Design Dilemma

by Ron Gilbert
Jun 10, 2015

Editors Note: There are NO spoilers in this post.

Every adventure game I've worked on has had the "one puzzle". The one that drives you crazy because you know the end result, but you don't know how to get there. You try everything and it all seems too obscure, or worse, too arbitrary. You like the core puzzle, you like the objects it uses, but you just can't seem to make it work.

In Monkey Island, the rubber chicken with the pulley in the middle was one such puzzle. The player needed to get to Hook Island and the zipline felt like a good solution. There was something nice about that, but we just couldn't figure out a clever way for it to work. Maybe you could use a small piece of rope or cloth to slide along the line, but that was boring. We had the idea of a small pulley or something round like a pulley, but that was also boring.

I'm don't remember who came up with the rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle, it sounds very Steve Purcell, but it might have been Dave or Tim or Noah or any number of people we brainstormed with. I just don't remember. But, it was born out of pure frustration: "Screw it, just make it a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle" and then we'd all laugh and there was a moment of silence where we all realized that was the solution. It was a puzzle solved with humor.

Humor is a great puzzle solver, but you have to be careful. Your solution might be funny, but the objects involved might be too useful in other situations. I felt we were pretty safe with the chicken with a pulley in the middle. Not too many other puzzles that could be solved in unintended ways.

Axes are alway bad. The moment you put an ax in your game to solve a puzzle, you're asking for trouble.

Maybe the ax is needed to chop down a tree (a legitimate but slightly boring puzzle), but the problem is an ax is a universally useful tool for everything from smashing locked doors (Jack Torrance style) or pounding nails or cutting a piece of string.

You can have the characters say "I don't want to do that" if they try and smash in a door but that feels cheap and players know it. There are legitimate reasons for the main character to say they won't do something but they can't do it every time the player tries to (legitimately) solve a puzzle in a way the designer doesn't want.

Which brings us to Thimbleweed Park, the whole reason you're bothering to take a few minutes from you busy day and read this website.

We are confronted with such a puzzle and we'd like to open it up to all of you to help figure out an interesting and possibly funny solution. We're not doing this as a "PR stunt" to make the backers feel engaged, we're truly doing this because we're stumped.

If you follow the link below, there will be spoilers, but not major ones. This is a relatively small puzzle and it happens in the first 30 minutes of playing the game.


Please do not post comments on this page talking about the puzzle or any other spoilers. I will delete them and not feel even the slightest pang of guilt (possibly even some glee).

- Ron

delMar - Jun 10, 2015 at 15:23
Ha, no comments over here; all of them over at the restricted area. Them TP backers are no wimps!

Nor Treblig - Jun 10, 2015 at 19:24
There are so many comments over there! I'm glad I hate spoilers so I don't have to read them all.

Brian Ruff - Jun 10, 2015 at 15:54
Thank you for the thoughtfulness and attention to detail you guys are putting into each puzzle. We appreciate it when we play!

Geoff Paulsen - Jun 10, 2015 at 16:36
I hope there are plenty of homages to other games of yours / early adventure games, such as a chicken with a lever in it, or a fine pleather jacket salesman, or something about fighting like a cow.

Mattias Cedervall - Jun 10, 2015 at 16:36
I like the way you think, Ron! :-)

Rodrifra - Jun 10, 2015 at 16:40
I just wanted to make a tiny little comment about puzzles, every single puzzle I have found in your games is great, fun and has a reason... except one, there is one puzzle without a reason if you are playing the game in a language other than english.

The monkey wrench puzzle in MI2 is logical and great fun once you realize the solution, but when the game is translated it makes no sense and you have to solve that puzzle trying every object with the water pump until you solve it, and even when you solve it you can't happen to realize the meaning of that puzzle. I don't mean that a great puzzle like that has to be removed, but maybe, when a puzzle is dependent on the language there may be different solutions or objects to solve the puzzle depending on the language the game is being played on.

Ron Gilbert - Jun 10, 2015 at 16:44
YES! YES! YES! The Monkey Wrench puzzle. I'll have that chiseled on my tombstone. I can we please move on. I was young and just experimenting.

Rodrifra - Jun 10, 2015 at 17:14
Ups, sorry. I didn't know you've been tortured with that before :(
But as I stated before, it is a great and fun puzzle for english speakers :D

Jammet - Jun 10, 2015 at 18:13
To be honest, the only puzzle I really loathed was the library in Monkey Island 2. I had no idea what to look for, and it makes you look through all these drawers A-Z! That was work! That was exhausting... that was no fun... but it's all in the past. :)

Iron Curtain - Jun 10, 2015 at 18:36
The Monkey Wrench Puzzle and the Library are just two reasons why I detest Monkey Island 2 with a passion.

Rodrifra - Jun 11, 2015 at 01:43
I think in my case, I can say MI2 is the best game of all times.

Dan - Jun 11, 2015 at 13:06
Some of the puzzles in MI 2 are actually very tricky, however it has been one of the most entertaining adventure games I've ever played.

RCM - Jun 11, 2015 at 02:09
I didn't have too hard a time looking stuff up in the library since the NPCs give you a good idea of what books to look for. Not to mention all the funny books you could browse through (like the whole giant "Titles: See Headings" loop!)

When I was a kid I couldn't finish MI1 due to not knowing how to get by the piranha poodles. When I eventually looked up the solution I was like "how was I supposed to know that?". But in hindsight, it was pretty obvious (especially with a name like Caniche Endormi flower!)

TJG - Jun 11, 2015 at 03:01
I really liked the library! It felt like a real library - it was just a matter of browsing for the right kewords. I'm pretty sure that the keyword is "shipwrecks", by the way, and you were tring to find out where that ship had sunk.

Paulup - Jun 11, 2015 at 20:44
I love, LOVE Monkey Island 2 (as well as 1), but yes, the library puzzle is the one that made me stop playing it for a while.
If you quickly figure out what you're meant to do, or know roughly what you're meant to be looking for, it's fine, but it's terrible to be stuck on that puzzle...
It's because it's one of the few puzzles where you can't really just try every object with every other object, because there are way too many possible variables that it creates. So if you're stuck on it, you're properly stuck.

Mister T - Jun 13, 2015 at 10:01
The thing is that even the zany puzzles in Monkey Island I and II seem like a competition of wit when solved. It is a lot like telling a joke: the person telling it has to stay ahead of the person listening just enough to keep the punchline out of grasp. The puzzles give you a motive (getting an item you need, allowing to travel from A to B, unlocking a door...) and then let you think about possible solutions.

Compare that for example to the puzzles of Broken Age: often there is no motive, it is just running around, exploring and hoping to get a needed item by accident before actually knowing that it is needed, while the puzzle itself has nothing to do with the object one gains from it. The zany stuff is really just zany. It tries to be fun by having no connection, pretending that this would be like the Lucas Arts trademark humour. But there is no punchline. No punchline means: no fun.

Even the (admittedly untranslatable) monkey wrench puzzle and the book puzzles revealed their motives before. At some point one could come up with a solution on a purely logical level without trial and error testing every item with every character or environment item. The moment one discovers the solution even just by accident, one can get the joke, and it is funny, even if sometimes in the "ouch" kind of way.

Michael Stum - Jun 10, 2015 at 20:55
When I think MI2 puzzles, the "If this is 4, what is this" puzzle will always be the one I remember. After figuring it out, it was a "Ohh, how stupid of me" moment. I guess I just didn't expect an Adventure Game to do something clever (since most puzzles rely on inventory or dialogue, not on the visual cue of the other actor).

longuist - Jun 11, 2015 at 05:01
Please do not stop experimenting! The joke was great. I did not get it back then in German, took some time to solve while trying with all objects. But this taught me to try everything with everything, which in turn triggered some very funny dialogs which i had missed otherwise. And the animation rewarded nonetheless.
After all, this is THE puzzle of MI2 you will always remember, so having it chiseled on your tombstone is not that bad. Could be worse.
In other words: Make a puzzle in TP which is even more hilarious and silly and which most people will hate. This would make me happy.

(btw. Boris will fix it :)

Dada - Jun 15, 2015 at 09:22
I enjoyed the puzzle even when I was just a kid(sorry for that (but well lets say my early teens):) clicking around and understood every fifth word in English. I think the funny shape of the monkey was enough to save it from being some arbitrary nonsense (forgetting the pun in English) and turning it into this crazy fun idea being part of the loose casual whimsical attitude of the game.

Joost - Jun 23, 2015 at 09:55
Well, for my part - thanks for that puzzle. For years I have prided myself on my vocabulary, being one of the few people who know the name of that tool in English ;)
Heck, you even earned me an A in an English class once, when I knew a word my teacher didn't ^_^

Ian Stanway - Jun 11, 2015 at 09:13
I found this a lot with The Whispered World. The developers were German and there were too many puzzles that hinged on Germany language and way of thinking, and they didn't translate well into English.

McP - Jun 10, 2015 at 21:36
I'm going to resist the click.

I'll always remember the bobby pin sign that you used to unlock something in Zak McKracken as my most frustrating genre puzzle.  It was so gigantic, I didn't even consider using it, and then it dawned on me over dinner, and I rode my bike back to Dave's house to try it on his C64, then we heard the sweet music of the disk loading.

Wait, maybe that was my favorite puzzle:)

TVB - Jun 11, 2015 at 11:32
I remember that puzzle!
That's a great story :)

Reader331 - Jun 10, 2015 at 23:16
I like how you handle the spoiler issue on your blog. thx :)

Peter Campbell - Jun 10, 2015 at 23:58
For those who are hesitant to click on the link, the "SPOILER" is just a simple premise for a puzzle, there's absolutely zero story spoilers in the link.  To put it simply, it's as tiny, tiny, tiny of a spoiler of the game as there could possibly be and I don't even really consider it to be a spoiler lol.

Christopher Griffin - Jun 11, 2015 at 14:23
Agreed.  As in, the only way a spoiler would happen is if Ron announces which idea he plans to use on that page, which he hasn't yet -- but he has replied to one particular post with a reasonable amount of enthusiasm...

Starker - Jun 11, 2015 at 00:12
"I don't wanna fork that."

Dennis - Jun 11, 2015 at 02:59
I always thought putting in a chainsaw was asking for trouble. But didn't think of axes ...

Derrick Reisdorf - Jun 12, 2015 at 01:20
I feel like this should be some kind of contest.  If Ron & Co. designs the puzzle most closely resembling someone's suggestion, that person will get a special credit:
Desparation Freelance Puzzle Design (for that one puzzle) courtesy of...

Or maybe they can just get some free stuff.  :)

Ashley B - Jun 13, 2015 at 00:45
Will you tell us once you have chosen something?  Id hate to be trying to think up great ideas, only to find you settled on someone's idea days ago?