Electron Dance

Why We Do This

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

In the last exciting episode, I made reference to the flow channel, where your puzzling skill is a perfect match for the challenge before you. But at the far end of the flow channel, a player can be swimming in euphoria. Your diamond sharp skills etch into the most brutal challenges. You can even see through some puzzles like glass.

This is not to be confused with merely making it to the end of a game. And I'm not talking about finding the puzzles easy. I'm talking about when it feels like you've ascended from reasoning into instinct.

It is why we subject ourselves to the frustration. We are in pursuit of an exotic experience that is not as common as you might expect.

Six Match

Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) is a score attack turn-based puzzle in the mould of Bejewelled (PopCap, 2001) and I talked about it back in January. When you first play Six Match, you’re just having a laugh with it, because it jangles nicely like a slot machine in a pub. It passes the time.

This innocence does not last. The design draws your brain into the future and you acquire SIGHT. Instead of just reacting, you begin to see what will happen. You realise you can postpone failure. You can keep this game going for a lot longer, if only you stop to think.

The further you push, the more you see. You can move while the board is cascading. Why? What does that do? Do you get a bonus for that? Look, I don’t know. I didn't say I had all the answers. But I saw it. And I can tell you trying to take advantage of that feels fucking reckless.

In later stages, when there are six colours on the board, you will scan the entire board every move, trying to exploit your six, valuable moves to not just establish a match but also gather colour together elsewhere. Having prepared matches can save you from oblivion, especially when the permanent stampers begin to gum up the board.

And once you're swimming at this level of play, you’ll feel the danger instead of merely observing it. Descending to the bottom of a board riddled with stampers feels like diving to the bottom of the Marianas Trench -- and you're unsure if you're going to make it back up to the surface. The bottom of the board is littered with skeletons of the fallen.

I always have questions. I know Six Match has "waves" - here come the skulls, for example -  although I am still unclear on whether score or move count triggers them. I tried counting the moves and watching the score but I was usually too engrossed in the game to be sure. My suspicion was waves were triggered by move count, because if they were triggered when punching through score thresholds, then the “poker hand” at the bottom of the game becomes partially irrelevant. Reason being, as the game speeds along, it gets harder, so having the poker hand accelerating the score before the difficulty kicks in becomes meaningless. Poker hands become near impossible to strategise during the late game. So why bother with them if all they do is speed you through difficulty?

Yet, Six Match is a cautionary tale for the deep player. Six Match eventually felt like a burglar tramping through my brain, flipping mattresses and furniture in search of valuables. I became too obsessed with the perfect game which could stretch for hours; it was exhausting and I eventually couldn't go back in. Electron Dance friend saltyhorse wrote about his own Six Match burnout. And what I feel he identified was that once you've mastered the strategy of a score attack game, there's only one thing left, the one thing you can't do anything about and it can drive you to drink.



Settling into Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018) takes a while. And I mean, a real long while. I've explained before that I really didn't get Dissembler until I graduated from the handcrafted levels onto the procedurally-generated content. And there all hell breaks loose. Each day you get six new puzzles which I previously described as ranging from “a piece of cake and a cup of tea" to "traumatic mindmelters". Through the dailies, I developed a real talent for solving Dissembler puzzles. In an unusual twist, I segued from Monte Carlo player (solve by guesswork) to deep player which is a very rare occurence.

Today, I feel those colours under my fingers. Moving colour is like smearing a blob of paint across a surface and it will smear only so far.

What magic. What wonderful magic.

The Flames

The previous examples suggest that extensive play is the only way to achieve deep playerhood. But The Flames (Rosden Shadow, 2017) is a short puzzlescript game with just ten levels. It’s a blockpusher with an unusual mechanic in which wood catches light when it comes into contact with fire. Wood will burn up after a few moves and you can still push burning objects, which can spread the fire onward. Sometimes you will need to use fire to exit a level, sometimes you will need to avoid fire to exit a level and sometimes you will need to do both.

Good Sokobanlikes tweak the Sokoban rules just enough to produce a puzzle that does not work the same way at all. The burning mechanic of The Flames does this; regular Sokoban instincts are useless here. The correct sequence of moves is often hard to determine. Tenacious players are doomed to spend a long time staring at its small levels.

The key move in The Flames is the pass. If you push something flammable alongside a source of fire - rather than into it - it gives you the maximum bang for buck, in terms of how far you can get the flammable object before it turns into ash. It is pointless to push a burnable up to a fire source only to then spend two turns walking around the object to push it in a perpendicular direction - it’ll be ashes before you get anywhere. The pass isn't enough to see you through the whole game though!

The Flames is a spacetime game. Because objects burn after a few moves, time is equivalent - for a burning object - to space. You start to count the moves because it feels smarter than experimenting. Where are your pushes going wrong? Where could you tighten up? Where is the trick you're missing?

Because The Flames is short, the ten levels do not guide you to burning block enlightment. In fact, the player has to stare and pontificate if they are to get anywhere. In this way, it fosters the conditions for deep play.

And you...?

The comments are here for a reason. Tell me about moments in puzzle games where you began to feel puzzle structure instead of just reasoning through it.

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  1. Maybe because I don’t particularly like score-attack kinds of games, but “puzzles become instinctive” is not the high I’m looking for myself. I like the moment, sometimes longer than a moment, when a puzzle that seemed impossible reverses itself. Like when I finally realized what the moving piece in Snakebird level 23 was good for (yes yes, you saw that right away). Which maybe would’ve come faster if the level geometry was instinctive–it took a lot of experimentation to realize that other things didn’t work. Specifically, I went to a lot of trouble to try to stuff the snakebird in between the parts of the gate, which I could’ve maybe seen wouldn’t work by counting squares, but it’s also the kind of thing where experimenting with things you can do helps.

    Like, in Stephen’s Sausage Roll I can talk about how you come to realize how sausages interact with the edge of the map, and why you should usually walk backwards, and why a CENSORED formation means you can CENSORED, but a lot of the thrill I get from puzzles is the way they mess with my instincts. I can see–or maybe reason–that there’s no way to do X, but there is! And some of my biggest, and coldest, frustrations come in games where my mind simply failed to count the squares right–like in a level of Jelly No Puzzle where I saw roughly what I had to do, and which piece I had to keep in the air, but I couldn’t grasp that the gap I had to cross was short enough for me to hang that piece on another in a straightforward way. So when I hit hints I felt mad at myself for not seeing it, but not as if the designer had something diabolically clever. It was just something that landed in my blind spot.

    So… where the main thing about the puzzle is you can do it if you’ve instinctively internalized the structure of the level, that’s not so satisfying to me, because either I’ve internalized it enough in which case I just glide through–maybe with a little pleased smile of “ha ha I know this”–or I haven’t, in which case I’m stuck and either Monte Carlo my way through it or find external help and think “That was it?” But when the main thing about the puzzle is taking what you’ve learned and flipping it on its head, that’s satisfying to me. It seems like maybe not that much coincidence that two of the three examples here aren’t designed content?

    (Also in relation to earlier discussion I realized that the version of Jelly No Puzzle I play doesn’t have undo. What does that mean? Well, sometimes I guess I really do have to learn the solutions, which are quite short. Also it’s really really frustrating when I fatfinger a move wrong, which is very easy to do with its control scheme.)

  2. I don’t think I’ve reached a sense of instinctual mastery in any game, but I think I came close to it with Tetris. You can quickly learn how pieces fit into each other. Similarly with Chime, which tasks you with building rectangles from polyominoes of varying shapes. Each level comes with its own set of pieces with their own relationships.

    I had a different but similar feeling with Stephen’s Sausage Roll. In some of the later levels, I started to see “behind” the level, trying to reverse engineer the puzzle, attaching meaning to every big of the landscape, because I realized the designer put it there for a purpose, and I must use it somehow. It might be a fault of the game that it has (almost?) no red herrings – it doesn’t thematically feel like a constructed world like The Witness, but it might be a positive too, since it helps players along.

    I’m very bad at Dissembler (still stuck on the main puzzles), but the distance-based thinking reminds me of The Cave of Ātman, which is …a turn-based dungeon crawler sokobanlike…? Each character has its own possible reach, and this helps figure out the correct order in which characters should move. The game is getting a remake soon.

  3. Heya Matt

    That’s interesting. For me, it’s not that you can solve the puzzles with one stroke but that you’ve become so much faster. If you go back to earlier levels of a logic puzzle, you’d burn through them – not because you remember the solution, but because you recognise structure.

    I love that feeling that I’ve mastered all this intricate, palpably useless knowledge. It was noticeable in the second Dissembler stream where I just opened up the daily puzzles and a lot of the level just feel obvious to me; perhaps more important in Dissembler is what is *not* possible and it saves you a shit-ton of experimentation. That was not true on the previous stream, where I just followed the obvious. Green down here and green up there? I guess I try moving green up there?

    The thing is, I think the designer has to assume you’ve moved down the flow channel and if you haven’t got invented these heuristics that you’re supposed to pick up, you have nothing to help you get even close to the solution. So I’m not sure we’re disagreeing so much. There’s no joy in solving a puzzle that feels simple; there is joy in solving a puzzle that requires you to have learnt so much. You don’t even notice it most of the time but I was very aware of it for the three games in this post.

    I haven’t forgotten the other thread but bloody hell I’m tired this week.

    Yo Ori

    As I’m trying to put across to Matt above, I think it sells yourself short to think you didn’t reach “instinctual mastery” because you’re often relying on small signifiers and patterns learned from previous levels even if it doesn’t feel like it. There’s still something there just not be as profound or in the foreground as the examples I described above. I’m sure I could blast through most of Cosmic Express’ early levels quickly now, but I never felt like a Cosmic Express expert.

    As I said, I suspect the Dissembler campaign does not teach all that well, but PCG dailies do a marvellous job. (I’ll have to give Ātman a go at some point.)

  4. By the time I got about a third of the way through the thousand-strong Sudoku + 7 other Complex Puzzles for the 3DS (if nothing else, fantastic value) I was pretty sure I was getting an iinstinctual feel for Slitherlink, Masui, and the other puzzles (each much better than Sudoku, except for Hitori which is very filler-ish).

    Then I started playing the Kakuro in the canteen’s copy of the Daily Mail on my lunch break, and suffered a serious loss of pride. Day after day it was completely kicking my arse. I couldn’t tell if I needed to extend a newfound respect for the intellectual faculties of the paper’s readership (which would constitute a near-existential crisis of faith in the universe) or whether the paper’s editors weren’t actually checking to see how difficult the puzzles they received actually were before bunging them in.

  5. Hello, long time reader, first time commenting. You sir have opened my eyes to a whole world of gaming goodness, not to mention a whole new way of engaging with videogames (understanding the intellectual and creative value of good game design, and seeing through so many things that just used to be there “because this is a game”).

    There were plenty of these moments for me during the later puzzles of The Swapper, the game that rekindled my interest in the genre. I remember it as an excellent game, with a wonderful core mechanic, maybe a tad too easy. Having become a more self-conscious puzzle game player lately, I’m not sure what I would think about The Swapper today.

    Also plenty of those moments while playing The Witness, lovely lovely game. I loved the tetris pieces puzzles and many of the environmental meta-puzzles (although, like most players, I eventually gave up on them near the end). The Witness has this way of keeping you in the flow channel, like you are becoming fluent in its language, and each new puzzle is a deeper conversation with it. Brilliant.

  6. CA

    I wished I’d had a chance to reply a couple of days ago – it was the funniest thing I read all day! I think those of us who are experienced puzzle hands should always be mindful we’re always one puzzle away from an existential crisis! Look no further than this great tweet from Sean Barrett I received this week.


    Hello! Hearing from long term readers in the comments is always welcome and thank you for kind words.

    Yes, I gave up on puzzles a long time ago because, as far as I was concerned, it had been colonised over by the “casual market” and everything was bright colours and popping balloons. I hated that casual aesthetic although I’m able to tolerate it a lot more now. I think getting to know Jake Birkett – the developer of Regency Solitaire and Shadowhand – is what enabled me to get over this prejudice. Coming back to puzzles has been a slow process but I definitely played The Swapper and I wrote “it took awhile for The Swapper to get difficult”. It was flawed in many ways – the presentation caused some confusion with the narrative, although the story was excellent – but it was definitely one of those games that rekindled my interest in puzzles. Perhaps I too would find The Swapper too easy today after all of my puzzle experience in recent years :)

    And I concur with your comments on The Witness. I suppose I should have mentioned The Challenge because BOY that’s when you HAVE TO BE instinctive! That would have been a great example, alas, the article is now written. :( I think we should start a club for those who gave up on the env puzzles – because I think quitting those is the mark of a true winner. Victory over yourself.

  7. I can identify with that Sean Barrett tweet! After struggling my way through all the level of The Flames I was typing up a long description of one where I got stuck and then felt really clever and it was THE SECOND LEVEL. The second level!

  8. Hello again… I didn’t know you had already written about the swapper in the blog… The disconnection between the narrative and the puzzles is very definitely there, yes… But the thing about that game, setting aside pure difficulty or lack thereof, is that something about its mechanics felt really really good and made you feel really really clever at times. Hard to put in words, though.

    Also I just finished The Flames… And boy is it good. I like how it takes you a while to come up with an approach for some puzzles, and as soon as you try it you see that you are NOT EVEN CLOSE, and it didn’t even look that difficult in the first place (those blocks turning to ashes 4 or 5 turns sooner than you need them to…) However by level 10 I was feeling that the core mechanic had been exhausted, and not much more could have been done with it (not without some significant new twist, at least)

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