We all grew up getting a random mix of games and puzzles. Some games got called puzzles, and some games didn’t. But criteria for “when is it a game, and when is it a puzzle” has never really been established. I hear some people say that puzzles are “games that make you think”, but I think all games should make you think. So what is a puzzle, really?
So firstly, let me tell you about MY proposed definition for “puzzle”. I know, I’m not going to change the English language, and that’s not my goal. My goal is to have clear concepts for myself and other people who care about understanding the medium of games better. If you want to make up a new word to refer to the concept I’m about to describe, please feel free.
Breaking it Down
So, we start with interactive systems. These are all different types of interactive systems. Microsoft Flight Simulator, or Garry’s Mod, or even Minecraft, is a bare interactive system (assuming no house-rules or special “scenario” that includes a goal / competition is in effect). Some call these things “sandboxes”. They can also be described as “toys” (although toys has the connotation of being ‘for children'; for our purposes, please ignore that).
Add a solution to the interactive system, and you get a puzzle. Examples would be sudoku, Braid, a Portal level, a dungeon in Zelda, jigsaw puzzles.
Add competition to the puzzle, and you get a contest. Weightlifting contests, hot-dog eating contests, Guitar Hero, Whack-A-Mole, Candyland, horse-shoes. Contests are a pure measurement of who has bigger muscles, faster reactions, better luck, or has something more completely memorized.
Add ambiguous decision-making to the contest, and you finally have a GAME. Games are puzzles, and games are contests, but they also have ambiguous, endogenously-meaningful decision-making, which changes their nature vastly. Even if you win in a game, you can question your moves. Was that really the right move? Sure, it worked, but could there have been an even better move?
Again, these are prescriptive definitions. I know the dictionary says otherwise, especially with “game” (which it defines as “an amusement or pastime”). These are proposed useful definitions.
And I Hate Puzzles
I hate puzzles. I only recently – in the last year – have been able to actually verbalize this, although I always felt it, even as a child. I remember trudging through the dungeons of Ocarina of Time, just forcing myself to do it, because I felt like I was supposed to, but also because I was taken in by the presentation and world. But the actual dungeon? If there was a “beat dungeon immediately” button, I’d have pressed it every single time.
Why do I hate puzzles?
1. I don’t matter. It’s either I have the solution, or I don’t. It doesn’t matter that I am a unique snowflake and my personality is such and such and I’m creative and I have all these ideas. The puzzle doesn’t give a shit. Tell the puzzle THE correct answer, or GTFO.
2. They are quickly exhausted. You learn the solution and it’s all over – there is absolutely no more excitement to be had. Gotta go buy a new puzzle!
3. There are so goddamn MANY of them! Puzzles are a thousand times easier to make than a game. A good game is a system – one, single system, that has to stay interesting for months or hopefully years. Puzzles are dependent on simply feeding new content into them – it can be thin, cheap, crappy content – doesn’t matter. Puzzles are all about QUANTITY, which is why they work so well in a daily format, like the NYT Crossword or Sudoku puzzles.
Point 1 is really the most important one, for me. I just feel an overwhelming sense of “who cares”. I feel like this character from some science-fiction short story I read ages ago wherein the main character finds out that his “bolt-tightening job” is a total farce (at night, another crew comes in and just un-tightens the bolts)(EDIT: I think I found the name of the story: “The Good Work” by Theodore Thomas). I feel like I am just doing chores – doing exactly what someone told me to do. Who knows, maybe I hate puzzles because I have a problem with authority. In a way, they are a fore-gone conclusion.
It should also be said that I dislike contests, although not as strongly as puzzles. Firstly, they aren’t actually nearly as numerous in digital games, and when they are, they at least have the good sense to let me listen to some Led Zeppelin or play with a fake plastic guitar controller. They know that I have to be at least a little bit distracted from the mindless activity that I’m doing, or else I won’t do it.
I Want More “Games” to Be Games
My experience of “looking up what’s new in games” goes a lot like this: Find a game. Oh, cool, nice art. Let’s see what the gameplay is like. Oh. Puzzle platformer. Oh. Physics puzzle. Oh. Art-puzzle. Over and over again, I’m burned in my search for games.
The worst is when something that, by design really is a game, but accidentally becomes a puzzle. Like Advance Wars’ single-player campaign. Now, some of the missions are so easy that you can kind of screw around, and it’s arguable that they are games. But when they get hard, they become puzzles. There is one single solution that you have to do or else you’ll lose. In fact, the very last mission of Days of Ruin is such that if you don’t follow a very very specific list of precise moves, it’s impossible to win. I tried to beat that level for weeks before finally looking up “the solution”.
It’s also worth mentioning that any single-player videogame that has no random elements is almost certainly going to become, inadvertently, a puzzle. I have level 1 of Super Mario Brothers completely solved.
Another funny moment in “WHAT THE HELL IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GAMES AND PUZZLES” history was the release of a cooperative mode in Portal 2. This was great, because it really shined the light on what I’ve been talking about. Many complained that, if they had already beaten the cooperative mode, and they tried to do it with someone else, they just had to stand around while the other person tried to figure it out. Ridiculous.
And by the way, Tetris is a game, not a puzzle. Since it’s random, there’s no single “solution” to Tetris (at least, not one that 99% of millions of players have been able to discover in 20 years of playing). Play of Tetris is about making ambiguous decisions, attempting strategies, pushing your luck. Yet we call it a puzzle… because it has pieces that look somewhat jigsaw-like and fit together?
I Can’t Be The Only One
Since I realized and started to vocalize my true feelings towards puzzles, I’ve been met mostly with disagreement. I know there must be other people out there who, like me, find puzzles a chore. Is it possible that there are a lot of people who feel now, the way I used to feel, and hate puzzles, but haven’t really grasped that yet? Do you hate puzzles? Look deep into your heart – ask yourself, are you really enjoying yourself when solving a puzzle?
I’m sure many people actually, sincerely LOVE puzzles. But I think that if those of us who don’t love them speak up and make ourselves heard, we can have developers and marketers doing a better job of drawing the line for us. That would only mean more games for us, and more puzzles for those who like puzzles.