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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.