Socrates’ Meno and Solution Recollection

Or: Why is that damn puzzle room such a meano…


“Is he not better off in knowing his ignorance?” -Socrates.

I have been working on a post about Platforming games, having recently started playing Braid and Henry Hatsworth as well as replaying Oddworld Abe’s Odyssey and Yoshi’s Island DS, but had this quick idea while biking home the other day and don’t want to lose it’s thread.

Essentially I have been thinking about how the user experiences a puzzle in game. From a design standpoint there are many many things you can do to help the user find the solution to any given puzzle, this is true in most games as they have many ways of providing both positive and negative feedback to the user.

As much as I loved playing Professor Layton, it felt too much like a book of logic puzzles, and not enough like a game. I have poured over countless books of logic puzzles, as a kid I could never get enough of them. But when you encountered a problem you couldn’t quite intuit a solution to on your own you were kind of at a loss. Other than giving up completely, you could leave the puzzle and go back to it at a later time, hoping that you gained some new and useful perspective that would help you solve it, or you could flip to the back of the book and read the solution. Sometimes you could have a wrong solution and in trying to verify it by flipping to the back of the book you often got a double whammy of negative feedback: not only were you wrong, but you now knew the answer and had been robbed of the thrill of discovery.

Flipping to the back of the book, or it’s modern day equivalent: surfing over to GameFAQs, is no way to solve a puzzle. It just feels wrong. What should it feel like to solve a puzzle?

That’s a question I can consider by superimposing my own experience playing Braid for the first time this afternoon with a Socratic dialogue I am somewhat familiar with, the Meno. Meno and Socrates are discussing the nature of virtue and at a certain point Socrates goes on to explain that there is no such thing as teaching, only recollection of knowledge from past lives, or anamnesis. He then takes an uneducated slave boy and proceeds to show that without understanding mathematics, if given the right prompts, the boy is still able to reach a conclusion that proves the Pythagorean theorem. You can get a snapshot of that process here.

I’ve tried to come to playing Jonathan Blow’s Braid with as little information about it as possible. Braid is a game that I hadn’t had a chance to play yet, but had heard enough about to know that I wanted to go into with no preconceptions, without reading any of the countless blog posts / comment threads about the game. This resulted in much bookmarking of posts and fast forwarding of podcast segments.

When I jumped into Braid the first thing that struck me wasn’t the gameplay but the storyline. Regrets, I’ve had a few, and one particular broken hearted tale of mine dovetails perfectly with the idea of Tim thinking back over mistakes, or circumstances that occurred in his relationship that led to his dream-bound cloudy puzzle piecing.

I launched into the second world and was able to quickly get some of the pieces, I traversed world 2, life was good. Then I got to world 3 and the first pit, a pit that clearly was way too deep for me to jump out of. ‘Maybe I need all the puzzle pieces from the last world?’ I thought. I closed the game, took a nap and came back. I went into world 3, the title Time and Mystery resonated, I returned to the pit, jumped down, grabbed the key and then reverse-timed myself back to the platform. It all made sense, it came naturally, even the ‘aha!’ moment felt familiar. I went back to world 2 and the pieces I had missed now virtually flung themselves at me, I completed world 2 and 3 in quick time, as if I already knew how to do so, as if this wasn’t my first time playing through it.

Then I got to world 4 and for a bit I felt lost again. Maybe that’s why world 4 and 5 are both unlocked at the same time, the pit at the start of world 5 is much more comforting than the time addled Donkey Kong of world 4-1. It was time to take another nap, to let the mechanics seep into my unconscious mind, to remember how to solve the game. As I have played through world 4, each room presents a new bit of history to rewrite, to remind myself of. Tim, meanwhile, is trying to remind himself of the princess, how to reach her, and I can’t help but think that each solution I recall is a kiss on my cheek from that same Princess.

I woudn’t argue for Socrates’ theory of recollection, but I think it is an apt analogy for what one should feel during the process of discovery in puzzle games, especially in the game Braid. Brute forcing your way through puzzles should be left behind with 20th century adventure games. Players should understand what to do before doing it, they should feel like they knew it all along. It’s that thrill of familiar discovery that we as Designers owe to our Players, let’s try and not forget that.


One Response to “Socrates’ Meno and Solution Recollection”

  1. That’s exactly what I was thinking!! great post!!

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