Results tagged “puzzles”

When the Obduction kickstarter fired up in 2013, it seemed like a good moment for adventure games in general. With Unity3D well-established and the Unreal 4 engine coming up, small teams were in a good position to produce really stellar visual environments. Then Cyan got a million dollars out of nostalgic Myst fans. Good sign, right?

Sure enough, a couple of years later, I saw several Myst-inspired projects on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.

Of those, I have now played Haven Moon (my notes in this post) and Neptune Flux (didn't have much to say). We're still waiting on Zed and Xing. (To be sure, Xing's Kickstarter predated Obduction's -- plus one point for foresight, minus one point for taking longer. Give the point back for making progress on a KS payout way less than a million dollars.)

And I have played Obduction, and now I have played Quern: Undying Thoughts. Spoiler: those are the two good ones, so far. In fact, the great ones.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Quern. Also on Obduction and Neptune Flux.)

Just as it was impossible to talk about Obduction without comparing it to Myst, I cannot talk about Quern without comparing it to Obduction. They're both aiming at the same target: a first-person adventure in which the puzzles span every aspect of the environment. They are graphical IF in the sense that I used to talk about: you must engage with them immersively, placing yourself in the world, imagining those objects around you (and in your hands), considering what makes sense to do in that physical reality.

(Note that that "Characterizing IF" post is harsh on CYOA games. That was me writing in 2002. The field has advanced.)

Quern and Obduction are both top-notch adventure games. Both have really great, creatively constructed puzzles. They both take advantage of the 3D world engine, both visually and in their puzzle design. Both are lonely worlds; they avoid human interaction (and thus the high costs of character modeling and animation). And I finished both in roughly 15 hours of play time. So those are obvious similarities.

My Obduction nonreview

Obduction is a really good adventure game. You should play it.

I finished the game a week ago and I've had a heck of a time thinking of anything to say. To be sure, my Myst review was written in 2002 and my Myst 5 review in 2010, so the sensible course is just to wait five or ten years and see where Cyan's gotten to. An Obduction review will make an excellent retrospective.

But I do want you to buy the game. (To help make sure Cyan makes it another five or ten years.) So, yeah, it's a really good game and you should play it.

I played The Witness to an ending, and then I went back and played until I had finished it to my satisfaction. (504 +82. I looked at just two hints, and no thanks, I am not going to beat the Hall of the Mountain King. Two of my friends did; I am happy to bask in their reflected glory.)

The Witness must be the most painfully-analyzed game release of the past few years. Painstakingly-analyzed? Both. I haven't even gone looking for the discussion threads. They're out there, because we all love to talk.

So I doubt I can say much. But (I love to talk) I will take a shot at the aspect I find most interesting, which is the game's presentation of its point of view. Your point of view? Both.

(This post will contain very general spoilers about the kinds of puzzles in The Witness.)

You can't talk about The Witness without mentioning Myst, but The Witness has curiously little to say about Myst. "Curiously" because Braid, the designer's previous game, was an extended and careful riff on Super Mario Brothers. Oh, it was plenty of things beyond that. But the design of Braid reflected SMB in its art, its enemy design, its jumping mechanics, and its frame story of a lost princess. And this was not unreasonable, because SMB has (perhaps retroactively) assumed the mantle of a videogame archetype.

So when I heard that Jon Blow's next game would be puzzles on a mysterious island, I said "Oh, he's doing Myst now." Myst is as much a videogame archetype as Adventure and Tetris. Taking apart Myst's conventions and assumptions won't necessarily make a great game (it might get you no farther than Pyst did) but it could be an excellent launching point.

Well, as everyone informed me the minute The Witness launched, it's not Jon Blow doing Myst. He went off in other directions -- fine. (One could make the argument that it's more of a riff on Portal.) But we can still pick up the thread, because it is a first-person graphical environment, and the conventions of Myst's design loom over all such games.

You are you; the game is your view of the world; you act by manipulating the world directly. These ideas were never perfectly implemented -- the original mouse cursor and 544-pixel-wide window strained to hold the illusion of being your hand and your eye. But the ideal seemed so obvious as to require no argument.

The Witness, with due consideration and no explanation(*) at all, rejects each of these conventions. Not blatantly; you won't even notice at first. But they all fall apart upon inspection. A disagreement so understated and distinct must be deliberate, I think.

(* Until near the end. We'll get there.)

Soma: meanderings by a wuss

(This post will be generally spoilery for the setting and background of Soma. I will avoid specific plot details, however.)

I've had Soma on my stack for several months. Last month I pulled it off the (virtual) shelf to take a look.

Contemporary-world prologue: good setup. Transition to the creepy future undersea base: excellent. Creepy undersea base: admirably creepy. I pushed through the first bit of the base, moving very cautiously -- though, from a design standpoint, this was clearly the "shadows in the corner of your eye" phase. The monster was not yet on screen.

So then I get to the room where the Frictional monster comes on screen. "Oh," I said, "look, it's the Frictional monster."

I've played through Amnesia: Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs(đŸ·). They have the same monster. It shambles towards you and kicks your ass. And I remember specifically, in Pig Machine, that the monster is fundamentally harmless. If you just stand there and wait, it shambles up and whomps you and then disappears. I mean, you die -- or almost die, or the game gives you another shot, or something -- but the monster is gone and you can get on with the plot.

I can see how the designers got there. Getting stuck isn't particularly good for the game flow, and the threat of sort-of-death is a still a decent incentive to sneak around and play the game "right". For most people. I guess. Not me. "Face your fear!" I shouted, and let the monster walk up and pop like a soap bubble.

In that light, the Frictional monster is hapless and pitiable. Poor poor fleshy monstrosity.

The Room 3: design ruminations

(Or "roominations", har har.)

I have finished The Room 3, third in the series of gorgeous puzzle-box games for touchscreen. I didn't know it was in production -- The Room 2 seemed to wrap up the storyline, such as it was -- but I guess the designers have decided to ride this clockwork train for as long as it ticks. I'm not objecting; this entry in the series is a satisfying chunk of puzzle manipulation. It's longer than the first two games put together, and it expands the original game mechanic into an explorable environment. (By offering an architectural space of rooms, and also adding a new "zoom into tiny sub-rooms" mechanic.)

I want to talk about one particular aspect: the storyline. In idle post-game chatter, I tweeted:

I can't say I think of these games as narrative objects at all. (--@zarfeblong)

That may sound nuts; how different is the Room series from the classically-narrative Myst series? Puzzles + journals = IF. But there must be a difference. When I said above "the storyline, such as it was", I wasn't kidding. I literally don't remember anything about the storyline of The Room and The Room 2 except that R2 seemed to wrap it up. And there was "the Null", but that's something that R3 reminded me of.

Designing alchemy in a puzzle game

A question about Hadean Lands from the tweet gallery: "Have you written anything about how you approached designing the alchemical system?"

Excellent question! The answer is "No, but I should, shouldn't I," yes okay. (Thanks @logodaedalus.)

My twitter-sized reply was "Sound cool while supporting the puzzles," but I can say more than that.

(Note: I will start this post by talking about HL in generalities. Later on I'll get into more spoilery detail about the game structure. It won't come down to specific puzzle solutions, but I'll put in a spoiler warning anyway.)

The Talos Principle: design ruminations

As it happens I replayed Portal 2 right before The Talos Principle launched. That's gotta be the last thing a game designer wants to hear, right? "We don't use the term 'Portal-like', but, sure, Talos is... wait, you just replayed Portal? You couldn't have waited a couple of weeks in between?"

(I haven't gone to check whether the designers used the term "Portal-like". Nobody's going to disagree with it, nohow.)

Talos is a pleasant puzzle game with a nice script and good art and bullet-holes in several of its own feet. I recommend it but I wish it had fewer self-inflicted wounds.

(Note: in a "ruminations" post I don't offer an overall review. Instead, I focus on particular areas of design that I find interesting -- or problematic. So don't freak out just because I complain a lot.)

Raetikon, Fract

This week I tried two different puzzle/exploration games. They were both pretty cool, but I only finished one of them. Does this mean I am going to delve into details of game design? Yes!

Oh, sure, it'll boil down to personal preference -- but details can be fun.

I spent the weekend at a delightful little game-dev conference at NYU. Much cool stuff happened there. However, I want to focus on Saturday morning.

Saturday's first talk was by Warren Spector, who has recently switched from developing games (Deus Ex, etc) to teaching the subject at UTexas. His thesis was simple: emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay are you listening people.

Here's a writeup of Spector's talk, thanks to Leigh Alexander and Gamasutra.

(Footnote: the quality of emergent gameplay should be referred to as "emergency". As in, "Yeah, that game had a lot of emergency." Hat tip to Vernor Vinge for pointing this out.)

Spector tried not to say "Everything else sucks." He stated right off that he was oversimplifying, and that he's just presenting the kind of games that interest him. But it was hard to avoid the subtext that any scripted, linear, or single-solution interaction was inferior -- bad game design. Inherently. That if players tried the emergent (simulative, rules-based) gameplay they'd be happier and never go back.

Slash Fiction and other puzzles

mime_slashfiction.pngAs I have done every year since 2004, I spent the second weekend in January playing (or solving, to use the field-specific lingo) in the MIT Mystery Hunt. I always feel quite privileged to play; each hunt iteration represents a one-time-only interactive artwork that a team of passionate amateurs spends the better part of a year planning and constructing, culminating in a single weekend where a thousand puzzle-hungry solvers trample through it.

Like an informational World’s Fair, it leaves its husk behind for the late-but-curious to tour: you may browse all this year’s puzzles online, and note that they seem to be arranged around a theme of ill-advised Broadway mashups. Without the context of the hunt alive around them, though, the puzzles lose a certain amount of motive force. When presented all at once like this, they lack the light but necessary hunt-specific narrative that organizes paths for the solver to follow. (This year, it featured a storyline based on the further adventures of the swindling showmen from The Producers.)

I would also argue that, even though each puzzle now links to its own solution page, these puzzles must still seem impossibly obscure to curious layfolk who stumble upon them. So in this article, rather than examine the hunt’s overall form where carefully paced groups of puzzle-sets slowly reveal the twisty superstructures of meta-puzzles, I’d like to highlight a few of the several dozen individual challenges which defined the weekend for the hunt’s players.

Let’s start with the puzzle titled Slash Fiction, designed by (and starring) Seth Schoen and Vera Yin. It makes a nice blog-post headliner because it happens to take the form of a six-minute video, one as fun to watch as to solve.

Have you watched it? All right, then: your challenge, as with every hunt puzzle, is to somehow definitively produce an English word or phrase based on this input.

Dan Feyer Facts

Dan Feyer won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this past weekend. Andrew Greene has collected a list of #ChuckNorrisFacts-style jokes about his preternatural grid-filling abilities, penned by those who were humbled by him in person. A sampling:

I once had an idea for a crossword but I decided not to construct it because Dan Feyer had already solved it.

When Will Shortz says “On your marks, get set, GO!”, Dan Feyer gets up and goes, because he’s done.

IBM considered calling its Jeopardy computer “FEYER” but didn’t want to insult Dan Feyer.

Thumbdrive Riddler is never gonna give you up

RiddlerLast year at PAX East, an anonymous riddler dropped a stack of mysterious USB thumbdrives in the People’s Republic’s hospitality suite. The Wingding characters emblazoned upon them, it turned out, were the first key to cracking the code-based puzzles found in the drives’ data. The rewards were a series of playable Infocom spoofs, starting with a mutation of Zork where the thief appears to have been replaced with Rick Astley. (He sings exactly what you’d expect.)

At PAX east 2011, they struck again, silently insinuating one more thumbdrive into the suite’s washroom. I discovered it while helping to lock the place up on Sunday, pocketed it… and immediately forgot about it. But then, just last night, a twitter account connected with last year’s riddles cleared its throat at us, and I remembered again! Much frenzied solving on IFMud followed.

Solvers were curious at the payload’s size, which at more than 60 MB is far larger than any of last year’s puzzle-packets. “It might be just a giant rickroll,” I suggested, and… well, you can read the results yourself.

As I write this, the solvers on the Mud are still scratching their heads over what appears to be an audio-steganography puzzle. If you’d like to lend a hand, you can grab your own copy of the thumbdrive’s contents and then join us on IFMud, where we’re using the chat-channel #PAX-USB-drive.

Update: Wow, looks like the team on the Mud cracked it literally within minutes of my posting this. Nice job! (The transcript linked above now reflects this.)

I’d like to offer my appreciation to the merry pranksters who are keeping this little game going. We’re all having fun with it, and even if it sometimes takes us adventure-game fanatics a little while to figure out where the puzzles are, at least we’re in-character enough to pick up and carry around everything that looks remotely interesting.

Image credit: Photograph by David Marriott Jr. (CC BY-NC-ND)

Puzzle structure in 2015

I recently read Tony Bourdain's Medium Raw, which was a fascinating look into the world of people who are really, really interested in food. I like food. These people think about food more than I do. So much so that I can barely understand their explanations.

At my first meal at Momofuku SsÀm, one particular dish slapped me upside the head [...] It was a riff on a classic French salad of frisée aux lardons: a respectful version of the bistro staple -- smallish, garnished with puffy fried chicharrones of pork skin instead of the usual bacon, and topped with a wonderfully runny, perfectly poached quail egg. Good enough [...] But the salad sat on top of a wildly incongruous stew of spicy, Korean-style tripe -- and it was, well, it was... genius. Here, on the one hand, was everything I usually hate about modern cooking -- and in one bowl, no less. It was "fusion" -- in the sense that it combined a perfectly good European classic with Asian ingredients and preparation. It was post-modern and contained my least favorite ingredient these days: irony. [...] But this was truly audacious. It was fucking delicious. And it had tripe in it.

(--from Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain, chapter 17)

Mind you, the whole book isn't like that. Bourdain talks about everything from hamburgers, to fatherhood, to foie gras, to the Food Network, to the stupid things he wrote in his first book. But that paragraph in particular grabbed me because I have no idea what he's talking about. I can look up the recipe (frisée lettuce with hot pork, vinaigrette); maybe I've even eaten it somewhere. I've eaten spicy Korean stews. But why is this ironic? Or audacious? What is it reacting against? What are the things it is reacting against reacting against? If I'd been sitting next to Bourdain, eating off his plate, I still wouldn't have a clue.

I recalled this paragraph on Sunday afternoon, sitting in an MIT auditorium, listening to the designers of the 2011 Mystery Hunt talk about their puzzle structures. I knew exactly what they were talking about. I'd just lived through it (or half of it, anyway, since I got two good nights' sleep during the Hunt.) Everybody in the room was smiling and nodding along to the speaker's presentation, and laughing at the jokes on the slides. This was our field. This was our side of the wall. Tony Bourdain would have been completely befuddled, see?

Friday linkdump: Three stories about cubes

IMG_1393.JPGOK, two of them are about dice.

Your Uncle Dudley’s Knucklebones appears to be the online gallery of a dice collector (with a casually Google-resistant identity). The mysterious blog contains only two posts, but the enormous latter entry contains many dozens of individual photographs.

The dice lay against a ruler on a white background, looking more like bullets in an autopsy, removed from their police report. The site offers no textual explanation of where any of the dice came from, or what purpose the more oddly specialized ones may have served. But if you’re like me, you’ll find delight in imagining the designs these little rolling-bones once played a part of. (Granted, the aim of the rather NSFW dice towards the end seem plain enough…)

I was interested to see that the first post, dedicated to the display of a single prototype 60-sided die design, mentions the fabbers at We’ve mentioned their contributions to the games-and-puzzles world before.

I have not read The Bones, but I probably should. It’s a collection of essays on dice edited by Will Hindmarch, and my fellow tabletop-game aficionados will recognize many of the collected author’s names — Costikyan, Kovalic, Selinker, the increasingly inevitable Wheaton, and many others. A print book is currently for sale, with an ebook edition in the works.

(Bonus aside: for a delightful coffee-table book about these most venerable gaming tools, Ricky Jay’s Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck, which pairs smart text on the history and culture of dice with truly beautiful and haunting photographs of our cubical friends by Rosamond Purcell. It’s still in print, and findable through the book-oracle of your choice.)

Finally, allow me to share with you the good news that God’s Number is 20.

With about 35 CPU-years of idle computer time donated by Google, a team of researchers has essentially solved every position of the Rubik’s Cube, and shown that no position requires more than twenty moves.

[ … ]

One may suppose God would use a much more efficient algorithm, one that always uses the shortest sequence of moves; this is known as God’s Algorithm. The number of moves this algorithm would take in the worst case is called God’s Number. At long last, God’s Number has been shown to be 20.

It took fifteen years after the introduction of the Cube to find the first position that provably requires twenty moves to solve; it is appropriate that fifteen years after that, we prove that twenty moves suffice for all positions.

I don’t pretend to fully understand exactly how this solution came about, despite the cogent explanations on that page, and its many interesting links to other Cube-fiends’ attempts at finding this elusive number, going all the way back to typewritten correspondence from 1981. But I am delighted to learn about such a vertiginous level of recreational puzzle solving — not solving the Cube, but solving a puzzle that’s made out of solutions to the Cube, a true meta-puzzle. All the better, I suppose, that I learn about it specifically because some folks have finally laid it safely to rest after nearly 30 years of shared effort. Less fundamentally frightening, that way.

Similar journeys in very different games

DASH-colossus column illo.pngI have lived in Boston for ten years, but I had never seen the swan boats before Saturday.

The event that got me exploring my own burg was DASH, an annual puzzle competition that takes place simultaneously (time zones be damned) across several American cities. In typical puzzle-hunt fashion, the event's structure comprised several thematically linked printed puzzles whose answers fed into a metapuzzle, and a team completes the event once they can provide the resulting single final answer.

Appropriate to an event meant to be solved in a single afternoon by folks working outdoors and away from their PCs, the hunt focused on "groupsolves" -- lighthearted puzzles that don't require any research or heavy cogitation, instead inviting a small group of friends to bash through as a team via their overlapping areas of common knowledge. This year's DASH chose television as its theme, providing a rich mine of cultural trivia for puzzles to draw their wordplay from. The offhand-knowledge requirement never got more obscure than an early puzzle that involved assembling constellation names from a jumble of phonemes. (As with all good hunt puzzles, as tricky as the wordplay-work was the sussing out what one was meant to do with the starting materials; naturally the clue text for that puzzle involved the show Dancing with the Stars.)

DASH's props included a map of (in our case) Boston's South End and Back Bay neighborhoods, with a couple dozen or so spots marked, and you did have to figure out the correct route for proceeding through them. Once you answered a puzzle, you consulted a lookup table to learn where to head next. There, you'd receive that location's puzzle-materials from a DASH organizer idling nearby (and helpfully demarcated by their wearing a pair of TiVo costume-antennae), and you'd set to work anew. Despite the map, however, the puzzles were not tied to location; that is, none required you to take the third letter off the second word of the nearby statue's plaque, or somesuch. Entirely self-contained, the puzzles could therefore be safely identical in every DASH-participating city.

It would be reasonable to ask why the hunt bothered with the run-around element, then. Why not take the more traditional puzzle-hunt route and have teams stay put throughout the event?

Follow the MIT Mystery Hunt on Twitter

I am once again participating in the MIT Mystery Hunt this year, playing on the team "Immoral, Illegal & Fattening", a group of 40 or so solvers out of the many hundreds of hardcore puzzle fans in attendance. This will be my seventh Hunt, but my first since I starting getting into the ol' Twitter, and as such I quickly became consumed by that question that held no meaning before 2007, but now occurs to me with curious regularity: What is the hashtag for this?

For lack of a more obviously correct solution, I decided last week to get all Wikipedia on the problem and boldly declare that the tag would be #mysteryhunt. And so, apparently, it is. Anyone - Twitter-using and otherwise - should feel free to follow that tag to see the latest chatter about this most unusual annual event. As I write this, the tag exists in that pre-event state where its tweets are mainly involved with complaints of air travel while all the players gather, so it remains to be seen how it goes from here.

Honestly, I don't know how well this will work, compared to, say, a hashtag attached to a conference. Because the Hunt is a competitive event, with teams generally not wishing to provide information that might accidentally help their opponents, it wouldn't surprise me if things clam up tight once the solving gets underway, and then burst out with a flood of mingled celebration and disbelief as soon as one of the teams wins. Then again... yeah, I have no idea.

Anyway, there it is. Enjoy!

The longest day of the year

Today is the longest day of the year! And so is tomorrow!

Yes, I know the equinox was two days ago. Nonetheless:


[ed: not "twenty-second" -- thanks, Elizabeth!]

A tie, as you see, with 29 letters each. Or 31 symbols if you count the punctuation. Which I do; surely TWENTY-THIRD beats SEVENTEENTH by a hyphen?

The ideal candidate would be a WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER TWENTY-SEVENTH. But we won't have one of those until 2017.

For runners-up this year, we have several candidates:


Those are 30 symbols each. Much too common, really.

Let's stick with discussing today (and tomorrow). I would propose a new title for these two interesting days -- the ONLY 2009 DAYS WHICH NEED 31 SYMBOLS. Unfortunately my paradoctor is running towards me, waving some sort of paper and screaming, so I'll have to break this post off and find out what she wants.

Bram Cohen's puzzle shop

photos-photo3773.jpgI recently discovered through Twitter that Bram Cohen, best known as the creator of BitTorrent, is also an aficionado of three-dimensional construction puzzles (e.g. the Soma cube). He has lately taken to designing puzzles himself, and now sells several original designs through Shapeways, a web-based service that offers 3D-printed objects based on their creators' uploaded spec documents.

Doubly interesting to me: it's always a delight to learn that someone unexpected is into puzzles -- let alone a designer of them -- and I find the Shapeways business model surprising and intriguing, as well.

Matt is speedcubing again

My friend (and several-time Gameshelf TV star) Matthew Morse is getting back into speedcubing, the ancient art of solving a thoroughly scrambled Rubik's Cube wicked fast. He started out by buying a new cube, since his old one, while a source of nostalgic affection, is too worn for competitive play.

After I got a new Cube, I promptly set out to demonstrate that I still remembered the solution I had memorized. What I found was that for two related sequences, I had forgotten which sequence did what. Which sequence to use in response to which pattern is memorized by your head, and initially I had it backwards. Once I figured it out, executing them was no problem. Performing the sequences is memorized in the hands, and they hadn't forgotten at all.

Now I'm working on developing my understanding of how the solution works. I've filled several pages of notes based on the simpler case of a 2x2x2 Cube and I expect to be able to move up to the standard 3x3x3 once I have some more details worked out.

I also bought a 4x4x4 Cube at the same time I got the new 3x3x3 Cube. It's still in the package. Truthfully, I'm a little scared of it.

Full post contains reminiscing about his original childhood time with the cube, as well as mention of Jessica Fridrich, a teenage cube prodigy who grew up to become an engineering professor at Binghamton University, and who keeps her canonical speedcubing notes prominently linked from her academic homepage.

Grim Fandango puzzle design document

Another in our series of historic game development trivia! (This is completely coincidental, stuff just keeps popping up.)

Tim Schafer at Double Fine has posted the puzzle design spec for his classic adventure game, Grim Fandango. It is that game's tenth anniversary; it was released on the Day of the Dead, 1998.

Read the Grim Fandango document (2.4 meg PDF).

This document is a first draft, dated April 30, 1996. It has lots of puzzles which didn't make it into the final game. Schafer also notes:

We didn’t have the last puzzle designed when I wrote that document, so I wrote two nonsense paragraphs and then overlapped them in the file so it would look like the final puzzle description was in there, but obscured by a print formatting error. That way I could turn the document in by the deadline.

Bonus: Grim Fandango cake.

EDIT-ADD (11/13): Schafer has taken down his blog post and the document, with no direct comment, but a very indirect hint that it wasn't his to post. Since we at the Gameshelf believe in historic preservation, I have put a copy on our own web site. So the link above works again.



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