Reviewing puzzle games can help not only the creators of the games but also those who intend to create. It helps everyone better understand the ins and outs of what makes a puzzle game interesting and fun. However, puzzle games are as hard to review as they are to make. There is so much to learn about the different aspects of puzzle game design that make any puzzle game stand out. Having a guideline for your puzzle game review can help you to better focus on the game at hand.
Today I present a guideline on how to properly review puzzle games. Note: This was based heavily on comments by Elyot Grant (founder of Lunarch Studios). Check him out at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-qDTvqGQ28BtVLXXSwIfdQ
Not all of the below need to be taken into consideration depending on the type of game. However, looking into the different aspects will give you a pretty good idea into what you may be lacking or have too much of.
1. Puzzle Genre:
First of all, figure out what type of puzzle it is. There are so many types of puzzle games out there that a list of genres may be hard to define. We can start by referencing this big list and this smaller list. Just to name a few types:
Single Character Control/Action Puzzles like Braid, Portal, Antichamber
Logic Puzzles like Atsumari, Mario’s Picross, Sudoku
Physics Puzzles like World of Goo, Angry Birds, Portal (again)
Tile-matching Puzzles like Candy Crush, Zuma
Hidden Object Puzzles like Minesweeper, Black Box, or even I Spy books
We can see how games can span across multiple genres or even not fit in any of these. However, it is important to know the kind of experience the target user is looking for. We can do this by simply comparing it to other games of its class.
Ask yourself: What is the scale – are they quick little gems, are they big and complicated? Is it more of a “flow” experience or a “challenge” experience? Is it more systems-based or level-based? Are there unique solutions or multiple solutions or engineering problems? (note: all questions from here on, other than point 3 and 4, are courtesy of Elyot Grant)
Next, the most important thing to pretty much any form of entertainment. It is pretty darn hard to explain your own enjoyment most of the time. Therefore, you’re just gonna have to sit down and feel the game for yourself – fully and without distraction.
Then ask yourself: Were the puzzles good? How do they provide enjoyment? Were the solution paths smooth? Are there emergent surprises and novelties? Were there interesting hidden truths or discoverables concealed in the designs? Does the game subvert expectations?
Asking yourself these will help you better understand the context in which enjoyment is derived in terms of puzzle games. These aspects are what players enjoy in puzzle games – whether or not they realize.
As mentioned in my previous article, minimalism is very important for most puzzle games (albeit not all). Seeing the point of minimalism is simple: The levels should be small, allowing the player to explore and examine the space without having a large and frustrating possibility.
Ask yourself: Did you have to think of an exorbitant amount of possible actions at any given time? Was the level and its features too large to comprehend at first glance? Was it frustrating at any point? If so, what caused it?
Another aspect mentioned previously was teaching the player. This should be normal in most if not all game genres. We want the player to be able to explore the mechanics or rules of the world. We then want them to be put to the test. Fully use their brain to tackle challenge after challenge with increasing difficulty.
Ask yourself: What were the major mechanics of the game? How does the game teach you about them? Was it simple to understand the games method of teaching these mechanics? Was there any level that was inconsistent with the games teachings (can sometimes be a good thing)?
5. Puzzle Solving:
There are an unsurprising amount of properties to solving a good puzzle. Much like a math problem, we have to consider what makes a puzzle challenging and what makes it frustrating. When solving puzzles, think about the aspects below and try to figure out if it makes it more fun or annoying. There are no true good and bad for the aspects below, but a good puzzle presents a good balance.
Ask yourself: How do you solve the puzzles? Is it logical/deductive? Is it experimenting with a system to determine its properties and lemmas or meta-constraints? Are there intransparencies or logic leaps? Do you have to do a lot of trial and error/searching/nishio/bifurcation? Is there a lot of fiddling or haystacking? Is there pattern-seeking or observation? Are the logic chains deep? Are there confirmers or redundancy? Is there good feedback?
6. The Creator:
In many cases, it is important that the player feels like the game is not working against them. Even if there are evil characters in the game who do not want you to succeed (like in Portal), a good puzzle game should make you feel like you don’t have to worry as it is by your side no matter what happens. This makes the player feel like they have a relationship with the game’s creator. Makes them much more likely to enjoy the overall experience and keep pushing through the tough parts.
Ask yourself: What is the relationship like with the puzzle creator? Are they always trying to trick you? Are they helpful? Kind? Indifferent? Are they consistent? Do the puzzles make sense once you understand them? Are there Japanese-style tutorials? Indie-vow-of-silence tutorials? Something in between?
I think Joseph Anderson put it best in his video about Stephen’s Sausage Roll. He says that many puzzle games make you go through all the solutions in your head before executing the path you choose. Stephen’s Sausage Roll feels so good for him because he doesn’t have to do that. It allows unlimited attempts so you just keep going and losing until you finally find something worthwhile, without fear of failure. It is important to make sure the player doesn’t have to keep all their ideas in their head before execution.
Ask yourself: How laborious are the puzzles? Is there a lot of process or execution? Is there mental toil?
The way the levels or phases of a game are structured is nearly as important as the levels themselves. Introducing your player to new and interesting things is always wonderful. However, you need to take into account the order in which the player has to consume this information.
Ask yourself: What is the structure like? Linear? Open? Something in between? Are the levels structured in such a way to teach effectively? To avoid tediousness? Are there interesting sequences or reprises? Is there exploration or combat? Are there multi-puzzles, meta-puzzles, boss puzzles, etc.
Knowing your audience and their abilities is absolutely crucial. A game should strive to make the game as comfortable as possible to the target class of players. Some games are too difficult for a younger audience. Some games are too simple for the hardcore player.
Ask yourself: Who are the puzzles accessible to? Do they need a lot of working memory, genre-specific knowledge, dexterity, etc.? Are they good for kids? How difficult are they? Are they puzzles for which experts will be a lot faster?
The interface a player interacts with makes all the difference in their understanding of the game, its world and its rules. The Witness is an incredible example of visual and audio puzzle design. It teaches you about itself without having said a word. However, no matter if the game has text, we need to make sure that the user interface is cohesive and effective at getting the message and direction of the game across at all times.
Ask yourself: How good are the interfaces? Do the visuals give you any problems understanding the puzzle or inputting the solution? Are the controls good? Are there systems like undo/restart or savestates? Is there a hint system?
According to Google, replayability is “the quality or fact of being suitable for or worth playing more than once.” The best games of all time are replayable. In Portal, it is because there are so many ways to solve the different puzzles – even ways that the developers may not have intended.
Ask yourself: Is there replayability? Are the puzzles made by a human or an algorithm? Are there interesting optimization challenges?
The inquisitive player (or any hardcore fan) would dig deep into the depths of the game to find little pieces of information that the developer may have left behind. They derive a good amount of satisfaction from discovering these hidden gems. These are completely optional most of the time but a great little dose of enjoyment for those who seek.
Ask yourself: Are there optional challenges, secrets, easter eggs, inconspicuous noticeables, etc.? Do they add value?
Whether you’re a game designer or just love to play games, reviewing a puzzle game from its many aspects can be difficult without having a solid template in mind. However, once you know what you’re looking for, the aspects that make a game so incredible and wondrous present themselves to you. No matter who you are, we could all learn some amazing things from puzzle games and their intricate and beautiful design.