Puzzling Encounters: Lock & Key

The Point and Click Adventure genre leans a little too heavily on one very simple puzzle which I’ll refer to here as the Lock & Key: finding Thing A and applying to Thing B in order to proceed.

To be clear, things A and B can be a wide variety of things, a ladder and a wall, a photograph and a person, an ostrich and a sandwich toaster, or an actual key that corresponds to an actual lock. We can all thing of a few dozen examples, if pressed we could probably come up with that many from the same title. Grim Fandango, Machinarium, the Discworld game series, to an extent one could argue The Room, all make heavy use of this basic set up. Why?

Well, ignoring for a moment the fact that it is very simple and easy to put together in game, from a game design perspective it’s no bad thing either. It’s an un-failable task, you can’t get it wrong, you can only keep trying. It’s an obstacle to be overcome, to face the next obstacle, and the next one, and the next one. Occasionally you’ll see something different, I’d just like to offer a few suggestions of how we can shake up the genre.

Monkey Wrench? Really?

Variations On A Theme

Combination Locks: Now I’m not necessarily talking about codes or dials, although if you have to piece that code together from separate sources, I’m talking about keys that require multiple parts, fetching several things to a person to complete a plan. For example, Grim Fandango includes a section in which a post sorting engine has to be gummed up with a two-part mixture. The Room requires that you find multiple pieces of a globe to complete the map before you are able to proceed.

Skeleton Key: Ben Yahtzee Croshaw has pointed this one out in one of his earlier videos. So many times one Key will go to one Lock, no others, and is promptly consumed in the process, despite the fact that there are often so many instances where the same Key could be used to great effect. You sit there with the crowbar, clicking furiously on the door while your character says “I don’t see how that would work.” Having a puzzle offer multiple solutions not only makes the player feel clever, it could also have various end results giving a point and click much more replay value; picking a lock for example, is far more subtle and less likely to be discovered than forcing the door.

Less Obvious: A key can always be something less physical, or something remote. A lever pulled in one part of the game has some dramatic effect elsewhere, or the key could be something that you’ve discovered, something you didn’t know before. In Discworld Noir you have a notebook that you fill with names, events, and clues that you use as part of your interrogations, all of which you can put together or apply to items in your inventory to try and deduce answers; Darkness Within features something similar, in which you can assemble several clues, items, and sound clips to piece solutions together.



Observation and Deduction: If you’ve ever played the Myst series, or the latest Cyan Worlds game Obduction then you’ll already be fairly familiar with this one. It’s about applying observations and learned knowledge to a situation. Often this will be presented as information in a journal, someone has been here before and done as you must do, but Cyan Worlds are also good at showing without telling. In Edanna for example (Myst III) there is an early puzzle in which you must focus the sun’s rays through a lens to proceed, this knowledge applied once becomes essential once you get deeper into the Age.

Many of these can often boil down to trial and error, attempting new solutions and adapting to the degree of success or failure, which is how we play most games anyway. Some of the Riddler’s puzzles in Arkham City make excellent examples, solving the riddles, finding the locations of the hostages he’s taken, judging your timing, positioning, and testing your powers of observation.

Not only is this a great method of problem solving, it’s a lot more realistic, and the kind of thinking it encourages has real world applications. We learn by observing and drawing rational conclusions from our observations, like crowbars being useful to open doors.

Logic: Have you ever solved one of those grid puzzles in which you have to match things and criteria together according to clues that your given? It’s a difficult one to describe, but here’s an example (from wikipedia):


This problem has already been started with a few clues filled in, in this case one that matches 15 to Simon, eliminating other name to number matches with either, and one that prevents Jane being matched to Green without eliminating any other possibilities. With a few more clues you’ll able to start deducing more information by a process of elimination, usually the player would be offered around four to six clues depending on the degree of difficulty.

Now suppose you have a similar situation in your game, for example you must work out who committed a murder in the lobby by determining who was in what room and how you can prove they were there, witnesses, camera footage, so on and so forth, and that a false accusation could lead to disastrous in-game consequences. You could give the player enough information just by speaking with each of the suspects, but leave them with a tough job determining the truth based on that alone; at the same time you could leave other, harder to obtain clues in the scenario that make the deduction easier. Shadowrun Returns features an excellent puzzle along these lines when probing the computers of the Universal Brotherhood, searching for a usable password.

Combining Everything: The hardest puzzles to create and solve require you to apply all of the methods above. Take the Goat of Lochmarne from Broken Sword: it required that you observe the behaviour of the goat so that you could deduce when to apply the farming machinery. The Room uses multiple problem solving techniques, most of which are dependent on the Lock and Key method, but will often combine with observations, trial and error, or logical deduction.

Bringing methods together we can create puzzle games that are far more engaging, memorable, challenging, and even a little educational. Not only that but we could potentially introduce far more challenging puzzles into other genres to create a more varied experience without breaking the immersion or themes of the setting.

One thought on “Puzzling Encounters: Lock & Key”

Comments are closed.