Today I’d like to talk a bit about elegance in puzzle design. I touched briefly on the subject in my red herrings post, but I think there is a difference between an elegant puzzle and one that just doesn’t have any extraneous parts.
Alex Pearson provided a perfect definition for elegance in the comments of that red herring post:
Elegant (adj): Everything cluing and everything clued.
That means no extraneous parts, but also that all of the parts coordinate in a sensible and meaningful way.
I’m learning a lot about elegance as I design more puzzles. I’m learning certain expectations that solvers have when decoding a puzzle. For example, if I do a line connection-style puzzle, it’s best to have the answer pieces reveal in order somehow (either in the natural line of sight, or from the top line to the bottom line), not in a random order. While I might see re-arranging the pieces into the correct order as another “step” of the puzzle, solvers need some sort of confirmation that they have made the right connections.
I’m also learning that the answer phrase itself can and should be elegant. I think I’ve fallen into the habit of just using whatever answer I can easily get the puzzle to make, but there’s really nothing better than when the answer is a clever play-on-words relating to the theme of the puzzle. At the very least, the answer should have something to do with the theme. This is another way to help players feel more confident in their work. When you solve an elegant puzzle, it should be 100% clear that you have solved it correctly.
Maybe elegant puzzles are the ones that make us frustrated and say “I should have figured that out!” when we can’t solve them. The anime puzzle at this year’s MIT Mystery Hunt (You Should Be Listening) was a very elegant puzzle, I think. All the data was important/helpful, there were a few extra clues meant to help you along, and the answer was clever, thematic, and tied back into a previous solving method. Despite this, Mike and I weren’t able to solve it and only made progress through a sort of brute-force method since we hadn’t made sense of most of the important clues. The frustrating part is that we had acknowledged most of the important clues ([spoiler]the title which we thought might refer to voice actors, the fact that there were always six characters, the Japanese / English format of the answers[/spoiler]), but weren’t able to make the proper connections to the solving method. Looking back, I wondered at first whether we had already lost trust in the designer and didn’t believe it would be an elegant puzzle. But I remember us addressing each of those clues and saying “That has to be significant!” We were right, we just failed to figure out any of that significance. We should have figured that out!
I think I still have a lot to learn about elegance, as a designer and a player. A recent playtest was especially inspiring, and I hope to design my own elegant, inspiring, satisfying puzzle soon.