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.

Deltarune: Making Meaningless Choices

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In case you couldn’t guess from the title, this blog post contains spoilers for both Undertale and Deltarune. If you haven’t played those games yet, you should because they are really really good. Undertale can be found here (~15$), and Deltarune can be found here (FREE). Once you’ve played them both (or if you don’t care about spoilers), I welcome you to read on. All good? Okay.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

If you’ve played Undertale before (and I’m assuming that you have), you’ll know that one of its defining features is player choice. It’s a game that allows you to kill literally everyone you meet (genocide run), befriend everyone you meet (pacifist run), or do something in the middle. Each of these playstyles results in significant meaningful changes to the gameplay and story. So naturally, when you start playing Deltarune, you would expect to be able to make the same range of choices.

But here’s the thing about Deltarune. Your choices don’t matter.

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At the very beginning of the game you’re presented with a character creation screen, and you go through the whole process of creating whatever avatar you want. But as soon as you’re finished creating your character, it is discarded and you’re forced to play as Kris. Later on, you get to customize the blueprint for an evil machine that you expect to fight. But when you find the machine it is immediately destroyed without you interacting with it in any meaningful way. It doesn’t matter what you choose, the game is going to be the same.

Wow those legs are very different and not the same at all…

Wow those legs are very different and not the same at all…

But what about killing and sparing characters? That must be like the previous game, right? Nope. In this game, a genocide run is impossible. All characters run away from you before you can kill them, so you cannot actually kill anyone in the game. So then are you supposed to be a pacifist? Nope again. At the very end of the game it’s revealed that your character Kris is actually Chara from Undertale (or that Kris is possessed by Chara? It’s kinda unclear), implying that your character is going to murder people anyways. Despite your best efforts to prevent harm, you still ultimately fail.

It looks like you’re gonna have a bad time.

It looks like you’re gonna have a bad time.

Why does this matter?

Deltarune is not the first game to have a linear story. In fact, there are many games where players have even less agency than they do in Deltarune. But the reason Deltarune’s lack of choice is so important is because choice mattered so much in Undertale. Since most people playing Deltarune have already played Undertale, we all assumed it was going to be a similar game. We were primed to think that our choices would matter. We expected to be able to play as a pacifist or a genocidal manic. We thought that we could influence how the story would end. However, by stripping the player of their agency, Deltarune creates this looming sense of helplessness that I haven’t felt since Spec Ops: The Line or the ending of The Last of Us. But this feeling only exists because Undertale showed us what meaningful choices are supposed to be.

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TL;DR:  Your choices don’t matter. But they used to matter.

Doomed to be Doom Clones? How Genres Are Created

Recently for my Games and Society course I wrote a paper about how to define Roguelikes as a genre. Turns out that topic is a bit complicated, and once I’ve figured out how to break that paper down into a manageable blog post I’ll share my thoughts on it. But today I wanted to share something broader I learned while researching that paper about how video game genres come to be.

The Four Step Process

Genre creation is a fairly simple process made up of four steps. The first step is someone makes an innovative and successful game (I said it was simple I never said it was easy). The next step is that that game gets copied. A lot. People try to emulate and capitalize on the success of the original game by cloning it over and over again. The third step is that the clones start to get…weird. They start challenging fundamental aspects of the original game or mixing it with elements from other genres. Sometimes these new games change so much that they look almost nothing like their original inspiration. Finally, after enough time, we move to the final step where a few core traits emerge consistenly across all the games. Those traits then form the basis for the genre.

I love that this guy’s name is literally “Doomguy.” [   image source   ]

I love that this guy’s name is literally “Doomguy.” [image source]

Take the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre as an example. When Doom was originally released back in 1993 it was a critical and commercial success. Trying to capitalize on that success, the market became flooded with Doom Clones, games which shameless copied Doom’s gameplay as much as possible. But eventually, developers started to branch out and experiment. Borderlands mixed Doom with the loot system from Diablo, Portal transformed your gun into a puzzle solving device, and Fallout added RPG elements and an open world. Now FPS games don’t all have to be about using guns to shoot demons from Mars, but instead are really just any game with a first-person perspective where you primarily use some sort of projectile-based “weapon.”

Why does this matter?

This matters because a lot of people get caught up in whether or not a game should be part of a genre, but I think this misses the point. These arguments tend to pop up a lot when genres start moving from step 2 to step 3 and the “clones” start diverging a lot from the original. At this point, fans start getting protective and feel like the genre is getting corrupted or expanded and losing what made it special. But this isn’t the case! We want the clones to get as far away from the original as possible so we can know everything the genre has to offer. Imagine if every FPS game today was just like Doom. Then we wouldn’t have games like Battlefield, Call of Duty, Overwatch, Team Fortress 2, Antichamber, Far Cry, Half-Life, Splatoon, etc. It’s only by letting the genre evolve that we can keep making fun and innovative games. So don’t worry if a genre is faithful to where it came from. Instead, get excited about where it’s gonna go next.

TL;DR: If you want to make a genre, here’s what you gotta do: make something cool, get it copied, and then let the copies get weird. Eventually, you’ll have a genre…in like 10-30 years.

Want to learn more about this? Check out Mark Brown’s fantastic video on the Soulslike Genre, Amr Al-Aaser’s excellent essay about mythologizing games, and Greg Costikyan’s interesting article which takes a more historical perspective on genre.