“What Is The Puzzle?”
While at first blush “uncovering the obscured” sounds very much like finding hidden objects in the room, I actually mean trying to understand the objects you have already found. Here you have objects laid out before you all together: a seashell here, a note from the constable there, and, of course, the missing jeweled necklace! But what do they mean? How do they go together? HOW THE #&$*@ DOES THIS PUZZLE WORK!?
From a puzzle designer’s perspective, this can be a very tricky form of discovery to get just right. It’s very easy to make a puzzle so obscure or obtuse that few players, if any, are able to actually solve it. The other end of the spectrum is something too obvious to be a fun challenge, leaving you with what could barely be called a puzzle. The success of this form of discovery hinges very heavily on how the puzzle is designed, but that’s a topic so deep that we’ll only be able to scratch the surface of it for now.
So to begin, here are some brief thoughts on the concept.
First, a word of caution. Having all of the pieces to a puzzle and not knowing what to do with them can be very frustrating for players who have not encountered this sort of challenge before. Many puzzles outside of escape rooms make their mechanics very clear. You know how a jigsaw puzzle works, even if you don’t know exactly where each piece goes yet. But when presented with a collection of mysterious items and no direction, newer players can feel lost pretty quickly. This is why signposting is so important. Signposting, in a nutshell, is the act of subtly guiding players toward the correct method. For example, a journal found in the room that mentions the author’s predilection for candy could help players realize that they need to use a box of jelly beans to solve a color code puzzle. This subtle direction helps to cognitively prime players so that, at least on a subconscious level, they know that the discovery of a box of candy in the room is an important one.
Second, uncovering a puzzle’s mechanics is meant to be fun, so as designers we need to try our best to make it clear to a player when they’ve actually done it. Puzzles should provide some form of feedback to players when they’ve done the right thing. Whether this is an audio cue, a physical change, or simply a clear answer (say, unscrambling text into a recognizable word rather than a random code), this feedback illustrates to the player that yes, you’ve discovered something and you’re on the correct path!
This form of discovery can be very rewarding for a player, but it requires two design aspects to remain a fun challenge and to steer clear of frustration: signposting to help players who haven’t started and feedback to help players finish once they have.
This series is continued in Part 3: Realizing a Solution.
For the sake of readers who have yet to enjoy The Vanishing Act or any of our other experiences, we ask that you kindly refrain from spoilers in your comments.