Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights

20Jun/183

The Developers Who Won’t Hold Your Hand

Starseed Pilgrim

Reviews of Starseed Pilgrim were fixated on its sense of mystery rather than its challenging core. It became an indie title notorious for inscrutability and dividing players into two camps, The Ah-Ha-I-Geddits and The Emperor-Has-No-Clothesies. Starseed Pilgrim was intended as a B-side to another game, Probability 0, so becoming the latest indie game talking point in 2012 was a surprise to its developer, Alexander ‘droqen’ Martin. But its design was no accident.

“There was an article marvelling at the way Half-Life 2 guides the player through its first level through design that makes the 'right path' apparent. The wrong paths were, of course, dead ends, and the seemingly open level is actually very linear,” Martin tells me. “Anyway, I thought that was gross and stupid and decided that was the antithesis of everything I wanted to accomplish.”

“I didn't add instruction because I believed in what I can only describe now as 'discoverable systems'. Systems, rulesets, that are interesting to discover yourself and which you wouldn't want to have spoiled by instruction.”

While the AAA industry gravitated towards telling the player exactly what to do sometimes to the point of alienating them (Dead Space’s ‘cut off the limbs’ anyone?), indie games have been consciously exploring what happens when the player is left to their own devices. What are the benefits for players - and the risks for developers?

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10Jun/1813

Penetrate the Night

Cultist Simulator (Weather Factory, 2018) shambled out of the gloom into the daylight on May 31, 2018. That wasn't even two weeks ago and according to Steam I have played 21 hours of Cultist Simulator.

I dabbled with the game at Rezzed and my take, today, is a smidgen different from that one. Cultist Simulator has a simple but critical flaw.

It is... addictive.

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3Jun/189

Reflections on a Design

This is the ninth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

Archaica: The Path of Light

Last year I developed an interest in the qualities of beam reflection games. I’d never really had a hankering for them until I tried Archaica: The Path of Light (Two Mammoths, 2017) and it got me thinking about whether the ideas contained therein were actually unique. The levels were tight and buzzing with ideas: beam splitters, beam generators, mixing different colours of light, portal-type objects that teleport lasers…

What were the origins of the reflection puzzle? I began to dig.

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27May/1813

Been Around The Block

This is the eighth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

Haven’t you got any more ideas?

Do you really think the world needs another block-pushing puzzle? What makes pushing blocks special? Can you for the love of God stop churning out the same game, again and again and again?

Yeah, I didn’t want to play block pushing games any more. But one day I played Full Bore (Whole Hog Games, 2013) and it changed my mind about everything.

What is puzzle innovation?

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16May/188

Play to Death

I don’t like Stardew Valley (ConcernedApe, 2016). There, I said it.

Which is interesting, considering I have never played it.

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Filed under: Longform 8 Comments
26Mar/1831

The Citadel Reborn

This is the sixth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

23 Dec 2013. Boson X and Dissembler developer Ian MacLarty tweets, "Have you had a go at PuzzleScript? Citadel looks like it could have been made using it (without the lives and timer)."

He's talking about the game I released in 1993, a Sokobanlike made in a time I'd never heard of Sokoban. I reply to MacLarty: "BUT THE LIVES AND TIMER ARE CRUCIAL (lol) I haven't checked out puzzle script; walk away from potential time sinks... Maybe l8r?"

The jerk fires back, "I don't imagine it'd take you long to learn. Oh and it also allows the player to *undo any number of moves* ;)"

Over four years later, last Wednesday to be precise, for some reason that I can't fathom, I started tinkering in PuzzleScript for the first time. On Saturday, I released a game on itch.io.

The Citadel is back, kids, and you can play it in your desktop browser right now. Let's talk a little about that.

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15Mar/1811

Claustrophobia

This is the fifth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

The Citadel

Wikipedia says Sokoban was a really early videogame work, created in 1981 by Japanese developer Hiroyuki Imabayashi for the NEC PC-8801. I can go with that. The canonical definition of Sokoban (Hiroyuki Imabayashi, 1981) is “move a bunch of box-shaped crap from A to B within a space so small it’s a bloody joke”. Wow, that definition is so woolly it could even nab Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis, 2017).

Anyway, in real Sokoban, players quickly figure out immediate consequences of the rule set. Walls are block graveyards as the player can only push not pull. Similarly, put together four blocks in a square and they congeal into a rigid mass, a game over state if they’re not where they’re supposed to be.

Regardless of whether Sokoban was responsible for spawning them or not, games which involve pushing blocks around are sometimes called “Sokobanlikes” even though they may be wildly different in nature. Maybe you can pull. Maybe the blocks are not important. Maybe everything is connected.

I think the first Sokobanlike I played was a German title called Zebu-Land (KE-Soft, 1991) in which blocks were an obstruction between the player and the exit. I didn’t finish it as I was soon wowed over by a richer and bigger Polish alternative called Robbo (Avalon, 1989) in which there were bombs and obstacles of many kinds; perhaps too action-orientated to be properly considered a puzzle game but all those extra ingredients made it extra tasty.

But I didn’t finish Robbo either because it spurred me on to make my own spicy Sokobanlike called The Citadel (Joel Goodwin, 1991) which I covered in depth some time ago. I later repurposed the code to craft Orson (Joel Goodwin, 1995) which was almost pure Sokoban. I found it miserably boring. Creating Orson levels made me die a little inside and I was exhausted after making ten.

This is where it started: my hostility to the Sokobanlike.

It’s true to say that the naked Sokoban experience is too stagnant to keep my attention beyond a few levels. But there’s more going on here than it seems. Something more psychological.

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15Feb/1814

I Hate Playing With Myself

This is the fourth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

In 2008, a recommendation on Rock Paper Shotgun led me to Cursor*10 (nekogames, 2008) in which the player has to make it to the 16th floor - but the player's life only lasts a short time. With each new life, the player is accompanied by the ghosts of their previous incarnations, working side by side to reach a common goal. If you need to click a box 100 times, it’s a damn sight quicker if a previous life is there to assist you with the clicking. It was the first time I’d seen this sort of mechanic, but unlikely to be a world first: Braid (Number None, 2008) released later in the same year utilised a similar mechanic.

But I’ve seen this design pattern again and again over the years in puzzle games. Today my mission is to explain why I hate it.

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2Feb/1811

The Zen Lie

This is the third part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

Spelltower (Zach Gage, 2011). It’s like the best word game, the best, I heard.

I installed it on my Android, gave it a spin. I had a good time. Briefly. Either my game was too short and unsatisfying or it was really long and taxing.

The last game I played kept going and going. After, I think, a couple of weeks, I made the call. I never opened the app again. The game died in stasis.

And I came to the sobering conclusion that maybe I didn’t want it to be so hard.

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24Jan/1822

The Box Impossible

This is the second part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

After bouncing off Snakebird, I pondered the question: was it an objectively good puzzle game?

What does that mean - to be a “good” puzzle game? Perhaps it depends on what it means to be a "puzzle game"?

UH OH

I was starting to do that waht is gaem thing in my head. I didn't want to scribble down an academic definition citing power players like Roger Callois, Bernard Suits or Werner Herzog, but I sure wasn’t gonna let The Room or Monument Valley crash this party. You’re not invited.

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