Open Puzzle As Elemental Genre

Posted On: 2022-10-03

By Mark

I've written previously about some of the the problems of genre in games, and for today's post I thought I'd dig a bit deeper into one genre that particularly struggles under the current framework. The "Open-Ended Puzzle" genre simply does not exist: there's no tag on Steam, no entry in Wikipedia, and, perhaps most importantly, for many puzzle aficionados, an open-ended puzzle is "not a puzzle" - thereby pushing such games (and their fans) out of those communities. Yet, despite this, for many players, the appeal of open-ended puzzles draws them to games across a wide variety of traditional genres: from physics simulations to city-builders to the open-ended programming puzzle games of the "zach-like" proto-genre*. This appeal, I think, is an important indicator: it signals that this neglected genre may actually an elemental genre- one that designers use to draw in players, without even realizing it.

What is an Open-Ended Puzzle?

Puzzles generally come in two different forms: open or closed. In (most) puzzles, the player is presented with an initial state, a set of rules about what they can change, and a final (goal) state they are trying to achieve. For closed puzzles, there is only one solution: one series of changes the player must make to reach the desired goal*. An open puzzle, by contrast, has many (perhaps infinite) possible solutions**.

In Elemental Terms

Closed puzzles are often designed to challenge how the player thinks about them. Their biggest emotional payoff is a singular moment of realization, where the solution seems obvious (the "aha!" moment) - and both players and designers are focused on finding more, better, or new ways to get that experience.

Open puzzles, by contrast, aren't focused on any one particular realization - instead, players are tasked with applying their existing knowledge to a novel problem. Importantly, the novel problem often includes new constraints, and the player expands their knowledge by pushing up against these constraints. This, I think, is the core appeal of what I'll call the Open Puzzle elemental genre: players want to feel like their learning and growing - and the puzzles are a merely a structure to push back on players, to create the need to keep improving*.

Applying The Element

Elemental genres can be a core pillar for a game, or be used as an accent, or for a bit of variation in play. Puzzle games that are deliberately open-ended (ie. Shenzhen-I/O or Gunpoint) are clear examples of the Open Puzzle design: players are given goals and tools, and tasked with solving them however they can. Yet games in other (traditional) genres also use the Open Puzzle elemental genre - "puzzle" challenges in simulation games (for example) are often designed as Open Puzzles: given a difficult situation, players are tasked with achieving a short-term goal - one that requires deep knowledge of the game's system, without having a prescribed solution. Rogue-likes can use Open Puzzles to add depth and replayablity: randomness on its own is seldom enough to make an encounter feel novel - it must give the player unique constraints and/or tools compared to every other encounter the player has experienced. Even action games use the Open Puzzle in parts of their design - whether that's taking out foes without using ammo, or reaching a difficult location by chaining together unrelated moves, any time the game pushes players to dig deeper and relearn the systems they thought they knew, it's drawing on the appeal of Open Puzzles.