This is the nineteenth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
Back in the day when I was a beautiful youngling, skipping levels in arcade games like Pac-Man or Space Invaders was out of the question. You played from level one, every time. And early puzzle games did not escape the gravity of tradition; you played from puzzle one, every time. At least when I was making Sokobanlike The Citadel, I assigned each level a password so you didn’t have to play through the whole game whenever you wanted to have a go. I still clung to three lives and a time limit, though.
In time, the Age of Player Punishment gave way to the Age of Contemplation. We’ve gone so much further than just skipping levels. Today, unless you’re playing something like a Puzzlescript game, your fancy puzzler is unlikely to force you through a list of non-negotiable challenges. I’ve previously discussed the level select as a tool to review the past; what we’re going to do today is discuss it as a road into the future.
Let’s start out with the simplest approach, no choice at all. There is a sound design principle behind the merciless single track methodology. The developer can be confident about what the player has learned and the level number is a measure of the player’s mental maturity. This makes level sequencing a less complex task.
But it has a problem which is obvious to the modern player: if the player gets stuck, they cannot do anything else. This increases the possibility they will quit entirely either consciously or unconsciously. As a result, it has fallen from favour in these modern times but there are still games that follow this model. Machine at the Heart of the World (Evidently Cube, 2018) refuses access to the next puzzle until the current one is complete. This is because Machine is about deciphering symbols and jumping around would undermine that process. There are plenty of other titles which cajole the player through a linear sequence, such as Linelight (My Dog Zorro, 2017) and Portal (Valve, 2007).
Some games offer token choice. The options are so limited, it is no choice at all. Archaica: The Path of Light (Two Mammoths, 2017) looks like it offers multiple options but in fact is linear for most of the game. It requires the player to follow a strict sequence partly because there just isn’t enough puzzles to provide alternatives in each zone. Adding choice is not just about adding a pretty level select GUI, but making sure you’ve got the levels to make it viable. Note that optional challenges do not constitute genuine choice as they are advanced options for the advanced player.
RYB (FLEB, 2016) is another one that implies choice but is actually a straight line. The Android version of the devilish Jelly no Puzzle (Qrostar, 2013) offers some choice but there are stretches of desert where the player has no alternate route, easily leaving players stranded at an unassailable challenge.
Some titles offer a limited form of choice that I’ll label partitioning. Here levels are grouped into “worlds” in which players are free to explore but they can only advance to a new partition after every available level has been solved. Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016) demands every puzzle to be solved before progressing to the next group of puzzles. This is done to manage the “release” of new information about the sausage mechanics. Cityglitch offers a twist on partitioning – you don’t need to complete every level, you just have to complete enough to open the boss level but you must defeat the boss level to proceed to the next partition.
A superior alternative, from a player perspective, is rolling choice in which a game offers a set of levels to choose from, but each success unlocks further levels. This ensures the player has not just one brick wall to bang their head against but three or four. You can see this implemented in the excellent Minesweeperlike Tametsi (Grip Top Games, 2017), Sokobond (Hazelden & Lee, 2013), Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis, 2017) and Tricone Lab (Partickhill Games, 2017).
Let’s go further. The Witness (Thekla Inc, 2016) looks partitioned but is actually a hodge-podge of different structures. There are partitioned areas and single track sequences which act as grooves to roll the player’s brain down, control their understanding. But there are also sections, such as the village ruins in the centre of the island, where the player can choose puzzles at will. There’s a certain Metroidvania feel to this, because these puzzles can only be unlocked with the right key of knowledge. If there was no gating, however, the purposeful chaos of the village would infect the whole game. See also Full Bore (Whole Hog Games, 2013) which is extremely forgiving aside from a few bottlenecks. I tend to think about this as managed freedom. The Witness feels generous. Go anywhere. Solve whatever you find.
But are there any games which just let the player have at it? The closest to this open world ideal I can think of is A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build (Hazelden & Davis, 2015). There is some early gating through a small tutorial section but after that the entire puzzle universe is open to you. The reason this works is because A Good Snowman is a flat game; there are no extra crazy mechanics like ice blocks to uncover. There is no educational imperative to gate the levels. (Update 31 Jan: Matt W cautions me in the comments that this isn’t true, that Snowman gates heavily but I just didn’t notice it. In exchange, he mentioned the online version of Jelly no Puzzle lets you select any level you want.)
The purpose of choice is to give players space to move. When the player is thwarted by a puzzle for too long, they end up in a Groundhog Day of performing the same failed solution attempt again and again hoping a revelation will emerge from the void. Instead of pleasure, the player gets claustrophobia.
But all roads lead to Rome.
No matter how much choice you throw in, the choices inevitably converge to a single level, the final challenge between you and victory. While puzzle games can offer multiple springboards to completion, many only offer a single “end of game boss” puzzle. In fact, a partitioned game will deliver many of these moments, because you cannot progress from a partition without clearing every level and you’ll do the hardest one last. How many people remember being stuck on “The Great Tower” of Stephen’s Sausage Roll? Look, I’m not embarrassed to put my hand up here. Uh, surely someone else can put their hand up as well?
Nova 7 was my Rome.
Although you do not need to solve every level to complete Cosmic Express, you do need to solve the final boss level, Nova 7. I had been bouncing between a few difficult levels but, gradually, they all succumbed… except for Nova 7. It became a terrible curse. Instead of a wonderful morning commute on the train pitting my mighty wits against the fearsome brain of Alan Hazelden, I now faced daily frustration, drawing out failed solution after failed solution each suspiciously resembling the previous failed solution. I had run out of choice. I had run out of road. I took a break for a few days but upon returning the brutal truth quickly snuffed out the rekindled embers of optimism.
After channelling countless hours into this one level, I had made no progress at all. The level made no sense, I saw no order beneath its surface, I couldn’t break it down into smaller problems, Monte Carlo had failed and I understood nothing. Overcome with claustrophobia, I could not do this anymore. A whisker away from finishing, Cosmic Express had broken my mental spine.
Only one option remained. A dark magic that we dare not acknowledge in polite company, spoken about only in whisper.
Next: Hole in My Chest
Note on A Good Snowman
A Good Snowman is a Sokobanlike where you have to roll snow around to build a snowman. The park of the game is effectively open and you almost roam at leisure to tackle the puzzles as you please. It is not that difficult but there was a gauntlet of optional challenges buried in the game.
Without spoiling too much, to solve these challenges, you have to redo many of the puzzles that you had considered done. It turns out there are alternate solutions for many of these snowmen that you might not have realised existed. Some of them are downright evil.
The trouble is you’re often not sure where to move your snowmen to be victorious; perhaps the solution you’re after is actually impossible and you’ve got the wrong target after all? This is why I abandoned the challenge because this was some galaxy-brain level shit. I was not confident about some of my snowman rebuild attempts. I couldn’t face the frustration of trying to square the circle when I was supposed to be circling the circle.