Twisty Little Passages

Development journal for a novel game book of dungeon crawl puzzle adventures, live on Kickstarter
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Puzzle design -- layered and progressive elements

Mike Rimer
United States
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Ongoing developer journal for Twisty Little Passages, a puzzle dungeon crawl adventure book, live on Kickstarter.

In this session, I share core concepts on designing puzzles by iteratively layering concepts one atop another.

With the player's hands, eyes and mind coordinated in playing effortlessly, dungeon areas can become fun puzzles. I say "fun" because when the player's mind is not busy having to manage the logistics of the play experience (e.g., shuffling cards, mashing buttons, juggling inventory), it can remain free to focus on the puzzle at hand and the player is able to enjoy solving it with a minimum of distraction.

Puzzle progression

A team of experienced DROD puzzle designers collaborated on the core content of Twisty Little Passages. We spent months on the puzzles, designing, refining and polishing each puzzle until it felt perfect.

In TLP, we outlined each puzzle area either to focus on one new concept or element or deepen the use of a previous one. We intentionally shied away from puzzles where the player needs to learn multiple new skills at once. We gained experience in this technique over years of working on Deadly Rooms of Death and other puzzle games featuring progressive puzzle design.

From gallery of mrimer

Teaching and Learning through Doing

When an area is focused on a distinct game element or puzzle mechanic, the area can be designed in such a way as to teach the player how to interact with that element or apply that mechanic through play. That is, with thoughtful design, the puzzle can help the player teach themselves how to solve it, and that makes them feel like a veritable genius while doing so.

Make each element a delightful discovery

Structure the design so as to enable encountering each new thing to feel like a wonderful discovery.

To provide a simple example, when introducing new game mechanics, say, keys and locked doors, do it in a way that provides "a-ha!" moments. Rather than first giving the player a key, which gives no clear challenge or solution, e.g.,
"What's this? A key! Hmm...wonder what I'll use it for..."
First present the player with a locked door
"Ah! I'm going to need to figure out how to open this."
The door presents a challenge that the player's mind engages with, foreshadowing something new to discover. Then, when the player finds a matching key, it provides a satisfying flash of puzzle-solving insight
"A-ha! Now I can open that door. I'm anticipating what's inside."
Later puzzles can broaden that experience, paving a path toward mastering that element.
Hey, look at what else I can do with doors and keys!
We aimed to do this in a way that brings challenge and delight, never annoyance, to the player while uncovering these deeper interactions.

It's fine to reprise elements from previous levels, as the player should already be familiar with them. In doing so, we were deliberate in combining multiple elements. Doing so implicitly raises puzzle complexity and difficulty. To decrease difficulty, remove some of the elements, maybe featuring them in a second, distinct area. To increase difficulty, add elements (previously encountered, of course) to raise the number of non-trivial steps or interactions to discover in order to solve the puzzle.

Combining attributes

One last note for designing puzzle widgets is to introduce game elements that serve different purposes from one another. By this, I mean assigning properties to elements that are distinct from other elements.

For instance, rather than simply presenting color-coded versions of a monster, where some are easier to defeat and some are harder, present tradeoffs in situations where a player would want to engage with one type versus another.

A common example of this is an enemy (let's take an archetypal slime monster), where one type deals more damage per attack, while also having a weakness to a certain type of attack (e.g., elemental attacks with ice, fire, lightning, etc).

Other examples involve developing unique combinations of attributes that exist in the game world. For instance, in the context a platformer, an entity's mode of movement, speed, density, modes of interaction, and resilience can serve to distinguish one element from another. Some creatures may walk, others hop quickly, while others float slowly. Some may dodge, others can mimic your movement, still others knock things back, and others explode when touched.

Choosing distinct sets of attributes for each game element can lead to interesting emergent behaviors when combined. Balancing player abilities and attributes with those of the game elements is a good way to manage difficulty and challenge.


What non-trivial ways of adjusting puzzle or play difficulty and teaching game elements do you like?
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