Escape rooms found their beginnings in puzzle games, where the player is tasked with using or connecting items in certain ways to open a locked room or access the next area. Needless to say, all of us here at Next Level Escape are huge puzzle fans, and this feeds in to our room designs.
To get your little grey cells going (as Hercule Poirot would say), here are some of our favourite puzzle games and mechanics – and why we loved them so much! If you’re an escape room lover, you have to play these if you haven’t already!
Yes, every woman and her dog is in love with Portal, and we’re no exception. While polling the office, this was the one that everyone agreed on wholeheartedly. We love how it uses one simple mechanic in a variety of interesting ways and provided a lot of great ‘Aha!’ moments.
Our technical wizard Aaron jumped right on the fact that the puzzles relied on general physics principles (things fall down; speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out). Daniel, the resident storytelling psychologist, pointed out the great flow state it induces – where you’re moving and solving almost subconsciously.
And who could forget the snarky ‘narrator’ that is GLADOS, who not only guides you through the earlier puzzles but also gives the world its amazing flavour?
The Talos Principle
Electronic jammers, lasers, boxes and fans? Oh my! The game introduces each of these puzzle mechanics then puts them to good use, combining them in inventive ways. Why yes, you can connect up the laser beams, put the connector on a box, then send it flying upwards over a fan. With each puzzle, it forces you to use the objects you have, or critically examine your environment, in new and different ways.
This game is also a fantastic example of background storytelling. You can completely ignore the story and simply solve the puzzles, or go digging for a treasure trove of information that builds to a compelling history of events.
This is a puzzler that pushes you to think in 3D on a 2D plane. If that doesn’t make sense, check out this video:
It sounds simple, but the amount of lateral thinking required makes you really feel like you’ve levelled up your brain, which is exactly what you’re looking for from puzzle games. Plus the main character (with his eponymous headwear) is just so darn cute!
This is another game that always pops up on these kind of lists, though only one of us in the office has played it (shame on everyone else!). It plays with the concept of time as a puzzle mechanic. Speed it up, slow it down, rewind it. Have it move only when you move. Interact with objects outside of time, or have a shadow of yourself copy your actions just before. It combines platforming with puzzling, though the focus is on the puzzling and how the particular time mechanic for the area can get you to normally unreachable puzzle pieces. It provides a lot of great ‘Ah-hah!’ moments, but also requires a certain amount of dexterity for the platforming.
There is also a story, but that’s hit-or-miss for most people. Either you love it, highbrow literati that you are, finding metaphors in everything, or hate it, lowbrow popcorn fan that you are, for being too obscure and pretentious. But from a pure puzzling basis, it’s one of the best mechanics around.
This game comes back to the one simple puzzle mechanic formula – you have a cloning device, which will create clones that all copy your movements exactly. You can place the clones wherever your device’s beam can reach. The developers also added some additional complexity around lights and how they affect your clones, but the core puzzle mechanic is used from start to finish. The rooms change things up enough that the puzzling doesn’t get stale.
Again, this is a game where you can ignore the story and simply complete the puzzles, but it uses the mechanic to explore philosophical questions of consciousness and the implications of cloning yourself (similar to SOMA). It’s a great example of how puzzle mechanics can be an integral part of the theming and narrative.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Another game that only one of us in the office has played for any length of time (your three hours definitely doesn’t count, Daniel, you filthy casual). This is very much a text-heavy game requiring a lot of reading, but the core puzzle mechanic is quite unique. You play as a hapless defence attorney whose clients always seem to be irrefutably guilty. But you know they’re not the criminal, and so the game involves examining witness testimony in court and finding contradictions with the evidence on hand. Later games in the series added mechanics such as finding tells in body language or determining dissonant emotions during the testimony, but in the end it’s all about finding those contradictions!
This is more of an interactive story with puzzles you solve to progress – in this case the puzzles support the story, instead of the other way around.
Puzzle Games Honourable Mentions
Neverwinter Nights (piecing together the parts of a mystery, puzzles tied closely to story)
Timelapse (punishingly difficult, though possibly nostalgia plays into this as it was Aaron’s first game of the genre!)
SpaceChem (programming-style logic and strategy shine here – it’s less about the ‘Aha!’ moments and more about planning well and seeing patterns)
The Witness (one main puzzle mechanic used in many different ways, some great revelation moments)