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Article - 'The Basics of Puzzle Design' by Mateui

An item about Game Design posted on Aug 8, 2003


Learn how to implement puzzles properly in your RPG game.


The Basics of Puzzle Design
By: Mateui

Sound Effect Plays
“Oh, I wonder what it will open?”

I’m 100% percent sure that many of you have played an RPG where you just happen to find a treasure chest. What’s inside? Yup, a key. But the trouble is... what the heck does it open?!”

Yes, I, for awhile anyway, was a game designer who would put keys in chests, but the player would not know what it would open, at least for a certain period of time. But, I finally learned the proper way of making puzzles, and I will be more than happy to share it with you.

So what are you waiting for? Let’s get started!

PUZZLES: The Different Types

There are four different types of puzzles as far as I’m concerned. I’ll go over them to make sure that we’re both on the same track.

1) Inventory Puzzles:
In order to solve the puzzle something in your inventory must be used. For example, there is a locked door in front of you. How do you open it? You check if you have a key in your inventory, and if you just happen to have the right one, then Viola! The door opens easily, and you have solved a puzzle.

2) Conversation-based Puzzles:
Usually, these puzzles involve talking to someone, perhaps an NPC. You may have a choice of what you can say, and this will effect the outcome, either for the better or the worse. Another situation may have you solve the puzzle by having to remember what some characters have said earlier in the game.

3) Environmental Puzzles:
To solve an environmental puzzle you have to change or alter the current environment. For example, a raging river may be blocking your path. In order to safely pass, you have to travel up to a mountain and push some large boulders into the river. When you get back down, you will have found that the large rocks have stopped the water, and you can travel once again.

4) Irrelevant Puzzles:
Some RPGs may include puzzles that do not have anything to do whatsoever with the game in question. For example, there exist boulder pushing puzzles, and others where you have to play a game of concentration. Basically, these puzzles are added in, as a hopes of raising overall gameplay.

Ok, so you now know the types, but how do you implement them correctly and efficiently?

PUZZLES: The Formula

You have to know that every single puzzle follows an exact formula, or routine.

Problem – Thought – Solution

First the player needs to identify the problem, or puzzle. Then he must figure out a way to execute a plan, or a way in which he will get something in order to help him solve the dilemma. After that, the puzzle is solved, the solution of the problem.

I don’t know if that confused you, as it looks really weird to me right now. I’ll try to explain it in an easier way, this time using an example.

You walk around the castle. You have been around the entire parameter and still, there is no way to getting inside. (You have just identified the Problem) Now, you wonder. How will I get in? After thinking for awhile, you decide that you need to find a ladder. (You have just Thought of a solution.) You find a ladder behind a store and bring it up to the wall. You climb up the ladder. (You have just Solved the puzzle!)

Great! I hope that was less confusing. That example should have also told you that backward puzzles are no good. What does “backward” mean? Well, it is when you mix up the formula. You may notice that the quotation at the outset shows this to us clearly.

Finding the key, wondering what it is for, and then finding a closed door. (Solution – Thought – Problem) Don’t use this in your game. You want the player to feel puzzled, at least for awhile. (That’s what puzzles are for anyway, so don’t, I repeat don’t, screw them up!)

PUZZLES: The Key & Lock Puzzle

You may be surprised to know that every puzzle is ultimately still a key and lock puzzle. The challenge is to make sure that you disguise your puzzle to make it look more exciting.

The key is symbolized by the solution and the lock is symbolized by the lock.

(You may recall that I promised to write an article on symbolism. Well, I’m currently writing it, and instead I gave you this article, so just leave that thought in your head... it will be done soon... Hmmm... Maybe next time ;)

Look what you made me do. What was I talking about? Oh, yes, keys and locks. The trick is to change the key and lock in your game(s) so that the player will really not notice the difference between other puzzles in your game. If you have done that then you will have succeeded in puzzling the player and haven given the game a greater fun value.


Ok, now you’re thinking, keys, locks, forks, what’s next? Ok, a fork is not a literal fork, I’m talking about ‘fork conditions.’ Ok? For those of you who are clueless to this, a fork is a choice between two or more ways of doing something. Puzzles are important in this aspect, and I’ll explain how.

Weren’t you ever frustrated by a puzzle you kept trying to solve, but couldn’t because there was only veritable solution? Yes, games with one-solution puzzles can get quite boring to play. They don’t offer the player to think of his own solution, but that of the puzzle designer.

You should strive to have more than one solution for all your puzzles. Take Final Fantasy VII for instance. In one part of the game you have to enter Shinra Headquarters. The problem is getting inside. Now, Square, being great at what they do, decided to give the player choice in the solution of the problem. Some players, being more sneaky, could take the stairs on the side, providing a longer but safer route. More aggressive players decided to blast through the main doors, with guards and all, ensuring a quicker route but a more dangerous journey. In this way, FFVII provides well to aggressive as well as sneakier players. In a way it doubles the popularity of the game when you think about it.

Wouldn’t you want to do that? If yes, then now you know how, just use forks!


Well, I guess I ran out of great and smart things to say about puzzles. Remember the basics: (Problem – Thought – Solution), the different types, and forks. Just use your imagination, make the puzzle fit into the context into your game and you should be find.

Hopefully this has helped you in some way. I believe that this is indeed goodbye. Until next time...