Some of my favorite video games can be considered puzzle games. It is a genre that, when done right, it catches you hopelessly. Maybe it’s because finding the solution to something you’ve been thinking about for a while is one of the best sensations that I have experienced when playing games; they are frustrating at times, but also exhilarating, and the moment they click, the satisfaction is overwhelming.
Also, it is not that other games do not have it, but in puzzles it is easier to appreciate the ingenuity behind each design, or how we have closely followed the deductive process that the developers wanted us to follow. “I can’t believe they thought about this”.
I will venture to say that we live in a golden age for puzzle games. I can think of quite a few titles that have come out in recent years and that could be considered among the best of all time in terms of their genre. The Witness, The Talos Principle, Gorogoa O Baba is You are just a few examples. But don’t go to heavyweights or critically acclaimed masterpieces either.
There are also titles that, although they stand out less, have very interesting ideas, such as The Gardens Between O Snakebird. It is not that now there are better puzzles than ever (that also), but that now they are more alive than ever.
I think the reader will have already guessed what the common denominator is here: they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, indies games. Titles that do not fit within the AAA circuit as we understand it today. The popularization of the independent scene has meant a perfect context for the puzzle genre to emerge like never before
Classic and modern heritage at the same time
Before these settled there were already puzzles everywhere, of course. Decades ago we played Lemmings oa Columns, and how to forget the everlasting Tetris, who revolutionized the scene with his mathematically perfect design and its arcade and competitive side. There were also the graphic adventures of LucasArts and other derivatives, which were basically puzzles framed in a narrative and exploratory thread; Monkey Island and Grim Fandango they are just some of the most emblematic. And of course, the saga Myst and tons of other games that became benchmarks.
During the 90s, especially on consoles, they also began to forge adventures that integrated their puzzles such as mechanics that were part of a set: exploration, minigames, combat, etc. We had Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and as, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (which took inheritance from his previous deliveries).
The adventure genre would come to be defined as a kind of cocktail in which there is room for everything. The first God of War would take that route, and even Uncharted later, although there the component of the puzzles was already beginning to atrophy.
The puzzles in mainstream video games were just a specific part that was sought give some variety to the rest. There were and still are exceptions, but in general they were displaced to a second plane. At least, until the final turning point: Portal.
The Valve classic wasn’t exactly indie, but its origins were. As Eva Cid explains in her great book Portal or the science of video games, it all started when a group of students developed the mechanics of portals in Narbacular Drop. Gabe Newell’s company noticed them, hired them to take their idea even further, and the rest is history.
Portal reminded us that you can make games that revolve exclusively around a single idea that is developing little by little. Works contained in a few hours that do not need anything else, because everything they could add would be superfluous. Proved that it is enough to want to develop a video game, eliminating the shots or any other element from the equation. A mantra by which some of the best puzzle titles of today are governed.
All-in-one video games are great, and I particularly love it when one idea after another is thrown in your face. without there being a clear connection between anyJust for the fact that they wanted to. Now, puzzles also need their own prominence.
Simplicity and concreteness are his weapons
AAA continued to evolve to generate incredibly complex games, in which more and more different and intricate systems like themselves. On the other hand, medium-sized or AA games, where it was used to experiment more with medium-high budgets, were gradually disappearing; today they survive thanks to publishers such as Focus Home or THQ Nordic. At the other extreme are the indies, who could now afford head the vanguardia of a forgotten genre.
And it is that to make good puzzles you do not need hyper-realistic graphics or detailed animations. They are pure video game design, overflowing ingenuity that can be embodied in the small levels of a free title of itch.io. The big industry left a gap that independent titles have known how to fill, and as Portal, have been developing it based on revolutionary but simple ideas.
They have even been able to explore new layers and design approaches. Braid and Limbo are benchmarks of the indie boom, and not only popularized platforms with puzzles, but also the way they are used to tell an allegorical and atmospheric story. After all, this kind of puzzle game encourages us to see beyond what is on the surface, to eliminate the obvious and discover the true mechanism behind everything. That makes for powerful narratives, and one of the best examples in recent years is in Inside
Each game brings its special touch: Baba is You tells us about the immense possibilities of language, and The Talos Principle delves into the self-determining nature of the human being. All of them, through their own gameplay, manage to surprise and excite us thanks to the power of their ideas.
The inherent logic of these puzzles makes us think that we have them perfectly controlled and measured, but their design shows that they can always catch us off guard and disrupt everything we believed in; because they are unpredictable human creations, like real world problems. In this Mark Brown video They talk about that, about how the puzzles are designed with contradictions that we must overcome.
See what is not obvious
And in the end that’s what it’s all about, solve problems. Something that we face day after day even when we are not playing video games. They not only teach us to reason and observe carefully, but also to break our initial assumptions, use lateral and creative thinking to make our way through a sea of impossibilities.
It said that puzzle games themselves had been abandoned until the indies picked up the baton, but in reality it hasn’t necessarily been that way either. We cannot forget the mobile field, where they have always proliferated and are the most popular on the AppStore and Google Play. However, I have my reservations.
Games like Candy Crush and derivatives come from multinationals that are based on the reproduction of models already known to capitalize on them through Free to Play business models. Again, we find notable exceptions such as Monument Valley O The Room, and with that I return to my line of argument from before: the true revolution of the puzzle is in the indies.
They are in their prime, as I said. The video game is no longer self-conscious when it does not want to appeal to all possible types of players. They may be small and contained works, brief and surprising. Puzzles are some of the best playable experiences I’ve come across in recent years because there is great value in them. One that the independent circuit has taken advantage of better than anyone. The indies have saved the puzzles.