An immersion puzzle has three defining elements:
First, it takes the form of an environment that the player interacts with from within. It can be the shape of a room, a building, a landscape, a world – any open space that the player can inhabit.
Second, the player must have a considerable degree of freedom of movement, as aspects of more than one location are integral to solving the puzzle.
And third, it must be a puzzle, that is, it must be solvable by means of thinking (i.e. a maze is not an immersive puzzle unless it incorporates clues).
The result of these three factors is a puzzle that is “immersive,” which is to say, the puzzle invites the player to enter into the puzzle. Immersion puzzles have been made as video games, a book and (at least) imagined as real locations.
Immersion Puzzle Books:
Christopher Manson’s MAZE, released in 1985, is the first and, as of yet, the only immersion puzzle book. There have been a multitude of illustrated puzzle books in which the images hide clues to an overall puzzle, some of these even use rooms or locations as a backdrop for the clues, but these books provide no form of immersive navigation between locations. Similarly, there are a multitude of “choose your own adventure” type novels that have some limited navigation. But these novels are built on a branching path structure and do not allow freedom of movement. [see also Puzzle Books]
MAZE’s modular structure and almost complete freedom of movement allows the reader to do something never possible in a book before, it allows readers to explore. The process of exploring Manson’s MAZE acts no different than if one was actually exploring the depicted location it in real life. [see Introduction to MAZE]
Immersion Puzzle Video Games:
While creating a immersion puzzle book is an incredibly daunting task, video games provide an easy vehicle for their creation. Some of the earliest computer games were text-only adventures based on solving a series of puzzles and moving via a branching path model. Years later this style of gameplay would provide the inspiration for the “choose your own adventure” books. [see Puzzle Games]
Subsequent graphic-based video games greatly reduced the number and significance of puzzles but made the environments immersive by allowing free step-by-step movement.
But the first video game to really deserve the title “immersion puzzle” was MYST. Based on the MAZE gameplay model, MYST allows the player free movement (like MAZE the movement was between static images) and a series of puzzles to solve, all leading up to solving the overall mystery. Released in 1993, MYST quickly became the most popular game in the world, and is generally considered one of the greatest video games of all time.
Tomb Raider, released the same year as MYST, is primarily an action adventure that involves shooting various bad guys, animals and dinosaurs. It was also the first game to incorporate immersion puzzles into a game which allowed true three dimensional movement. Since then immersion puzzles have become a staple gameplay mechanic, finding their way into almost every action adventure game.
Devoted immersion puzzle video games like MYST are rare, only a handful have been made. Of these few, the sequels to MYST, while not as interesting/haunting as the original, remain the most engaging.
Immersion Puzzle Real Locations:
In the 1989 movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” a scene plays out in an ancient church converted into a library. This library hides clues to the location of secret burial chamber. Marks on the walls, when interpreted, indicate the location of the entrance.
This type of “puzzle in the shape of a location” is a mainstay of fantasy literature and film but, as far as I know, one has never been constructed. The closest existing parallel I know of are the medieval churches and cathedrals that have symbolism in their design and decoration. But the purpose of these metaphorical designs and measurements was to tell a story and glorify God, not to provide a puzzle. [see Puzzle Influences]
The future of immersion puzzles:
The future of immersion puzzles is the same as the future of all gaming, virtual reality. In coming years virtual gaming will be rife with action games and sporting games and many if not most of these will feature immersion puzzles inspired by the MAZE model. Possibly there may even be one or two “houses of mystery” with secret passages, winding staircases, and confounding puzzles to solve. But, for myself anyway, no game can compare with curling up with unsolved puzzle book surrounded by crumpled papers filled with maps, anagrams and strange symbols.