I’ve written a couple posts about making puzzles before, but just as I try to learn new things and improve my work, there’s always more to say and think about. Thanks to Jonathan at GameWeaver for bringing up some great questions about puzzle mechanics:
How do you determine the mechanisms you're going to use for a player to decipher a puzzle and how do you choose what might throw them off? Does a system emerge or do you pick before you start?
When designing a puzzle, a good question to ask is “what does this puzzle want to be?” When you design anything, you might have an idea of what you want to make, but it takes conscious editing and analysis to make sure you don’t force together a mechanic with an element that it doesn’t harmonize with. The aesthetic of the Emerald Flame in particular was heavily influenced by a variety of alchemical manuscripts, and I was interested in creating puzzle mechanics that were reflective of the curiosity inspired in me by the source materials. Not being able to read any of these manuscripts allowed me to imagine what they could possibly mean in the context of my story, and go from there. As a result, there were a few puzzles in the Emerald Flame that were derived from narrative elements, a few originated with specific mechanics in mind, and many that were designed with the visuals coming first. Let’s break down those three options with a few examples of the different thought processes.
Story first: The characters need to find an entrance to an underground passage. Where could it be hidden? Maybe it could be hidden in the castle, since that’s where some of the story takes place. Perhaps there could be a message hidden within a map of the castle. What elements within a map could I use to put together a hidden message? A map would probably have some locations labeled - a good way to gather letters for a message. Maybe there are shapes hiding in the architecture as well, or a legend that gives some kind of clue? How could I combine the visual elements available to me with an interesting mechanic that would reveal an answer?
Mechanic first: Ex. 1: I have a puzzle mechanic that involves making a path using different colored objects. Is there something in the story that would allow for this kind of visual, and how can it be intertwined with this mechanic? Ex. 2: I’ve thought of an idea for an interesting cipher. Is there an element in the game that it would jive well with? Is there a puzzle that could use more than one step and would benefit from this being added? If yes, what’s the best way to integrate it?
Visual first: I find inspiration within an alchemical diagram that looks like it has some puzzle potential. (Puzzle potential? Perhaps some symbols, numbers, shapes, something that maintains a certain order… or something that looks totally out of the ordinary!) For example, imagine a diagram that has to do with the four elements. Mechanically speaking, what could one do with elements? Perhaps combine them? Alter them to create something new? How would the player’s performance of these actions fit into the narrative? How can the concept of combining elements be twisted into something new and refreshing?
As for choosing what might throw people off, more often than not it’s just a matter of not adding too much clutter. This instinct also grows with experience. The more you test puzzles with different groups of people, the better you will understand what sort of things can be distracting. However, the basic rule of thumb is this: anything that looks conspicuously placed or particularly intentional will lead people to believe that they need to pay attention to it. Seems simple enough, right?
So if you’re going to include elements that don’t have any meaning in and of themselves, I suggest they not be full of Roman numerals or other motifs that scream “this has to mean something!” If something looks important, people will think it is, and getting hung up on red herrings just really isn’t fun. Of course, if just one player gets distracted by something it may not be a big deal, but if it’s every other person then just eliminate the darn thing and spare everyone else the frustration. That said, something totally benign-looking revealing itself to be a puzzle can have the opposite effect and make for a great surprise... as long as there is a clue guiding one to pay attention to it. :)
What’s your process for designing puzzles?