Though The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has many diehard fans (myself included), there is one dungeon that leaves many players throwing their trident controllers at the screen. This dungeon is none other than the now-infamous Water Temple. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it (fix it), the Water Temple is notorious because of how everything plays into the changing water level. And yes, it’s difficult, especially compared to all the other dungeons.
I think the Water Temple was the right thing for the game in the wrong place. Personally, I love the ramped up difficulty, but the problem is that by that point most players are too used to dungeons like the Fire Temple. Tricky, but if you just think a bit the solution is obvious and more than likely close to the problem. The Water Temple requires keen eyes and memory because quite often a key you need is on the other side of the dungeon and you have to backtrack a bit.
The Legend of Zelda will always be one of my favorites (if not my favorite) game franchise because I love puzzles. In fact, just over this weekend I finished the newest addition, A Link between Worlds (ALbW), and thought I’d give my two-cents about the puzzles.
First off, ALbW has some of the most fiendish Zelda puzzles I’ve ever seen, about on par with the Water Temple, from the end of the third dungeon until the end. They mostly accomplish this between the new mechanic of turning into a painting and walking along the walls, and as a mechanic, it’s beautiful. Suddenly, what’s on the walls is part of the puzzle too.
What it succeeded at that the Water Temple didn’t, however, was that when it ramped the difficulty of the puzzles up, it stayed up. The Shadow and Spirit Temples are a bit of a pushover compared to Water.
Puzzles are tricky to implement in games partially because they have to be solve-able. Now in Legend of Zelda this isn’t a problem because it has a very loyal fanbase willing to throw away their disbelief, but honestly, why didn’t Ganondorf just keep all the keys on his personal key ring rather than scattering them through chests where anyone could find them? To avoid spoilers, I won’t say much, but ALbW actually handled this problem.
Now let’s talk about why you would want puzzles in your game. It’s apparent from the sheer volume of games like Bejeweled that people like puzzle games. Puzzles are a way to stimulate thinking and interest in contrast to mindlessly blasting zombies. Not to mention solving a puzzle can get a similar reaction to doing something else that takes a lot of skill. It’s another tool to make your game enjoyable.
However, many game designers seem to have an aversion to too difficult puzzles. Even Portal 2, one of the biggest puzzle games out there, falls short of its potential difficulty because it blocks off so many possible moves to make the solution more apparent. There is a way, though, to do it right. Just go look at ALbW’s reviews.
Portal 2 did have a solution to this problem; two actually. The first is the co-op mode which introduces a second player with their own portal gun, and some of those tests are ridiculously difficult. You don’t have to do them to get the Portal 2 experience, but they are musts for any serious test subject.
Perhaps Portal 2’s biggest contribution, though, was the community test-chamber. For those of you who haven’t tried it out, Valve gave out the tools they used to make Portal 2 and opened it up for anyone to use a build their own test chambers, and it’s led to some pretty clever stuff. Some of my favorites had coded in gel that can reflect lasers and switches that activated when they had a portal on them.
This could just be one way to implement puzzles in a living game since there’s only so much the designer can do. Who knows? Maybe you just feel like making your in-game home into an underground lair for people to try to get through.
This leaves the narrative problem. One possibility is that in-game puzzles could be framed as trials of the ancients or something like that, much like the Tower of the Gods in Wind Waker.
Puzzles are unequivocally my favorite parts of games, so I can just hope that game designers can learn from what Portal and ALbW do to get it right.