12 Types of Puzzles in Graphic Adventure Games

One of our clients has contracted us to build a Graphic Adventure game, and we’re jazzed. This is my absolute favourite video game genre, one that died in the mid-90’s as jocks started playing games, and the focus turned from story, humour and character design to action, violence and tits.

Duke Nukem and Lara Croft

Action, violence and tits are among my least favourite genres

Most of my unproduced game ideas are for Graphic Adventure games. So i’m toying with the idea of using this project as an excuse to build a Graphic Adventure Game engine, so that i can more easily produce additional games in that style.

So i started to think about what that engine would look like – what sorts of toolsets i would have to build, and which common Graphic Adventure game features i would need to support. i started thinking about the way in which players interact with these games: puzzles, the gameplay mechanisms than enable players to progress through the game. Here then, for your edification, is a list of different types of puzzles found in Graphic Adventure games.

Advanced warning: here be spoilers.

1. Item Use

Nearly all Graphic Adventure games have some sort of inventory, a place where the player can store items he’s collected throughout the story. The player applies these items to characters or objects in the environment to effect a change. The most simple example is a lock and a key: apply the key to the door lock and the door opens.

Modern MMO fetch quests are simple lock-and-key puzzles. Give the pirate some rum to get onto the ship. Give the seagull a french fry so that you can walk past him and climb into the dumpster.

Dizzy's Fantastic Adventure

“Dizzy” games featured a 3-slot inventory and simple lock-and-key fetch quests

Item puzzles can be daisy-chained so that a single solution requires multiple item/environment interactions. My very favourite example (from my very favouritest game ever) is in The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.

You need money to charter a ship. The only place hiring is a restaurant, and they’ve already hired a chef. Through devious adventure game logic, it’s clear that you have to get the chef fired so that you can take his job. It amuses me that as soon as i found a rat on a nearby screen, i knew exactly what to do. By using three different items in your inventory, you construct a trap to catch the rat. The puzzle is one big lock using multiple keys. (The rat somehow ends up in the restaurant’s soup, and the poor chef is sent packing.)

Monkey Island 2

Just thinking about this game makes me giggle.

Using items on the environment could complete the puzzle, or it could produce a new item. In this case, use three items to build a rat trap, which gives you a rat as an inventory item. The rat is part of a bigger puzzle.

2. Item Combination

Puzzles can get even more complicated when the player has to combine two items in his inventory to form a third, new item. The new item becomes a key to open a lock. In Simon the Sorceror, use the “rope” item on the “magnet” item to create the “rope and magnet” item. Drop this item down a hole to swipe money from a dragon’s cave.

Simon the Sorceror

Simon the Sorceror: an underrated adventure game series

While item combination can be very rewarding, game designers have to be careful. As with all Graphic Adventure puzzles, designers should ensure that the reason for combining items – the goal – is clear and logical. Otherwise, you wind up with a game like Return to Mysterious Island, which features almost arbitrary item combinations and recipes. Long stick + twine + grey rock = fishing rod, while short stick + rope + black stone = hatchet. Ugh.

Return to Mysterious Island

The only mystery is why you’re still playing

Item combination can also include reverse engineering. Sometimes the player can manipulate or examine an item, or use another item on it, to break it into two or more component items. A classic example of this is opening a flashlight to produce a broken flashlight and a pair of batteries.

3. Environment Puzzle

Picking up “anything that isn’t nailed down” is tons of fun, but some puzzles simply require the player to fiddle with items right on the screen. A simple example is pulling a lever to open a door.

A creative take on the environment puzzle crops up in the opening scene of Full Throttle. Tough guy Ben extracts info from an obstinate bartender by grabbing his nose ring and smashing his face against the bar.

Full Throttle

“You know what might look better on your face? The bar.”

4. Navigation

Navigation puzzles require the player to carefully steer the character around the screen, or risk a penalty. As par for the course in Sierra On-Line Graphic Adventures, this penalty was usually a frustrating death sequence.

In Space Quest II: Chapter II: Vohaul’s Revenge, Roger Wilco has to tread lightly through a deadly maze of poisonous plant tendrils.

Space Quest II plant

Well this certainly looks annoying.

Similarly, in King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human, Gwydion has to schlepp his way up and down a perilous mountain path not once, not twice, but like a million times.

King's Quest II:To Heir is Human cliff

] Take elevator ( “I don’t understand ‘elevator'” )

A variation on this is the Endless Maze. The player reaches a rigged maze of endlessly repeating rooms. The player can only survive by learning of the correct route and taking it directly, or risk perishing in the wilderness. In The Dallas Quest, the path through the endless wheat field is etched on the tombstone of a pervious adventurer.

The Dallas Quest

i don’t care who shot J.R. … this wheat field is enough to kill any gamer.

5. Diversion

Prevalent in many LucasArts adventure games, the distraction puzzle pits the player against a non-player character. The npc usually won’t allow the player to steal things in the immediate vicinity, so the player cooks up a distraction to occupy the npc, leaving him free to pad his inventory.

In Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, Zak has to nab a number of probably crucial goodies from his seat in the airplane. But would you believe it? The witchy stewardess is constantly telling him to put the stuff back. Zak could travel to the back of the plane and clog the sink, and then to the front of the plane and nuke an egg in the microwave, creating enough of a mess to busy the meddling stewardess.

Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders airplane scene

Fly the friendly skies.

6. Order of Operations

Some puzzles require the player to perform a discrete series of actions in a certain order to succeed. Return to Zork had the player perform a very specific toasting ritual.

Want some rye? Course ya do.

While it’s not a graphic adventure game, it’s worth mentioning the legendary babel fish puzzle from the Infocom text game The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Trapped aboard an alien ship, the player has to obtain a babel fish from a vending machine. The fish will help the player understand alien languages. In a timed sequence, the player has to push the button and watch the elusive fish disappear multiple times – through a hole in the wall, through a robot panel in the floor, swept up by a cleaning robot, etc. By using inventory items (a dressing gown, a towel, a satchel) to circumvent these problems one by one, the player essentially constructs a Rube Goldberg machine of failure:

A single babel fish shoots out the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace towards a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot ploughs into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc. A small upper-half-of-the-room cleaning robot catches the babel fish and exits.

After multiple attempts to overcome the comedy or errors, the babel fish finally lands with a wet squish in your character’s ear.

7. Conversation

Many graphic adventure games use a conversation tree to enable the player to interact with different characters. The non-player character says something, and the player can choose from one of many responses at each break in the conversation. In some games, the player’s success entirely depends on the conversation options he chooses.

In order to avoid the terribly-designed fisticuffs mechanic in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the player had to pick his way past each nazi guard in Brunwald castle by choosing his words carefully.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Brunwald castle

Please – ANYTHING but “throw a punch”

8. Timing

On occasion, the player is faced with an animated sequence, and must click a hotspot winthin a few frames of animation to overcome the obstacle. The climax of each game in the Monkey Island series ends with this type of challenge.

In Broken Sword (AKA Circle of Blood), George has to do some fast clicking to get past an ornery goat in the game’s most difficult puzzle.

Broken Sword goat close-up

Use anti-goat spray on goat

Broken Sword goat scene

9. Mini-games/Riddles

Adventure gamers can be a strange breed. i remember when adventure games started introducing some fast-action elements (like the fighting sequences in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), adventure game reviews would explicitely point out which games had action sequences and which games didn’t, in case the player was averse to these types of gameplay. Many adventurers saw the presence of a twitch element as an intrusion in an otherwise mellow gaming experience, and lacked the fast motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination to pass these sequences. Personally, i missed the final quarter of Last Crusade due to the fighting sequences on the zeppelin. i like to think this had more to do with long Amiga 500 load times and terrible game engineering than my own deficiencies as a player.

A more common break sequence seen in adventure games is an appropriately-paced mini-game that involves turn-based movement or plodding strategy. MYST caused controversy when it appeared on the scene, as adventure purists argued over whether it was even an adventure game at all. Around the same time, The 7th Guest linked classic strategy, board game and paper puzzles in a full-motion video framework and called itself an adventure game.

The 7th Guest

The scariest thing about this game was the acting in the fmv sequences

Games like The 7th Guest often rely on pre-existing puzzles that the developer pulled out of the latest Dell Crosswords n’ Challenges newsstand issue. They contain tired riddles that you’ve likely heard before, and challenges that you’ve likely solved before, like the Tower of Bozbar (Tower of Hanoi) puzzle in Zork Zero.

Zork Zero Tower of Bozbar

Oh … goody?

10. The Implausible Item

The Implausible Item puzzle is just a straightforward take-the-item action, complicated by the fact that the player doesn’t immediately recognize that the item can be taken.

In Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love (In Several Wrong Places), Larry Laffer visits the Quickie Mart and shoves a thousand-gallon Grotesque Gulp down his pants.

Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love (In Several Wrong Places)

But an even subtler example is the bloodhound that Guybrush Threepwood stuffs inside his coat in The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. ( “You’re coming with me, dog.”)

11. Real-World Research

As an anti-piracy move, some games shipped physical materials in the box that the player required to solve certain in-game puzzles. These materials were often included as a copyright protection measure. In Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, a line-up of customers asks Freddy to concoct some 19th-century meds for them. The player is completely lost without The Modern Day Book of Health and Hygiene that ships with the game.

In DreamWeb, lead character Ryan (no relation) can’t even enter his own apartment unless the player find the access code in the Diary of a Mad (?) Man in the game box.


While it’s not explicitely a Graphic Adventure game, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego shipped with a world almanac that the player could use to track the game’s villains. (Indeed, teaching kids to research countries using the almanac was the sole educational goal of the game.)

12. Teamwork

Some of my absolute favourite Graphic Adventure games enable the player to play as two or more characters. This opens up a whole world of fun puzzle contrivances where, for example, one character has to pull a switch to let the other character out of a dungeon. This was exactly the situation in the original Maniac Mansion, where the player could control three different teenagers in their quest to save a cheerleader from a diabolical mad scientist.

The most exciting, hair-raising moments in the game happened when one character would ring the doorbell, and then hide in the bushes. The mad scientist’s mentally unstable son Weird Ed would answer the door, leaving a second character free to pillage his bedroom for a limited time. This is the diversion technique mentioned earlier, made far more challenging by having the player juggle multiple characters.

Maniac Mansion

Ring that bell, Dave. You won’t regret it.

Utter Nonsense

Unfortunately, one of the things that led to the death of graphic adventure games was the fact that the player could get hopelessly stuck on a puzzle, even early in the game, and miss out on the entire experience. Sure, companies sold hint books, but it was a bit of a kick in the teeth when you shelled out sixty bucks for a new game, and you were unable to fumble past the first third of it without coughing up another fifteen clams for the hint book.

Now that we have the Internatz (and, most notably, GameFAQs), the problem is moot. But back in the day, you could swear that certain companies were building their games with the express purpose of moving more hint books.

Sierra On-Line was a prime offender, with its King Graham mascot combining completely unrelated items to solve nonsensical puzzles, baffling the player within an inch of his life. (For a special treat, read Old Man Murray’s moratorium on adventure games, which puts a fine point on the topic with a hilarious conclusion.)

But if you were to put a series of games to death for its completely out-of-left-field puzzle design, it would be Gobliiins.

Gobliiins 2

Can you explain what’s going on here? Cuz i sure can’t.

Here’s an example from Tom Hayes’s GameFAQs guide for Gobliiins 2:

Get a feather from the helmet. Use the feather on the can of red paint. Use the cockroach on the hole. Use the brush, pepper and kind elixir on the cockroach.

The Gobliiins games combine many of the puzzle types listed here – teamwork, item use, inventory combinaton, timing – to such a completely inept degree that i recommend that you steal – not pay, STEAL – at least one of the Gobliiins games for a crash course in how NOT to design a Graphic Adventure game.

i’m a HUGE advocate of purchasing games with your hard-earned cash, but in this case, i’ll make an exception. If you’re feeling guilty about stealing one of these steaming piles, take the money you would have spent on the game, and give it to a charity of your choice. Or set the money on fire and burn the game in a big expensive bonfire.

… but not before using Winkle to hold the chicken and then using Fingus to hit the chicken on the head with a sausage to make it lay an egg.

For further reading, check out Mark Newheiser’s article classifying Graphic Adventure game puzzles

22 thoughts on “12 Types of Puzzles in Graphic Adventure Games

  1. Colm Larkin

    That’s … well that’s pretty comprehensive! Aren’t there a load of ‘adventure game engines’ built already just waiting to be licensed?

    And yes, the world could surely do with more great adventure games. Check out these guys who recently made a couple excellent ones:

    Highly recommended.

    1. Ryan

      Colm – yeah, the Zombie Cow guys do good work. i’ve heard a lot of great buzz comparing Time Gentlemen, Please to the recent The Secret of Monkey Island remake, saying that the Monkey Island humour can’t hold a candle to Zombie Cow’s stuff. (Oh no you di’in’t!)

      i have to agree, though. i didn’t find Monkey Island all that funny when i played it, back when it was first released. It had its moments. (But the sequel had me laughing so hard, i made milk shoot out of someone else’s nose)

      Unfortunately, and i’m ashamed to admit it, i’m still stuck in the apartment in Ben There, Dan That.

  2. Rob Segal

    Ah yes the adventure game genre. It truly is a shame it has fallen by the wayside in recent years. Your points about the frustrations of playing the classics are certainly well known to me. I spent countless hours trying to figure out fiendish and very often insanely difficult puzzles in Sierra games. At the time it was still alot of fun even with all the frustrations. You probably already known it but you can download and play many of those old school classics over at Home of the Underdogs (http://www.homeoftheunderdogs.net/).

    If you can stand the insane difficulty of it I recommend Below The Root (http://www.homeoftheunderdogs.net/game.php?id=113) which I remember initially playing on the Apple IIe as a classic example of many the issues you’ve mentioned in this article Ryan. Even with all the problems Below The Root has I still get excited about the prospect of playing it. The nostalgic value far exceeds and difficulties I might have playing. For a little while anyway.

    1. Ryan

      Rob – see, my problem with Below the Root was that the kids who introduced me to it told me it was amazing, but they had all read the book. i had a really difficult time trying to understand what the white pixellated blobs on the screen were supposed to be. (Is that an umbrella, or a motorcycle?) There was a game based on Alice in Wonderland that may have been by the same developer (Wydnham Classics?), because the graphics were equally challenging.

      Home of the Underdogs is an excellent site, and i’m a regular visitor. i just started playing the Quest for Glory series for the first time. A lot of the secrets are spoiled because i watched a friend play the game, but i’m still having fun. Abandonia.com is another good abandonware site.

  3. Merve

    Graphic adventures are great, a notable one from my childhood was “Toonstruck”. I whipped it out a couple of months ago and realized how cheesy it is.

    The one let down of Graphic Adventure Games is just how hopelessly lost you can get. Generally if you don’t put the solution together in your head once you see all the clues it is going to take a LOT of time to figure it out. It’s not like other genres where there are clear objectives, I generally prefer Graphic Adventure Games if there is a hint system involved (a sidekick which will give you clues, or a radio etc)

    Another good one was the discworld game (however the characters are never how you picture them), and in terms of flash Zeebarf (I think) has released a series called “The several journeys of Reemus” and a one of called “A small favour”, all excellent games. The best flash adventure I played recently was called “Morningstar”, I got stuck a few times in that one.

    1. Ryan

      Merve – i remember not being able to buy Toonstruck because at $70, it was a full $10 more expensive than most games here in Canada. That, and it was released at the tail end of my Amiga 500 ownership, after i had sunk scads of paper route money into the thing (incl $1000 for a ~10MB hard drive)

      i agree that modern Graphic Adventure games need a hint system. i was struck with one comment i heard at GDC a few years ago, where someone said “If you can’t get to the end of the game you purchased, take it back to the store and demand a refund. You paid for all the content on the disc – you should get to experience it.”

      Zeebar, i was happy to discover, is a Hamilton Canada native. He may drop by here from time to time. i’m not a big fan of the gore in his games, or the frustrating Sierra-style death sequences, but he’s definitely got a better thing going than those throngs of Escape the Room designers.

  4. Rob Segal

    I totally agree with you Below the Root had its problems. The only reason I would go back to it now is to relive some childhood memories.

    The Quest for Glory series were a fantastic bunch of games although 1 – 3 were my favorite. Even if you did watch your friend play them you likely didn’t see absolutely everything. If you get stuck on any puzzles hit me up for some tips. I would be glad to help you out.

  5. Zeebarf

    Thanks for the shout out! Ryan you’ll be happy to know I’m actually working on a full length adventure that has neither gore nor death scenes. In the meantime you can play my new game, Another Small Favor, you get to liquefy bunnies and birds with a big gun! :)

    Below the root was one of my first loves on the commodore 64. Something about jumping off tree limbs with a winged shirt always made me happy.

    1. Ryan

      Hey Zeebarf … i guess i just have to check this Below the Root game out. And i’ll try your game … peeking at it squeamishly from behind slattted fingers.

  6. Dorian

    “If you can’t get to the end of the game you purchased, take it back to the store and demand a refund. You paid for all the content on the disc – you should get to experience it.”

    This comment summons forth my rage about the stupidity of the song-unlocking system in the copy of Dance Dance Revolution I bought for my Xbox 360. Every once in a while the game interrupts your playlist by throwing a new song at you. They set the difficulty high and speed up the arrows. If you can complete the entire song then you unlock it. Oh, wait – and you’re only allowed 4 mistakes or you fail the song. Oh, yes, and a mistake is anything other than “Perfect” (meaning “Great”, “Good”, “Almost” and “Boo” all count as mistakes). Of the 60 songs in the game 25 of them are locked. I have yet to manage to unlock a single one. And all the hot songs they name-drop on the back of the box? Locked. I’d like my money back now plz.

    1. Ryan

      Dorian – major grr on DDR! Have you tried hitting GameFAQS.com to find an unlock cheat code to get at that content?

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  11. MagnumPI

    You failed to mention the #1 thing in my mind that can make an adventure game GREAT, instead of just OK and that is MULTIPLE ENDINGS. Sadly, there’s only very few games I know that truly offered such a thing. Maniac Mansion is one of them. The game wasn’t as long as Zak McKracken, but you could replay the game with different characters and try different things and get completely different endings. THAT was cool. Sadly, they NEVER did it again (other than good or evil in the Jedi Knight games; I’m not sure about the KOTOR games as I didn’t like the interface). Zak McKracken’s method of being able to visit places and even solve many of the puzzles outside a required order made it feel HUGE compared to a game that is even larger but only lets you go one direction at at time. Sadly, this is way too common in most adventure games, although getting lost forever in mazes, etc. is no fun either. You need a reasonable balance.) But as far as being able to do what you want and affect different endings, I’d have to say Dragon Age Origins (D&D style adventure game) impressed me the most. Not only could you romance all kinds of characters in your party, but the outcome of various events affected the entire ending of the game (you could die and win or survive and win or live happily ever after with a character you romanced). It’s the ONLY D&D type role-playing game I ever played more than once (and I played it like 6 times through to see everything). THAT is what it takes to make a game truly spectacular. Offer multiple ways of doing things and multiple endings so the player keeps coming back. They will remember that and like a good music album, be ready to buy the next game at the drop of a hat. Sadly, the sequels to Dragon Age were let-downs compared to the original (too much greed = taking too many shortcuts and a shorter, more inferior game even when the engine is already done and that means you should be able to make a MUCH BETTER GAME in the same amount of time or less).

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