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Are puzzles an integral part of IF?

Sometimes it strikes me how deep the puzzle-centered thinking is infused into the medium. I have played, and been annoyed by, many games that tell a great story and then break the flow by haphazardly cramming in a couple of puzzles, presumably because “IF must have puzzles.”

There’s one integral, defining aspect to IF and it’s the world model. The author creates a virtual world and a story that takes place in it. So far this is only a simulation; to make it a game the author adds game mechanics and they are, more often than not, puzzles. But are puzzles the only option? Is there really nothing else we could do with a virtual world?

What about puzzleless IF, I hear you ask. There are a lot of those, right? Sure, but most of them are just puzzle games without puzzles, or with trivially easy puzzles. Removing puzzles and adding nothing in their place does not improve the situation. Without any game mechanics IF turns into hypertext fiction.

Galatea and its descendants are good examples of non-linear stories with strong non-puzzle game mechanics, in this case conversation. If I may take a look into the crystal ball, I suspect that in the future the puzzle aspects will diminish or at least they have changed considerably. Just like mazes and hunger puzzles have made room for better puzzles, the puzzles we write today will make room for even better design. More importantly puzzles will not be considered the only or even the primary option for IF game mechanics.

The key is to realize that puzzles are just one option for IF game mechanics and they are prevalent (I suspect) mostly because of tradition starting from the very first Adventure. “An adventure game is a crossword at war with a narrative,” the famous quote by Graham Nelson from 1995, has been the guideline for IF design. I’m afraid we’re stuck with conventions that have grown to define the medium and are now preventing us from seeing more options. It’s time to look farther and create something new instead of just improving what we have.


  1. Touchy

    Being a great puzzle afficionado (and a big fan of using the word afficionado) I play a lot of IF for the puzzles and like puzzle heavy games but agree that they lack integration sometimes.

  2. I think before we get excited about post-puzzle design that it would be good to define what is meant by “puzzle”. There’s a world of difference between, old-sk00l puzzle design like the “twisty little maze”, hunger timers, and darkness, and the newer design that includes the locational interactions of _Delightful Wallpaper_, the physical modality puzzles of _Spider and Web_, the word manipulations of _Ad Verbum_ or _Earl Grey_, or the social puzzles of _Broken Legs_, to just name a few.

    More to the point, what makes exploring the conversation space of _Galatea_ qualitatively different from figuring out the solution to _Broken Legs_? In both cases, you’re mapping your way through an unknown conversational manifold, where the response you get is only weakly determined by your current state, and the possibility exists that previous state can affect the outcome.

    Heck, put that way, they both map fairly well to a bog-standard maze puzzle, except that the descriptions are more interesting!

    Are you saying Galatea is better because there’s no set end goal to the interaction other than that imputed by the player? In other words, Second Life is better than World of Warcraft? If that’s the argument, I’d say that the fact that IF is predominantly a single-person experience makes that a less compelling argument for me.

  3. Tale

    Hmm…when you put it that way, I’m wondering about the world model itself. IF can be so many different things… (I’m thinking of Space under the Window or some Art Show entries I saw.)

  4. The problem I see is that it nearly any sort of interactive element where there are better and worse outcomes based on intelligent choices(as opposed to a random number, say) in the interaction could be called a puzzle in IF.

    Puzzles being so hugely dominant is as much a ‘problem’ of choice of words.

  5. Tale

    Yes, I think we should define “puzzle” here. I think what Juhana means is something that is “an obstacle.” The conversation in Galatea can always be continued and has no “winning” or “losing” end. (Well, IIRC you can get her to break your arm, which is an undesired outcome to any conversation.)

  6. Juhana

    Yes, let’s not start splitting hairs. Sure, you could define puzzles as “all interaction,” but that doesn’t mean you should or that it would do anyone any good. (Even static fiction is a puzzle! You have to figure out how to turn the page!)

    Matt: Just a clarification: I’m not arguing that puzzles are inferior to other game mechanics, just that some variation would be good.

  7. Jeremy

    So, you are unhappy that puzzles – the back bone and history of virtually all IF – are spoiling your experience? Perhaps you should try a good book instead

  8. Juhana

    Jeremy: Does that mean your answer to the title’s question is “yes”?

  9. @Juhana: Fair enough. But I think it’s a valid question to ask what forms of interaction within a world model would fall outside the definition of “puzzle”. When we’ve established that, we can discuss the types of player experiences you could build using those interactions.

    The main problem I see is that the puzzle serves several roles in an IF game at present:

    It’s a gating mechanism — allowing certain content to be metered or privileged.

    It’s an achievement — players (often) want to overcome challenges for a number of different reasons, including pride, score, etc.

    It motivates exploration of the world model — the player’s attention is focused on aspects of the world model that might prove useful in overcoming the puzzle at hand.

    It can facilitate characterization and plot — the PC’s personality can be established through responses to action, and world-model puzzles generally require varied actions to solve.

    Any non-puzzle mechanism is going to have to somehow fill those roles, in which case you have the “if it quacks like a duck” issue. Either that or you’ll have to dispense with or modify one or more of those aspects, which then takes away a major tool used to make an interactive experience compelling.

    Not that it can’t be done, but I think we’ll need to have our definitions straight first.

  10. Andrew Plotkin

    I see I’m behind on this one, but Matt’s latest comment sums up where I’m coming from.

    I *do* define “puzzle” very broadly, and it’s not so I can split hairs. It’s because if the game offers something for the player to meaningfully interact with, then the player (a) cares about what the outcome is, and (b) may fail to get one outcome vs another. (That’s pretty much how I define “meaningful”.)

    That applies to Galatea. If you want to call Galatea “puzzleless”, I’m okay with that; but the discussion is then about how Galatea presents outcomes which don’t feel like failures, even when the player gets sidetracked or doesn’t know how to approach a given subject. And then those techniques are equally applicable to “traditional puzzle” scenarios.

    Hm. So if Galatea, or a conversational NPC of that complexity, were a gate guard — she would de facto be a puzzle. (Presume the player is outside the gate and Chapter 2 is inside.) You could imagine some late-conversation states in which the guard allows the player in; and others in which the guard mentions a back door, or offers to arrange a meeting with the person you’re trying to meet, or various other ways to move the plot forward. The player is going to perceive that as a puzzle even if *every* outcome leads to Chapter 2, because the player’s impression comes from first impact.