Of all the fun puzzle-style video games that have appeared over the years (and games which incorporate some sort of puzzle element), three games stand on a victorious precipice above all the rest. Carefully designed, beautifully rendered, and packed with replay value, these games — Myst, Ico, and Portal — are without doubt the best puzzle games ever made. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who has played these games without enjoying them.
1. You’re here. Deal with it. In each game, the player is dumped unceremoniously into a remarkable world without much (if any) explanation. You fall into a Myst book (which had “fallen into the fissure”, whatever that means). As Ico, you are stuffed into a concrete egg and left to die. You wake up in a sterile testing room and ordered by a faceless robot voice to grab (and start using) the Portal gun.
These barebones introductions don’t suggest a lack of story — far from it. Rather, they bring the player into the action immediately, without the need for extended narrative reveals or character development. Those things appear along the way, once the player has had time to snuggle into the environs.
2. Vital sense of place. The castle from which Ico must escape is as much a character as any other in the game. Its metal doors and clay walls, the splintering wooden rafters and ancient rusted fixtures, are a breathing organism. The laboratories of Aperture Science are just as vibrant: polished steel panels and glowing fluorescents create an eerie dynamic of constant observation — to say nothing of the just-vacated conference rooms barely visible behind frosted glass.
When I first played Myst in 1993, I was skeptical of its box-front claim that it would “become your world”, but it did. The gears and switches of that remarkable island consumed me; long before the soundtrack appeared on CD, I recorded audio tracks onto a cassette tape so I could return whenever I wanted.
Furthermore, each game involves a theme of moving between worlds — quite literally in Myst, where linking books transport the player between distinct places with unique architecture and geology. Portals allow the player to make a quantum leap from one room into .. the same room. I bet you had the same OMG moment I did when you first stepped through a portal and then took a minute to let your brain catch up. And while Ico takes place entirely within the castle, your ghostly companion Yorda lives in a classic rift between worlds.
3. Listen carefully. The sounds of these worlds were designed with great care and precision to involve the player long after The End. Often these sounds are important clues — when a lever is pulled here, a loud clank indicates a new open door somewhere else. Mostly, though, the sound is a sublime ingredient in the stew of synaesthesia. Ico and Yorda, for example, speak different languages. So when he needs to call to her, he makes an adorable “Oo-pa!” sound and waves a bit with his hand. (When she’s far away, he’ll call like a bird, echoing off the clouds.)
Portal also shines in the sound department. As Chinny pointed out, the first digital crackle in GLaDOS’s sedative voice is an intriguing harbinger of her true nature. The sonic world is sparse, which heightens our awareness of the voom of portals, the satisfying rumble of moving masonry, the voices of sentry bots, the glory of “Still Alive”.
4. No one’s home. These games play in creative ways with themes of solitude and isolation. Despite the luxurious interiors of the Ico castle, its only inhabitants are demonic shadow monsters. The Myst library is packed with volumes read by no one. The conference rooms and hidden offices of Aperture Science are stark in their hollow emptiness.
The absence of people on Myst Island brings with it a welcome lack of physical danger. The player is able to explore and experiment without fear of being shot or running out of time. These dangers are minimized in Portal and Ico, but they sometimes add annoying stress to a puzzle situation that is already frustrating. Cyan took a big chance by leaving the violence out of Myst, and it paid off.
5. That was great! Let’s do it again. Some puzzle games leave players feeling drained and/or relieved when they find a solution. Myst, Ico, and Portal instead create a sense of euphoria and joy when we finally open the door or figure out the combination. More, we feel empowered and ready to take on the next challenge. We can sense ourselves getting closer to the exit; the world makes more sense with each piece of the puzzle we lay in place.
This feeling carries over to the game as a whole, too. Ico has one of the best endings of any video game ever made. When I finished Portal for the first time, I immediately began playing it again. And while the ending of Myst was incredibly disappointing, the joy of moving through Myst and discovering all it has to show off kept me coming back for more.
Honorable Mentions. There are other good puzzle games, too — some which even feature these elements. The XBox Live Indie Game Decay, for example, does a superb job mixing nice puzzles with an intense, creepy atmosphere. And of course the ethereal new release Limbo also shines in its mood and gameplay fluidity.
If for some reason you don’t put Myst, Ico, and Portal in the top three Puzzle Game spots, you are hereby ordered to list your Gold, Silver, and Bronze winners in the comments below.