Categories of Puzzles

in Tutorials

By Artbane

A puzzle is a problem or set of problems the player has to solve within the confines of your game. To design a puzzle, it can help to know the different categories of puzzles. Here are some of the more prominent puzzle types that often appear in RPGs or narrative driven games. This list does not include minigames or classic game puzzles like Chess.

Key Item or Skill

This is probably your most basic form of puzzle. The player needs to use a key item or character ability to progress; e.g. using a key to open a door, fire to light a torch.

These usually are not too taxing for the player. As long as the player has the item, they can proceed. If they don’t have the item, then they can’t solve the puzzle. The number of steps it takes to procure the item will determine how difficult the puzzle is. Obtaining the item can involves a series of fetch quests or some other type of puzzle.

Using a key item to open a door – about as basic as it gets.

Using a key item to open a door – about as basic as it gets.

Crafting

This puzzle involves creating a new object either by converting one into another or combining two or more items. Smelting down cast iron into a key using a mold or tying a hook onto a rope to make a hook shot.

These puzzles can also involve reverse engineering an item by breaking it down into multiple components to be used to craft something else.

Sometimes these puzzles require a recipe before you can create the item. You want to provide the player with clues as to what materials are needed to craft the item. Make sure the combinations are logical. If the combinations are arbitrary, then the player will begin just trying to combine random items out of desperation when they get stuck.

Information

This puzzle type requires that the player provide a piece of information to proceed. It could be a name, place, password, sequence of numbers, etc..

This is a good type of puzzle to work in your interactive fiction. While the player is working towards the solution, they can find out more about your world. Make sure the information is readily available though.

This information puzzle quizzes you on the game lore.

This information puzzle quizzes you on the game lore.

Conversation

Nothing brings out more character in your game than conversation! Conversation puzzles have you navigating down a dialog tree with breaks in the conversation where the player chooses a dialog option. The player’s choices will determine whether they are successful or not.

Usually there is one correct path and the player has to keep repeating the conversation until they choose the correct dialog options.  Try to guide the player down the correct path either by giving them hints before the conversation or in the dialog itself. If you can clue in the player as to what the character’s motivations are, then the puzzle could become an interesting character deconstruction. If you know that the person is a pathological liar, then you can keep catching them in their own lies until they finally reveal the truth.

Dialog puzzles are also a good chance to inject some humor. Just look at the Secret of Monkey Island games. Most of their puzzles are memorable because the characters and dialog trees were so humorous.

One of my favorite dialog puzzles from Secret of Monkey Island.

One of my favorite dialog puzzles from Secret of Monkey Island.

Sequence

These puzzles require you to perform a series of actions in the correct order; e.g. pull switch A and then switch B, light torch 1 and then torch 2.

These can also become memory puzzles. The game might show you the puzzle sequence and then you have to remember it. If there is a big gap between when the game shows you the solution and when you have to repeat it then that will up the difficulty of the puzzle. In general, you don’t want your puzzle so difficult to remember that the player has to write it down, which often happens.

Mechanism

The switch puzzle is one of the most commonly found ones in RPGs. It usually requires you to activate a switch to open a door. Sometimes, it involve a pressure switch, in which another object must be pushed onto the switch to keep it activated.

More elaborate mechanism puzzles will have switches that change the state of the puzzle and the goal is to have all the puzzle pieces set to the correct state. An example would be if you’re trying to flip all the switches in a room, but every time you flip a switch all the adjacent switches change state (flip on or off).

A mechanism puzzle that involves another mechanism (the golem) to step on colored switches to lower barriers.

A mechanism puzzle that involves another mechanism (the golem) to step on colored switches to lower barriers.

Riddle

A riddle is a question that requires some keen insight to answer. The problem with riddles in games is the player usually either gets it or they don’t. You’ll want to include lots of hints for players or else they might be forced to find the solution outside the game.

Maze

Many classic RPGs had mazes. These “puzzles” required you find the correct path to the end and would usually have you going down dead ends and retracing your steps.

While mazes might seem outdated, if you add a rule or two, the maze can become a challenging logic puzzle. Imagine a maze where you can see the start and the end. This is not very cognitively challenging. But if you add the restriction that you can’t turn left… suddenly what looks absurdly easy requires some keen insight to solve.

The maze looks simple, but the “no left turn” restriction makes it much more difficult.

The maze looks simple, but the “no left turn” restriction makes it much more difficult.

Action

Action puzzles are ones that require twitch reflex to solve. In my experience, having these puzzles in your game can be quite polarizing. Especially if for the most part your game doesn’t involve action elements. The other categories of puzzles, which usually require some ingenuity, can be worked out by the player eventually.

The problem with an action puzzle, which can require quick reflexes or good hand-eye coordination, is the player might not be capable of passing it. Performance problems can also render this type of puzzle unbeatable. This can bring the player’s gameplay experience to a screeching halt and they might just quit out of frustration.

My suggestion is that if you do want to have an action puzzle in your game, you have an alternate solution that doesn’t require a twitch element or you make the puzzle skippable.

Conclusion

This list of puzzle types should help you get started coming up with puzzles to use in your game. This is not an exhaustive list of all the different types of puzzles, so if you have a category you’d like to add, please leave a comment!

9 comments… add one

  • Charles June 23, 2013, 12:15 pm

    How would one go about setting up something like that “no left turn” puzzle anyway?

  • Julien Brightside June 23, 2013, 1:52 pm

    I like this article. It makes sense.

  • Aeonspark June 23, 2013, 2:50 pm

    This is a great article!
    And knowing the different types of puzzle should help a lot when having to come up with one :D

  • Jay June 23, 2013, 3:50 pm

    Very good article. I especially like what you said about Action Puzzles.

    I was playing a RPG Maker VX game I purchased and ended up never finishing it, because it had an action puzzle that was time based that I could never finish, even when knowing exactly which way to move thanks to an illustrated walk-through. (My reflexes also are not as good as they were in the past.)

    Ended up deciding to never use an Action Puzzle in a game because of the trouble I had with one.

    Plus, I also avoid any games that have them now.

  • Dominik June 23, 2013, 5:42 pm

    Amongst many others, and a clear categorisation of all of them, there are also physics puzzles, which I was surprised not to read about on that list. True, maybe a bit hard for RPG-Maker games, but we shouldn’t forget about them.

  • jomarcenter June 24, 2013, 2:10 am

    What if I made a maze that you can’t actually see. Now that a hard one!

    • GaryCXJk August 24, 2013, 9:20 am

      You mean like in Zork?

    • Geekman September 2, 2013, 12:55 pm

      Fuchsia GYM in Pokemon…

  • Sylvie September 2, 2013, 12:56 pm

    Thanks for this summary of types of puzzles. I play a lot of hidden object adventures which have little mini games in them. I am searching for a method to understand and solve the “number grid” puzzle in which there are numbers on the outside of the grid down the left side and across the top. The tiles you choose in the center all look the same, but you must choose them based on the numbers found for that row and column. I am not at all sure how to proceed on these. If you have a clue about beating those, will you write about it?

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