The Mind-blowing Variety of Puzzles

[A sampling of puzzles of many sorts: crosswords, puzzle boxes,
mechanical brain teasers, tile puzzles, riddles, and more!]

It really is incredible how many forms puzzles can take.

Think about it. Whether you’re talking Rubik’s Cubes, cryptograms, jigsaws, Sudoku, brain teasers, riddles, crosswords, escape rooms, tangrams, word seeks, sliding tiles, deduction problems, coded messages, or anagrams, they all fall under the umbrella of puzzles.

A puzzle can be as simple as pencil and paper or as complex as a multi-stage puzzle hunt or escape room, replete with codes, keys, hidden buttons, mechanical devices to assemble or utilize, and more. The folks at ThinkFun, for instance, have employed everything from ropes and magnets to lasers and mirrors in their puzzles.

That’s some extreme variety.

And the field of possibilities only widens when we add video game puzzles to the mix. We’ve previously talked about games like Tetris and Portal, where you must think in 2D and 3D respectively. We’ve seen games where you change the rules of the world to proceed or even interfere with the coding of the game itself to solve problems.

In the last few years, indie game designers and big studios alike have produced puzzle games that continue to push the boundaries of puzzly minds.

For instance, in Iris Fall you solve puzzles and maneuver around obstacles by playing with light and shadow. By moving light sources and interacting with the environment, both the light and the shadows it creates allow your character to play with perspective and illusion in order to accomplish tasks. It’s very cool!

In a similar vein, the game Superliminal challenges you to solve puzzles and move from room to room by shifting perspective. For instance, if you pick up a small item and then pull it close to you so that it looks bigger, it BECOMES bigger.

Check out this playthrough to see this mindbending puzzler in action:

The game Maquette works off of a similar concept, but requires you to think in both big and small terms. In Maquette, you have a city to explore, and in order to do so, you also need to manipulate a miniature version of the city that affects the world outside.

For instance, there’s a bridge with the center path missing. How can you reach the other side with only a key in your hands?

Easy. You take the key, place it over the same bridge gap in the miniature, and then walk back to the real bridge, where a giant version of that key is now spanning the gap.

And now there’s Viewfinder, a game where you use a Polaroid-style camera to take pictures that you can then place into a three-dimensional world and turn them into structures you can interact with and solve problems!

These sorts of puzzle games help reinforce one of the fundamental rules of puzzle-solving: always be willing to change your perspective and come at the puzzle from another angle. It works with wordplay, it works with brain teasers, and it works in three-dimensional perspective puzzles in video games.

What’s your favorite flavor of puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Have you learned something from one kind of puzzle that you’ve been able to apply in another style of puzzling? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Portal 2 Celebrates 10 Years with Time Travel!

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Last week, one of the most iconic puzzle games in the history of video games turned ten years old.

Portal 2 is the beloved sequel to the groundbreaking (and mind-bending) game about a gun that creates portals through which you can leap, fall, and maneuver your way past increasingly complex puzzles and locked rooms. You can make portals — blue or orange, one to enter, the other to exit — with the famous portal gun.

Whether there are buttons to be pressed, lasers to be re-directed, or inaccessible platforms to access, your portal gun is the only tool you need to finish the job… if you’re clever enough.

I reached out to some of my video game-savvy friends to ask their thoughts on ten years of Portal 2, and the feedback was unanimously positive:

Each puzzle taught a lesson, building upon your knowledge of the game’s “rules” and “tricks.” By the end of the game, your brain has been re-wired to solve some of the most brutal possible puzzles. It definitely felt like my brain was running at max capacity playing the portal games.

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The best puzzle games teach us lessons and allow us to build on those lessons to get better. The more crosswords you solve, the more experience you have unraveling clues and filling in grids. It’s the same thing with Portal.

Another video game enthusiast shared this:

It (along with Portal 1) is one of the only puzzle games that managed to complete from start to finish without resorting to an online hint guide of some sort. It was difficult enough that I felt challenged, but intuitive and logical enough that I was eventually able to figure everything out, which to me is the hallmark of a fun game.

Might also be the first time I ever felt genuine sympathy for a robot in a game. (Or at least the… well, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has yet to play through it.)

Oh yeah, it’s also the only first-person puzzle game I can think of where I don’t want to spoil anything for people.

It’s a rare puzzle (and rarer game) indeed where failure doesn’t feel like failure, and instead feels like a learning experience that pushes you to try again with what you’ve learned. Some puzzles and games make that a crushing experience… but Portal makes it fun. Portal makes it compelling. And Portal makes it all so satisfying when you figure it all out.

And now, as fans mark a decade of brain-melting Portal 2 puzzles, a fan-designed free mod known as Portal Reloaded is set to challenge Portal 2 fans all over again.

Portal2-Reloaded-Mod-Valve

How? By adding time travel to the mix.

Yes, your portal gun isn’t just allowing you to manipulate space… it’s allowing you to manipulate time as well.

From the Kotaku article about Portal Reloaded:

Portal Reloaded is a mod, released just in time for Portal 2‘s 10th birthday, that introduces a new set of test chambers and, more importantly, a new portal colour. You’ll still be using the old blue and orange ones, but the green one you’ll also get will let you move through time, as you set up puzzles in one timeline and then move them along/solve them across two different eras, set 20 years apart.

When a game that already lets you bend space to your whim with some clever positioning, the possibility of bending time the same way is practically irresistible.

But will people be talking about Portal Reloaded in ten years the same way they do about Portal 2? Unfortunately, there’s no green portals to tell us the answer. We’ll just have to wait and see.


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5 Questions for Twitch Streamer and YouTuber Rachel Howie

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Rachel Howie as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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Whether she’s exploring the verdant expanses of Breath of the Wild or slaying overpowered monsters in Dark Souls, Rachel Howie is an established force in the Twitch video game community. Wielding years of experience as a YouTube presenter and a lifetime of video game fandom, Rachel entertains and informs across Twitch and YouTube under the handle “DontRachQuit.”

As both onscreen performer and video editor, Rachel is a one-woman multimedia content creator, bringing humor, enthusiasm, and some wicked button-mashing skills every time she picks up a controller and live-streams her gaming exploits.

And this month, she’s even raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital through their Play Live program!

Rachel was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Rachel Howie

1. How did you first get into video games? What genres or styles of games most appeal to you?

Growing up, I was always obsessed with Nintendo. My older cousins had a SNES, and then later an N64, and I was just absolutely obsessed with it. Because I was far too young to play much more than Jungle Hijinx on Donkey Kong Country without screwing up all my cousins’ progress, I’d beg and beg them if they would play so that I could watch and learn all the secrets. Perhaps a prelude to my future career in streaming!

So I have my cousins, or I suppose, my uncle, to thank for getting me interested in video games. He had a 120 star save file in Mario 64 and my little eyes just lit up with admiration every time I started it up.

When the Pokemon anime started on TV, I begged for my first console to call my own, and my parents got me a little yellow game boy pocket with Pokemon Blue. I must have been around… 6 years old? I had to ask my Dad for help because I literally couldn’t figure out how to exit Blue’s house. Good times.

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[She even named her dog after a Pokemon!]

Nowadays, the genre I am most invested in is Action/Adventure and RPG. I love anything that offers me the ability to create a custom character and just get lost in a world full of people who need my help. Throughout the past 15 years, I’ve played copious amounts of World of Warcraft, and I do enjoy MMOs, also. However it is hard just to nail myself down to one genre, as I do enjoy all sorts – Dark Souls, The Legend of Zelda, WoW, Pokemon, The Binding of Isaac, Okami, Portal, the Ori games, Kingdom Hearts, and I’ve been super into Beat Saber lately on the Oculus!

2. Puzzles are frequently an integral part of a video game, either as obstacles or as the entire focus of the game. What’s one example of a game that utilizes puzzles effectively and a game that fails to do so?

I absolutely love puzzles. The first thing that springs to mind is probably because I’ve been playing the recently released Resident Evil 3 remake, and that is last year’s Resi 2 remake. The very idea of having enjoyable puzzles inside a horror game may seem pretty strange, but in Resi it just works. It’s a great change of pace from the ‘shooty shooty zombie, run run run Mr. X is comin’, regular gameplay. So I’d definitely put the Resident Evil series as a whole forward as a game that very effectively incorporates puzzles.

If we wanna talk entire focus of the game, Portal 2 is king. Seriously. What a game.

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I find it difficult to think negatively so nothing springs to mind immediately when thinking of a game that tries puzzles but falls flat. The obvious answer I suppose might be The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time‘s water temple on the N64, but this is purely linked to the Iron boots being equippable from the start menu – something fixed perfectly in the 3DS remake.

3. Visuals play a huge role in several of your endeavors, as editors are visual storytellers who help illustrate a given narrative and Twitch streamers provide a sort of visual performance art alongside their gameplay. What’s the key to accomplishing both styles of storytelling effectively?

If we take video editing first, it really is quite simple. An edited video will be made to fulfill a brief, it has a purpose – what it will be used for and whether it’s supposed to invoke a certain emotion, or response from people. The key is knowing exactly what you are making and keeping that in mind with every single cut, every title card, every sound effect or piece of music. Watching back your work is also important, and trying to visualise how it might be perceived by a third party.

Twitch streaming, I feel, is even simpler. Live content is natural, or rather, it usually is. There are plenty of streamers who put on high-production value shows or perform as a character during their streams. I honestly just wing it! I’m a naturally pretty expressive person who tends to have 150% emotions and this just seems to work so well for streaming.

I also love, and try to encourage, mascots and channel memes into things like alerts – so the visual style ends up very lighthearted and fun, full of hype to celebrate when people are kind enough to financially support. When I was creating my branding, I wanted something that people could identify with me that also described my vibe, and the kind of content I create. So I went for bright colours, and yet a strong, sharp edged font – the perfect marriage of fluffy dogs and Dark Souls!

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4. What’s next for Rachel Howie?

The tail end of last year was a bit of a roller-coaster for me. I was forced into a corner and had to give up on a job with a team I loved with all my heart, and leap into something that I wasn’t exactly ready for. I had been streaming on Twitch and creating content in my spare time for three years previously, and it was borderline sustainable income, so giving up a reliable salary was absolutely terrifying. However I have not regretted it in the slightest. My Twitch channel got partnered, my YouTube is steadily rising, supported by Patreon, and I’m exploring new avenues like podcasting. Heck, I went out and got a puppy! Life is pretty scary at the moment, but it’s also never been so exciting.

I’m going to continue working hard on my channels, and continue to try and help everyone through this uncertain time with my goofiness and relatability. I’d love to start going to more events, such as Insomnia and Comic Con, as ‘DontRachQuit’, and slowly carve my name across the industry. Also it would be really great if I could manage to finish this deathless run of Dark Souls before I grow old!

5. If you could give the readers, writers, gamers, content creators, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

The most important thing I’ve learned over the past 6 months, is that life is too short not to try and follow your dreams. You are the most important thing, and your happiness is paramount. It’s all fine and well putting others before yourself, but if that’s just going to make you unhappy, I’m afraid it’s not worth it. Just be yourself, treat yourself, and do what makes you happy. Never stop trying, never stop learning – failure is just another opportunity to learn. Keep trying, you can do it!


A huge thank you to Rachel for her time. You can follow her on Twitter (as well as Instagram, YouTube, and Twitch) for updates on all things “Don’t Rach Quit,” and if you enjoy her videos and streams, please consider joining her Patreon! I can’t wait to see what video game she conquers next!

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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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To Solve This Murder Mystery, You Need to Break the Game

[Image courtesy of Game Informer.]

Our readership isn’t a predominantly video game-savvy audience. We have lots of app users and lots of pencil-and-paper solvers in the PuzzleNation membership, but fewer gamers.

So you may wonder why I periodically write about video games when it’s a niche interest for the majority of our readers. That’s an entirely fair question.

As a puzzle enthusiast, I’m constantly seeking out new ways to build puzzles and solve them. Brain teasers, word problems, riddles, and mechanical puzzles all fit under the umbrella of “puzzles,” but they’re all very different solving experiences. Similarly, there’s a huge difference between a pencil-and-paper puzzle and an escape room, a murder mystery and a scavenger hunt, an encrypted message and a puzzle box.

But they’re all puzzles. And that’s what I find so fascinating. There are endless ways to challenge ourselves in puzzly fashion, and video games are constantly innovating when it comes to puzzle-solving.

[Image courtesy of Zelda Dungeons.]

Whether we’re talking about navigating past guards with well-placed arrow shots in the Thief games, navigating the labyrinth of the Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or maneuvering around a room in mind-bending ways with your portal gun in Portal, video games can take 2D puzzle ideas and bring them into the third dimension in amazing ways.

A friend recently told me about a game called Iris Fall, where you actually manipulate light and shadows in order to solve puzzles. That’s not just ingenious, it’s beautiful as well.

There are even games that let you change the rules of the puzzle itself in order to solve it.

[Image courtesy of Born Frustrated Studio.]

And another game in that vein recently came to market, a detective game called File://maniac.

In this murder mystery, you’re tasked with tracking down a devious murderer who happily taunts you with messages as you pursue them. But instead of pursuing leads and accomplishing tasks in more traditional detective-game format, you actually have to manipulate the files of the game itself as you play.

Yes, the very coding and organization of the game is the basis of the puzzles and codes for you to unravel.

Heather Alexandra at Kotaku explains more:

Getting rid of a locked door might require placing the door’s files in your recycling bin. Finding the password to a lock means opening up a handful of notebook files and searching until you find the code. It’s a different sort of puzzle solving, one that encourages the player to be aware of the game world’s artificiality… playing around with the actual game files creates a fun mixture of puzzling and “exploration” as you poke around folders and directories.

[Image courtesy of Go Go Free Games.]

It’s a brilliantly meta concept. Whereas many games and puzzle experiences are all about immersion, ensuring you forget you’re playing a game and encouraging you to dive into the narrative and gameplay itself, File://maniac demands that you not only remember you’re playing a game, but forces you to think like the designers of the game to circumvent each challenge.

It’s like being trapped in a maze, then being able to shift your perspective to an overhead view of the maze and navigate yourself out with omniscient ease. It’s a total perspective shift, and the a-ha moment of figuring out how to change the rules to your advantage is an immensely satisfying reward.

Do you know of any games out there that create unique and unexpected puzzly experiences? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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A Puzzle Game That Lets You Change the Rules of Puzzles!

[Image courtesy of Linux Game Consortium.]

Solving puzzles through different mediums can lead to unexpected and challenging solving experiences.

One advantage that video game puzzles have over their pencil-and-paper counterparts is that, while the paper puzzles are a one-stop shop for a puzzle experience, there’s no adaptation, no evolution, no development for the solver or chance to build upon what they’ve learned through multiple solves or repetition.

In video game puzzles, on the other hand, repetition is the name of the game. New skills and techniques are immediately tested by clever twists on established puzzles, so you’re never resting on your puzzly laurels.

For example, while discussing the classic puzzle platforming game Portal, my friend once described it as a game that reprograms your brain with each puzzle you solve, transforming alongside the player. (This is also a hallmark of many of the puzzle games offered by our friends at ThinkFun.)

[Image courtesy of Game Informer.]

That sort of reprogramming is at the heart of the puzzle experience in a new game called Baba Is You.

In Baba Is You, the gameplay consists of objects to move and manipulate, as well as word blocks that form rules for the game itself. You start off by being able to move Baba, a small rabbit-like creature, around obstacles, with the goal of reaching a golden flag. So, the word blocks read “Baba is you” and “flag is win,” which both tell you the starting rules and the goal.

[Image courtesy of Kotaku.]

By changing these word blocks, you change the rules, effectively reprogramming what you can do in each level.

Kotaku explains this concept well:

One clump might say “Baba is you,” which means Baba is the character you control. Another might say “Rock is push,” which means you can push rocks, or “Wall is stop,” which means you can’t walk through walls…

You rearrange individual words to solve the puzzles. There are usually multiple options, depending on where the words are placed. In the above example, you could remove “stop” from “wall” and pass through the barrier. You could attach “wall” to “is push” instead of “is stop” and push it out of the way. You could make yourself the wall by pushing the word “wall” before “is you.” Or you could make the wall the win condition and touch that instead of the flag.

[Image courtesy of Kotaku.]

So, essentially, you solve each puzzle by obeying the rules, changing the rules, and then obeying the new rules. And since puzzles are all about figuring out how to accomplish tasks by adhering to certain rules, this creates a fascinating new style of puzzle. It’s almost like improvisational comedy or Calvinball, except it’s not played for humor.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a puzzle game that lets you alter HOW you play as drastically and as simply as this. You literally make and break the rules here, depending on how clever you are.

Baba Is You is available for PC and Switch, and I look forward to seeing more diabolical puzzling like this in the future.


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