2016-01-04

Why do people like puzzles with multiple solutions!?

I've asked this question before and I still want to talk about it, because I still cringe when people mention it.

I frequently notice reviewers and players complaining about puzzles with only one solution, saying they instead want puzzles with multiple solutions. I cannot wrap my head around why, as there are so many drawbacks both from the player's perspective and the designer's perspective. Why would people want this when it only subtracts from the experience?

Having multiple solutions can either make a puzzle too easy, or too confusing. For example, the player often thinks that every part of the puzzle has a purpose (this is how our brains naturally work), but with multiple solutions, some parts of a puzzle might never be used for the solution the player uses, leading to confusion - red herrings may be enjoyable in some circumstances, but puzzles are not any of those circumstances. It is also significantly more difficult to design a proper puzzle with multiple solutions that are all the same level of challenge, especially since the level of challenge is highly subjective - for any given person, one solution will end up being easier, even if on average both solutions are about the same difficulty. This ends up watering down the puzzle, taking away some of the challenge. Having one solution be noticeably easier can often make the player feel stupid when they realize they did it the hard way, and that's not a nice feeling to have.

I like the feeling of knowing I did something the right way. Not just one way of many possible ways, I mean the right way - it's idealistic because real life often doesn't have a single right answer. Real life has choices, and choices are annoying - they require an entirely different kind of thinking from puzzle solving and it's not something I enjoy.

This XKCD comic perfectly describes my life and the reason it takes me so long to ever do anything.

If I want to make choices, I will play a game centered around choice - not a puzzle game. A puzzle game should challenge me to solve each puzzle by figuring out how all the pieces fit together, not throw possible solutions at me until one of them finally sticks. Having secrets is fine, but having entire other solutions to the same puzzle just makes me feel cheated and patronized. Weren't you confident enough in my cognitive ability to do it the right way?

If this doesn't make sense to you, it might be because of how I am using the word "choice". When I say you have a choice, it means you can completely avoid one or more interactions by using one or more other interactions. In a good (single-solution) puzzle, all elements require an interaction at one point or another, so there is never any choice to be made. The puzzle is about when to make interactions and in what order the interactions should happen. I don't consider doing things in a different order as adding multiple solutions, nor do I consider walking in a slightly different way to be a different solution. You might "choose" to stand in one spot for an hour, but that's not a choice from the perspective of the puzzle.

Back on track - having multiple solutions to a puzzle generally seems like a mistake to me; an oversight. It distracts me from the game and instead makes me focus on the meta aspects, which is the opposite of immersive. I shouldn't have to ponder why a puzzle element went unused, making me wonder if I abused a glitch. It gives me the impression that the puzzle was not playtested very well, or at all. It just looks awkward.

I've heard people say that having puzzles with one solution is basically putting the puzzle 'on rails', but I don't even understand how that's bad if the challenge is finding out where the rail even is in the first place. Puzzle games aren't about creativity, they're about logic. I want to solve something, not discover something - there are other kinds of games that focus on discovery rather than solving, and I wouldn't be playing a puzzle game if I were interested in that instead. Besides, many people enjoy 'walking simulators', and movies are still incredibly popular despite always having the same outcome at every corner - having multiple paths and/or choices to make isn't always necessary or even desirable.

I hate puzzles with multiple solutions because they subtract from the experience in so many ways and require additional effort from the developer to create them - effort that could have been spent elsewhere. At least ninjas know better than to waste effort.