I’m talking about the kind of puzzle where finding out the solution only makes you more mad at how arbitrary it was. Broken Sword had the infamous goat puzzle, Gabriel Knight 3 had the cat hair mustache puzzle. If your adventure game puzzle has an entire Wikipedia page devoted to it, it’s probably not for a good reason, yeah? Other obvious contenders include the babel fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the custard pie in King’s Quest 5, the custard toilet in Discworld (don’t ask), and everything from our list of the 10 worst and most WTF puzzles in adventure gaming.
What’s the most frustrating puzzle you ever got stuck on?
Here are our answers, plus some from our forum.
Wes Fenlon, Senior Editor: I wanted to be clever and give an answer that didn’t come from an adventure game, but King’s Quest 6 is full of so many memorably bullshit moments I feel compelled to go with it instead. The real problem with Sierra’s adventure games wasn’t that its puzzle solutions were confusing or nonsensical—that was basically all adventure games. The problem was that you could miss something in the game and only find out hours later when you arrive at a puzzle you can’t solve, and don’t have a save file available to correct your mistake. This screwed me over when I was replaying King’s Quest 6 a few years ago (even though I was using a walkthrough!!).
Near the end of the game, you take a brief detour to the underworld before reaching the castle where your imprisoned princess awakes. To rescue her, you have to find a secret door in the depths of the castle, which is opened by pushing on the arm of a suit of armor standing against a wall. It’s the kind of thing you could theoretically figure out yourself through experimentation, but that wasn’t how Sierra made games. The armor was only interactable if you talked to a ghost in a prison cell elsewhere in the castle, and the ghost would only give you the tip if you talked to his mother in the underworld and got her handkerchief. I missed the handkerchief, so I was stuck knowing there was a secret door, but without the ability to discover it.
At least I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. There are so many potential dead ends in King’s Quest 6, few of them telegraphed at all, that even with a guide you’re likely to end up getting stuck and having to replay the entire game to reach the ending. I’m very glad we’ve left that era of puzzle design behind.
Christopher Livingston, Features Producer: There have been many, many frustrating puzzles over the years, but one particularly dumb one sticks out in my mind. In LucasArts adventure Full Throttle, at one point Mo tells you how to open a secret hatch into the motorcycle factory. You need to kick a certain spot on a wall when all the utility meters turn black. The wall has a crack on it that was at eye level for Mo when she was six years old.
That’s pretty friggin’ vague, especially considering the wall is absolutely covered in cracks of varying heights and who the hell knows how tall she was when she was six? Plus you have to wait for the stupid meters to click into place between each kick. And I was playing Full Throttle in 1995 before full game walkthroughs were just a quick Google search away (since Google was still three years away itself).
So. There I was. Kicking every last fucking inch of that goddamn wall and having to time my kicks carefully when the meters aligned. I kicked for a long, long, long, long time. Even knowing where the spot is on later playthroughs, it still takes a bunch of tries because the spot is maybe a pixel wide. And frankly, Mo, you could have told me to kick a rock, not a spot, because there are a few rocks at the base of the wall and that would have saved me ages of kicking any smooth areas below a crack. That puzzle blows.
Morgan Park, Staff Writer: I made a big mistake in 2015. Without having played any of the old LucasArts adventure games (or many adventure games at all, really), I jumped straight into Grim Fandango’s remaster. I’d heard it was one of the best, but I’d also heard even adventure game vets could get tripped up by its puzzles. I lasted less than an hour before picking up a guide. I think I got tripped up by having to fill a balloon with packing foam to gum up a machine—a clever solution that might’ve taken another two hours before I accidentally did it myself. I kept the guide open until the next time I got stumped, which turned out to be once every 15 minutes. That sign that you have to repeatedly put down to see which direction to go in the maze? Borked that up too. I just don’t have that “combine these two objects in my inventory” adventure game brain, but I’d love to give them another shot one day.
Jody Macgregor, AU/Weekend Editor: I never made it to Gabriel Knight 3’s cat hair mustache puzzle because I couldn’t even finish the first Gabriel Knight. There’s a bit where you search a crime scene for clues, and an essential one is hidden in some grass. You just have to pixel-hunt for it. I clicked around the grass without stumbling across the right spot and when I looked up a walkthrough later and realized what kind of game it was I decided Gabriel Knight was not for me and never went back. It’s not a decision I regret.
Brian Boru: The Talos Principle, Level A-3, the second star. It’s where you have to press numbered plates on columns which are arranged in a circle. Beat me first time around, and also when I came back to it. Would have beaten me if I’d come back to it 20 times
<Spoiler follows> It turns out you need another real-world physical device to solve it! As in a QR code scanner. Most of the QR codes in the game reveal themselves in a popup on mouseover, so when this one didn’t, I assumed it was just a small bug.
Pifanjr: The Monkey Island series has a bunch of weird puzzles, but the one I remember still is when you have to give bubble gum to a character so his golden tooth gets loose when he chews it and flies out when you pop the bubble gum bubble. Then you have to inhale helium and blow your own bubble with the tooth inside of it so it flies out the window, after which you have to sift through a muddy puddle outside with a pie pan to find the tooth.
I’m pretty sure I’ve followed a walkthrough for more than half the game for every game in the series.
Mazer: It’s not a PC game, but the first thing that comes to mind is the first X-Men game on Sega Megadrive, at the end of the Mojo stage when there’s a bomb about to go off and kill you, and your only instructions are to ‘reset the computer’. I got up to that stage and watched the clock count down to my death dozens of times without a clue as to what I should be doing, before one day getting so fed up that I reset the console.
Cue screen of computer code and mission complete screen. Screw you X-Men, the sequel was better anyway since it had Nightcrawler and Beast.
Zloth: I liked the babel fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide! It was a long puzzle, but it gave you a pretty good hint every time it didn’t go right. Fish goes down the drain? Cover it with a towel.
What killed me was just after that point where you got shoved out an airlock, got picked up by another ship that happened to be passing by, and you’ve got one move to get out of that ship’s airlock and into safety. There’s an exit to the west. So try that and… nope, you die. Huh? Go through it all again, try to go west again… nope. Go through it all again, get to the spot again, try to do something that might help breath? Like what!? Try something random?? Nope. That continued for a very long time before I tried going south. That worked. The game then tells you it was lying about the exit to the west.
Scrawling some Vogon poetry on Adams’ gravestone is at the top of my ‘bucket list.’
Krud: Since all of mine were pretty much covered above, I will add one that stumped me because of a glitch, and that was the rotating stones puzzle in Fate of Atlantis. I don’t remember the specifics any more, I just know that the reason I wasn’t getting it right was there was something wrong with my version of the game, so that the actual answer was off by 90 degrees or something. I eventually got it by blind luck, and then looked it up and found out that yep, the game version itself was buggy.
I also really hated the bodily organs puzzle in Escape From Monkey Island, but then most of that game was disappointing to me.
Sarafan: I won’t point a particular title, but I have a general problem with adventure games. The puzzles in this genre are sometimes so hard that it’s almost impossible to solve them without a guide or using everything on everything method. My almost every attempt of playing adventure games in the past ended with a necessity to look into the guide. I guess that I don’t have patience to these games.
Frequently you can find puzzles in RPGs as well. I prefer when they’re limited to side quests, because they have a tendency to be as hard as those from adventure games. To this day I remember Mordus’ house puzzle from Divinity Original Sin 2. It was quite frustrating for me to set the appropriate combination of the plates. I decided to check the guide and didn’t regret this.
mainer: My feelings on the “point n’ click” type of adventure games is pretty much a mirror of Sarafan, where so many puzzles are just so arbitrary and lacking any clues that they just become frustrating, and slow down any momentum the game might have had, plus I almost always had to consult an outside source for a solution. I haven’t played any in years.
I’ve played Sanitarium, Blade Runner, the Gabriel Knight games; but I couldn’t point to a specific puzzle that stumped me (though I know many did). The one that does somehow stick in my mind was the final puzzle in Phatasmagoria Puzzle of the Flesh; some bizarre thing where I had to connect a bunch of colored wires in the right order. The good old days of the FMV adventure game.