Abandon all logic, ye who enter here...
Ah, adventures! Since the 1980s, they've given us great stories, unforgettable characters, and a spectrum of puzzles that range from slices of sheer brilliance to nothing short of slack-jawed horror. Bad puzzles come in many forms, from the boring and time-consuming ones that make you question how anyone could ever have thought them fun, to shockingly out of character moments where an otherwise amiable blunderer suddenly becomes a sociopathic supergenius in the face of an obstacle or something they happen to desire.
Today, we 'celebrate' ten of the most jaw-dropping. They're not necessarily from bad games, though bad puzzles and bad games do tend to go hand in hand. They're moments where you just want to slap the designer or demand to know "What were you thinking?", especially in cases where any sane human being would solve the problem with £20 and a trip to the nearest hardware store. There's a delightful subtlety to USE BRICK ON WINDOW that few adventures have ever grasped, preferring instead the kind of contraption and convoluted schemes that would make MacGyver go and have a lie down in his store closet.
At the same time though, we're not going to be worrying too much about puzzles that are simply boring, but rather the ones that collapse or implode for other reasons - for trying too hard, for sudden bursts of crazy moon logic, for acts of game-breaking out of character thinking. We're also only looking at commercial games here, crazy as many free things like Escape the Room games are. All of these examples are games that people charged money for, and others devoted both time and mental energy to solving. Often far, far too much...
Gabriel Knight III: The Moustache
We may as well get this one out of the way first, since everyone's expecting it anyway. The Gabriel Knight series deservedly rose to fame for its stories and characters, before hitting the heights of infamy with the third game when gaming site Old Man Murray credited this puzzle with not so much the death of adventure games but its suicide. Harsh? Only a little.
The puzzle sees monster-hunter Gabriel Knight in the small village of Rennes-le-Chateau, desperately trying to rescue a baby stolen by vampires on his watch. The clock is ticking, dark plans are in motion, every second counts... so of course Knight decides to piss away most of a morning because he refuses to drive around on a slightly embarrassing looking scooter. Hero!
It turns out though that his long-suffering cop friend Mosely has rented a better one, so Gabriel schemes to get his hands on it by stealing Mosely's passport and passing himself off as his friend. His disguise consists of a fake moustache, which he makes by... I am not making this up... putting some masking tape on a hole and scaring a black cat past it so that some of its fur sticks onto it. Gabriel then sticks it onto his face with maple syrup. This is a thing that actually happens.
And here's the thing. MOSELY DOESN'T HAVE A MOUSTACHE. To complete the disguise, Gabriel scrawls one onto his stolen passport with a marker pen. The idea is presumably to distract the scooter guy into not noticing that the two look nothing alike, but only in adventure games could "Showing up like a madman with cat hair dripping from your lip" pass for a reason.
It's worth pointing out that this puzzle wasn't actually from the designer, Jane Jensen, but bolted onto the game at the last minute by a producer after the puzzle that was intended to go there had to be replaced. It hardly matters though. While depressingly not the genre's actual greatest low point, it easily stands as its most public case of head-smacking insanity, and the one that everybody always brings up when puzzles are discussed. It's hard to say it doesn't deserve that infamy. But far worse hide in the archives...
Mystery of the Druids: Change! Change!
A little like Gabriel Knight's moustache puzzle, this is a case where a dreadful puzzle is amplified by being in an otherwise serious game that's trying to be at least passingly realistic; in this case, a Scotland Yard detective called Halligan learning about a group of evil druids with designs on world domination.
Well, I did say 'passingly' realistic.
Mystery of the Druids is a staggeringly awful game that escaped being in Crap Shoot solely because of its length. To fix that, I finally got around to taking it on in my own time and you can see the stupidity in this here video.
One puzzle though stands out above all others. Fairly early in the game, Halligan has to contact a professor at a museum in Oxford, but being a man for whom the description 'colossal arse' was invented to describe, has no wallet, and so no money to make a phonecall from the nearby phone booth.
No problem! Well, no problem for a sane person, who could solve this in about five ways even without being, and this begs repeating, a Scotland Yard detective. Halligan's solution however is to notice that there's a beggar sitting a couple of screens over with a few measly silvers in his begging bowl. Does he borrow a few and come back later to repay the man his kindness? Give the beggar something he needs in exchange for it? Anything remotely sane?
Haha, no. He drives back to London and raids Scotland Yard's forensic department for alcohol so strong that it literally knocks him unconscious after just a sip. He then mixes this with apple juice, drives back to Oxford... we're now at a two hour round-trip minimum here... and slips it to the beggar on the grounds that he'll probably be okay. When the guy falls unconscious, Halligan steals his money to make his phonecall. To add final insult to injury, the guy he's trying to get through to isn't even in. A complete waste of time!
Oh, but wait - it gets worse! First, Halligan is called on this when the beggar not surprisingly complains, and opts to deny it entirely. More importantly however, he has a desk phone. To cover this up, there's a line about how he keeps making expensive calls and so isn't allowed to dial out of the precinct, but that's bullshit on a par with a character popping their head through the door and going "By the way, humans can fly now." As one final cherry on the shit-pie that is this man's life, the same detective willing to take two hour round trips to steal from a beggar later has no issue whatsoever doing things like hopping on a ferry to visit France in search of druidic artefacts he's not even sure exist.
The terrifying thing is that while this is easily the game's worst puzzle, it has competition. And even then, it has nothing on some of the terrible, terrible things that Halligan himself ends up doing on the adventure, with the final puzzle especially establishing him as probably the worst hero of all time. Check out the video for the whole sordid story. Goddamn, what a terrible game.
Hopkins FBI: A Horrifying Statue
Hopkins FBI is one of the most awesomely bad adventures ever - check the Crap Shoot on it to see the true extent of its insanity. You know you're playing something, ah, very special indeed when the main character dies, going to Purgatory, and returning with nothing more than a mild comment of "Oh yeah, I have a date tonight..." And how does he do this? Oh, by dressing in drag, seducing an angel and then using a teleporter to get back to Earth. Obviously.
My favourite bad puzzle though comes slightly afterwards, when Hopkins' girlfriend is kidnapped by his arch-nemesis Bernie Berckson... yes, really... and he's sent on a sadistic scavenger hunt to get her back again. At each stop a young woman has been brutally murdered and left for him to find, with a clue to where he'll find the next one. Horrible, but that's not the eye-popping part. No, that comes when he follows one of the clues to a museum and has to find the dead body somewhere amongst its new exhibits.
That clue is simply "warm will be the King, checkmate he will be!" Obviously, this is code for "I have baked a dead woman into a wax statue of King Louis XVI." Obviously. I mean, come on. Holmes wouldn't get out of bed for that.
But how do you officially discover this? Well, you melt the statue, of course. How do you melt the statue? By lighting a fireplace with a molotov cocktail. Yes, because matches are for wusses, you literally make a molotov cocktail out of inventory items and chuck it in there, in a public place, to find this.
Hopkins and Halligan would make a great buddy-cop team. Just saying. It'd be like Hooch and Clyde the monkey teaming up to fight crime, with all the raw police procedural glory of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. And I don't say that lightly.
Limbo of the Lost: The Colour of Water
Limbo of the Lost is most infamous for being the game that stole just about every background and asset from other games. Wall decorations from Diablo II, rooms from Thief 3 and Painkiller and Enclave and Oblivion. A whole town just an Unreal Tournament map with snow painted onto it. A flyby animation pinched from a CryEngine demo, others snagged from Sea Dogs 2 and the Spawn movie. It was released in 2008 and spent roughly five minutes on the shelves before someone noticed, kicking off one of the most surreal controversies in the history of gaming.
The sad thing though is that the stolen stuff would prove to be the best part of the game, with its story and puzzles going largely by the wayside. That's a shame, because design this incompetent is a rare treat for connoisseurs of utter crap. Check out this thread for the whole sordid tale, but here's my personal favourite moment of abject failure. Be warned though, you may lose a few braincells just learning about its existence. Got that? Okay.
The puzzle is to steal a glowing green soul for reasons far too stupid to go into, by creating a facsimile and swapping the two out. Okay. It's not too difficult to find a green bottle, so all we need is something to fill it.
How about water?
(hits head against desk)
Two things here. First, water is not in fact bright blue. Second, that's a green glass bottle, so even if it was, it wouldn't be. This being Limbo of the Lost though, of course it gets worse. Because we need it to glow green, the solution is to mix in some yellow saffron. Because blue and yellow make green, right?
This puzzle makes every other puzzle better by its existence. Not even the moustache thing so comprehensively lowered the bar for both puzzle design and humanity as this moment of utter, distilled stupidity. And yet it still wasn't the lowest point of this dreadful, dreadful game, just the dumbest.
Les Manley: The End
We're heading back to the end of the 1980s for this one, a Leisure Suit Larry rip-off deservedly forgotten by most, but with a sting in its tale that still bugs me. You're geeky TV station employee Les Manley on a search for THE KING - Elvis of course, not Graham of Daventry. It's a quest that takes you from the streets of New York to the middle of the desert, to Las Vegas, and finally Not Graceland, where destiny awaits. Through his adventures, none of which have been particularly well explained, Les has collected both the costume pieces and the prodigious gut to not simply enter a talent contest as a THE KING impersonator, but be mistaken for the real deal by his most devoted fans. And so the game ends in triumph as he finally receives the glory he craves...
...and is promptly trampled to death on stage. GAME OVER.
How do you handle this, in a game with no magical elements whatsoever? It's EASY! All you have to do is restart the game, where near the start you'll find a fortune teller in a carnival. Assault her with a kiss out of nowhere and she vanishes into thin air with a comment about only being a dream. At this point, obviously, you pet the stuffed lizard on her table, and it spits out a resurrection card. A. Resurrection. Card. This then sits in your inventory doing exactly nothing during the entire game, until that ending. At which point you still get trampled, only this time you go to Heaven, snap a picture of yourself with Elv- THE KING and return to collect your prize and win the heart of your easily pleased gal.
I have nothing.
Ripper: A Cup Of Stupid
Ripper was an interactive movie from Take-Two, known for two things - having a crazily high-profile cast for a game (Christopher Walken, Burgess Meredith, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, and in an early role before anyone knew who he was, Paul Giamatti), and logic puzzles hard enough to bring tears to your eyes. Every few minutes, it would cut away to a full-screen puzzle involving something hideously complex, like repairing a computer system from almost identically named microchips or finding a code hidden in a load of adverts on a wall, or absolute nonsense where main character, journalist Jake Quinlan, would be pointed to a complex series of lasers and other fiddly stuff that served only to identify a book on the shelf. Nnggh.
The very first puzzle in the game set the tone for what was coming. At the first crime scene, dodgy detective Vince Magnotta (Walken, totally not reading off cue-cards or anything...) smashes a white cup to hide the evidence. Quinlan immediately seizes on this, scans it into his magic cybercomputer of the future, and reconstructs it, blank white piece by blank white piece.
This might not sound so bad, but you have to assemble the whole thing as a 3D jigsaw, with pixel perfect accuracy or it doesn't register as having been complete. The perspective makes this even harder. The whole thing is as frustrating an introduction to a game as you can imagine. But here's what elevates it from simply 'bad puzzle' to 'astoundingly crap puzzle'. You have no need for a reconstructed cup. All you need are the two or so pieces with text on them - the single word 'Salisbury'. Nothing is more frustrating than a lengthy puzzle that any sane person would solve in five picoseconds.
As painful as the later puzzles in that game got, none even edged close to that level of sheer, pointless futility. Very few have. Thank goodness.
Fascination: Piano Keys
Fascination was an erotic thriller with little eroticism and nothing remotely thrilling. In most ways it's a typical enough crap adventure, with little real plot, bad dialogue, a completely forgettable heroine and puzzles that range from bad to sadistically bad, with lots of dead-man-walking moments to shudder at.
Its final puzzle however deserves a place here solely for its effect on walkthrough writers. You've finally reached the last room, and are about to uncover the sexy secrets of the sexy murders you've found on your sexy investigations around sexy sexy sex stuff when you're blocked by a very different kind of organ. A piano, I mean. You need to play a code on it to open a secret door, and so far, no biggie. A classic puzzle set-up really.
But I quote from the walkthroughs:
"You need to play B A D G E on the piano keys while the Zodiac is set for 2:00, which is the Roman Number 2. This doesn't work the first time, and the sequence must be repeated over and over for about 10 minutes. A secret door will finally open when you do this enough times. Do not give up, it literally takes 10-15 minutes before it will work."
Okay, so that's-
"Since this is a euro ware, you must know that the europeans write dates in the order of date, month, then year.So for example if the date from the ring is 13-09-50, then just click on the wheel's left button 2 times(it moves counterclockwise) so that it faces just like a nine on a regular clock.Next play the notes that are inscribed in the flashlight on the organ."
Wait, what? Yes, this puzzle is so crazily obscure that even the walkthrough writers were left bluffing their arses off. This Let's Play of it admits that it took an hour - an hour - off-screen just trying to solve this one stupid puzzle.
As we've seen though, it takes more than just being a mechanically bad puzzle to earn a spot here. There has to be an extra element; a little twist of the knife as it were. And in the case of Fascination, it's that the ultimate reveal is that the murders and the life-and-death encounters (which CAN lead to death) and all the other stuff... including her boyfriend being cast as a crazed rapist on the run as the result of being exposed to an aphrodisiac drug... weren't even real. The whole thing was just a trial run for a glorified murder weekend troupe, with the ending consisting of the entire cast grinning smugly and going "You thought that man actually died in your arms? PSYCH! Speaking of, enjoy therapy!"
Insult, injury, and salt in the wounds. Thanks, Fascination!
Runaway: The Power of the Sun!
"Bob, thanks for suggesting that puzzle where you load a Gatling gun with sticks of lipstick full of gunpowder. Genius! Nothing stupid about that at all. Don't suppose you know how to make peanut butter?"
"Sure. Take some peanuts and some butter. Put them together. Melt them together in the sun. Don't grind them up or anything, that's for wimps."
"Peanuts melt that easily?"
"As easily as you can weld a broken key back together with sunlight and a magnifying glass. You should save that one for the sequel. Oooh, and later the main character should splash a friendly guy with animal pheromones so he gets raped by a polar bear. In fact, make that the demo puzzle."
"This is going to be our best adventure ever."
"Oh, the best is yet to come. Here, I've already started writing dialogue."
Broken Sword: The Goat Puzzle
Before the Gabriel Knight thing, the Goat Puzzle was the go-to for hair-pulling frustration (along with The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy's Babel Fish puzzle, though solving that one tended to be a matter of pride.)
Honestly, the Goat Puzzle isn't as bad as it sounds, though it's a good example of how easy it is to break a puzzle. It's a simple timing based thing where you need to distract a goat and then dash in the other direction to get it caught and thus unable to knock you on your arse. The problem is that as well as requiring tight timing, it's the only timing puzzle in the entire game and so failing to solve it was less "I didn't do that quite right" as "Clearly, that's not it!" There's a similar one in Full Throttle involving kicking a wall to open a secret compartment; too much precision needed, not enough feedback given.
The goat became something of a series mascot after this puzzle though, with cameo appearances in the most recent games, and Kickstarter backers of the most recent one being known as the Order of the Goat. The Director's Cut of Broken Sword kept the puzzle, but tweaked it a bit, adding via the in-game diary "For a moment I thought it was going to be incredibly awkward to get past, but in the end it was surprisingly simple. Who would have known?"
Is it really one of the worst puzzles? In my mind, no. I found it much less of a headache than (rolls dice) the first real puzzle of Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island, in which you cool down lava with a trickle of coconut milk so that a chicken can cross and peck away a salt barrier for you. Or Discworld's time travel puzzles, for which you need to balance temporal mechanics, chaos theory, and your own growing insanity. But, if I don't throw it a mention, everyone will want to know why. So, there we go. The Goat Puzzle. Gone but not forgotten; indeed, outright fondly remembered these days.
King's Quest: The... Uh... (throws rock)
Trying to pick one terrible puzzle from King's Quest is next to impossible. There's at least three contenders for a slot in King's Quest V alone; a game in which you spend half the game blocked by a snake ("A pooooooisnous snake!" no less) that you could simply walk past if not for the fact that the won't let you, at one point capture an elf by pouring honey onto the ground to trap it and then making it help before freeing it ("Hero!") and everyone's favourite puzzle of that game, defeating a yeti with a custard pie. Yes, really. That happened.
But there's so many more to choose from. How about in King's Quest II, defeating another snake by throwing a bridle on it, which magically and pretty randomly turns it into a horse? You know you're dealing with a dumb puzzle when even the official companion book has to pass a solution off as a lucky accident! (It's nominally a Greek mythology reference, but one so cack-handed that an entire crate of soap wouldn't get rid of the appalling stench. )
Still too fair? In King's Quest IV there's another bridle that you need, this time to mount a unicorn. (Thankfully, not in the DeviantArt sense.) The twist this time is that it's hidden behind the game scenery, wasn't drawn to the player's attention and can lead to a dead-man-walking situation if missed. And you have to be standing in the right place, or you just miss it entirely.
Probably the most infamous King's Quest bad puzzle though is from the first game, so also in fairness the easiest to forgive. It's a variant on the Rumplestiltskin tale, where you have to guess a gnome's name - the trick, since that one should be obvious, being to give it to him backwards. So, Nikstlitselpmur, right? Haha, no. Instead, designer Roberta Williams decided that 'backwards' meant reversing the alphabet, making the actual solution the completely unpronounceable 'Ifnkovhgroghprm'. Player response to this declared it such complete and utter bullshit even in an era where designers hadn't learned the art of good puzzles that it was later changed to the more sensible version.
Semi-related, while I'm not a fan of King's Quest as a series for many reasons, I will at least give it a few bonus points for a particular bit in King's Quest VI, when you go into a pawn shop and the entire back wall is filled with things that would have made previous quests a cakewalk, including a 'golden bridle finder' for finding nearly-invisible golden bridles. Thumbs up for that belated smile. Though exactly what they should go up, I leave to your imagination...