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I Hate Puzzles (And Why I Like Designing Them)

I really dislike puzzles as a game mechanics.

I do enjoy setting puzzles, however.

Here’s a dive into why, and how to make them work for interactive theatre.

Why I enjoy setting puzzles

First, I like working out how to hide information (see 2 below).

Second, I have some friends who enjoy the satisfaction of solving puzzles, and are good at it - even if they prefer taking time, much like for a crossword. This can be a problem for interactive theatre, where there’s 10-30 minutes for solving things before needing to move on.

Third, when they work, they work. They create moments of intense focus and reward.

How to make puzzles work?

I’m aware that some puzzles in Come Bargain With Uncanny Things were not satisfying - they were too hard (and never solved), or once cracked, took too long to turn into something useful.

Riddles, cyphers, crosswords… I have three questions:

1. If you are trying to give me information, why not communicate it in a clear way?

2. If you do need to obscure it, is it convincing as a way to hide the information?

3. Is it satisfying to solve?


1. If you are trying to give me information, why not communicate it in a clear way?

Much of the time, puzzles feel like deliberate obfuscation for no dramatic purpose.

This includes:

- Someone’s personal diary has been written with a Caesar cypher.

- Day-to-day information is hidden in a safe nobody remembers the code to.

- There is a riddle discreetly written on a wall. It points to information the author wanted to share.

In each of these cases, why hide the information in this way?

It feels like the answer is ‘because it creates content for the audience’. This is not a good reason.

In Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, that’s the nachkinder, primordial, and kelpie potions. Why were they not just given to the audience, rather than requiring the audience to earn them through hard work?

2. If you do need to obscure it, is it convincing as a way to hide the information?

There are times it makes sense to hide information.

For example:

- We have intercepted this information from the enemy; it’s obscured.

- This ancient creature has hidden potent information from you.

- This paranoid person has hidden their information on a USB stick.

The question is then ‘how would this person hide this information?’

In a World War Two show, the enemy might use the ENIGMA system, nigh-unbreakable without a computer or specialist training. It’s less convincing if they use a highly-crackable Caesar cypher.

The ancient creature might hide information in an old song; it’s less secure, but fits a creature that’s happy for the information to be found by someone who earns it.

The paranoid person might hide their USB stick anywhere. We might be able to work out from a co-worker that they spent a lot of time in the bathroom, and it’s just beyond a ceiling panel. It’s odd if they leave a clue in their desk, but believable if it’s not well-hidden (unless they’re in IT, in which case: why is the USB stick not encrypted properly, or has a password with their pet’s name?).

The ancient creature is, of course, the entity from Come Bargain With Uncanny Things. The bad example is some information that was intended as deep, hidden lore few could learn that was too-easily found; it made some shows tend towards the power creep of sci fi and fantasy TV shows, where the protagonists are especially clever (or, more often, everyone else very stupid).

It’s a fun audience experience, but not-quite-right for Come Bargain’s community-focused ritual.

3. Is it satisfying to solve?

This is the most important one.

If the moment of cracking a riddle is “oh, wordplay. Well done.” that is a problem.

Likewise, if manually decrypting something, anything more than a sentence feels like a huge amount of work.

The amount of work should equal the value of solving it.

It can make people feel good. “I’m brilliant!” is a nice thought to have, such as from breaking through an invented alphabet.

It can reward audiences for paying attention. For example, some puzzles have solutions that, in-world, are immediately obvious to anyone on the inside of a cult/secret agency/book club, but those without that internal knowledge, or attention to the show’s lore, miss out.

For example, if I say “I have been told I am to meet SUSAN’S GRANDFATHER”, many people will not get the reference. Terry Pratchett fans, recognising the capitalisation and the character name Susan, will realise that I wish to indicate that I am going to meet Death.

The problem can be if audiences are forced into this sort of attention. That’s not fun.

Or it can have in-world dramatic value, which can add something to the experience of solving itself. Make it so that unlocking the door is time-sensitive, or solving the puzzle means a better chance of healing someone we’re responsible for. That forms a relationship to the broader show.

I’m sure there’s other ways - but feel good value, rewarding audiences, and in-world value (not stakes, which all too often implies conflict, which I’m not a fan of as an ‘essential’ in theatre) all seem like a good place to start.

What next for puzzles?

In some ways, puzzles are more fun for remote shows and games, where people can choose to devote their time to the task if they want to.

For me, I think they’re moving to a “only if it makes absolute sense in-world” tool. If you’re doing WWII, give me enemy cyphers; if you’re doing folklore, give me old myths.

But there are more entertaining information-gathering challenges, better suited to our worlds; we just need to find them.

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