Electron Dance
21Jan/14Off

An Honest Game

sokobond-map2

Puzzle games have a delicious quality. They are honest. The design never lies because everything you need to know is on the screen. There are no special switches and no powerups are required. The answer is in front of you, it’s right there, if only you could see it. Look again. Look harder. This is possible, you know it is.

Actually, now I think about it, the game is taunting you, mocking you. Are you still stuck on this level? Still? Don’t worry, I can wait, sweetie. You just take your time. I’ll have a cup of earl grey over here while you think your brains out.

That honesty? Passive-aggressive is what it is.     

Puzzle games are a bastion of slow play, even though many developers have created action-puzzle hybrids such as Bejeweled (PopCap Games, 2001) or any tower defense game you’d care to mention. Yeah, that’s right. Tower defense games are puzzles which usually revolve around finding the correct tower cypher to crack the onslaught code. I don’t care if you don’t agree. Pfft. That’s the sound of me not caring, right there. Especially if you haven’t played Immortal Defense (Radical Poesis Games & Creations, 2007), damn your empty soul.

Writing about games means I’m addicted to making progress, I want to get through as many titles as possible because it enriches the writing. I learn things through diversity. I do not learn that much from playing Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013) for 17 hours. Especially Bioshock Infinite. Gah, that game. Don’t get me started because I will bore you for 17 hours.

This addiction to progress means puzzle games often get short shrift. I’ll hit the first “hard” puzzle and decide I’ve seen enough. That was smashing, babe, but you know your way out, right? When it comes to puzzles, I’m always thinking about the next delicious conquest and commitment is never on my mind.

This is ridiculous because a puzzle game isn’t a sprint to the finish. It isn’t the shooter you’re going to spend company with for the evening, but a romance, someone you get to know well over a period of days, possibly weeks. When you reach a problem, you’re not meant to search for the nearest walkthrough. You’re supposed to put the game down and go do something else. You’re supposed to play in short bursts.

But design is a tricky, fragile thing.

I played These Robotic Hearts of Mine (Alan Hazelden, 2011) at Eurogamer Expo 2011 and the game felt stale to me. In Hearts, the player rotates cogs trying to make all of the hearts on the screen face upright, and each puzzle offers a different configuration of cogs and hearts. After a few levels, I found it overwhelming. I didn't develop any sort of pattern matching skills, it just didn't work on me that way. I was just twiddling with cogs until I found the solution.

robotic-hearts

Because that’s key to a puzzle game, you need to develop a sense of mastery, a sense that you’re getting smarter. It’s fine if you want a game that involves clicking random buttons to see what happens – there’s the whole Room Escape genre for you.

Sokoban games also bore me. The premise is too simple and there aren’t enough mechanics to build something interesting from. It’s always the same. Here are some boxes. Push them into an area without getting stuck. Well done, now here are some more boxes for you. It’s like being challenged to eat a packet of crackers straight, no water nor cheese. Puzzle design often reaches for difficulty through complexity. Not through beauty, but through chaos.

Here’s my favourite level from The Citadel (Joel Goodwin, 1993).

the-citadel-room-11

It’s elegant and compact. Every object and space is crucial to its solution. It also looks immediately impossible. In the video I commented that I liked “clinical” design the best, where the fat has been removed from the puzzle and every single element has its purpose.

With Harry Lee, Hazelden followed up with Sokobond (Hazelden & Lee, 2013) last year which is profoundly different to Hearts. It blends the spatial constraints of Sokoban with chemistry; the player’s goal is to compose molecules within the space provided. When I first experienced it at Eurogamer Expo 2012, my gut reaction was that although the game was interesting, especially as it exhibited plenty of clinical puzzle design, I had doubts whether it could go the distance. Would I really be interested in making my twentieth molecule?

My doubts were unfounded. Sokobond works.

It uses a more modern style of a map to chart progress; new puzzles are unlocked with every victory, and you always have several puzzles to choose from. If you’re stuck and not yet ready to close the game, just try one of the other puzzles. Sokobond is a lovely thing to spend a few minutes with every night. I still haven’t finished the game and progress is now slow. Puzzles are livened up with new mechanics thrown in here and there – rotations, the ability to snap bonds, atoms that do not bond at all – and most of the puzzles work on simplicity.

It’s torture when you can’t figure out some of these puzzles, especially the dumb looking ones with just three atoms. There’s a rush of relief whenever I complete a tricky puzzle, like a bout of sticky constipation unlocked with the help of a suppository. Solving the level “Arena” felt positively euphoric.

sokobond-arena

There are small patterns and tricks for making progress and I find myself adapting to the game, thinking the Sokobond way. Observing symmetry in the puzzle, for example, halves your possible approaches. When I’m stuck, I close the game knowing I’ll come back another time. I know I will because I finished The Swapper (Facepalm Games, 2013).

The Swapper is a puzzle game although it’s not clear from the outset. You’re in a spacesuit, jettisoned from a space station against your will – and land on a planet. Now what? Soon enough you discover the swapper device which allows you to create clones of yourself and use them to solve puzzles. Mechanics are actually fairly simple with the presence of red and blue light generating most of the challenge, as coloured light inhibits certain modes of the swapper.

the-swapper-planet

As in Sokobond, you have access to several puzzles for most of the time, although puzzles are reached on foot rather than via a progress map. Each puzzle rewards you with a number of “security orbs” and if you have enough of them you can unlock the next section. The orbs are a cheap solution to managing player progress, but their invention creates a wild disconnect between the core game and the narrative it sits in. For a game that wants its story to be taken seriously, I cannot imagine what function these orbs would actually perform. I’m going to moan more about the story in a minute, so if that offended you, hold on to your hats.

It took awhile for The Swapper to get difficult and when it did, boy, was I close to looking for a walkthrough. But I persisted. Just like Sokobond, many of the puzzles taunt you with their apparent simplicity. Your brain sees impossibility but the puzzle’s very presence in the game means that cannot be the case. It’s fiendish at times; you’re always one clone short of what you think you need.

So, The Swapper is another great puzzle game that expects you to go off and meditate at regular intervals. But it also reveals something that puzzle games can have trouble with: story.

Do puzzle games need a story? Sokobond clearly doesn’t but many other games such as SpaceChem (Zachtronics Industries, 2011) flaunt one nonetheless. The Swapper offers a well-crafted story penned by Tom Jubert who has worked on the Penumbra series (Frictional Games) and FTL (Subset Games, 2012)... but it fails.

Most of the story is told through lore but some parts are injected through voiceover. This story comes at you in pieces and it’s down to you to put the whole sorry mess together. It’s a typical labour of love from Jubert, with philosophical musings on the nature of consciousness and a disturbing ending. But I never quite figured out the story because a puzzle game isn’t meant as a sprint.

As per traditional puzzle engagement, I often left the game lie fallow for a few days or more while my subconscious tried to figure out the solution of the latest “impossible” puzzle. I lost track of the plot every time this happened. Eventually, I gave up on the details and just enjoyed the cold, lonely atmosphere the visuals, sound and words provided. I didn’t feel short-changed because it was a fine game and the puzzles were sufficiently maddening.

Yet The Swapper was important personally because it did for puzzle games what Leave Home (hermitgames, 2009) did for 2D shooters. I thought the 2D shooter was dead to me until Leave Home changed my world view. I had become the kind of person who would scoff and roll his eyes when a puzzle game danced across his radar. Until I completed The Swapper, that is, at which point I realised I was still puzzle-compatible.

Ah... that puzzle-averse attitude was probably exacerbated by my experience with Corrypt (Michael Brough, 2012) which looked like a Sokoban-alike on first glance but later revealed itself to be a headfuck-alike and--

You know what, I think that’s a story for another time.

corrypt

Thanks to Alan Hazelden and Tom Jubert for copies of Sokobond and The Swapper respectively. This post was inspired by a brief Twitter conversation with Hazelden regarding my comments on "clinical" puzzle design in The Citadel video.

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Comments (23) Trackbacks (1)
  1. More words to come, but for the moment I’d like to say I absolutely loved The Swapper’s story, yet it wasn’t until I read this that I realized how flawed it is that the Orbs aren’t mentioned even once on the logs (or are they? not in a memorable way at least).

  2. Sorry I haven’t been round these parts much recently Joel! I just wanted to say this was a cracking read and touches on a few things I’ve had rattling around in my head over the last week or so, particularly since I started playing an Android game recommended by Hailey called Kami (that’s in a similar ‘lovely thing to spend a few minutes with every night’ vein to Sokobond. Micron was another).

    I wholeheartedly agree with your observation about tower defence (usually) being a kind of puzzle game, and this further plays into my recent thoughts (which I’m going to hang on to for the time being). Basically I’ve noticed a trend in a lot of the games I’ve been playing (and enjoying thoroughly) over the last few years that’s kind of obvious but still feels like a revelation. I’m hoping to get these thoughts into an article soon.

    Being a bona-fide hater of Sokoban, I too was worried Sokobond would rub me the wrong way but at the EGX 2012 I was really pleasantly surprised by how manageable and elegant it was like the best kinds of puzzle games. I’m glad you reminded me of it because it’s something I ought to pick up. How you feel about These Robotic Hearts of Mine sounds like how I feel when I play with a Rubik’s cube — I don’t feel like I’m getting better or can get better. I just feel as though I’m fiddling until something clicks. Like you say, there’s no sense of gaining mastery.

    I also think you explained well why the story in The Swapper was so difficult to understand (besides a few of the voice actors sounding too similar to my ears!). I do hope to play it again at some point in the hopes of getting a better idea of what it was all about.

    Also: Vessel. Not as tight as The Swapper (fluid tends to slosh about and sloshy automatons aren’t reliable, as the game shows quite intentionally!) but it’s a cracking puzzler. Glad to hear you’ve realised you’re puzzle-compatible, I always thought you always have been given Portal, At A Distance, Immortal Defense etc.

    Speaking of SpaceChem, have you played it yet? You pre-ordered it and everything ;-)

  3. @David – I made sure not to knock The Swapper’s story. I loved it too and it purposefully doesn’t fill in every gap – like what the swapper is “really doing” because no one can really answer what is a philosophical question in nature. It has a chilling ending, and I’m not talking about the final decision, but what seems to be happening with the Watchers. It’s quite stellar – but I didn’t understand all the details about what had happened on Theseus and I found it difficult following the principal actors of the plot.

    I don’t think the orbs are explained/justified in the logs. While it could be attempted, I can’t think of a reasonable explanation that would fit nicely with the rest of the serious SF plot.

    @Gregg – Don’t worry about it, we’re all busy. At least you’re still part of the Tap world. I remember a certain Gregg saying he was quitting videogame writing a couple of years ago… dang that Steerpike for reeling you back in.

    I can pick holes in my TD argument because plenty of TD games encourage direct intervention such as Defense Grid’s satellite laser and also allow you to redeploy your towers as the game progresses. These aspects seem to suggest these are more reactive, tactical experiences and less of a mental challenge. I would argue that this is a pants argument in most cases. Finding the right tower sequence, including a redeployment of towers across the level’s duration, is the usually the key to victory. No amount of reaction is going to solve a level unless the game is badly balanced or the difficulty is deliberately low.

    You can play Hearts online without paying any monies – it’s linked above – so you can have a dabble yourself. Obviously, there must be some people who will develop a deep understanding of its interactions, probably Hazelden himself for example, but it did not work for me.

    I meant to write more about The Swapper and its story but I didn’t want to turn this into a review, I wanted to talk more about what puzzle games do for me. The Swapper is actually a little bit fiddly too, maybe not as sloshy as Vessel, but sometimes I wasn’t sure if I cracked a puzzle or whether I just found a glitchy set up in the level that hadn’t been eradicated through design & test.

    On your point that I’ve played Portal etc. I’m really driving at these 2D logic puzzles. Portal still feels very novel and cool, so it manages to smash through all of my recent puzzlephobia without much problem. I’m more wary of the 2D logic puzzles that have been with us since The Valley of Gwangi was in theatres. At A Distance is like Kairo – not pure logic puzzlers but about figuring out how the world works, pressing buttons to see what happens. There’s no “puzzle template” getting repeated again and again. I also tried Puzzle Dimension, by the guys who made Gear Up that we dabbled with at Eurogamer Expo 2012, and I just got bored after a little while. I received a press copy of puzzle-game-with-a-ball InFlux and it just didn’t click with me at all, although that has far more emphasis on skill than some of these titles. Immortal Defense is TD and I’ve already discounted it in one of the earlier paragraphs =) I’m sure there would be a better way to encapsulate the kind of games I mean, but I was writing this ridiculously late last night and that kind of fine tuning was totally beyond me.

    Oh, I hear Kami is coming to PC.

    (No, guess what, I still haven’t played SpaceChem despite being one of the first to order that game before it became super cool.)

  4. You’re such a hipster.

    I tried Puzzle Dimension (didn’t know that was by the same folks that did Gear Up) and it didn’t click with me either. I played a game on the Playstation many moons ago that was similar called Kula World but I never stuck with that in the same way as some of my friends did at the time.

    Yeah I know what you mean with regards to the ‘is that how I was supposed to do it?’ thing in The Swapper. There were a few where I just managed to slip a clone over an edge or on to a pressure plate to solve a puzzle and it just didn’t seem as… I dunno, elegant or intentional as you’d expect.

    I was thinking of Revenge of the Titans for TD that doesn’t really fit so well in the puzzle mould because it’s about research and randomised levels and AI that does whatever the fuck it wants to; there are strategies and tactics to victory rather than build, upgrade and sell paths. Hmm, I suppose that’s why it’s considered more of a real-time strategy than outright TD. Several years later and he finally gets why Caspian calls it RTS. Having said this, you still have to get that first wave build right so…

    Steerpike is awfully nice to me on the surface but on the Super Secret Staff Board, deep in the Tap silo, he’s… well, he’s lovely to me there as well.

    If you ever want to get anything off your chest Bioshock Infinite related, I’m all ears. I’m sure we all are! :-D We’ve even got a thread on Tap for ranting about it!

    (Note to self: don’t forget Corrypt)

  5. It’s not my fault! Do you know how long the bottom of the Immortal Defense page has said “Mac version coming soon”?

    There are some puzzle games that aren’t transparent about their mechanics. Not just the ones that force you to discover them (like Droqen’s Notes), but ones like Blobbo Lite (Glenn Andreas, 1994) which set up mechanics and then occasionally violate them. So that you have to have the moment where you say “This doesn’t just look impossible, I’m going to try to walk through that solid wall.” (Which Blobbo Lite did in a relatively fair manner; the walls you could walk through were introduced on a level where something you needed to reach was surrounded by solid walls, so that it was clear you needed to cheat. And there was a wonderful moment on a level full of brain-bending puzzles when I got to the end and said “That doesn’t look remotely solvable, I’m going to just see if you can walk through that wall” and it worked. Incidentally Blobbo Lite was awesome and someone is being highly negligent in not porting it for mobiles.)

    Since you mentioned SpaceChem’s story I will link back to my theory of its secret story. I forgot to mention in that story that the boss evil chemical was artificial butter flavor for popcorn. That is a game that really (with an exception or two) makes you plow through the levels in order. I saw a graph of how many players completed each level and someone was praising the designers for creating an almost uniform difficulty curve but to me that means that maybe you never get enough mastery to keep it from being a slog (did I already say that once in comments here?)

    I was going to say “Hey, Braid is a puzzle game” but… wait, does that mean you gave up trying to understand the story or you gave up on the game?

  6. I gave up on the story in Braid, admittedly sometime after completing it.

  7. I can only imagine the disconnect in the swapper came from the development style – hiring a separate writer, level designer, and then artist-programmer may be very difficult to coordinate something to the complexity of atmospherizing and narrative-izing a at-its-core puzzle game, hence probably the addition of goofy security-orbs-as-counters.

    I remember droqen complaining about the disconnect of the puzzles from the narrative as well: part of his gripe (maybe mine too, this was a while ago) was how the moving through space was sort of fun exciting but never really used to any interesting extent (sure you were going through the space station, but your time was spent standing for minutes and minutes at the puzzle rooms).

    But yeah overall enjoyable, esp. how the delivery is done I guess – more palatable then just not having an overworld at all

  8. Well, it’s not just TD’s that qualify as puzzle games but shouldn’t; stealth games being the most obvious. Mario, Advance Wars, Ruse and Overwatch are the other games I can think of off the top of my head. That last one, Overwatch, takes some explanation though.

    Overwatch is a free Flash RTS set in a pretty gloomy future setting. A host of abnormal factors (cover system, automated healing, maps with little room to outflank, extreme ease in getting reinforcements, and low population caps) mean that stalemates are common. The only reliable means of overtaking your enemy are special abilities that function in very narrow situations and take considerable time to build up. As such, the stalemates are actually the meat of the game; both sides reinforce and rearrange their front-line troops, hide reserves, prepare secondary lines, and analyze their opponent’s deployments. In other words, it’s a competitive puzzle game in which both players build competing puzzles for each other to solve.

    Well, Overwatch stumbles in quite a few places, and stalemates are surprisingly rare since mobs of troops are so much easier to manage than delicate work-of-art defensive fortifications. At any rate, it’s one of the games I enjoy but shouldn’t, like Kane and Lynch 2 and Sonic ’06 (though Kane and Lynch 2 is actually a brilliant game that people are too narrowminded to enjoy).

  9. I think I didn’t clarify very well that although I consider TD games to be of puzzle-origin, they are still action hybrid games, not pure sit-back-and-think games which was what I wanted to concentrate on. Man, where are the terms when you need them? Is it logic puzzles I’m grasping for?

    @Gregg – There’s a Counterweight on Bioshock Infinite, probably next week, which is just a full scale nuclear-grade rant. I think I say “why?” too many times, but I haven’t listened to a playback yet, I might be wrong.

    @matt – What can I say, Paul Eres doesn’t like Macs. We’re still waiting for RPG Creations’ followup Saturated Dreamers. I’d like to come up with a way of distinguishing puzzle games which are about working within a set of fixed rules and those which are about discovering the rules/breaking them, perhaps conservative vs anarchic, solid vs liquid. I wanted to concentrate on games which explored a fixed set of rules and tested your understanding of those rule sets, as opposed to a discovery-type game. I “knew what I wanted to write about” but didn’t have the genre-isolating word tools to do it.

    I’ve not played SpaceChem yet so I’m not still staying away from comments on its story. On Braid – I completed the game (well, not those crazy star achievements), but wasn’t exactly sure what to make of its story.

    @Sean – Yes, if I had expanded more on The Swapper, the puzzles didn’t interact with the story at all. There’s no explanantion given for orb collection and, if I recall, no explanation for the red/blue light problems? And why there is red/blue light all over the station? But I love the atmosphere of the game and the puzzles. Some of the hard ones are so rewarding when you break them.

    @mwm – I haven’t played any of the games you’ve cited there, but the question I’d ask is this… puzzle games and tactical games are similar, because they are both about solving problems, but where’s the dividing line? (Uh oh, danger danger Will Robinson, I might be trying to define a game, or at least something in the neighbourhood…) I only ask as most RTSes are as tactics rather than puzzle – although there’s an obvious connection between the two. I’ve used the words “tactics” and “puzzle” to describe such elements in many different games.

    Sorry if my words don’t seem to hang together very well. I am very tired and now going to bed.

  10. You’ve never played any of the Mario games!?

    The dividing line? When you’re facing a situation with no immediately obvious solution, but with the implied possibility of a solution, it’s a puzzle. Though, in strategy games, such a thing happens rarely; it’s mostly about adapting pre-formed strategies to the situation. After all, strategy games are about making the player feel smart and clever, rather than demanding them be smart and clever.

    I’d suppose that, were you to try to mod a strategy game into a puzzle game, you’d use more boolean logic (rather than damage states), you’d maximize the importance of unit placement, diversify and expand the relationships between adjacent units, remove fog of war, and possibly separate attack and defense.

    Other games that are puzzle-like: Plants Vs. Zombies (single player and local vs.), chess, and tabletop role-playing games that are focused on combat.

  11. My term for the kind you’re looking for would be perspicuous vs., hmmm, enigmatic. Though there’s differences there; Notes is enigmatic on its face (well, almost on its face) while Blobbo was an enigmatic game disguised as a perspicuous one, or perhaps a largely perspicuous game with bits of enigma hidden inside it.

    You don’t have to worry about any spoilers for SpaceChem in my comments, really, because I made the story up. Here’s that level graph by the way.. Maybe I got through 40% of the game? Felt like less.

  12. @mwm – Nope, not a single Mario game! No Nintendo over here. I’m thinking we need to call some of these games PUZZLE TACTICS.

    @matt – I don’t see no level graph. I feel Notes pushes into mystery territory; it’s about discovery of the rules. This is all rather disagreeable, not having the right term for the right job. All the fuss over a lack of language to describe various narrative aspects of AAA releases and I can’t even find the right words to convey a particular type of puzzle game.

  13. Pah, my URL-pasting skills are poor. http://www.zachtronics.com/spacechem-statistics-time/

    I think what you’re saying about Notes is what I’m trying to capture with “enigmatic.” Perspicuous games explain the rules up front or make them very easy to discover, and the challenge is figuring out what you can do with those rules. In enigmatic games discovering the rules is part of the challenge. Sokoban and SpaceChem and Braid and IIRC Robotic Hearts are perspicuous; Notes is enigmatic but relatively upfront about it (at least once you get your first score of 0), Starseed Pilgrim is even more explicitly enigmatic but isn’t really a puzzle game, another explicitly enigmatic one is Grow Cube.

    Blobbo I was classing as an enigmatic game disguised as a perspicuous one because it generally gave you an upfront or easily discoverable account of the rules but there were a couple points where the rules weren’t what they seemed and finding that out was a big part of the puzzle. (I’m afraid I can’t classify this as breaking the rules. The rules are always with us.)

    Then there are somewhat intermediate cases, like English Country Tune, where IIRC the first couple levels of each world were all about “WTF is going on?” but then you had the rules in hand and the rest of the levels were “HTF do I accomplish that?” Not that I can speak of in much detail, because I can’t do the 3d levels at all.

  14. Grow Cube! I’ve found it to be the one game I can randomly show someone, and have them enthusiastically play it.

  15. I also wished that there wasn’t such a disconnect between the gameplay and story. As someone said above, fact is this abstract puzzle game got built, then I got hired to plaster a story on top. I was pleased that we managed to build a narrative that reflected on some of the core concepts in the gameplay (the swapping and cloning), but it’s definitely true that other games make stronger inroads into connecting the two in a meaningful fashion.

  16. I’ve been off these comments focusing on getting the Bioshock Infinite piece ready. And finishing Fjords if I’m honest.

    One game that I should’ve mentioned is DROD because I opened it once and it didn’t grab me at all. It’s highly lauded, so I feel like I should go back to it… but it’s a perfect example of a puzzle game where I scoffed and rolled my eyes. WHATEVER.

    @Matt – I’m wondering if anyone would confuse those games that encapsulate embedded/self-taught tutorials (you discover the rules and then use them e.g. The Swapper) and those games which are constant discovery (e.g. Hoshi Saga). I concur that Notes is pretty much in the constant discovery camp: once the rules are figured out, you complete the game pretty quickly.

    Yeah, I need to try out English Country Tune at some point.

    @mwm: Grow games are magic games. They are very much of the click and see WTF happens variety though. Applying logic sometimes helps but, generally, not.

    @Mr. Tom Jubert – Thanks for dropping by! I think you did a great job considering the constraints, for what I got out of the story was great. I didn’t want to go deep into the story here, since I didn’t follow it so well, but it has this get-under-your-skin quality and is a perfect match for the visuals.

    By the way, I’m not sure what the difference between a “disconnect” and a “wild disconnect” is. I’m sure I’ll figure that out one day, until then I’ll should probably back off using the phrase again.

  17. Hm, for me These Robotic Hearts of Mine felt quite intuitive, although I can’t quite tell you it was mastery I felt. To me the game was all about atmosphere, in how the story was told. I found it quite fulfilling, if sometimes frustrating (less so than many other puzzle games though). I too am at a loss when it comes to hard puzzle games, especially if they don’t have a story of some kind, like Braid. Doing puzzles just for the sake of doing puzzles… meh. There are some exceptions though, like for example At A Distance (Terry Cavanagh). But this game has a twist, a very nice atmosphere, and two player option (or more like necessity). Some games I find quite genius and fascinating, but don’t have the patience to finish though, which is why I adore the work of Stephen Lavelle (increpare) but can really only connect to them when there is some story to the game. This is why I was disappointed that hir first commercial release (English Country Tune) was so awesome, yet too hard and both demotivating and unmotivating due to the lack of story. I am also concerned about The Witness for this reason, which seems very bare, and counting in Blows promises of 25+ hours of gameplay… well, it is Blow after all, the master of killing your darlings, but damn!

    But still, Stephen has made some awesome puzzle games. Two of my favorite are Opera Omnia and The Black Yeti. Opera Omnia especially is like the best puzzle game ever. Hard to master though. The gameplay is the puzzle, almost, which is often the case with Stephens games.

  18. Hello again Ava! I’m going to touch on the “doing puzzles just for the sake of doing puzzles” properly in the near future. I’m concerned that the best thing about the puzzle game should be the puzzle – and if all that narrative hooey wrapped around the puzzle is the only reason we’re playing, then doesn’t that mean the puzzle is rubbish? I love Sokobond and The Swapper was fun even though I didn’t really get much of the plot. I don’t think I’d play pure Sokoban even if it had the Citizen Kane of Game Story built around it. Millions of people have spent countless hours filling in crosswords and sudoku puzzles without any hint of a reward: why is this necessary with videogames? You’re not the only person to have said this.

  19. Oh and also – I did try to get into Opera Omnia but got confused way too quickly. I will have another go one of these days.

  20. Certainly puzzle video games don’t need stories, but I need them. :) I don’t do Sudoku neither, so there goes. :P I’m very story oriented in general, not just when it comes to puzzles. But on the other hand I tend to read way more philosophy books and the like than I read fiction, so it’s not that I need story per se, just something to connect with at a broader level, something that reaches outside the boundaries of the game itself. Most of the fiction I enjoy is filled with “theory”, like Palahniuks books, or some nerdy sci-fi which examines questions one examines in for example philosophy of mind. That thing which I want to connect with could be other things too though, like a community (I enjoy fighting games DESPITE them having story, and co-op board games for the co-op social/puzzle elements) for example, or something else. So I don’t need story in the strictest sense perhaps, but some transfer between what I learn in the game and what I do outside the game. Like Rohrers games, for example, which one could argue tell a story, but also gives one tools of some kind, like the game zie made for theescapist iirc in which you’re supposed to fight back against the police after the police tasered someone at a university meet/lecture/whatever (modeled after that story in the US which made the news). Yes it’s sort of a narrative, but not in the strictest sense, and the satisfaction I get is from the feeling of solving a puzzle (yes, certainly) but IN COMBINATION WITH the feeling of freedom fighting, of community, etc.

    Opera Omnia is a bitch, I know. Someone should really make a tutorial/walkthrough on that one, but I’m certainly not the person for that, having only understood small pieces of the (puzzle elements) of the game, forcing my way through others…

  21. Ava, I’m still figuring out my response on the story/puzzle thing, which is probably coming to an essay in the next month or so. Thanks for laying out your thoughts here, I’ll be considering them when I put it together (the article will probably be based around Full Bore).

    I’m sure I’ll dig out Opera Omnia again some time. Some day soon… perhaps after Pathologic. Or AI War. Or Mass Effect.

  22. Classifying tower defense games is a slippery issue. I don’t want to get to deep into specific examples (Revenge of the Titans has already been mentioned). Instead, I would like to re-orient the question.

    You argue all tower defense games can be considered “puzzle” games because you are typically required to build certain towers in a certain order. This is correct in an absolute sense, but I cannot agree with your statement in general because of two points. First of all, many tower defense games do in fact allow a variety of approaches. Second, classifying all games with a set solution reduces the value of the term puzzle games. My conclusion is classifying games into absolute categories is not particularly helpful – rather, we should classify games by feeling and emphasis.
    Ignoring games with twitch reactions, there are still many tower defense games which allow you to upgrade certain tower types in between missions. Cursed Gems and Kingdom Rush are two popular examples of this archetype. These games no longer fit the “correct tower setup” mode because the correct tower setup depends heavily on which upgrades you have acquired. Calling these games puzzle games suggests there is a limited number of solutions to each level, when in fact there are often fives or tens of different tower setups that can work depending on which upgrades you have acquired.
    Furthermore, tower defense is not the only genre with strong ties to puzzle games. Turn based strategies often have puzzle aspects. I have been playing Unity of Command. While the precise outcome of your choices are dependent on random numbers, many missions have a minor puzzle element in deciding your overall strategy. Should I flood soldiers and try to break through the middle of the enemy? Should I fall back and try to encircle the enemy as they try to catch up? Should I push one flank and try to slip my army through? Some of these options are definitively better than others, and the process of figuring out which strategy is best can often feel like a puzzle.
    Platform games also rely a lot on puzzles. “Puzzle-platformer” is even a common classification. But all platformers have some puzzle bits – frequently the player is required to progress through the levels in a very specific manner. Often the correct path isn’t clear until after the player has attempted a few paths.
    This kind of thinking can probably be extended to almost any game, except those with the most obvious of required actions. Any time a game has a set of objectives to fulfill, but doesn’t specify which precise set of actions on the part of the player will achieve those goals, comparisons can be made with puzzle games. But using the term “puzzle game” in this broad of a situation robs the term of its usefulness. I would not classify Bioshock Infinite as a puzzle game, for example, even though there are some choices the player must make (when and how to use their limited ammunition and power-ups, for example) and some of those choices are bad.
    My point is, applying genre classifications in such a precise manner is “correct,” but typically isn’t that helpful. When I play a puzzle game, I want something that will require more reflection than practice to accomplish.
    PS, I found your site after you were featured on RPS. I am still going through the archive. I disagree with you on many things, but your articles are all well researched and well written, and I very much enjoy reading a well-reasoned opinion. Excellent website!

  23. Hey Sandy. Hello and welcome. I think you forgot your $5 registration fee on the way in. (kidding)

    One of the problems we have is being “specific” enough with our terms. It’s an aspect of videogame essay writing I find particularly problematic. We’re constantly conflating meanings – everything is games, genres cross-pollinate – which leaves you gasping for the right jargon when you want to say something concrete. It’s also easy to be lazy as most people know what you’re talking about. Simple example – you can say shooter without clarifying FPS/TPS/2D most of the time because context is clear.

    I was looking at games which were primarily about mental problem solving and not dexterity and, additionally, problems were self-contained (The Dishonest Player, the pseudo-sequel to this post, gets into Whole Hog Games’ Full Bore). Such games can feel sort of “throwaway” almost casual fare, so I wanted to talk them up particularly as I’d been going through a long patch where I was just bouncing off them. There is no agreed upon term and I don’t like making stuff up, so I went with puzzle games. I wasn’t happy but, you know, I never finish articles I usually just run out of time. I thought someone might bring it up but no one did – until now!

    So you’re absolutely right, I just couldn’t find a handle to describe the type of game I wanted to talk about. Wait, no, I did invent one. I called it the honest game =). I probably should have phrased very clearly the type of game I was talking about rather than hinting through example. I also agree that there’s a spectrum of TD games, some of which do not fit my categorization of “puzzle game”, where consequences are embedded in the mechanics.

    So Sandy, we actually agree. TWIST ENDING. Okay, we don’t actually agree on the categorizations issue: I think we do need some way of “ringfencing” design concepts so we can make some observations about them. Frequently I hit the problem of trying to be specific enough without warbling on for three paragraphs of definition. (There is a similar problem in the Choice article… topic for another time.)

    Thanks for sticking around! The “Electron Dance Highlights” which are all in the ”Featured” category are probably your go-to choices, although there’s still plenty of decent material which doesn’t get flagged as a highlight. Feel free to disagree. It is through writing I structure my thoughts and through comments I change them. The Choice article might never have happened without being pointed towards the node map view of twines. The best I can do is frame some ideas which may or may not be useful.

    (Comments are disabled on older posts simply because they were spam magnets and flooded comment subscribers with spam.)


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