A quick way to design puzzles.
There are quite a few articles and discussions about puzzle design. When I go to a gamedev, or Adventure Game forum, usually the first thing I search for is Puzzle Design. There are hundreds of different techniques out there to develop effective AG puzzles.
Here is one that I use quite frequently. Many puzzles in STASIS have been written using this technique.
DESCRIBE THE ENVIRONMENT.
Before I start to think about the puzzles, I like to think about the environment. What sounds are there? Smells? Are there flickering lights? Chains clinking from the ceiling? All of these small details really help in setting the scene.
LIST THE ITEMS.
From the description of the environment, I can generate lists of items that would be found there. Each of these items may have something branching off of them. The lights are flickering, so there is perhaps a light switch? The flickering means there is an electricity problem…was someone trying to fix the problem? Are there exposed wires? What is connecting the chains to the cieling? Why are they there? Chains are usually used to move things…perhaps there is a wince in the room? Is it broken? Is there the smell of mould in the room? What is causing that? Would the air-conditioning system be cleaning out the air? Should the smell be there?
SET UP THE OBSTACLES
From these two things, I go to my design document, and see where this environment sits in the story. Where has the player just come from, and where are they going to? Is the primary goal of this room to get out infromation, or to block the player from moving forwards? If the goal is to hinder the player, what exactly is the problem? WHAT COULD GO WRONG IN THIS ROOM THAT WOULD BE AN OBSTACLE?
Lets assume that its the classic ‘Big Metal Locked Door’.
CHANNEL MY INNER MACGUYVER
If I were faced with a locked door, and had all of these items at my disposal, how would I get out?
BUILD THE PUZZLE
From the items above, the solution seems clear. Using the exposed wires, I either A) Jumpstart the wince, or B)Use the exposed wires to ‘fix’ whatever the problem is. Tie the chain to the door, and hook it up to the now working wince. Turn it on, and tear off the door from its hinges.
Now each of these steps can have a ‘sub step’ in them. Perhaps you need to climb a ladder to unhook the chain? Use a coin as a screw driver to loosen the side panel of the wince? Taking the wires plunges the room into darkness, so you need another light source?
Using this as a method ensures that the puzzles stay consistant. That there arent any ‘rubber duck tied to a hosepipe’ solutions. It forces you to think PRACTICALLY about what would actually work.
Now of course, as you move on, the item list can include previous items you have picked up, or items that have multiple uses (eg, a coin/screwdriver/butterknife can be used for the same thing…). In STASIS, one of the earliest items you get is a High Speed Neural Drill. The problem I had with the item is that it literally had WAY to many uses! So I killed it out of your inventory about halfway in the second chapter (in a very cool way), to stop the puzzles from being boring. In making these lists, and seeing the obstacles however, I could see all the uses for all of the items I had-and very quickly picked up on the repetition.
The downside of designing puzzles like this is that the solutions can easily get VERY complex. I generally try to keep as few steps in as possible, in keeping it a practical solution. Its a very fine line to walk!