This is the fourteenth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
Riddle me this. Aside from being logic puzzle games, what links the following titles?
- Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016)
- Full Bore (Whole Hog Games, 2013)
- Operator Overload (Benn Powell, 2017)
- Archaica: The Path of Light (Two Mammoths, 2017)
- Tricone Lab (Partickhill Games, 2017)
- WitchWay (Gleeson, Rochefort, Takalainen & Antony, 2017)
- Corrypt (Michael Brough, 2012)
- Recursed (Portponky, 2016)
- Hexcells Plus (Matthew Brown, 2014)
Correct! They are all games I intended to finish but, instead, I never click on their desktop shortcuts, rendering part of my desktop a puzzle graveyard. But are they really dead?
There are a whole slew of reasons I can walk away from a puzzle game “for a break”.
REASON ONE: Premature installation
WitchWay was a Twitter recommendation and I installed it just to see what it was about. As I was already in the middle of other games, I decided not to continue until I’d finished something, you know, to make room. But this was deadly. I had already deflowered WitchWay, spoiling its mysterious lustre; I never went back to continue from where I left off.
Death from premature installation is always regrettable.
REASON TWO: Notches on the bedpost
Sometimes you reach a point where you feel you’re not actually doing anything new, that you’re just going through the motions. This isn’t necessarily a negative. I played the daily puzzles of super genius match-3 game Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018) for many months and, look, I don’t do that with any other game! I don’t play the same game for months. Ever. Ever! (if you muttered Minecraft under you breath, get out)
But it was hard to stay motivated through Archaica and Operator Overload. Solving the later puzzles felt more like the application of brute force than brute intellect: I wasn’t feeling an euphoria or wiser with each solved puzzle. They had become mere notches on a bedpost, nothing more.
Another kind of intellectual lethargy occurs when everything has clicked into place. At the end of heuristic discovery, you become something of an automaton, grinding through your own rules of thumb. But there’s no joy if you’re all thumbs. Perhaps it is true that many puzzle games only feel alive while they’re teaching us something… and after that they fall into disrepair.
I played the hefty and deep match-3 game Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) to death but, eventually, I burnt out; I didn’t have any more to give that game and I suspect it had little to give back to me. It’s like the contrast between the first days of dating and being married for ten years. The difference is I’m not married to the Six Match so I don’t have to feel bad about breaking up. It’s not you. Uh, it’s not me, either. BTW if you share this article with Aaron Steed I will end you.
REASON THREE: Bullet time
I have already explained in the Ouroboros segment “Agoraphobia” how I lost my grip on sokosausageban Stephen’s Sausage Roll when I reached a level called The Great Tower. Since then, several Electron Dance readers ordered me to push through the pain and man up. I pulled it off. Yay! And what do you think happened then? I surveyed all the puzzles in the next section and found I couldn’t solve a single one. I have played SSR three times since The Great Tower breakthrough and only made progress once. SSR requires persistence and is antithetical to the scattershot bite-sized play that is my jam.
YOU: Man, this game is getting quite hard. I’ve been on the same puzzle in Stephen’s Sausage Roll for two hours now. I mean, like, in aggregate.
ALSO YOU: Take a break. You know it makes sense. Get away from the problem. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
YOU: I hate you. Evergarden it is.
The idea of sitting down with a game for half an hour and achieving nothing is like being at a meeting at my fucking place of work. Except Stephen’s Sausage Roll is feeding on my free time and the job can feed my children with sausage rolls.
If there’s one thing I hate receiving more a recommendation for the latest forty-hour AAA open world juggernaut, it’s the recommendation for a new forty-hour puzzle game. There! I said it! God, that felt good. That has been coming for a long time. Whew. I apologise to all of you who send me puzzle game suggestions, especially developers. Sorry, sorry, sorry. See, I wouldn’t mind playing the AAA juggernaut but I know it will eat a lot of time, possibly more than it deserves. And the same goes for puzzle games which often start spritely but then progress slowwwwws dowwwn and wwwwwwe’rrrre all moooooving in bullet time.
I’m not so troubled these days when I haven’t finished a game. Honestly, no one should shame you into finishing a game. I feel bad enough as it is. I still wish I’d finished innovative Sokobanvanialike Full Bore as I was a massive fan of its design. The second half of the game saw the difficulty lurch upwards and I soon found myself solving puzzles in bullet time. I didn’t quit the game. I didn’t uninstall it… but there never seemed to be the right moment to go back to it.
Part of this “complaint” should be alien to the wider public. If a particular title hogs too much time – and I’m not singling out Full Bore with that reference – it ties me down, which is a problem because a diverse writing output is dependent on a diverse gaming input. I never quite finished all of the DLC of the absolute mega-brilliant Recursed because, having written about it for Rock Paper Shotgun, there wasn’t much more I could wring out of it for Electron Dance. (I resurrected it for an E/TX stream though!)
Tsk tsk tsk, stop a second. It’s not quite as clear cut as that paragraph makes out, is it? You, the ordinary citizens of the gaming world, are now flush with criminally cheap games and everyone has choices, all of the time. Once you the reach the ten-year marriage stage of a puzzle game – and now it strikes me I should have called it the seven year itch.io – other games seem more seductive. A new game can give so much, right now, while this one you’re working through is making your brain bleed. And here be dragons.
YOU: Actually, I think the puzzle designer screwed up. This is too frustrating. I have no idea how to make progress.
ALSO YOU: Yeah, the developer is totally at fault. This is some super lame puzzle bullshit right here, in actual fucking fact.
YOU: Come back to this later?
ALSO YOU: No question.
If you assign “blame” to the designer, you’ve officially conceded it’s not fun anymore and I doubt there’s much of a path out of that gloomy place unless you’re one of the anointed who have converted to the Chapel of Divine Completionism.
Yet, still, at the back of your mind, there’s the fear that the only thing to fear is fear itself. Wait, what?
STRANGE ETHEREAL VOICE: I’m jus’ saying, maybe it would only take another ten minutes to crack the impasse in your current puzzle squeeze.
YOU: Oh, hello, it’s my turncoat conscience.
STRANGE ETHEREAL VOICE: The only thing holding you back is you.
YOU: What in the holy fuck, conscience, let’s not turn whether I finish a puzzle game or not into a morality play!
Obviously some titles will not surrender to bullet time drama: The Witness, Subnautica and even Prey are all good examples of games that I installed with eyes wide open and they kept me going all the way to the very end. I wobbled on The Talos Principle. There was a gap of around nine months in the middle of the game but once I started up again, I became obsessed.
When you hit bullet time – is it actually some lame puzzle bullshit? I don’t want puzzle designers to make puzzles that are as effortless as a knife gliding through hot butter. It would probably give rise to a puzzlegate movement, an outcry about dumbing down puzzles, snowflake players and tough talking about the ethics of puzzle journalism.
If you want to quit a game and walk away, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. It isn’t necessarily a brash statement about the design. Our lives are what they are.
These are fine words, but somewhat lacking in conviction.
I still have a graveyard.
Next: The Monte Carlo Player