What is a puzzle?

In the very first post on this blog, Corey raised the question of how you define a puzzle. Allow me to attempt to tackle that thorny topic.

Puzzles have always been popular, but with the advent of smartphone and tablet apps and games, they’ve been freed from newspapers, magazines, computer screens, and video game consoles, making them more accessible than ever before.

Sudoku puzzles, crosswords, Words with Friends, and Cut the Rope are just a few examples both new and old that are available with a few simple dabs at a touchscreen. It’s effortlessly easy to indulge in a bit of puzzle fun these days.

But that does raise the question of what separates a puzzle or puzzle game from a game with puzzly aspects.

G4 recently did a countdown of the Top 100 Video Games of All-Time, and Angry Birds (#49), Myst (#47), Words with Friends (#99), and Tetris (#5) all made the list. Those are all wildly different games that could fall under the umbrella of “puzzle game”.

Now, I might be splitting hairs here, but I think there’s a big difference between puzzle games and games with puzzle elements.

Puzzle games have a definite solution that can be reached by a combination of the information you’re given and your own cleverness.

The PC game Myst is a terrific example of this. Myst is a sprawling series of mechanical and visual puzzles scattered across a deserted (and gorgeously rendered) island, and the puzzle-solving is the be-all, end-all purpose of the game.

A rich storyline emerges as you solve the various puzzles, and information pertaining to that storyline ties into some of the puzzles you solve. This aspect of the game is quite similar to crosswords and other clued puzzles, which often require a knowledge of cultural references and other contextual information in order to complete the puzzle.

Of course, you could approach virtually any game from a puzzle standpoint — how do I get Mario up there? How do I get Solid Snake past this guard without being spotted? How do I escape these zombies with only a wooden kitchen spoon at my disposal?! — but that doesn’t make that game a puzzle game.

Puzzle games aren’t simply a matter of fast reaction time or skillful button-mashing, they’re a matter of mental agility and dexterity as well.

For example, both Halo and Tetris require a speedy response time and a sense of strategic planning. (At least, they do if you want to last more than 30 seconds in either game.)

But since Tetris is basically an extremely aggressive jigsaw puzzle, the puzzle solving itself IS the game experience, while puzzle solving — obtaining weapons, neutralizing enemy forces, capturing the flag, etc. — is only one aspect of the gameplay in Halo. You could play for hours just fragging your buddies or tooling around in the Warthog and thoroughly enjoy the game without a single puzzly moment occurring.

Essentially, puzzle games are dependent on the puzzle aspect to be enjoyable, while games with puzzle elements are not.

Consider Angry Birds. It’s basically a simple physics puzzle with some delightful slapstick thrown in.

You could take your time and figure out your best shot at knocking down each structure in one blow, but there’s an element of uncertainty there, because you have to guess not only the best launch angle and velocity for a particular bird, but how the structure will react to that bird.

You can’t complete a level in Angry Birds with your mental agility alone, and that separates it from other puzzle games.

You can also just revel in the fun of hurling birds into pigs and knocking stuff down, which requires no puzzle skills whatsoever. The puzzle element isn’t crucial to the gameplay.

In the spirit of Shakespeare, the puzzle’s the thing!

This distinction between puzzle games and games with puzzle elements fits all sorts of two-player games as well.

Although achieving the high score and/or defeating your opponent are the real goals of puzzle games like Words with Friends, the puzzle aspect remains crucial to your success. Sure, it’s immensely satisfying to foil that jerk who tried to steal the triple-word score after you laid the groundwork for it, but you can’t accomplish that without your anagramming and word placement skills.

(Sorry, Mom, I didn’t mean that! You’re not a jerk!)

Like Words with Friends, PuzzleNation’s two-player games (Starspell, Guessworks, Tanglewords, and Crossword Raiders) have you competing with your opponent for points, but again, solving the puzzle is what completes the game.

In fact, in all but Crossword Raiders, each move by your opponent offers you another clue toward solving the puzzle, whether it’s a letter pattern you hadn’t noticed in Starspell, additional letters in a clue or a quote in Guessworks, or letters that help you place your own words in Tanglewords.

On the other hand, Battleship — the classic competition to find and destroy your opponent’s naval fleet, not the alien-laden cinematic dud — has a puzzly appearance, but it’s mostly a guessing game. Once you have a few data points (either white-peg misses or red-peg hits), you can try to deduce where your opponent’s ships are, but there’s no concrete puzzle-solving there.

Especially when your brother keeps moving the pieces. He said it was more realistic that way. “Real ships move!”


Sorry, I digress.

It may seem like a minor thing, quibbling over whether something is a puzzle game or not. But it’s not a minor thing.

This is a puzzle blog. If we’re going to write about puzzles here, if we’re going to share our opinions on them and discuss them with you and delve into all things puzzle-wonderful, it’s important to have a set definition, so you know exactly what we mean when we talk about a great puzzle game (like Valve’s Portal) or a game with fun puzzly features (like the Ratchet & Crank series).

So there we go. Thanks for indulging me, and I look forward to the inevitable semantic debates that are sure to follow. =)

Keep calm, puzzle on (or puzzle-game on, or even game-with-puzzle-elements on, if you like), and I’ll catch you next time.

1 thought on “What is a puzzle?

  1. Pingback: 500 Blog Posts! | PuzzleNation.com Blog

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