The human mind has sought stimulation since mankind walked the Earth. Intellectual engagement is a key part of cognitive development and general entertainment. Once upon a time, we quenched our thirst for stimulation by planning hunts to make sure our families got to eat at the end of the day. However, today in 2019 if you want food a quick trip to Aldi will do the job and so our minds are left craving stimulation once again. That’s where the topic of today’s article comes into its element. Puzzle games.
The History of Puzzle Games
Puzzle games have lived a modest life for most of mankind’s history. Dating back to brain teasers and historic riddles, it would take thousands of years before the digital age could elevate the genre to the next level. It’s difficult to say exactly what the first ever puzzle game was but Flag Capture on Atari 2600 seems as likely a candidate as any. Effectively a watered down prequel to minesweeper, Flag Capture left a lot to the player’s imagination. A common trait of many Atari 2600 games. Despite hardware limitations, Flag Capture was a multiplayer game which is fairly impressive for a barebones puzzle game released in 1978.
The genre failed to evolve from Flag Capture for many years. Many titles were simply not engaging such as 1981’s Blockbuster, but it was 1984 where that would change, and puzzle games would enter the mainstream market. Russian game developer Alexey Pajitnov came up with the idea of a certain block-placing puzzle game sensation. From the Soviet Academy of Sciences, programmed on a rack-mounted Elektronika 60 computer, Tetris was born.
Starting life as a text-based computer game, Tetris had modest beginnings. Pajitnov knew that commercializing his new game in the Soviet Union was a dangerous task due to the government’s outlawing of private business. Instead, the PC version of Tetris was smuggled into neighboring Hungary where British developer Andromeda stumbled across it. Confusions over licensing led to Spectrum HoloByte purchasing the rights to Tetris instead. Debates over ownership of Tetris would wage on until 2005 when Pajitnov and business partner Henk Rogers would purchase 100% ownership of Tetris from Soviet agency ELORG. Acquired under The Tetris Company name, Pajitnov was finally able to claim all the profits on his invention for the first time in 21 years.
Tetris has gone down in history as the best-selling puzzle game franchise of all time. 25 years of titles have managed to accumulate over 170,000,000 sales worldwide with the most recent success being Tetris 99 on Nintendo Switch. Adding a battle royale spin to a simple puzzle game might have seemed ridiculous in theory but that’s exactly what Japanese developer Arika set out to do. Having now attracted over 2.8 million players despite being a Switch exclusive, Tetris 99 is yet another stellar addition to this legendary puzzle game franchise. Industry professionals love it too. Eurogamer editor Wesley Yin-Poole described Tetris 99 as “a wonderful idea I can’t believe only now, 35 years after the original Tetris came out, has come to fruition.”
Tetris wasn’t the only puzzle game that helped define the genre. Before the times of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar North started life as an indie Scottish development team called DMA Design Limited. Their breakthrough was their 1991 launch of Lemmings, a now cult classic puzzle game. The objective was to lead a group of lemmings through an obstacle course and help them reach each level’s end goal. The strategy and slower paced gameplay of trying to create a safe passage was a move away from the frantic and reaction-based Tetris. Lemmings is a key part of puzzle game history as this shift to slower, more thought out puzzles would become the standard for many puzzle games in later years.
Many other iconic puzzle games were released through the 1990s such as Dr. Mario, Intelligent Qube and Kirby’s Star Stacker. However, it wouldn’t be until the mid-2000s we’d see the next batch of true innovation. Whilst some may consider Tetris as the golden age of puzzle games, I would argue the mid to late 2000s produced the best puzzle games we’ve ever seen. 2006 introduced the world to Brain Age, a self-described brain simulation activities game released exclusively for the Nintendo DS. Aiming to deliver a simple, straight-forward educational experience, Brain Age offered an array of tasks to fulfill your cognition’s deepest needs. The Stroop Test, Speed Counting, Work Memory and various mental maths questions would be tackled by the player. After finishing all of these you would be given a brain age which made my 8 years old self realize I wasn’t as smart as I thought. A true-life lesson in humility was taught that day.
A year later we got Portal which I still believe to be the best pure puzzle game ever released. Valve went above and beyond and showcased just what they are capable of when they actually get around to making games. It’s a true shame that doesn’t happen anymore. Technically there was Artifact but the less said about that the better. Whilst lacking real narrative depth, Portal made up for its lack of story with its revolutionary gameplay. Puzzles are based around the Portal Gun, a device that allows the player to teleport themselves and specific items around the provided test chambers. Ranging from teleport yourself from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ all the way to manipulation of momentum and quantum mechanics. The Portal Gun was an excellent idea as it has near endless possibilities as to what can be achieved. Its sequel, Portal 2, proves this with its thriving modding community and epic library of user-made levels.
This decade has managed to not be overshadowed by the last. With indie game development at an all-time peak, it’s no surprise that more puzzle games are being made than ever before. 2010 saw Limbo come to fruition, 2012 was the year Fez took over and 2016 gave birth to Playdead’s Inside, one of the most elegantly designed games I’ve ever played. Time will tell how highly regarded these titles are in the future, but early indication seems to suggest that the 2010s might just go on to be the true golden age of puzzle games.
The Development of Puzzle Games
Growing up I’ve always been interested in the development process behind making a puzzle game. If a puzzle can take me over half an hour to get my head around, how long did it take for the original developer to come up with it? How do you even begin to approach puzzle design and make sure the difficulty feels right for that specific stage in the game? In order to get some answers, I got in touch with someone who knows a thing or two about puzzle game design. Thirty-four-year-old Felix ‘Lachsen’ Klein is the current founder and head of Radical Fish Games. Not familiar with their work? They were responsible for Crosscode, my personal vote for 2018’s game of the year. Felix’s played a key role in Crosscode’s development with him contributing to its combat and dungeon design. Whilst Crosscode’s combat is certainly wonderful, we’re here to talk about its inspired puzzle dungeons.
Crosscode’s core gameplay outside on dungeons is less puzzle game, more old-school action RPG. Lachsen himself says “SNES classics such as Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and Terranigma,” inspired its visual design. Other inspirations include “Kingdom Hearts and Devil May Cry,” for the combat and that Crosscode’s “RPG aspects were heavily influenced by Xenoblade.” However, its dungeons where the majority of Crosscode’s puzzling takes place have The Legend of Zelda and Alundra to thank for their existence. These two cult classics share Crosscode’s fundamental design of balancing fun combat-centric areas with engaging puzzle elements.
One of Crosscode’s strengths is just how efficient the use of abilities is. Throughout the game, you unlock different elements including fire and ice that Lea, Crosscode’s protagonist, can wield. Not only do these elemental powers have obvious combat uses, but they are also implemented in various puzzles. The above video is taken from a relatively late part of Faj’ro Temple, a mid-game dungeon. Here the player is tasked with crossing a gap with seemingly no immediate pathway or crossing. However, by first knocking the pre-spawned water bubble forward and then using their ice power to freeze it, they can create a way across. The angled water blocks are frozen when impacted by the ice block. After freezing them all by predicting the block’s trajectory, Lea can jump across to the other side where a switch drops stairs for easier navigation later.
I could name thousands of examples across all Crosscode’s dungeons that showcase the game’s inventive puzzle design. Don’t be fooled into thinking making these puzzles is easy to do either. Lachsen was kind enough to give me an overview of what he and his team must overcome in order to create a dungeon they are proud of:
The time to develop a dungeon is somewhere between 1-2 months. One of the more challenging aspects is always figuring out interesting puzzles that are fun and solvable. We often had to scrap/redesign certain puzzles that didn’t work too well in practice.
It’s easy to understand why creating a satisfying dungeon was a difficult task for Radical Fish Games. The last thing a development team wants is to create an environment where the player either gets bored due to puzzles being too easy or frustrated due to poorly scaled difficulty. An infamous example of this is Nintendo’s 1986 release of Kid Icarus. In a strange choice of game design, Kid Icarus starts Pit in the underworld and has him climb back up to the much safer heaven. Many of the game’s early enemies are some of the hardest you must face in Pit’s entire journey back. As the game progresses the enemies generally get easier and you are given an array of power-ups to help save Lady Palutena. They somehow managed to make the difficulty scale in reverse.
So what’s the mindset behind effective puzzle game design? Fortunately, Lachsen has that one covered for us too. He details the exact order Radical Fish Games approach puzzle design and the three major criteria all puzzles must pass before being considered for implementation.
Designing puzzles starts with designing the puzzle mechanics themselves. This usually starts with brain storming sessions where we just collect ideas. After that we pick out some of these ideas that fulfill following requirements:
1. The interaction [between mechanics and puzzles] is rather easy and straight forward
2. The mechanics are unique / not too similar to other puzzle mechanics [already in the game].
3. They can be combined with other [existing] puzzles mechanics in an interesting way.
These three criteria make a lot of sense when other cult classic puzzle games are considered. Take Portal for example. At the most basic level, anyone can understand how the portal gun works. You put two portals down of different colors and walking through one portal teleports you to the other one. Criteria 1 has therefore been accomplished. Then consider how Portal adds new ways to use your portal gun throughout the game. The easiest puzzles have you teleport a Companion Cube from one area to another. Then you are eased into momentum mechanics and how Chell’s speed is carried through portals. From here, Portal continues to add new, unique mechanics one by one such as puzzles that require specific timing and even combat based gameplay against Aperture Sciences’ turrets, and eventually GLaDOS herself. Criteria 2 can be ticked off. Finally, consider Portal 2’s addition of gel-based mechanics. With the existing portal gun mechanic cemented as a core part of the franchise, Valve had to find a way to combine something new into it whilst keeping the core gameplay interesting. Gels achieved this by giving players a whole new way to interact with their portal gun, using gels to paint the environments and change how they functioned.
Level design is an equally important part of ensuring puzzles are engaging. Lachsen gives some interesting insight on the order of development used by Radical Fish Games to make sure all the puzzles implemented into Crosscode achieve those three set criteria.
Puzzle mechanics are first implemented and tested to see if there are actually fun. It’s not uncommon that the design is adapted during implementation because we realize the original plan doesn’t work in practice. Once all puzzle elements are designed and implemented, we start planning the dungeon structure.
I was surprised to hear that levels are not even touched until the team is completely happy with any new mechanics they intend to introduce first. Although, it makes sense in hindsight. That efficiency I praised earlier regarding how Crosscode uses its new mechanics could only be achieved with this very particular approach to game development. Lachsen went on to explain how dungeons are designed in a way that all new puzzle elements can be introduced to the player one by one. This is why “their [the dungeon] beginning is usually linear,” to make sure the player has had time to familiarize themselves with each new mechanic. Crosscode tends to introduce several new mechanics for each dungeon and I believe this approach is a good one to avoid players getting overwhelmed.
Many games today do not go down the path of being pure puzzlers. There’s a niche for true puzzle games like Tetris but most games that dominate that genre have been around for decades. For a modern release looking to make the most of puzzles, it’s important to consider how they could work alongside the rest of the game. With a retro-inspired RPG like Crosscode, it makes sense then that Lachsen would have had to figure out how to implement puzzles without having them overshadow the core, combat-focused, gameplay.
The goal is that each puzzle of a dungeon feels unique and should add something new. After puzzle combinations have been listed down, they are mixed with fights and distributed in a way that you alternate between puzzle and combat challenges, ideally with branching paths.
The balance between puzzling and fighting is very apparent in Crosscode. Certain enemies and bosses even require light puzzle aspects to deal damage to them. The final boss of Faj’ro Temple tries to move away from the player to regenerate health. However, if you can freeze the incoming water bubbles at the right time, they will create a pathway across where you can deal some real damage.
Just out curiosity, before our time together came to an end, I asked Lachsen what his favorite puzzle game ever was. He caught me off guard when he told me “I’m ironically not that big into puzzle games.” He still gave approval to Crosscode’s biggest inspiration, The Legend of Zelda, and Lufia 2, Neverland’s brilliant puzzle RPG that Europe and North America got over a decade late. They probably still thought western gamers weren’t hardcore enough for their titles back then. Not even kidding, that’s why the west didn’t get several Final Fantasy games and was given a reskin of Doki Doki Panic instead of the actual Super Mario Bros. 2. Thanks a lot, Japan.