There are a million articles about the worst puzzles in video games, and they always talk about the same ones, like Gabriel Knight 3’s disguise and The Longest Journey’s inflatable duck. But here at Green Man Gaming, we’re not all about being negative all the time. We’re all about being positive.
Well, why not? Videogames are brilliant! So instead of telling you why some videogame puzzles are bad, here is the official (Editor’s note: not official) list of the best videogame puzzles!
Note: There are spoilers for a lot of games below this line, but especially for The Witness, so don’t read any further if you don’t want to know anything about it.
The Cherry Tree – Day of the Tentacle
Everyone has heard the story that when George Washington was a child, he cut down a cherry tree and then admitted it, saying that he couldn’t lie. Well, if you don’t, this puzzle will be much harder for you to solve than it is for Americans.
Near the beginning of Day of the Tentacle, the three main characters are scattered through time. Laverne ends up stuck in the future, up a kumquat tree with no way to get down. She needs Hoagie, who lives 400 years ago, to save her. He tricks George Washington into thinking that the kumquat tree is a cherry tree by painting it red. What does George Washington do with cherry trees?
Right on, chop chop. And Laverne falls to the ground because the tree she was stuck in is gone.
It’s a fun puzzle that has you thinking in more than one dimension to fix, and sets the tone of the game, teaching you about consequences and being able to affect the future and the present from the past. Day of the Tentacle will teach you how to think like Picard in the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “All Good Things.” Even Q would be amazed by what I was thinking.
The Train – The Room 3
The puzzles in The Room trilogy are all very good, but the one that starts The Room 3 is the best. It’s a tutorial that shows you how to use the interface and move and interact with things in the game world.
The setting of this puzzle is what makes it work so well. You’re on a train in a cabin that looks like it’s from the 1800s. You walk through a tunnel, and in the flickering light, a man appears, disappears, and leaves a mysterious box. You can open the box by using the box, your luggage, and your magical eyepiece. When you do, a pyramid pops out of the box. The game gets even scarier when the black tentacles that you last saw at the end of The Room 2 start to spread across your cabin.
It’s a great way to start a great game, and it sets the tone for what’s to come. It’s the kind of puzzle that shows that simple doesn’t have to mean boring, and that you can still throw in a few surprises even if you’re being led by the hand.
Climbing Up – Portal 2
In Portal 2, the whole section called “Cave Johnson” teaches you how to use the different gels on their own or together. It also tells you about Cave Johnson, who is a very interesting person to learn about.
The last part of this whole section is a big puzzle with Material Emancipation Fields, different gels, and a lot of room.
It’s not the hardest puzzle in the game, but what’s great about it is how the sound design, 3D spaces, and what you’ve learned about gels all fit together. It works almost like a Heath Robinson machine, with you as a part of a big gel-powered machine you build that stretches across the whole level. When it’s all set up, you jump in at one end and bounce around until you’re flung out in the right place. It’s great when it works, and the sound design plays a different melody for each gel, so as you move through the puzzle, you get a little song.
The puzzles in Portal 2 are always a lot of fun, but when they sing to you, they are even more fun.
Tomb of the Nameless One – Planescape: Torment
How do you find out what’s at the centre of a tomb full of deadly traps?
Simple! Be someone who can’t die.
The Tomb of the Nameless One is a great puzzle that is tucked away under the crazy toroidal city of Sigil. Only one person can solve the puzzle. You.
This puzzle isn’t very hard, but it fits with the game’s themes. Since you can’t die, the game gives you a puzzle that only someone who can’t die can solve. In the middle of the tomb are secrets and the truth about yourself, your past lives, and your friends.
Planescape: Torment is great most of the time, but it’s moments like this, where the story and game play come together, that make it a classic.
The Notepad – Discworld Noir
Detective stories are something that videogames haven’t done very well, which is strange. There are games in which you play detective, but you rarely have to do any real detective work. In comes Discworld Noir, a great game set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld that doesn’t get enough attention. As the only private investigator in Ankh Morpork, you play a role that is both a parody and a tribute to classic film noir tropes and plots.
How does a private investigator solve mysteries? Yes, it’s a notebook. So far, so good, so LA Noir, the game writes down clues for you in the notepad.
The really cool thing about the notepad in Discworld Noir, and something that hasn’t been seen in many games, is that you could combine clues to get new leads, new information, new ideas, solve puzzles, and move the story along.
It meant that you started thinking like a private investigator. You were investigating, not just solving puzzles, and you were thinking about how everything was connected, not just “use fish on hat.”
Tetris Effect – Connected
Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Let’s be honest. Tetris is already talked about as if it were one of the best games ever made. Tetris Effect: Connected, which came out not too long ago, is a great addition to the series. Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who made games like Rez and Lumines, came up with this version of the idea. He makes the game of dropping tetrominos into a full sensory experience. Each stage has its own look and sound, which change as you move through the game. As the scenery moves, the music will get louder, and each time you flip a Tetris piece, it will add a new note to the symphony of sounds. It’s a puzzle game like no other, and what’s more, Tetris Effect is a pretty good version of Tetris. You can compete with other people in the new Connected expansion, or you can play Effect in VR on PS4 or PC.