Game puzzles are like languages

We had a big puzzle brainstorm and discussion for the Time Project last week.


(Henrik’s puzzle book)

Henrik did a small presentation about his research into puzzles and explained that solving puzzles in a game is like learning a language. Needless to say, my ears pricked up—yup, I get this! Hold onto your swivel chairs, I’m about to get word-nerdy!

To get the language, you need to get the grammar.

Grammar is basically a crap-ton of rules for language (yes, thank you Brooke, revolutionary dah-link now I’m going to keep scrolling my dash for my new favourite OTP…)

But wait! It’s also true for writing stories!

Stories have rules.

When I’m writing, I’m setting up rules and I don’t even realise I’m doing it.

These rules ‘teach’ the reader about what is possible and not possible in the world the story is set in. 

The genre of the story sets up a whole bunch of rules first off. Science Fiction? We know we’re going to have some futuristic technology, cool. Fantasy? Elves are ok but it is not ok if my elves are in a story with cyborgs. Unless you have some amazing mash-up world like Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series and she can do that because she has set up these expectations from the start.

Teaching rules = creating expectations

Same deal for games!

Puzzle games, in particular, present you with a language that you haven’t learned yet. So you have questions like: what am I supposed to do? How do objects move? What is possible?

This is usually what the first few levels of a game are all about. It’s also usually what the first few chapters of a novel are all about. You want to know what’s possible in the world, what’s going on and what’s going to happen.

As we progress through games (and stories!), we become better at the language. But we don’t want to be overwhelmed by it. We don’t want to be bombarded with every single rule right away. Start with the basics, start with what is relevant to the first few levels (or chapters). That way, we become immersed in the world by learning the rules and then, we become fluent by the end. With this fluency comes a feeling of mastery and achievement, we are ‘all in’ the world that’s been created. 

Our aim for The Time Project is to create that feeling—that’s the good stuff!

Oh, look, more brainstorming ~~


(Our whiteboard)

We brainstormed with the aim of finding good visual metaphors that will allow us to convey the rules of our game. 

To do this, we have been taking inspiration from books that already combine story and puzzles, Usbourne Puzzle Adventures!  

I haven’t read these but Henrik and Maya introduced me to them and they look fantastic:

We thought how we can use colour to communicate what is possible in our game, eg. what objects can be moved. We thought about creating a new language for the game that associated fire with a symbol in the game world in order to merge the two, but we quickly realised this was too abstract.

That’s learning two languages! The ‘language’ of our game world, and the language of the puzzles. The equivalent would be asking someone to learn another language in order to read your book. Which is entirely possible if you’re Tolkien and have provided a language guide with your story world, and you might be the kind of person who has the time to do that, but that’s just too much for our little game!

(Language puzzles in The Emerald Conspiracy)

Writing a good story is like making a good game. It’s about setting up the rules and expectations.

We’re experimenting with our puzzle languages and thinking about how different types of puzzles have might have different languages. For example, puzzles that have to do with the environment require the player to know they can retrieve things like fire and manipulate the flow of water, and this might be conveyed with a glowing effect. And puzzles that ask the player to arrange symbols might be conveyed by runes etched into the rock face. 

We’re not too sure yet.

But this is just the beginning of the story. When we have those expectations set up, the fun comes from playing with those expectations. That’s when you get plot twists and surprises that feel inevitable in hindsight because all along, you have been getting subtle hints… but we’re not quite there yet!

Soon… soon… 

<3  B

Be Sociable, Share!

RSS Feed

1 Comment for Game puzzles are like languages

Terry Nusser | October 25, 2016 at 3:40 am

Great post! I am looking forward to future posts on this topic. I am interested in learning how games and language can be used to help children with various degrees of autism to learn capabilities and function. We have a highly functional child who is very “grabbed” by trains and the tc2 music.

Leave a comment!