Puzzle It Out | Games, Gamers, & Gaming, April 15, 2016

The puzzle genre is one of the oldest and most popular among video games. Even people who aren’t avid gamers are likely familiar with the classic Tetris, still the gold standard by which most puzzle games are measured. The popularity of mobile games such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush has shown that simple-to-learn puzzle play can be a powerful tool for bringing video games to the masses.

What makes a puzzle game?

Most video games have some puzzle elements, with many challenges calling for identifying patterns and creating cause-and-effect reactions. Puzzle games use this mechanic as its sole driving force, with little room for combat or exploration, and they have been some of the best over the past several years.superhotsite.jpg42116

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Modern puzzle games Superhot  (above) and The Witness are redefining the genre for players who love a challenge

Portal and its sequel challenge players’ timing and knowledge of simple physics. Braid has players weave precise paths through hostile environments. “Point-and-click” adventure games usually pre­sent the player with some puzzle solving, with the “Sherlock Holmes” series and The Book of Unwritten Tales being especially fine examples. Players can also trace the genre’s lineage back to tabletop titles—Connect Four, Guess Who?, and Memory.

Recently, however, two games have changed the landscape of puzzle games in a very real way. They will be influential for years to come, and making them available to your patrons should be a major priority.

Ghosts in the machine

On the surface, Superhot is a tense and engaging first-person shooter (FPS). Each level represents a brief shoot-out, and all damage dealt is lethal, so, unlike most shooter games, a single shot forces the player to restart the level. There isn’t an arsenal of weapons; players must pick up guns, swords, and other implements from the environment, and when they run out of ammo, they are simply out—there’s no reloading.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the odds are stacked against the participants, however. They can throw objects at enemies, which stuns them and forces them to drop their own armaments. They also have the unique ability to stop time; when a player stops moving, time slows to a crawl, and bullets can be seen streaking through the air, enemy movements can be observed, and one’s surroundings can be checked for weapons.

That’s not to say that it’s easy. Enemies will often spawn randomly and surround other players; only the most careful navigation can take them out of harm’s way. The ballistics physics are startlingly realistic; bullets are treated as actual physical objects, unlike in most FPS games—in which the game engine simply draws a straight line from a weapon to the target—here, the enemy is just as capable of avoiding bullets. Armed combat is the setting, but identifying patterns and manipulating elements is where the meat of the gameplay sits.

On top of all this, Superhot has a great paranoid, almost anxiety-inducing story. Players begin by accessing Superhot as a yet-to-be released title by a major software company. But as they dig deeper, participants find that there is more at work, and they begin to question the reality of what they’ve been shown. The story itself then is a puzzle, with the players left to piece it together using meager clues and cryptic messages along the way.

Superhot pushes the shooter genre forward by making the shooter mechanics secondary to the satisfaction of figuring out what makes each level tick, replacing tactical combat with a test of the player’s observation and reaction skills. It’s a great puzzle game that might interest dedicated shooter fans in more nuanced patterns.

Imprisoned by the mind

Creator of the aforementioned classic Braid, Jonathan Blow crafts compelling and unique puzzle experiences. Unlike the complex and abstract setting and story of Braid, his new game, The Witness, appears to be more straightforward. The player is trapped on a surreal island and must solve puzzles to move from one area to another. The puzzles are uncomplicated in structure but operate by a host of complex rules.

The Witness has no tutorial of any kind. Players must figure out the logic of the game world and the rules of each puzzle on their own. This makes for a great, immersive experience and drives home the isolation and fear suffered by the main character. What’s more, the whole thing takes place in an open, nonlinear world. This introduces an element of exploration and discovery not found in most other puzzle games.

Get puzzled

There are so many great puzzle games out there that librarians should never be lacking anything to offer their patrons, and many offer deep stories and experiences as well. The Talos Principle looks at the concept of humanity versus artificial intelligence, for example, and tactical combat games such as Hard West offer up puzzles in the form of action-packed battles. In addition to promoting popular mobile puzzle games, librarians should make a point of supporting similar products for consoles and PCs.

Until next time, keep telling yourself, just one more level!

RobbinsWebfinalM. Brandon Robbins is Media Coordinator, Goldsboro High School, NC, and a member of the 2011 class of the American Library Association’s Emerging Leaders

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M. Brandon Robbins About M. Brandon Robbins

M. Brandon Robbins (mbrandon.robbins@gmail.com) is the Media Coordinator at Goldsboro High School in Goldsboro, NC. He's a member of the 2011 class of ALA Emerging Leaders.