The Book of Puzzle Games
That might seem like a silly question, but it’s one that games™ felt the need to ask all of its interviewees for this month’s Bible. After all, many of the titles we traditionally think of as puzzle games – Tetris, Bust-A-Move and so on – aren’t actually puzzles at all. And, to make matters even more confusing, many of the games that contain real puzzles, in the dictionary definition of the term, aren’t considered puzzle games because they’re adventures or survival-horrors. So, to return to that question, what is a puzzle game? Broadly speaking, the answer falls into two categories. There are those aforementioned games, which most often spring to mind when we consider the term. These games often use abstract shapes that are manipulated in real time and are used to create patterns in order to progress. Good examples are Tetris, where blocks must be slotted together to make rows; PuzzLoop, where three like-coloured balls must be fired into each other; and Puyo Puyo, which works on a similar premise but combines Tetris’s rotation mechanic for extra strategy. While these games involve enough strategic planning to be considered ‘puzzle games’, they are not actually puzzles. A real puzzle is a conundrum, or problem, with a definite solution that must be worked out through a process of logical deduction. This is the second category of puzzle games and is one that is actually much rarer than the first. These games are often based on real-world puzzles that previously existed in pen-and-paper or boardgame form. Crosswords and Sudoku are two such games that have worked just as well in digital form as on paper. Original videogame examples are harder to come by, though Compile’s GBA release Guru Logi Champ, in which a picture must be created by rotating blocks, is a fairly recent if obscure example. Whether true puzzle games or not, each of these titles shares a number of common factors. As our interviewees so rightly point out, they are all games in which using the brain is more key to success than manual dexterity. Tetris, to use an example that we’ll be relying on far too often, may require fast reaction speeds in order to score well, but nobody will get anywhere without relying on more cognitive abilities such as spatial awareness, memory and planning. The first videogame that could truthfully be described as a puzzler was created as early as 1976. In this pre- Space Invaders era, videogames were incredibly primitive in visual design so it’s not surprising that the graphically undemanding puzzle genre was born this early on. The game in question was Bally-Midway’s Amazing Maze, a simple title that asked the player to reach the end of a maze before a computer or human-controlled opponent. Mazes, of course, had existed as puzzles in the real world for thousands of years before Amazing Maze. To look at the birth of the genre in videogame form we have to jump forward six years to the release of Konami’s Loco Motion. This colourful title took its inspiration from traditional tile-shifting puzzle games, but added its own videogame twist. The tiles in this case featured rail tracks upon which a train constantly moved forward picking up any passengers it came into contact with along the way. The aim was to shift the correct tiles into the train’s path so that it collected all of the passengers without hitting a dead end or falling off the track. It was a genuine videogame puzzle that could not have realistically been created in any other way. Yet Loco Motion failed to capture the attention of the general public. It was only ever converted to one home system, the Intellivision, and as new arcade machines replaced Konami’s coin-op, the game soon faded into obscurity. The first puzzler to really achieve mainstream success was, of course, Tetris. The story behind this seminal game has been told within these pages before and nobody needs the game to be explained to them. Which is exactly what is important about Tetris. No one needs it explaining to them because it is one of the most wellknown games of all time. Its original 1985 release on home computers and its phenomenal rebirth on Game Boy, four years later, made it a household name that has lasted for two decades. This, ultimately, is what separates puzzle games from all other types of videogame. Not counting the boom of the early arcade industry, almost every game that has broken out into the mainstream, to appeal to everyone including those who have no real interest in the pastime, has been a puzzler. Tetris, Lemmings, Myst, Brain Training – each of these landmarks enthralled a generation of gamers, but also went much further than that to grab the attention of ordinary people who wouldn’t have looked twice at games as good as Super Mario Bros or Halo. Ordinary people felt compelled to play these games by any means and in most cases would even go as far as to invest in new hardware just to do so. So what is it about puzzle games that makes them so popular? That’s the real mystery of the genre, and the answer is far from simple. The reasons are many and are found in every aspect of puzzle design. Abstraction is one of several ways in which the genre has been able to gain a wide audience. Lots of puzzle games are visually made up of geometric shapes, balls and colours that have no cultural or physical relationship to anything outside the screen. They have no more and no less relevance to one person or another and are therefore all-inclusive. No one can be offended or repulsed by the majority of puzzles, which isn’t something that can be said about most videogames. In the eyes of the mainstream, whose only other knowledge of games is through the sensationalist press, most videogames are about fighting, killing and stealing. Thankfully, systems like the Wii and DS are slowly changing these perceptions and puzzle games are playing their part. As a typically non-violent genre (Midway’s Puzzle Kombat not included), puzzles are the perfect games for those millions who let the likes of Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto scare them away from the medium. For these people, the slower contemplative nature of puzzle games is definitely a reason to play. Many examples of the genre can be played at the individual’s own pace. Hexic, the PC and 360 game by Alexey Pajitnov, for example, offers a deep strategic experience, but as the game only progresses whenever the player rotates a piece, it can be played as quickly or as slowly as they wish. For those who aren’t used to manipulating 12-button joypads at lightning speed, this is the perfect way to enjoy a videogame on their own terms. Online gaming portal, PopCap Games has made millions, possibly billions, from this fact. Over 10 million so-called ‘casual gamers’ have downloaded the site’s most popular game, Bejewelled, and have gone on to become obsessed with a whole series of games that are designed to be played as simply as possible. Often requiring only the use of a mouse and one button, these games define the casual puzzle experience. They are easy to understand, uncomplicated to play, and because of their endless scope they always feel as though you could better your high score with ‘just one more go’. For this reason they are some of the most absorbing PC games available, swallowing hours of a player’s life with hundreds of consecutive retries. It’s in this utter destruction of personal time that puzzle games uniquely blur the boundaries between ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. These games are, admittedly, ridiculously easy to pick up and play and are often easy to succeed at, but when you look at a game that people dedicate every free hour to, deconstructing its mechanics to look for maximum scoring opportunities, how can those games be described as anything other than hardcore? As Pajitnov points out, Hexic has a tremendous amount of depth that can be plundered if you’re eager enough to make star flowers and black pearl clusters. Likewise, the ‘versus’ puzzle games like Puyo Puyo and Super Puzzle Fighter can be enjoyed on a basic level in single-player mode, but if you wish to trounce an experienced opponent you’ll need to develop a strategy that involves dropping blocks in a way that will prepare huge combos to be triggered later in the game. These strategies cannot easily be taught, instead they are learned by playing over and over again, by experimenting with different play styles or by allowing an opponent to beat you while you pay attention to the moves they make. Naturally, you’ll find dedicated gamers discussing the intricacies of their chosen puzzler in message boards up and down the internet, but it’s entirely common to find those ‘casual’ gamers going to the same lengths only in their own heads, almost unconsciously dismantling the game through trial and error. Of course, there are also those niche puzzle games that sit squarely in the hardcore camp, unafraid to alienate anyone without the potential to enrol in Mensa. These games rarely attract commercial success, they’re just too damned hard for that, but they’re often adored by the few people brave enough to accept the challenge. These harder games are typically the kind of puzzle with only one solution. Developing a strategy for these is impossible; you either know the answer or you don’t. Titles like Sega’s Crush or Sony’s Echochrome can frustrate because of the complexity of their conundrums but in that moment of inspiration when everything clicks and the solution becomes apparent, you feel like a genius, whether you really are or not. As long as the difficulty is pitched perfectly, these games have the ability to empower their players as they overcome seemingly impossible tasks. As one of the earliest videogame genres, puzzle games are as venerable as the 2D shoot-’em-up or the platform game, yet the puzzle genre is in much healthier shape today than either of those two game types. The puzzler has much more widespread appeal than any other game, but technology has also played its part. Unlike most other genres, there is no technological boundary to puzzle games. With very few exceptions, a puzzle game will play on any type of hardware no matter how powerful or limited. Crucially, this means that a puzzle game can succeed because it can be delivered to a hardware platform that anyone, even non-gamers, own. The PC has and always will be key here, though, the mobile phone platform has made significant progress in recent years. The small file size of most puzzle games ensures that they’re perfect for and cheaply to most formats, are perfect for impulse purchases and, crucially for ‘ordinary people’ as well as a growing number of core gamers, they don’t require you to venture into an inhospitable game shop. Digital distribution is key to the recent success that puzzles have enjoyed – especially on modern consoles like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Where once the typical FPS-crazy teenager would never have dreamed of walking into a shop and spending £30 on a twodimensional shape-rotating game with not a hint of blood and guts in sight, things have certainly changed. The abandonment of physical media has lowered costs, making the game a more attractive purchase, and the ease with which they can be acquired and stored on a console’s desktop makes them ideally suited to five or ten minutes of pre frag-fest fun. There’s one clear exception to this rule, however. The Nintendo DS. Every week seems to bring yet another puzzle game to the machine that already has far more than any other console currently available. Yet the prices of DS games are far higher than download titles, and the casual puzzle player should be put off by the need to buy a dedicated piece of hardware just to play them. But with the right game – in this case Brain Training – Nintendo has repeated the success that Game Boy enjoyed with Tetris. DS has gone from strength to strength and, with it, so have puzzle games. From the casual phenomena of Nintendo’s Touch! Generations games to digital adaptations of Sudoku, Kakuro and crosswords and on to in-depth gamers’ games like Puzzle Quest, the handheld has every corner of the puzzle market sewn up. Of course, it’s needless to explain how well suited handhelds and puzzle games are to each other, but Nintendo DS is no ordinary handheld; its touch screen and stylus combo seem purpose built for the genre. Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training was one of the first to prove this with its brilliant in-built Sudoku, which put excellent handwriting recognition technology to obvious use. Mitchell’s Actionloop, meanwhile, took the arcade classic PuzzLoop and revitalised it simply by allowing the balls to be fired with a directional flick of the stylus. The list goes on and will continue to do so as the console finds itself in the hands of more casual, quick-fix gamers. What does the future hold for puzzle games? As the genre has changed little in over 30 years, it would be safe to say that we’ll be seeing more of the same, though recent developments suggest otherwise. As mentioned, digital distribution and new hardware like the Wii and DS are changing the way we play puzzle games, but smart developers are also changing the games themselves. Japanese companies are starting to realise that puzzle games don’t have to be entirely abstract after all. Titles like Level 5’s Professor Layton And The Curious Village and Capcom’s Zack & Wiki show that traditional puzzle games can be improved by adding characters and story without diluting the genre into the realms of the graphic adventure. While Valve’s Portal uses a change in perspective, and a lot of graphical grunt to create a puzzle game that was unimaginable in past generations. Where we go from here will be determined by imagination as much as technology. The fact that it’s so difficult to pigeonhole the genre will only help it to evolve.