A Shift in Puzzly Perspective

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I’ve had 3-D puzzling on the brain for a few days now, after a conversation about video games with a well-informed friend of mine.

What do I mean when I say 3-D puzzling? Well, I don’t just mean a puzzle that exists in three dimensions. I mean a puzzle where the solving experience requires all three dimensions.

Think about your average maze or a jigsaw puzzle. Although they’re three-dimensional objects, the solving is two-dimensional. Yes, there are certainly variations on these themes, like maze cubes where you navigate a marble from one place to another, or 3-D jigsaw puzzles that allow you to reconstruct famous landmarks. But these still rely heavily on two-dimensional solving.

Compare that with the iconic puzzle video game Portal, for instance. Portal requires you to accomplish different tasks, and you can only do so with your portal gun, a device that allows you to connect two different locations on the map.

[Image courtesy of Game Informer.]

That requires a complete realignment of your perspective, because you can walk in a straight line through one portal and emerge above, below, or at a 90-degree angle from where you started. This isn’t two-dimensional thinking anymore.

Between 3-D printing techniques and the constantly evolving engines behind video game systems, we’re seeing more and more examples of three-dimensional thinking in puzzles, and I’m perpetually amazed by what creators and designers come up with.

Check out this video of gameplay from the new puzzle game Etherborn:

Your character navigates elaborate three-dimensional landscapes, and gravity is wholly dependent on how your character is oriented at the moment. So you need to be clever enough to use the landscape in order to move your character in very unorthodox ways.

It’s fascinating, a step beyond some of the puzzles seen in previous games like Portal and Fez. (In those games, gravity still only worked in one direction, whereas Etherborn breaks even that fundamental baseline.)

I think this sort of puzzling appeals to me so much because the change in perspective that comes from solving in an additional dimension completely rewrites the rules we thought we knew.

Imagine for a second that you’re inside a corn maze. Now think about the paper mazes you’ve solved. See the difference? In the first scenario, you’re beholden to the meager information you get from following each path, whereas in the second, you can plan a route from above because you have much more information. You can see dead ends and avoid them.

The three-dimensional scenario is far more challenging than the 2-D solving you’re doing with the paper maze.

ThinkFun managed a similar feat with Gravity Maze, a puzzle game that required you to move a marble from the starting cube to the ending cube. The main challenge was that you had to build the path with only the given materials, and then just drop the marble in. All the puzzling happened at the beginning, and then you became a bystander as the marble traversed the solution you built.

This isn’t just plotting a path like in a normal maze, it was understanding a chain of events you were setting in motion, like cause and effect. It’s like building a simple Rube Goldberg machine and watching it go.

But whether you’re manipulating portals, shifting perspectives, dropping marbles, or solving corn mazes, you’re pushing your puzzly skills into new dimensions. And that’s just the puzzles we have now. Imagine what comes next.


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