The Language of Puzzles

Hello. This is my first post on the site and unlike other posts that are funny and readable and interesting, I’m going to write long-winded garbage that have titles like “The Language of Puzzles”. In fact, I’m unafraid to be so pretentious that I start this post with a quote from Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Godel Escher Bach, as follows:

Next, one opens the bottle and examines the marks on the paper. Perhaps they are in Japanese; this can be discovered without any of the inner message being understood – it merely comes from a recognition of the characters. The outer message can be stated as an English sentence: “I am in Japanese.” Once this has been discovered, then one can proceed to the inner message, which may be a call for help, a haiku poem, a lover’s lament…

What Hofstadter is saying is that every message is really two messages. The inner message has the content the writer was trying to convey, but then there is an outer message that tells the observer “Hey, there is a message here!”. That there is some meaningful information in the message, not just random noise. These marks on the wall was someone keeping a tally, not just scratchings. These modem signals serve a meaningful purpose, not just annoying screechings. Maybe you encounter a message and you can’t decipher what it means, but at the very least you are sure that it is, in fact, a message. Let’s make this post about games before I forget why I’m here and start reading Wikipedia articles about linguistics.


Even if you don’t know how the rules of the puzzle, you know that at least this is a puzzle.

Undertale is an excellent game full of small puzzles. Some are explained more than others, but even if none of them were explained at all you would probably be able to solve most of them. Without instruction you move the blocks randomly, you try random actions in combat, you step on the crosses in a random pattern. You see how the game reacts and you learn. Even if you don’t solve the puzzle initially you’re certain that there is a puzzle to be solved, and you’re certain that if you put enough time into it you will solve it. The puzzles just seem to be self-contained – you won’t be asked to wander off somewhere and bring back an item. You try some things and get some feedback that it’s working. You shift the tiles into a better arrangement. You’re somehow closer to your goal. You feel that the solution is right here at the puzzle.


This puzzle is “come back when you have the correct thing”.

In games like Arkham Asylum or Metroid, puzzles can be in the form of having a particular item. You find a cracked wall and try everything you have against it to try to break it completely and nothing seems to work. You get the feeling that you’ll need to come back to this wall once you have some item that you’re likely to get later in the game, and with each new item you get you might think of whether it can break through this wall. The language of this puzzle directs you to these ideas. There’s nothing complex or suspicious with this simple broken wall. No environmental trigger nearby seems to have anything to do with it. After only a short time interacting with it do you realise that you need to move on and further time spent here is wasted.


Can’t complain about the game’s suberb visual design.



All this build up just to talk about this annoying puzzle. In the largely excellent Fez, one level has you arrive at a giant weeping and vomiting stone face. This is a game about rotating the view 90 degrees so you do that and spot a door hidden behind the waterfall. Sneaky! I’m going to get in that door! But oh no you aren’t. When the door is side-on you can’t enter it, but if you rotate the view back to the original orientation the waterfall blocks off the door again. No problem, you know where the door is now, so you can get behind the waterfall and line yourself with the door and press up to enter. No, this doesn’t work. Why doesn’t this work? Did I get the position of the door wrong? I better rotate the view to check and line myself up better. Okay, now I should be in front of the door. But it still won’t let me in the thing! What am I doing wrong?!

The answer, sweet self-doubting reader, is nothing. It’s no failing of yours that you can’t enter the door, it’s just that this puzzle is solved a very different way. See, this is a game with an opening act that is largely about jumping and rotating and noticing and arranging and many other very spatially-oriented skills that highlight the game’s unique geometry. But for this puzzle, you stand on top of that purple obelisk, and you type in a secret code that parts the waterfall so you can walk through the door. What does the code have to do with opening a waterfall and revealing a door? I can’t tell you. The obelisk isn’t even adjacent to the waterfall.


A  picture of a cute animal to break up the whinging.

I don’t want to disparage the tetromino code puzzles in this game because a lot of thought has been put into them and they are very decent puzzles, but these are very different puzzles than the physical puzzles the player has been solving up until this point in the game. They see the door and say “Aha! This puzzle is solved merely by noticing that it’s there!” This is the sort of puzzle that would give you extra lives or easter eggs in other games.

Why am I banging on about this one puzzle so much? Because I wasted a half-hour on it. More importantly, because it highlights the importance of the visual language that exists around puzzles. This looks all the world like a spatial puzzle. It reveals itself from your rotation mechanics. It’s fleeting enough that you feel the need to identify the particular location of the door. The doorway is even wide open, ready to accept all that believe in its existence into its loving innards, but even though nothing physically stops you, you just can’t go in. The language around this puzzle is all wrong. Really the doorway should be sealed off with another stone door that opens slowly after you’ve entered the code. Why is the door even obscured at all? Why isn’t it blocked off, or at least greyed out, to tell the user that simply getting to the door isn’t enough? But here it is and nothing is blocking it, so it gives the player the impression that everything they need to solve it is right here. The framing of the puzzle implies that it is a self-contained puzzle and if the user keeps working at it for long enough he’ll solve it.

This is unfortunately a trap. The player needs to go learn about the tetris codes and come back. But nothing in this scene indicates to the ignorant player that the puzzle is unsolvable. The player could instead continue to bang their head against this unsolvable puzzle for hours. Is the puzzle’s obstinance an indication that the player should stop? No, because there are actually plenty of other puzzles in Fez that involve repetition and combinations and can be solved “brute force” style given enough time. To adopt the behaviour of leaving behind puzzles that show resistance would mean to bypass actual, solvable puzzles throughout the game. Really, the expectation for when a player is adequately equipped to solve a puzzle is not consistently established, and in this particular case is in fact inconsistent. If the game sets up the expectation that puzzles can be solved with persistence, the player will doggedly stick at unsolvable puzzles and feel cheated once they discover its non-solvability. If the game sets the expectation that you solve puzzles by returning to them afterwards, then the player will move on past adversity and any puzzle that isn’t easily solvable will need extra signals to indicate to the player that they should perservere.


The furnace is for disposing of the bodies.

Early on you discover this boiler room where someone has stuck drawings all over the walls like some kind of deranged serial killer. It appears to be an entryway into learning about the tetris code but it isn’t, rather it’s a puzzle you are presented with early but can only solve after you’ve already learnt the tetris code and also the game’s other, number-based code. Oh my. Look at the sheets on the wall, presented early enough to appear like a tutorial, lining up larger and smaller symbols as though there is a meaningful correspondence. You bet I wasted a lot of time in this room as well. Is this a puzzle for me to solve? No? Can I use this to solve the other tetris puzzles I’ve encountered so far? No? Why are you showing me this?

It’s a shame really, because Fez really is an otherwise excellent game that makes me think that Phil Fish should un-quit the game industry. But really Fez is two excellent games that don’t quite play nice together. The spatially, rotationy, precision jumpy platformery that appeals to the gamer in me, and then there is the wondrous sense of the hallowed unknown that makes itself felt through its beautiful sights and indecipherable alien languages. I can’t read a word of them but I know they have meaning; I can tell there’s conscious intent rather than random noise inside of its outer shell, as Hofstadter said. But the outer message around some of these puzzles are just wrong. They say “This is a spatial puzzle based on geometry, that appeals to intuitive solutions.” Or “This is a self-contained puzzle with everything you need. You can solve it here!” But you just can’t.

Colleagues tell me to play the old Hitchhiker’s Guide text-based adventure game, waxing nostalgically about a room where you type “look” and the game tells you about two exits out of the room. You type “look” more and the game’s output doesn’t change, but on maybe the fifth “look” the game finally admits that it was lying and there was a third exit the whole time. I guess the entire game has been spent building up the expectations that wacky bullshit like this should be suspected? This game blatantly rejects the trusted meta language of text-based adventure game puzzles, which says “when you get the same response to the same action then you’ve exhausted the possible progress from that action and need to move on.” In all seriousness this sounds like an anti-game to me, far better as a story told by colleagues than actually playing it. I guess this is what you tolerate when it’s 1984 and you play whatever you can get. On second thoughts, I’m sorry for all the mean things I said about Fez.

– Adam

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