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Musing on Puzzles

Quest Log Fridays returns with a look at puzzle design from an escape-room point of view.  What is a puzzle? What makes a puzzle work for an escape room? Join us every Friday for a look into the brains behind SideQuests!

What’s in a Puzzle?

I’ve always loved the experience of working through good puzzle. The good ones give you a bit of a rush as it dawns on you what you need to do to solve it. The great ones let you see the world from another person’s point of view. The very best stick with you and teach you a new way to approach other problems outside of the context of the puzzle.

Let’s talk about puzzles for a little bit, specifically in the context of escape rooms. A puzzle would be a problem or obstacle that requires you to discover or implement one or more solutions in order to progress. For example, many rooms will have a locked container which contains your next room element you need to proceed. In order to find the combination to the lock, you might have to unscramble some torn up pieces of paper you find in a trash bin. However, how do we determine if this is a “good” or “bad” puzzle? What constitutes a successful puzzle? Why do some puzzles fail?

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Don't worry. We'll answer these questions!
Don’t worry. We’ll answer these questions!

In order to answer these questions, we need to take a step back and look at puzzles in a more generic sense. In a very broad and general view, a puzzle presents players with levers or mechanics to interact with and a method of verifying their solution. But wait – how do you as a player know how to interact with the puzzle? How do you determine what direction to go first? Are you just shooting randomly into the darkness hoping to hit the right solution? Are you more methodical and just brute forcing every possible combination of solutions until you eventually stumble on the correct answer? In my opinion, this is where the poorly designed puzzles are separated from the well designed puzzles. Let’s call this part of a puzzle the path. A well designed puzzle has a clearly communicated path for the player – it may have branches and bends to explore, but there isn’t any doubt in the mind of the player as to whether they’re on the right track. A poorly designed puzzle in this context is simply a field with no signposts or markings of any sort. The player is never really sure if they’re moving in the direction the designer intended and is left wondering and wandering.

Digging Deeper

Let’s illustrate this with a few examples, since talking about this with hand-wavey and abstract terms isn’t really all that helpful!

Puzzle A

Players are presented with a room full of locks. There’s also a whiteboard full of 4 digit codes. All of the locks are 4 digit combination locks. There’s nothing indicating which codes might match with which locks. The locks themselves don’t have any hints as to which codes they may use. The room itself also doesn’t yield any direction as to how to approach matching the codes on the board with the locks scattered about the room.

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You + Room o' Locks = Frustrated.
You + Room o’ Locks = Frustrated.

Puzzle B

Players are presented with a room full of locks. There’s also a whiteboard full of codes, but not all of them are the same length. The codes are written in different colours. The locks also vary in colour, shape, size, and number of digits in the combination. If the players carefully observe the locks and codes carefully, they’ll be able to note a few telling patterns which will lead them towards matching the codes on the walls to the locks scattered around the room.

For instance, let’s say that there are four blue locks in the four corners of the room. Incidentally, there are also four blue codes on the board! However, with some careful observation players will find only one yellow lock in the room on the north wall with a five digit combination. On the board, players will find several yellow codes, but only a single with a length of five – thus yielding the code to the yellow lock! Astute players might also be able to then ascertain the orientation of the board relative to the room and thus be able to match up the four blue locks and their combinations as well!

It’s probably pretty clear which puzzle is more enjoyable for players to interact with. But the real question here, is why?

If it’s simply that Puzzle A lacks any direction, could we fix that by just adding a piece of paper to Puzzle A that tells you which lock uses which code on the board? If not, then why wouldn’t that work? In short, it’s that puzzles are fun when they provide you a space to interact and play so that you can discover the solution for yourself rather than simply dictating your exploration.

Spaces to Play

This space to play is the key. A puzzle that lacks a space to play in is either a linear pathway with only one obvious answer, or a featureless plain with no distinguishing markers or rules to help guide your exploration. In the case of example A, there’s no exploration to be had. There’s no space for you to discover for yourself – it’s already all been laid out. There’s no mystery there, only a tedious guess and check exercise. However, in example B we have a clearly defined that the room has a set of rules: colour matters, and there are other things that matter such as orientation and placement! These are all available for the player to explore, discover, and delight in uncovering the internal  (and importantly: consistent) logic of the room – allowing the players an insight into the mind of the designer.

It’s also in this space that you can stop being your everyday self. You can be an astronaut on a space station, an explorer in an ancient tomb, or a researcher in a remote outpost. You’re willing to step past that line into a playful state of mind because the room allows you a space to do so and gives you the context and tools to help you get there. Wait – let’s say that again because it’s important: you’re willing to step into a playful state of mind because the room allows you a space to do so.

Designing for Play

In the above example A, the room is the dominating feature. There isn’t anything in the design that allows you to step into a playful state and out of your normal self. However, in example B, a greater mystery is hinted at by the colours and positions of the locks and codes. There’s a space for you to explore your theories and ideas about the room. Let’s take it one step further: if we dressed the room as an insane mathematician’s room and presented that as the backstory to you as the player, you’d then have a bit of help in stepping into the shoes of an investigator called to the scene. You could then start to imagine and play in the space provided. As you get more wrapped up in the tale we’re spinning, the puzzles begin to take second place as the room as the experience becomes the primary focus. This is our goal at SideQuests. We want you to leave your everyday world behind and step into ours. We want you to enjoy our puzzles and stories and feel delighted. Our puzzles are not the main attraction – the experience we’re trying to present to you is.

If that resonates with you, then we can’t wait to have you as our guest!

Did you enjoy this content? Do you want to see more of this kind of content? Let us know in the comments below, and share this story on social media! Stay tuned every Friday for more insight into the minds behind SideQuests![/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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