Emily Short is the author of Best Puzzles winners Savoir-Faire and Counterfeit Monkey. She assists in maintaining Inform 7 and is one of the leads on the character-centric IF system Versu. She blogs about interactive storytelling at emshort.wordpress.com and can also be found at meetings of the Oxford and London Interactive Fiction Meetup.
The 2013 Best Individual Puzzle finalists were Threediopolis, Chemistry and Physics, Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, Faithful Companion, Coloratura and ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III.
As I was writing this, I found myself repeating some of the same explanations and concepts in multiple reviews. So, at the risk of making this as much an essay as a review set, I thought I’d start by enumerating some features that I think make a puzzle particularly memorable:
Extent. Does the puzzle provide a significant amount of gameplay, and (equally important) does it stay fresh throughout? There are plenty of puzzles that require many turns to solve without being intellectually satisfying: 15-puzzles, straightforward mazes, towers of Hanoi, and all their equivalents are generally frowned on in IF because the bulk of the player’s effort goes into applying a solution algorithm rather than into discovering what that algorithm should be. On the other hand, puzzles that can be solved in a single move may feel a bit lightweight unless that move requires quite a bit of thinking first.
Explorability. Does the puzzle respond well to failed attempts at a solution? Is it fun to work on even before it’s solved? Is it a good toy as well as a good puzzle? If the player doesn’t immediately understand how the puzzle works, is the implementation responsive enough to help her learn what to do? Suveh Nux is a classic example of the highly explorable puzzle, offering the player lots of entertaining Easter egg rewards for playing with the mechanic while simultaneously helping her more thoroughly understand what the magic syllables do. An entertaining narrator can also improve puzzle explorability: the personality of Grunk in Lost Pig adds charm and humor to the exploration moves required in that game.
Surprise. Does the puzzle require a significant mental leap or a change of perspective to solve? Does it leave the player with the sensation that the world means something different than she expected, like the key puzzle in Photopia? Or does it require assembling diverse bits of information from different sources, or extrapolating further implications of clues learned earlier, like the most famous puzzle in Spider & Web?
Ingenuity. Is the puzzle complex enough that it leaves the player with a sense of mastery afterward, having put together a way through such a difficult terrain? This sounds like it means the same thing as “is the puzzle really hard?”, but with sufficiently good design it’s possible to make a puzzle that leads the player gradually through the learning necessary to implement a fiendishly complicated solution. There are exceptions, but high-ingenuity puzzles most often appear either a) towards the end of a puzzle game with a lot of easier preliminary puzzles, or b) in games that are meant to be replayed a great deal. The Babel Fish puzzle from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a classic high-ingenuity puzzle, as is the core puzzle of Rematch.
Originality. Does the puzzle present a challenge of a type that hasn’t been seen before, or hasn’t been seen in this genre? Or, alternatively, does it subvert the expectations associated with that puzzle type? Sliding a mat under a door to catch a key poked through from the other side is an ingenious puzzle — it’s just also one that has appeared many times in the IF literature and now qualifies more as a chore than a puzzle, at least for experienced players.
Fairness/accessibility. Is the puzzle consistent on its own terms? Does it avoid making the player read the author’s mind? Does it offer multiple solutions, or allow for partial successes? Does it avoid requiring esoteric knowledge from outside the game that only some players are likely to possess? When the puzzle has been solved, does it retrospectively make sense?
Structural integration. How does this puzzle fit into the overall puzzle design of the game? Is it a first introduction to an important new mechanic or ability, promising a wealth of entertaining gameplay to come? A capstone requiring the player to have learned from a number of earlier puzzles first?
Narrative integration. Is the puzzle thematically relevant to what is going on in the game? Is it a natural fit for its setting? Does solving the puzzle require the player to acquire or demonstrate an understanding of what is going on at the narrative level? How high are the stakes for solving it? Is the player rewarded for the solution with a key event or important new story information? Solving even a simple puzzle can be a powerful moment if it constitutes a critical transition in its story. Make It Good is possibly my gold standard for narrative integration, with puzzles that teach a detailed understanding of the story one is trying to resolve.
I’m by no means proposing this as some sort of scoring system or checklist. It’s exceptionally rare for a puzzle to demonstrate all of those qualities at once, and they’re not equally desirable in all contexts. Indeed, some of these values are typically at odds with one another: it is not easy to make a puzzle that incorporates both explorability and surprise. A puzzle with high narrative stakes and long extent can also be tricky, because tense narrative moments often need to be timed. Puzzles in choice-based games often have an easier time with accessibility than parser games (no guess the verb!), but a harder time achieving surprise (options are enumerated!). Etc.
Rather, nominees in this category showcase the diverse ways that a puzzle can succeed.