This is the fifth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
Wikipedia says Sokoban was a really early videogame work, created in 1981 by Japanese developer Hiroyuki Imabayashi for the NEC PC-8801. I can go with that. The canonical definition of Sokoban (Hiroyuki Imabayashi, 1981) is “move a bunch of box-shaped crap from A to B within a space so small it’s a bloody joke”. Wow, that definition is so woolly it could even nab Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis, 2017).
Anyway, in real Sokoban, players quickly figure out immediate consequences of the rule set. Walls are block graveyards as the player can only push not pull. Similarly, put together four blocks in a square and they congeal into a rigid mass, a game over state if they’re not where they’re supposed to be.
Regardless of whether Sokoban was responsible for spawning them or not, games which involve pushing blocks around are sometimes called “Sokobanlikes” even though they may be wildly different in nature. Maybe you can pull. Maybe the blocks are not important. Maybe everything is connected.
I think the first Sokobanlike I played was a German title called Zebu-Land (KE-Soft, 1991) in which blocks were an obstruction between the player and the exit. I didn’t finish it as I was soon wowed over by a richer and bigger Polish alternative called Robbo (Avalon, 1989) in which there were bombs and obstacles of many kinds; perhaps too action-orientated to be properly considered a puzzle game but all those extra ingredients made it extra tasty.
But I didn’t finish Robbo either because it spurred me on to make my own spicy Sokobanlike called The Citadel (Joel Goodwin, 1991) which I covered in depth some time ago. I later repurposed the code to craft Orson (Joel Goodwin, 1995) which was almost pure Sokoban. I found it miserably boring. Creating Orson levels made me die a little inside and I was exhausted after making ten.
This is where it started: my hostility to the Sokobanlike.
It’s true to say that the naked Sokoban experience is too stagnant to keep my attention beyond a few levels. But there’s more going on here than it seems. Something more psychological.
I wrote about how I found playback puzzles particularly laborious because one error, often due to timing screw ups, forces you to retread your steps all over again. It was pointed out to me that this is a Sokoban complaint. Sokobanlikes are about figuring out a sequence of moves to solve a level and often the player will be trudging through one attempt only to discover something was rotten in the planning and you have to undo undo undo undo undo undo undo undo undo and try a slightly different approach. So far, so Sokoboring.
In the playback case, the real problem was a reliance on good timing and leaving empty spacetime in your wake for your future self to take advantage of. Insufficient slack would render a puzzle unsolvable, so start again doofus. You know how to solve it, but you didn’t build in enough time to pull it off. In games that are touted as brain food, it is ludicrous that you would be punished for shoddy dexterity, rather than lacking the relevant smarts.
Sokobanlikes are typically turn-based thus have no truck with timing issues but they can definitely be laborious. Yet, I found choreographing the right fancy footwork to solve a puzzle and having to undo progress to make progress wasn’t necessarily the thing that broke me.
Sokobanlikes hang out on a particularly honest branch of the game design tree. They don’t usually involve hidden information: what you see is what you solve. But I would stumble into mental ruts with blocks scraping out the same paths over and over again unable to see how I might do things differently. It felt like searching for a needle in a block stack. Even worse, the tedium cast an anti-learning jinx over the proceedings; instead of finding a way to break the puzzle down into something manageable, I just paced around in circles, trapped in a confined mental space.
Perhaps that seems a silly thing to say especially as Sokoban puzzles are usually open-ended. In The Witness (Thekla Inc, 2016) or Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis, 2017) your moves are a finite resource, but in Sokoban you could potentially keep moving forever. But are you going in the right direction? Have you derailed the solution already? This is a form of negative freedom, where a lack of constraints sows doubt.
This doubt could be undermined if the game said you were taking more moves than necessary, or perhaps even stopped you after exhausting a resource of “steps”. However, a step goal is usually provided to foster deeper play, a puzzle staple you’ll see in games from mobile blockbuster Cut the Rope (ZeptoLab, 2010) to geometric puzzler Euclidea (Horis International Limited, 2014) which declares “find the most elegant solution — the one which is built in the least possible moves — and you’ll get the highest score”. And sometimes players really dig that. However, there is no algorithm that can solve all Sokoban puzzles and typically the information is only revealed after completing a level to encourage the player to go back again.
This claustrophobia meant for years I struggled through block pushers. After conquering a puzzle, the next screen would generate a sigh rather than enthusiasm. I was Sisyphus, hoping this time I’d finally get the rock up the hill and be able to go home for tea. It was always a task. A bloody task.
* * *
I bought Full Bore (Whole Hog Games, 2013) from the late departed Indie Games Stand on a whim and was instantly crushed to discover it was a block pushing game. Yet that reservation did not last for long. It was time to wake up: game design had moved on since 1981.
Full Bore was an adventure game built around block pushing, which meant players were not constrained to solving the one puzzle in front of them. Some puzzles were connected. Many were optional. The game was rich with secrets, but the in-game map would let you know if you had overlooked something.
It was also a metroidvania where the vital knowledge to solve certain puzzles was missing on first contact. There were no upgrades or objects required to unlock those puzzles – you just didn’t know how they worked, cloaking them in mystery rather than frustration.
I’d credit Full Bore for breaking through the funk although the prejudice against Sokobanlikes continues to this day. I still flinch when I receive a block pushing suggestion but I’m more curious. Game categories are amorphous, fluid things with fuzzy boundaries across which ideas copulate and produce offspring. It was only recently I twigged that action/puzzle hybrid Boulder Dash (Peter Liepa & Chris Grey, 1984) was one of the best block pushing games of all time and that didn’t inherit from Sokoban but from the mathematics of cellular automata. Not all block pushers are created equal. Not all block pushers are block pushers. To dwell on a few bad experiences two decades ago and miss all the heavenly glory? Is there anything more narrow minded?
It took me a long time before I could bring myself to install the puzzle designer’s premier Sokobanlike, Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016). And, Jesus, that is one tough meal and not for the faint-of-Sokoban-heart… nonetheless I found cracking open each new puzzle was a special kind of joy. “Oooh, that looks easy, I just… oh.”
Sticking with Stephen Lavelle, his Puzzlescript platform is perfect for creating Sokobanlikes and has given life to many interesting creations: one of my favourites was the giant-everything-is-connected-puzzle Vacuum (Mark Richardson, 2016), although that really did force you to retrace your steps around a billion times so I threw in the towel after the millionth attempt.
Look, I’ll tell you what does tend to be a problem – games that are not Sokobanlikes but graft on a touch of Sokoban for variety. Pavilion (Visiontrick Media, 2016) is a beautiful, strange game where you do not control the protagonist directly, yet here and there you will find laborious Sokoban puzzles: slow moving without a move-by-move undo because it didn’t fit the free-form aesthetic of the game.
Similarly, the genteel and charming Lara Croft GO (Square Enix Montreal, 2015) sprinkles in some Sokoban-type puzzles where you have to move pillars into the right place within an extremely tight space. The stone pillars are heavy, so Lara’s usual manic acrobatics are replaced with slow, dragging animations, which is really just replacing the fun with some tedium. Some of the levels in the additional The Mirror of Spirits chapter are straight-up busy work unless your favourite game is Towers of Hanoi.
(That’s a joke, son, no one loves Hanoi.)
I’ve had many pleasant discoveries over the years. Alan Hazelden is a prolific Sokobanlike designer and I found the rich mechanics of Sokobond (Hazelden & Lee, 2013) a revelation. His later release, A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build (Hazelden & Davis, 2015) teeters perilously close to raw Sokoban but an open world and a few clever tweaks to the formula was enough to kick this one to the back of the net. It also conceals a secondary game that David Hayward described as “Starseed Snowman” in which your brain needs to develop a pandimensional appreciation of snowman building and godlike levels of foresight – oh, I just gave up already, yes, that is what I did. Maybe we’ll chat about that later, hey. Maybe. Yeah.
WitchWay (Gleeson, Rochefort, Takalainen & Antony, 2017) is fascinating and hits notes similar to Full Bore as it is an adventure with puzzles at its heart – but its feature set is so rich it feels like a crime to even mention it in the same breath as Sokoban – and that’s the whole point, right? Shutting myself away from these games because I thought I saw a block in it was a terrible idea.
And that cartoony, loveable Snakebird (Noumenon Games, 2016), yeah, does not really look like a block pusher although it definitely fits the canonical definition of “move a bunch of box-shaped crap from A to B within a space so small it’s a bloody joke”. So it figures that when I played it that chilling feeling of claustrophobia came flooding back.
And I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
(I wasn’t joking when I was joking about Hanoi. No one buy me that shit for Christmas.)