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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