Puzzles and games in fiction serve a different function than mystery and tension. The latter two exist in all fiction and at their heart posit the question: what will happen next?
Puzzles stand apart. We have immediate access to the scaffolding. They exist within the more explicitly stated construct of rules and parameters. After all, one cannot successfully play a game or solve a puzzle if one does not understand the rules.
And when puzzles and fiction meet? When puzzles and games are prominently featured in fiction, what are the possible pitfalls?
“Crimes Against Mimesis” is a classic 1998 essay by Roger Giner-Sorolla that dissects the fiction aspect of interactive fiction, or computer games in which the player actively solves puzzles while playing out the plot of the game. He states, “A crime against mimesis is any aspect of an [interactive fiction] game that breaks the coherence of its fictional world as a representation of reality”. Many of Giner-Sorolla’s observations can be applied to puzzles (and their pitfalls) in a written, linear narrative as well.
Among others, Giner-Sorolla explicitly addresses three common dangers that can undermine puzzles in a novel: lock and key puzzles that collapse context, coincidences and environments that are justified by their genre and not justified within the story itself, and “blank slate” characters onto which readers can project their own personalities.
Start with item one: lock and key puzzles. These are puzzles in which the plot can only move forward after the protagonist has successfully completed a task that will allow her to proceed past a roadblock in her quest. The main argument against relying too heavily on lock and key puzzles, especially multiple, subsequent lock and key puzzles, is that they are so rarely believably contextualized. What serves the puzzle may be at cross purposes with the fictional integrity of the scene.
Item two: genre-justified environments vs. story-justified environments. Father Ronald Knox wrote in 1928 that “Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable, and such a passage may only be in a house or building for which it is appropriate by age or purpose.” That is to say, a secret passageway may exist in an old English castle, but only if that particular castle had need of it, or if the Queen were inclined to build one. It may not exist simply because, as a genre convention, castles sometimes have secret passages.
Item three: blank-slate characters. These are characters that behave more like reader avatars than fully fleshed-out characters with distinct personalities. They are especially prone to pop up in puzzle-laden plots because it is so easy for the particulars of the puzzle to take center stage. This is a fine line to walk as all readers to some degree empathize and identify with their protagonists, and especially quick-witted readers are apt to try their hand at the puzzles themselves. It is only a problem when puzzle eclipses character. When the reader may as well be reading a generic math problem of the kind found in algebra textbooks: If Mary travels from her home to the supermarket at a speed of 40 mph then returns, using the same road, from the supermarket to her home at a speed of 85 mph, what is the average speed for the round trip?
Missing are the essentials of great storytelling: motivation, backstory, context. Why is Mary going 85 mph on a 40 mph road? Is Mary some kind of impromptu getaway driver embroiled in a high speed chase? What exactly happened in that supermarket?
Puzzles in linear fiction can be great fun. They can lend themselves to episodic structure that advances plot easily and gives the pace a quick bump. However, many of the concerns of interactive fiction are also the concerns of linear fiction. By studying both, it is possible to create puzzles that are fully anchored in the fictional universe of the story.