A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to sit down with Crystal Dynamics' senior designer, Jeff Wajcs, to talk about the team's approach to puzzle design in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
As is usually the case, a hearty portion of our interview had to be cut from my initial article, but because I know some of you will be keen to binge on all 2000+ words of our original discussion, I've taken the liberty of uploading the full transcript right here. Bon appétit!
Did you go back to some of the classic Tomb Raider games and draw inspiration from those puzzles?
Jeff: The original Tomb Raider is one of my favorites. Despite being one of the earliest 3D action adventure games, the level design is spectacular. One of the stand out levels from the first game is St. Francis’ Folly, specifically the last half.
It was the direct inspiration for what we called “Nested Puzzles” in Rise of the Tomb Raider. A Nested Puzzle features a "Big Problem" that can be overcome by solving a series of "Component Puzzles." In St. Francis’ Folly, the Big Problem is the locked door at the bottom. Each of the Component Puzzles is themed around a different god and each gives the player a key when solved.
Solve all four Component Puzzles, and the four keys unlock the Big Problem. The Nested Puzzle format is especially appealing for an action-packed game like Rise of the Tomb Raider. By including combat and traversal beats between all of the Component Puzzles, even a puzzle level can feel fast paced.
Honing in on Rise's tombs and more linear puzzle sections, how you did you begin designing those areas? What was your jumping off point?
One of our design pillars for Rise was putting the "tomb" back in "Tomb Raider." The story for the game did a good job of sending Lara into tombs early and often. In contrast to Rise’s aboveground areas, which would be crawling with enemy soldiers and feature more combat, the solitude of Rise’s tombs would naturally focus on puzzles instead.
Thematically, Lara will always be the first person to the center of a tomb. There will be puzzles to solve, chasms to traverse, and traps to survive, but only someone with Lara’s unique combination of athleticism and resourcefulness can uncover the secrets hidden within.
From a level design perspective, each tomb necessarily starts with the basics. Why is Lara in this tomb? What big story events occur? What kind of environment does the tomb exist in? What new tools or weapons does Lara gain? If Lara is looking for a long dead prophet, then the level needs a room with a sarcophagus in it. If this level needs to train the player how to fire their gun, then our puzzles need to incorporate shooting as a core interact.
One of the most important questions to answer early is what a tomb’s Nested Puzzle should be. What is the Big Problem that Lara is trying to solve? The answer to that question informs everything else about the tomb: Lara’s goal, the level layout, and the specific puzzle mechanics.
Figuring out what the Big Problem can be is tricky— one constraint is that the Big Problem and Component Puzzles need to be far enough apart from each other that they do not blend together and confuse the player. At the same time, the Component Puzzles each need to directly contribute to solving the Big Problem, despite that distance.
The keys from St. Francis’ Folly were a convenient answer for this: each puzzle was in a different room, but with keys, Lara could take the solution with her and plug it into the Big Problem.
Unfortunately, a video game conceit like keys does not really have a place in the grounded game world of Rise of the Tomb Raider. If not keys, though, then what? We came up with several clever answers. One of the best comes early in the game. Lara must reach the top of a tall tower in the middle of the tomb. This is her Big Problem. Solving each Component Puzzle raises the level of the water. When the player solves all three, they can swim to the tower and climb up to its top.
Even though the Component Puzzles and Big Problem are relatively far apart from each other, every Component Puzzle takes a piece out of the Big Problem until there is no problem left.
"One of the most important questions to answer early is what a tomb’s Nested Puzzle should be. What is the Big Problem that Lara is trying to solve?
Everything follows from the concept for the Nested Puzzle: we know we need to design the level around a tall tower, the tomb layout needs to accommodate multiple water levels, and the Component Puzzles themselves need to be water themed. The rest is just iteration.
Did you lay down any ground rules at the start of development? Did each tomb need to tick a specific set of boxes?
Any Tomb Raider tomb has lots of expectations attached to it. It's our job as designers to specifically define what those expectations are. What is a tomb exactly? It is not just a cave with a body buried inside.
We boiled it down to this: Ancient: Tombs are very old. Lara is the first person to set foot in them for hundreds of years. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the tombs are all in the style of the Byzantine Empire. More modern elements, like Soviet winches, can be sprinkled on top, but they should not overwhelm that Byzantine flavor.
Epic: Tombs should be vast and awe inspiring. They need to be a joy to traverse and explore. The puzzle should motivate exploration of as much of the space as possible. One of the cool things about Rise of the Tomb Raider is that the tombs get bigger and bigger as the game goes on.
Deadly: Tombs are dangerous, and their secrets are well protected. Not only are there plenty of traps, but the puzzle elements themselves are hazardous. For example, in one tomb, the water is moving especially fast. The current is a key factor in the puzzle’s solution, but the current can also whisk Lara away and dash her against the rocks.
Ancient, epic, and deadly: those three words became our mantra when designing tombs.
How did you ensure the puzzles remained balanced?
One of Tomb Raider 2013’s successes was that it expanded our audience. That means we have players who come to our game for the combat, or for the story, or for the exploration in addition to all those gamers that come for the puzzles.
Accommodating all these folks is always a challenge for the designers. For puzzles, the first thing to say about difficulty is that a puzzle needs to be fair. I like to compare puzzles to mazes: there are a couple paths to the goals and there are a lot of dead ends. It is the designer’s job to communicate to the player when they have hit a dead end and to encourage them forward when they are on a good path.
A player that keeps trying something wrong because they attribute the failure to poor execution is in a dead end and does not know it. This is a puzzle’s worst case scenario.
Our user tests, which collected a lot of feedback from gamers of all types, were invaluable. A lot of design inaccuracies are flushed out by our play testers with no puzzle experience.
A quick example is from the Ancient Cistern puzzle early in the game. The puzzle has Lara throwing small explosives around a tomb in order to blow up various barriers. There was a sluice gate that affects the water level that Lara used to open by standing on a hanging platform.
We had players enthusiastically throwing the explosives onto the platform because it seemed like the natural thing to do, even though it did not accomplish anything.
Getting the explosives to land on the platform was also difficult, so players would spend a lot of time on it. In response, we changed the platform into a simple bar that Lara could hang from. It was a simple change that did not affect the puzzle’s solution, but it removed a very nasty dead end.
"A puzzle is never quite right on the first implementation. Many of our puzzles are simple on purpose, and the rest have enough different moving parts that we have plenty of ways of tuning difficulty."
A fair puzzle can be completed and enjoyed by a wide spectrum of players. We widen that spectrum further with Survival Instinct, or SI. When a player triggers SI, objects relevant to the current step of the puzzle are lit up, and Lara will comment on what she should do next. This is a good system because it is completely optional.
Hardcore puzzlers can swear off SI and have a good time solving the player on their own, while our more puzzle-averse players can lean on SI more to progress through the game. Some gamers might not like SI because of the impression that it makes the puzzles too easy, but really the opposite is true. SI is why we can afford to make many of the puzzles as hard as they are.
Did you have to scrap any designs because they were either perhaps too simplistic or challenging? If so, how did those end up getting derailed?
The only puzzles on the cutting room floor are those that we have not started yet. Puzzles in the game that are too simple or too hard can always evolve towards a more balanced difficulty.
That is often the biggest part of a puzzle designer’s job; a puzzle is never quite right on the first implementation. Many of our puzzles are simple on purpose, and the rest have enough different moving parts that we have plenty of ways of tuning difficulty.
For example, in that difficult Ancient Cistern puzzle, there’s a tricky concept at the end where the player needs to create a new path for the explosives to take. For a long time, players were not realizing the path existed at all. The puzzle was too challenging only because that one path— the key to the whole puzzle— was not quite visible enough.
In the end, adding one visual hint where traversal was possible was all it took. Rather than cutting a hard puzzle, a couple of tweaks is much less work!
Are there any tricks to designing a puzzle that engages players without leaving them frustrated?
Puzzle engagement often comes down to pacing. Throwing ten puzzle elements at a player at once will just bewilder them. It's much better to control the order in which the player learns things.
One of my tricks is to make the first couple of interactions as free as possible—what I call the puzzle’s “Onramp.” The player makes progress, gains some momentum to encourage them further, learns a bit about the puzzle, and, most importantly, formulates expectations for what comes next.
At some point I hit them with the “Curveball”—that moment where easy and obvious progress is interrupted—where those expectations I have encouraged are suddenly betrayed and the player says to themselves, “Wait a minute.” Something they expected to be there is missing, or broken, or somehow out of the way.
The most common source of frustration with a puzzle is not understanding the actual goal of the puzzle. This feeling of “wait a minute” frames the players goal for them; it transforms “I guess I am in a puzzle” into “I need to figure out how to do X.” This Curveball also sets ups the “ah ha!” moment in which the player understands what they need to do.
One of my favorite Curveballs happens in a puzzle late in the game. The first few minutes of the puzzle, the Onramp, are automatic for most players. There are a couple of sluice gates that need to be opened in order to progress.
The lever to the first sluice gate needs to be tied off to a nearby crank winch to keep it open. Easy. It’s when they get to the second sluice gate and there is no crank that the Curveball strikes. “Wait, where is the crank I need?”
"For me, the perfect puzzle exists at the intersection of economy of mechanics and compelling layout. It's lean and mean- all the “fat” has been cut."
The player now has a specific goal in mind—it will guide and motivate their next actions. The player becomes completely engaged with the puzzle in this moment.
What do you think constitutes the perfect puzzle? Is there such a thing?
For me, the perfect puzzle exists at the intersection of economy of mechanics and compelling layout.
By “economy of mechanics” I mean that the puzzle has only as many objects/mechanics in it as it truly needs. It's lean and mean- all the “fat” has been cut. Each object in the puzzle contributes both to the solution and the player’s understanding of the solution.
It is more economical for one object to do two things than to have two objects. Compelling layout is easier to understand.
Is the level interesting to explore? Is it interesting to look at? Does the layout fit the puzzle like a glove or is it squished and squashed in some places? Different things can make a layout compelling, but in my experience, verticality and asymmetry always help.
The intersection of these two concepts is what is important. Good economy of mechanics is wasted in a dull rectangular shoebox level, and a compelling layout won’t save a puzzle from bloat. It is beautiful, though, when everything fits together just so.
There is just one more thing that elevates a puzzle to perfection, and it is that coolness factor that can be hard to define. What makes one puzzle cool and another not?
Our Director liked to say that all of our puzzle solves should be something that “Rambo would do.”
Blowing a door up with an explosion is always going to be cooler than opening it gently. However coolness is defined, it is important that a puzzle sounds cool from its earliest conception.
Game development being what it is, compromises often need to be made on economy and layout, but we cannot compromise on coolness, and it is hard to tack on later.