Survival Horror Puzzles

in Design

With the release of the Resident Evil 2 Remake by Capcom (a wonderful game, many, many kudos to the Resident Evil team in recreating one of my favorite games from my childhood), I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Survival Horror games.

Specifically about the style of survival horror games created by the old style Resident Evil games. Which focus on two things: Resource Management and Puzzles. Today let’s look at the puzzles in Resident Evil 2 Remake (there may be some light spoilers involved in showing puzzles or that puzzles exist. I’ll do my best not to show solutions though!).

I think that one of the keys to making the puzzles in your game memorable is to make them just hard enough that they provide a bit of challenge, and then providing a variety of different styles of puzzles.

The simplest kinds of puzzles, that barely count as puzzles in my opinion, is the “find this object to put into this lock”. They are good for pacing and maintaining pathing through your game, but they don’t really engage the brain. It’s just “oh, I remember where I can use that.” Of course, these aren’t always locks, but it is the same idea, find object to solve problem to open new area. It could be bolt cutters, or a crowbar, or even finding a roll of film that shows a combination for a combination lock when developed. There is no actual thought to these, it is just a linear progression to reward the player for being observant.

The next are what I call physical manipulation puzzles. This is where you are given physical objects, and you have to interact with them in some limited way so that the pieces create a specific state. And this first real type of puzzle will start a theme for good survival horror game puzzles: You don’t need any outside knowledge to solve them. All information to solve them is provided by the game themselves.

An example of of a physical manipulation puzzle from the new remake of Resident Evil 2 would be the block puzzle from Sherry’s segment.

With this puzzle, you take the blocks, and you have to reconfigure them so that all of the half-symbols match up. It’s a classic puzzle of this style. It doesn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics, but it does take a little bit of time and can be sped up with a bit of logical thinking. (first find a circle square combo to go in the left most section, etc.)

These kind of puzzles tend to not be that hard though unless they involve tons of pieces. They are best used for pacing of the puzzles in your game. If your game is 10 hours long and it turns out that it only has 2 giant puzzles, then people will stop thinking of puzzles as a major part of your game. Putting in a lot of smaller puzzles like these can really keep the puzzle feel going all game.

The next type of puzzle that I find is pretty common are Math Puzzles. Now, when I say math puzzles, everyone is thinking about getting out a pencil and paper and doing equations, but that isn’t really the case all the time. Basically, most types of puzzles that involve amounts of things are really math puzzles at heart. Take for example the breaker box puzzles used to turn on the power in several sections of the Resident Evil 2 Remake.

Each switch when turned to the on position moves the needle on the left and right display a set amount based on that switch. You just have to find which combination of switches will move both of the needles exactly into the red zones. It’s all simple edition, all you need to do is assign a variable a and b to each switch, and then find the combination of variables that makes a and b add up to the right amount.

Math puzzles, again follow the same pattern of not requiring outside knowledge to complete. and as far as difficulty, range from very simple (like the breaker box puzzles), to incredibly complex depending on the number of variables involved, or by combining in elements of manipulation puzzles into them. I find math puzzles can easily be large, central puzzles in a game, though the Resident Evil 2 remake didn’t use them much.

Another type of puzzle is the logic puzzle. I’m sure you remember them from back in elementary school, and every brain teaser book that is out there. “If Billy is taller than Sam, and Sam is the same height as Jill, and etc.etc.etc.” These just give you a bunch of true statements, and you have to combine them unto a solution that makes sure that all of those statements are true.

An example of this from Resident Evil 2 Remake? The Chess Plug Puzzle.

These can be as easy or hard as you want them to be, and are good for fillers or for huge setpiece puzzles depending on how you want to use them. In fact, the above puzzle, according to their online stats, is the puzzle that most people spend the longest on in the game. (This may be because they are also counting finding all the pieces though, I can’t tell for sure).

Again, this type of puzzle does a thing I think its very important: No reliance on outside knowledge. You just have to know the information the game gives you. Analyze the statements, make them all true. That is it.

The last type of puzzle that I remember being used in the remake was hunting puzzles. This is where you are told you need a specific piece of information, and you are then told to go hunt for it with some clues about where they will find them. These are good for getting people to explore the environment of your game and put them in dangerous situations. They are very similar to the key puzzles that I barely consider a puzzle, but here, the clues elevate them to a puzzle.

In the Resident Evil 2 Remake, a good example of this is Leon’s desk, which was locked as a sort of party game for his first day on the force by his squadmates.

This one is fairly simple, and only requires you to look around in the room it happens in (you need to find all their nameplates to get their names), but these kind of puzzles can give you clues that send you all across the game to solve. Or even require you to run solve other puzzle types to get the information.

These types of puzzles I find are good for combining the results of a lot of other events in your game into one big set piece to solve. In fact, the Medallion hunt throughout the first section of Resident Evil 2 is a big set piece that is also based on this type of puzzle. You get a notebook at the beginning telling you that they are all in statues, and you are sent to find the statues.

The two things I learned about puzzle design from the Resident Evil series is

1. Variety. Use a lot of puzzle types, those included here, or even others like cipher puzzles, and use both big and large puzzles throughout.

2. Limit Outside Knowledge Needed. You should include as much of the information possible to solve your puzzles IN THE GAMES. Requiring knowledge of things outside of the game turns it more into trivia or googling than a puzzle.

What did you learn about puzzle design from the Resident Evil 2 remake, or from the series as a whole? Join us in the comments below.

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