Electron Dance

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.

Spelltower belongs to the special category of “word puzzle games” which are a world apart from your stereotypical abstract indie puzzler: the rules of language are knotted up with the rules of the game. Some stupid people might argue a word game isn’t a puzzle but let’s ignore those people for now.

Spelltower feels familiar. Players must match tiles to clear space while the game keeps adding more to the board; the game is over if the tiles reach the top. Normally in this flavour of puzzle game the player is tasked to match tile colours but in Spelltower they must make words from the letters printed on the tiles to remove them.

There are some twists to make the game even harder. A word can only be used once to make a match and some letters come with minimum word length requirements. As you are more likely to form words from letters that have neighbours on both sides - simply because there are more possibilities available - what inevitably happens is that you build up tile debt on the edges of the screen. It becomes crucial to attack the towers on the edges because they are harder to wear down.

On Android, there are three single player modes (actually there’s four, but let's just pretend expert mode doesn’t exist). “Puzzle mode” adds a new row after each move while “Rush mode” is a race against time as a new row is added every few seconds. I found Rush mentally debilitating - stress killed my ability to divide attention between word hunting and managing towers. So I gravitated towards Puzzle mode.

Spelltower tightens the noose rapidly. The more progress you make, the more tiles with minimum word length requirements appear. In fact, you don’t have to throw away half an hour before it gets serious - it’s bloody efficient in getting you to think. Each move you make undermines your future - remember, those words you’re burning up can’t be used again. The player experiences rising panic, the feeling that the walls are closing in. But each moment-to-moment snapshot is a puzzle in itself, one with no guarantee of solution. Inevitably, I would stare at the board for a long time before making a move.

In the final game, I accepted I wasn’t enjoying myself. It seemed that Spelltower frequently pumped out obnoxious letters like Q and X and the constant stream of long word requirements were difficult to satisfy with such a narrow board. Spelltower, the masocore word game. I was always opening the app reluctantly to stare at the latest Board of Unfairness, one skirmish in a long war of attrition I was destined to lose.

I was grasping for a mode less taxing where I could just deploy words without quite so much anxiety. Note that I’ve discussed only two of the three modes. The third, Tower mode, might seem to be exactly what I was looking for. Here Spelltower piles up 150 tiles and asks you to make as many words out of it as you can. That’s it. No pressure to perform, just spell words.

This did not scratch the right itch at all and there was an obvious limit to the scores you could pull off. I needed something different, a mode in which I could blossom.

Smash Hit (Mediocre AB, 2014) is a first-person action game where you throw balls to smash obstacles made of glass; it should have been called Window Smashing Simulator 2014. After a few levels, the standard game gets hard, demanding rapid and precise firing. The developers bundled in a zen mode which frees you from the repercussions of missing obstacles and tools you up with infinite ammunition: smash away, my friend. I felt like I was looking for something like that in Spelltower. Where is Spelltower's zen mode?


Nearly three years ago, I loved then broke up with Alphabear (Spry Fox, 2015). On the surface, Alphabear is a bright mix of puzzle and word play saturated with cute bears. Alphabear presents the player with a grid of letters from which you must make words and each letter has a point value. The point values decrement each turn they are not used, eventually becoming unusable stone at zero. You also get bigger bonuses if you've cleared large rectangular areas, and stones severely damage those bonuses. Players also collect bears which act as rechargeable powerups: if used wisely, they can net you a cool score boost.

Each board is finite. You have to make the best of it, much like Spelltower’s Tower mode, but I found it more involving. What undid my Alphabear relationship was the realisation that the bear powerups were far more important than word smarts for high scores. With my innocence torn asunder, I could no longer view it as this curious, intricate little word toy but more of an RPG with XP word grind. Dan Cook of Spry Fox explained in the comments that an earlier more purer incarnation of the design, Panda Poet, had done poorly, but Alphabear’s strain had found an audience.

In some ways, Alphabear is closer to the zen mode I was hankering after. But it cared too little for the words and the powerup-centric structure shunted it sideways into something more grindy. Still, it held my attention for a while. Back in that 2015 post on Alphabear, I wrote that “I tend to play a single big board over a whole day, pondering over long word possibilities on the train, in the cafe queue, at the urinal…”

However, caution is advised. There are awkward parallels to be found with Threes (Sirvo, 2014) and the free, multi-platform clone that would come to eclipse it: 2048 (Gabriele Cirulli, 2014).

In Threes, the player faces a four-by-four grid of numbered tiles. Each turn, the player chooses which direction to slide the tiles in: they all move one space and an extra tile slides on to the edge you’ve pulled from. Space is created by merging tiles of the same value to make their double - such as 6 and 6 to make 12, 12 and 12 to make 24 - with the exception of 1 and 2 which must be combined to make 3.

Like Spelltower, Threes is efficient at getting the player into trouble quickly. Players who plan to see high value tiles like 768 learn to slide cautiously from the get-go. The developers laboured hard to make Threes simple to pick up and get interesting fast. It is the opposite of the zen game and I love it.

2048 appears similar to Threes but the sliding works a little differently plus the tiles are assigned powers of 2. The result is a game that does not get interesting until you’ve done a lot of grinding. 2048 is addictive because players can mindlessly slide tiles without concern for a good portion of the game. Players who leave the safe haven of 2048 to dabble with Threes are often stunned by the latter’s brutality.

2048 is the zen mode of Threes. I hate 2048.

Electron Dance regulars will be aware I’ve been playing Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) intensively over the last few weeks. It is a Match-3 game that involves sliding tiles around but shares a feature with 2048: you can almost play on autopilot for the early phase of the game. Almost. The fact that you will be dead in six moves if you don’t pay attention means you will pay attention even when Six Match is showering you with cascades. It just about blends a perfect marriage of zen mode - easy, purposeful progression - with vicious puzzle strategy.

Six Match starts as 2048 and then becomes Spelltower. You pore over each move, taking longer and longer, to ensure you’re not backed into a corner as you have only so many second chances. Getting a Six Match score above 6,000 is a fucking project that can easily span days.

And now I see what it was that I desired, what sweet spot I’d been searching for in Spelltower. I wanted the illusion of puzzle solving that gradually transformed into a hardcore mental workout. But it’s a very fickle, personal desire because I certainly didn’t need this from Threes. The question isn’t where is Spelltower’s zen mode because I can tell you exactly where it is. It’s on bloody iOS. It was added last year, 6 years after Spelltower’s initial release. The question should be why do I want one?

And I cannot answer this. But it does mean all that soul-searching about what makes a “real puzzle game” last week was a complete waste of time. It seems I want puzzle games to not actually be puzzle games; I want them to lie to me. At least, just for a little while.

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  1. This was originally called “Where is Spelltower’s Zen Mode?” which I kept off the list because it signalled too clearly in advance what I was going to talk about :) But at the last minute, literally an hour ago, I discovered Spelltower’s zen mode did exist and I need to do a fast rethink. The title didn’t make as much sense any more and I switched to my alternate title about lying. (Other options were variations on “Spelltower, Lie to Me”).

    I will probably respond to comments on Friday; it’s been hellish trying to do two Electron Dance events a week – Ouroboros & stream last week, Ouroboros & newsletter this week. And I always need to go and have a ponder after all your interesting comments. Early warning: going to take a break next week, no new posts, just so I can regroup.

  2. For me it’s not only about difficulty, even too hard or too easy, but the possibility to make him hard or easy depending how deep you want to go. But hardness and easiness cannot be measure by arbitrary design, making a game too hard for the sake of being hard. So if the difficulty does not depend on your skills or luck, I think it becomes broken and unjust. A puzzle if it’s not smart and do not makes you smart, it’s no good. The pleasure of a puzzle it’s to make you feel smart!

    Some years ago I was playing only a Tetris clone for a month, just because I did not want to think, but as I inevitably go through the phases, it becomes more and more fast, to a point it was not only impossible to play, it was boring and frustrating. There is no need to say I never more played this Tetris in my old cell phone again. This game seemed flawed to me. Playing in a easy mode, more slower just to make points would make more sense, but the necessity of another mode to truly enjoy the game just seems fake. Many games these days are making a difficulty mode with no challenge at all, to “relax” and “enjoy” the experience, but where is the pleasure if you are not really playing nothing. I understand the cheats, debug room, god mode, infinite ammunition when you are just having fun around and testing the limits, but it was never the “real” game, a difficulty category. To me these “zen” modes are mutilated version of the final product, taking off the principal elements that make him played, to be navigable, a passive traveller. This also true to a game that is too hard to play, sometimes this hardness is just bad design, principally to “puzzle” and “adventure” games, then it comes this “Prozac” Mode to make it playable, disguised as a game mode for casual gamers. Probably a difficulty mode more functional are the ones who adds more challenges not more or less “stuff”, but I don’t think the “difficulty” is restricted to challenges. It depends of the type of game, board games like chess, makes the difficulty of the game based on the type of opponent you play against, your own knowledge of chess and skill, in Mortal Kombat it’s the Artificial Intelligence or the second player, skills and know-how, victory is the principal recompense of these two games.

    Yet Lone Survival allows you to play anyway you like to play, not only you receive a different ending, even if you really need all the endings to unlock the “final” ending, but the gameplay changes significantly. In my first play, I “cheated” by reading what every pill was about, but only discovered in the end that my gaming choices altered the results of my game. For example, I had a lantern to illuminate the path, but the light attract the “monsters” to me, so I figured that I should just brighter my screen . The mechanics spins around the concepts of animal and human necessities of thirsty, hungry and sleepiness, also of stamina and vital health, but the very central concern it’s the metal health. In the end I realised that the real challenge it’s not only to make the “protagonist” alive and with a mental health good enough to be playable, but to make him less depressed, more “alive” and human and yet get to the end. Playing in the dark the entire game, without even using the flashlight will make the character more sad, killing monsters, using your gun, not sleeping by using pills, eating bad food, travelling in the mirror ( a teleportation), seeing yourself in the mirror constantly to see your stats (the character tell you how he fells about himself), not enjoying anything, like play in your gamejoy (which demands a battery), etc. Every choice I make in the game, changes the game, this reminded me of Clock Work Tower where every new game changes the location of the items and rooms.

    Horror games needs to be more difficult for increase fear and anxiety, if the mechanics it’s too good the anxiety decreases and if it’s too bad the game becomes unplayable and frustrating. This genre uses more aspects of what could be a “puzzle”. Obviously in horror, you need time to get immersion and fully appreciate the experience. I don’t think Dead Space 2 is exactly a horror game, but modulates the difficulty very well, in the easy mode the player will not have to concern to much which health, ammunition, items and upgrades, the monsters are more easy to defeat too, a higher difficult will decrease the items and increase the monster’s health. Nothing new, but the way they do it, in harmony with the entire game that is remarkable, your experience really changes by the difficulty, doesn’t feels that the game is broken in any modality. A zen mode would probably ruin the experience completely!

    Time and gaming it’s a very good question to point out. Does the player’s time changes by genre? Does the game allows only one type of “time” or can the player have his own time? Easy games are more fast and difficult games more slow? Or they are just broken?

  3. The thought I find myself having after reading this is that it might not be a series of mechanics or a specific type of design or “puzzle game” that creates engagement. It might be chaotic. The right game for the right person at the right time. Not just relegated to this overburdened genre (as I heard it put in your previous article’s comment thread).

    But perhaps there are mechanics and design that increase the percentage that we will like a game. I’ve mentioned many times in my videos on puzzle games that I love any puzzle game where I can play around with the mechanics while allowing my brain to work out the solution, but in something like Snake Pass that idea didn’t hold my interest. It worked in The Witness even though I wasn’t actually engaging with mechanics while working out solutions… and I don’t even know if any of the problem solving games like Human Resource Machine or anything by Zachtronics qualifies.

    I like what you’re doing, and I think there is great merit in working out not only our tastes but what elements of design we like or don’t and why. I just worry that I’m starting to think it’s a bit futile. =/

  4. Hello Pedro

    Don’t think I forgotten about your comment about art from last year. I know it’s been a long time but I stil have a note review and respond :)

    On “the necessity of another mode to truly enjoy the game seems fake”: I think is where things get a little grey because just like difficulty settings help match a game to different levels of physical skill, I think different puzzle modes can do the same, find a template that suits your particular interests or temperament. When you mention how an opponent changes the game you’re playing, that’s an astute analogy. It’s not usually fun to play someone who is way outside your skill level – crushing novices or being destroyed by an expert isn’t usually a recipe a good time. What we love in competitive games is the feeling of a perfectly pitched battle, anybody could win. Board game Ticket to Ride is excellent for nurturing that feeling that anyone could win and there is no runaway winner during the game itself. Games we tend to think are “fun” are about perfectly poised frustration (this is not my unique thought) which implies zen modes are an absolute mockery of the concept.

    I think zen modes have their place though, *particularly* with mobile games when people are on the move and just want a quick diversion, perhaps to switch off, to pass time without stress. Spelltower and Six Match are not restful games regardless of their turn-based nature. Whereas the anxiety of Six Match suited me just fine (although I’m slowly wearying of it), I found Spelltower to be too aggressive. The frustration was not perfectly balanced for me. The personal balance is everything and, wow, I really need to write that rant about difficulty :) The provisional title of this essay on the Ouroboros page, to hide its intended title of “Where is Spelltower’s Zen mode?” was “Frustration vs Frustration”.

    (Don’t get me started on Lone Survivor. It didn’t work for me at all and the idea that I had to play through again with all the end-of-game revelations filled me with dread.)

    On your final point, time has a relationship with difficulty but it’s not exactly clear. It might be reverse of what you think – you can easy game can mean you play an easy game for longer than one which kills you frequently. If you give up, it’s a lot shorter.


    Is this the first time you’ve commented here? My brain has got confused over our intermittent Twitter discussions.

    I have also not attempted any Zachtronics games despite having pre-ordered Spacechem! What’s that all about? I think it’s the fear of a tough puzzle. Snakebird probably skirted that defense mechanism because it looked knowable. But, I was wise to this before starting Stephen’s Sausage Roll!

    Here’s a secret. One of the reasons this series kept being put off is because it never felt finished. I didn’t have conclusions, just a bunch of thoughts. I never felt confident enough to say Things About Puzzles. A year on, I decided that these “inconclusions” are enough. It’ll get people talking down here in the comments and even disagreeing with me. The comment discussion on The Box Impossible led me to something I hadn’t realised: that my real definition of a puzzle game was “a class of puzzles”. So this series has all sorts of unexpected dividends and doesn’t feel futile at all and I think the value of these particular posts is actually down here in the comments.

    However, some of the later essays have much more concrete points to make and in your defence we’ve kicked off with two shoulder shrugging essays that are uncomfortable in drawing sharper lines around their topic.

  5. Heya Joel, this is indeed my first comment.

    I recommend giving Spacechem a try. I’ve played 3 Zach Barth games (Spacechem, TIS-100, and Infinifactory), and while they all share essentially the same puzzle core, they have different levels of abstraction, obtuseness, and narrative. I found Spacechem to be the most balanced. I do want to give Opus Magnum a go though. It looks mad :D

    I’m sure you’ve seen Mark Brown’s video on how these games are presenting problems rather than puzzles, and as such showcase the player’s creativity in finding solutions. I think why I never get very far in them is that each new level takes a leap in things you need to know to solve the problem from the last puzzle, and it’s the initial feeling of horror and futility each level that wears thin after a while. Starting from scratch every new challenge. The feeling of owning your own solution is quite thrilling despite this but I guess it wasn’t enough personally.

    My problem with Snakebird started with the restrictions on solving puzzles (one way to do things), and how that was exacerbated once multiple snakebirds were introduced. Mind you, it was a few years ago. Before Zachtronics, Human Resource Machine, The Talos Principle, and The Witness. And yes, even before Stephen’s Sausage Roll. Same issue with that game actually. The feeling there is only one exact way to do things, but coupled with no clear difficulty progression and learning how to move the character didn’t make things easier. :)

    I think I get far too frustrated too easily when things don’t work the way I think they should. It’s why I’ve never been able to teach myself programming ^^

    My recent critique on Pillars of Eternity I think has taught me that just having thoughts without answers is ok. Especially if you have an audience to converse with. Your comment section seems quite fruitful. Ok, let’s see where you go from here. Some of my favourite games of the last few years have been puzzle games (and the adventure game has always been a favourite genre, which is like a cousin or a sibling to the puzzle game).

    Have you played The Swapper?

  6. Dave, I haven’t seen Mark Brown’s video because I don’t watch many gaming videos at all. It’s a miracle I’ve seen anything by Joseph Anderson because his output is loooong.

    I’ve no personal issue with games that are looking for a single solution but it can be a problem someone in a context giving players’ tools then locking down their creativity into one solution!

    The comment section here ebbs and flows. The right article will get everyone commenting, the wrong article… *tumbleweed*

    It’s been a long journey getting to enjoy puzzle games and the turning point was actually The Swapper as I wrote about over here. I have a lot more patience these days which is why Snakebird was a real surprise.

  7. It seems that the real Zen mode, it’s the way of the middle mode or the mode of the middle way (???).

    Hotline Miami deals with frustration through rapidly pressing a button to rapidly restore the stage, even if you die many times, doesn’t feel like your game is interrupting. Dark Souls supposedly has frustration to be his high point, dying and learning from your mistakes, but this is probably overrated. Either one has the risk of someone pulling off the game, but the two has many manoeuvrers to make the game running.

    I agree that this question of time it’s a grey zone. An “easy” game would be a game with smooth gameplay, enough to make you going longer to it’s end and an “hard” game could make you give up by just not letting you play. It depends of what it takes to be hard or easy. In correspondence with the player’s skilfulness, a game can be harder for one people and easy for another one, in reference of complexity and simplicity, a game could be harder because of the complexity and easier by his simplicity, it will be fast or slow depending of the skilfulness of the player, in consideration of understanding a game, a harder game could be a game that it is harder to understand how to play, for example many strategy games can be harder just because it demands too much from the player to actually play it. But a hard game or easy doesn’t means a good or bad game, or a shorter game is more simple and a longer game is more complex.

    If time is the time to fully play the entire game, than classic card games never runs out of gas, each “match” is a game for itself, and from the deck one can make a new set of rules creating new games. Video games tends to make “match” and “playability” one thing only, the match is the gameplay itself, once is over is over, even the set of rules is fixed, no new games can be created.

    I think the possibility to make these “futile” questions that makes this site so interesting!

  8. Here’s Mark’s video then. He also has some great ones on how Jonathon Blow designs puzzles and adventure game puzzle design.


    Joseph Anderson and Noah Gervais are critics whose videos I usually watch in 10-15 minute bursts over a number of days. 5-15 mins is my personal sweet spot for critical games content :)

    You engage with your readers though, and that’s always appreciated.

    Seeing how a love of puzzle games is recent for you, I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on Miegakure if/when that game ever comes out.

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