Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights

28Feb/1935

Tail Meets Head

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

Do I hate Snakebird? I don’t love it.

It was October 2016 and I had been playing Snakebird (Noumenon Games, 2016) for about a month. Finding it impossible to make progress around twenty levels in, I strapped the game to a concrete block and threw it into the choppy waters of the Thames. And while I did this, others continued to carry the Snakebird banner high, proclaiming its brilliance. I didn’t get it. I really didn't get it.

I wanted to know why. I scribbled into my book of half-baked ideas an article about why I don’t like Snakebird. But the exercise would be pointless without an answer to the question.

Time passed. I had many notes that sketched out areas of potential interest and I found myself more interested in the player side of the puzzle game equation rather than the design side. I wanted to think about how puzzle games might be failing their players instead of players failing their puzzle games. Failure can become very personal, hardening players against continued experimentation in the puzzle genre.

I grew frustrated with the whole concept, though. I could never weave these ideas into a complete whole. I was looking at an infinite number of darts thrown at an infinite number of dartboards by an infinite number of monkeys… but not one bullseye.

Screw it, I thought, I’m going to write the series anyway, even if I don’t have any conclusions. I’ll call it The Ouroboros Sequence because Snakebird is behind the whole series and I knew I wasn’t going to be any wiser about my disaffection for Snakebird after reaching the end. The truth was in the title, up there in every episode. No revelations would be coming. We’d end in the same place as we started. Disaffected with Snakebird, reasons unknown.

And yet. And yet.

This journey has not been a waste of time.

We have returned to the beginning, to Snakebird. But things are most definitely not the same.

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29Jan/197

Andromeda 14

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

Thursday March 16 2017 might sound just like any other day but you could not be more wrong. Take the first damn bus out of town wrong. It was a real red letter day just like when Gordon Freeman popped up in Half-Life 2. This particular Thursday was the day that saw... the release of Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis & Tyu, 2017). Be still my beating heart.

At the time, I did not realise the world had shifted axis. I didn’t rush out to buy this masterpiece because, frankly, I’d already poured my Christmas free time into Recursed (Portponky, 2017) and RYB (FLEB, 2016) and I wasn’t in the mood for another puzzle game. These were the dark days before I had focused my mind on a year-long project writing about puzzles called The Ouroboros Sequence.

Away from the electric puzzles in the real world, we had been house hunting. I’d become obsessed with this Traditional British Sport, studying local price trends, watching for new properties, jumping up and down in excitement whenever I saw a price drop. In truth, I hated house hunting with the kind of passion normally reserved for a Dark Souls boss but... if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right.

Then Cosmic Express designer Alan Hazelden sent me a free Steam key for the game and I was a little... resentful? Please, for the love of God, Alan, do not put this on my bloody plate. My cup of games runneth over.

But I saw others getting excited about Cosmic Express and exchanging stories of grief about how the puzzles were trolling them personally. I was jealous but had other things on my mind. On March 23, I tweeted “When you're reading other people's conversations about @Draknek's Cosmic Express and wish you were playing already.” Rezzed and a holiday in the Lake District were just around the corner.

On March 27, we saw yet another house. But I also loaded Cosmic Express up on my phone, as I felt bad that I hadn’t made use of the free key. It’s not like I was playing anything on the phone anyway.

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13Dec/1833

Dead in the Water

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

The Steam store page for genius puzzle game Recursed (Portponky, 2016) highlights two reviews.

One is my very own, published on Rock Paper Shotgun. I wrote “Recursed’s brilliance is how it spawns complexity from a few simple constraints.”

The other is from the one and only Jonathan Blow who worked on a puzzle game you might have heard about. “I played for a while,” wrote Blow, “but it seemed really slow / simple.”

I’m only going to warn you once. Strap yourselves in.

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13Nov/1829

The Monte Carlo Player

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

Monte Carlo simulation is a statistical technique where we let a computer rip through hundreds or thousands of randomized experiments, revealing a rich timescape of alternate futures from which we can make deductions. It’s a way of breaking an impasse of uncertainty in a problem. For example, we can use Monte Carlo methods to determine the fair price for a complex financial option whose payoff depends on the future movements of a stock.

And it struck me, as I was making random stabs at a level in Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016), that puzzle enthusiasts engage in a similar exercise.

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15Jul/1816

Virgin Lands

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

Opus Magnum

In the last two Ouroboros essays, we’ve talked about how puzzle design iteration is innovative and examined a particular design lineage.

In this article, effectively the final part of a trilogy on puzzle innovation, I want to head away from well-worn genres and talk about designs which feel more fresh.

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10Jul/180

Figure It Out

A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build

A few weeks ago I published The Developers Who Won’t Hold Your Hand which discussed design considerations around a growing subgenre of games that leave the player to figure out the mechanics. I made use of droqen’s term “discoverable systems” because, frankly, we didn’t have one.

This was based on a number of interviews comprising over 5,000 words in total. That meant I had to cut a lot of words, even interesting stuff.

But recycling is good for us, so I’m presenting some of these lost words in a separate post.

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20Jun/186

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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19Jul/1729

Gaze of the Abyss

Manifold Garden

Earlier this year I wrote an essay called Art of the Impossible about Fragments of Euclid (Antoine Zanuttini, 2017) and William Chyr’s as-yet unreleased Manifold Garden. In classic Electron Dance fashion, I ended on a throwaway thought that bore closer inspection. I moaned about the tendency for beautiful art games to rely on what you might call “tried and tested” mechanics to drive them. I don’t think of them as tried and tested, more like “unambitious and disappointing”.

Find a key, unlock a door. Touch the hotspot. Memorise a sequence.

Does this sound familiar?

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18Sep/1640

Arithmophobia II: The Numbers Strike Back

mountblade-gwaul

So I had this week's post Arithmophobia in my head for months as “write some words on how RPG numbers put me off playing” using The Story of Thor and Dark Souls as examples from different sides of the numerical wall. It was meant to be short, more about these individual games, but something happened on the way to the Publish button: I started to question why those numbers were important.

I had no conclusion so instead turned the ending into an invitation to discuss. And a lot of people got in touch, through the comments and on Twitter. This has been great and helped sharpen up my thoughts.

This post is a more structured take on RPG stats than the original Arithmophobia, touching on different aspects such as grind, feedback, accessibility and more. It was supposed to be short. Who would have guessed that evaluating the role of numbers in an RPG turns out to be a goddamn rabbit hole...

To show I’m not biased against numbers, I’m going to number every subsection. P.S. I also have a PhD in mathematics.

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11Dec/15Off

Chekhov’s Collectible

GTA 3 hidden package

“One of the weirdest / saddest design exp I had: [Bioshock 2] playtesters carefully loot every container for hours, then report hating every moment.”

-- Zak McClendon, Lead Designer on Bioshock 2

The car smashes through the glass front of Easy Credit Autos and I brake to a halt. I hop out of the car, run to the back of the showroom and grab the package. Nothing happens. No one wants this package. No one even gets upset at the damage, which will be repaired without fuss while I am away.

I was a moth to the dull flame of the hidden packages of GTA III (Rockstar, 2001), pieces of virtual tat that simply add one to a meaningless counter. I continued to burn rubber for hour after hour until I had found every last package.

They’re just one example of the now ubiquitous collectible. Today I’d like to introduce the collective noun for the collectible: a fucking plague.

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