How to Make a Text-Based Adventure: Puzzles

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Edited Version at A22196289

Without a narrative, a text-based adventure would simply be a series of puzzles. However, the reverse is true - without at least the odd puzzle, there isn't much to do except wander around, waiting for the story to reveal itself. Puzzles are thus a very important aspect of adventures, and a wide variety exist, ranging from easy to mind-boggling and from reasonably simple to extremely tedious. For those who are trying to make a text-based adventure, the onus on getting the puzzles right can be quite stressful, and so this Entry tries to offer a little inspiration for beginners.

Types of Puzzle

The following are just some of the characteristics a puzzle can have - this list is intended to encourage creativity as opposed to stifling it by encouraging puzzles by numbers.

  • Information / Clue - the player must find a piece of information such as a door code, which will perhaps be hidden cleverly or may simply be found scribbled down somewhere:

    > examine desk

    The desk is made of wood and has a series of drawers, all of which are empty. On top of the desk lies a large blotter pad.

    > examine blotter

    You notice that someone has scribbled 'DNA42' in the corner of the blotter.

    > examine metal door

    The door is locked, seemingly by an alphanumeric keypad next to the handle.

    > type 'DNA42' on keypad

    The lock behind the handle clunks open.
  • External Information - used only as a means of curbing piracy, these puzzles require some information from the packaging of the game and so forth. The clue given may relate to an object in the game, but will require the player to go and look at its counterpart in real life:

    'By the way, I wrote the number on the back of the CD case' he says before hanging up.

    > examine CD case

    The CD case is empty, and there is a number on the back.

    > examine number

    The CD case is empty, and there is a number on the back.
  • Map-making - these puzzles aim to disorientate the player by sending them into an array of maze-like passages. Some are straightforward mazes full of identical areas, while others are more deceitful and make use of logic instead of maps - the latter should usually be described using a word such as 'twisty'.

  • Experimentation - these puzzles are usually solved either by chance or through trial and error. The player will probably know the desired outcome, but without setting the right combination of levers or placing the right combination of objects in the right place, they'll never get there.

  • In front of you are three bowls, coloured red, green and blue. The red and blue bowls are half-filled with porridge.

    > get spoon


    > eat porridge

    Do you mean the porridge in the red bowl or the porridge in the blue bowl?

    > red bowl

    You burn your mouth - the porridge is far too hot!

    > eat blue bowl porridge

    You put the porrdige in your mouth but then spit it out in disgust - it's far too cold to eat.

    > eat green bowl porridge

    There isn't any porridge in the green bowl.

    > pour red bowl porridge into green bowl

    Ok, the red bowl's contents now sits in the green bowl, which is now half full.

    > pour blue bowl porridge into green bowl

    Ok, the blue bowl's contents now sits in the green bowl, which is now almost full of porridge.

    > eat green bowl porridge

    You taste the porridge, only to find that one spoonful is unpleasantly cold, and the next is burningly hot.

    > stir green bowl porridge with spoon

    Taking care not to spill any of it, you stir the porridge until you are satisfied that its ready to eat.

    > eat porridge

    The porridge is just right, and you wolf it down greedily. However, at that moment, a bear family arrives and demands to know who has been eating their porridge. You'd best make a run for it.
  • Nitpicking - in these puzzles, the player knows the outcome, but every time they try to accomplish it there is a small problem that needs sorting out - think of making a cup of tea in a stranger's house and you're on the right track. Only once they have done every little thing necessary and performed the task exactly as required will they be allowed to proceed. The following is an example of what a player might do when trying to fight their way through a nitpicking puzzle, only to find that they added the milk too late:

    > put teabag in cup

    Okay, the teabag is sitting inside the teacup.

    > pour water into cup

    The water makes a sloshing sound and turns brown as it hits the teabag.

    > open fridge and get milk bottle


    > pour milk into cup

    You'll have to open the milk bottle first.

    > open milk bottle and pour milk into cup

    The milk meets with the water and diffuses to turn the tea a lighter shade.

    > get teabag

    It hurts quite considerably, but you manage to grab the teabag out of the cup with your bare hand.

    > put teabag in bin


    > give cup to douglas

    'Honestly,' he says, rejecting the cup, 'you must never have had a good cup of tea in your entire life.'
  • Time Dependent - these puzzles require the player to get somewhere or do something within a certain length of time or at a certain time and place, thus reducing the about of mucking around while also forcing the player to try for the most efficient solution. While finding the only solution that is quick enough to complete such a puzzle can be very rewarding, some players can find time dependent puzzles quite irritating.

  • > wait

    You watch as the security guard wanders past the room, whistling jauntily but keeping a careful eye on you never the less.

    > wait

    The guard's whistling has grown quieter.

    > open commanders trunk

    The trunk is locked. The whistling sound has become distant.

    > unlock trunk with steel key


    > open trunk

    You try to open the trunk, but the lid catches on the underneath of the bunk bed.

    > move trunk

    You slide the trunk out from underneath the bunk bed.

    > open trunk

    Opening the trunk, you see the X16 blueprints are right at the top of the pile. In the distance you hear a whistling noise.

    > get blueprints

    The X16 blueprints are tied to the other documents in the trunk with a piece of string, and there's no way you could carry them all. The whistling noise is growing closer.

    > cut string with scissors and get blueprints

    At that moment, the security guard arrives in the room, quickly drawing his sidearm and aiming it at your head. 'You're nicked, mate,' he observes.

  • Inventory Management - these puzzles require the player to leave some of their items behind in order to negotiate an obstacle, thus forcing them to decide what to drop and what to keep.

  • To the north lies the enemy base, which as far as you can tell is teeming with rather unfriendly Krikkit robots. The base is guarded by a wall, the only way past which is a rather small hole at its base.

    > north

    The gap in the wall to the north is too small for you to fit through while holding so many objects.

    > inventory

    You are carrying a killozap rifle and a piece of sponge cake.

    > drop killozap rifle


    > north

    You just manage to squeeze through the hole in the wall, only to be arrested by some rather vicious robots who have quickly realised that you are completely defenceless.

  • Object - these puzzles simply require the player to have found an object and to either carry it, use it or put it in the correct place. These sorts of puzzles can be good for unlocking new areas - for instance, a player may not be able to pass through a reactor without their trusty radiation suit, or they may need to find something to hold down a remote switch while they pass through a doorway.

  • Codes, riddles and anagrams - while these can add value to a game, they are solved outside of the game, though clues inside the game may help make these more integrated into the game world.

  • Guess the verb - this sort of puzzle involves forcing the player to use a specific verb to perform an action, and should usually be avoided unless you have a pretty good reason.

  • > hit door with sledgehammer

    The door isn't important.

    > attack door with sledgehammer

    The door isn't important.

    > pummel door with sledgehammer

    You hit the door with your sledgehammer, forcing it open as a result of your attack.
  • Arbitrary puzzles - there are some puzzles in which the solution seems completely arbitrary and has been decided upon completely at random. However, these sorts of puzzles should always have clues attached somewhere in the game - for instance, one puzzle in an old adventure game came with the clue 'The password is obvious', which was delivered out of context and came a while before the actual point where the password was needed.

Further Comments

A really good adventure requires the two things to be linked together - the puzzles should fit into the world in which the story takes place, as opposed to being added to give the player something to do between reading huge chunks of text. Some puzzles may be required to stop the player from simply waltzing through from start to finish (unless of course you intend to provide a karma-style game in which you only get out what you put in), but these puzzles should provide progression of the plot and new aspects of the game world rather than simply providing obstacles. Many particularly fiendish and enjoyable puzzles come to writers during the process of writing the game, with some puzzles being sufficiently inspirational to justify a whole new area or even a whole new story. The following advice might just help you to create one of these:

  • Don't force yourself to invent a puzzle, but let the puzzle develop organically - the best ideas usually arrive when you're not looking for them.

  • Let the puzzle be inspired by real life - something that is based on real life is more likely to be convincingly realistic.

  • Don't assume that a puzzle has to be complicated or obscure to be fun - some run of the mill difficulties mixed in with the major puzzles can make it seem as if the player is really getting somewhere.

- Alex Ashman

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