Puzzles vs Chores: A Design Dilemma

Posted 1 week ago2024-07-10 15:45:19 UTC
In order to escape from the hell that is medical bureaucracy, I'm making yet another attempt to return to level design. After deciding that all my passion projects are more ambitious than I can currently manage, I figured I'd start with something smaller, and I decided something with challenging puzzles would be a cool map.

Which raises the problem of puzzle design in Half-Life².

The campaign doesn't have that problem: people playing it for the first time are usually new to the game, so the challenge is figuring out what the puzzle actually is and learn the design language: blue barrels float, wooden beams can be broken, gas canisters can detonate, etc. A battery can be carried around to be plugged in.

For any sort of seasoned HL2 player, that's not a challenge. They know the usual puzzles and the design language, and most of the usual puzzles have become mere chores. Carry A to B, stack X on Y, put L under M to lift it up. The "bring A to B" is the most basic form of puzzle and usually results in copious backtracking and can make the player feel like an errand boy.

So what I want are three things:
  • puzzles that are challenging, in that the solution has to be deduced by the player
  • puzzles that aren't menial, in that the execution is trivial and doesn't amount to pointless labour
  • puzzles that are learnable, in that players don't get frustrated and feel like they were set up to fail
And that is surprisingly tough.

Elaborate physics puzzles are one possible approach. Those either are too obvious ("a wooden beam supporting a precariously balanced ramp that I could blow up and walk down? how convenient!") or too elaborate ("what am I supposed to do, build a pulley?!").

Circuitry puzzles à la Portal seem more promising, but teaching the player an entirely new design language may take more time than a single map can accomplish.

Number locks are simply trial and error.

I keep thinking about it, but it's hard coming up with enough learnable, challenging, non-menial puzzles to fill a map.

1 Comment

Commented 1 week ago2024-07-11 04:17:46 UTC Comment #106241
Puzzle design is definitely very difficult and its especially hard to strike that balance - one of the best ways to work out that balance is to play a lot of puzzle games. Not just ones that fit into HL2 or the type of puzzles you want to make - all kinds of different puzzle games. You'll start to develop a feeling of what's fun, what's boring, and what's frustrating.

When it comes to puzzles, especially for something like HL2 where puzzles are relatively easy, you have to design for the audience - people playing a HL2 map are much less likely to enjoy a super difficult puzzle, but people playing a Portal map are probably wanting more challenging puzzles.

One way that works for longer maps/mods is to do what Valve does with the Portal games (many other games do the same thing too) - start with a simple idea and then build on it over time. You can introduce the various aspects of a complicated puzzle one by one and then slowly make it more complicated and difficult - this way the player doesn't get overwhelmed with too many new ideas at once.

Some of my recommendations of interesting puzzle games to play to see how they approach difficulty: Myst, Quern: Undying Thoughts, COCOON, The Witness, Return of the Obra Dinn, Outer Wilds, The Talos Principle

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