Analysis - how to make a horrific enigma

How to make a horrific enigma?

Incorporating a riddle or puzzle into a video game is a difficult exercise. As well as having to think about a number of parameters, such as its rules, its goal and the balance of its difficulty, it must also, and above all, fit into the continuity of the game. In other words, this “game of the mind” must make sense in terms of the universe and the emotions the game wants to convey. Among all the games that sometimes require us to put our brains to work, there’s one style in particular where puzzles are golden: horror games. Indeed, as we regularly have to deal with games with slow gameplay, whose main difficulty lies in managing our emotions, it seems logical to complement them with mind games. Yet this is no easy task. Today, we’re going to take a look at how to rework a riddle to make it horrific.

1 – A coherent theme

The first and most logical thing to think about is that the riddle should be consistent with the overall atmosphere of the game. In Breath of The Wild, the dungeons allow us to deepen our knowledge of the mechanics. In Uncharted, we explore ancient temples partially covered by nature… If it’s a disturbing, anguishing universe, then the riddle can be designed to reinforce the emotions we wish to arouse.

In Silent Hill 2, for example, a riddle asks us to read a message and interpret it in order to find the intruder among 6 propositions. A classic riddle, then. However, in keeping with the overall atmosphere of this horror game, these 6 propositions are actually hanged men who have been condemned to death! Our aim is actually to guess who the innocent person is in this corpse-filled room, then pull the corresponding noose in the next room.Once the rope has been pulled, the player returns to find that the corpse in question has disappeared…

The riddle of the hanged men in Silent Hill 2 - make a riddle horrific
When a game of “find the intruder!” meets Silent Hill.

This riddle from Silent Hill 2 demonstrates perfectly how a simple statement can be adapted to an uncomfortable world, thanks to the theme used. And to reinforce this, the overall atmosphere can be enhanced by strong visuals or sound. The very concept of the puzzle may be general, but our apprehension of it will be different. As well as racking our brains to solve it, we’ll almost start to fear it, wondering where it’s all going to lead.

2 – Disturbing manipulation

Since the theme alone simply provides a context that can be frightening, it’s logical to want to complete it. To do this, you can set up things that will make interacting with the riddle… uncomfortable. Rather than simply manipulating a box or guessing numbers, you can propose horrific interactions that fit perfectly with the theme.

Take, for example, one of the puzzles in SOMA, a horror game in which human spirits live in robot bodies.At some point, to progress, we have to solve a riddle that requires us, among other things, to cut off the room’s power supply. So far, so good. Except that when the power goes out, the backup generator kicks in, causing pain to a robot that didn’t ask for it. We may be able to restore the power to relieve him, but we’ll have no choice but to listen to his screams if we want to progress. I can assure you that solving this riddle will be no picnic, as it will literally be a painful process.

Robot SOMA - make a riddle horrific
You don’t want to make him suffer? But you’ll have no choice…

SOMA is not alone in offering this kind of sequence. Scorn, where you have to butcher innocent people; Resident Evil Village, which requires you to manipulate a wooden body; or Inscryption, where you can sometimes pluck out an eye to gain an advantage. Making the handling of a puzzle an ordeal in itself is a great way of making it unpleasant. You’re forced to solve it reluctantly. Again, it’s not a change in the structure of the puzzle, but in our repulsion to progress.

3 – Uncertain resolution

In addition to the manipulation of the puzzle, its resolution can also involve scary elements, which here will be based more on our expectations. When researching how to create a good mystery, it’s often said that its purpose must be clearly defined to keep it engaging. What’s interesting here is the realization that in the horror context, maintaining a certain vagueness can be relevant, as Stories Untold does.

In Chapter 2 of this horrific puzzle game, we find ourselves faced with a series of mechanisms surrounding a chest. A supervisor then gives us instructions on what to do with all these buttons.As we interact to solve the riddle, we soon realize that the box actually contains a heart, and that our actions will affect its functioning.However, we don’t know exactly to what extent.I won’t spoil everything that’s going to happen, but what I can tell you is that, as you progress through the puzzle, you get a sense of just how far it’s going to ask you to go.

Stories Untold chapitre 2
A mysterious box. Instructions. Manipulations. The reason? You have no idea.

When you perform a disturbing action without being certain of its outcome, you come to apprehend it. That’s why it’s a good idea to give a vague idea of what a riddle is all about (as our supervisor does during this stage), while giving the benefit of the doubt: what’s going to happen? And so, always reluctantly, the player must solve it, fearing it. As ever, in horror, anticipation is golden, far more so than the mere sight of the threat itself.

4 – Continuous pressure

In my life as a gamer, I’ve always hated racing against the clock.

That feeling that every move has to be thought through in order to be optimized, and that there’s a knife at your throat constantly reminding you that you don’t have a second to spare, is something that’s personally taxing. And somehow, if I feel this stress and it pushes me to play under pressure… Well, it’s also a good bet.

The most common method of providing this kind of stress is to add a time limit, as in Dead Space 2 with its mini-puzzles where you have to activate a mechanism.But this is not the most subtle technique. There are other games with chase sequences, such as Little Nightmares, where the pressure comes from a relentlessly pursuing enemy (which you have to escape before it catches up with you), but it’s not really a puzzle anymore.A good mix between solving a problem while under pressure is the partial chase. This is a type of sequence found in Outlast. The idea is to solve a puzzle while an enemy lurks nearby. We don’t know exactly where he is, or when he’s going to get dangerously close. This makes his presence all the more unsettling, as we can’t be sure what we can and can’t do, unlike a simple race against the clock with a stopwatch. You’ll have to tinker with the mechanisms, while regularly taking the time to look back, on the lookout for a nasty surprise.

énigme Outlast
As if being chased wasn’t stressful enough. Plus, you have to think!

Putting pressure on a puzzle is a good way to make it horrific. By swapping the classic stopwatch for the simple mental burden of knowing that an enemy is present, the player will never be able to act in a fully serene manner, and will have to constantly consider this imminent threat. It’s a bit like games like Alien Isolation or Amnesia: The Bunker, where an enemy is always lurking around. When you know you’re being stalked but can’t act on the threat, your every move is calculated, and stressful. Beware, however, of the player’s cognitive load, as too much stress could discourage him or her from completing the puzzle.

5 – Punishment

The last parameter to make players fear a puzzle is also one of the oldest and most widely used. It can be found in basic games like Minesweeper or Pac Man. It adds a certain value to the puzzle in progress, making us fear its failure: it’s called punishment.

The death of our avatar is obviously the most commonly used punishment. It’s something we see, for example, in a certain sequence in Dead Space 2, where we have to perform a manipulation that requires dexterity: inserting a needle into Isaac’s pupil. Stressed by this operation, Isaac naturally moves his eyes. As a player, we’ll have to be very meticulous to aim correctly. I can assure you that the prospect of butchering our avatar if we fail is a real source of stress.

Dead Space 2 oeil
This Dead Space 2 skill puzzle, where you clearly don’t want to fail.

In addition to the fear of causing suffering to our character, we also fear a potential backlash. The punishment of losing part of the progression is a punishment in itself, and is really a waste of time. And nobody likes wasting time. And the longer a part lasts, the more valuable it becomes, and thus the heavier the loss.

Without having to kill the protagonist as soon as the player presses the wrong button, you can, however, make him or her understand that he or she has played badly, in other ways: bringing in an enemy to be shot, resetting a mechanism that takes a long time to set up, or having to return to a remote location to start the puzzle again. Of course, these are potentially frustrating punishments, and you’ll need to assess their relevance to your puzzle. On the other hand, if the aim of this stage in your game is to create a real sense of stress, then the punishment of failure seems like a good idea.


So there you have it, the 5 techniques I’ve come up with for making a riddle feel dreadful. They’re just an overview of what’s out there, to give you some ideas to draw on. What’s more, they’re totally applicable to non-horrific games, as long as you provide a scary atmosphere at the time.

Finally, not every puzzle in a horror game has to be scary. If the aim of your puzzle sequence is to offer a moment of calm, a break in your horrific atmosphere, it’s doubtful that putting an enemy in pursuit of the player will be productive!

Thank you all for reading, and see you next time for another game design analysis of horror games.

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