There’s a billion articles about the worst puzzles in videogames, and they’ll always hit the same ones, the disguise in Gabriel Knight 3, the inflatable duck in The Longest Journey. But we’re not about endless negativity here at Green Man Gaming, we’re all about positivity.
And why not? Videogames are brilliant! So instead of telling you what sucks about some puzzles in videogames, here’s the official (Editor’s note: not official) best puzzles in videogames list!
Note: Spoilers below this line for quite a few games, but especially The Witness so do not read the bottom if you want to go in fresh on that game.
The Cherry Tree – Day of the Tentacle
Everyone knows the myth about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree when he was a child, then owning up to it stating that he could tell no lie. Well, if you don’t, you’ll find this puzzle much harder than it is for American players.
Near the start of Day of the Tentacle the three protagonists are dispersed through time, Laverne gets stranded in the future, stuck up a kumquat tree with no way down. It’s up to Hoagie, 400 years in the past, to save her! By using red paint with the kumquat tree, he manages to fool George Washington into thinking it’s a cherry tree. And what does George Washington do with cherry trees?
That’s right, chop chop. And down Laverne plops because the tree she was stuck in no longer exists.
It’s a fun puzzle that has you thinking in more than one dimension to fix, and sets the tone of the game, teaching you about consequences and being able to affect the future and the present from the past. Think Picard in the All Good Things finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation, that’s the kind of thinking that Day of the Tentacle will teach you. Thinking that even Q would be impressed by.
The Train – The Room 3
The Room trilogy is made up of excellent puzzles, but there’s nothing like the one that opens The Room 3. It’s a tutorial, teaching you a few things about how the interface works and how to rotate and play with items in the game world.
What makes this puzzle work so well is the setting, you’re on a train in a 19th century style cabin. You go through a tunnel and in the flickering light a man appears, disappears, and leaves a mysterious box. Through interacting with the box, your luggage, and your trusty mystical eyepiece, you unlock the box unveiling a pyramid. It’s then that the game gets even more sinister, with the Lovecraftian black tentacles that you last saw at the end of The Room 2 spreading across your cabin.
It’s a wonderful opener to a wonderful game, and sets the tone for what’ll come next. It’s the kind of puzzle that shows that simple doesn’t mean boring, and even if you’re being led by the hand you can throw in a few surprises.
Climbing Up – Portal 2
The whole of the Cave Johnson section of Portal 2 teaches you about using the different gels, either on their own or in combinations. And also it teaches you about Cave Johnson and he’s someone well worth learning about.
The finale for this whole section is a huge puzzle that covers several rooms, with Material Emancipation Fields, different gels, and a lot of space.
It’s not the hardest puzzle in the game, but what’s wonderful about this particular puzzle is how it fits together, with the sound design, 3D spaces, and everything you’ve learned about gels. The way it works is almost like a Heath Robinson machine, with you as a component in a vast gel powered contraption you build that spans the level. With it all set up, you jump in on one end, and bounce around until you’re flung out in the right place. It’s wonderful when it works, and the sound design plays different melodies for each gel which means you get a little song made up of your motions through this puzzle.
Portal 2’s puzzles are an utter joy anyway, but they’re never better than when they’re singing to you.
Tomb of the Nameless One – Planescape: Torment
How do you discover the secrets at the heart of a tomb filled with deadly traps?
Simple! Be a person who can never die.
The Tomb of the Nameless One is a wonderful puzzle hidden away underneath the insane toroidal city of Sigil, and it is a puzzle that can be cracked by one person only. You.
This puzzle isn’t especially hard but it plays into the themes of the game, you can’t die so the game gives you a puzzle that can only be solved by someone who can’t die. At the centre of the tomb lies secrets and truth, about yourself and your past incarnations, and about your companions.
Most of Planescape: Torment is brilliant, but it’s moments like this which bring together both the narrative and the game mechanics, that make it the classic it is.
The Notepad – Discworld Noir
There’s something that videogames have bizarrely failed to do particularly well, and that’s detective stories. Yes there are games where you play detectives, but there’s rarely any actual detectoring to be done. In steps Discworld Noir, a sadly overlooked but wonderful game that’s set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Being both a sendup and an homage to classic film noir tropes and storylines, it casts you in the role of the only Private Investigator in Ankh Morpork.
What does a PI need to solve mysteries? That’s right, a notepad. The game automatically jots down clues for you in the notepad, which is fine, so far, so LA Noir.
What really makes the notepad in Discworld Noir special, and a feature that sadly hasn’t appeared in many games, is that you could combine clues through the notepad to generate new leads, new information, new ideas, solve puzzles, and push the plot forward.
It meant that you slipped into the mindset of a PI, you were investigating not just solving puzzles, you were thinking about how things related to everything else, not just ‘use fish on hat’.
The Computer – Gabriel Knight 3 – Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned
Alright. Look. Everyone talks about the moustache puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3, even *I* talked about it in the lede. And you know what? Everyone’s right! It’s a terrible puzzle!
Gabriel Knight 3 also has one of the best puzzles hidden away in it’s latter half.
After Grace turns up, you get access to her computer and the SIDNEY system on it. Using this, maps, documents you’ve found such as Le Serpent Rouge, a mystical text, you put together a puzzle which spans the entire valley and the towns of Rennes-le-Chateau and Coustaussa. By following the texts, comparing notes, and plotting lines along geographical and meridian lines on a map, you build up an answer to the puzzle at the heart of the game and learn where to go next.
It, much like the notepad puzzles in Discworld Noir, makes you feel like you’re unraveling a mystery through your own work and intuition. It’s not dependent on bizarre point and click rules, instead it makes sense and fits both in the game world, and makes sense in the real world.
The Hall of Learning – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
There’s a lot of excellent puzzling in Sands of Time, usually to do with how you’re going to traverse through a ruined area of the game’s palace. The Hall of Learning is a vast puzzle that spans across a mystical library filled with crystals, light, and routes that unlock and change as you solve the mini puzzles which make up the bigger puzzle.
You’ll smash down walls, push things about, shine light through holes, use the game’s excellent parkour to climb over the entire level, and indulge in some flirty banter with Farah while you do.
Also you smash down the fourth wall in one bit.
It’s a tough puzzle that can lead to you getting a bit disoriented, but like the best puzzles it fits together well and the feeling of satisfaction from completing it is immense. It’s a huge puzzle, made up of lots of little interconnected puzzles and it is a real test of your abilities to read the scenery and use it to your advantage to solve your way through the Hall of Learning. More than the pure combat tests that appear later in the game, it really feels like this is one of the major set pieces for the game, as it tests your parkour and puzzle solving abilities in one glorious megapuzzle.
Roulette – Grim Fandango
If Day of the Tentacle is Lucasarts’ Citizen Kane, then Grim Fandango is their Casablanca. And the second year in Grim Fandango is absolutely Casablanca’d to the nines.
Manny starts this year running his own little casino in Rubacava, complete with roulette wheel and Frenchman to run it. Remember; roulette is a game for Frenchmen, widows, and French widows. In classic Lucasarts fashion, there’s a series of events set up that you have to unravel to progress with the story. As a result of what you’ve done throughout the year, your friend Glottis is stuck in a local racetrack betting heavily and drinking even heavily-er. To get him kicked out you first need to kick out the chief of police, who’s also happily gambling but in your establishment.
How do you do that? Cheat at roulette, causing the chief of police to lose. Now if you know anything about Casablanca, you’ll know the chief of police Does Not Lose and when he does, he closes your entire establishment, causing Glottis to also be barred from the VIP lounge where he was happily gambling away.
It’s not the hardest puzzle in a game of incredibly hard puzzles, but what it does is tie into the themes of the game, of moving on. It’s a moment where you burn down everything Manny and Glottis have built over the year, ready for you to continue your journey outside of Rubacava. It’s not the hardest puzzle, but it’s a narratively satisfying puzzle that ends the year on the right note.
Cracking the Code – Fez
This twisty turny multidimensional puzzle platformer took everyone by storm, and rightly so. It’s endlessly inventive and utterly beautiful.
It’s also covered in strange squiggles, on almost every rock and sometimes even appearing in speech from strange creatures.
It’s not until late in the game that you can come across the Rosetta Stone Room, a room where if you examine the script carefully enough you’ll notice that it bears similarity to a phrase in English. A phrase that you can translate, and then suddenly the background of the game opens up like the unfolding of a flower.
Suddenly every level has information in it, there’s details in the background of every puzzle.
This makes the entire game into one giant puzzle, and once you’ve cracked the code the whole game becomes a puzzle that you have the key for. What makes this puzzle so special is how it’s interwoven into every scene in the game, you might not even know you’re looking at puzzles but once you can read the script in Fez, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.
The Puzzle Canal – Morrowind
So, you want to join the Temple. Good news, we’ve got openings. Bad news, you’ve got to travel the length and breadth of Vvardenfell to do so. You gotta do a pilgrimage, prove your devotion to the Tribunal!
Most of the steps in the Pilgrimage of the Seven Graces involve bringing an item to a shrine. The highlight is the Puzzle Canal, which contains, you guessed it. A puzzle!
You’re given this text to go on when you consult your book copy of the Pilgrimage of the Seven Graces: “Breathe the Waters of His Glory and the Way is Made Clear”.
What does that mean? There’s lots of water but you can’t breath it, unless you have Water Breathing cast on you. But that doesn’t seem to work, you’re just sitting in a puddle waiting for…nothing.
Aha, but maybe if you don’t use Water Breathing. Maybe you just…drown. So you sit there, and you wait, and your character glubs and blubs and the screen shakes red, and eventually you die. The screen fades to black.
Then the screen fades up and you’ve made it! You’ve passed the Puzzle Canal, you’re through!
Morrowind doesn’t have many puzzles in it, most of the game is spelled out for you at least in general terms, but here’s a puzzle where you have to think laterally and think about what the words you’re given actually mean in order to pass. What also makes it a wonderful puzzle is that you have to do something you don’t normally do in a videogame, and that’s die intentionally. This isn’t Planescape: Torment either, you’d just have to reload if you died so it’s a risk. But one that pays off, if you’ve been paying attention.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – The Water Temple
Alright, enough with the easy puzzles. This one’s a hard one.
The Water Temple is a vast complex where the level layout changes depending on what configuration you’ve put the temple into. Like some of the puzzles I’ve mentioned above, it’s an area filled with tiny puzzles which make up one huge puzzle.
But enough from me, listen to Mark Brown talk about the Water Temple in a far more eloquent manner in his wonderful Zelda series, Boss Keys. He can explain just why the Water Temple is a magnificent, challenging, complicated, but exciting puzzle to crack.
Hand of Midas – Tomb Raider / Tomb Raider Anniversary
In the palace of Midas you might be unsurprised to hear that you find the Hand of Midas. Given that it was his palace, it seems to be the right place to keep it.
When you first encounter it, you might just think it’s a bit of scenery. That is, until you climb up on it.
What’s special about Midas? Everything he touches turned to gold. And that’s it for Lara Croft, game over, she’s now a golden statue.
But, what this does mean, is that it ties into a larger puzzle in the Midas Palace where you use the power of Midas to convert lead to gold, which provides you a way through the puzzle room you’re stuck in.
It’s a great puzzle simply because it’s got a threat to it, and the only way that (most) people learn about this particular mechanic is by dying on the palm of Midas. It uses a thing that kills you for positive gain, turning the normal rules of puzzle solving on its head.
It’s a standout bit in a standout game, a proper puzzle, in a proper tomb.
Axe Fort – Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
Tricky puzzles and the best puzzle games often teach you the rules of how a puzzle works, before throwing a vastly more complicated version at you.
The Axe Fort in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy does this by giving you an axe statue puzzle, which involves jumping on platforms in a certain order. Each platform makes the statue perform a different motion, and if you get the order wrong you’ll get swiped off the platforms.
The game gives you one of these to deal with, which teaches you the ropes.
Then it gives you three.
This means you’re navigating your way through a large chamber while axes whistle through the air at your every movement. It requires planning, forethought, memory, navigation skills, and also the ability to not get hit with giant axes.
It’s a joy to navigate, just because it’s a tricky lot of variables to keep in your head as you power through the fortress. After it’s over you’re going to want to take a moment, possibly punch the air, because getting through that kind of thing is always a damn joy.
Holy Shit I Can Do That? – The Witness (Spoilers)
The Witness is a game about drawing lines from circles to other circles. Well, that’s the basic idea behind it. In practice it’s vastly more complicated, varied, and interesting a game.
The game is fairly open with puzzles lying about almost everywhere, usually contained in a box or a square. But you begin to see clues, the answer to a puzzle might lie within the fruit of a nearby tree, a shadow might tell you how to solve another. After enough time you see puzzles everywhere, every line and circle looks like it might be a puzzle.
You even look up into the sky and wonder, what if that shape left by the clouds were a puzzle, so you click and drag and….
This is why The Witness is one of the best puzzle games ever created, and this moment, when you realise you can break free of the puzzle squares you’ve been given so far. The whole world might be a puzzle, lines and circles everywhere and you can click and drag them all, you can solve the universe!
Well maybe not that far, but it’s a brilliant moment that comes after hours of training your brain to see the world the way The Witness wants you to see it. It takes the vocabulary of the puzzle at the centre of The Witness and expands its context into the world of The Witness itself. Glorious.
The Goat – Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars
Just kidding. This one’s legitimately bad.
BUT it is fixed in the Director’s Cut so go play that, cos the game’s ace!
But most importantly, play games with puzzles in, love puzzles, and come back and tell me all about the new and wonderful puzzles you’ve encountered out there in GAMES.