Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Puzzled: the Design of Conundrums and Puzzles

I've been thinking about puzzles lately. It's partly because I recently finished participating in this year's MIT Mystery Hunt, partly because I'm working on puzzles for the Galactic Puzzle Hunt, and I've been pondering the unique experience that puzzles provide, compared to tabletop RPGs and boardgames. There's an interesting satisfaction that comes from puzzles, but it can also be at odds with some of the ways that we engage in other types of play.

The Process of Puzzling

I unpacked a bit of what solving a puzzle is like on my Twitter account, but I'll requote it here for convenience.
Picture that you receive enigmatic advice from a wizard, who is attempting to guide you to a great treasure. But she refuses to tell it to you straight, because that would ruin the game. Because it is a game, and a trial. She sends you a list of names, with no instruction. You furrow your brow and peruse them in confusion, until you realize that these are all the first names of great skalds who headlined the kingdom's Yule Fest! Great Scott! You fill in the last names of the skalds, and then you're stymied again, until you glance at the way that the final letters of each name seem to be very deliberately arranged..."Berrec" ends with a C, "Donnal" ends with an L...C-L-Y-M-S-T...my word, the Caves of Clymst! That's it! And there's a moment of immense satisfaction there, because you glimpsed the train of thought that the wizard was trying to lead you on, and you went from confusion to complete understanding. And that's what a puzzle hunt is. A whole bunch of those. It's a trial, and a game.
That all probably sounds a bit opaque and ornery, so let me break it down a bit. In a puzzle hunt, you're solving puzzles where the instructions themselves are somewhat cryptic. All that you know is that there's an expected format for your answer, and that everything in the puzzle was done with intention. From there, you're trying to discern the intention of the puzzler. However, and this is the real trick of a puzzle, these are never simple affairs, and many of these puzzles involve going through multiple steps of pattern recognition and data identification. In all honesty, it just doesn't seem fair, and that's because puzzle writers don't play fair.

They're playing to lose.

When you solve a puzzle, what you're really doing is following a trail that was laid down very carefully by the author. Every stage of a puzzle is carefully crafted to lead you directly to the next stage; there's usually a really obvious first step, which you then have to interpret once you have all the data at hand, usually leading to an "aha" moment, which then leads to some further work, eventually yielding the answer. There's sometimes multiple levels of the "aha" moment. For example, check out a puzzle from the MIT Mystery Hunt, Ore Aft. It takes a bit of time to puzzle through, so they've also provided a walkthrough of the solution. Every major step of the puzzle is self-contained to a degree, and you hit a point of not knowing what the next step is, until you have an epiphany that gives you enough understanding to advance.

These are very, very deliberately-crafted steps.

The Railroad of Delights

The design of puzzles reminds me of something found in tabletop RPGs: the stigma of the railroading game-master. In a "railroaded" RPG, players have no actual option of choice during the game. Whatever actions they take, they encounter the same obstacles, the same plot developments, the same ending. And, while I strongly chafe at this sort of setup, there is one legitimate reason for it: this setup allows the game-master to very finely craft an experience for the players. And that is the core ethos of puzzle design. It's a railroad of delights, as you try and follow the trail that the puzzle author has laid out for you, to the point where accidentally short-circuiting it dampens the joy of solving (although it's very helpful if you're trying to solve competitively vs other teams, ce la vie).

My thesis is this: if there is more than one way you can solve a puzzle, and more than one solution for the puzzle, it is no longer a puzzle but a problem. Puzzles aren't written to be solved in any way but the designed method, because that's part of what makes them fun. You're trying not just to figure out the answer, but to figure out how the whole thing was set up. You're trying to get into the head of the puzzle author, and see what they're trying to get you to see. The fun of the puzzle isn't in creatively inventing new ways to locate the solution, it's in being creative enough to fill in the blanks. Puzzles are written with what I'd call "cognitive gaps". The instructions are all there, but there's a lot of implication going on. Puzzles don't tell you what to do, they nudge you, and how successfully they handle that nudging determines how successful the puzzle is.

The Game Design of Puzzles

The trick of managing cognitive gaps is something I'm wrestling with as I work on puzzles for the Galactic Puzzle Hunt; you need to gauge how much difficulty someone will have crossing those gaps. Will they be so obvious that the puzzle is mostly a matter of checking off boxes? Will they be so obtuse that solvers will hit a wall and give up on the puzzle, or be pushed into using brute-force approaches? This is the game of the puzzle, and it reminds me of a similar problem in general game design, where designers are constantly playing leapfrog against the players learning their games. Raph Koster, in his work A Theory of Fun for Game Design, says the following about it: "Phrased another way, the destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun."

Puzzles are similar, but they're also different, because puzzles are trying to carefully lead players to that destiny of being "solved" and boring, while games stand as obstacles, with no clear answer. A game designer presents players with a problem, and a variety of options with which to solve that problem. A puzzle designer presents players with an obscured path, designed so that information is slowly fed to them, one piece at a time. And yet, in the end, both of them are attempting to reach the same final state; they're trying to teach the solver, or the player, something.

Once that lesson is learned, the puzzle, the game, is done.

No comments :

Post a Comment