Escaping the puzzle prison
Puzzle games have felt a bit self-loathing lately, haven't they? When there's any amount of story, there's a good chance it'll frame the puzzles as a loathsome task: forced labor, a dull job, a prison, a purgatory. Why has this trope become so familiar?
I think Portal started it. Portal is not the first videogame, let alone the first work of fiction, to tell a story about characters held captive in a world of artifice by an evil computer, but it did bring something new to the table in the specific way it deployed puzzles to help tell that story. Puzzles in story-driven games are traditionally presented as abstractions of practical problems, things like blocked pathways or locked doors. In contrast, Portal’s villain GLaDOS presents our player character Chell with literal puzzles, abstract and meaningless, casting her as a proverbial rat in a maze in the interest of some absurd scientific inquiry. In a very real way, the Aperture labs comprise a prison made of puzzles. To escape the labyrinth, Chell must master not only its layout, but its logic.
It's an appropriate analogy for how it can feel to engage with puzzles. With other kinds of challenges, there's always a feeling of motion even when you're utterly stuck: the boss keeps finding new and spectacular ways to kill you, or you watch as your empire crumbles gradually into dust. Those are reciprocal relationships in a way that being stuck on a puzzle isn't. You're locked in a room with it, trying to get it to move, but it barely acknowledges your presence. Letting puzzles be a part of the setting rather than a conceit of the game's rules doesn't cause them to feel less arbitrary, but it does prevent that arbitrariness from damaging the story.
Here's a more recent example that’s come out in the years since Portal’s release. Infinifactory is about being abducted by a bunch of warlike aliens who don't have a lot of patience for the slower-paced problems of infrastructure and manufacturing, so they abduct other species who they can force into taking care of all that dull stuff. Each time the player builds a factory (and some of them can take hours to plan), a chute deposits a number of food pellets into the sink in their cell. The pellets look like something you'd feed a rodent, and feel like a self-aware mockery of that "I'm so smart!" endorphin rush. They pile up. They overflow onto the floor.
It begins to feel as though the game is either apologizing for being frustrating, or mocking the player for dealing with it. In a familiar gesture, the game has a bunch of audio logs, usually found on the spacesuit-clad skeletons of other abductees. In one, a woman crushed by a supply crate grumbles her final words: "This would make a terrible videogame."
I'm sad that lady got squashed, but I don't agree. Puzzle games might just be my favorite kind, especially when they're difficult. I'm not even very good at them! I just love running into a problem which seems impossible but assuredly isn't: it reminds me that the world isn't always going to be easily grasped and puts me in touch with the sublime everything-I-don't-know.
That's why I'm not inclined to believe that Infinifactory is signaling any genuine bitterness toward puzzles. This is a literary device. Its job is to act as a heatsink for the frustration that puzzles can generate. If we can resent someone besides ourselves for the hard time we're having, then we're that much more motivated to push through and show 'em we're nobody's fool. (An imaginary tyrant will do the trick, but a true story hits the hardest: Jonathan Blow is so present in The Witness that we can blame him for real instead of pretending to.)
It's always neat to see a narrative theme provide structural support for the game it's in, but what I admire most is when a game goes further than that, fully mining its themes for their narrative potential. The puzzle prison has proved a versatile setting, and several games have found interesting ways to plumb its depths.
Maybe my favorite is The Talos Principle. It borrows a few elements directly from Portal, featuring a dubiously functional AI who thinks it very important to force you to solve your way through neatly self-contained puzzle chambers, containing unadorned genre staples like cubes, pressure plates, and laser beams. But far from a sterile lab, these puzzles are framed by what appear to be ruins of Greek, Egyptian, and Medieval European origin. The player will notice the scenery occasionally glitching out of existence with a bzzt!, and it soon becomes clear that the ruins and puzzles all exist in a simulated world, presided over by its AI god who couches the player's task in biblical language. This world is your garden, he tells you, and you should feel lucky to spend eternity here. Struggling to simplify a lattice of four lasers down to just three, the player will more likely feel trapped than blessed.
That the game's setting exists inside a computer interfaces nicely with the fact that the player is using a computer to access it. Here the game takes a step further than Portal: not only are the puzzles artificial and the scenario contrived, but the player's entire experience is rooted in a world which is less than real. The constraints of the puzzles become those of our unnamed character's entire existence, living in their simulated body and carrying around simulated cubes which don't always behave like you'd expect, being cubes. Like the philosophers the game alludes to, the player works through practical experimentation to understand the fundamentals of their world, and a higher design reveals itself everywhere: everything has been ordered according to the needs of the puzzles.
The Talos Principle builds a careful analogy for how we perceive and navigate our own world, raising questions about faith and reason without making the mistake of attempting to answer them. I feel that this gets to the heart of what makes the puzzle prison sub-genre work. If puzzles are presented traditionally, as practical barriers bound by abstract rules, then they often ring false, failing to represent real problems with sensible solutions. Instead, the puzzle prison motif lets a puzzle be a metaphor for a problem. It lets the artifice be a part of the setting rather than a conceit of the game's structure, leaving you with something more honest and with more room for meaning.