The Best Puzzles Are The Ones That Make You Want To Throw Things At The TV
Welcome to the latest instalment in our new-ish column, Memory Pak, where we’re going to be doing a deep-dive into some of the most memorable moments in gaming – good and bad. This time, Kate discusses her puzzle tantrums…
The first time I played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, it was under the supervision of my partner. It was also potentially responsible for our first… disagreement.
(Spoilers for Brothers abound here, be warned!)
Although I’m not proud of it, I can sometimes be the kind of person who gets a little temper-tantrumy when I can’t figure something out, like a child who can’t work out how to open a bag of crisps — which may be an exceptionally apt comparison, since it probably also involves me being hangry, too. It’s not like I go full terrible-twos-tantrum, sitting on the floor, banging my fists and screaming, but it’s the closest I get to rage-quitting. I’ll insist that a puzzle is stupid, or impossible, or that the developers didn’t offer enough hints, until finally the puzzle (or more precisely, the twist of the puzzle) clicks, and I feel like a numpty for having thrown a little sulk about it.
And this is precisely what happened with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
The entire game is played with two halves of the controller: One controls the elder brother, the other, the younger brother. It’s a neat mechanic that allows for a lot of interesting puzzles, but I honestly don’t remember any of them. The bit I remember is towards the end, where your poor older bro gets seduced and then stabbed by a spider, and you’re left to mourn, bury, and leave him on your own.
Without your older, wiser sibling to guide you, encourage you, and teach you how to navigate the world, everything is harder. Rocks are twice as heavy. Cliffs are twice as high. Doors take twice as long to open.
But it’s all possible. It’s just hard. Until, that is, you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: a body of water. You see, the younger brother cannot swim. This is told to you earlier in the story, I think, as yet another reason why the young boy needs his brother to help him, but now his brother is gone, and he stands, desolate and paralysed with fear, on the shore.
The younger brother alone cannot muster up the strength to go on, and having been taught for the entire game that you can only use half the controller to move this boy, you are caught in exactly the same situation. You cannot fathom crossing the water. The controls don’t do anything. He’s never learned to swim, and neither have you.
Anyway, I threw a bit of a tantrum here. My partner kept saying (encouragingly, like the dead brother) that I could do it, that I was smart, that I just had to think. But I thinked all the thinks! There were no thinks left to think! The game must have been broken! And somehow it was my partner’s fault, because he knew the solution and wouldn’t tell me, because he believed in me, like a bastard.
The trick, you see, is a monumentally clever one, even if it seems simple and obvious: You use the other side of the controller. It’s an absolute masterwork of narrative and mechanical synergy: The moment you lose your brother, everything becomes harder, and you have literally “lost” half of the controller as a representation of the loss the boy feels. When you finally realise that you have to use the left trigger to swim, it is as if the older brother is providing the power and the necessary push to brave the waters, and the younger brother is channelling the courage and strength of his lost sibling to do something he’s never been able to do.
The moment is supposed to catch you out. It wouldn’t have hit hard if it was easy to figure out, after all. The entire game, the very idea of splitting the controller, is all in a build up to this one scene.
Still, it’s bloody frustrating, and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that way — especially if any of you reading have ever played a point-and-click adventure game. Although, their solutions don’t always make you feel better once you’ve found them. In fact, they may
(Now there are spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass incoming!)
There’s one other puzzle that made me feel much the same way, and you’ll instantly know which one I’m talking about if I say it’s from Phantom Hourglass.
Listen, sometimes the cleverest puzzles are the ones that are most off-the-wall and innovative, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I want less of them. But I can’t be the only person who accidentally solved the Phantom Hourglass map puzzle by accident!
“Press the sacred crest against the sea chart to transfer it.” Those are the only instructions you’re given in this particular puzzle, and most people who have ever played a DS game probably made the same conclusion I did: It must be something to do with tapping the screen. Everything is to do with tapping the screen in a DS game (or yelling into the mic, occasionally)! The map with the crest is on the top screen, and your map — the crestless one — is on the bottom tappable screen, so I tapped frantically all over the darned thing trying to figure out what it meant by press.
In this moment, my frustration worked in my favour, though. After fruitless attempts to solve the puzzle with the very few verbs available to me (tap, rub, yell, press button, throw DS), I gave up and closed the DS, putting into sleep mode so I could ponder the problem.
Apparently that was the solution.
It’s exceedingly clever, when you think about it — or when you figure out how to solve the puzzle as God intended — but I felt like I’d stolen all the glory, undeservedly. I was part of a club, but I cheated to get in.
Luckily, there are plenty of games that I didn’t accidentally solve by giving up. There’s one particular puzzle in Fez that still eludes me, although I’ve finished the game; I stopped playing The Witness because I couldn’t figure out what the wordless, vague tutorials were trying to teach me; and I’m currently playing through Portal on the Switch, roughly 15 years after I first tried it and gave up because some of the turret-based puzzles are beyond me. And the less said about Outer Wilds… the better.
And although I have made it sound like I’m a grumpy little baby who can’t handle clever, fourth-wall breaking meta-puzzles, the truth is… I love them. I love the way that little click in my brain feels when I get it. When I get grumpy, I am grumpy at myself more than anything — I feel as though I am too stupid, too limited by my own lack of imagination, swindled by the genius game designers who are probably laughing at me from behind a one-way mirror.
Well, laugh all you want, imaginary game designers! For in the end, I am the winner who gets to enjoy your really cool puzzles. Nyahaha!
Tell me about your favourite game puzzles in the comments, as well as the ones that made you have a little baby tantrum!