8 Cliche Puzzles That Are In Every Goddamn Adventure Game


As a card-carrying fan, I’ll be the first to say that playing adventure games means putting up with a lot of bullshit. Why bash adventure gamers, you may ask? All they want to do is wander around empty houses and be told “I can’t use that here” 50 million times in peace. But now that Telltale Games and Broken Age are flying high, I think the genre can handle a bit of a ribbing. We’ll survive.

Many moons ago, Old Man Murray did a classic and hilarious takedown of us’n adventure folk that gets at something you can still see today: the idea that adventure gamers are more “intelligent” just because they’d rather pretend to be a depressed rabbi or suicidal middle-aged widow than a burly grimacing dude toting a gun. Some of this superiority has translated into certain sense of inclusiveness, which extends to puzzles and concepts that seem to always show up, despite the fact that we all know about them by now or they were never great ideas to begin with. Back in the day, some of them made have been novel, but in the 21st century using one of these creaky old saws makes it seem more like a developer’s spent too much time camped out at TV Tropes.

I used to stick to the whole “adventure games are more realistic” argument when I was younger, but you’re not really any more likely to wind up in most of the following situations than you are to be mowing down zombie aliens in a blood city made of explosions. If you don’t like adventure games, here’s more ammunition for your arguments, and if you do, then enjoy your tortured flashbacks.

8) The Copy Protection Puzzle

Not as common anymore, but back in the day these babies were a dime a dozen. You could be in the middle of a game, getting immersed in the experience, when all of a sudden a text box would bust in and be all like PLEASE ENTER SYLLABLE 2 OF WORD 43 ON PAGE 57 OF THE GAME BOOKLET (it’s only slightly better than the tutorial missions in games from the early 00’s, where characters would say things like “We have to get off this ship! Press the action button to exit this menu, now!”). Some games were cleverer than that, but the result was almost always just as drudgeful as looking stuff up and typing it in.

I have no idea whether these were statistically effective tools in blocking piracy at the time: my guess is a no since, as the video from LGR points out, there have always been ways to circulate the feelies and get past these annoying question prompts. Probably the most important effect of these tedious mini-research exercises was helping kids figure out early on whether they were fit for a career in law, which is essentially one long copy protection puzzle after another. Or so I imagine.

7) Impersonating Someone/Making a Disguise

Identity theft claims thousands of people every day in the modern United States alone, and yet pretty much every adventure game hero has had to pretend to be someone they’re not at least once, sometimes multiple times, usually to gain access to private information.

It might be a a photo pasted on a stolen ID, or an expert disguise, or even a full facsimile of a person, but you know Jason Bateman weeps every time you make a mockery of this very serious crime. He doesn’t weep when you have to make a mustache out of cat fur, though: he just gets very confused.

6) The Old “Knock the Key Out of the Other Side of the Keyhole” Trick


Have you ever had that sinking feeling that you left your keys in your front door? That must happen to a lot of people in the shared multiverse of gamedom, because this puzzle is so old they were probably whispering it around the campfire during particularly boring paleolithic creation myths.

Basically, as Jim Dale would say, the facts are these: you find yourself in a room with a locked door. The key that you need is still in the lock, but on the other side. What do you do? If you’re reading this and have no idea, then your life is even sadder than the people who do know the answer, but those people are probably already hardened alcoholics anyway. Suffice it to say it involves something pointy, something flat, and a willful ignorance of the variables that would make this frustrating if not impossible in actual practice. Thank the gods that most (but not all) adventure heroes live in a world of either flat keys or entrances that are weirdly high off of the ground.

5) The Awkward Fight Scene in a Game That Isn’t Supposed to Be About Fighting


Not really a puzzle, I guess, so much as just something I’ve noticed time and time again. As I said above, there’s a fallacy that adventure games are more “lifelike ” in that you don’t usually find boxes of ammo scattered everywhere in meatspace or use them to fire rounds into everyone you encounter. IRL, it would more likely come down to you and the things in your pockets, provided those pockets were prodigious and could allow you to access them instantly. Violence is, therefore, highly illogical.

Well, if these games are all so hippy dippy, then why are some designers so quick to throw in moments where you suddenly have to act as if you’re Charles Bronson or something, and fast, to boot? The Obligatory Fight Scene usually feels desperate and insecure, as if the game really believes that punching people for a few seconds will make up for the previous frustrating hours we’ve spent clicking on random stuff for no reason.

David Cage at least doused Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain with enough quicktime events that we kind of knew what buttons to jab when the time came, but The Last Express all but guarantees you will get stabbed many, many times by angry rotoscoped Serbians as you figure out where to click and when (not knocking that game though: I tease because I love). I guess this is one case where the genre really does prove realistic, because the unfortunate scene pictured above is probably more or less what would happen to me in any kind of katana-based situation.

4) A Thinly Veiled Version of Another Game

I’m sure it’s really hard to come up with original puzzles over and over, so some developers don’t even bother and just crib from the arcades or the game closet to fill the empty space. It never fails: you can be lost in a futuristic city or in the middle of a lush fantasy world and suddenly be confronted with something that looks an awful lot like Tic Tac Toe, or Space Invaders, or any number of common kinds of analog recreation. Sometimes it’s parody, but sometimes it’s basically just the designers saying “yeah, we got nothing.” On the other hand, compared to some of the dreadful “original” puzzles that adventure games can present you with, a ripoff can be a godsend.

3) The Sliding Puzzle


I don’t know about you, but the only times I have ever encountered one of these in real life was when one of my neighbors decided to go cheap on Halloween. In adventure games sliding puzzles are often meant to be near-mystical experiences, usually found in some old temple or castle or something and requiring the gravest of concentration.

The worst part about these sequences, which give you a grid of tiles to shift around and form some sort of important shape, is that there’s always at least one point where you think you’re almost there, and then realize you have to undo all or most of the work you’ve done because the bottom left half of the Sacred Symbol is in the middle of the dragon’s eye or something. Are they the hardest puzzles in the world? Usually not. But they can still cause many a blood vessel to pop in frustration, because there should be no earthly way that something you can buy in bulk from Oriental Trading should be giving your adventure avatar this much shit.

2) The Maze

I hate mazes, Jacques! I hate’em! Here’s one aspect of gaming that works completely differently depending on how you tend to play. If you’re an outgoing, gregarious sort who likes to gather friends around the ol’ DOSbox to game together, you can actually have a pretty good time mapping out mazes, yelling at each other and feverishly taking notes like you’re working in Mission Control or something. By the end, all of you will have tons of scribbled-over maps and torn relationships, but you’ll look back and laugh, trust me.

However, if you play more I like I do, you’ve spent most of your life booting these games up in a dark corner somewhere cowering in shame, and the last thing you need when you’re in that kind of mental state is a series of dark corridors and booby traps. Some adventure games are nothing but mazes, stretched out over long areas and forcing you to backtrack over and over, searching for hidden trinkets and the possibility of death. There are many labyrinths that have scarred me for life, so much so that I could probably make a list entirely out of traumatic adventure game maze experiences, but no list could properly contain my horrific memories of the Legend of Kyrandia. Just looking at the thumbnail for that Let’s Play sends me into the fetal position.

1) “One of them always tells the truth…”

…and one of them always makes you want to shoot yourself. If you’re a modern game designer, you must be completely sadistic to put this in your title circa 2014, because even parodying this thing is now something of a cliche. And yet I’ve seen variations on “Liars and Truthtellers” in games as recent as 2012’s The Cat Lady, which means it’ll probably be around in whatever neural implant form of entertainment we decide to turn to for fun a jillion years from now.

Say it with me now: one guard always tells the truth, the other always lies, and you’ve got to ask them a question to find out how to proceed. From Labyrinth to the Doctor Who episode “Pyramids of Mars,” where even Tom Baker seemed like he couldn’t wait to get it over with, this thing has bored and frustrated generations. Because the answer is always the same, these days this puzzle is more of a secret handshake between the nerds that make these games and the nerds that play them than a real challenge for either. Now, when we meet a pair of guards that both always lie, then we’ll have something to worry about.

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