Electron Dance
9Sep/188

Graveyard

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

Riddle me this. Aside from being logic puzzle games, what links the following titles?

Correct! They are all games I intended to finish but, instead, I never click on their desktop shortcuts, rendering part of my desktop a puzzle graveyard. But are they really dead?

There are a whole slew of reasons I can walk away from a puzzle game “for a break”.

REASON ONE: Premature installation

WitchWay was a Twitter recommendation and I installed it just to see what it was about. As I was already in the middle of other games, I decided not to continue until I’d finished something, you know, to make room. But this was deadly. I had already deflowered WitchWay, spoiling its mysterious lustre; I never went back to continue from where I left off.

Death from premature installation is always regrettable.

WitchWay

REASON TWO: Notches on the bedpost

Sometimes you reach a point where you feel you’re not actually doing anything new, that you’re just going through the motions. This isn’t necessarily a negative. I played the daily puzzles of super genius match-3 game Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018) for many months and, look, I don’t do that with any other game! I don’t play the same game for months. Ever. Ever! (if you muttered Minecraft under you breath, get out)

But it was hard to stay motivated through Archaica and Operator Overload. Solving the later puzzles felt more like the application of brute force than brute intellect: I wasn’t feeling an euphoria or wiser with each solved puzzle. They had become mere notches on a bedpost, nothing more.

Archaica: The Path of Light

Another kind of intellectual lethargy occurs when everything has clicked into place. At the end of heuristic discovery, you become something of an automaton, grinding through your own rules of thumb. But there’s no joy if you’re all thumbs. Perhaps it is true that many puzzle games only feel alive while they're teaching us something... and after that they fall into disrepair.

I played the hefty and deep match-3 game Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) to death but, eventually, I burnt out; I didn’t have any more to give that game and I suspect it had little to give back to me. It’s like the contrast between the first days of dating and being married for ten years. The difference is I’m not married to the Six Match so I don’t have to feel bad about breaking up. It’s not you. Uh, it’s not me, either. BTW if you share this article with Aaron Steed I will end you.

REASON THREE: Bullet time

I have already explained in the Ouroboros segment "Agoraphobia" how I lost my grip on sokosausageban Stephen’s Sausage Roll when I reached a level called The Great Tower. Since then, several Electron Dance readers ordered me to push through the pain and man up. I pulled it off. Yay! And what do you think happened then? I surveyed all the puzzles in the next section and found I couldn’t solve a single one. I have played SSR three times since The Great Tower breakthrough and only made progress once. SSR requires persistence and is antithetical to the scattershot bite-sized play that is my jam.

YOU: Man, this game is getting quite hard. I’ve been on the same puzzle in Stephen’s Sausage Roll for two hours now. I mean, like, in aggregate.

ALSO YOU: Take a break. You know it makes sense. Get away from the problem. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

YOU: Uh, separation is also the first step to divorce.

ALSO YOU: You’ve got Evergarden, just sitting there. Slam it in and enjoy yourself. Jesus, you’re playing a puzzle game not Cart Life. You wanted entertainment, tonight, not self-flagellation, right?

YOU: I hate you. Evergarden it is.

Evergarden

The idea of sitting down with a game for half an hour and achieving nothing is like being at a meeting at my fucking place of work. Except Stephen’s Sausage Roll is feeding on my free time and the job can feed my children with sausage rolls.

If there’s one thing I hate receiving more a recommendation for the latest forty-hour AAA open world juggernaut, it’s the recommendation for a new forty-hour puzzle game. There! I said it! God, that felt good. That has been coming for a long time. Whew. I apologise to all of you who send me puzzle game suggestions, especially developers. Sorry, sorry, sorry. See, I wouldn’t mind playing the AAA juggernaut but I know it will eat a lot of time, possibly more than it deserves. And the same goes for puzzle games which often start spritely but then progress slowwwwws dowwwn and wwwwwwe’rrrre all moooooving in bullet time.

I’m not so troubled these days when I haven’t finished a game. Honestly, no one should shame you into finishing a game. I feel bad enough as it is. I still wish I’d finished innovative Sokobanvanialike Full Bore as I was a massive fan of its design. The second half of the game saw the difficulty lurch upwards and I soon found myself solving puzzles in bullet time. I didn't quit the game. I didn’t uninstall it... but there never seemed to be the right moment to go back to it.

Full Bore

Part of this “complaint” should be alien to the wider public. If a particular title hogs too much time - and I’m not singling out Full Bore with that reference - it ties me down, which is a problem because a diverse writing output is dependent on a diverse gaming input. I never quite finished all of the DLC of the absolute mega-brilliant Recursed because, having written about it for Rock Paper Shotgun, there wasn’t much more I could wring out of it for Electron Dance. (I resurrected it for an E/TX stream though!)

Tsk tsk tsk, stop a second. It’s not quite as clear cut as that paragraph makes out, is it? You, the ordinary citizens of the gaming world, are now flush with criminally cheap games and everyone has choices, all of the time. Once you the reach the ten-year marriage stage of a puzzle game - and now it strikes me I should have called it the seven year itch.io - other games seem more seductive. A new game can give so much, right now, while this one you’re working through is making your brain bleed. And here be dragons.

YOU: Actually, I think the puzzle designer screwed up. This is too frustrating. I have no idea how to make progress.

ALSO YOU: Yeah, the developer is totally at fault. This is some super lame puzzle bullshit right here, in actual fucking fact.

YOU: Come back to this later?

ALSO YOU: No question.

If you assign “blame” to the designer, you’ve officially conceded it’s not fun anymore and I doubt there’s much of a path out of that gloomy place unless you’re one of the anointed who have converted to the Chapel of Divine Completionism.

Yet, still, at the back of your mind, there’s the fear that the only thing to fear is fear itself. Wait, what?

STRANGE ETHEREAL VOICE: I'm jus' saying, maybe it would only take another ten minutes to crack the impasse in your current puzzle squeeze.

YOU: Oh, hello, it's my turncoat conscience.

STRANGE ETHEREAL VOICE: The only thing holding you back is you.

YOU: What in the holy fuck, conscience, let's not turn whether I finish a puzzle game or not into a morality play!

Obviously some titles will not surrender to bullet time drama: The Witness, Subnautica and even Prey are all good examples of games that I installed with eyes wide open and they kept me going all the way to the very end. I wobbled on The Talos Principle. There was a gap of around nine months in the middle of the game but once I started up again, I became obsessed.

When you hit bullet time - is it actually some lame puzzle bullshit? I don't want puzzle designers to make puzzles that are as effortless as a knife gliding through hot butter. It would probably give rise to a puzzlegate movement, an outcry about dumbing down puzzles, snowflake players and tough talking about the ethics of puzzle journalism.

If you want to quit a game and walk away, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. It isn’t necessarily a brash statement about the design. Our lives are what they are.

These are fine words, but somewhat lacking in conviction.

I still have a graveyard.

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Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Scoreboard: Of your graveyard I’ve played three. I abandoned Corrypt at the point where it opens up into something amazing and mind-blowing and truly innovative and where there’s no way to be certain at any moment that something you do won’t barrack you irretrievably down the line for reasons even the designer may not understand. Too stressful Though I have to confess I’d hit the hints even before that point (and I’ve since watched a video that gives away one of the crucial insights on how to proceed). I have thoughts about how gating progress with gems affects this but I’ll save them for my followup about Promesst.

    I played all the way through Hexcells Plus and Hexcells Infinite but did feel like I was ticking off boxes on my to-do list. There is one puzzle about halfway through Hexcells Plus (I think) that made me twist my mind in different ways but mostly it was about figuring out a couple-three types of inferences and then sweeping your eyes across a huge grid and seeing where there was enough information to apply the pattern, then do it again and again and again. Elsewhere (under Discussion: Ethan Carter’s Stories Untold, to be precise) I complained about how it’s the only Minesweeper-alike that doesn’t automatically fill in the spaces around a space that’s been marked with 0 adjacent hazards, and it kind of felt like this was because if it didn’t do things like this (well, autofilling anything that had a straightforward determination, like this column is marked with a 6 and there are six hexes filled in in it) there wouldn’t have been much to do. Hexcells itself seemed overly easy.

    Stephen’s Sausage Roll is of course one of my top five games and I’ve played it through like four times. I think when I play games I allot myself more time to stare at the screen at once. Otherwise I’ve given you a hard enough time about it, y’know?

    Followup soon about my own personal graveyard, featuring the reason You Absolutely Won’t Believe Why I Stopped Playing Flash DROD.

  2. Hey Matt!

    I should have mentioned Corrypt as well because I stopped for the same reason you did – a form of puzzle terror where I was too scared to proceed. That’s a completely different reason to the other ones I’ve offered and very unique!

    My own problem with Hexcells Plus which I think I’ve mentioned somewhere else is that if feels less cerebral and more like a hidden object game where you’re scanning and scanning looking for the chink on the logical armour of the puzzle. It’s basically this again and again with giant puzzles that obfuscate the path.

    I agree that every now and then it finds a “new twist” where you have to find a unusual combination of parameters to proceed but those moments are kind of rare. I just didn’t enjoy the “hexes with two spaces” mechanic which felt like “I gotta take away your toys, this is just too easy for you”. I swept quickly through Hexcells but Plus I slowed to a crawl.

    But I don’t want to take away that it’s the perfect zen game for some people – like the hidden object model does for others.

    Looking forward to your DROD story. I’m sure I won’t believe it.

  3. Really, your complaint about Hexcells Plus is my complaint about Hexcells Plus, except you stated it much more clearly! The other thing is that the level select (oh my gog he’s back on that again) doesn’t distinguish the puzzles, the way say Sokobond has mini pictures of the level layout, so I can’t find the one puzzle I really like–which would be obvious from a mini picture, since it was much smaller. Which also meant that finding a way in wasn’t “Here’s this giant thing, let’s scan for the one column where the number of open hexes is the number at the top,” it was “How can I possibly leverage the several things I know to make a single deduction?”

    Though I also see the appeal of it as a meditative game; in fact I just did a level to check if it was the one I liked (it wasn’t) and then a procedurally generated one from Infinite and it was perfectly pleasurable. The question is partly the level of routine you’re working at–it’s not “Must come up with a smashing new insight” like an SSR level but it’s also not “Gonna mash buttons for a while” like the stages of DROD levels where you’re just swinging your sword back and forth as the bugs march into the two squares you can cover.

    About Corrypt–and Promesst, which is in the same place in the graveyard–one thing that exacerbates the terror is the “collect a certain number of tokens in order to unlock things” mechanism. Because the tokens are there, but you’re never sure whether a given token is one of the ones you need to get the next unlock or one of the ones you will only be able to reach after the next unlock. Maybe this is more true of Promesst where there are lots of separate machines that can be powered by more and more gems than of Corrypt where IIRC it’s “Get a certain number of gems to be able to do [CENSORED] again” but what you do when you do [CENSORED] never changes? Anyway, another degree of freedom to get lost in.

    So the reason I stopped playing Flash DROD is that it suddenly broke. I finished a level and found a secret exit and I could not go through it. Then I tried to leave the room the normal way and couldn’t do that either. Across several browser restarts and machine restarts, nothing. Never seen a Flash game break that way before–though now it just won’t respond to the command to continue playing or start a new game (it does respond to Achievements and some other clicks but I guess it responds to the click to open the options screen but not close them). I just tried a couple other browsers which won’t run the files at all, even though I know one is set up to allow Flash, and also clearing the cookies from caravelgames.com did nothing. So, dang. The thing is I know I should be buying some of these games anyway but I’m not in a buying phase right now.

    Also what I got stuck into lately was Pixel Dungeon, having done a search for short roguelikes. It is compulsive in a way that DROD isn’t; I didn’t get the “one more level, and then the next” with DROD that Carl Muckenhoupt did (and that I got to some extent with Cosmic Express and SSR) because the levels are so big that when I walk into one I think, “Eh, I’ll figure out what this is about later.” But with Pixel Dungeon it’s easy to go “ooh, one more level.” Of course Pixel Dungeon is a roguelike, not a puzzler. It turned out that “Brogue, but simplified” was exactly what I wanted. Pixel Dungeon:Brogue::2048:Threes. I haven’t actually played it for a few days though because I got into a good game where my elder child wants to watch when I’m playing and our schedules haven’t lined up to do that.

    More graveyard selections:

    Cogs. It adds things to the slider puzzle that make them more interesting, but there’s some types of puzzles that annoy me (especially the ones where you have to line up gears to make four chimes strike at once, where I have trouble visualizing the solution), and I reached a point where the only available puzzles all annoyed me. Also it’s still slider puzzles. And it has no plot whatsoever, so I didn’t have that reason not to stop playing it. I don’t even feel bad.

    Offspring Fling: Same thing about only annoying levels being available, in particular ones with those bees that come straight at you and look I want to be doing a puzzle platformer not a do everything quick before the enemy reaches you platformer. Also it looks like there will be nothing else from there on out, and a boss fight at the end, yay.

    Spacechem: The particular level I stopped working on, I later figured out that I had been under the impression I was only allowed three reactors when i was allowed five. But I never got inspired to try again. Who wants to do a five-reactor puzzle? Also I figured that I might as well try some actual programming if the urge hits. And the plot seemed so perfunctory with its connection to the puzzles that it doesn’t make me want to not walk away. (See the Open Mike 4 comments for my alternative theory of the SpaceChem story, which I guess is called fanfic.)

    Snapshot: Slowed to a crawl on my old computer. Have never felt inspired to return to it on the new one. Part of it is that the first few levels develop very slowly.

    Spirits: One where I didn’t feel like I was getting enough out of it to push through one of the harder parts. Maybe. I honestly don’t remember where I gave up. Also the racking up levels just to rack them up issue, which goes along with there being no plot.

    Shattered Haven: Seemed kind of tetchy and hard to get to the heart of, also seemed like it’d be a lot better as a turn-based rather than timing game so it could get puzzly, totally broke on my new computer.

    Jelly no Puzzle: Tried it online to see what the big deal was, felt pretty smooth that I could solve any of the levels at all, but the online version lets you do all the levels and doesn’t save progress so I don’t know where I left off. But I know I got past level three, why is it completely impossible?

    Not in the graveyard: A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build and Cosmic Express. I haven’t done all the bonus content but it’s bonus content. I saw the credits, all the aliens got to their homes/parks/restaurants/things that mysteriously turn into one of those depending on what kind of alien visits it/you know it really doesn’t make that much sense that some of them want to go to some home but don’t care whether it’s theirs or not.

  4. Oh, Splice! Played it, put it down, came back to it, got weirded out by the elusiveness of the information about whether there’s a better solution that you haven’t done yet, cleared several worlds, got to a mechanic that seemed like it increased the complexity in a way that wasn’t so much fun, put it down again, would be more likely to return to it if I could turn off the music and listen to something else, may return to it anyway since so much stuff is broken, of course it has no plot.

  5. Update: Lost my Pixel Dungeon game in an amazingly cheap way when I didn’t realize my immunity to toxic gas had worn off. Roguelikes, man.

  6. Matt, I feel like you’ve been storing up this wall of text for possibly years. I’m not going to respond to every game but let me pick and choose…

    First up, I’m always reluctant to call a game “crap” when I can see it has those kind of zen flow properties. I had particular reactions to Holedown and Hexcells Plus but for some people it will be their perfect zen partner. I don’t think my statements about Hexcells Plus, for example, are invalid just that some people will not weight that in the same way I do. That long, long searching for the correct deduction is just the kind of time killer some people desire – John Walker of RPS was literally foaming at the mouth for more Hexcells.

    I’ve not heard of Snapshot and Spirits. I *did* try Jelly no Puzzle and got through a few levels, I think? But it was a real time sink and that was why I abandoned it, I guess, because I just needed to move on to other things.

    Corrypt: Man, I really need to go back and face this game.

    Cogs: I’ve mentioned how I just don’t like games involving cogs but it looks like Cogs is not actually a game about cogs? That is, more of a slider puzzle as you mentioned. I’m not sure I enjoy slider puzzles either as I see them as a type of heavily claustrophobic Sokoban puzzle. It’s not a skill I ever enjoy mastering.

    Not the graveyard: I loved Cosmic Express so much I completely stripped it bare. All the puzzles, everything. A Good Snowman, however… the bonus there is in a sort of Corrypt/Promesst territory where attempting solutions can be real hard work and you may be barking up the wrong tree.

    Splice: Tried that at Indie Cade 2012. Didn’t understand what I was doing!

    I need to play some more roguelikes, I think. Or some narrative-heavy games. It’s about time, but I’m still forging on through Ouroboros…

  7. What? No! I just responded to your point, and then I told you the story I promised to tell you, and then I talked about my wall of text, and then for some reason I listed every puzzle game I could think of that I’ve abandoned. It was a perfectly spontaneous wall of text!

    Jelly No Puzzle is definitely in the Sausage Roll tradition of “Here’s a bunch of completely impossible puzzles, you could easily spend an hour on any given one without making any progress” except it doesn’t really even come divided into clusters the way SSR does. (I think the downloadable version does have levels divided into different environments but the puzzles themselves don’t feel thematically linked.) Plus it has the form of a web quickie, the online version I’m playing has 20 levels and when you beat one it pops up a Javascript alert saying “Congratulations, you beat the level!” Doesn’t even take you to the next one. So it’s really like, if you don’t want to keep playing that particular puzzle you don’t. Also it seems a lot like Snakebird in that it’s about how to get screwed by gravity, so… wait, did you ever get around to explaining why you hate Snakebird?

  8. This whole series is an explanation for why I disliked Snakebird. The last episode will lay it all out.


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