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Against orgasmic puzzle design
by Hamish Todd on 03/15/13 11:30:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

What makes a puzzle fun? People will usually say "that moment where you realize what you have to do".

What makes one puzzle better than another puzzle? Here are a couple of things that I think most people would say:
-"It's important that the puzzle solution is logical [for some definition of "logical"]"
-"It's nice if there's a simple solution to something that seemed complicated, so that your small realization becomes REALLY useful".
-"It should have taken me a long time to get the solution"

I want to people to become more aware of another way of valuing a puzzle. I want people to ask: "what does this puzzle communicate to me?".

Here's something that was tweeted by Marc Ten Bosch, who is making Miegakure, a puzzler about world with four spatial dimensions:

"Can people stop saying "once a solution finally reveals itself, there is an immense sense of satisfaction to be had" about puzzle games? "Once I successfully beat part of the game, I felt good." - No shit! They are implying they value the pleasure more than what the puzzle is about."

A puzzle from miegakure that shows you a counter-intuitive possibility in a 4D universe

Marc has the same value system that I do. We say: the pleasure is pretty good, but it is only a pleasant side effect of the player learning something important, which is the bigger point. Miegakure is full of pleasure, but what makes it great is that it fills your brain with important and transcendentally beautiful facts about the nature of spaces and shapes.

My favourite game of 2012 was Incredipede, a puzzler where you design limbs for animals, and use those limbs in various ways. To give a small example of something Incredipede communicates: it made me realize things about how birds' wings manipulate air. I learnt that over the course of only two or three puzzles, so the game was communicating a lot in a very short space of time.

An unusually useful jump in the game

Most good puzzles involve some degree of communication; it's just that usually the thing that is communicated is a little more abstract or has a less immediate bearing on the world than in Incredipede's does. Communication doesn't necessarily mean you have to tell us something about the "real" world. There's a branch of mathematics called "number theory", which -for a while- was famed for having no practical application, even though the theorems it gave us felt extremely profound and surprising.

At the heart of it, the solution to a puzzle has to involve something unexpected. The next time you solve a puzzle (that you may feel very good about) ask: "what is the nature of this unexpected thing? Does it illuminate lots of different possibilities within the game's engine to me? Does it illuminate lots of different possibilities in the universe in which I live?"

There's another way of saying all this which I learned from Tim Rogers. Eiji Aonuma once said a good puzzle should "make the player feel smart". Tim Rogers says that a puzzle in Braid "demands that you become actually smart". Which is to say: you must cotton on to something genuinely new that you didn't know before.

A phenomenon in Portal

My joint-favourite game of all time is Portal. Portal lets you connect two distant points in space; that is a very unique thing to do, and the game's level design communicates its many interesting implications (the physics of it is mostly wrong, but that doesn't mean that it can't show you interesting mathematics). I want you to notice two things about Portal:

1. Portal's makers did NOT sit down and say "we want to communicate a load of stuff". They just said: "we want to make the most fun video game we can". Communication and fun do not seem to be opposed. In fact we have reason to cautiously believe that decent communication is always fun.

2. Portal's puzzles are not "hard", as in "they do not take most people a lot of time to solve". This is because the puzzles are "focused" - there are no red herrings, complex actions are broken down into simple actions, small details are used to give you clues about what you should do, etc. The point is that Portal communicates quite complex things, and so to make the communication clear they simplified things as much as they could without compromising the solution's coolness. This resulted in less intense "orgasms" of solution-getting; but attributing too much value to orgasms is a little immature, in light of decent communication.

If you'd like to know more about how communication works, I recommend this lecture by Marc Ten Bosch and Jonathan Blow about mechanics. I gave a lecture of my own about communicative level design, and that should appear on the internet soon. Personally I am looking at many different avenues for communication in level design; some of my results appear in my games Music of the Spheres and The Stranger Loop.


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Comments


Marvin Papin
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"that moment where you realize what you have to do", i don't think that makes the puzzle fun but instead brings only satisfaction to the player.

I think that should looks like something like "The act of resolving the puzzle a cool and fun way" that makes the game fun. Ok, i know, many people will think that means "what is fun in resolving is the fun part" but it's the act. By exemple, in portal, you jump in a portal, fall from the roof, take speed, take a portal again, you head is turning in every direction, you don't know where you are but you know you did it.

So this is the mechanic which is fun. Even if i like chess, i don't think this is "FUN" to beat your adversary, this is satisfying only.

Now, maybe people really think that it's just resolving the puzzle but I just think they do not speak the right way.


In your text :

"what is the nature of this unexpected thing? Does it illuminate lots of different possibilities within the game's engine to me? Does it illuminate lots of different possibilities in the universe in which I live?"
|---> You're speaking about resolving the puzzle with a special game mechanic or with a game mechanic a special way.

"the physics of it is mostly wrong"
|---> if you admit that those vortex exist, they are not wrong.

"1. Portal's makers......."
|---> They largely studied the player reactions through playtests and they iterated to "communicate" after building game mechanics but they DID sit down and say "how can we communicate about those mechanics."

"2. ... "hard" "
|---> Subjective, but i think it's true. However, Why people wouldn't enjoy harder puzzles ? Here could the pleasure comes from for "many" people.

"2. ... "focused" "
|---> Means diversified with same mechanics.

"Orgasms"
|---> Pleasure not fun ?. instant reaction. When getting solution or realizing it ?


Finally Miegakure seems to be cool but a way harder to understand than something like portal. Can we also say it's really fun ?
For that video : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DR3XlLwkbQ
That more about probing than thinking. And a way hard to understand.
(Personally i don't think this is 4D since the 4th D is represented a discrete way, this is more about interchanging blocs)



Except everything above, i am please to read something of somebody thinking a that level and do not see any affront here but just a "laconic" raw reaction.

Hamish Todd
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1. I believe that "Einstein Rosen Bridges" [wormholes] do exist, but they would have many properties that "Portals" do not. To give an important example, one of the main points of Portal's mechanics was that momentum is conserved, when this really couldn't be possible, otherwise you could generate an infinite amount of energy from nowhere with the "infinite portal fall" thing.

I believe that the game DOES offer some insights into the possibilities that Einstein-Rosen bridges generate. But it is a bit too much to assert "Portal teaches you about the physics of Einstein-Rosen bridges", and I have gotten into trouble for asserting that in the past.

2. A lot of people certainly do enjoy puzzles that are as hard as possible. But my point is this: if you want to communicate clearly, you'll probably make your game "easier" by most people's standards.

3. No, that is not what I mean by "focused" at all. You are correct that the game does create diversity with the same mechanics. But "focused" means that every element of the level design exists to make one thing happen.

I don't understand many of your other comments?

Marvin Papin
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1. the base mechanic behind Einstein-Rosen bridges is hard to understand and scientist built theory to justify things so in that case we can assume that in portal the portals are just spatial connection where every thing is conserved and make things clearer to understand. This is just visual and works for nearly everybody and so this is probably better. (we just make the supposition that a 2d connection is possible between 2 3d spaces. but i don't think the physics is the point here but i admit that i shouldn't have use the word "vortex")

2. totally agree, that was just a remark.

3. ok, so just give limitation to the player to prevent him from doing to much things that do not need to happen while giving a better point of view of the solution, i though you were also speaking about "focused on a special mechanic inducted by the level design"

Michael Ball
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One of the prime examples of this is Ahnonay in Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. Almost every tiny detail is integral to solving the Age, and is deeply intertwined with the game's lore; not only does it require the knowledge and background on the game universe you've acquired from other Ages, but through the process of solving the Age you gain a greater understanding of Ahnonay's significance within the story.

Link has massive spoilers, but does a very good job of illustrating what I'm trying to say:
http://www.guildofgreeters.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=
view&id=139&Itemid=39

Steven An
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I've been thinking a lot about red herrings when designing my puzzle game. What do you say to this thought: Sometimes, it is necessary to put in very subtle red herrings in a puzzle so that the player does not just stumble upon the solution and not realize what they did. Ie. players simply running a relatively mindless "greedy" algorithm should not be able to solve the puzzle.

Also, number theory has quite a huge application: Public-key encryption :)

Steven An
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And when I say red herring, I don't necessarily mean an ACTIVE distraction. It could be simply rearranging things in a way that makes the real solution less obvious.

Example: Braid has a number of such design choices. There's one puzzle where you need to NOT rewind for a while, but the situation you start in, with many monsters attacking you, causes you to naturally rewind a lot. If Blow had made it just a clear shot to the goal, without any monsters, most players would just run straight to it without rewinding and not think twice about that puzzle.

Hamish Todd
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Number theory does indeed have huge applications today! Buuuuut, here's a quote from GH Hardy, a number theorist who worked before we found those incredible applications:

"I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world."

It is so amazing that he said this just a short time before his work helped us win WW2! It says something important about maths, and about the pursuit of beauty, but I don't know what.

Re: red herrings, I am willing to defend the opinion that red herrings are always bad. However, thanks to your useful second comment, I know that you and I have different definitions of "red herring", so we might not instantly be able to have a good conversation about this!

I don't think those enemies in Braid are red herrings (though I admit I don't know what I would call them). "Red herring" implies irrelevance, when I think they are actually the entire point of the puzzle; the structure above is a rather secondary thing. The puzzle is communicating [in the simplest terms]: "sometimes rewinding can irreparably destroy possibilities when there are green things around" Those enemies are there to put you in a state where "not rewinding" is the thing that requires active thought.

Far from simply making the solution "less obvious", they are what creates the thing-which-you-must-find-the-solution-to!

If we were to talk about the things that I call red herrings, I would say: we should WANT the solution to be obvious. Here's the deal: we are [ideally] looking to communicate interesting, complicated shit. WITHOUT us adding anything to it, it is already quite a sophisticated thing to ask a player to understand! If you can put the player in a situation where it's obvious, well, you should be happy.

Mind you, as I say, that only applies IF you're communicating something that is interesting in-and-of itself. If this is the case, nobody will care if it's an unchallenging puzzle, because the value is elsewhere. And if it's not interesting enough to be appealing without that challenge - well then, don't make a puzzle about it, and for the love of GOD don't add a bunch of red herrings to it in an attempt to make it challenging! Sifting through red herrings to find something uninteresting is no good!

Hamish Todd
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Oh sweet jesus you made Moments of Reflection. You are a bloody cool dude. Currently playing your other game, hope it's good!

Steven An
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Haha it's cool you've played MOR! I'd love to hear your thoughts on it (I have been changing it a LOT lately as well, hoping to polish and "release" it soon).

Maybe a better name for what that Braid puzzle does is "stumbling block." These are things that cause your first initial gut reactions to be wrong. And you have to go against those instincts in some novel way (in this case, actually try to avoid the enemies like in a normal platformer!). Does that make it "non-obvious"? It's obvious once you realize what's going on, but initially, it stumps you.

So, would you even consider that an "interesting puzzle"? I think it's kind of interesting. But it requires that stumbling block to make you realize why it's interesting. Otherwise, like I said, players would just make a straight shot for it (the greedy algorithm) and probably never hit the fail-condition. The stumbling block is an integral part of the puzzle that makes the puzzle more difficult and less-greedy-able (ie. the obvious, greedy approach will lead to failure).

The definition of "obvious" is not so..obvious huk huk

Hamish Todd
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I see "the puzzle" as being a different thing to what you see it as being. I believe: if there are no enemies in place to give you a reason to rewind, *there is no puzzle there*. If we are to speak of what the engagement would look like without the enemies, I don't think it is right to speak of "initial gut reactions", because there is nothing really to react to.

Let me make an extreme comparison: in Portal there are certain puzzles that involve emancipation grills. You can't shoot a Portal through an emancipation grill, so they can be a core part of the puzzle, indeed, if we were to remove them from the scene there would no longer be a puzzle; just an elaborate room for you to move through. Although having said that, if you wanted you could still move through the room in the way that the puzzle was meant to demand.

It is not right to say "the emancipation grill makes the puzzle's solution less obvious". We say: "without the emancipation grill, there is no puzzle".

Another way of thinking about it, if you will indulge my point of view. Forget about "puzzle" and "not puzzle", "obvious", "active", "red herring" and "difficulty balancing". Think about "is the game expressing something, what objects are helping with expression?". To remind, the expression here can be phrased as "sometimes rewinding can irreparably destroy possibilities when there are green things around". It is clear that the enemies do help expression, since without them, this engagement has no particular ability to make the player realize this.

I do think it's interesting, because "sometimes rewinding can irreparably destroy possibilities when there are green things around" is an interesting fact that I would not really be aware of were it not for the puzzle. I will say I think it could have been done better though.


Maybe a better name for what that Braid puzzle does is "stumbling block." These are things that cause your first initial gut reactions to be wrong. And you have to go against those instincts in some novel way (in this case, actually try to avoid the enemies like in a normal platformer!). Does that make it "non-obvious"? It's obvious once you realize what's going on, but initially, it stumps you.

So, would you even consider that an "interesting puzzle"? I think it's kind of interesting. But it requires that stumbling block to make you realize why it's interesting. Otherwise, like I said, players would just make a straight shot for it (the greedy algorithm) and probably never hit the fail-condition. The stumbling block is an integral part of the puzzle that makes the puzzle more difficult and less-greedy-able (ie. the obvious, greedy approach will lead to failure).

The definition of "obvious" is not so..obvious huk huk

Steven An
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OK, I think we basically agree here. I totally agree that the expression of that puzzle would have been lost without the monsters. I guess what I'm trying to say is, it's important for a puzzle to make the player stop and think. It's important to set things up in a way such that the player cannot just randomly stumble upon the solution, not realizing what they did - ie. not getting the "expression" of the puzzle. Not seeing what's interesting about what they just did/used.

I just had a slightly different definition of red herring: Anything which causes the player to deviate from the "solution" of the puzzle.

warren blyth
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Interesting thoughts. Thought I feel like you're just saying "they can't all be orgasms."

I think there is something interesting shared between designing a good game puzzle and "telling a good joke" and "delivering a character driven plot twist."

- Jokes are usually about setting up the rules, then surprising you - by either breaking them or using them in a way you didn't see coming.

- stories are usually about defining a character through their actions, set against some growing background problem(s). Then they satisfy by surprising you with a character action that redefines the rules of the character, or fits the characterization in a way you didn't see coming.

- somehow game puzzles give you the rules and let you surprise yourself within them, whenever you want to get around to it.

-it is interesting (to me) to think about the way players pace themselves over many hours of engagement. It seems like they need a mix of quick jokes and long stories and self-paced puzzles to keep the player from knowing which form of entertainment they're really engaged in.

... blah blah. i'm off to watch those videos.
(thanks for offering up your thoughts, Hamish)

Hamish Todd
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Well, all art/entertainment is about some kind of surprise, including music and architecture! If I'm not going to be surprised/see something new in some sense by an activity, why should I do it? [unless it's necessary to my existence]


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