I tend to have brief, madly passionate affairs.
With mobile games.
The last affair I had was with Lara Croft GO (Square Enix Montreal, 2015) which I couldn’t stop wrestling with over several weeks of commutes. On a difficulty curve, it was positioned around taxing-but-not-that-taxing which made it a pleasant diversion from the usual brainkilling puzzle fuckery of something like Cosmic Express (Draknek, 2016), a previous squeeze. But I was done with Lara and, after taking a break from commuter gaming, I cast around for something new. I embarked on Linelight (My Dog Zorro, 2017) and Cityglitch (mindfungus, 2017).
On a whim, I also picked up Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) after seeing it mentioned on Twitter. It looked like a garish lo-fi slot machine, complete with sounds like Mario hoovering up coins. I played a bit but it just… it just didn’t do anything for me. Still, after becoming frustrated with the touchscreen controls of Linelight and finding I could only invest in playing Cityglitch for short bursts, I was forced to go back to Six Match to break things up a bit.
Today, Six Match is my new fling. And I want to talk about Six Match because its odd mix of mechanics induce an unusual emotion in the late game: loneliness.
Six Match is very much of the Starseed Pilgrim school of game design where it’s down to you to figure it out. At first, everything is a little overwhelming but gradually the rules become legible. And after all those moments of understanding, Six Match continues to follow in the footsteps of Pilgrim, quietly transforming from curious beepy plaything into the Final Reckoning. Every game becomes a long, epic showdown, a struggle between you and the coins, the diamonds, the skulls, the blocks and did I mention the fucking skulls.
I’ll limit spoilers here so you can have the same fun unlocking this little puzzlebox, but the basics: it’s a Match-3 game crossed with a sliding tile puzzle. Think Bejewelled (PopCap Games, 2001) and you’re halfway there. Instead of choosing adjacent coin pairs to swap at whim, you can only swap places with a white tile you slide around. The tile has six moves in which to create a match and it bears the number of moves left, like a ticking timebomb. Fail and the game is over. That’s it, poof. You are always, always within six moves from death. In the beginning, the game showers you with colourful coin love and it’s easy to keep the matches flowing. Later, though, you’ll feel the stress of those six moves, each one of which will need to count.
Right, so, I wanted to talk about loneliness. Now to get to this particular writing destination, I’ll need to explain about the Help function, which is something I ignored in the beginning yet became a key part of my approach to Six Match.
If you spend too long thinking about a move, Six Match will pop up a little button offering Help. It’s marked HELPx6. Touch the button and the genie of Six Match will show you how to make a match. A ghost of your tile shows you the right dance steps needed to wrest order from the chaos: follow those steps and you’ll make a match. Then you’ll notice the button is called HELPx5. Aha. You only have six Helps available during the game.
I ignored it because, well, it’s just a hint system, right? I’m smarter than that. I don’t need HELP, let alone HELPx6. I’ll use my eyes, thank you, Mr. Steed. However, the mental skills required to arrange the matches need time to develop and Help is really good at teaching those skills. You will make mistakes hand over fist, expecting to make a match only to find NOOOOO DAMN IT the coins move the opposite way you expected.
But what if Help can’t find a match? What if you really are screwed? Then this happens:
You probably can’t parse what this means. Let me help you understand Help. Help is offering you a bomb. This is Help’s blunt way of explaining you are utterly screwed and only blowing a hole in the board will keep things moving along. If you don’t take that bomb, your game will be over, trust me. Don’t dis the Help, yo. So Help isn’t just an expert to teach you the ropes but also doubles as a lives system. You can “die” six times and Help will save you. Once I realised Help was the number of lives I had, I soon stopped asking it for hints. No thank you! I think I’d rather stare at the board until the colourful coins are permaburned into my photoreceptors than throw away one of my lives because I’m a little lazy!
And so it goes.
Gah, I miscounted the moves! HELPx5.
No, it didn’t move the way I expected! HELPx4.
Oh my days, I’m stuck in a corner unable to make a match! HELPx3.
And then: the dreaded CASH-IN. You taunting bastard.
Every move, it pops up. CASH-IN, with a skull. It sounds final, right? And that skull, well, that ain’t right. CASH-IN. Are you stuck? Why don’t you just CASH-IN? The CASH-IN button tells you nothing, it just waits for you to fail. Oh and you will fail, because you’re now beyond Help. Touch that CASH-IN button and the game ends with a bonus. Yay, you didn’t die! You chose to leave of your own free will!
There’s a nasty dark side to the CASH-IN button. It poses a question only you can answer: are you really screwed? Are you staring at a Kobayashi Maru?
Help constantly reassures you that there’s an answer in the scatter of coins, you just have to find it. I’ve stared at the coins for ten minutes or more sometimes, knowing there’s a way out somewhere. But when you’ve exhausted Help with no-win scenarios, you can no longer be sure. Instead of certainty and confidence, Six Match becomes a game of fear and self-doubt. In the absence of Help, I had this profound feeling, in this Match-3 game of all places, of feeling alone. I hate giving up that last Help because not only is it the beginning of the end, but it is the beginning of playing without that companion who had seen me through. Help never lied. Help always told the truth. But now there’s no Help and I don’t know what to do.
Is now the time to hit the CASH-IN button? Or should I spend a few more minutes looking? And every time I spot that frankly genius route to save what looked like a doomed board, it makes the next call even harder. I found something last time, right? Surely this time there’s a way through…? I just need to look a little longer.
Keep on looking. Keep on looking.