The Puzzle Agent Puzzle


ou solve puzzles in Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. It’s not just your job, but your character’s job. You play as Tethers, chief (and sole) puzzle agent of the FBI’s Puzzle Research Division, a sort of obscure, X-Files-ish branch of the federal government that, you guessed it, solves puzzles. The puzzles themselves are presented as, well, puzzles. Much like the Professor Layton series, the plot is almost incidental to the puzzles, and you’ll often have to solve some puzzle just because it’s in your way. But the game is structured much like an adventure game, letting you point and click your way through a weird little dark comedy. As I played the game, I wondered which it really was: a puzzle game or an adventure game, because it seemed to be a little bit of both. Even if the answer is indeed “a little bit of both,” the more pertinent question becomes, I think, what’s the actual difference between the two?

Game genres, and indeed genres in any medium, are generally easy to recognize. We don’t have to think about them most of the time. Either the genre is simply obvious or easily intuited, and genres are broad enough that categorizing games is hardly an exact science. Is the game set in a first-person perspective? Is your primary goal to shoot things? Well, it’s a first-person shooter. Is the game turn-based, with a top-down perspective, and do you think a lot and make strategic-y decisions? Well, then it’s probably turn-based strategy. You could probably accurately categorize 95% of games based on a single screenshot. If a game combines genre elements and isn’t easily categorized, then you just mash some genres together. (“It’s, uh, kind of a team-based strategy-shooter, I guess.”)

Puzzle and adventure games occupy a slightly hazier space, though. If you had to describe adventure games in one sentence, you’d probably say something like, “It’s a game where you go around solving puzzles.” And if you had to describe a puzzle game, you’d probably say, “It’s a game where you go around solving puzzles.” Wikipedia says much the same thing. Puzzle games “are a genre of video games that emphasize puzzle solving.” Adventure games are “computer-based game[s] in which the player assumes the role of protagonist in an interactive story driven by exploration and puzzle-solving.” Ignoring truly abstract puzzle games like Tetris, the only distinction between a puzzle game and an adventure game seems to be the narrative focus of the adventure game – and that distinction grows increasingly more fine when we consider plenty of puzzle games involve protagonists, a story, and exploration. Puzzle Agent, in fact, follows Agent Tethers as he investigates an accident in wintery Scoggins, Minnesota – chatting with the locals, examining scenes, and uncovering clues.

If Puzzle Agent didn’t have puzzle in its name, and wasn’t so blatantly puzzle-themed, would we call it a puzzle game, or even a puzzle/adventure, even if it had the same puzzles? Or would we veer towards strict adventure, as the structure of the game suggests, and even the studio that published it (Telltale)? Is there really any distinction between the two genres, or are they quaint terms that we use more out of tradition than anything else?

One response, of course, is to say that of course these genres are meaningful, you idiot. The puzzles in Puzzle Agent are often logic puzzles, mazes, jigsaws, and other traditional noodle-scratchers that challenge your real-world logic. By calling something a “puzzle game,” you know what kind of puzzles you’ll encounter. In an adventure game, the puzzles are usually more specific to the narrative. They may still be logic puzzles or mazes or whatever else, but they’re tied to something within the game world. Insult sword fighting, possibly the most famous adventure game puzzle yet conceived, relies on Monkey Island logic, not real-world logic. The strange alien artifacts of The Dig require you to master alien logic. Meanwhile, Puzzle Agent asks you to count fish, to solve riddles, and to answer what are essentially word problems from a math textbook.

The other response is to say that these puzzles are all basically the same, you moron. A logic puzzle is a logic puzzle whether it comes from Earth or Monkey Island. The narrative of an adventure game is just a vessel for these puzzles. Any distinction between these games is entirely superficial.

And the other response, perhaps the final one, is to say that this entire topic is pointless, you stupid jerk. Jason has argued before “how little the debate really matters in the end” when we’re squabbling about genre definitions, and I tend to agree. Ultimately, whether we call Puzzle Agent an adventure game, or a puzzle game, or an puzventure, or whatever, it’s still the same game.

While it may be impossible to pin these genres down (if we would even want to), certain genres undeniably overlap with and complement one another. Puzzle games and adventure games seem to share the same space in our design universe, one orbiting the other. Perhaps puzzle games are subordinate to adventure games, perhaps adventure games to puzzle games; the point is, they are natural partners. Numerous games occupy some spot on the puzzle-adventure spectrum. While we can argue endlessly about what the ends of that spectrum truly look like, what matters is that designers have stumbled upon especially fertile ground in between. Puzzle Agent sits so snugly in the middle of that spectrum, so neatly inside of that box, that it’s sort of fundamentally satisfying to play.

In the beginning of the game, Agent Tethers has a strange encounter with a figure in a spacesuit. (Possibly a dream.) As the game unfolds, Tethers discovers strange creatures that haunt the cold forests of Scoggins. If this sounds weird, that’s because it is. The game finally ends with an inexplicable scene that answers no questions, leaving you completely in the dark. The game, in short, is sort of meaningless. Your mission (to investigate an accident at an eraser factory) was a success, sort of, but a pointless one. You’re left to wonder, “What just happened?” It’s a puzzle you can’t solve on an adventure that went nowhere. But that’s okay, because this game wasn’t supposed to take you anywhere or answer or any questions. You’re just a Puzzle Agent; you go around solving puzzles.

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