As the summer of 2021 dragged on, my mental health waned toward depression—and I’m certainly not the only one struggling right now. Along with other depressed gamers, I turned to the one thing that’s always there for us when we’re down: puzzle games.
I’ve long suffered from depression and anxiety, and during these low points I often choose games that challenge my brain and occupy my busy mind. Whether I was searching for clues in a puzzle-heavy detective game like Jenny LeClue: Detectivu or having my heart wrenched by the beautiful levels of The Gardens Between, I noticed that these puzzles made me feel, at least for a few moments, like I could keep my head above water.
And, as I suspected, I’m not the only one who tears through puzzles when they’re feeling depressed. Take Harsh Goyal, a dog training blogger and Rubix cube aficionado based in Delhi, India, who turned to puzzles amid the stress and anxiety of last year’s Covid-19 lockdowns. Goyal says he thinks of puzzles as a series of dots waiting to be connected in the right way.
“The eagerness to connect those dots is so strong that you get lost entirely in it,” he says. “So even if I am sad, angry, or disgusted before starting any puzzle, I always end up in a satisfactory mood after the puzzle is completed.”
Goyal opts for grueling offline puzzles, like crosswords and 1,000-piece gradient floor puzzles, to calm work-related stress or help him fall asleep when his mind is racing at night. But according to London-based trauma therapist Olivia James, it doesn’t matter what format your puzzles come in—solving them feels good because it offers a sense of control and satisfaction.
“What’s so satisfying about puzzles is that there are no surprises,” James says. “Nothing unexpected is going to happen in a puzzle.”
Focusing such that your mind is occupied but not excessively challenged, James says, is incredibly helpful for people with depression, anxiety, and stress because it offers what she describes as “a little holiday from yourself.” For some people, this “gentle focus” takes the form of tending to a garden or tidying a room, while for others, puzzles fill this space.
The difference between traditional gentle focus and puzzles, though, is the satisfaction of an “elegant solution” at the end, according to James. In a world filled with ever-changing norms and expectations, the clear-cut rules and codes present in puzzles make the solver feel in control—the rules of the puzzle won’t change willy-nilly, so the only question is whether you can solve it.
For game developer Simon Joslin, cofounder of The Voxel Agents and level designer for The Gardens Between, designing great puzzles is all about teaching the player that code and then quizzing them on it.
“You’re always stacking knowledge because the player is ultimately learning the language of the game,” Joslin says of designing puzzle games.
As the player, you’re dropped into a world with new rules and physics, and beating the level is all about learning and applying those guidelines. Joslin says, “It’s not a language you’ve ever spoken before, so you need to learn the building blocks of our language and understand how to use it and how not to use it.”
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The Voxel Agents is a Melbourne, Australia-based studio responsible for challenging and immersive puzzle games like The Gardens Between, Puzzle Retreat, and Train Conductor World. Its games are designed with pleasing visuals and satisfying audio, coupled with artfully crafted puzzle levels that range from instant solves to days-long thought food. The puzzles certainly occupy your mind and challenge your cognitive abilities, so much so that you’ll often have to come back to one puzzle or another after a brain break. But part of the philosophy behind these games, according to Joslin, is the commitment to a world where players can relax, focus, and enjoy solving the puzzles.
In Gardens, for example, it’s impossible to get stuck on a level or make a wrong choice where your only option is to start over. Each level is solved by moving forward and backward in time to manipulate elements of the garden and get a glowing orb past the obstacles, through time, and to the portal at the end of the level. You use the magic light to make the dark clouds standing in your way disappear and build bridges across cavernous breaks in the path while also toying with the environment to make a clear path to the end with the light in tow.
The game takes you through an imaginative journey of two friends recalling the bittersweet bliss of their childhoods, when ordinary objects were fodder for boundless play—like the sewer drain reimagined as a foreboding tower or the moving boxes used as platforms and stairs. While you might have to move backward in time to topple a bowl of popcorn or drip water onto an exposed wire in an effort to clear your path, you won’t ever find yourself stuck with nothing left to do but start over.
“You can always progress,” Joslin says of the game—crediting creator Henrik Peterson with its relaxed and calming nature. “There’s no time pressure, no fail states, no having to undo.”
The lack of pressure and incredibly nostalgic visuals, inventive mechanics, and challenging (but not impossible) puzzles make for a puzzle game that’s ideal for gamers who are struggling to get through the day.
In the case of Puzzle Retreat, where players slide ice cubes into place, the Voxel Agents went so far as to make each level available upon purchase, so players don’t have to beat one puzzle to gain access to the next one. Joslin says this keeps players focused on solving puzzles rather than getting to the end of the game, with a greater emphasis on enjoying the retreat from normal life.
The effectiveness of puzzles as a coping mechanism depends greatly on how challenging the puzzle is for each player, according to trauma therapist James. It’s about finding the right balance between challenging and feasible—it can’t be so hard that you get frustrated and down on yourself, but it can’t be so easy that you get bored or distracted by other thoughts while playing.
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“If you can do a puzzle that’s still within your cognitive ability, it kind of gives you a little boost,” she says. Solving a puzzle can remind you that you are capable, smart, and at least well enough to do something with your mind. “When we are that depressed, that is actually quite a good thing.”
It’s not just about focus, either. Solving puzzles occupies the mind enough to draw your focus outward, James says, and give you a break from the constant internal monologue—often an unkind one for anxiety and depression sufferers.
“We get a sense of achievement when we complete a puzzle … because it’s so predictable and the rules of puzzles are so predictable, unlike life, where anything can come and bite you in the ass,” she says. “When you solve a puzzle, everything fits and is completed elegantly, logically.”
She’s careful to remind any puzzler, though, that puzzles are no replacement for mental health care. In fact, it’s possible to get so obsessive about a puzzle game—or to fixate on any one thing—that it is detrimental to your ability to get help.
For Malvika Sheth, a fashion and beauty content creator based in Los Angeles, California, puzzles are a way to move from “anxiety mode to strategy mode.”
“Sometimes all I really need is to slow down and get my mind off of the fast-paced digital life I live,” Sheth says. Once she finishes a puzzle, she says, “I find that I start thinking more logically, as opposed to operating out of an emotion like fear or anxiety.”
She says that puzzles—traditional jigsaws being her favorite—make her feel like her life is “figure-out-able” and give her a reason to take a break from the constant demands of content creator life.
This process is a way of regulating our emotions, James says. By solving puzzles, whether we choose logic puzzles, jigsaws, Rubix cubes, puzzle video games like Superliminal, or puzzle mobile games like Monument Valley, we’re giving our brains a break while still exercising those cognitive muscles.
I told James about a time in college when I was too depressed to finish assignments, make it to class, or hang out with friends. I incessantly played logic puzzles and crosswords because I felt like I was wasting my brain if I couldn’t do anything intellectually challenging.
“Part of you hadn’t completely given up at that point,” James says. Solving a puzzle is like “giving yourself a little pep talk.”
Ultimately, that catharsis we feel after solving puzzles can make us feel more capable, more intelligent, and better prepared for the uncertainties of life. After all, as James says, we’re all just trying to get through the ever-changing state of the world on both a personal and societal level.
“Anything that humans can do to self-regulate, to soothe themselves, is helpful,” James says. “We’re trying to manage our own moods. Puzzles are just one way of doing that.”
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