From Android Nim to Portal – The Evolution of Puzzle Games

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Trends come and go in the video game industry. Genres mutate to keep pace with modern technology in an attempt to appeal to the ever-changing whims of players, locking themselves into a graphical arms race. While big budget, AAA developers pander to the hottest new trends and indie developers focus on making unique gaming experiences, puzzle games endure it all.

The puzzle genre is an oddity in the vast ocean that is gaming, and you could easily call more strategy oriented board games precursors to our favourite digital pastime. Yet, the names of early games are largely forgotten by the modern audiences. One such experience is the 1979 PC title Android Nim. Android Nim was a competitive puzzler, pitting the player against a computer opponent in an attempt to remove androids from three ranks, hoping to remove the final piece. The game was simple and elegant, so much so that similar puzzles can be found as mini games in larger releases, from time to time.

Old puzzle games were like that; presenting players with novel conundrums and tasking potential puzzlers to stretch their grey matter to overcome these obstacles like their modern counterparts, but without any kind of common language or similar mechanics to simplify things. Games like Towers of Hanoi for the Atari 400 800 had to rely on similarities with existing physical puzzles to effectively communicate its concept, long before it was a Mass Effect mini game.

Then Tetris happened, and the whole gaming landscape changed with it. With Tetris, we see the birth the tile matching subgenre (something that continues to persist to this day) as well as a vast cultural shift. Tetris came from behind the iron curtain during the height of the Soviet Union. The creator, Alexey Pajitnov, had to negotiate with the communist regime of the day to see this historic game sold to Nintendo for release in the capitalist world and even be appropriately credited.

Eventually, Tetris released, bundled with Nintendo’s new handheld, the big grey Gameboy, and everyone played it. One of the more defining moments of my life involved my mother, a school teacher and parent of three, grooving to that iconic music and spinning tetraminos into the early morning. The bundle made the Gameboy a cultural icon. In a roundabout way, you could link the success of Tetris with the proliferation and future iterations of mobile gaming.  People still play the game competitively today, and it’s difficult to find a person who hasn’t played Tetris or doesn’t have an opinion on it. Infinite spin is for cheaters.

I could wax philosophical about clearing lines for days, but that is hardly the only success story puzzle games have given us. In fact, the 90’s were silly with perplexing, puzzling delights. Mario went to medical school, Yoshi made some baked goods, and a great deal of little green-haired rodents needed help not killing themselves, even Capcom’s Street Fighter 2 characters got into more cerebral pursuits in the arcade’s Puzzle Fighter. Eventually, Bejeweled came along, and iterated on the tile matching brought forth from the Russian phenomenon, and gave us what would become the infamous “match-three puzzle” years after cell phones around the world would have access to games like Puzzle Quest and Puzzle Forge, both deeper iterations on the match-three mechanic.

It’s easy to dismiss puzzle games as overly simplistic. So far, the titles I’ve covered largely consist of the player looking at a table and dealing with objects as they present themselves. In fact, given the games I have discussed up to this point, you could see this as simple board game simulations. They all present information openly and exist as a string of rules, sticking to them without fail. The majority of the challenges in these games come from navigating the same rule set within tighter time constraints or with the addition of minor variables. Then there are the physics puzzles.

Physics puzzles are a relatively new development in the genre, but there’s still a pretty lengthy list of games within this subtype. Some games are pure simulation, bordering on educational, like The Incredible Machine, which presents players with Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions and challenges the player to complete it in order to fulfill different objectives.  There’s World of Goo, which asks players to construct various buildings utilizing a strange sticky substance and dealing with how physics interact with them. Most notably, though, there’s the Portal series.

Now, if you haven’t played a Portal game yet, I’m sorry. You should really fix that. Portal presents itself as a first person action game, but this is pure puzzle goodness. The only real mechanic involved in Portal, apart from your standard movement mechanics, is the ability to create an entry portal and an exit portal. Portal debuted as a part of The Orange Box, a bundle of other Valve games, with little mention of the title as nothing out of the ordinary, a tech demo at best. What came about was a smash hit four-dimensional game with mind bending puzzles and amazing writing. Its sequel introduced even more physics based mechanics like reducing friction and making things really bouncy. The audience lapped it up, and continues to want more.

There are certainly more subgenres than I have mentioned up to this point. The mobile market has pushed a myriad of hidden object games for free on any digital storefront. These games are great time killers, but aren’t anything terribly special. You look at a picture, you find the objects the game asks you to find (sometimes randomly generated for replayability), you get some amount of story, and you do it again. These games are a dime a dozen, but can sometimes be enjoyable.

Puzzles were relevant before video games gained popularity in the first place, and have since found their comfortable niche in the digital age. Usually they don’t lean too hard on outrageous visual designs or whatever the current industry trends happen to be, leading them to rely on pure innovation and game mechanics, even when they fall outside of the established subgenres. Almost every game features puzzles of some kind, but only some games can truly call themselves puzzle games. If you’ve ever stared at a screen for several minutes, charting possible moves and their ramifications before the best solution becomes clear, then you’ve found yourself in the midst of one of gaming’s oldest traditions.