The most recent Penny Arcade comic about an upcoming Myst movie brought this to mind. It is one of my gamer geek disconnects, perhaps, but I hate puzzles. I hate them so much. Only someone loudly answering a cellphone call pulls me out of a narrative faster. How often do we encounter intricate puzzles in our lives, where we have to move levers and pull knobs and push boxes around on the ground or whatever before we can continue?
Never, that’s how often.
Puzzles in a roleplaying game, or a story, particularly arbitrary ones of the Myst-slash-Undermountain kind, are an assault on verisimilitude, guns blazing. Hey, I know, how about if I solve this delicate puzzle with a sledgehammer, and let the puzzle-fans pick up the shiny little pieces and reassemble them while I continue on my way doing things that are interesting?
You can tell how much of an affront puzzles are in a narrative of any kind by the degree of mental gymnastics one has to undergo in order to justify them. Think of the Saw movies. How hard to we have to work to get to the point where we get drawn into a Saw movie? You have to have this absurd serial-killer torture-addict with apparently unlimited resources who leaves no forensic evidence whatsoever as to who he might be, even though he builds rooms full of machinery and puts people’s heads in bear traps and stuff.
Every situation where you have some stupid puzzle standing in the way of your fun, it has to be justified, and almost always justified by positing an arbitrary-evil-crazy-genius. And yes, I suppose if you have no material limitations, and a number of crazy evil geniuses running around without supervision, you may very well end up with some puzzles that get in the way of your life.
You can, even in that unlikely scenario, still deal with them principally by way of shouting and bludgeoning until their riven intricacies are laid bare. Then, maybe a crowbar, and you’re done.
I’m sorry – the crazy arbitrary one is the person who thinks that a narrative is improved by a frustration-manufacturing Rube-Goldberg machine standing between me and moving forward with the story for God’s sake.
Now, I hear the argument that Myst has this really amazing story behind it. That is exactly the problem – the story is in the background, and meanwhile I’m pulling levers and pushing buttons and rapidly losing interest. Not only does a puzzle have to justify itself, but it is also basically self-contained. An extensive, trap-ridden colored-block puzzle is functionally identically to a door with knob on it that you turn to open it. All that time and effort you spent on the colored-block puzzle was basically masturbatory. I’m as much a fan of masturbation as anyone, but that just isn’t my style.