Solving Puzzle Design – Puzzle Resource Summary

I recently watched a great GDC talk by Ubisoft’s Jolie Menzel. It was called Level Design Workshop: Solving Puzzle Design. She covers a few very important details to a puzzle game designer including the elements of a puzzle, rational puzzle design and how to build a puzzle as a whole. Her talk is very similar to my previous post on How To Make A Great Puzzle but I believe it goes deeper. It also comes with more verbiage used in the field to learn about. 

I decided to write a summary for those who cannot spend the time to watch an hour long video. It is also personally just so I can look back quickly at the lessons learnt from this talk. Hope it helps! 



  1. What is a puzzle
  2. What makes a puzzle good
  3. Elements of a puzzle
  4. Rational puzzle design
  5. Building a puzzle
  6. Troubleshooting your puzzle

1. What is a puzzle

A puzzle can simply be defined as a game with a dominant strategy. A game where you beat your opponent if you have a superior intellect (think of Chess). It has also previously been defined as a game with one solution. However, she argues that it is not always the case. She believes that a puzzle is a challenge. A challenge that is non-competitive and that makes players stop and think. In that sense, anything from Angry Birds to Grim Fandango 

Angry Birds
Angry Birds

2. What makes a puzzle good

Essentially, a good puzzle is FUN from CHALLENGE. It also allows the player to feel a sense of trust and respect from the designer. The player should be invited to find the solution, one that is absolutely attainable. Furthermore, the player should feel a sense of accomplishment upon completion. 

She brings up here an important talk by Erin Hoffmann. It is called A New Kind of Fun Approach. In it, she described that knowledge is power and emotion is ultimately derived from mastery. It poses three stages every player goes through when introduced to a new challenge.


Fear is due to absence of skill.

Surprise happens in phases: Curiosity ⇒ Speculation ⇒ Stress ⇒ Discovery ⇒ Insight

Happiness comes from mastery.

An example of this is when playing the witness, each puzzle the player goes through leads them to derive insight about the kind of puzzle it was and they use that insight as they go along to harder and deeper puzzles later on – developing their mastery even further. 

The Witness
The Witness

In short, she believes that puzzle mastery derives happiness from a player gaining insight. We can use these lessons in our own games by understanding what the player feels and is going through. She will expand on this as we go along.

3. Elements of a puzzle

Mechanics: Mechanics are the games verbs (a worlds rules and a players given abilities when interacting with the world). Verbs split down further into Homogenous (or system based) and Heterogenous (context based) mechanics. As an example of a Homogenous verb, imagine having a rope that you can always rely on to swing you from place to place (like in Legend of Zelda Wind Waker). It is something that you can always rely on to work consistently. As an example of Heterogenous verbs, imagine classic adventure point-and-click games. This is where you would have to use items with other items based on context.

Theme: Theme comprises of narrative and presentation. These details speak for themselves. However, she emphasizes the importance of keeping the theme coherent with the mechanics. Without both working in sync the player just wouldn’t understand what is going on.

Difficulty Dials: Arguably the most important aspect is controlling difficulty in your game. There are a few ways to solve this. Firstly, PLAYTEST OFTEN. This point cannot be emphasized enough because of how likely puzzle designers are to oversimplify their games difficulty. It is easy for us to think the puzzles aren’t hard simply because we made them. Fresh eyes would absolutely improve our games. Furthermore, you should think about the steps/time the player takes before feedback is given. We have to make sure they are given the appropriate feedback to let them know they’re on the right path. 

Next, make sure you’re introducing players to new mechanics slowly. Always have a teacher level allowing players to explore the new mechanics at their own pace. Lastly, if you find the game too easy as well, you can dial up the difficulty by introducing new applications of existing mechanics. For example, in the witness, you have a sliding puzzle that is just reliant on the slider. It stays that way until you meet one in front of a large tree. Jonathon Blow (The Witness designer) introduces a new way of solving this puzzle, through seeing the tree behind the puzzle and solving it with the tree’s structure. 

The Witness Tree Puzzle
The Witness Tree Puzzle

Considerations: You always have to keep in mind your audience and the location of your puzzle within your game (will be expanded upon in the next point). However, in terms of what your audience wants, know that there is a spectrum:

Narrative focused ⇔ Challenge focused

You have to know what kind of game your audience wants. Typically difficulty scales as we pursue a more challenge focused game. 

4. Rational puzzle design

In this section, she mainly describes the necessity of good structure in puzzle games. She says you should always preserve Macro Flow. This is a new concept she introduces that basically means you should have in mind the difficulty at each step of the game. As a designer you should break down the game for yourself into each act, level and puzzle. From there you should think about your player going through this game overall.

For a great example, she looks at portal. They have set acts where the difficulty and stress the player faces increases gradually. Portal also gives the player many breather puzzles as can be observed by tracking the number of steps a player needs to in order to complete the level. Many times, especially in ACT I of portal, the player is given a variety of levels that require just a few steps to complete. This gives the player a sense of accomplishment, leading them to move forward with confidence. 

She also mentions that this can be done within the levels themselves. Many levels in portal have multiple parts to them. They act sometimes just to boost a players confidence. As she says, it shows the player that they know what they’re doing. It prods them to “just keep going”. This all serves to build upon what the player already knows. We also have to understand what and how the player has learned about the mechanics. For example, in portal ACT I level 10, the player has already learned all that is necessary from levels 2 and 7. Now the player just has to put things together.

Overall, she gives some insight into what the structure of a puzzle game should look like as a whole. It is important to keep all that in mind to ensure the player is learning well throughout.

5. Building a puzzle

Braid World 4
  1. Know the player’s goal: Remember to message the goal clearly to the player. In Braid, for example, the game even repeats some puzzle levels with different mechanics. This shows the player that they have to think about it in a different way. It also ends up building a relationship between the player and the mechanics.
  2. Give feedback: Consistently reward and encourage your player when they are on the right track. It is also equally important to communicate when your player has reached a dead end. 
  3. Be kind: “repetition isn’t fun”. Check your skill checks in your game. Make sure that the player wouldn’t get frustrated and quit.
  4. Integrate your story into your puzzle. Your puzzles can help to establish your story in your players mind. Even if it’s an adventure game, keep it consistent. A bad example is the original BioShock, where they essentially play pipe dream for the hacking puzzles. Don’t get me wrong, its a pretty great game but the hacking puzzles makes no sense at all to the story.
  5. The golden rule = don’t get excited for feeling clever. Never leave your player feeling like Dr Watson when he talks to Sherlock Holmes. You shouldn’t feel like its a competition between you and your player. Instead you should make them feel smarter every step of the way.

6. Troubleshooting your puzzle

The best tip for user testing is, as mentioned, do it as much as you can! However, when you are playtesting, there are some things to keep in mind. Firstly, capture as much of the testers thinking process as possible. Not when they get stuck and check yourself.

If the game is too easy, potentially there was too much tutorial. Was there was a lot of repetition? Maybe there was not enough steps or no variation in the verbs.

If the game is too difficult, think about if you gave enough information for the player to solve the puzzle and how long ago did you give said information. Is the goal consistently clear to the player? Check your difficulty dials, maybe there are too many steps. Think about if the new mechanics are being taught well, especially when they’re used in a new way. 


Overall, I think it is an amazing and helpful talk. She specifically talks about narrative driven puzzle games that she is used to making but many of its lessons can be applied to many puzzles in general. If you’re new to puzzle making or already a veteran, keeping these little tips in your mind would help to ensure some quality puzzle creation. 

Before ending, here are some things to remember:

  • A good puzzle challenges the player, without hand-holding or being unfair (fun for the player, not the designer).
  • Puzzles combine a game’s theme and mechanics, and rely on the consistency of each to make sense.
  • Look at your puzzle in the context of the game as a whole to judge its difficulty.
  • Watch others play your puzzle to check for assumptions you may have made.

Please leave any comments you may have on the summary below. I’d be glad to answer any inquiries or suggestions here or through email or facebook. Thank you! 

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