Electron Dance

Alone and Beyond Help

I tend to have brief, madly passionate affairs.

With mobile games.

The last affair I had was with Lara Croft GO (Square Enix Montreal, 2015) which I couldn't stop wrestling with over several weeks of commutes. On a difficulty curve, it was positioned around taxing-but-not-that-taxing which made it a pleasant diversion from the usual brainkilling puzzle fuckery of something like Cosmic Express (Draknek, 2016), a previous squeeze. But I was done with Lara and, after taking a break from commuter gaming, I cast around for something new. I embarked on Linelight (My Dog Zorro, 2017) and Cityglitch (mindfungus, 2017).

On a whim, I also picked up Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) after seeing it mentioned on Twitter. It looked like a garish lo-fi slot machine, complete with sounds like Mario hoovering up coins. I played a bit but it just... it just didn't do anything for me. Still, after becoming frustrated with the touchscreen controls of Linelight and finding I could only invest in playing Cityglitch for short bursts, I was forced to go back to Six Match to break things up a bit.

Today, Six Match is my new fling. And I want to talk about Six Match because its odd mix of mechanics induce an unusual emotion in the late game: loneliness.

Six Match is very much of the Starseed Pilgrim school of game design where it's down to you to figure it out. At first, everything is a little overwhelming but gradually the rules become legible. And after all those moments of understanding, Six Match continues to follow in the footsteps of Pilgrim, quietly transforming from curious beepy plaything into the Final Reckoning. Every game becomes a long, epic showdown, a struggle between you and the coins, the diamonds, the skulls, the blocks and did I mention the fucking skulls.

I'll limit spoilers here so you can have the same fun unlocking this little puzzlebox, but the basics: it's a Match-3 game crossed with a sliding tile puzzle. Think Bejewelled (PopCap Games, 2001) and you're halfway there. Instead of choosing adjacent coin pairs to swap at whim, you can only swap places with a white tile you slide around. The tile has six moves in which to create a match and it bears the number of moves left, like a ticking timebomb. Fail and the game is over. That's it, poof. You are always, always within six moves from death. In the beginning, the game showers you with colourful coin love and it's easy to keep the matches flowing. Later, though, you'll feel the stress of those six moves, each one of which will need to count.

Right, so, I wanted to talk about loneliness. Now to get to this particular writing destination, I'll need to explain about the Help function, which is something I ignored in the beginning yet became a key part of my approach to Six Match.

If you spend too long thinking about a move, Six Match will pop up a little button offering Help. It's marked HELPx6. Touch the button and the genie of Six Match will show you how to make a match. A ghost of your tile shows you the right dance steps needed to wrest order from the chaos: follow those steps and you'll make a match. Then you'll notice the button is called HELPx5. Aha. You only have six Helps available during the game.

I ignored it because, well, it's just a hint system, right? I'm smarter than that. I don't need HELP, let alone HELPx6. I'll use my eyes, thank you, Mr. Steed. However, the mental skills required to arrange the matches need time to develop and Help is really good at teaching those skills. You will make mistakes hand over fist, expecting to make a match only to find NOOOOO DAMN IT the coins move the opposite way you expected.

But what if Help can't find a match? What if you really are screwed? Then this happens:

You probably can't parse what this means. Let me help you understand Help. Help is offering you a bomb. This is Help's blunt way of explaining you are utterly screwed and only blowing a hole in the board will keep things moving along. If you don't take that bomb, your game will be over, trust me. Don't dis the Help, yo. So Help isn't just an expert to teach you the ropes but also doubles as a lives system. You can "die" six times and Help will save you. Once I realised Help was the number of lives I had, I soon stopped asking it for hints. No thank you! I think I'd rather stare at the board until the colourful coins are permaburned into my photoreceptors than throw away one of my lives because I'm a little lazy!

And so it goes.

Gah, I miscounted the moves! HELPx5.

No, it didn't move the way I expected! HELPx4.

Oh my days, I'm stuck in a corner unable to make a match! HELPx3.



And then: the dreaded CASH-IN. You taunting bastard.

Every move, it pops up. CASH-IN, with a skull. It sounds final, right? And that skull, well, that ain't right. CASH-IN. Are you stuck? Why don't you just CASH-IN? The CASH-IN button tells you nothing, it just waits for you to fail. Oh and you will fail, because you're now beyond Help. Touch that CASH-IN button and the game ends with a bonus. Yay, you didn't die! You chose to leave of your own free will!

There's a nasty dark side to the CASH-IN button. It poses a question only you can answer: are you really screwed? Are you staring at a Kobayashi Maru?

Help constantly reassures you that there's an answer in the scatter of coins, you just have to find it. I've stared at the coins for ten minutes or more sometimes, knowing there's a way out somewhere. But when you've exhausted Help with no-win scenarios, you can no longer be sure. Instead of certainty and confidence, Six Match becomes a game of fear and self-doubt. In the absence of Help, I had this profound feeling, in this Match-3 game of all places, of feeling alone. I hate giving up that last Help because not only is it the beginning of the end, but it is the beginning of playing without that companion who had seen me through. Help never lied. Help always told the truth. But now there's no Help and I don't know what to do.

Is now the time to hit the CASH-IN button? Or should I spend a few more minutes looking? And every time I spot that frankly genius route to save what looked like a doomed board, it makes the next call even harder. I found something last time, right? Surely this time there's a way through...? I just need to look a little longer.

Keep on looking. Keep on looking.


Six Match is available as a free, ad-supported Android app and now also out on iOS. The original prototype can be played on itch.io as a browser game.

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Comments (18) Trackbacks (0)
  1. This was a really interesting read and I can understand the thoughts you went through as the help peeled away, particularly the last one “it makes the next call even harder. I found something last time, right? Surely this time there’s a way through…?”. I’m trying to think why this thought is familiar… Triple Town! When you get a ‘pocket’ tree or house or something and are reluctant to use it to dig yourself out of a tough spot. Do I need to use this? There’s a way out, right? Right? There was last time. Am I really stuffed? etc.

    I’ve downloaded the game but not fired it up yet. Currently on Vignettes!

  2. Hi Gregg. Yes, I don’t think this aspect is that unique but, as I became more engrossed in the game, I was struck by how Help became such a critical focus – the countdown to the end of the game I desperately wanted to slow.

    Vignettes? Is that out on Android then? God, did I miss the release announcement?

  3. I played the browser version. It didn’t seem like the help button changed icons when I was stuck, so there were a couple times that I thought I was stuck and clicked it for the bomb, only for the game to say “well duh, make these two moves and you’re good.” It’s a subtle change with what seems like a big impact (knowing whether or not the next move is possible before you decide to just take a bomb).

    The browser version also grays out the faraway squares that you can’t reach with your remaining moves.That just seemed silly (reaching a square doesn’t necessarily do you much good, and also, it’s a pain to have reduced visibility on the blocks you might still use for a match), so I can see why they ditched it.

    Did you find the solution for the next move in your screenshot, or did you end up using help? I stared at it a little longer than I think I should have before I came up with up, left. Tricky little game.

    Did either of you ever play I Keep Having This Dream? (http://keephavingthisdream.blogspot.com/p/index.html) It looks like it might be iOS only, but it’s very neat design-wise. I was sad that it wasn’t more popular, not a little bit because I wanted to read other people’s analysis once they’d “solved” it.

  4. Hi Dan!

    The whole hint/bomb thing took a while to sink in – none of this is explained in-game – but it completely altered my approach when I realised what it was doing. I keep on wondering if Help could miss solutions but the developer suggests it would not. (Also I didn’t pay any attention to the poker cards below for ages; but I’m now at the point where score matters to me and every penny counts…)

    The “greying out” still occurs with Android version, but the effect is far more subtle and I didn’t notice it at first. It’s one of the things I hate about the prototype, that the unreachable squares are harder to see and thus demotes planning ahead.

    I took so many pictures of screenshots of unsolvable boards that Help told me I could do… I can’t remember if I figured out that one or not. But it’s rare that I ask for the hint, so I probably just sweated it out.

    I’m afraid I never heard of I Keep Having This Dream and it does seem like it’s iOS only so, erk, looks like I wouldn’t be able to take a look at it. I also don’t do a great job of keeping up with mobile game releases (well, there are a lot, right?). I once trawled through Google Play for something new and I just felt I was looking through clones of games, desperate not to give money to an unscrupulous developer.

  5. I’m on Android, Dan K, so unfortunately not! That looks interesting though.

    Joel, Vignettes is indeed out now! http://vignettesga.me/

  6. I have some inchoate thoughts about Starseed-likes, which had been connected to Tumbleseed which I was planning to hook onto the Monument Valley discussion in the other thread because I got it (with Grim Fandango) for a small price in a pay what you want bundle and wouldn’t have paid more for it because it’s a lot out of curiosity, and this small price makes me feel better about the purchase despite its flaws, which I’m not even entirely sure are in the game rather than me particularly in something that aspires to Starseed-likeness both in the death-can-destroy-lots-of-progress aspects (permadeath isn’t quite the way to describe it at least in Starseed) and in the crypticness, and I suppose in a certain aspect of the pacing that can be agonizing in both games in contrast to say Probability 0 where you always have to move lightning-fast and unless you are a Super Expert any game will be over in ten minutes absolute tops (also Tumbleseed has a powerup called Starseed but this might be a coincidence because many things in it are called *seed), in Starseed there can be a fair amount of waiting for stuff to grow and in Tumbleseed you often have to move very deliberately which can be very stressful because you have to use imprecise movement in combat (kind of like Gish but that’s a digression), but also these games demand a lot of observation and experimentation which may make it seem as though I would be getting some big valuable insight if I only did more observation, but in Tumbleseed sometimes this is too costly and doesn’t give you enough feedback, specifically there’s something where you can give up resources to spin a wheel of fortune and I have no idea what the wheel of fortune even did, and there’s a monster that I couldn’t defeat and I can’t tell whether I missed with my attack or it has multiple hitpoints or what and I don’t want to experiment because getting hit by this wasted a lot of time and effort, which I actually think Starseed does better on because many of the discoverable mechanics don’t really seem to require deliberately wasting resources except maybe the bubble thing which was the weakest thing for me except the one sprite I misinterpreted which brickwalled me near the beginning, but in Six Match sometimes I do feel like I haven’t quite had the mechanics conveyed to me and there’s a huge cost to messing up, but also and I think this is what Droqen said about Starseed it would just be awkward to have an explanation pop up every time a new thing appeared, but what I’m trying to say is WHAT THE HELL DID THOSE SKULLS JUST DO AND WHY DO I ONLY HAVE ONE MOVE LEFT NOW.

  7. UPDATE: there are instructions right below the game window explaining all of this in detail

  8. Matt, thanks for that easily readable paragraph from hell.

    But! I have the same feelings about Six Match. There are a couple of things I haven’t worked out how to deal with and they turn up quite late, after I reached around 1000 points or so and I just can’t face “sacrificing” the game just for a little experimentation after so much effort. So they currently remain mysteries and I hope their nature becomes clear soon…

    I tested out the skulls myself and, yeah, realised that was what I was supposed to be scared of. I didn’t see the instructions initially because I just it pulled off Google Play and started it up. I found some instructions later but it was too late – I’d already figured that stuff out.

  9. Easily readable sentence from hell, oi.

  10. So the thing is, in theory I love roguelikes. I mean actual roguelikes, with @ signs fighting a bunch of letters, not yer Tumbleseeds and Spelunkies and this sentence inspired me to start up Spelunky and I finally figured out how to get through the tutorial without taking damage–in theory I should also love Spelunky but one of the issues in practice is that it seems to take a long time to load screens and this sentence is getting out of hand again ABORT ABORT ABORT
    OK, so in theory I love roguelikes, and even in practice I love roguelikes and have played them a lot, and it seems like roguelikes absolutely love that sort of thing. “Hi you’ve played this game for ten hours and finally made your way to the twentieth level, here’s a new game element that you have to experiment with and that may punch you in the face whereupon you have to throw away this character you’ve lovingly been working on and start ALL OVER AGAIN! Ha ha!” And… how did I do that? The answer is that after a certain amount of killing myself with rotted food in nethack I looked at the wiki. Brogue is the roguelike I actually play occasionally now and drops some surprises on you but also does a little bit more explaining of what’s going on, it doesn’t have the surprise instadeaths nethack can give you in the midgame (though there are some traps that take a bit of experimenting to see how they worked,and I wish I’d looked at the wiki where it said “Don’t even try to fight dragons” before I made it to the level with dragons which in related news has only happened once).
    I was going to say something about games depending on wikis and getting a critical mass of fans to get the wiki going but of course the information I’m looking for on Tumbleseed (um, did I mention Tumbleseed yet?) is on a Steam guide and I’m a technological dinosaur.
    Anyway this seems to obviate the “explore and learn” thing. Hmm.

  11. That’s a good point!

    The learn by dying of roguelikes does feel much more compatible with our modern adult lives when it’s wrapped up in something that seems semi casual. Or if there’s a reasonable amount of fun in the early stages when you have to reset.

  12. Can we say a turn-based Match 3 is a roguelike?

    Still this point that about playing a long game just to get a chance to experiment with something + die never occurred to me because, well, usually I’m not very good at getting deep into roguelikes.

  13. I forgot to agree that relying on a wiki would seem to undermine the game’s point – unless your point is a collaborative game (a mulitplayer wisdom-gathering exercise).

  14. I think this one is a Roguelikelikelike per https://bp.io/howroguelike .

    Cryptark strikes a nice balance, I think. The early couple ships do get too easy, but the optional objectives and ship choice let you challenge yourself right from the get go, and even reward you for it. It’s nice because the optimal choice is actually the more interesting choice once you’re proficient. This contrasts to something like Diablo 2 or various roguelikes where the best builds require not buying or doing anything interesting till you’re halfway through the game.

  15. “Can we say a turn-based Match 3 is a roguelike?”


    Not to be mean! But the roguelike elements that everyone always thinks about when they talk about other elements of roguelikes–random generation + permadeath–are already present in the most vanilla Match-3 games. (Which I guess are mostly not turn-based, but still.) The roguelikelike thing that isn’t inherent to the base Match-3 game is the mystery, that the role of gameplay elements is obscured, and that’s a thing that a lot of roguelites or whatever don’t seem to copy.
    Lessee, mystery elements in some procedurally generated permadeath not really roguelikes:
    Probability 0–some of the enemy behavior, god-tier powers
    FTL–some of the mystery encounters, some of the ship unlocks and quests, those are actually the same thing
    Curious Expedition (more closer to roguelike than other things)–some of the shrine effects, one mysterious bonus area, maybe some other things–huh, somehow in my wall o’text I forgot to mention the part where I triggered an instadeath just as I was about to win Curious Expedition and basically haven’t played it again
    Tumbleseed–seems like just monster behavior and those fershlugginer lotteries, even new powerups give you a place to experiment with them

    This is in some ways not so far from Six Match, where the mystery thing (at least once you read that explanatory text) is in some of the tile mechanics and also how the powerups (and some of the non-powerups, like those damned green tiles) are produced. But still… that kind of seems like not the core mystery of a roguelike to me? One aspect of roguey roguey roguelikes is that some mystery is there every time you start–a green potion may be different things in different games and you have to identify it. (I understand that Binding of Isaac also does this.) So you really have to risk all on that mysterious potion sometimes, or work out strategies for dealing with the mystery, no matter how spoiled you are. Which is perhaps why I didn’t find that looking at the wiki ruined the experience.

  16. Quick note – game was updated and now on iOS (updated links in article).

  17. (Apologies for being a month late to the party)…

    I must confess that I installed Six Match months ago, played it a few times, didn’t really gel with it and decided to uninstall. I really liked the graphics and was disappointed I didn’t like the gameplay more, but … I never touched the HELP button! HELP was for people who relied on hint systems, and thus cheating. HELP would no doubt play an advert first, which I didn’t want either.

    It was only when I read your article that I realised how integral to the game it is, and how much I was missing out on. *reinstall*

    Since then, HELP has been used liberally, and I have learnt new mechanics and had to rewire my head from previous match-3 games. When I finally started getting the hang of it I felt like I’d entered the Matrix and could see things I was previously blind to. I’ve since had to limit myself to one attempt per day (if I’m up to it) and pausing my attempt after an hour so I can come back later with fresh eyes.

    Thank you for bringing my attention back to it Joel. Most days you can find me incessantly counting to six on my sofa whilst making perplexed faces at my phone ;-)

  18. LadyHazy, yes, mirrors my experience with it (apart from Electron Dance making me play it again)!

    I haven’t played for a week or so now, since making an 8,000+ score. When you’re playing at that level, small mistakes/swipe accidents can make *all* the difference to the score you will die on – with a game that can easily last weeks. I need to step back from worrying about mis-swipes and failing to count properly. Time for something else.

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