The best puzzle games are memorable not because they frustrate us to the point of quitting, but because of the satisfaction of completing them. Creating an in-game puzzle is not just about making something that challenges the player—without an element of achievement and learning, puzzles become roadblocks rather than tests of skill or perseverance.
With a good puzzle, players should feel tested but not tricked, and completing a puzzle should be a learning experience rather than something you have to guess blindly. So how do the best puzzle games achieve this balance?
The Best Puzzle Games Give Players All Their Tools
When solving a puzzle, the first tool players need is their brain. But if they’re not given the other tools they need, solving a puzzle becomes a frustrating experience rather than a fun one. If, however, a player is given everything up front, and knows the various uses of each tool, the intellectual challenge of selectively applying those tools to a given challenge is invigorating. It creates a feeling of active learning and participation, rather than being funneled along from one stagnant puzzle to the next, or fruitlessly hunting for that one component you might need.
This is something that stealth games like Alekhine’s Gun do particularly well. Though you may pick up some extra skills along the way, the skills that you begin with are the ones that will get you through the entire game. Agent Alekhine, a KGB agent, is armed with the skills of a trained assassin and counterintelligence agent, both of which help him get through any stealth challenge he finds himself in. Avoiding encounters or assassinating enemies is part of the experience from the beginning, but figuring out how to complete those challenges with the tools you’re given is up to the player.
This means that, over the course of the game, players find their own ways of accomplishing each objective. You don’t have to learn new mechanics or master a new combo to progress—you refine your approach in each encounter, exploring the game’s 11 open levels for more clues and methods of finishing each challenge. Alekhine’s Gun neither holds your hand nor throws you into challenges with no help whatsoever; you’re given the skills from the beginning, and it’s up to you how to use them.
Learning From an Environment Engages Players
The pride and accomplishment that comes from learning can be a great appeal for the best puzzle games as well. Starting simple and working to complexity gives players a sense of real achievement as they look back at where they came from and see the growth in their thinking along the way. This approach to puzzle games guides players with increased complexity, not handholding.
Jonathan Blow’s games, such as Braid and the recently released The Witness, are known for this approach. While new mechanics may be introduced over the course of a game, they typically build on the same foundational principles. In Braid, you know that each mechanic will play with time, whether it’s reversing it or ignoring it entirely, and The Witness’ puzzles involve navigating a simple maze, and then progress to using that same key skill—moving a line to an exit point—in incredibly difficult directions.
What The Witness does particularly well is let players figure things out on their own. There are no extended tutorial sequences, no on-screen directions for how to complete a puzzle, no ‘Press X to Interact’—instead, using intuitive design involving colors, shapes, and subtle indicators of progression, players discover these things on their own. The result makes each puzzle feel like a personal victory, not something you’ve stumbled upon or been lead to. Building on the simple navigation mechanic makes each puzzle feel like a natural step rather than a confusing logical jump—it’s the variations on the theme that are difficult, not the speed, reflexes, or logic leaps of games meant to be difficult for difficulty’s sake.
Great Puzzles Treat the Player Like They’re Smart
What most of the basics of creating good puzzles comes down to is treating the player like they’re intelligent. Holding their hand too much makes things too easy, and letting them flounder with no guidance, chasing illogical puzzle solutions, leads to frustration. Handing players the tools they need right off the bat lets them master them in their own time, choosing what approach works best rather than whatever the game deems is correct. By letting players learn, games reward them with the knowledge that they solve things on their own.
Our favorite puzzles are the ones that let us learn as we go, using our tools in skills in new ways rather than repeating the same idea over and over, making puzzles test logic, memory, and creative thinking rather than endurance or dumb luck.
Alekhine’s Gun gives players a set of skills they can use in whatever way they choose, letting you decide how best to approach each individual challenge. Purchase your copy of the next great stealth game today!