> “I mean, does Atrus not mind people breaking in as long as they have an IQ of 150 and brilliant abstract logic skills? No wonder this place is always being smashed up by twisted geniuses seeking revenge on the entire family…” — Myst IV : Revelation
Sure, we get it. Point-and-click adventures are for those smart college people. The rest of us Gumbys will just have to make do with hopping a plumber around on platforms or baking cookies, but the elite brains in gaming need a bit more stimulation. It’s just that they ran away with this trope to the point of frustrating players until many abandoned the genre in eye-rolling disgust. It turns out that making a real Gordian Knot of a puzzle is about 1000x easier than solving the blasted thing.
While the Angry Video Game Nerd and his peers on YouTube vent their frustrations against plain old too-hard games on Nintendo and Sega, your Present Author would like to pay respects to the adventure game equivalent. Adventure games were my first favorite genre. I love every game I’m about to talk about here, while also acknowledging that there is such a thing as a puzzle that’s too hard to put in a video game, especially if it gets that difficulty from an unfair hoax perpetrated on the player. As much as I appreciate my gray matter being tickled, I have to admit that when I see you guys venting on Steam about having to look something up in a guide because you didn’t stand a fair chance, I do see your point.
Adventure games were here first…
The text-based adventure is one of the earliest types of video game out there. We would compare it today to the genre of interactive fiction. Early games like Hunt the Wumpus, Colossal Cave Adventure, and Zork were the first classics of the genre. No graphics, no noise, just you and your imagination while the game described your immediate environment to you and you try to figure out the right command to type in to advance the action to the next step.
After awhile, especially when graphics became possible, adventure games became more advanced and styled, and this genre also took on a new dimension of difficulty. Soon some franchises gained a reputation of being difficult enough to drive players screeching mad. You can find a lot of these games today starting from SCUMMVM, an engine which ports these titles to run on just about any device you can name. They’re all over Steam, too.
So by “unfair,” I’m not going to single out just puzzles that were especially hard and tricky in series like King’s Quest or Monkey Island, because those were at least consistently difficult and you’d expect to be confounded on every screen. I’m talking about the puzzles that stick out as hostile game design, blind-siding you with not just a hard puzzle, but one that sticks out from the rest of the game.
The Machinarium church clock puzzle
Machinarium is an elegantly designed game with a huge cult following. Since it’s based in a robot society in a steampunk world filled with rusty junk, it puts us all on equal footing, where there is no language barrier since robots speak in grunts and clues come in pictures. It’s a brilliant game and highly recommended.
Our first example is the church clock puzzle, because it’s less a too-difficult puzzle than it is one which just has too many unfamiliar leaps of logic to be fair to most players. Briefly (watch the video), you have to set the big clock to chime church services for different religions of robots. This calls the robots into the building and gets them out of the way so you can look for your next clue or part.
This puzzle is built with a distinctly south-eastern European point of view, coming from the Czech-based Amanita Design. If you solved the puzzle cold, you would have to have leaped to the following conclusions:
- Robot religions are a lot like human religions, suggesting a form of robot Judaism (✡) and Islam (☪) on two clues.
- But the “Christian” robot uses the infinity symbol (∞), as opposed to the more familiar cross symbol known to the rest of the world.
- Regardless of denomination, all religions attend the same place of worship as opposed to a church, synagogue, or mosque.
- The robot in the balcony with the black hat is the “Jewish” robot. Since later, black hat robots are depicted as the villains of this robot world, that introduces a hint of casual European antisemitic attitude.
- Robots have freaking religions?!?
It’s just a bizarre scene that doesn’t mesh with the atmosphere in the rest of the world. Even with a walkthrough, you see gamers posting comments expressing that they still don’t get it.
The hidden passage behind the double doors in Riven
Riven : The Sequel to Myst was a fine continuation of the Myst series and probably the most pleasing sequel to a groudbreaking adventure game you could ask for. It also ramped up the difficulty compared to the first game. The puzzles in Riven are complex, cryptic, and require lots of backtracking where you have to push a button or pull a lever and then run around clear to the other side of an island to see what it did. You could fill a whole notebook scribbling notes in a foreign symbol language trying to keep track of the clues for a hundred different mechanisms.
But the Myst series, by and large, is usually “fair” with its puzzles, in that they’re usually straightforward. Here’s a device, here’s some buttons, you know what to do from there. Which makes this double-door access point so much more infuriating. The player in this video knows the way already, so he’s able to skim right through it. But if you’re playing cold, you have no clue that you’re supposed to turn around and close these doors behind you to find a secret passage. Worst of all, this part hits the player at a vulnerable time, when you have a dozen unresolved puzzles, clues, and gizmos all over the place. This leads you to jog back and forth all over the network of islands looking for what you missed. You’ll find yourself at the end of the hallway working that frog trap over and over as the last of your sanity swirls down the drain.
This kind of underhanded trick isn’t found anywhere else in the Myst series. As you can see from the video, Riven is filled with doors, bridges, catwalks, levers, buttons, and more damn doors every two steps, and none of them prior to this point in the game work anything like this. Once you start digging deep into Ghen’s stomping ground (admittedly, he’s the big baddie of the game), you start having to question every bridge you cross, elevator you ride, and door you open, because these deceptive access points occur more frequently the closer you get to Ghen.
This is the point where many players, for the first time, gave up in frustration or looked up a guide, only to find this dumb detail they missed. It’s like being told you failed your exam because they gave you a pen with disappearing ink.
Getting the iron key in The Longest Journey
The aptly-named The Longest Journey was a turn-of-the-century entry that is widely credited with reviving the adventure game genre. The game brought back the familiar playstyle of classic point-and-click adventures, while also bringing its A-game with a deep story, a plucky-funny protagonist, and mostly flawless gameplay.
Except for the iron key lodged in the sparking subway rails. You want that key, don’t you Zed? It’s next to live electricity, so you can’t just grab it with your hand. But you can’t just do something simple like pick it up with a magnet or borrow the broom and dustpan from the janitor’s closet, oh God no! You have to invent the key-fishing device out of random gizmos in your inventory, which involves:
- Combine a clamp with a string
- Blow up a rubber ducky
- Remove the band-aid from the rubber ducky so that it slowly deflates
- Fit the rubber ducky around the clamp to hold it open
- Fish the contraption down to the rail
- Allow the rubber ducky to deflate so that the clamp closes around the key, which you can now pull up
This puzzle is a clear homage to the kind of non-intuitive inventory management puzzles that bedeviled generations of point-and-click adventurers from the Sierra era. So we can give it something of a pass here, but still! Playing cold, nobody even suggests that these items could be combined to work this way. It’s one of those classic situations where you click everything in your inventory onto everything else trying to divine the insane troll logic behind this puzzle.
The music room in Starship Titanic
This game is an exception in our list, but we have to allow Starship Titanic because the entire freaking game is designed from start to finish to leave you raving in a straight-jacket. You knew what you signed up for when you got an adventure game set in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy universe, voiced by a couple members of Monty Python. Expect madness to be the only constant.
What’s worse, the starship is populated by a cast of wacky out-of-control snarky robots with whom you must have unscripted conversations in order to interact with them and progress. That’s right, there’s no multiple-choice menu here, you’re back to the Infocom days of guessing not just what to say, but how to phrase it. On top of that, every puzzle is a riddle based on upside-down logic and Kafka-esque mechanics. As one review puts it, the difficulty is “impossible unless you’re the author or a telepath.”
But the music room takes a special prize. As in the video, your challenge is to adjust a quartet of robot musicians to get them to play a tune in harmony. The controls have thousands of possible settings and combinations. Let’s assess this task in detail:
- What is “the right tune”? You don’t know!
- The correct notes are written in music around the walls. Can’t read music? Sucks to be you!
- Are you hearing impaired? Tone deaf? Well then you’re straight outta luck, aren’t you buddy?
- The actual correct song you hear in the video kind of qualifies as progressive jazz. Not exactly the most intuitive genre of music to guess.
- The game developers seemed to anticipate that this puzzle would be unusually troublesome, so they print the solution on the back of the box. Unfortunately, that box doesn’t help when you’ve downloaded the game on Steam or acquired it by any other means besides buying the box off the shelf in a store.
As the video notes, the two chairs in the music room do have patterns which also clue you to the proper way to set the controls. This depends on you thinking of looking there. As the video notes, setting the controls is tricky even when you have the solution written down in front of you. And of course, not knowing the correct tune you’re aiming for makes it impossible to know whether you’re close but a little bit off, or maybe you’re way off, or perhaps you’re just barking up the wrong tree entirely.
The rest of the game sets you up to look for the non-intuitive trick to solutions, which also qualifies this puzzle as being unfair even in the raving mad world of Starship Titanic, because this time you really do have to conduct a robot band to correctly play a song you’ve never even heard.
The bridges mini-game in Schizm: Mysterious Journey
This is it, we have reached the peak of sadistic adventure game puzzles. Schizm: Mysterious Journey is a cult classic today for a good reason: in terms of raw puzzle difficulty, it makes the entire Myst series look like a nursery rhyme. Oh, how you will wish for a simple clock puzzle with this game!
Several puzzles in Schizm require an understanding of college-level mathematics to solve them, and one infamous point requires knowledge of trigonometry. And we don’t mean the 3x4x5 right triangle on the first page of the trigonometry textbook, either. The puzzles are all very tough, but admittedly fair, so even the trigonometry problem has a triangle etched in the wall nearby to get you thinking in sines and cosines again.
Except for the railway puzzle, for one simple reason. It’s not a puzzle! You have to raise a couple chunks of railway into place in order for a train to cross to your section of island. The video starts into this part at about the 7:45 mark, and even the YouTuber doesn’t recognize what’s going on. The lock for the two sections of track is a board game, namely Gale, a strategic game invented by mathematician David Gale and popularized through Martin Gardner’s column in Scientific American (notice how often that comes up in geek topics?).
If you’re starting to realize, with dawning horror, what’s going on, you have guessed correctly. You have to play a strategy board game against the computer AI and beat it! This completely eliminates the possibility of any walk-through here, since the computer’s moves are partly randomized. And even then, we’re just getting started.
- The lock makes you play the game twice. You have to win both times.
- Then you skip around through some more combination lock doors until you get to the other side and find another mini-game lock for the other side of the bridge.
- That’s right, you have to beat the same puzzle again.
- Oh, wait, my mistake, not exactly the same because this time the computer gets the first move.
- You have to beat this one twice too.
- Notice in the Wikipedia article for Gale, the player with the first move can always force a win! So if you’re unlucky, you could lose a round even though you did nothing wrong.
- If you lose any one of these games – guess what? That section of the bridge resets and you have to go through this all over again.
Yeah. Pause and reflect now what kind of logic is behind having this be the mechanism for raising a bridge. Can you imagine dealing with this game-grid lock every day if you worked here? And what’s even the point? It’s not even good security, because anybody who’s good at logic games can get right in. Even the player in the video manages to pass it without too much trouble anyway, but the point is that the designers combined the fiendish brilliance of including a whole separate logic game engine in their adventure game, with the sadism to apply it so ruthlessly.
In the category of “unfair puzzles,” Schizm : Mysterious Journey wins top prize for making you beat a logic game four times in a row where the last two give the computer a potentially unbeatable advantage. You don’t stand a chance unless you’ve encountered this game before in either hobbyist mathematician columns or the board game (Bridg-It) this was based on (I had both). Out of all the puzzles in all the adventure games made to this day, it’s this lock that drives players to epic Steam rants.
Nevertheless, all of the above games come highly recommended anyway. I don’t mind spoiling these because the rest of their respective games are still plenty challenging, while these particular bits are just unfair. The last one, as I point out, can’t even be spoiled; you just have to be really good at Gale / Bridg-It to win. Here’s an online version of just that if you want to practice.
Thanks for visiting our list if frustrations unique to adventure game fans! And for you platform players: Oh, you can’t make the jump from the fruit tree to the bouncing smiling cloud without sacrificing Yoshi? Well color you blue.