This is the eighth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
Haven’t you got any more ideas?
Do you really think the world needs another block-pushing puzzle? What makes pushing blocks special? Can you for the love of God stop churning out the same game, again and again and again?
Yeah, I didn’t want to play block pushing games any more. But one day I played Full Bore (Whole Hog Games, 2013) and it changed my mind about everything.
What is puzzle innovation?
I’ve previously mentioned that Full Bore killed off my jaded view of the block pusher. I couldn’t help but see confined spaces full of blocks as an evolutionary dead end, a branch of game design that should have died already. Just like I had thought about the 2D shooter.
Full Bore was completely different to block-pushing games I’d seen up to that point. I’m not going to claim the mechanics were unique to Full Bore because I had been giving Sokobanlikes a wide berth, but it was the first time I had seen this particular mix. At the time I encountered Full Bore, I knew only that I enjoyed it but today, I can explain why.
- Diversity. Full Bore keeps throwing crazy blocks at you which means there is little time to get bored with a particular form of puzzle. Note it’s also a block pusher with gravity in the Boulder Dash mould.
- Map. Full Bore arranged everything in a highly-connected map and dispensed with linear progression from puzzle to puzzle, making the player an explorer of both space and puzzles.
- Open Design. Full Bore had no qualms about dropping multiple problems into the same “area” which dissolved their boundaries; it often shied away from traditional hermetic-sealed puzzle design. In its place was a real sense of adventure, the kind you get from exploring GLaDOS’ domain in Portal 2. Sometimes finding the secret entrance to a room was the only way to solve a problem.
- Puzzlevania. Progress was gated with problems featuring new block types; these were only solvable once the game had decided it was time to enlighten you.
What this meant was all that talk in my head of “evolutionary dead end” was premature. But my prejudice against the block pusher ran deep and my initial reaction to Stephen Lavelle’s excellent PuzzleScript was an expectation that it would quickly exhaust all the Sokobanlike ideas. But cool new PuzzleScript games keep emerging, from the testing The Flames (Rosden Shadow, 2017) to the witty and clever Easy Enigma (Jack Lance, 2018). Easy Enigma is not your traditional block pusher and more secret box – the player must figure out how to progress rather than solve challenges within well-defined boundaries.
And what can we say of Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016)? I haven’t finished SSR but my impression is of a pure block-pusher. Hermetic design and the player must complete a set of puzzles to progress to the next that exploit a new mechanic. Yet the basic format of SSR, putting aside all that extra zaniness that comes at you later, is unusually complex:
- Blocks are rectangles. The sausages are 2×1 shapes.
- Player is also a rectangle. The player is also a 2×1 shape with the ability to rotate which increases the modes of interaction with sausage.
- Complex condition for solution. Sausages roll, have two sides and both sides of a sausage need to be touch a grill plate to complete a puzzle, but not touch a grill plate twice (burned). Notice grilling one sausage means there must four contacts made with grill plates (two sides, and a sausage is two grid spaces long).
SSR is a block-pushing game unlike many before it, because of its unique strain of mechanics and how the player must discover them. It is by no means, the only game to dispense with the humble square block; my first block love of Zebuland (KE-Soft, 1990) dabbled with this as did Sokobond (Hazelden & Lee, 2013) in which you bind atoms together to make molecular structures. In fact, Zebuland is interesting for the historical record because it not only featured odd-sized blocks, but revolving doors, pits and multiple characters that must work together and escape together.
Anyway, it is only fair that I concede there is still much life in the old Sokobanlike. But surely, surely, we must have seen enough Match-3 games? Except here, too, I keep coming across new twists that make me sit up and pay attention.
I was taken with Marble Duel (HeroCraft, 2014) which did for Zuma what Puzzle Quest did for Bejewelled: it added a combat layer and was cleverer than it looked. You can play a version of the game on Kongregate but I bought the original called Evy: Magic Spheres. I am wary that tweaks to the newer version on Steam might have made it more frustrating to players; I can’t be sure without playing because some of the levels called upon the player to stop and think instead of just hammering away hoping randomness would net you a win. This is the same problem which upset some reviews of card game Shadowhand (Grey Alien Games, 2017) as I discussed in an earlier stream: to get through duels successfully requires the player to spend time on the correct loadout for each different battle otherwise you’re relying on luck… and luck will let you down.
Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) is strangely terrifying. A score attack sliding-tile Match-3 puzzler with longform play. If, like me, you only play Six Match during train commutes, it can take weeks to build up a significant score and each point contributes to the tension. Will you make a new high score this time? Or will you flush it down the drain with a mistake? Did the train rock at just the wrong time screwing up that vital swipe?
If it was complexity you were looking for, Tidalis (Arcen Games, 2010) might have you covered. Tidalis feels more like Tetris in that blocks drop in from the top and a full board ends the game. The player clears blocks by firing “streams” from them – if those streams hit three blocks of the same colour then, pow, you have a match and the blocks vanish. The stream is directed by the arrows on the blocks, which you can turn at any time. The number of block types is staggering: water bottles, burnable wood blocks, sun and moon tiles, eating blocks, stream splitters and many, many more.
Tidalis is tough and requires an unusual amount of dexterity for a puzzle game. This is a Match-3 where someone threw like everything they had at the canvas and not all of it works. In the more advanced stages, I got the impression the procgen level generator often churned out levels which were impossible to complete and was forced to wait for it to churn out a solvable version. It was eight years ago I wrote: “I have the uncomfortable feeling that sometimes I am at the mercy of lady luck.”
While Match-3 games tend to be score attack games, my ultimate Match-3 joy is not: Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018). I’ve discussed Dissembler not just once but twice now on the E/TX stream. It is what I might call Finite Bejewelled: each match causes part of the board to disappear, a void across which pieces can not move. The goal is to use matches to make sure the entire board disappears. There are additional twists, such as fixed tiles that cannot be flipped, patterned tiles that need to be aligned correctly and tiles-within-tiles from which new tiles emerge after a match instead of disappearing. I’ve been playing the procedurally-generated daily mode of Dissembler for months and still haven’t tired of it.
Perhaps what I find most interesting about the Match-3 titles above is that, for Six Match, Aaron Steed did his homework on the Match-3 genre. He examined what seemed to work, what didn’t and what might not yet have been exploited enough from a design angle. This kind of analysis is extremely useful but let’s admit that being exhaustive is practically impossible: because Match-3 is a staple of casual player bait, there must be hundreds – possibly thousands – of Match-3 games out there.