When making Mechropolis, it was very important for us to create open-ended challenges that invite to exploration and have a natural presence in the game environment.
So what makes a challenge open ended? For Mechropolis, we defined an open-ended challenge as one that can be solved in several ways, giving the player a new experience each time the game is played.
When working with challenge design for Mechropolis, I found that the best way for me to reach this goal was to approach it from a narrative perspective. What is this thing that makes up the puzzle? How does it fit into the environment? How can I problematize it? By posing questions such as these, the parameters of the challenge can be defined. How does the player interact with the challenge? What is the win condition? How is the state of the puzzle conveyed to the player?
An example of this method at work from Mechropolis is the railway turntable puzzle at the end of our GGC-demo. Initially, another puzzle was planned, but was scrapped when we found it not working very well and lacking any narrative explanation. When we decided to redesign the challenge, we asked ourselves questions like the ones mentioned above: “Why is this thing here? What is it’s reason for existing in this world?”.
We decided that it was a turntable for moving mine carts between loading stations and continued by defining how it could be interacted with. The turntable has three arms, one of which is marked, and is able to rotate to six different positions, a lever is located in each direction. Pulling one of these levers rotates the turntable so that the marked arm is facing that direction. By transporting a cart full of crystals to a scanner device situated in one of the six directions, a door is opened and the player has overcome the challenge.
We then problemized the contraption by literally breaking it. We removed the lever at the goal direction, so that the player would need to bring the mine cart there indirectly on one of the unmarked arms. We also placed signs of broken catwalks between the loading stations and bridged two of them with wooden planks, limiting the access of the second “layer” of mutually accessible directions.
In a purely technical sense, the puzzle is very simple and can be solved by rotating the turntable only twice. But the challenge does not lie in performing the correct moves, but in understanding the machine. When the player is first introduced to the turntable, she has no idea of how it works and how to control it. By experimentation, she is able to teach herself how to operate it, giving her the prerequisite knowledge needed to find a solution.
When designing puzzles, it’s easy to fall into a trap where you construct a problem with a given solution and then spend lots of time and effort to make sure that this intended solution is the only one, constantly adding limitations to remove simpler solutions that you might have overlooked. This leads to very single-tracked challenges where the solution is often obvious and carrying it out becomes a chore rather than a eureka moment.
Instead, start by creating a bunch of intertwined mechanisms in the game environment and then move on to problematize the system that emerges, without working toward just a single solution, but welcoming unintended solutions as contributors to the challenge’s depth. In this way, you’ll likely create a challenge that each player is free to explore and overcome in their own way and pace and that, even if the win condition may be the same, give every player their own experience.
A personal favourite for me that I think does this kind of explorative puzzle design very well is the Myst series’ Riven, an old school point and click game in which players find themselves among a collection of eerily quiet islands. All puzzles in the game are closely intertwined with it’s narrative and exploring them is equivalent to exploring the culture of the islands’ inhabitants.
I can’t recommend Riven enough. It’s available on Steam and the App Store. If you’ve already played it, take a look at this excellent blind let’s play by crimault to experience it again as if for the first time.