How to Solve Puzzles

Words: 2193 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

As someone who loves puzzle games, I’ve been really interested in puzzle design. There is a fascinating aspect of game design where not only must a developer come up with a mechanic that is interesting, but also formulate puzzles that make intuitive sense to solve. It is a problem I’ve long had with point-and-click adventure games (such as Monkey Island), because they often adopt the trappings of solving puzzles, but can lack the intuition needed to make them compelling.

I’ve also been interested in other people attempting to solve puzzles. As someone who watches Twitch streamers now and then, I’ve seen a number of people play puzzle games. And while there are plenty who are good at it, there are also plenty of people who really struggle. I don’t think that struggle is necessarily born out of the player being bad at puzzles. Perhaps in some cases it could be, but it’s not what we should use as our starting point.

Instead, I think the problem comes from a sense of impatience. So many games are built around the ability to brute force a solution. Namely, by the application of some literal force. Are you struggling on a section in a first-person shooter? Then the answer is just to play better. Admittedly, this may not be the best solution to the problem, but it is at least a solution that works.

But puzzle games – if they are designed well – specifically frustrate that brute force mentality. In fact, they are meant to actively prevent you from doing just that. And so when many games effectively teach you to just keep trying the same thing over and over until you eventually succeed, puzzle games demand a degree of thoughtfulness and patience not found in other places.

So I wanted to provide a sort of guide for how to learn to solve puzzles without brute force. That is, how do you think about puzzles and approach them so that rather than just randomly trying things until you stumble upon an answer, you are able to trace out the solution and know what you should be doing at each step of the process.

This guide is not meant to be exhaustive. There are certainly plenty of tips we can provide. But I think for those players who are either not that good at puzzle games – both those who hate them and those who like them – these tips can be helpful.

Think Backwards

Many kids might remember the special placemats given to children in restaurants. They’d often have little games and stuff to read as a way of entertaining kids while they wait for their food. And one of the things I remember learning from those very early on is how puzzles can easily trick you when you approach them head on. In particular, I found a neat solution to solving mazes. If you start from the beginning, it’s very easy to hit a dead end. But if you start from the end, you will more often find yourself avoiding dead ends and tracing out the solution.

This lesson was carried with me throughout most of my life, and it’s one of the things I always do when I am faced with a puzzle.

So start with the end: what is your final objective? Not in the vague sense of “solve the puzzle,” but in the concrete sense. It will often involve something like “I need to get my character in this spot while holding X object,” or something like that. Once you have that framework in mind, start tracing the steps backwards.

The reason this helps is that it gives you a clue about what barriers you need to get over, and can also point out dead ends. Can you not reach the designated spot while you’re holding the object? Then obviously the solution must involve getting the object up first. So then you can start figuring out that part of the puzzle.

This method is especially useful as you get later and later into puzzle games, and the puzzles themselves become more and more complex. Often games will start throwing a lot of different things at you – more objects to manipulate, bigger levels, additional mechanics – and keeping it all straight in your head can be tough. So starting with “what is it that I need to get done” helps to keep your mind focused on the objective at hand.

Test the Rules

All puzzles operate by a set of basic rules for how things do and don’t work. A firm grasp of those rules helps you to know what is and isn’t possible within the game space.

A really solid example of this is the game Baba Is You. The puzzles in the game operate through a set of basic phrases composed of individual words. So for example, some object needs to be dedicated as “You” in order to move around. If there isn’t anything to be “You,” then you’ve lost. You can learn this rule by simple breaking apart any phrase that includes “You,” but by experimenting with that breaking you can get a better grasp of how the phrases work and what you are able to do with them.

So some experimentation is always going to be useful. Even if it’s not in a directed effort to solve the puzzle, the more knowledge you have about the rules, the more you can use that knowledge for this puzzle, or for later puzzles. So try a few different things. “What happens if I move this object in these different ways?” “What happens if I push Block A into Block B? What happens if I do it the other way around, and push Block B into Block A?” Try different things out.

The reason this tip becomes so important is that later on puzzle games will start to essentially test your knowledge of the rules. What unique things can you do within the ruleset? We might chalk this up to “thinking outside the box,” but really it’s more about how intuitively you’ve grasped what the game should have already been teaching you.

Talk to Yourself

I have a few friends who work in programming, and one process they’ve described in approaching a complex coding problem is the “rubber ducky” method. What “rubber duckying” involves is taking some object (as the name implies, a toy rubber duck, though obviously you could use anything), and explaining the problem you’re running into to the object. The point of this process is that the more thoroughly you explain the problem, the more likely you are to be able to see the solution.

The issue comes from how we often have all of these invisible connections in our heads that make sense to us, but which may sound almost silly if we say them out loud to someone else. So explaining our thought process in as much detail as possible helps us to identify flaws in that thought process.

So one of the best things to do is to talk yourself through a puzzle. Which is also a great way of applying the earlier tips. Talk out loud and say “okay, so in order to solve the puzzle, I need to do Z, and in order to do Z I need to do Y first…” Or “okay, so when I push a block here this happens, but when I push it there that happens, so that must mean…” Talking yourself through these things helps to cement the ideas in your mind.

It also helps when you then lay out your process. Because you may be continually trying something over and over without realizing that it couldn’t possibly work, simply because you’ve convinced yourself in your head that it must be the solution. Once you start having a chat with someone else or even yourself, you may be able to see the error. But the more you stay in your own head, the more you stay trapped in bad solutions.

Everything Matters

An important rule to puzzle design is that no element should be extraneous. The walls that constrain your movement, the objects available to you, all of these things should end up being used in some capacity. So anything that stands out is something that will ultimately be part of the solution.

Which helps with thinking backwards. Have you been ignoring a box on the screen because you weren’t sure why it was there? Is there a weird gap in a wall that feels out of place? As long as you’re playing a game that’s been properly designed, the solutions will actually require those elements. So start thinking about why the developer put them in there in the first place. The more you can think about how those components fit into the solution, the easier it is to see what the final solution will turn into.

Note that it will sometimes be possible to solve a puzzle without every element. You may occasionally find puzzles which have more parsimonious solutions than what is initially intended. But when these solutions are available, you will find that the developers have added in a “challenge” version which forces you to use that more clever solution. Which means it’s not worth actively ignoring clues. If you want to challenge yourself, feel free to do so. But if you’re reading these tips because you struggle with puzzles, then making the puzzles harder is probably not a good idea.

Start from Scratch

It is one of the most painful things to do, but sometimes you might find yourself just trying the same few ideas over and over again, and getting nowhere. When things reach that point, it’s useful to just start over. Not in the sense of “reset the puzzle,” which you’ll very likely have done numerous times.

Instead, what I mean is to just clear your mind. Start the process as though you’re seeing the puzzle for the first time. What are you trying to accomplish? What are the rules that you’re working with? What objects do you have at your disposal? The reason starting over helps is that it allows you to see things you might have missed before. And again, make sure that you’re talking yourself through all of this. Because if you don’t, you may well find yourself back at square one.

Take Notes

This tip is going to be more relevant to bigger puzzle games. Games like Myst or Outer Wilds can have a lot of distinct puzzles that are separated: the “key” might be in one spot, and the “lock” in another. And when those two components are separated, it is easy to forget one or the other.

Say, for example, that a puzzle game is not separated into distinct and isolated “levels,” but instead into zones. And puzzles can stretch across those zones. Now imagine that there is a puzzle in Zone B, but the clue or object to solve the puzzle is found in Zone A. If you aren’t taking notes, it can be easy to not connect the dots. When you see the “key,” you might not know where the “lock” is. And once you do see the “lock,” you might have forgotten where the “key” was or even that you had already found the key.

So take notes on what you found. The better your notes, the easier it is to connect the dots. This is a technique that was common for getting through older games, but it is worth revitalizing. Not every game requires notes. I brought up Outer Wilds as an example, and yet the game does a fairly good job of keeping track of things for you. But being willing to take notes more broadly is a good habit. It may not be something you’ll do frequently, but when you do need those notes they will be incredibly helpful.

Concluding Remarks

I hope that anyone reading these tips finds them useful. Again, these are less tips for expert puzzle solvers. Generally, those who are good at puzzle games probably don’t need tips (although I suppose it’s always possible that some of these tips could be new). Rather, these are tips for people who want to improve their puzzle-solving skills.

Solving puzzles is largely about getting into the right headspace. I often encounter so many players who get frustrated with puzzles because they just keep wanting to brute force the solution. And of course, in trying to brute force things, the player gets more frustrated. Because, obviously, brute force doesn’t work and isn’t supposed to work. So whether you want to get better at puzzles so you can play puzzle games, or so you can get better at the puzzles in your action games, understanding these tips and getting yourself into the right puzzle-solving headspace can get you over your hurdles.

2 thoughts on “How to Solve Puzzles

  1. There are numerous times where I’ve done one or more of these while playing games, or doing my job (programming). Can’t understate how useful talking through a problem can be for pointing out a gap in logic, or something obvious that was overlooked.

    One thing I do wish I did more was work backwards though. Feel like I’m so used to intuitively navigating puzzles that when I find one that really stumps me I won’t know to work backwards to sort out the dependencies first. Probably something to be mindful of so I start doing it more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Man, I cannot count the number of times this stuff has helped me. Talking through problems has gotten me out of so many jams.

      I usually like to start a puzzle with working backwards and make it the first thing I do. That way I don’t forget when I inevitably get stuck and start doing the same three things for 20 minutes…

      Liked by 1 person

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