Puzzle Wrangling

August 12, 2016

The Sleuthhounds computer games are created in the image of classic graphic adventure games. One of the core aspects of these types of games is that they present a series of puzzles for players to solve. Puzzles can be a tricky thing to get right from a design perspective. Too easy and players breeze through them and get bored. Too difficult and players get completely stumped and frustrated. However, in addition to these pitfalls, the puzzle designer runs the risk of puzzles getting out of hand and becoming far more extensive and complicated than they properly should be. Such was the case with one puzzle in the upcoming Sleuthhounds Halloween adventure.

Without giving anything critical away, at one point in the game the player needs to convince a character to part with a needed item. That character wants a cookie recipe in exchange for the item. However, it’s not as simple as writing a recipe down as the character suffers from a rare form of dyslexia that prevents him from being able to read the written word. Instead he requests a picture-based version of the recipe.

When I did the initial high-level design for the Halloween game, that was the extent of what I wrote down concerning the puzzle. At that point, I thought it would be an interesting challenge finding symbols scattered about the game world to use as substitutions into a written recipe that you would find.

Fast forward half a year to the time when I came to flesh out and implement that puzzle. The first step was to find a suitable cookie recipe, something that was fairly short to limit the number of substitutions needed and that didn’t have many, if any, esoteric ingredients that it would be hard to determine a picture for.

I found a recipe that seemed to fit the bill. It only had seven ingredients and eight steps in it. However, as I started doing my own translation of the recipe into picture form, I found that I still needed quite a lot of pictures – twenty-four to be exact – to represent it. That seemed like quite a lot of repetitious substitution to make a player sit through, especially since trading the picture recipe for the character’s item was just one step in a larger puzzle chain in the game.

The recipe puzzle, like Frankenstein’s monster, was taking on a life of its own. The problem I faced was that it was important to put across that the character in question had the form of dyslexia they did. That wasn’t just arbitrarily thrown in for this one puzzle, but is in fact important to the case that the Sleuthhounds are investigating. So simply discarding that was not a possibility.

Step back and think. That’s some good advice that a former boss and mentor of mine once gave me. Even though he was referring to desktop software design, it’s still equally applicable to game design. I knew that I had a puzzle that had grown wildly out of hand. I also knew that I couldn’t just get rid of it without causing repercussions through the rest of the game due to what it would mean for that one key character.

Being Halloween themed, the game naturally takes place at Halloween. More specifically, I’ve set it at a Halloween costume party. At the party I’ve included a number of Halloween events that the player can participate in. Most of those tied into the overall story progression in some way, but I did have one that was just sort of dangling in the game. The player could play it, but it didn’t really have anything to do with anything. That’s when I had my Eureka! moment.

I realized that with a few tweaks to the one party game I could tie in a different, simpler form of the recipe puzzle, one where the player wouldn’t have to do a lot of repetitive substitutions. The new version of the puzzle is now in much better balance with the other puzzles in the game and keeps the events of the game more focused rather than going off on a lengthy symbol collecting experience.

I believe that game design – and general software design, for that matter – happens throughout the entire production schedule. Even when you’re down to the final testing of a game you should still be willing to reopen things and make changes if they sufficiently strengthen the game.

Puzzle wrangling. Design wrangling. Wrangling wrangling. It’s all in the name of making the best game possible. Don’t be afraid to replace early ideas with stronger ones when they come along.