Electron Dance
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.

I wrote about how I found playback puzzles particularly laborious because one error, often due to timing screw ups, forces you to retread your steps all over again. It was pointed out to me that this is a Sokoban complaint. Sokobanlikes are about figuring out a sequence of moves to solve a level and often the player will be trudging through one attempt only to discover something was rotten in the planning and you have to undo undo undo undo undo undo undo undo undo and try a slightly different approach. So far, so Sokoboring.

In the playback case, the real problem was a reliance on good timing and leaving empty spacetime in your wake for your future self to take advantage of. Insufficient slack would render a puzzle unsolvable, so start again doofus. You know how to solve it, but you didn’t build in enough time to pull it off. In games that are touted as brain food, it is ludicrous that you would be punished for shoddy dexterity, rather than lacking the relevant smarts.

Sokobanlikes are typically turn-based thus have no truck with timing issues but they can definitely be laborious. Yet, I found choreographing the right fancy footwork to solve a puzzle and having to undo progress to make progress wasn’t necessarily the thing that broke me.

The Witness

Sokobanlikes hang out on a particularly honest branch of the game design tree. They don’t usually involve hidden information: what you see is what you solve. But I would stumble into mental ruts with blocks scraping out the same paths over and over again unable to see how I might do things differently. It felt like searching for a needle in a block stack. Even worse, the tedium cast an anti-learning jinx over the proceedings; instead of finding a way to break the puzzle down into something manageable, I just paced around in circles, trapped in a confined mental space.

Perhaps that seems a silly thing to say especially as Sokoban puzzles are usually open-ended. In The Witness (Thekla Inc, 2016) or Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis, 2017) your moves are a finite resource, but in Sokoban you could potentially keep moving forever. But are you going in the right direction? Have you derailed the solution already? This is a form of negative freedom, where a lack of constraints sows doubt.

This doubt could be undermined if the game said you were taking more moves than necessary, or perhaps even stopped you after exhausting a resource of “steps”. However, a step goal is usually provided to foster deeper play, a puzzle staple you’ll see in games from mobile blockbuster Cut the Rope (ZeptoLab, 2010) to geometric puzzler Euclidea (Horis International Limited, 2014) which declares “find the most elegant solution — the one which is built in the least possible moves — and you’ll get the highest score”. And sometimes players really dig that. However, there is no algorithm that can solve all Sokoban puzzles and typically the information is only revealed after completing a level to encourage the player to go back again.

Euclidea

This claustrophobia meant for years I struggled through block pushers. After conquering a puzzle, the next screen would generate a sigh rather than enthusiasm. I was Sisyphus, hoping this time I’d finally get the rock up the hill and be able to go home for tea. It was always a task. A bloody task.

*                 *                 *

I bought Full Bore (Whole Hog Games, 2013) from the late departed Indie Games Stand on a whim and was instantly crushed to discover it was a block pushing game. Yet that reservation did not last for long. It was time to wake up: game design had moved on since 1981.

Full Bore was an adventure game built around block pushing, which meant players were not constrained to solving the one puzzle in front of them. Some puzzles were connected. Many were optional. The game was rich with secrets, but the in-game map would let you know if you had overlooked something.

Full Bore

It was also a metroidvania where the vital knowledge to solve certain puzzles was missing on first contact. There were no upgrades or objects required to unlock those puzzles - you just didn’t know how they worked, cloaking them in mystery rather than frustration.

I’d credit Full Bore for breaking through the funk although the prejudice against Sokobanlikes continues to this day. I still flinch when I receive a block pushing suggestion but I’m more curious. Game categories are amorphous, fluid things with fuzzy boundaries across which ideas copulate and produce offspring. It was only recently I twigged that action/puzzle hybrid Boulder Dash (Peter Liepa & Chris Grey, 1984) was one of the best block pushing games of all time and that didn’t inherit from Sokoban but from the mathematics of cellular automata. Not all block pushers are created equal. Not all block pushers are block pushers. To dwell on a few bad experiences two decades ago and miss all the heavenly glory? Is there anything more narrow minded?

Stephen's Sausage Roll

It took me a long time before I could bring myself to install the puzzle designer’s premier Sokobanlike, Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016). And, Jesus, that is one tough meal and not for the faint-of-Sokoban-heart… nonetheless I found cracking open each new puzzle was a special kind of joy. “Oooh, that looks easy, I just… oh.”

Sticking with Stephen Lavelle, his Puzzlescript platform is perfect for creating Sokobanlikes and has given life to many interesting creations: one of my favourites was the giant-everything-is-connected-puzzle Vacuum (Mark Richardson, 2016), although that really did force you to retrace your steps around a billion times so I threw in the towel after the millionth attempt.

Look, I’ll tell you what does tend to be a problem - games that are not Sokobanlikes but graft on a touch of Sokoban for variety. Pavilion (Visiontrick Media, 2016) is a beautiful, strange game where you do not control the protagonist directly, yet here and there you will find laborious Sokoban puzzles: slow moving without a move-by-move undo because it didn't fit the free-form aesthetic of the game.

Lara Croft GO

Similarly, the genteel and charming Lara Croft GO (Square Enix Montreal, 2015) sprinkles in some Sokoban-type puzzles where you have to move pillars into the right place within an extremely tight space. The stone pillars are heavy, so Lara’s usual manic acrobatics are replaced with slow, dragging animations, which is really just replacing the fun with some tedium. Some of the levels in the additional The Mirror of Spirits chapter are straight-up busy work unless your favourite game is Towers of Hanoi.

(That’s a joke, son, no one loves Hanoi.)

I’ve had many pleasant discoveries over the years. Alan Hazelden is a prolific Sokobanlike designer and I found the rich mechanics of Sokobond (Hazelden & Lee, 2013) a revelation. His later release, A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build (Hazelden & Davis, 2015) teeters perilously close to raw Sokoban but an open world and a few clever tweaks to the formula was enough to kick this one to the back of the net. It also conceals a secondary game that David Hayward described as "Starseed Snowman" in which your brain needs to develop a pandimensional appreciation of snowman building and godlike levels of foresight - oh, I just gave up already, yes, that is what I did. Maybe we’ll chat about that later, hey. Maybe. Yeah.

WitchWay (Gleeson, Rochefort, Takalainen & Antony, 2017) is fascinating and hits notes similar to Full Bore as it is an adventure with puzzles at its heart - but its feature set is so rich it feels like a crime to even mention it in the same breath as Sokoban - and that’s the whole point, right? Shutting myself away from these games because I thought I saw a block in it was a terrible idea.

And that cartoony, loveable Snakebird (Noumenon Games, 2016), yeah, does not really look like a block pusher although it definitely fits the canonical definition of “move a bunch of box-shaped crap from A to B within a space so small it’s a bloody joke”. So it figures that when I played it that chilling feeling of claustrophobia came flooding back.

And I wasn’t sure what to make of that.

Next: Working with PuzzleScript was a lot more fun than I expected.

(I wasn't joking when I was joking about Hanoi. No one buy me that shit for Christmas.)

Download my FREE eBook on the collapse of indie game prices an accessible and comprehensive explanation of what has happened to the market.

Sign up for the monthly Electron Dance Newsletter and follow on Twitter!

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (11) Trackbacks (0)
  1. My 2014 contribution to NaNoGenMo (National Novel Generation Month), in which people write programs that *generate* novels, was a loving celebration of Towers of Hanoi, “Hannah and the Twelve-Disk Towers of Hanoi”. http://htmlpreview.github.io/?https://github.com/nothings/nanogenmo/blob/master/2014/hannah.html

  2. Yeah, you hit it there. What kills most puzzle games, and Sokoban has this in spades, is the point where you feel you’re not making progress *and* you’re not making progress *towards* progress – you’re just blindly groping and the game is certainly not going to tell you anything.

  3. You realize that A Good Snowman is basically just Sokoban + Towers of Hanoi, right?

  4. Sean, you get an award for that. I don’t know what award, but definitely an award. Looking forward to the unlucky sequel, Thirteen, which I’m sure someone could adapt for you.

    Zara as I said on Twitter and repeating here for those who wouldn’t see that conversation, I think this is a really clean way of putting across the idea here. This series is more obsessed with getting lost than necessarily celebrating puzzle greatness, particularly as the point is an oblique, personal analysis of Snakebird. I think the sterile nature of simple Sokoban makes things much worse, that each box is like any other, anything can go anywhere. There’s nothing to push you towards, say, this yellow block has to get over there – but how? Like I’m pretty much a Dissembler expert at this point and quickly you’re looking at where all the colours need to move.

    Alan that’s enough of that. You can’t rip the site host a new one, that’s just not done :) I hadn’t twigged the Hanoi connection at all. But I think (oh this is a good save) we’d have to credit you with a bit more genius than just mashing those together, as the mechanic of creating snowball sizes makes it very different to either. That is a lovely tweak and – incidentally, I just realised – tantamount to creating a step limit that I discussed above. You can’t push snowballs forever!

  5. In fairness, Hanoi was never an intentional inspiration, and never would have been because you’re totally right that it’s terrible.

  6. Sean, I loved that! It made me Have Thoughts about Towers of Hanoi. It is this: Towers of Hanoi are a pretty good structure, in their way. You have this overarching goal–move the big disk–and you gradually work your way to where the big disk is accessible, solving smaller and smaller problems along the way. The big disc is visible but when it is uncovered it is a great moment of triumph! But that is not the end… there is a dramatic downslope as well as the build-up, to release tension. It would be great if only the details of how it was done were not so terrible!

    I have been meaning to write the following game for a while, inspired by things Emily Short says about her desire for games that work with complicated social mechanics in order to create puzzles and also about things Emily Short says about how everyone hates Towers of Hanoi (in other words, a game whose primary purpose would be to troll Emily Short in a non-malicious way): You are the hostess to an academic party that, you feel, is over. Your guests–full professors, assistant professors, and grad students–are congregated in your dining room. If your guests could all be got to the hallway at once, they would leave.

    You can get a guest to move from one room to another (hall, dining room, living room) by reminding them of something interesting there (many of these are one-offs but there’s always something in each room that anyone will return to–food in the dining room, a cat in the hall, a Towers of Hanoi set in the living room). Whenever someone of a certain rank moves, everyone else of the same rank will move with them. But someone of a lower rank will never enter or leave a room that someone of a higher rank is in–the grad students don’t want to walk out on the professors, and they certainly don’t want to walk in to the room they’re in.

    At one point I had a prototype with all the mechanics, actually, it’s just that I need the atmospherics to make the game any fun–some sort of way to program the conversations they have. Oh, and the thing is that mechanically this is a three-disc Tower of Hanoi.

  7. I think Hanoi is a very good puzzle, but that’s it, only A puzzle, not something to create sequences of challenges. The first time you face the towers of Hanoi, it’s not trivial, you explore its rules, maybe fail a couple of times, simplify the puzzle limiting the number of rings. There is this moment when you understand that there is a connection between the number of rings and the position where you should place first in order to finish it with the least amount of moves. That’s a genuine “eureka moment”. It’s very much like trying to find a beautiful proof to a mathematical problem, instead of just solving random equations, metaphor for the uninspired Sokoban”Yikes” or a sequence of Hanoi puzzles.

    I’m myself working on a Sokobanlike, and I’ve found lots of interesting references here (and some indirect solid advice). I simply love the Ouroboros Sequence.

  8. By the way, will Agoraphobia address Nova 7? Because if so I’ll hold some of my thoughts on that.

  9. Matt

    Oh my God if I hear of somebody “skinning a puzzle with narrative” again I’m gonna hurl — wait, that actually sounds quite clever!

    And on Agoraphobia – that’s a good call

    Le Slo

    The first time I played Hanoi, it was interesting. Three discs. Oooh. Four discs? Oh my god, my name’s Cave Johnson, we’re done here. I think it’s interesting as a mathematical problem to solve but not as a puzzle setup.

    Glad you’re enjoying Ouroboros! Put it off for ages because it’s hard work breaking down the original unreadable gargantuan essay into something comprehensible. I’m trying to cite as many puzzles as I can, because it’s a good vehicle for spreading the word for puzzles might have missed. Not The Room, obviously :)

  10. If no one likes Hanoi, why is it in 85% of adventure games? Why?! It was old when I came across it in The Island of Dr. Brain as a child.

    Have you heard that apparently Jonathon Blow has been working on a Sokobanlike? If that ever comes to fruition I’d be interested to play it based on how he approaches game design.

    Would you say that the ‘moving blocks to get the ball out’ is a variation on the Sokoban?

  11. I’ve just moved WitchWay from the bottom of my wishlist to somewhere near the top :)

    Dave, I wouldn’t expect much novelty from Jonathan’s new project because the currently publicly visible parts were just remakes of Promesst, Heroes of Sokoban and Mirror Isles with a _bunch_ of added 3D levels for Heroes of Sokoban. Source: https://clips.twitch.tv/DarkHilariousOkapiAMPEnergy


Leave a comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail.

No trackbacks yet.