Compelling puzzle games are inherently physical. There’s the crowded field of examples on the iPhone thanks to Angry Birds’ success, but even more sophisticated puzzle games like Portal ultimately rely on our knowledge of the physical world and how it fits together.
Take Cathode Rays, for instance, which is a light-based no-button puzzle game. You guide colored beams of light around obstacles towards a goal by moving your mouse. The trick is, you can only cross a color with the same-color obstacle; a red obstacle breaks a green light’s beam.
Knowledge of light and how it instantaneously travels in a straight line is pretty useful here. But when you play a puzzle game, you don’t often process the game world on that level. You’re not using equations to calculate angles of light like the game engine is doing in the background. You’re using your knowledge of the physical world, and your internal simulation of it, to play with these puzzles until you can solve them.
Of course the game world isn’t like the real world, which is part of what you have to learn to be good at puzzle games. Learning to use your momentum to jump really high in Portal is one of the things you can’t do in the real world, so it has to be taught as part of the game. Same thing here with light beams and obstacles.
Talking Points: Are there any examples of puzzle games that aren’t physical? Are they any good? Why do physical puzzles fascinate people so much? Could you make a puzzle game about something non-physical, like speech?