Puzzles are key to adventure games and can be a crucial component of action-adventure games. They are a source of great satisfaction once solved, and potentially a source of just as much frustration. Everyone remembers quitting a captivating game when stuck with an impossible puzzle, or even being unable to find the puzzle in the first place!
And yet, there is very little literature and research dedicated to this major aspect of game design. This article was written to offer a set of tangible rules for designing and integrating puzzles.
The role of puzzles in a game varies widely. An adventure game such as Riven is entirely designed around them. Puzzles are the essence of the game itself. On the opposite end, an action-adventure game with a strong "action" bias like Outcast only uses puzzles to set intermediate goals for the player. Between the two extremes, games like Resident Evil and the series Alone In The Dark attempt -- more or less successfully -- to blend action with detective work.
Before going into the details of how to design and integrate puzzles, let's define what makes a good puzzle.
There are three major game genres that employ puzzles; they are: adventure games in the traditional sense such as Myst; Action-adventure games that are strongly bent on "action" like Star Trek Voyager - Elite Force; and Mixed action-adventure games such as Alone In The Dark.
While this categorization does not seem to explain what makes a good puzzle, each genre relies on a different type of puzzle for success and understand this will help us define what makes a good puzzle for each genre. The answer will obviously hinge on individual tastes and habits, but it's important to have a standard as objective as possible.
The rule I often apply is this: What is a player looking for when buying a game? This approach helps me pinpoint the very essence of a game category: the discovery of new sceneries in some adventure games, the humor in a platform game, etc.
We can now attempt to answer the question: What does it take to build a good puzzle?