It’s often astounding, given modern titles like The Walking Dead, that adventure games used to all be about puzzles. Well, no, scratch that. Adventure games were about exploring interesting people and places at a pace that you would never find in any other genre of the day. Puzzles were how they filled the time.

That’s not meant as an insult (not entirely). One of the key elements of storytelling is pacing, and puzzles are an effective way to break up all that talking and put the forward motion on hold for a while. It gives the story a chance to breathe, or to mull over what just happened, or to delve deeper into the setting, or just to make you feel like you’re a meaningful part of this experience. But there’s no getting around it: adventure games can have some really terrible puzzles. The impossible, the illogical, the ones that can’t be solved because you missed that one object ten screens back that was two pixels in length. Yes, that one. You know which one I mean.

They really could be the worst, couldn’t they?

Now, the puzzle I want to talk about isn’t one of* those* puzzles. It isn’t on the level of the cat hair moustache or the wallet-fetching rat. It isn’t absolutely terrible; in fact, it’s rather clever and can be solved through simple logic. No, the reason I’m writing about it is because it’s downright *deceptive*.

*Still Life* is a game about a young woman investigating a series of gruesome murders in modern Chicago. In a rather intriguing move, it’s also about her grandfather who, in a series of flashback sections, is investigating a similar series of murders in 1920s Prague. During one of these flashbacks, you’re tasked with opening a safe that contains the autopsy report.

Unfortunately, the safe is locked by a number code. You can find the numbers on a scrap piece of paper…

…but the numbers on the safe are all represented by these symbols on the bottom.

So, the question is: which numbers correspond to which symbols? What method do I use to figure this out?

Your only clue is a broken clock with symbols at various positions. The person who locked the safe, sadly, is of little help; he can’t remember what the symbols are, only that there’s a ‘trick’ to it.

With these clues, can you figure it out?

I’ll wait.

Actually, no, I won’t wait.

Give up?

Okay, here’s the solution:

Now, the true way to determine how the symbols correspond to their numbers is by counting the number of angles (90 degrees or less) in each symbol. So, in the symbol for ‘6’ here, we have:

You can determine the number through a single, simple algorithm. It’s a hard puzzle, but not entirely unfair, and surprisingly elegant. So why do I call it deceptive?

Here’s the problem:

This is the symbol for ‘3’. It was one of the four symbols on the clock, so we know it’s a ‘3’ before we’ve solved the puzzle. It also looks like a ‘3’. This fools players into thinking that the relevant criteria for assigning symbols to numbers is “does it look like the number?” Most people seemed to have come to this very conclusion, and indeed, it usually works. Here’s a ‘1’:

And this is ‘8’:

And most obviously, ‘5’:

With this criteria, you don’t even have to look at the clock. After lining up all the obvious symbols, there are only three blocks left to match, making six possible solutions, an easy task for trial-and-error. It seems clear that the designers, feeling pity for the poor souls who might get stuck on this difficult puzzle, put in a very simple ‘back door’, so to speak, so that us mere mortals could progress to the next bit of the story. For most players, it seems to work. I even read one forum where a player couldn’t even remember this puzzle being in the game, it was so easy using this method. And yet…

Here’s the problem. Let’s look back at our clock.

The symbols for ‘3’ and ‘6’ are part of the safe combination. Now take a closer look at the symbol for ’12’:

It kinda looks like the ‘8’ symbol, doesn’t it?

Furthermore, it’s clear that the ‘looks like’ criteria has to be a fast and loose rule, since the symbols for ‘6’ and ‘9’ don’t really look like their corresponding numbers.

So, in one hand, we have a ‘3’ that looks like a ‘3’. In the other, we have a ’12’ that looks like one of the symbols in the safe combination. The conclusion from these two pieces of information is that this symbol:

is related to the number ’12’. Possibly a ‘1’ or a ‘2’. And this false conclusion will ruin your evening.

The interesting thing here is that neither piece of information is deceptive on its own. It is the combination of these two elements that create our red herring. And while I don’t think this was the designers’ intention, it’s here all the same. The puzzle is hard enough on its own: with this confusion, it becomes impossible.

It’s rather unfortunate that this is the case because I can think of so many ways to communicate the correct methodology to the player without this mix-up. Change the symbol for ’12’ to look nothing like any of the other symbols. Have the person who locked the safe say something like, “you can tell what number each symbol is just by looking at it…but, oh, I’ve long since forgotten how that worked”, to indicate that the symbols’ shapes are not random. Make it absolutely clear that these symbols won’t be found anywhere else in Prague (I can’t tell you how long I wandered, desperately hoping to find another symbol).

I want to solve puzzles, and I don’t want to be led by the hand. But following a path that leads nowhere, a path that was encouraged by the game itself, is no fun at all.