Puzzling Out Good Design

“So, I’ve been away for a while,” Drraagh offers as he sets his coat and hat on the coatrack by the door. “Life sometimes takes us on unexpected journeys and we follow them as we must, but I am back and here to talk about the world and everything in it, as it pertains to my unique field of view.” Taking a seat at his desk, he puts his feet up and smiles. “Life, they say, is one great big puzzle. You think about the fact no one really knows why we’re here or what we’re meant to do, and by the time you figure it out it’s already mostly over.”

“But today, I would like to talk about puzzles in general. There are so many of them, there are so many variations and types, ranging from codes and ciphers, which can be a great way to hide messages, but if you’re talking about making them less than obvious, then you need to find new ways to hide them, because a cryptic set of numbers is going to be a cryptic set of numbers if they are left in the open. Instead, you want to hide them in a way that makes them seem obvious. For instance, if you want to hide a short message to someone, you can use a deck of cards. Assign each card some sort of value, perhaps by suit and number of card and even for those where alignment matters such as how three of the five hearts on the 5 of Hearts point one way. You could encrypt a short message such as a meeting place and time into the deck and all someone has to do is pick it up, flip over a few cards like they are bored, shuffle the deck to mix up the message and then go to the meet.”

“This is where you go to another tool, the idea of concealing your information in something that looks natural, like the example of the cards. This is Steganography. Steganography is the art of communicating through hidden information. If your opponent doesn’t know to look for hidden messages, they won’t bother trying to decrypt them. Generally, this can be done by hiding data in insignificant details of otherwise noisy information— the random hiss of a microphone could be masked out and replaced with a hidden signal, or the lowest bits in a color image taken from a noisy photograph replaced with useful information. Since perfectly compressed data is indistinguishable from white noise, it would still sound just like hiss,” Drraagh comments and taps idly on the table with a little smirk.

“Drumming has been a way to transmit messages as well as entertainment, so who would ever think of a drummer providing secret messages when he plays? Gabriel Knight Sins of the Fathers has a great puzzle written into its story using steganography in the game as well as part of the puzzle. To summarize,  the protagonist is effectively an amateur detective, trying to unravel the mystery behind a series of murders in New Orleans. From day one of the storyline, the player encounters, in the background, drummers playing on the streets. On day four, the player spots an informant talking to one drummer and learns from him that the drummers are part of an information network, sending messages via coded drumbeats. Research turns up the particulars of the code, and by day six, the player is able to decode the messages and infiltrate a gathering of the murderers’ cult,” Drraagh chuckles a little and shakes his head. “Interesting, no? But there’s more to it than this. The drum puzzle intersects with another puzzle involving the cult’s written messages–publicly displayed in plain sight like the drums, encoded as graffiti. As part of this sequence of events, the player must alter one of the written messages to manipulate the scheduled gathering. The need to send an additional drum message comes up yet again later on.”

Drraagh shifts to sit with feet on the ground, looking over the desk as he runs a hand through his hair. “What makes the drum puzzle so effective from a narrative perspective? Let’s look at three things:

  • First, it resonates with and further develops the character of the protagonist. It involves our amateur detective unraveling a mystery that wouldn’t feel out of place on a television procedural, honing his skills and applying them in more advanced ways. The alteration of the coded message emphasizes the protagonist’s status as a manipulator–a liar and a scoundrel–even while putting those skills to benevolent use.
  • Second, the drum puzzle builds on elements introduced into the setting long before it becomes game-relevant (the drummers) and continues building on those same elements after the first stage of the puzzle is complete. The existence of written coded messages is a logical extension of the musical communications network. The drums aren’t simply a component of a puzzle, but a thread in the overall story.
  • Third, the puzzle contributes significantly to the mood of the game. The revelation that the murderous cult is operating in plain sight, watching and communicating with its agents in daylight is effectively creepy. The fact that the player has seen non-gameplay-relevant drummers before helps build a sense of oppressiveness and paranoia.

So, this puzzle pushes character, story and theme all at one, rather than just seeming like a combine two items to make something. Seems to be somewhat of a rarity in the games these days. But… let’s talk about some other kinds of puzzles, because I plan to make up a lot of lost time on this, probably talking about a lot of things over the next while, so buckle yourselves in and prepare. I like talking about games for examples because it is something most people have some passing familiarity with these days. Find me anyone who hasn’t played some sort of game in their life and I will show you a boring person.”

Looking around the room, the private eye smiles playfully and nods his head. “Ever do an escape room? Where you get locked into a room with all the pieces in there, you just have to solve various puzzles to find ways out? It can be quite fun, and when it comes to gaming, it can be a great way to start things of especially, because of the way it can teach concepts to players without needing to be spelled out as an option later. Escape puzzles are fun because we know the answer lies right in front of us, but we just can’t see it. There is no risk of frustration due to walking between locations, talking to the same characters over again, and so forth, since the solution is obviously there in that one location. This basically allows for more difficult puzzles, such as in the form of intricate logic sequence or device puzzles. As long as it isn’t overdone. Spending too long in the same room, stuck with an escape puzzle in the same room, trying different approaches in the same room, listening to the same music over and over again, in the same room will eventually get tedious, or worse.”

“The big selling point when it comes to escape puzzles is all about being unconventional when supplying the player with inventory items. Also, remember, even prison cells have more exits than one. Make the player wonder whether he’s supposed to dig his way out, bend the bars in the window, or reach the keys on the table beside the sleeping guard. This is all great analysis of puzzle design, figuring out what elements the player has to work with and how they could be used. For some inspiration on this, check out Game Design: A Brainstorming Toolbox as a great example of ways to come up with new concepts instead of rehashing some old tropes. For instance:

A high wall could be defeated by:

A ladder A ramp A pile of boxes/barrels
Someone to help your climb A rope and grapple A subtle hand/foothold (rock climbing metaphor)
A trampoline Springy shoes or a high-jump ability Stilts
A sledgehammer Explosives A friendly rhinoceros
A secret door A bazooka Going around
Tunneling Under Tentacles that lift you over the wall

A locked door could be defeated by:

A key Lock picks A battering ram (or strong shoulder/kick/axe, etc.)
Explosives A helpful NPC who can unlock it Magic (an open door spell, for instance or a teleportation spell)
Transformation, such as turning into a mist and drifting under the door or through the keyhole or becoming able to pass through matter Getting someone inside to unlock it Travelling to the future or past when it wasn’t locked
Burning it Ramming through it

Those are just some ideas of brainstorming various ways that allow you to get past the puzzle that is facing you and throw something new at the players instead of the basic type. Games like Maniac Mansion or Bureau 13 allowed you to build parties with various character s so each could solve problems in different ways. I specifically like Bureau 13 because since your character choices were Isaac Richards, the Hacker, Delilah Littlepanther, the Mech, Father Jonathan Blank, the Priest, Jimmy Suttle, the Thief, Alexander Keltin, the Vampire, and Selma Gray, the Witch, you could have different solutions for puzzles depending on concept. These variations range from simple like having to find a way to sneak your male characters into a female locker room in your mission all the way to getting past a lock has the thief pick it, the mech smash it and the vampire mists inside, or if you don’t have any of those in your party.. throw a brick at the window to get in.”

A deep breath as he looks over his desk and the files sitting there. “I’d love to talk more about this, but it seems my lunch break has come to an end and I gotta get back to work.. Hopefully you’ll come back next time and we can talk some more about all this stuff.”


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