Puzzles and Horror Make a Curious Pair

by Nick Dinicola

6 November 2015

Difficult puzzles aren't scary, and monsters that kill you while you're puzzling are just annoying.
Silence of the Sleep (Jesse Makkonen, 2014) 

Puzzles and horror make a curious pair. This pairing has a real history in video games. When one thinks of “old school survival-horror,” one often thinks of an environment with lots of locked doors, hidden keys, and esoteric riddles. But why was it so often this way? Was this a mutually beneficial relationship, one in which the stress of the horror made the puzzles more exciting and in which the methodology of the puzzles forced us to stay rational amidst the horror? Or were the convoluted puzzles included simply to pad out the game to a more marketable length?
Personally, I think it’s a bit of both. Puzzles and horror can work well together or they can bring each other down, it all depends on the overall execution of each. However, I also think that when you’re making a game that’s supposed to be scary, the criteria for successful execution is very narrow. The game must prioritize its horror over its puzzles, the latter must always work in service of the former. If the opposite happens and the puzzles become the priority, then you end up with a game like Limbo, a game with an undeniably creepy mood, but whose gameplay constantly undercuts that mood (and I say that as someone who actually loves the game). Limbo is scary until you die 10 times in row, then your puzzle-solving mind takes over and fear takes a backseat.

Difficult puzzles require time and thought, planning and testing, trial and error, failure after failure and then success. They require us to approach a problem rationally, to break it down into logical steps in order to see the mechanisms behind each step. This exists in contrast to horror, which requires us to respond emotionally and, thus, act irrationally. Horror and puzzles can work together, of course, the puzzles forcing us to stay calm under pressure, but that only works if the puzzles are rather simple.

Even with its focus on action, Dead Space works as a horror game because its combat strikes this very balance, asking us to methodically dismember a monster as it rushes us. And, of course, there’s a reason most of the puzzles in Resident Evil revolve around locked doors. That kind of puzzle forces us to explore a frightening environment, but the solution is as simple as finding a key (whether it be an actual key or a crest/crank/battery/gem/book/statue/lever/etc).

I bring this up because in playing games for Indie Horror Month, I played two games that represent both sides of this spectrum. Silence of the Sleep is a 2D Silent Hill-esque horror game, but its dream world allows it to create esoteric puzzles that break the pacing and mood of the game. Stasis is a traditional point-and-click adventure that limits the scope of its puzzles and, thus, supports its pacing and mood.

In Silence of the Sleep a man jumps off a cliff and wakes up in a hotel. What is this place? How did he get here? Who is the mysterious bartender that both guides and hurts him? Things quickly get surreal, and the game makes no attempt to hide the fact that we’re in some weird dream/heaven/hell/limbo, but the exact nature of this world remains an intriguing question.

That question was enough to drive me through the first several areas and puzzles, even when I had to resort to YouTube to find a door code or solution (that valve puzzle could warrant a post in itself, its mechanics being so confusing that I had trouble implementing the solution even when I knew what it was). I remained undeterred… until I reached the game’s second chapter and the “Sun Divided City” puzzle.

We enter a kind of apartment complex, which is not a large area, but also not a small one either. It takes some time to traverse this complex considering our movement speed. Early on, we find a key with two rotating sections, each section containing several ridges and divots, meaning this one key can become many keys with the right twists. The puzzle in question revolves around the painting of a coastal cityscape at dusk, and its skyline is reflected in the water. If you look closely at this tableau, you’ll notice that the skylines are different, and if you have a keener eye than me, you’ll notice that each skyline matches a combination of ridges on the weird key. The solution to this puzzle? The skyline above shows the combination to two locked doors on the second floor of the building, and the skyline below shows the combination for two locked doors on the first floor.

It’s a complex visual puzzle, frankly, even more so than I’m describing here, and the shapes are just generic enough that they can easily go unnoticed. But the real kicker comes when you try to use the key. You can only set the combination when looking at the painting, but you can only test that combination on the door, so if you happen to set the wrong combination you have to backtrack several screens to check your work. There’s also no indication of which doors are actually locked, requiring you to test them all. And when you do unlock a door, you still have to backtrack to the painting to set the next combination. At best, a perfect execution requires you to traverse the same area 8 times. It’s repetitive, frustrating, and to cap it all off, there are enemies roaming the hall who can kill you instantly, forcing you to start the whole puzzle over.

It’s a genuinely clever puzzle, but it’s too difficult to be in a horror game. The time and repetition that it takes to solve this puzzle kills the mood and pacing of the game. Death becomes annoying, not scary, when it forces me to repeat sections of a game. Fear requires a delicate suspension of disbelief—that I am in danger when I’m actually not—and puzzles like this break that suspension by killing and resurrecting me repeatedly, thus exposing the games threats as toothless and rendering the rest of the game incapable of frights. Silence of the Sleep works as a puzzle game, but that success means that it fails as a horror game. 

Stasis, on the other hand, understands its limitations and how to work with them. As a point-and-click game, its interface and design are unsuited for action scenes. This includes things like chases or combat, things often used in horror games to evoke fear. The point-and-click genre is built around puzzles. Stasis knows this, so it makes sure that its puzzles always emphasize horror. More than that, it makes sure the horror is not a physical threat but that it is primarily psychological and atmospheric.

Most puzzles involve reading the PDA entries of former scientists for clues. These notes and journals give us context for the puzzle, how it works mechanically and why it works that way narratively, which means the PDAs double as a puzzle system and storytelling device. Each PDA acts as a mini horror story, not only because the back story of Stasis is full of twisted science experiments that emphasize body-horror, but also because each PDA is a first-person account of how things went to hell and how this one individual dealt with the ensuing insanity.

This body-horror that makes up the backstory is then supported by the detailed viscera that litters the environment. It’s clear evidence of brutal violence, but we never see that violence in action, which works to the game’s advantage, since we wouldn’t be able to properly interact with the violence anyways due to the point-and-click interface. We only see its aftermath, leaving us to read about and infer what happened when that specific moment of violence took place. The puzzles encourage us to look upon this gory world because that’s where key items are hidden. We must look closely at a bloody wall and a deformed body in order to find the solutions we need. 

This all works very well, but it also results in a pacing that’s less about action than it is about mood. You’re never really in danger throughout the game, which is nice since we’re never forced to repeat puzzles, but also has the potential to render the game boring. Thankfully, the puzzles are easy enough that they never impede our progress. They’re difficult enough to make us stop and think and be thankful for the lack of danger, but not difficult enough for us to dwell on that lack of danger. We’re constantly introduced to more twisted experiments, more sad PDA stories, and more disturbing environments. This influx of new horror means that we never have time to consider our relative safety.

The puzzles of Stasis know how to emphasize the horror of its story and setting, but more importantly, they get out of the way at the right time and just let us consume that story and setting. The puzzles of Silence of the Sleep know how to emphasize the surrealism of its world, but they don’t know when to get out of the way. Their complex logic becomes the centerpiece of the game, pushing the horror aside for something else entirely.

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