Puzzles

I like puzzles. Which should be obvious, if my ability to write an entire post on a silly crossword joke is anything to go on. It’s why I enjoyed math in High School: What is a complicated problem but a puzzle you gotta use the right equation to get to an answer?

A lot of games are like puzzles too, you’ve got a problem and a solved state (winning). Chess is two people solving puzzles the other person puts in front of you; Tetris is a puzzle that you try to solve for as long as you can. Video games mix in puzzle with skill; though a lot of the time, it’s a lot more skill than puzzle.

Take Uncharted, you’ve got puzzle sequences (how do you open this ancient door?) and combat sequences (now I have to shoot these bad guys to get into the ancient door). There isn’t much of a puzzle to these fights beyond finding the right cover and getting a good angle to kill the guy in your path. A game like Horizon Zero Dawn adds a little more to its fights. You’re using a bow to fight giant robot dinosaurs, which have weak spots that can affect how they fight. So in this case the giant T. rex, a Thunderjaw, is the puzzle, and your solution is the strategy you use to defeat it. Maybe you’ll shoot off its rocket launchers, then blast off the armor surrounding its belly, then slide between its legs and shoot its fuel tank. Or just keep firing at its head. It requires a little more thought, and a lot of trial and error to ‘solve’ the Thunderjaw problem.

I find, though, that the really fun puzzle combat comes from games that give you a lot of options with how you go about things. Dishonored, for example, gives you a lot of toys and a lot of space with how you go about your assassinating beyond just stealth or no stealth. Something like Metal Gear Solid V, though, takes things to another level entirely. 

MGSV is a wide-open world, even when you do missions, which means there’s always a lot of ways to go about things. Do you want to bring a vehicle along for the ride? If so, just your jeep or maybe a big ol’ tank? Who’s gonna be your buddy on the mission? Your trusty dog or the killer sniper lady? Are you going to try to snipe everyone from a distance? Or knock out enemy soldiers and Fulton them back to base? Or just sneak past all of them? The game actively encourages this sort of planning by not only giving you a briefing on what to expect in each encounter, but by also facilitating ways for you to scout out your destination first and mark enemy’s locations and anything else of need. That Soviet outpost in the middle of the Afghan desert with the Top Secret Weapon Plans is the Rubik’s Cube that you have to solve.

The best part of the plan, though, is when things go Disastrously Wrong. Maybe you missed a landmine during your scouting and your tank is unusable. Maybe you got spotted by that one guard over there who happened to turn around. Or maybe you just screwed up. Now the Great Plan goes out the window and it’s time for Plan B, where you really hope you brought along whatever equipment you need for that Plan B. Suddenly, the puzzle changes in a really big way and you need a new solution. Running and gunning will only sometimes work, as the MGS games are typically stealth orientated. Grabbing a jeep and escaping can work if you can get to the jeep. Or you could try and hide somewhere until they stop looking for you and take things from a new approach. That puzzle just got a lot more interesting.

There’s probably a deeper reason as to why these sorts of problem-solving are as fun as they are. Play and storytelling can be seen as ways for people to enact certain situations as a sort of practice for the real world; and though it’s unlikely anyone will have to recreate misadventures in MGSV, the experience of putting together a plan and trying to execute it is certainly one that most everyone does at some point. Plus, video games offer a safe space to fail; it’s hardly a life or death situation. So maybe there’s some innate human instinct that this appeals to. Or, maybe it’s just plain fun to figure out how to tackle a complex problem and watch your plains go wild. Either way.

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