline progress somewhat, generally resulting in easier games with fewer puzzles. Frogwares, for example, has been scaling back their puzzle difficulty for a much better-balanced experience, culminating with the excellent Testament of Sherlock Holmes. Secret Files 3, meanwhile, eschewed the more preposterous inventory puzzles of the first two installments, but didn't really compensate properly for their absence. If you're going to take a notable element out, you need to fill the gap with something...
Or do you? Some developers have gone another route, choosing to replace puzzles with absolutely nothing. Inspired indie titles like Home and Dear Esther are essentially just stories with barely anything that resembles gameplay. If stories are the main reason many people play adventures, why not just cut out the middle man and remove the obstacles entirely? This approach works well as a novelty, but if it became more popular the lack of any significant player interaction would surely wear thin before long. Besides which, it works best with surreal narratives that don't rely on linear, straightforward storytelling, which isn't particularly conducive to most adventure game plots. Still, there's a lesson to be learned here; sometimes puzzles do nothing but interfere with the story the game is trying to tell.
Hidden object hybrids have come largely from the other direction, with purely casual games gradually adding more and more adventure elements from their Where's Waldo?-style origins, but the end result is the same and it's become enormously popular. Scattering around random seek-and-find minigames helps to break up the relentless slog through puzzle after puzzle with a bit of breezier gameplay. There's still a fair bit of traffic on these figurative roads, but at least there are stretches where you can hit the gas and make some tracks in between. Who didn't play I-Spy on long car trips growing up?
It's surprising that we haven't seen more RPG elements blended into adventures, though Lori and Corey Cole are revisiting their own Quest for Glory idea once again in the upcoming Hero-U. The odd other game, like the very odd Carte Blanche, has lightly incorporated some stat-building along the way, but roleplaying remains a huge untapped resource. It doesn't need to involve combat, either. It'd be so easy to offer alternate solutions based on... say, your detection, charisma, or mechanical skills established to that point (with or without the player's awareness). Unique abilities for multi-character parties represent another common RPG trait. We've already seen this in adventures, dating at least as far back as Maniac Mansion and as recently as games like Resonance and Botanicula, but in general it's still under-utilized. It doesn't fundamentally change the nature of the gameplay, but it does introduce a whole different layer of strategy to accomplish common goals. That at least feels different, especially when multiple characters use their individual abilities in tandem.
Then there's the oft-dreaded "action" element. I'm not talking about full-fledged action-adventures like Tomb Raider and Uncharted, which are heavy on combat and/or platforming but relatively light on puzzles. I'm referring to more and more adventures incorporating some form of action, whether it's shootouts in Gemini Rue, fisticuffs in Indigo Prophecy or road rage in L.A. Noire. These aren't really "new" developments at all, mind you. There were gunfights, punch-ups, and car chases in Blade Runner, The Last Express and Police Quest long ago, so for all the hue and cry about modern adventures abandoning their traditional roots, in a way this is just the genre coming full circle. Though it's often done poorly, there's an established place for discretionary action in any adventure, particularly when it's optional.
Survival horrors have always been the close cousins of adventure games, but a little too much peril generally separates the likes of Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark (the most recent installments, at least) from their more puzzle-oriented relatives. Then Frictional Games came along and turned that notion on its head. While Resident Evil and Dead Space become more and more shooter-based, indie horror titles such as Penumbra and Amnesia have sparked a whole new interest in psychological terror rather than in-your-face foes overcome with axes, swords, and bullets. They may involve the odd mad dash for safety, and the threat of danger is ever-present, but it's your wits (and courage) that ensure your survival, not your arsenal. This appeals to a whole new legion of fear-mongers who simply aren't frightened by risk-free horrors like Dark Fall and Scratches.
The other popular genre hybrid gaining serious traction these days is the puzzle-platformer. Back when we first started our Puzzling (mis)adventures feature, they were still few and far between, but now the landscape is dotted with them. Even Nintendo's quintessential platform stars, Mario and Donkey Kong, have their own shared puzzle series (and an excellent one, at that). Sometimes the platforming provides a serious challenge, like in Snapshot and Quantum Conundrum, which demand fine timing and death-defying acrobatics to succeed, while in other games it serves mainly as an environmental backdrop for the puzzles. There's not a single tricky jump in Ron Gilbert's The Cave, making it a "platformer" only in the most rudimentary sense, and an adventure game in every other. For many, the more tactile nature of such experiences makes puzzle-solving actually feel FUN.
Another hands-on trend coming into prominence is the reliance on Quick Time Events. Again, these have been around since the days of Dragon's Lair, so the concept itself is well established. But with games like Heavy Rain leading the way, QTEs have become an accepted means of inserting brief moments of tension into an otherwise leisurely experience without demanding too much dexterity or skill from the player. There's so little personal investment required that they get old fast when overused, as they did in Jurassic Park, so this is a complementary option at best, but QTEs can certainly serve a purpose when used in moderation.
Along the same lines – and not coincidentally championed by the same games – are context-sensitive motion controls to simulate real-life experience. It's easier (and more commonplace) to do with cross-platform adventures that use gamepads, but even some point-and-click adventures now involve a degree of button-mashing or directional gesturing. For all its abundant promise, the Nintendo Wii proved disappointing in this regard, but the DS smartly introduced activities like blowing into the microphone for a more tangible experience. There's a fine line between increased player involvement and tedium, but when used judiciously, motion control adds a welcome level of interaction.
Crucial dialogue choices are coming back into vogue as well. Many games over the years have offered interactive exchanges – insult swordfighting arguably remains the crowning achievement of ingenious wordplay – but all too often even branching topic trees have been largely cosmetic. Lately, however, more adventures have looked to dialogue as an essential puzzle component in its own right, like tripping up witnesses on the stand in Phoenix Wright by identifying faulty testimony. Others use it merely as a test of observation, like the quizzes that punctuate key moments of Hotel Dusk. Like any other puzzle type, these are black-and-white challenges (some far more forgiving than others), but it's a positive step towards full integration of puzzle and story that too many games lack. Conversation doesn't have to be something you merely click through or watch.
Nor does it need to be a puzzle to be effective. You could make important dialogue decisions way back in Tex Murphy's heyday, even to the point of influencing the final outcome, but that feature was so far ahead of the curve that the genre as a whole still hasn't caught up. Fortunately, there are promising signs that at last it's nearly arrived. Whether making split-second, life-or-death decisions or simply weighing difficult moral choices, The Walking Dead makes you agonize over each and every choice you make, intensely, personally. Regardless of whether it matters in the grand scheme of things, it matters to you because they're yours. After struggling through your own internal quandary to reach a decision, you then own it, consequences be damned. Even when there is no right and wrong, simply involving the player emotionally makes this well-worn gameplay mechanic feel entirely new and relevant again. We need much, much more of that.
Not all elements are enjoyed by everyone, but all too often these changes cause great distress among those who prefer the tried-and-true adventure game formulas. We all have personal tastes and preferences, so that's understandable, but jealously defending the "genre" as if it were an actual THING that needs protection is completely misguided. It's not an entity in danger of being destroyed; it's a concept – a loose collection of ideas that generally morph into something we recognize. But not always. Sometimes games like Portal 2 come along that challenge those perceptions. It fits our definition of adventure like a glove, and yet people still resist embracing it as such because it's so... so... different.
But difference, my friends, is what really makes adventures so great. What other genre offers the incredible diversity that ours does? True, a huge majority of games resemble Myst or Monkey Island clones. They're the meat-and-potatoes of the genre menu, and that's fine. But it's the more forward-thinking, daring games that add the spice. Just in 2012 alone, you could guide a wordless quintet of creatures through a surreal tree world; explore a minimalistic, geometrical dreamscape with no characters, inventory, or discernable plot; remotely guide a robot across alien planets through text; escape a nightmarish blindness solely through sound; secretly assassinate people with demonic powers; traverse time through black-and-white comic book pages; or stealthily creep through a street full of undead zombies. Whew!
There are more examples besides those, and far more throughout the years. In fact, virtually every game we hold dear is the result of bold design innovations at some point. They're old hat now, but at the time they faced much the same resistance that new games now face in our own era. Where would we be if Ken and Roberta Williams hadn't added those crazy things called pictures to text, or Ron Gilbert his unique point-and-click command interface? What would the genre look like if the Miller brothers hadn't dropped players unceremoniously into the midst of an otherworldly slideshow with no direction of any kind, or if Trilobyte hadn't made extensive use of full-motion video? We'd still be typing in unrecognized verbs playing Zork.
Instead of rejecting change, we need to start encouraging it, even if it threatens our sacred puzzle-solving cow. Many already have, but as fellow adventurers we're a community seriously divided. Which is a shame, because there's just no reason to fear progress. We mustn't think of evolution like a straight line, where X turns into Y, then Y to Z, with X and Y never to be heard from again. That isn't how it works. I said the genre isn't an "entity", but if it were, it would be like a living cell that grows and adapts as new ideas emerge. It probes along the edges, incorporating compatible foreign elements within, but the core always remains the same. Even if The Walking Dead sparks a horde of gameplay-lite, choice-heavy copycats in future, the genre will always have a host of traditional adventures huddled in the middle. It's pointless to be so territorial.
Not only would I like to see even more diversity between games, but getting back to the original question, I'd like to see much more gameplay variety within a given adventure. Should there be puzzles? Ultimately I'd say yes, but not all of the same type, difficulty, or frequency. There is such a thing as too much Rube Goldberg, inventory gathering, and absurd mental gymnastics. The narrative should always, always dictate the design, continually adapting itself accordingly. In the vast majority of games, natural laws should matter; dialogue choices should affect the response; character abilities and even ongoing development should factor into available options. You may need to sneak or fight or hide and cower on occasion, and other times run and jump and climb and push. Even hidden object searches have their logical uses – how many adventures ask you to root through the trash, but how few actually require you to get your hands dirty doing it?
This may sound like I'm supporting hybrids, and in a sense I am. A pinch of action, a sprinkling of roleplaying, a dash of strategy, a spot of stealth, and even the odd scavenger hunt sound like tasty seasoning in a healthy dose of adventuring. But none of these are required. A traditional adventure with a better, more diverse mix of gameplay elements would do just as well, so long as they fit the game's own design philosophy. This call for internal variety isn't universal, of course. Machinarium wouldn't improve with random dialogue puzzles thrown in, while To the Moon wouldn't benefit from additional brainteasers crammed into its heartfelt storyline. But that's why those games are among the best at what they do; each is designed specifically around a central focus and rarely (if ever) break character. Most adventures have a much broader scope, but fail to equally broaden their interactive possibilities.
Not every game should strive to be all things for all people, naturally. But they can all strive to be the richest experiences they can be, and too many seem satisfied with the status quo. I have absolutely nothing against puzzles, but puzzles should only go where puzzles belong. If any developer reaches the point of deciding "we need a puzzle here", they've already lost. If an obstacle isn't organic, then shoehorning it in is an immersion-killer from the get-go, and the more convoluted the solution, the less credibility it displays. THESE are the puzzles that other players despise about adventure games, and I don't blame them a bit.
The key point to remember is that immersion is the end game, not gameplay, and puzzles are just an instrument. Who here overcomes every single obstacle with the exact same approach? Nobody, so why do we arbitrarily restrict ourselves in games? Makes no sense. Perhaps there are more puzzles that would fit naturally if developers stopped limiting themselves to a select few problem-solving variations. I'm a proponent of multiple solutions, but that's not what I'm suggesting here. I'm merely recommending that the options best suit each scenario, not a prescribed gameplay formula. Sometimes a situation demands outwitting an opponent, sometimes brute force and ignorance are called for (Zork Inquisitor's Brog says hi). The issue isn't so much a need to think outside the box, but just plain putting more damn puzzle approaches INTO the box to draw from.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Where are the Legend of Zeldas in the "point-and-click" world? Forget the boss fights and tricky physical maneuvers; I'm talking strictly about the open-world exploration and imaginative puzzle-solving. Its inventory puzzles don't feel like puzzles at all, but rather intuitive uses of the tools at your disposal, in increasingly clever ways. Whether it's using a power glove to move heavy objects, a crossbow to activate distant targets, a hookshot to hoist yourself high over obstacles, or a freeze ray to solidify objects that weigh down pressure plates (random examples that barely scratch the surface), these are puzzles that integrate perfectly into the ever-changing environments. And some of them are hard. They force players to think spacially, to plan ahead, to experiment, to strategize. There's no "use everything on everything" solutions here. If I had my way, every adventure game developer would be forced to play A Link to the Past to expand their puzzling horizons.
Ultimately, puzzles may be integral to the adventure experience, and that is still a good thing overall, but it doesn't mean that the mold is forever set. The who/what/when/where/why and how (and how often) such puzzles are implemented must best suit each story's design instead of following a particular pattern just to call itself an "adventure". It's this slavish devotion to the same old puzzle types where the genre is guiltiest of being stagnant, and as more and more games start to branch out and try new things (or old things in new ways), we should all support such developments wholeheartedly. Without such ambition, we'd have no Stacking or Ghost Trick or even Professor Layton. They may not all work, and we won't all like the results, but we should always embrace the creative attempt. The tried-and-true is here to stay, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying now. For a community so devoted to puzzles, why haven't we figured that out?