Hot Take: Mindtrap is a Bad Puzzle Game

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with my cousins and Grandma when we found an old copy of Mindtrap. If you don’t know what that is, Mindtrap is a game where you take turns trying to solve riddles. It’s meant to be a game about lateral thinking and logical reasoning. Thinking it’d be a fun way to pass the time, we decided to give it a try. Here is an example of one of these riddles:

Q: “Figure this out,” said a prison guard to Shadow.

“Sid Shady escaped from his prison cell about 11 p.m. last night. We really didn’t know why he would want to escape since the island is nothing but rock, and he can’t swim a stroke.

We figured we would leave him out for the night and he would be back in the morning. But this morning we realized he had actually escaped and without any help. As a matter of fact he tied a couple of strings together and was spotted on the mainland a mile away two hours later.”

How did Shady escape?

Seems like an interesting riddle, right? Before I get to the answer (and why this game makes me mad), let me explain how riddles (or puzzles more generally) are designed.

Getting Caught Off Guard

As outlined in this excellent video by Mark Brown, a good puzzle is made up of 3 main steps: Assumption, Catch, and Revelation. The assumption is when the rules of the puzzle are established, and the player assumes they know how it can be solved. The catch occurs when the player follows through on their assumption and gets stuck because a conflict in the puzzle seems logically unreconcilable. Eventually, the player (hopefully) will have an a-ha moment. They will realize that something about their assumption was wrong and, by challenging this assumption, find a way to solve the seemingly impossible catch. This is called the revelation.

To give a super simple example, imagine you’re in a locked room with a door and a pressure plate. If you stand on the pressure plate, the door opens. But if you get off the pressure plate to leave the room, the door closes. The assumption here is that you must stand on the pressure plate, and the catch is you can’t stand on the plate and go through the door at the same time. So what’s the revelation? In a lot of games, it’s that there’s a block in the room that you can put onto the pressure plate. That way the door will stay open without you having to stand on the pressure plate and you can leave the room.

 
10/10 puzzle design right here.

10/10 puzzle design right here.

 

This same puzzle structure applies to riddles. Here’s a pretty classic riddle you’ve likely heard some version of before:

Q: Two cops walked into a room with no windows and found a dead man who obviously hung himself from the ceiling, though they couldn’t figure out how. There was no chair beneath him that he could have jumped off of, or a table. Just a puddle of water. How did he do it?

What’s the catch here? It’s how could this man hang himself from the ceiling if there are no objects in the room he could have stood on. But what’s the assumption? It’s the puddle of water. The assumption is that the water was always liquid. The revelation? The man stood on a block of ice, and then waited for it to melt. This is how he could get high enough without a table or chair, and why there was a puddle of water in the room.

Feeling Trapped

So let’s get back to Mindtrap. Ready for the answer? Are you sure? I wasn’t. Okay, here it is:

A: It was winter and the water was frozen. The strings Shady tied together were skate laces. He simply skated to shore.

This is almost like the ice block riddle. The assumption is that, because the prison is surrounded by water, you must swim in order to escape. The catch is that Shady cannot swim, yet he still managed to escape. The revelation is that the water around the prison is frozen, so Shady didn’t have to swim in order to escape.

So that’s it, right? It’s got the three pieces needed for a good puzzle design. What more do you need?

Walk the Plank

Let me show you one last riddle from Mindtrap, which for me solidified the problem with the game:

Q: A man walked into the ‘Salty Dog Tavern’ and ordered a fish fillet sandwich, a glass of dark rum, and some female company. The proprietor turned to him and said, “Look sailor, the first two requests are no problem, but the third request is out of my hands.”

What made the proprietor think the man was a sailor?

Taking the same approach we took before, the catch is that proprietor thinks the man is a sailor despite our assumption that the proprietor has no reason to think this. So what’s the revelation?

A: The man was wearing a sailor’s uniform.

Oh.

I’m going to be honest, this one made me mad the first time I read it. And the reason is simple: the revelation is unrelated to the setup.

A key part about a puzzle is that everything you need to solve it needs to be presented from the start. The challenge to the player is figuring out how to put the pieces together. In this case, the information that the man was in a sailor’s outfit is unknown and not something someone should be reasonably able to deduce from the given information. Literally nothing in the setup telegraphs that the man is in a sailor’s outfit. It’s like someone gave us a jigsaw puzzle that was missing pieces and then were shocked that we couldn’t solve it.

The reason why this is a problem is it undermines the legitimacy of the game itself. After all, if the puzzle is going to pull its answers out of the blue, what’s the point of trying to solve it reasonably? It makes answers like the man told the proprietor he was a sailor or they were brothers so the proprietor knew he was a sailor just as valid as the “real” solution.

The island riddle has this same problem, but it’s better at hiding it. From the setup we are led to believe that the prison is surrounded by water and the only way to escape would be by traversing the water. This is fine, but there isn’t anything telegraphed to lead us to reasonably conclude that the water is frozen and therefore traversable by someone who can’t swim. The closest you get is the mention of tying strings, but that’s such a vague hint. It could just as easily be a reference to tying sailor’s knots, hinting that Shady sailed across the water. Honestly, Shady sailing across makes more sense than the skating thing. I mean how’d he even get his hands on a pair of skates? There’s no way inmates are allowed to have those.

Breaking Free

So how might we improve Mindtrap? I can think of two ways. The first is modifying the riddles so that the solution can be reasonably deduced from the presented information. Here’s one way this could be done:

Q: “Figure this out,” said a prison guard to Shadow.

“Sid Shady escaped from his prison cell about 11 p.m. last night. We really didn’t know why he would want to escape since the island is nothing but rock, and he can’t swim a stroke.

We figured we would leave him out in the cold for the night and he would be back in the morning. But this morning we realized he had actually escaped and without any help. As a matter of fact, he was spotted on the mainland a mile away two hours later.”

How did Shady escape?

A: It was winter and the water was frozen. He simply walked across the water to freedom.

This is a small change, but it makes a big difference. Now there’s at least a hint that the water could be frozen, while preserving the red herring about swimming. Also, the ridiculous skating part is removed because honestly that part makes no sense.

The second route is a much more fundamental change: make the game about creative thinking. Instead of providing the answer, let the players come up with their own solutions and vote/score points based on who made up the best solution. Which solution is best could be based on whatever criteria you want depending on what tone want the game to have, such as most plausible, most entertaining, or most ridiculous. This wouldn’t make Mindtrap a good puzzle game, but it could make it a lot more fun.

TL;DR: I don’t like Mindtrap because the solutions to the puzzles are unrelated to their setups.

Game Design as Expression Pt. 5

Designing games for self-expression is useful! But it’s not very accessible right now.

TL;DR for this post: Here’s some pointers to help you get into it anyway.

—-

We have finally made it to the last piece of this big puzzle that is ‘expressive game design’. (I’m gonna shorten it to EGD from now on, btw). Let’s start with a recap of everything we have learned so far:

  1. You can express yourself by designing games.

  2. Some people don’t have an outlet for properly exploring their self-identity, expressing their feelings, or otherwise producing art. Making games might be the right outlet for those people.

  3. You can express yourself by conceptualizing your problems into the metaphorical field of a procedural framework. In other words, you can make the character in a game experience the same things that you are in terms of 'game mechanic’ - what is hard to do in this game? what is easy? what is the solution? what is the problem?

  4. Game design as expression isn’t currently much of a thing because there’s pretty much no information on how to make expressive games, all the systems for game design require a lot of practice and buy-in to get going, and it’s very hard to actually share what you’ve made without being dramatic with third-party sites, big downloads, etc.

And now, it’s time to apply everything we’re explored to guide our search for solutions to making EGD more useful and easy to actually do.

I don’t intend to solve everything with blog posts alone by the way. Instead, today I’ll set out quest markers to guide us from here on out. Even if you don’t immediately jump to your feet to design a game for yourself/others after this, I hope you can glide away with the capacity to at least consider some new possibilities for expression and creation.

Here are some ways to make games right now

Twine

Porpentine was coincidentally one of my inspirations for game design.  (Howling Dogs)

Porpentine was coincidentally one of my inspirations for game design. (Howling Dogs)

The first successful platform for EGD to come to mind for me is Twine. It’s a program that lets you craft (mostly) text-based stories, and lets you employ simple code for hyperlink magic.

Check out Porpentine, for example, right here. (content warning.) Her heavy and powerful games are primarily made through Twine, and these games clearly use game design mechanics to qualify and emphasize expression.

Twine does, admittedly, occupy a strange spot between ‘literature’ and ‘game’. You’ll find with these next few examples that occupying a strange spot is somewhat of a recurring factor.

Custom Server Stuff (Garry’s Mod, Minecraft, Roblox, TF2, Second Life, etc)

artistic.

artistic.

These games let people build and host servers in which they set the parameters for their own domains. You’re making something that is interactable (eg you make rules to navigate through and respect). In the case of many mods and servers, you’re making your own systems that let users/players get a procedural experience. This is expressive game design!

Note 1: building a safe bunker or your deceased grandfather’s neighbourhood in minecraft isn’t quite EGD, as much as it is digital sculpture. While that’s totally valid, it’s not quite the same as EGD.)

Note 2: this is a reminder that ‘serious’ moods like anxiety, depression, anger etc are not the only limits for what EGD can do. Making a utopian server where you fly around and have infinite corn dogs to throw at people is a kind of silliness that is expressive of your yearning for frivolousness, for example. A parody hogwarts RP server is still doing something.

The Classic Game Design Tools

Pen, paper, dice, tokens, flash cards. The ancient tools of the old masters. I always recommend prototyping games with these simple things regardless of why you’re making a game. You may find yourself satisfied with conveying thoughts/feelings/yearnings through paper and ink before you need to spend a few hours debugging what should have been a simple boss fight prototype or whatever.

the green dice represent the jujubes i ate

the green dice represent the jujubes i ate

The problem with these tools is that they look janky, and while infinitely flexible, they’re rather limited in power. You can write out any number of procedures on paper… but we do use computer calculation for a reason. There are, however, also plenty of times where you won’t need to actually do anything that strictly requires computational power.

I recognize that using analogue tools for EGD may sound a little… silly? Can you really capture something like a feeling of lack, an anxiety about decision paralysis, a funny obsession with pepsi ginger, or a sense of triumph over your exams with something like an iridescent d20, a sharpie and a pad of paper?

Well, my counterpoint is this - you’ll get closer to capturing the above feelings by doing literally any amount of EGD than if you do nothing. And, at any rate, you don’t have the pressure of necessarily making something marketable, shareable or even playable when you’re doing EGD. Make it to whatever degree you can make it. When doing something for yourself, a project is only finished at the moment you decide you are done, and only you decide when that is.

RPGMaker, Unity and other open-source game dev software

(Yume Nikki)

(Yume Nikki)

Hey, didn’t we just talk about it being awkward for the average person to yield software like Unity just a few weeks ago? (yes, we did). I’m still adding them to this list because despite their flaws, if you know anything about code, then it’s not too big a deal to actually use these platforms.

It’s more backend work, sure, but if you do get comfortable with these platforms you are indeed in a good spot and can start implementing more powerful procedures than you could with the analogue stuff. It just takes time, and the onboarding process is just bit worse than it could be.

Mods and knockoffs of existing games

Mods, or drafts of alternate rules, are a great way to get something tangible if you’re the type who really needs to see your art ‘in action’. Because you have the starting point of something that already exists, in exchange for the flexibility of working from ground zero you get to enjoy the starting momentum of an existing framework to mess with. And at any rate, maybe it’s easier for you to conceptualize things as a modification of a game you’re familiar with.

Making a knockoff is also known as plagiarism when money and reputation are on the line. But if/when you’re doing this just for yourself or a few close friends, feel free to mix and match and pay homage to and take from whatever you want. Like I said above with mods, sometimes playing a particular game is already cathartic for you, so you only need a few adjustments to get something cathartic, joyful, distressing, hilarious etc off your chest.

Here are some suggestions and prompts to help you

Don’t be afraid of partial games

(I turned a line from Sonnet 74 into a game for one of my courses the other day.)

(I turned a line from Sonnet 74 into a game for one of my courses the other day.)

You don’t need to actually make a complete game from start to finish, and you don’t need all the assets. This is especially true if you are just practicing or exploring a particular specific idea. Think of it like the way poets write random lines, writers make characters or snapshots, artists do hand studies, musicians have jam sessions…

The act of game design, the verb, is technically what we seek rather than the noun of a finished game. As such, any time you’re engaged with the process you’re basically doing it right already. Of course, sometimes you’ll only feel right when you’ve made something complete, but don’t feel obligated to go all-out if you are just craving a final boss fight or inventory system or something.

(Note: there is obviously value in practicing the boring stuff, including making a cohesive whole, if you want to get better at game design of any kind. But you don’t have to build an  entire house every time.)

Let yourself go abstract

While it’s fine if you want to take your thoughts/feelings and directly translate them into the same art assets / representations in a game, it may be difficult and/or awkward to directly turn something into a game form. Instead, focus on the underlying process or system. For example, think about how fantasy books often explore very human themes through the lens of nonhuman characters, or how instrumental music can carry a mood without needing to outright say anything specific.

I realized right after finishing this drawing that I could have just put in a screenshot of Getting Over It

I realized right after finishing this drawing that I could have just put in a screenshot of Getting Over It

Design at whatever level you are comfortable with

There’s different levels of design: you could work on just a concept or rulebook, you could make a simple prototype of one salient system, you could make a prototype of a game in its near-entirety, skip to the halfway point of the plot (if there is one), make an entirely polished game…

...your focus can be on making something to share with others, in which you’d be focusing on the process of playing the thing, or your focus can be on the design process, in which the act of crafting can perhaps help you navigate the design challenges and affordances of your life. There’s options here.

You don’t have to make it balanced, fun, or even winnable

It may sound like I’m playing Calvinball with the definition of a game, but my argument is that a lot of the most common associations with what makes a game come from its narrow current incarnations as purchasable products that you expect to make you feel good. There’s plenty of games that subvert those expectations nowadays (mostly in the form of ‘walking simulator’ type games), but there’s no reason you shouldn’t follow suit.

Here’s some smaller tips at actually implementing mechanics now

  • Unless subverted, health indicators on enemies imply they are defeatable. Are yours?

  • The difficulty of the game simultaneously demonstrates the power/ability of the player and the power/ability of whatever obstacles are in the way of the goal. How easy is it to succeed at what you want to do? Is it even winnable?

  • How do the obstacles get in the way of the player specifically? Are there even any ‘obstacles’ directly against the player, or is it just a matter of making the most out of limited resources/time/money?

  • What stuff can you interact with? What stuff can you not interact with? What does it mean if you can interact/be interacted with some things, but not others? (imagine if a player can interact with the environment but never with NPCs.)

  • What stats are relevant to you? What stuff is easy to manage, and what is difficult?

  • After completing a difficult task, whatever the player receives is typically considered to be a reward and thus viewed in a positive light. What does the protagonist obtain as a reward for a difficult task?

  • What type of skill is required to succeed? Quick thinking, resource management, empathy, endurance, the ability to disregard (in-game representations of) moral behaviour? The ability to break the rules of the game itself?

Etc.

Prophecies

An entrepreneur could change the landscape of expressive game design, theoretically, if they could ever craft a way to extremely-easily create and share digital interactive systems. If one could easily share self-made digital games without sending zip files, dropbox links, or any other external hosting service… digital designers would have the chance to actually share their stuff organically without all of the hoops (and the subsequent necessity of making something polished).

I am actually fairly optimistic about the future for expressive game design. There’s three main things that I think should be changed, but I think they’re all somewhat reasonable to happen within a few years:
1) Better tutorials or more accessible information on how specific mechanics can influence expression in a game
2) Better tools for easily putting things together and sharing them
3) More people out there doing it to inspire more people to also do it, etc.

And honestly? All three of these things are already happening. If you live above the soil you’ll know that games are being viewed increasingly more as a form of art. There’s neighborhoods around the internet where you can find expressive game designers, people who do this stuff as a means of catharsis and emotional/spiritual exploration all the time. With more inertia in this perspective, I look forward to seeing expressive game design happening with more support, more frequently, and in more places. I look forward to seeing you there.

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Stay lofty!

On the Shoulders of Giants: Sequelitis

Now that finals and the holidays are behind me (and I’ve mostly recovered from a nasty cold), it’s time to get back to blogging. I was thinking back to my very first blog post for Cloudfall about inspiration and I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of my biggest influences. So in this series, On the Shoulders of Giants, I’ll be taking just a bit of your time to share some amazing people, games, articles, books, videos, etc. that I think are worth your time.

To kick this series off, I want to shout out Arin Hanson, also known as Egoraptor. Likely best known for Game Grumps, he originally got his start as an animator on Newgrounds making some pretty funny cartoons (like this one). Though I do enjoy and recommend both of those, I mostly want to highlight his Sequelitis series. In this series, Arin blends humour with insight and breaks down what makes a good sequel. This series was a massive influence on me and was the first time I started thinking critically about games. I really responded to its fast, casual style and it really helped make game design feel approachable for me. Sometimes game design can feel like this intimidating thing that only other people can do, but by making it feel like a fun friendly conversation it felt like something anyone (including me!) could do. It also helps that the videos are funny, interesting to watch, and Arin has a great voice. Honestly, if I never watched this series, I don’t think I would be making games today. So if you’re interested in games (and don’t mind some swearing), I highly recommend binging this series.

This one is about Castlevania, and it explains why Simon’s Quest wasn’t such a great sequel. If you like it, he did a follow-up about Super Castlevania 4 here.

This one is about Megaman, and is basically a love letter to Megaman X. It’s my personal favourite one in the series. I especially love the part where it breaks down how the game teaches the player how to play with its level design, as that’s the lesson I’ve tried to keep in the mind the most.

And here’s one about The Legend of Zelda, which is quite the hot-take on Ocarina of Time.

TL;DR: Go watch Sequelitis. :)