What is a good puzzle?

I am a fan of “lateral thinking puzzles” books, especially those by Paul Sloane. Reading these books, I was struck by something. Most puzzles in those books are such that, when you have solved them, you just know you solved them. You don’t even need to go and read the solution. You already know. These books could even not put a solutions section in the end, and they would still work. (The solution section is there mostly to give you hints in case you just can’t solve them.)

Ok, now the question that arises in my mind is: could it be that any good puzzle must have that property? (that when you solved it, you know you solved it, even before you try)

It is striking how often this is not true in adventure games. How often you solved a puzzle but you are not sure you solved it, and you needed to try?

Note: this is not quite the same thing as what Ron often says: “if, when you are told the solution, you think “I could never have guessed that”, then it’s a bad puzzle”. I agree with this, but here I am talking about an even stronger property. (The fact that you don’t even need to try.)

Going on with the reasoning… if it’s true that a good puzzle should abide to this rule, one wonders if this is what caused adventure games to fall out of fashion.

Also, if we accept this rule, one interesting question is what are the implications on the UI. (for example: maybe a UI can hide the correct verb in a deep submenu, because after all you already know what you need to do, so you go look for the verb, no matter if it’s in a deep submenu).


(If you also want to comment more in general on what are the requirements of a good puzzle, feel free to do so :))

I don’t know the puzzle books you mentioned, so I’m not sure if I understood your questions correctly. :slight_smile:

Yes, but not necessarily in an adventure game: Think of a puzzle that affects the story. For example in TWP Delores can give the letter to Chuck - or not. You see the consequences and thus the solution of this puzzle not immediately. Ok, this wasn’t such a good example, but I hope you can see what I mean. :slight_smile: There are puzzles where the solution is an effect in the future.

Beside that, adventure games give you instant feedback if you solved a puzzle or not. :slight_smile:

The problem with puzzles in adventure games is that you still need to execute the solution, even if you (believe to) know it already. However, I find it extremely satisfying whenever I can think of a solution in advance, and it turns out to be the right one. Of course, sometimes it may also mean the puzzle wasn’t difficult enough.

In particular, for this to happen in an adventure game, you already have to have spotted the puzzle, but lack the means to solve it. In TWP, one such instance for me had been the puddle in the forest. It was clear I had to put something in to track people through the forest by following the footprints they’d leave. As soon as I saw the radioactive waste, I knew that had to be it, and what better means to transport it than the math trophy! But given the number of people that had trouble with that particular part of the game, I wouldn’t call it an excellent puzzle. I guess it just happened to coincide with my way of problem solving.

The type of adventure game puzzles I like a lot (whether they are “good” or not) are those where the solution is basically already known. I.e. you have a “recipe” and need to find the ingredients, often having to substitute the actual parts with weird and unusual replacements. Like making the ink in Delores flashback, or refilling the fingerprint kit.


I love those lateral thinking books. I think that’s why I enjoy good adventure games so much, so I can see how you made that link.

One of the key thinks with lateral thinking puzzles is that all the information you need to solve them is in the question. So in that sense they are similar, as everything you need to solve a puzzle in an adventure game is either in your inventory or in the playable area of the game. It’s just a case of working out how those things link together.

My favourite - and what I consider to be the cleverest - lateral thinking puzzles are ones that have one definitive answer, and I think the same works with adventure games. The best puzzles are where you think, oh yeah, that makes absolute sense, of course that’s the solution - and then it turns out you’re right.

I think that’s why good game developers are so frigging smart - because they have to figure out how to drip feed some information to the player without revealing too much, and letting them come to a natural (but challenging) solution.

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Same for me, it was one of my favorites for that reason. I already knew what to do, I just lacked the right object.

The problem with adventure games is that, at least the best ones, they are interconnected and have lots of possibilities. You can’t simply know what you have to do, because most of the time it means that you don’t have much span in the game. So, ok, puzzles that you solve by chance, by trying everything with everything, aren’t that good, but in a good adventure game you can’t just know that your solution is right. You might know it makes perfect sense, but you still have to see whether the game thinks so. If the game is good, 99% of the time you’re right, so it’s not “seeing if it works”, but merely a “doing what is needed to advance”.

In general, for me the best puzzle is the one that makes you think “OF COURSE it is so, I wonder why I didn’t see it before”. Like the CopyTron puzzle.

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Exactly. When you understand you need to put something colored in the puddle, you “just know” that will work. So that is one of those puzzles I was talking about. Another one is the puzzle “give bottle to clerk to have the nickel”. when you have made the connection, you just know it’s going to work. So it is possible to do a game like this.

Other example: When you understand you need Franklin to make the phone call, in order to “moan”, you just know it’s going to work. And when you understand how to recharge the battery, and you see the real purpose of the “electric fence”, you just know it’s going to work.

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I immediately thought the same thing, the radioactive waste must go in the puddle. It was obvious that all people stepped in it, so there must be some reason for it. It clicked immediately when I got the waste. But is it a good puzzle? Maybe not, but for a completely different reason than it’s apparently a hard puzzle for many people: I think the setup was poor; why can’t I just follow anyone walking into the forest (MI1 finding the swordmaster style)? Did they disappear once they were in the woods? I think that contributes a lot to whether it’s a good puzzle or not as well.

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probably the developers did not have the time to explain why they can’t just follow people in the forest (a simple cutscene would have done the job)

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Or a line of dialogue:"now, where did he go?"
For me that puzzle was spoiled by one of the blog comments way before I even made it past the vista. :cry:
This even made it more clear the setup was rather poor indeed. None of my characters seem to have any motivation to follow people around in the forest.

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Why was I sure that they were all heading to the secret meeting the radio and the pizza flyer talked about?

I mean, I was right in the end. So it must have been said, it can’t be that I just had the right intuition.

I would like to add a different perspective to this question: I can assure you that when in TWP Doug inherited a new shovel, my brain immediately solved a puzzle (getting a shovel to dig the treasure in the woods) that didn’t even exist. I was 100% absolutely sure that 1) there was a puzzle and 2) I had just witnessed the way to solve it.

It seems that a brain can be fooled to think that a puzzle exists when actually there isn’t any. So I wonder if “trying” is a good and necessary thing, sometimes.

I’m under the impression that some of the difficulties that people have experienced about that puzzle are related to the fact that they didn’t see the characters stepping in the puddle.

I saw a playthrough on YouTube in which the streamer visited that place and for all the time he stayed there no NPC arrived. I’m not sure about how much time the player stayed there, but I had the impression that it was enough to justify the visit of a NPC.


Funny, I immediately thought this is either a red herring or a non-implemented puzzle.
Didn’t stop me from trying it though, of course.
What I heard from Ron about Doug it was probably really meant to be part of a puzzle chain.

AFAIK when entering this room after about 5 seconds a cutscene is triggered with Chet coming and walking through the puddle (this cutscene happens once).

Subsequent encounters are probably triggered completely randomly.

I can understand why it’s possible to hypothesize that it was a red herring but why did you think it could have been a non-implemented puzzled? I mean, why did you think that it wasn’t implemented?

I’ve seen a lot of TWP at this point and I didn’t really had a use for a shovel, except this one location… But I was also pretty sure this was just an Easter egg and there is nothing else there. (Of course I still hoped I was wrong and tried it)

I noticed a trend that pretty much everytime a chracter said something like “there is nothing to see here” it was to be taken literal and not in a “movie cop” kind of way. It almost always meant exactly that.

Yeah, like when they say there isn’t any Betamax player in town, they really mean it.

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yeah, I also thought the whole beta max must be a puzzle chain that eventually had to lead up to getting that security tape…

sadly, no

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Yeah, but then again, they set me up for disappointment when I picked up the chainsaw, alerting me not to get my hopes up… but then they gave me the gas for it. So, when am I supposed to believe them?

I’ll reply to this post with a personal curiosity instead, @RonGilbert @David Which puzzle has been the most challenging to design/program and which one is your favourite? (from a MucasFlem game of course) :slightly_smiling_face:

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Just sticking to TWP, probably the whole bit with the Radio Station. I don’t want to give more info here since it wold be a spoiler, but this puzzle more than any other, after I got it working, kept breaking other things in the game.