Resilience, Riddles and Reality: Why I Design Puzzle GamesPosted: 29 Jun 2023
I am a game designer. No wait, scratch that. More specifically – I am an escape room designer. I became a professional, full time escape room designer back in 2019. Not long before the global pandemic… And you can guess what happened next – people no longer wanted to be locked up in rooms with a group of other people. It’s funny, that.
Before escape rooms, it was always puzzles. Whatever I could get my hands on – physical board games, crosswords in the weekly newspaper – and of course, video games. My earliest memory of playing puzzle video games was playing Portal in 2007. One of my friends had a computer that could run it well (well, better than the potato I called a computer could), so we got together each weekend and took it in turns to go up against GlaDos’s brain.
But wait, I think I’m getting ahead of myself. I probably started puzzling years before. When I was barely old enough to talk, I remember doing word searches and crosswords with my mum. I’d visit grandma, and she’d rope me into helping her with her latest jigsaw. Then, as I got older I helped (or hindered) dad with the cryptic crossword. Don’t ask me how cryptic crosswords work, I still don’t really get it.
All that to say is that what I found in puzzle games is so much more than just the locks and keys and the four walls of the physical escape rooms I found myself working on later. Puzzle games are a world where things just make sense. In a good puzzle game there’s no timer, no zombie chasing you, no boss waiting round the corner to swing an ace, no racetrack to speed around. It’s just you, your brain, and the puzzles. It’s a simplistic kind of pleasure. An easy dopamine hit when the puzzle ‘clicks’ into place, or you find the hidden pixel where the treasure is hidden. They’re fun, yes, but they’re also immensely good for your mental health, too.
As a university student, I developed an intense claustrophobia. The kind of “I can barely function in society anymore” type. I couldn’t sit in a lecture hall for a while, but I could sit in an open-plan library and play rounds of 2048 to keep my mind focused on the reading material. I couldn’t go to the student bar on a Friday, but I could knock on my neighbouring dorm room and ask if they wanted to play the new “The Room” game. Getting on a train was near impossible, but only if I could fire up my laptop and get lost in The Talos Principle. Because puzzles, unlike the fears our anxieties blow out of proportion, are something we can control.
I believe there’s a good reason games like “Wordle” took off during the pandemic, a time when so much uncertainty was rife and so many people were hurting. Wordle was a puzzle game in the true sense of the world, and one that seemed to unite everyone in a whirlwind of 5-letter words. Oh wait, “UNITE”, that’s a good one. I’ll try it as my starter word.
Personally, I preferred some of the spin-offs like “Redactle”, the sentence-pattern-recognition puzzle game that took whole Wikipedia articles and redacted all the words, challenging players to guess the topic in a few words as possible. One of my fondest memories of the last few years was phoning my mum each morning to say “Hey, have you done Redactle yet?” and the obligatory text from dad at 3 in the afternoon when he’d boastfully say he got it in 98 words. Of course, my brother would promptly post that he got it in 97 words. But despite our distance, it brought us all together.
Puzzle games have this amazing place in my mental health journey. And, without anyone else admitting it, I can see that they have a special place in other people’s mental health journey too. Engaging in puzzle games enhances my focus, my concentration, and my memory. Those intricate little challenges a few clicks of buttons away require an immense level of attention, honing my ability to concentrate at the task of hand. Puzzle games quieten the chatter of my busy mind and allow, in a funny sort of way, to cultivate a state of mindfulness and be fully present in the moment.
I play puzzle games because puzzles are something I feel I can control, and in a world that often feels like it’s spiralling out of control, that’s a comforting solace. There’s no uncertainty or anxiety like there is in everyday life, instead there’s a “correct answer” and a series of steps I need to take to get there. I love that.
Today I continue to design puzzle games to try to give that back to the world. I want to spark moments of intrigue and delight – a series of steps and logical deductions that end in a big and satisfying “aha”. Real life doesn’t have many of those moments of magic, but anything is possible in a game.
Today my Portal playing friend is a Mathematician. The girls I played The Room with at university are all in STEM careers. One of them is a Detective. And here I am – a game designer myself. I can’t help but wonder where we’d be without puzzle games.
Written by MairiSpaceship