Hi everyone, while Kana is stuck overseas I’ve taken up the role as guest writer. I have posted here before under thirtythreeas, but due to extraneous reasons, that account is stuck in a state of limbo and this was the fastest way for me to contribute.

Today I wanted to talk about the puzzle genre of video games. I’m sure that some of you might sigh or laugh at the genre, since typically its associated with blandness, boring gameplay, and not being “hardcore” enough. But, to be frank, these features are all indicative of bad games in general, not necessarily puzzle games. To be fair, it’s far easier to make a puzzle game and most beginner developers simply do not have the tools nor the skills to create an amazing MMOFPSRPGTSTHINGY. So they make a strike at a puzzle game, and fill the genre with bad, uninteresting games because they’re bad, uninteresting developers. But I digress, let’s move on with the subject. I’ll break down each type of puzzle game in my opinion and address its strengths, weaknesses, games that implement it well and games that implement it poorly. By the end of the article, I hope you’ll look at puzzle games in a somewhat different light and see how fascinating it can be to think through a problem as opposed to shooting through one.

Fast Paced Puzzle Games

Fast paced puzzle games are defined by a single gameplay option: the player’s main opponent is the clock. They have finite amount of time to complete the objective before them otherwise they either fail or have to try again. Most typical puzzle games fall under this category, whether it be classics like Puzzle Bobble and Tetris or newer games such Cogs and WarioWare.

The Main Objective Of A Fast Paced Puzzle Game

The obvious strengths of fast paced puzzle games is they’re both exciting and quick to play. They’re often coupled with catchy tunes that get inside your head long after you set the game down as a pleasant reminder of your experience. The problems with this type of puzzle game though is even after you solve the puzzle, you are still required to have a certain degree of “twitch” co-ordination in order to execute the solution. Granted, these games have easier difficulties for those of us without the gift of a fast reaction speed but in my opinion having twitch mechanics sets a contradictory goal to the main goal of puzzle games (solve the puzzle.)

The games I’ve listed before (Puzzle Bobble, Tetris, Cogs, and WarioWare) are all solid games to play because they implement the fast paced puzzle mechanics well. Games that don’t do this well include Lucas Arts “Lucidity” and almost any MMORPG’s puzzle rooms. “Lucidity” is a stark example of a poor puzzle game in my mind because due to the randomness of the game engine, it was possible to end up in situations where you simply could not complete the level unless you lucked out.

MMORPG puzzles are another prime example because due to latency and simple design issues, it would become almost impossible to ever complete the challenge under the time limit given. I recall a time in Rift where me and my friends attempted to solve a puzzle that requires the players to keep a circuit wire active by constantly clicking on each node. It would be impossible for a single person because there are simply too many nodes. Once we figured out the solution (each one of us had to stand in just the right range to be able to click all of them) it should have taken a few minutes to complete. Instead it took us a frustrating hour because every so often the server wouldn’t register one of our clicks and we’d have to start all over.

Physics Based Puzzle Games

With the advent of powerful computers that can render worlds and simulate physical objects, it didn’t take long for physics puzzle games to arise. Sometimes these can be fast paced puzzle games where you are racing a clock to complete an objective, however the main opponent is manipulation of the game world as opposed to simply the clock. This distinction contrasts purely fast paced puzzle games where you are give an interpretation of the world where movement is usually simplified to accommodate more abstract puzzle solving.  Because commercial physics engines exist today, there is a plethora of physics based puzzle games. Just to name a few, The Ball and the Portal franchise are both physics puzzle games I can spot easily on my Steam list.

Easily One of the Best Games Ever Made

Physics based puzzle games appeal to us because they stimulate both the pleasure of interacting with the game world directly and they reward us for using our ability to interact to solve the challenge before us. It’s a rewarding experience to solve a problem with your own two hands, and physics simulators give us the tools to do so without us even having to get your hands dirty. Not only that, but these type of puzzle games often have a variety of solutions beyond what the original developers had planned for the player. This increases both the depth of the game (which solution is the best) and gives players a way to interact with one another (who has the best solution.)

Of course, this genre has its own faults. If the physics are simply bad in the game, the game becomes not fun to play. Physics based games with platforming elements often fail on this alone because the physics on the player versus the physics on game objects differs entirely. This is why Portal 2 is inferior in my opinion to Portal 1. In Portal 1, the player can throw themselves and tons of objects around the world using physics defying portals. In Portal 2, however, only special objects can be used with portals. This not only reduced the number of possible solutions to solve the puzzles presented to player, it cheapened the feeling of power the player got by using portals.

Another way physics based puzzle games can become not fun to play is if the puzzles themselves are not interesting. Trine is a prime example of a physics based puzzle game that was marred with poorly design puzzles. In Trine, the player can create boxes that can be stacked and moved around freely. More often than not, most puzzles could be solved simply by stacking boxes high enough for the player to jump over or hook-shot over whatever obstacle they faced.

Iterative Design Puzzle Games

Finally, we have iterative design puzzle games. To be less technical about it, I’m talking about games where you have to create a design and improve upon it to solve the puzzle at hand. To be even less technical about it, I’m talking mostly about tower defense games.

Defense Grid: 90% of My “Research” For This Article

An iterative design puzzle game gives the player a set of tools and rules and expects them to construct a solution to the challenge ahead. What separates this from other puzzle game types is the player must make a design and then refine the design as they progress through the challenge in order to compensate for any faults in their design or changes during the challenge. The fun found in this style of puzzle game is through seeing your design succeed when tested against different combinations of challenges. And even when the design fails, the player always learns why their design failed and in their next design will take measures to counteract their failures.

Besides tower defense, simulator games can easily fall into this same class of iterative design puzzle games. The SimCity games gives the player a toy box of hidden rules and it’s up to the player to explore through creating their city to figure out what generates the best city. SpaceChem also has a set of simulation rules built into their game, but unlike a tower defense or a toy box, it’s up to the player to design additional rules to complete chemical reactions.

Tower defense games are the most common game in the iterative design puzzle games because they are simple to understand and relatively simple to make. Often the major problem in tower defense games is when there is only one viable solution to beat the challenge or when almost any solution will beat the challenge. In the first case, ingenuity is punished because anything that deviates from the optimal solution is quickly defeated. In the second case, ingenuity is ignored because the player can do basically whatever they want without fail.

Dungeon Defenders, one of the more popular tower defense games, is in my opinion one of the worst tower defense games out there to experience. Perhaps in a future article I will go more in-depth as to all the major faults of the game as a tower defense game, but for now I will just rant off a few of its design faults.

Dungeon Defenders actively fights against the core principle of an iterative design. They restrict the tools they give you by making your tools effectiveness locked behind a gear barrier. The process of iterative design is also hindered by making each wave of enemies take an obscene amount of time in order to drag the game length out. This makes it hard for players to iterate on their design because they have to work their way back to their previous failure point in order to test out a new strategy.

Anyway, I could go on but at this point I’m being pedantic. I hope I’ve given shone some light on the entirety of the puzzle genre and given some insight on why a thinking game can be just as fun as a shooting one.