Simply lining up geometric shapes made Tetris a worldwide sensation. It didn’t need a plot. Yet many of the best video game puzzlers of recent years, from Portal to the more recent Soul Axiom, appeal not only to brainiacs looking to test their wits, but to people who appreciate compelling stories too.
A good puzzle game gives you inventive problems to solve. A great puzzle game gives you a reason to care about solving those problems. Many classics of the genre take this mantra to heart. The iconic Myst told an arcane story with journal pages and monologues to give its logic puzzles deeper meaning. Likewise, Portal owes its pop cultural acclaim to quirky characters and catchy slogans just as much as it does to physics-heavy teleportation trials. As recently as 2014, The Talos Principle won critical praise with a meaningful mystery about the fate of humanity that matched the intellectual intensity of its gameplay.
These games understand the advantages of rewarding players for solving complex brain teasers with snippets of storytelling. For easily befuddled puzzle-solvers like me, wanting to see how a story unfolds can provide just enough motivation to keep hammering away at abstract challenges. Soul Axiom—an artsy indie title released last month—thought it understood this game design formula. That it falls apart under closer inspection only proves how difficult it is to mix these components.
In Soul Axiom, untangling the mystery of who you are inside a virtual afterlife is your motivation for virtual puzzle solving. Its mystifying narrative takes place in Elysia, a vast digital server designed to store life experiences. Users essentially upload artificial souls to the cloud to attain immortality, living inside a stylized cyberspace world of neon light and playable memories. As one of these souls, players try to piece together Elysia’s ominous secrets while pondering the value of the human soul and the ethics of virtual reality.
With these intriguing story elements in place, Soul Axiom could have kept players invested as they explored the game’s fragmented memory sequences. Unfortunately the game falters on its fundamentals: the puzzles are too easy, their solutions too obvious. Whether it’s redirecting the path of light beams or moving platforms into place, too many puzzles rely on using the right power on the right glowing object in the right order. These tasks require little cognitive input. In one chamber of a simulated Mayan temple, you simply have to arrange blocks to match a pattern clearly outlined on the wall. And when a problem does have great complexity it’s often simply unclear instead of clever.
With such questionable challenges to conquer, no nebulous narrative secrets, haunting atmospheric levels or layers of philosophical posturing could save Soul Axiom. But even if puzzle games need to prioritize their namesake attraction before taking on ambitious storylines, developers shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of these other features.
The absence of a traditional story structure made The Witness a tough sell with some audiences. An otherwise brilliant puzzle adventure released in January, The Witness finds surprising room for creativity inside a simple premise—drawing the correct path through lined panels spread across a sprawling island. Each set of line puzzles opens up a new path for exploring this strange, bright world of gorgeous, surreal landscapes.
The puzzles are great, but the game’s story content is deliberately unconventional. Hidden logs and philosophical quotes hint at thoughtful themes, but concrete details are hard to come by. At the same time, the game strives to give players a sense of discovery. Landscape details, like the layout of stone figures, often pose questions and clues to interpret. Many might find the minimalistic subtlety of these details lacking; arguably, the game could have been more engrossing if it provided players with tangible mysteries to decipher. What is there, however, gives sleuths reasons to dig deeper.
A PORTAL BETWEEN PUZZLES
Even after almost a decade, Portal remains the textbook example of how to arrange a healthy marriage between puzzles and storytelling. Whereas Soul Axiom created only a flimsy illusion of solving problems, Portal makes them the central pillar of its narrative identity. Its plot, which follows human lab rat Chell as she escapes the inhumane laboratories of Aperture Science, justifies the existence of its puzzling tests as a part of its world, rather than artificial constructs. When playing the game, you can believe these trials were concocted by the rogue artificial intelligence GLaDOS.
Portal paced its puzzles perfectly with eccentric commentary from its malevolent computer antagonist. With her amusing passive aggressive dialogue, GLaDOS not only motivated players to see the next step in an expanding story, but taught the basics of the game’s internal logic. Her hints and instructions acted as a natural tutorial for learning how to use the Portal Gun to traverse test chambers.
Furthermore, the gameplay and narrative worked together to balance their respective strengths. Besides zapping portals onto walls to zip between two locations, everyone remembers plot twists like the Companion Cube’s fate and the memetic “The Cake is a Lie” quote. While on their own these qualities might have faded from gamer’s memories with time, together they have been immortalized.
Puzzles themselves are fun and satisfying complete. Their inundation on mobile gaming stores proves people can’t get enough of scratching their brains. But their taxing nature can also make them uninviting when they grow in complexity. In worlds where everything exists to test a player’s ingenuity, following a plot can give just enough purpose to keep hunting for solutions. When you need to solve a puzzle to turn the next page in a book you can’t put down, you might be surprised by what your intellect is capable of.
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