I want to make games that give the player the feeling of being a scientist in another world. That is, the puzzles and systems within the game follow a set of rules that the player needs to discover. Once they've discovered the rules, they can then solve the puzzles by deduction. An example of a game that does this well is Outer Wilds.

But I don't know where to begin when crafting systems like these. An ideal system (in my mind) would be one that feels like a natural part of the world, allows for interesting puzzles, allows players to discover it in layers, but ultimately isn't so complex that you'd need to earn a degree in it to solve the final puzzles. I think Outer Wilds does this in part by having several reasonably simple systems, and the toughest puzzles are those that involve the interaction of two or more of those. The final puzzle requires you to understand all of the systems fairly well.

For concreteness, the specific game I'm imagining involves a stereotypical magical setting, but that magic follows specific rules that the player will learn over the course of the game. Does anyone have any advise of where to start in creating the rules for such a system, for creating complimentary systems to interact with, or for creating puzzles that reveal just part of the rules? Answers for the more general question posed in the title are also welcome.

  • $\begingroup$ As this question is not itself a puzzle, I think you would perhaps be better served by asking it on puzzling.meta.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly No, meta is for questions about this site, I believe, questions about creating puzzles are fine on the main site. $\endgroup$
    – Ankoganit
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ There's a puzzle creation tag which seems to be about these kind of questions, but the posts under that tag haven't usually matched the tag's description very well. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 9:37
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I agree that this is on-topic here and wouldn't be on meta. $\endgroup$
    – Gareth McCaughan
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ Fuller answer coming later, I hope, but: read the thesis. digitallibrary.usc.edu/… $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 15 at 18:37

1 Answer 1


Firstly, I'd strongly recommend reading the lead designer's thesis, "Outer Wilds: A game of curiosity-driven space exploration".

I wouldn't describe Outer Wilds as having "a series of systemic puzzles". This sounds much more like a description of The Witness, where determining the meanings of the system of marks is the core of the gameplay. Perhaps there is more of a mastery of mechanics, like Portal, a portal does not just allow you to walk between Here and There, but place objects, turn gravity into a horizontal slingshot...

Outer Wilds as a Metroidvania

Diagram of an early version of the Hearthian system. Curiosities (main plot objectives) and clues to Curiousities exist in different places

We acquire a number of keys during our travels. Often these are revelations about how a distant feature works:

in a laboratory on Brittle Hollow's pole, we discover how twister direction matters on Giant's Deep, potentially having learned elsewhere that ships have sunk due to that and that there is something

near a friend in Dark Bramble, we discover a jellyfish can be gone inside and is rubbery

in childish writing on Ember Twin, we discover a fact about anglerfish behaviour that changes our own in Dark Bramble

in the furthest corner of the system, we learn that teleporters only work when the planets align, and we might see that when the planets align the teleporter is covered in a sandstorm.

Each of these is a little nugget of information with relevance to understanding these things. None of these nuggets requires magic or technology: two are "walk into a thing to get past a barrier", one is "don't do a thing to get past the barrier" and one is "run into the barrier at the right time to get past the barrier".

The individual mechanics, however, are wildly different;

seeing/not seeing an object through turning away, scout lighting and photography

following a scout waypoint


finding a POI and scanning for similar POIs to tie together disparate parts of a puzzle (one of the chief ways of making sure you've learnt the different mechanics of a single puzzle)

using light to find a way through a maze

What ties these together into a "systemic puzzle"? I don't see it. What makes the puzzles great is the movement from exploring the basics in a safe environment, then using it in a basic way, and exploring further ways in which that can be used, strung together into a longer set of puzzles on a theme.

  • $\begingroup$ It is a puzzle-creation question, but all of the examples are from an existing game (referenced in the question) which is exceptionally sensitive to spoilers. The spoilers need to stay. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ ok. makes sense. thx. I will remove my comment. $\endgroup$
    – JLee
    Commented Feb 19 at 12:28

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