What’s the Difference between Games and a Sequence of Puzzles?

A recent debate about Interactive Fiction (IF) broke out based on Jon Blow’s comments in an interview and Emily Short’s response.  It reopened an old hypothesis of mine, that is one lens to define a game through.

Are games different from puzzles?

Well, games can clearly be multiple puzzles linked together in a sequence, so are games just a sequence of puzzles?

I’d say yes, but there’s a lot more then that:

“A game is a repeated sequence of puzzles, where the puzzles are all the same puzzle, slightly varied each time.  In addition, the choices made in each puzzle influence the following puzzles”

Consider Chess.  Each move is a puzzle – “where is the best place to move a piece?”  In fact, in chess, the first move is relatively easy.  Most valid first moves are perfectly good places to move a piece.  But at the same time, that choice changes the next iteration of that puzzle.  This change propagates throughout the replays of the puzzle, change and defining future puzzles in evolving and interesting ways.

This is often what we mean when we talk about a “core gameplay loop”.

These aspects of this are key.  One Puzzle.  Repeated, Varied, and Self-Altering.  Games are not just one puzzle, or multiple unrelated puzzles.  And games are not the same puzzle repeated multiple times.  They aren’t even the same puzzle randomized multiple times.  Sudoku is a great puzzle, but not a game.

Thus, a product that is just a sequence of puzzles only related by concept is not a game.  It is a sequence of puzzles.  And by that definition, many IF pieces (but not all!) aren’t really games.  (Which is totally cool.  Just interesting.)

What’s interesting to me is how games have evolved within this definition.

It’s easy to see the history of games as starting from puzzles, becoming a sequence of puzzles, and then becoming games.  In many ways, this is the history of IF.  What’s fascinating is how it’s changed within this definition.

As games have grown, particularly video games, the core puzzle has become simpler and simpler, and the variations have become smaller and smaller.  The self-alterations have begun to follow this low-low-low-high model most commonly associated with narrative pacing.  Meanwhile, the number of puzzle iterations has skyrocketed.

As an example, the modern FPS core gameplay loop has become “can I shoot that target?”  The action required is so simple, but the iterations run into the thousands, with each leading to small alterations in the puzzle based on what kind of target it is, how big it is, what state it’s in (including, most importantly, still alive from last puzzle attempt), and what state alternative targets or larger objectives are in.

Game designers prefer vastly simpler puzzle pieces then 20 years ago, with vastly more repetitions.  My hunch is this is related to how flow works psychologically – that this induces flow and flow is a highly desirable state for both entertaining and learning.  I’d love a study on that.  In fact, I hypothesized that all 4 elements – Puzzle, repeated, varied, and self-altering, are optimum for flow state.  But I want a study on that too!

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3 thoughts on “What’s the Difference between Games and a Sequence of Puzzles?

  1. I think you have some solitaire bias going on. Games started as games. Played against someone or something else. Like football, or hunting your food.

    Puzzles are a problem or enigma. Games are a contest. Both things can overlap or not.

    • Sure. Like I said, it’s only one lens. Games as competition is another lens (one I’ve talked about elsewhere on the blog). Still, it’s easy to see even in football or hunting how they decompose into the problems you describe as Puzzles.

      I claim that’s psychological – that our brain naturally decomposes things into puzzle-like chunks, but it enjoys rapid-fire puzzles more then long complicated ones.

      As an interesting corrollary of this lens, it does imply and support the existence of interesting solitaire games like Solitaire. While not well classically represented, that may be a historical quirk (interesting games were hard to create without involving computers or other people) rather then a definitional pillar, as I traditionally treat it in the Crawford games-are-interactive-races sense.

  2. I still can’t tell whether it’s refinement of the genres, or whether the design solution has wholesale changed as mass market appeal requires a certain common lowest common denominator.

    I still wonder whether the state of flow is different due to learning processes and psychological differences in success/failure perceptions. I have been wondering for ages whether there is any connection to systemic educational differences?

    Different areas of the world still seem to gravitate towards vastly different types of games. What’s going on in the educational differences across cultures that causes certain genres to gel better with learning styles than others? I’d like a study on that!

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