Logical and Lateral Puzzle Games

Some puzzle games establish a set of consistent rules and then task the player with applying those rules to varied situations to accomplish goals. We might call these “logical puzzle games.” Prominent examples here would be Portal, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, and the pre-Eliza Zachtronics games.

In these logical games, satisfaction comes from mastering the tools the game gives the player. Thus, it’s vital that the rules be communicated clearly. If the game hid or obscured anything about how it works, it wouldn’t be playing fair and it would be actively preventing the player from achieving the game’s satisfying experiences.

Some other puzzle games instead task the player with figuring out the rules at least as much as applying them. Even if there is a set of consistent rules somewhere deep down, they express themselves in a way that seems to change frequently and defy generalizable logic. We might call these “lateral puzzle games.” Prominent examples here would be Antichamber, Superliminal (according to this review though I haven’t played it myself), and Gorogoa.

In these lateral games, satisfaction (I think) comes from pleasantly mind-expanding reveals. The game deliberately hides things about its world or rules so that the player may be surprised when the curtain is pulled back. In logical games, that would block off the game’s satisfying experiences - but in lateral games, it’s required for them. You can’t have a reveal without having misdirection first.

But like I said, I only think that’s where the satisfaction comes from, because for me lateral puzzle games are wholly unsatisfying. Daniel Weissenberger characterized Superliminal as existing “only to show off how clever its developers are” and I felt similarly about Antichamber and Gorogoa. It tempts me to dismiss the entire subgenre, especially in contrast to Portal being famously designed to make the player feel clever instead.

But! I know these games are well-liked by their audience - I tried both Antichamber and Gorogoa due to their enthusiastically positive reviews. So I suspect that what’s actually going on isn’t that lateral puzzle games are bad and all these people somehow failed to notice. Instead, this is likely another case where we enjoy different games due to different wirings. Much like with large games that make you work to find their quality content, I don’t get a thrill of discovery from lateral puzzles - to me they feel like exercises in reading the developer’s mind more than stretching my own. But if I did experience that thrill? If I found those surprises genuinely rewarding? I’d probably love these games and be grateful for the journey they took me on.