Puzzles merging with Virtual Reality

How can we make puzzles interesting & can they be merged with new technologies such as Virtual Reality?
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In a series of interviews we’ve asked Rob Morgan how can we make puzzles interesting and what mind games inspire him.
We have also found out how new technologies, such as Virtual Reality, can be merged with puzzles and what the future might bring to the gaming world.

Rob Morgan is a game writer, narrative designer and a voice director. He has written and designed interactive narratives for platinum-selling console titles and a award-winning browser, mobile and Alternative Reality Gaming (ARG) projects.

Interviewer (I): Rob, what makes a puzzle interesting for you?

Rob (R) : A lot of puzzle games give you puzzles in a sequence, telling you a story as well - I like it when a simple mechanic from a puzzle can build up a part of the larger story, whether that’s a story I’m building myself, or it’s someone telling me that something is part of a story. I usually enjoy puzzle games which have a sense of progression. I play an awful lot of ‘Drop 7’while commuting on a tube, which is like ‘Tetris’ with maths.


It’s not just killing time. It’s inherently interesting to solve the puzzle over and over again. So in this case – you know if you do well, it chains together a whole sequence. Crosswords and puzzles are often are missing the community aspect and being part of a bigger mission. When you sit down and do the crossword, it’s a solo thing that you’re doing yourself with an aim to win. But if you have a community behind it, at any level when you are participating in the puzzle, you are part of a continuum - whether you’re winning tournaments, on top or not, you’re part of the same thing. It’s the same way when people who play E-Sports tournaments are imagining themselves winning, and they’re all part of a continuum. So that’s why many puzzles don’t hold that appeal for me because I don’t find a personal satisfaction in them. I tend to look for contextual satisfaction. And that’s what I find immediately appealing about the Red Bull Mind Gamers platform.

I find “Escape Rooms” being genuinely interesting , because they are a form of  puzzle solving but have an element of soft-puzzle solving, without one ideal way to solve them.

I really like that kind of puzzle solving. If there is such thing called “Optimal Play”, it stresses me out personally because I know I’m falling short of Optimal Play. Whereas the larger the possibility space, in guarantee terms, or the more kind of flexibility there is in what you’re able to do, the more I feel like I’m able to solve that puzzle my way, rather than just the best way. I also love that medium because to me, it is theatre, but also because it’s a beautiful form of “social” puzzling where part of the puzzle is working out how to get the team to work together. And that’s a puzzle that I really enjoy, and I particularly enjoy the fact that there’s a ‘delegation component’ where you can be a valuable member of the team, even if you don’t solve any of the puzzles.

I: New technologies are opening up new possibilities for game designers, and opportunities for people to gain immersive new experiences. 
Where do you see a potential for puzzles to merge with technologies such as Virtual Reality (V.R.)? Will V.R. play a role when it comes to mind gaming or puzzle designing?

R: I think that V.R. has the potential to open up a new field of types of puzzle design. There are probably still lots of elements that I haven’t thought of, but just from the top of my head; the capacity for spatial visualization in V.R. is so great because we can turn things. Particularly puzzle game designing is basically trying to cope with the fact that what we’re displaying to the user is fundamentally two dimensional. And so, how we visualize what’s happening and how we show what the puzzle looks like, is a way of getting past that. Tetris is a game which is designed in two-dimensions, and it makes perfect sense, but a lot of puzzles are three dimensional and have to be mediated in 2D. The minute you can create a spatial puzzle which properly exists as a 3D object and you can walk around it and see it from whatever perspective you want—I’m not gonna try and put a limit on how exciting those games are gonna be. Being able to move objects around in V.R. and then align them, even in incredibly simple perspective puzzles, adds a real joy to them. It's like there’s a missing jigsaw piece and it’s here, and the rest of the jigsaw is there and you have to get to the right angle and when they align, you’re done. That has an incredible visual satisfaction to it. And you know, the educational potential is there to have a model of the heart, or a model of the galaxy that you can fully expand and get around and look at from any angle – if you just add a puzzle in to that, where you have a series of orbits, and you have to work out the correct trajectory to initiate a comet orbit without just getting it to skip off an atmosphere or something. You have to get it all right – looking at it from different angles, how it works - this enhances that experience. Those puzzles are going to be amazing. And then we’ll have experiences that are genuinely V.R. native.

- “Actually I think puzzle games will be the first true V.R. native experience, rather than just the ‘first-person roller coasters’ that we see in the tech demos” -

V.R. has huge potential to combine different formats of games and add different elements to it. In the V.R. headset you have only one person who can see the virtualized elements. But in a puzzle they can see the virtual elements, and their job is to communicate to the team what they’re looking at. Then it’s the team’s job to infer from that the right thing to do. It’s a bomb disposal thing, and only they can see the bomb and describe the cables and say what colors they are and see the design, describe it to the team; the team looks through the manual, tells them what to do, they cut the cable. That game sells itself.

Mind games that RoB plays & which inspire him writing game stories:

1. ‘Drop 7’  is like ‘Tetris’ with maths. This one is the exception where I take pride in beating my own score. This game is a good example of a game where the high-score really does reflect pretty well on how good you are at spatial reasoning. In my opinion, it is the best spatial game since Tetris. This is a perfect example when the actual game is really beautifully designed. The motivation behind it is to beat the high score, but it’s not just about killing time. This is a game where it’s inherently interesting to solve the puzzle over and over again. So in this case, if you do it well, it chains together a whole sequence. It inspired me because it’s a game that I could never design myself, but which keeps reminding me, that games are too big to categorise

2. ‘Half Life’ - it shows that even more than 10 years ago, you didn’t need to use all the traditional systems that at the time everybody thought were essential for story telling in a game. You don’t need a description on the back of the box, which tells you what’s happening. It’s a game which tells and shows that you don’t need any of that to tell a story, and you also don’t need to control the player or attempt to impinge on the player’s imagination. You can create a story and just let it play out, and allow the user to navigate it how they choose. That’s incredibly convenient because it’s not telling a story; it’s not a fundamental cinematic story, or novel story, that’s been shoehorned into a game. It’s a true ‘game story’, because it wouldn’t work in any other medium since it would seem vague and nonsensical

3. 'Final Fantasy 7' - I played it at an influential time in my life, and I still have a really strong emotional connection with those characters…It’s a very traditionally told story.

About Rob Morgan

ROB MORGAN is a game writer, narrative designer and voice director. He has written and designed interactive narratives for platinum-selling console titles and award-winning browser, mobile and ARG projects.

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