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I consider myself a pretty good puzzle solver. Portal and Portal 2 clocked up time based on how long it took me to perform the actions of a puzzle, with about 45 minutes total thrown in of silent contemplation. According to one of my good friends who’s played the Portal 2 co-op with about 30 people, I’m the fastest puzzle solver they’ve ever seen. When I finished the newly released game Q.U.B.E. in about 3.5 hours, with at least an hour of that time the result of me fighting the controls, I decided it was time for me to analyze why puzzle games are, as a whole, so easy. Now, I don’t want to come across as a pompous braggart here, so please don’t think that’s my goal - I’m honestly just trying to address an issue that I have seen in dozens of games, and there is nothing more to it.
The problem seen in almost every puzzle game ever released is their straightforwardness. In a puzzle, you are given a small number of elements that you can manipulate in order to reach your goal. Your environment is unchangeable, your resources are limited - you have 5 keys and you need to find the one that opens the door. Let me give a few examples.
I’m sure a good number of you know this room as part of Chamber 18 in the original Portal. In this room, there are 5 elements, which I will list in the order in which you use them
1) The Turrets - these prevent you from crossing the room
2) The Energy Ball - this kills the turrets, and activates the scaffolding to allow you to cross the room.
3) The Energy Ball Catcher - this activates the scaffolding.
4) The Cube - you need to bring this out of the room.
5) The Exit Button - this opens the door out of the room, albeit for only a short time.
The solution to this puzzle is easy. Your ultimate goal is to bring the cube from one side of the room to the other. Standing in your way are he turrets, the pit traversed by the scaffolding, and the exit door locking you in.
Your first goal is to cross the room, and so you must 1) eliminate the turrets and 2) activate the scaffolding. At this point, you can only manipulate 2 elements: you can open the ball catcher for a split second, and you can use portals to send the energy ball around the room. Since stepping on the scaffolding is deadly with turrets aiming at you, (they inhabit the now vacant 4 stands in the picture above) your first goal is now to eliminate the turrets, which can be done, technically, with as few as five portal placements, although more will let you do it faster. It is supremely easy to bounce the energy ball into them and knock them out of commission. There are now 4 elements remaining.
You can progress no further without the scaffolding, so assuming you have decent timing, you can simply bounce the energy ball into it’s receptacle without much trouble. This eliminates both the Energy Ball and Catcher as elements, which leaves you with only two remaining: The Cube and the Exit Button.
A quick portal fling brings you directly to the cube, and you can drop down into the area with the exit button from the scaffolding. At this point, your only goal is to press the exit door button and get back to the other side of the room (with the cube) before the door closes. Considering the ease of this task with portals, you can rightly disqualify it as a puzzle entirely, and call it a challenge of coordination and speed.
And there we are, one of the most difficult puzzles in Portal cut down into 3 steps that could all be logically deduced. The reason? There was only a handful of elements to work with. This phenomenon takes much more precedence in Q.U.B.E. - while the game is certainly well made and has a slick design, early rooms present you with only two or three elements that act in one specific way, every time, and are immovable. Later in the game the difficulty ramps up a bit when you can change the position of the elements and, within a limit, what they do as well, but there are still never more than 4 or 5 distinct elements in a room.
So here is my hypothesis: In order to make puzzle games more difficult, long-lasting, and increasingly enjoyable, USELESS ELEMENTS NEED TO BE ADDED.
In Portal, imagine being given a room with a button and an energy ball receptor. You will need to activate one with either a cube or an energy ball, but only one of those things resides in the rest of the puzzle. And so you might wander through the chamber looking for a cube to place on the button, while in reality you only needed to use the energy ball readily available to solve the puzzle. The red herring throws off the puzzle solver, because they THINK they have to use it. Imagine a platformer game where there are dozens of platform paths leading to unknown locations, but remain unreachable throughout the course. They provide an illusion of complexity and difficulty, while in reality they are just there to mislead the player. These kinds of false leads would drastically improve a puzzle game by giving the player a much more element-loaded environment. It’s the difference between telling someone to solve a 10-piece jigsaw puzzle, and telling them to solve a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with a pool of 1,250 pieces.
The Eleventh Hour, a puzzle book by Graeme Base, is an astounding example of how puzzles SHOULD be done. I heavily suggest it to anyone with a modicum of interest in puzzle solving. Throughout the book are hidden a myriad of clues directing the reader to find the culprit of the crime central to the book’s story. By no means do you need to solve every puzzle in the book, or even most of them. Solving only a few will let you find your answer, although you’re almost your time if you don’t try to solve the rest. I very much liked the book, though, because of it’s non-linear, solve-what-you-need-to-solve style. There are, of course, a number of red herrings throughout the book, placed into the easiest of puzzles to lead you astray. The cleverest thing about the book, though, is the lack of direction in solving the puzzles. At face value, the book is a strange tale of an elephants birthday party and the disappearance of his feast. Look closer, though, and you will notice patterns of letters and numbers carefully hidden away in the gloriously illustrated pages. Lines of hieroglyphics, jumbles of numbers that follow a simple A-1, B-2 translation, and even a message only revealed when the book is upside down are all contained within, and they all point to the culprit in some small way.
In short, puzzle games are limited by their elements. Anyone can solve a jigsaw puzzle when there are 4 pieced and you just need to use trial and error. The same is not true of a Rubik’s Cube, where you can turn any nine of 26 minicubes in any of 6 directions at any given time. In order to improve future puzzles and make puzzle games more enjoyable, we need to clutter up the environment, add a few staircases leading to nowhere, and build a large tank to hold red herrings in. The result will be a longer, more enjoyable puzzling experience for all.