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How to Design Brillo Point and Click Adventure Game Puzzles
by Dan Marshall on 03/28/14 10:51:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Hello! A couple of times over the last week or so, the subject of decent Point n’ Click puzzle design has come up. This is the thought process I go through when designing puzzles. Pinch of salt, obviously, this example is for a relatively-silly game. You'd need to apply this process to something that applies to your game. Strap yourself in.

So, by the nature of the beast there’s a Door. A blockage. Something that’s stopping the player getting from A to B.

Doors are, by and large, pretty fucking dull. The good news is that “Door” is just a metaphor for “Obstruction”, they can be anything! And the Obstruction doesn’t have to be literal. A fire, a maniac with an axe, an anthropomorphised pair of shoes with a bad attitude. It just needs to be an in-context thing your player needs to get past. With the plot you’ve got, it shouldn’t be too hard to dream up an interesting Door substitute, something that works within the story.

Let’s go with fire. Fire is difficult to animate, so in Real Game Development, never ever go with “fire”. In this instance it’s fine, because I’m using your imagination to imagine all the game graphics in your head, I’m not having to do a single thing. So, our door is a fire. Humans can’t just walk through fire, the fire needs to be put out.

So, what’s the solution? There are a few ways getting past fire, but the most obvious one is probably the best to go for – players like to be able to easily identify the issue and work out for themselves what a likely solution is. They don’t know yet how many hoops we’re going to make them jump through, but they’re probably thinking “USE WATER ON FIRE”. Now let’s set about working out a fun way to progress. You’ll need some WATER, and a BUCKET in order to get the water to the fire.

First up: always use items the player will already have in their inventory if we can. Re-use of items in Adventure Games is a fun and satisfying process for the player.

Second: WATER and BUCKET are boring-as-fuck items. You can do ANYTHING in adventure games, so let’s make them more interesting. If it’s a thing I can get my hands on easily in real life, it often makes sense to change it for something more outlandish and interesting. I don’t want to play games with things I can touch in boring real life, I want some escapism! What’s better than water? PISS. What’s more-interesting than a bucket? A hollowed-out owl carcass. Let’s go with those! USE owl-carcass filled with piss on FIRE. Now THAT’S a puzzle solution.

Finally, we’re going to set about adding LAYERS to our core puzzle. You can keep adding layers until the puzzle is satisfying to complete. We’re going to have to dream up brillo and stupid ways of getting all the elements together for our WATER on FIRE puzzle.

Where are we getting our Piss from? We’ll need a lot of piss, and an inexhaustible supply of the stuff, so we’ll probably need an elephant. It’s no fun if the elephant’s already pissing, so let’s say we’ve got an elephant who desperately needs a piss, but refuses to because he’s... uh, shy? Because there’s a mouse looking at him. Ok, so we need to get rid of the mouse. Mice like cheese, even dumb players will know if they’ve got some cheese to try using it on a mouse. Use cheese on mouse to lure it away. Where do we get Cheese from? Cheese is old milk, right? So, let’s leave a milk bottle in 1945 (this is a time travel game, now, in your imagination) and dig it up in the Present Day. That’s problematic, because if we had a bottle we wouldn’t need a bucket, so let’s bury a COW in 1945 and by present day the milk in its udders will be cheese. That works! Let’s pop a knife somewhere in the scene for the player to find and PICK UP, and use the knife to cut open the OLD UDDER and grab the QUESTIONABLE CHEESE. Use CHEESE on MOUSE to keep it happy. What happens now? Our elephant starts pissing! Hurrah! For the game to work, and to give us time to make this bucket, that elephant basically has to piss infinitely. That’s ok, because it really really needed a piss, right?

Ok, so BUCKET.... bucket.

Let’s say the player already has a DEAD OWL in their inventory. That’s good, we can use that one. A hollowed-out owl carcass would make a brillo makeshift bucket, right? We just need to hollow it out.

Let’s have a buzzard sitting on a perch, eating owl bits. Use OWL on buzzard to eat the innards, hollow it out and give us MAKESHIFT BUCKET. Bit easy, that. Let’s add in some of those lovely LAYERS.

This brings us to another point, you want to vary the type of puzzles. We could do with a Dialogue puzzle in here, so let’s add in a zookeeper. The zookeeper’s keeping the buzzard fed, which is why the buzzard is refusing our owl. So we need to stop him so we can offer up our own Owl to the Buzzard. So, let’s convince the zookeeper the buzzard is getting fat, through a dialogue puzzle. No idea what, that’s your job. Ultimately, the zookeeper agrees, stops feeding OWL BITS to the buzzard, and the buzzard goes hungry. Use OWL on Buzzard, get MAKESHIFT BUCKET! Use MAKESHIFT BUCKET on NEVER-ENDING STREAM OF PISS and then chuck it on our STUNNINGLY-ANIMATED FIRE. The player can progress!

Wait. When you put it like that that’s utterly mental. THE KEY to all this, obviously, is SIGNPOSTING. Every single fucking step of the way. See how the zookeeper is feeding Owl Bits to the buzzard? That creates a connection that the buzzard will eat YOUR owl you picked up in the last scene. Signposting! What else? Your elephant needs to be animated in a way that looks like he’s queuing for the toilet, legs crossed, sweating. If you look at him, the character needs to say something along the lines of “Man, that elephant needs a piss. If I could capture it, somehow, I’d have a bountiful supply of water-like liquid!”. Signpost EVERYTHING, and as long as the puzzle makes sense within the batshit crazy context of your game world, it’s all gravy.

NEXT: some of this puzzle doesn’t work! Why won’t the buzzard accept YOUR owl instead of its current owl bits? And how do you let the player know it’ll get a bucket-like thing out of it, rather than the buzzard just eating the whole thing? Consider that homework. There are a billion ways you can signpost all that. That’s design, I guess. Maybe change the buzzard for something else? What animals hollow things out but leave the shell? Maybe not an owl, then, maybe some sort of giant nut?

When the design’s all laid out, give the elements a little wiggle, make sure everything’s fun and friendly for the player. You don’t want to annoy them, you want them to feel *smart*. Part of what makes Point and Clicks such a joy to play is this feeling of connection between the player and the designer – the designer is laying these awful, awful traps for the player. The player is getting into the designer’s mindset, trying to predict and circumnavigate the way their brain works.

But you see how quickly a USE KEY ON DOOR puzzle can be unfurled into something much more interesting, with potentially many more funny lines of dialogue and animation? It’s this constant layering and re-jigging objects that make up the core of good point & click puzzle games.

Straighter (so, non-comedy) games will use the same process- swapping boring items for less-mundane ones, building up layers. It's all the same process, you just need to work within the context of your game.

Hope that's of some help? If you'd like to ask questions, I'm @danthat

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Doctor Ludos
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Thanks for these wise tips!

But how to avoid to cross the line between "stupidly fun" puzzles and "too dumb to be fun" puzzles - is signposting really the key to imagine ANY kind of strange puzzle solution, or, in your experience, is there some limits a GD must avoid to reach in Point&Click games?

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Well, sometimes the signpost can be outside of the game (i.e., popular culture references, referring to famous puzzles from other adventure games, for example) but we have to be super careful with those because they may be outside of the context of our audience. They may have not played Space Quest or Monkey Island, or they may have been raised in a culture other than ours. I think those work best when they can refer to earlier games within an adventure series.

Even then, I think that some level of signposting is still necessary, even if it's very subtle.

Ben Ward
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I think signposting should be used only when necessary to make sure the player is aware of certain information, rather than for pointing them towards the solution. So, as in Dan's example below, you need them to understand that the pelican's bill will retain liquid - if the graphic doesn't definitely convey that, you need to signpost it. Or with the vulture example in the article - the player needs to understand a) that the vulture is consciously choosing the owl bits over your owl innards and possibly b) why it is doing so. As Dan says, this would ideally be covered visually, but if not you can have a bit of dialogue which acts as a joke or description but doubles up as signposting (bad example off the top of my head: "Looks like he prefers the gourmet stuff. I guess this is one of those soft, urban vultures." There is also the choice of whether you want the player to know you're signposting something or you want to try and hide it...

John Trauger
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Sightpost! Clues! Please!

As a gamer and a former QA tester on such games, nothing frustrates me more than an a puzzle whose arbitrary solution requires I read the designer's mind.

I won't feel smart when I get done, I'll feel relieved that I don't have to deal with that %$#@* puzzle anymore. I don't think that's the emotion the designer is usually striving for.

Bryan Lee
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¨nothing frustrates me more than an a puzzle whose arbitrary solution requires I read the designer's mind¨

Isn`t that what the sign posting is for though, so you don`t have to read the designers mind? If the designer wants you to get elephant piss, but doesn`t show you that the elephant wants to pee, then you have to ¨read his mind¨, put if it`s ¨sign posted¨with a elephant that looks like he needs to pee, you can figure it out from the clues on screen, not needed to understand the twisted mind of the designer directly, and that he likes peeing elephants.

Or perhaps I`m not understanding you point correctly... Please expond if you want, I do want to understand what you mean.

Dan Marshall
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Signposting really is the key. Ideally visually, or you cover it in dialogue.

Obviously it's a thin line to tread - you want to be *interesting* and you want that fab thing of the player eyeing up inventory items for different purposes. There's a curve to it - by the end of the game you can arguably be more creative with objects than at the start - once the player's comfortably in the right mindset.

Graphics go a long way as well, of course. A Pelican's Bill might not instantly make you think "this can be used as a bucket", but if the artist draws it like a bucket, that's half the battle won.

Kenneth Nussbaum
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How did this get posted to the front page? This is crass and uninformative. I understand the concept of trailing inferences. All this is, is an un-relatable sequence of events in poor taste. Their is no puzzle solving or intuition here, but merely unraveling a sequence of events you particularly find interesting or entertaining. Judging by your example your going to have a difficult time connecting with a particular audience by approaching them with a care free attitude thats thoughtlessly stringing together elements. The only interesting point you might have stumbled upon is that some decent point and click adventure games are like stand up comedy, they're only relevant if your audience finds it relevant. i highly doubt this considering the more successful point and click adventures put players in a new environment and presenting challenges that fit the theme, not by stringing them along a bizarre and loosely related chain of events. I apologize if this sounds harsh but i don't find this front page material.

Dan Marshall
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Hi Kenneth! This was a personal blog on my personal site that Gamasutra requested I repost here. It was their decision to put it on the front page, presumably because they, as professionals, felt it was informative.

Sorry you find words like 'fucking' and 'piss' crass.

It's frightfully brave amd clever of you to leave a disparaging comment about how you know all this already, we're all super impressed, I can tell you. But a lot of people have found worth and entertainment in it, so maybe in future just try to adopt a more pleasant, sunny attitude about these things and simply think "This wasn't quite for me" and move on?

Best of luck in your videogame career, Kenneth! Looking forward to seeing what you come up with, I'm sure it will be fucking piss-yourself brillo.



Rafa Del Riego
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Suddenly, I just want to start making and good old Point & Click adventure. I enjoyed the read, and found it very insightful.

Thank you for posting!

Rodolfo Magallon
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This read was VERY useful for me as a game designer, and i think i can now think of better puzzles for my work, Thank you Dan.

Greg Noe
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This is an April Fool's post right?