Designing Puzzles, Games, Worlds

Over the past two weekends, I’ve devoted hours of my free time playing Myst III: Exile for the first time, after its ported re-release to modern machines by the venerable (formerly

With a bit of remove since playing Riven, a game that I had been initially introduced to as a child, I feel like I can reflect more clearly on the incredible pleasure I get from playing these games – exploring the individual levels created, working through the puzzles put forth, and immersing myself in the broader worlds created by the folks at Cyan.

exile-02exile-03exile_1Screenshots from Myst III: Exile (2001)

As a younger person, the concept of video game designer is an abstract one, most likely conceived more so as video game “player” (which now, coincidentally, is actually a real job) than designer – of worlds, levels, mechanics, and stories. What’s so incredibly pleasurable about playing games from the Cyan canon, and especially in the progression from Myst to Riven to Exile, is how much care and attention was given to the design of these games, and how much these games were created with the “player” in mind.

As I’ve come to innately learn through playing their games, the game designers expect an active and observant player (with some baseline knowledge of physics concepts). These are not games to be mindlessly played through on a couch – one must be willing to be challenged and occasionally frustrated. In exchange for these ‘asks,’ the game designers have gorgeously constructed worlds filled with areas to explore and puzzles to be solved.

Unlike Riven (and Myst before it), I’ve made a conscious effort to work my way through the game without the assistance of walkthroughs or obvious hints that would take the thinking out of my hands. As a result, I’ve gone through momentary bouts of getting stuck, and several frustration-/exhaustion-quits (the lesser known cousin of the famous “rage quit.”) However, this has also led to intense, pleasure-filled sequences as I figure things out, either while playing the game itself, or via a stray thought on a particularly thorny area passing through my head over the course of my non-gaming day.

Cyan’s puzzles are not meant to “break” you, nor are they reserved for only the most mathematically astute codebreakers. Rather, they are mostly rely on the player’s power of observation, the ability to insert oneself into the world(s) constructed by the designers to orient oneself, learn the world’s rules, and play within the confines of the game’s “sandbox.” From there, it’s mostly a question of connecting the dots between these in-game observations (I use a notebook to jot things down), with necessary patience and reflection in between.

One of the interesting byproducts of playing these games has been the exercise of thinking like a designer to try to draw logical connections, and make progress within the game. In my view, this requires the perspective of an adult – the ability to actively place yourself in the shoes of another (in this case, a grown-up game designer), to logically work backwards and make progress with the “game.” This is something that I could have never reasonably done as a pre-teen clicking through the various art panels of Myst with mouth agape. One stray thought that I’ve returned to often as an adult is the “limits” of videos games themselves, whether due to graphics, computer processing power, or the concept of a video game itself. As a younger person, these games (even the most basic MS-DOS games) felt like they had almost unlimited potential if I was good/smart/adept enough at unlocking them, able to blur the lines between the game and reality, and the possibility of deeper secrets underneath the surface of the game.

Like a director’s mise-en-scene, a novelist’s detail, or an artist’s choice of color, subject, or style, every element of the worlds being explored within the Cyan’s video games were considered by the designers, and in turn left to be interpreted by the players – why was this put here? What question is this meant to solve? In Cyan’s games, which oftentimes include minimal dialogue and no narration, rooms are strewn with tools and artifacts with no broader purpose other than to further immerse the player in these strange worlds, as well as notebooks that take you into the minds of the characters (protagonists and antagonists alike). This, combined with goregous art and immersive sound design, gives a game like Exile, released all the way back in 2001, a timeless quality, and elevates it from a mere video game into a world of art, in my mind (though it appears as if MoMA agrees).

Aside from continuing to refine game mechanics and further improve the game’s intuitive connection between player and game, the game’s principal technological leap from its predecessor (released four years prior) is the use of a panoramic, VR-like perspective to allow the player a full perspective on what’s below, above, and next to him. Today, more than 17 years since Exile’s release (and even longer since its design), the concept of VR has sought to replicate this sensation, adding a more immersive video headset and motion controllers as well as more photo-realistic graphics, but otherwise not changing the core concept in any major way.

In my mind, Cyan’s immersive worlds, and their ability to unlock the innate human pleasure of exploring and figuring things out represented the best use case for VR, in video games or otherwise. It’s no surprise that Cyan’s upcoming release, Firmament, is being designed to be played in VR, and deemed “a new VR experience” by Cyan. Interestingly, its predecessor, Obduction, was given a VR-release after its initial design, which ultimately proved ambitious but underbaked. Back to the drawing board, I have the utmost confidence that the next game will draw on the lessons learned from Obduction, and potentially be the first great VR game, As Cyan founder Rand Miller recently said in an interview regarding the transition from Obduction to Firmament:  “We definitely jumped in, and realized that this was going to work, but it also allowed us to get a nice head start on what’s coming next. It definitely seems like what we do, making these worlds, is definitely going to be amplified by VR.”

Obduction_01A goregous screenshot from Cyan’s latest, Obduction (2016), to be played at some point

One day, I’ll spend the money to update my machine to be able to play some of these newer games. In the meantime, I will continue to maintain that a masterpiece stands the test of time no matter when it was created, and is oftentimes more innovative and engaging than the flashier, better looking new releases. For now, good old games will have to do.

One thought on “Designing Puzzles, Games, Worlds”

  1. Interesting and well written. So I’m still not into video games. It certainly seems that they are sophisticated and mentally challenging. But these are the games for people who have intellect. What are the games for people who cannot handle the logical challenge?


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