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The Blurring Line Between Puzzles and Games

By Matthew Lipman

April 29th, 2011



Before computers, puzzles were mainly limited to print and mechanical contraptions. Even now, a crossword puzzle works best with a pen and paper; A Rubik’s cube is best solved in your hands. These puzzles can certainly exist on a computer screen and puzzlers can interact via mouse and keyboard. But, something subtle happened during the fast development of video games. While the difference between puzzles and games still exist, it has become increasingly difficult to separate the two.

Popular console video games, such as Zelda or Little Big Planet, contain plenty of puzzle-based obstacles. While the layout of these games might share lots of similarities with mazes and require cleverness, the agility of the controls, combined with immerse action make it hard to call these strictly puzzles.

Dictionary.com’s definition of puzzle goes: “A toy, problem, or other contrivance designed to amuse by presenting difficulties to be solved by ingenuity or patient effort.”

A defining feature of a puzzle is the presented problem or difficulty that requires solving.  Extra content or fluff within or attached to a puzzle, should not remove its classification as a puzzle. A puzzle is a puzzle, even if it contains unnecessary plot, sounds, graphics or interactions.

Room escapes are a type of video game centered around the navigator being trapped in a room with what appears to be no exit. A room escape is comprised of a handful of puzzles and obstacles, often you will have to decode a password or use objects in a way to unlock secret areas. Can a series of interweaving puzzles be considered collectively as a puzzle. In a Rubik’s cube there is a sequence of moves to reach the goal of having each side contain one color. In a room escape, there is a sequence of clicks and interactions to reach the goal and escape.

Interestingly, room escapes can have a story and plot blended into the game-play, something most jigsaws puzzles and crosswords leave out.  If there is a story, does this mean it cannot be a puzzle? Sometimes puzzles use tricks to distract the puzzler from the obvious answer. I suppose one could create a riddle that includes a story in its tricky wording or a puzzle could use visual stimulus to attract attention to the wrong place.

The progression of digital media fosters creativity and inventiveness, along with removing the limitations of what a puzzle or video game experience can be.