One subject that seems to keep popping up now that I’ve been working on puzzles more regularly is tenacity: how long do you keep trying on a puzzle before giving up?
Nick and I have talked a lot about how The Stone developed a good amount of tolerance and tenacity in us when it comes to puzzle-solving. Pretty much the only way to solve most Stone puzzles is to do internet research until you hit upon the subject matter, and then keep trying various terms as answers until you find a lead. From there, it can take a lot of brute-forcing to finally figure out the exact answer the puzzle creator was looking for.
We got used to spending hours and hours Google searching and trying answers with little to no feedback or progress. Especially near the end when things got more abstract and strange, puzzles would take hours, then days. We’d have to come back to a puzzle after a few weeks of not working on it, give it some more effort, then step back for another few weeks. With the Final 6, those weeks became months. Months of researching a seemingly meaningless image and getting nowhere.
I think we’re both thankful for that experience, since that level of perseverance is useful in many non-puzzle aspects of life. (I also feel like it trained us how to Google search effectively, which is definitely an important life skill these days!) But just because we can keep working on a puzzle month after month doesn’t mean we always should. Today I want to explore thoughts about how long a player should be expected to keep working on a puzzle, and what factors might wear on a player and make them less likely to stick with it.
Our most recent experience with puzzles requiring a high level of perseverance has been, you guessed it, the Black Letter Game! Usually our team has been able to get one solid day of remotely working together before our work-week obligations get in the way. Although I wish we had a longer block of time there at the beginning, the truth is that we usually run out of steam about half-way through the day and stop making real progress. We each do a little bit of work throughout the week and then usually meet back up for the final push on the following weekend, when we seem to have a good amount of mental work done on the puzzles, but also a week’s worth of break time from looking at them. Although I have usually been frustrated by our lack of progress through the work week, the timeline of the first two artifacts was in no way unreasonable.
That all changed with Artifact #3. We were warned it would be difficult, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. We eschewed the “zeroth” hint offered at the beginning for several hours, opting to figure out what we could until we got stuck. Remarkably, we managed to solve the WHAT in about 2 hours, the highlight of this artifact for us for sure. We felt good and confident! But then a few hours went by and we had made a small amount of progress on this behemoth of a puzzle. By the time we asked for the zeroth hint, we had pretty much figured out on our own all of the information it provided. Then the days started going by, and we started receiving the automated hints – something we had never experienced before.
We reached several points in this puzzle where it became somewhat grueling, including the following different situations:
- We just couldn’t find the right path.
- We had hit on some important element with a lot of new data, but couldn’t figure out the correct way to apply it.
- We had a pretty good idea of what we needed to do, but couldn’t seem to make it work out.
- We couldn’t identify one crucial element of a puzzle.
- We were doing exactly what we needed to be doing, but somehow our results seemed off.
- We received one of those awful, awful hints that didn’t give us any new information!
Things got especially bad when we had solved everything else except the WHO. We ended up reading a hint that basically told us what to do, and it was a very “wow, we never would have thought of that” moment, which was frustrating. Even after we knew what we were supposed to do, the work became frustrating because of the large amounts of data and non-mental work required to figure it out. Dry erase markers and Photoshop became heavily involved. We found ourselves re-doing the same things over and over again as we messed up one detail or another. And then finally, last night as we closed in on the answers, extraneous data and seemingly nonsensical results (some of which we still haven’t deciphered) almost left us giving up all over again.
Sometimes as a player it can be really aggravating to get that stuck on a puzzle. You start to curse the designer for making things so difficult and nebulous. Everything starts looking poorly designed. You stop trusting the designer. You get angry.
But look, there are a handful of teams who managed to solve within 8 hours or less. They figured it out just fine! How can you determine whether a puzzle is poorly designed or the player just isn’t up to snuff? A puzzle that seems impossible today might be completely manageable after another year of puzzle experience. Then again, maybe those top teams were just more aggressively tenacious than we were.
It’s strange that there exist so many puzzles where we’re willing to keep working on them long, LONG after they’ve stopped being fun. It’s easy to want to say “A designer should never make a puzzle that gets to that point,” but that sort of seems like an impossible task since every player is different, with a different level of experience and a different opinion of what is fun. A team that figured out that last data-crunching aspect of WHO within the first few days probably had a blast with it, while our team only really started it on day 13 or so and found it tedious and frustrating.
I think tenacity doesn’t always have to mean long-term solving either. There are a lot of shorter games where the desire to give up can start bubbling under the surface pretty quickly. Take the Post Hunt End Game — it only lasts 30 minutes, how could anyone get to the point where they want to give up? A combination of an extremely intense atmosphere, a physical challenge, and a sometimes impossible-seeming puzzle, that’s how! We ran, we stopped, we thought, we split up, we walked, we called the other half of our team, we got an idea, we ran some more, we got tired, we wanted to give up, we got another idea, we got excited, we ran some more, we slowed down, we ran out of ideas, we ran out of time. And once it was all over, we were questioning whether we wanted to even try the End Game next year because it had been so exhausting. A guaranteed 30-minute puzzle, and we were already thinking of giving up a year in advance!
So it seems like there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to what makes a puzzle grueling and what gives players the desire to give up. There is probably some formula you could put together of time spent plus frustration experienced is greater than fun had plus potential satisfaction of solving. Throw in other incentives like teams, time limits, leaderboards, points, hints, other players’ reactions, and a secret winners-only section of the forums (The Stone), and you’ve got one complicated mixture for potential player enjoyment or frustration.
How do you feel about tenacity and perseverance when it comes to puzzle solving? Do you have any personal rules about when to stop after the puzzle stops being fun? Does this become less of an issue as the time it takes you to solve puzzles decreases across the board? What responsibility does the puzzle designer have to the player to ensure fun is had?