This is the eighteenth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
Thursday March 16 2017 might sound just like any other day but you could not be more wrong. Take the first damn bus out of town wrong. It was a real red letter day just like when Gordon Freeman popped up in Half-Life 2. This particular Thursday was the day that saw… the release of Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis & Tyu, 2017). Be still my beating heart.
At the time, I did not realise the world had shifted axis. I didn’t rush out to buy this masterpiece because, frankly, I’d already poured my Christmas free time into Recursed (Portponky, 2017) and RYB (FLEB, 2016) and I wasn’t in the mood for another puzzle game. These were the dark days before I had focused my mind on a year-long project writing about puzzles called The Ouroboros Sequence.
Away from the electric puzzles in the real world, we had been house hunting. I’d become obsessed with this Traditional British Sport, studying local price trends, watching for new properties, jumping up and down in excitement whenever I saw a price drop. In truth, I hated house hunting with the kind of passion normally reserved for a Dark Souls boss but… if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right.
Then Cosmic Express designer Alan Hazelden sent me a free Steam key for the game and I was a little… resentful? Please, for the love of God, Alan, do not put this on my bloody plate. My cup of games runneth over.
But I saw others getting excited about Cosmic Express and exchanging stories of grief about how the puzzles were trolling them personally. I was jealous but had other things on my mind. On March 23, I tweeted “When you’re reading other people’s conversations about @Draknek’s Cosmic Express and wish you were playing already.” Rezzed and a holiday in the Lake District were just around the corner.
On March 27, we saw yet another house. But I also loaded Cosmic Express up on my phone, as I felt bad that I hadn’t made use of the free key. It’s not like I was playing anything on the phone anyway.
The only other rail-themed puzzle I had played was Trainyard (Noodlecake Studios Inc., 2010) and while I blasted through some of the early puzzles I just didn’t find it engaging enough. In Trainyard, the player must lay tracks so that all the trains will get to a destination of their designated colour. I got to the early twists where train colours change if trains collide with each other – so blue and yellow trains become green.
Trainyard is a lightweight programming game; the rail is an algorithm for the trains to follow and getting the algorithm wrong means you’ve got to debug the rail code. Cosmic Express is similar. The player must plot a single train’s route to take passengers to destinations and then off to the level’s exit. Whereas Trainyard focuses on coordinating the timing of the trains, Cosmic Express is all about the order of instructions.
The day after I installed Cosmic Express, we made an offer on that house. After all the houses we had seen, this one was pretty much perfect – as perfect as you could expect – but it was above the price range we had been aiming at. We could afford it but we are prudent people, unwilling to take on much debt in a housing market gone mad with cheap money, in a country on the verge of Brexit, in a family with two children, in a time between breakfast and lunch. In fact, what was really giving me the heebee-jeebees was the timing.
In two days, I’d be off to EGX Rezzed. Three days after that, I’d be in the Lake District. If the offer on the house came back positive, then it would cut across everything. It was as if I was playing through a level of Trainyard and failed miserably to coordinate the timing of multiple trains.
And Cosmic Express continued to lay fallow on the phone. I had too much on my mind and Rezzed was going to lead to another series of Dabbling With articles which I’d have to write in the few days left before travelling to the Lake District. At least, I thought, I was fully prepared for Rezzed this year, taking my laptop with me, planning to write and publish articles from the venue itself.
It was the morning of Thursday 30 March. While I was on the train to my first morning of Rezzed I got a call.
Congratulations, you won the house!
…on one condition. You have to exchange contracts by May 12. Uh, well, this was… tight considering I was supposed to be away for a week.
“That’s great news,” I said as my heart went into arrest. I visualised the next few days disintegrating into a puddle of panic. God damn it. God damn it. “Yes, absolutely, those are tears of joy you’re hearing.”
At first, I decided to ignore the news and tried to calmly play games at Rezzed. But I kept getting phone calls about the next stage of the process, getting a solicitor set up, all that stuff. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing and I hadn’t even given the mortgage people a call. You know, you really have to give the mortgage people a call. I bumped into Ed Key (Proteus) and Mike Cook (Angelina) but I just kept repeating to them “I’m not really here” over and over. My brain CPU was being hogged by a rogue process and I couldn’t pull down the task manager to kill it. (That’s ps -ef to you Linux people.)
I fled Rezzed after lunch, realising I just couldn’t do games but wasn’t quick enough: I had to jump off the train before I’d got home to submit a formal mortgage application. For half an hour, I paced back and forth outside Lower Sydenham train station while answering the mortgage broker’s 792 questions.
Although I returned to Rezzed the next day, the house purchase continued to be a drain. Working on paperwork meant I had only three hours sleep before driving for hours to the Lake District. None of the Rezzed articles had been written and I had to “take them with me” on holiday. Yay me.
Throughout the holiday I was working on both house paperwork and Electron Dance through WiFi that was only reliable when everyone else in the inn had stopped using it and gone to sleep, a time some call “midnight”. I had no mobile data because, of course, we were staying in an inn in the middle of nowhere. After we returned, it was my birthday! And my present was to spend most of the day figuring out the new paperwork I had acquired during the holiday.
There seemed no respite. Now I was ready for Cosmic Express.
Before going to bed on Sunday April 9, I rattled through a few early levels in the section called Andromeda. It was what I needed, diverting, making me feel like I was achieving something. Naturally, I vented on Twitter the next day that I’d already hit the moment when the puzzle playfield gets larger: “That Feeling When… the grid squares get a little smaller. The good times are over, kids.”
I’ve written about this before but I always find this moment sad and poignant. From here on in, every puzzle is going to take more time simply to unpack it. And if you can’t solve it in one sitting, you’ll have to spend time rattling through what you’ve tried before and reconstructing the implied structure of the level rather than what faces you on the screen. The solution is hidden in the unfilled blank space.
Then almost immediately after I hit big puzzles, I got properly stuck for the first time with a level called Andromeda 10. Getting proper stuck is always a dangerous corner for a puzzle game to turn. Sometimes your life isn’t ready to descend into an epic puzzle work and you abandon it because the timing was bad. But it was too early to feel defeated. I can do this, I thought. I can deal with the seemingly impossible but obviously solvable, Alan. You will not take me down this day. Cosmic Express and I turned that dangerous corner together. You can date the moment that my Cosmic Express addiction took hold. It was April 11. The commute was prime Cosmic Express time and I looked forward to catching trains so I could route trains. I was genunely addicted to the commute.
Although not yet an expert, I was already sensing patterns, such as the different ways you could twist track to achieve the same goal: this becomes crucial if you want to keep certain spaces clear until much later on the route because direct routes were always a mistake. If you were studying direct routes, you were studying failure. I was also surprised that symmetric puzzles could yield the most horrendous asymmetric solutions.
The metronome of surging progress followed by baffled contemplation was matched with the housebuying process: sometimes all you had to do was wait, other times you had sign things, copy things, print things, send things, buy things, anxiety things, anxiety things, anxiety things. Every time something went slightly wrong was another day lost to plate spinning. You may be on top of the mortgage but are you on top of the house survey?
I had planned to focus on one “puzzle constellation” at a time in Cosmic Express before moving on to others; Andromeda had opened up paths to the Vela, Delphinus and Ursa Minor constellations. Delphinus introduced the infamous green alien, who soils the train so other aliens refuse to board. Life was looking tough elsewhere too. I just had to finish Andromeda first.
I just had to solve Andromeda 14.
Actually it’s full title is Andromeda fucking 14.
See if I want to take both purple guys through I have to approach from the edge and move towards the centre, completely blocking those areas from passage; it does not leave enough pathways to get the yellow aliens to their destinations. And I could not figure out the trick, the quirk, the hidden secret door, the theorem, the masterstroke that would unlock the level.
I abandoned my “no puzzle left behind” stance immediately because the commutes were going to become dreary if I focused on Andromeda 14 and only Andromeda 14. I hoped somewhere out there, amongst the other constellations, was the answer to this conundrum. I’d come back later. I’d be the hero of Andromeda 14. There’d be a fucking parade and everything. But it didn’t give way.
The house survey was then conducted, the cheapest way of convincing a house to give up its secrets; the more expensive way is to move in and let the secrets happen to you. A house survey isn’t going to tell you all the secrets, of course, because where would be the fun in that? The survey, like everything else, was running late, but Cosmic Express kept me grounded. And I discovered the game’s own dark secret.
Cosmic Express is drenched in alternate solutions. Some are clearly flagged when a puzzle has multiple exits and you’ve got to solve it both ways otherwise certain routes on the constellation map will remain inaccessible. But I discovered on April 16 that there was also a set of optional challenges, if you could find them, that ask you to solve a puzzle in a particular way. And typically this will come as a shock because you’ll be convinced your existing solution was the one, true solution. Ho, ho, what fun, Cosmic Express chuckles at your expense.
On the same day, I also discovered that solving a puzzle in reverse was sometimes the way to go but the levels were definitely getting more tricky. A few days later I was pleased to have reached Perseus, which had portals. I normally hate portals, as they break the strongly established spatial rules you’ve been acclimatizing to, yet the Perseus constellation turned out to be a reprieve from the endless brutality. And very soon I made contact with the final constellation, Nova.
I was now solving these things in bullet time. A strain of brain-resistant puzzles had emerged and I was left with a handful of tricky challenges that were proving difficult to shift including the one and only Andromeda fucking 14. Every attack on Andromeda 14 felt like I was just plugging in the same damn failed solution over and over again. Computer says no.
These stressful puzzles somehow kept the stress of the house purchase at bay, like a controlled burn ahead of an oncoming conflagration to act as a firebreak. I began to slay them, one by one. On April 25, the innocuous-looking yet fierce Delphinus 11 collpased. On April 27, I broke through Orion 9, a level with four cross-pieces that I solved through brute Monte Carlo rather than smart thinking. The alarm bells were ringing now. Would Andromeda 14 be a level that outlived the game? That outlived, well, me? I only had one optional challenge remaining and a few Nova puzzles. I had to exorcise this smirking demon. Oh you’re damn right that level was smirking.
It was just after midnight on April 28 that I tried something new. I tried the wrong approach. Perhaps “the long unobvious way” around Andromeda 14, a method I had previously discounted, might yield some inspiration. A solution that feels wrong can sometimes lead you towards a solution that works right.
How did I feel, having vanquished my old foe? Was the moment electric? Was I elated? Did I feel like a winner? I was pretty tired, you know, it was after midnight, after all. The death of Andromeda 14 was a tragic, sleepy whimper instead of an explodey bang. Shrug. Whatev.
But there was a change. Cosmic Express had become a daily ritual and not a day had gone by without thinking at least once about Andromeda 14. Andromeda 14 was gone. Soon the entire game would be gone. I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit sad about all this. This cute, unassuming puzzle game had got me through tough times and meant a lot more to me than most. While I was building rails, I was also freaking out trying to buy a house. A train across the stars made the days fly by.
And on the day that Andromeda 14 went down, I finally transferred the deposit for the house across to the solicitor. Everything was going to be fine.
Next: All Roads