Head Meets Tail
This is the first part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
It starts with Snakebird.
Snakebird (Noumenon Games, 2015) had been touted as the best puzzle game of all time since the last one. I took one look at it and thought, no sir. I could see Snakebird was a well-thought out variant of Sokoban and I didn’t like Sokoban. Don’t look at me like that. In Sokoban you push blocks around a grid to reach a target. The core of Snakebird is about pulling chains of blocks around a grid to reach a target.
But, you know, some of these Snakebird worshippers were high-profile developers. Jonathan Blow couldn’t be wrong. It just wouldn’t be right. He loved Snakebird so it was probably a smart game. Maybe I was not a smart man, but I knew what love was.
I took the plunge. During one quiet commute, I installed it on my phone and…
And, reader, I hated it.
Let me run you through Snakebird in a little more detail, in case it’s unfamiliar to you. In each level, you have to lead one or more snakebirds to the exit. The snakebirds can inch forward, left or right but they have no reverse gear. Gravity is also a thing: if a snakebird’s body is unsupported, it will drop. Not all of the mechanics are obvious, such as discovering snakebirds can push other snakebirds with their movements.
But I struggled to make head or tail of it. While I understood what the snakebirds could do and the components of each level, somehow the mental skills required to construct solutions escaped me. I only seemed to make progress through guesswork. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, this is good luck as bad luck. Lucky solutions mean you’ve learnt nothing. The more luck you have now, the more luck you’re going to need later.
I stopped playing but left Snakebird in stasis on the phone. Months later, I admitted to myself that I had no real intention of playing any further. I could draw you a few charts of frustration against time but the frustration would be off the charts.
But the rebound bugged me. I wanted to know why I could not grok Snakebird. For the right sort of player, Snakebird is a joy, the epitome of a serious puzzle game. For the wrong sort of player, it is a bloodbath.
To this end, I sought out more puzzle games, trying to figure out whether it was the Sokobanality of Snakebird that sunk me, its intricate complexity or something completely different. I hoped that I would uncover some grand insight, something to explain why Snakebird and I never stood a chance. I mean, we didn’t even get to first base.
Gradually, short essay ideas began to dribble out. Oh, I could write about this… I could write about that… In time, I was looking at a very long series of very short essays.
I kept putting off turning these sketches into Electron Dance posts because I never seemed to be done. The research was neverending. There was always one more game I hadn’t played that I should play, or one more game I’d started that I should finish. Hey, that’s a subtle shout out to Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016) right there.
After a year where it was difficult to find the time and space to do any serious writing – newsletter subscribers have no doubt had enough of my oh-woe-is-my-life anecdotes – the arrival of 2018 spurred me into action. This is the year I put puzzle pen to puzzle paper. This is the year I share my puzzled thoughts and, more importantly, puzzling questions with the studio audience.
This is The Ouroboros Sequence.
Next: THE BOX IMPOSSIBLE
There is a series home page, but be warned the list is likely to change. And when I say “likely” I think there’s a possibility I probably mean “definitely”.
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18 thoughts on “Head Meets Tail”
Yay, new series! I hope you don’t hate the next games 🙂
Hi Marcos, don’t worry, this is more about general thoughts on puzzles rather than specific games!
I enjoy your general thoughts on puzzle games, a genre I’ve never quite warmed to, unless the puzzles are embedded in real-world millieus, a la The Witness and The Talos Principle, where the abstract mechanics of a brain teaser are imbued with a kind realistic heft. You may convince me to play one yet, but it doesn’t look like Snakebird will be it. I’m excited to see what you discover going forward.
These sorts of puzzles are ideal for mobile, though, where the mechanics of real world movement are generally awkward and provide an impediment to gameplay rather than virtual verisimilitude. While in England a few months ago without a computer I tried downloading The Talos Principle for mobile and almost wound up throwing my iPad at the wall of a perfectly nice bed and breakfast. The Room games are more to my taste, mobile-wise, because they offer three-dimensional puzzle solving without actual three-dimensional navigation.
I very rarely get on with this sort of turn-based puzzle game. Sokoban, Snakebird, Hitman Go, Lara Croft Go, even 868-HACK and the like. I suppose it’s something about having to think about consequences step by step, iterating multiple turns ahead in my mind.
Odd, because I enjoy chess—but maybe because I played it enough when I was younger to now see the board as a space being acted upon, rather than a series of discrete moves? Maybe I’m just too impatient with these move-by-move puzzle games to learn to see that higher level interpretation of their rules.
Hello again Chris! As I began writing Electron Dance, I had little interest in puzzle games. It had been 15 years since I’d written one myself and in 2010 I was more into bigger and bolder experiences like Dead Space, System Shock 2, Thief. It was the same disdain I had for 2D shooters, feeling they were designs that belonged in the past – why would I want to play those now? Yet Electron Dance made me try out a lot of games I probably wouldn’t even have give the time of day before and now I’m reunited with genres I had abandoned.
I didn’t know you could play The Talos Principle on a tablet. I love that game but, God, tablet Talos sounds hideous. And, ah, The Room has a walk-on part in the first real episode of this series which is hopefully going up next week.
For sure, I had some epiphanies in 2017 about Sokobanlikes, because despite complaining that I hate Sokoban it turns out that is not entirely true. I think if you’re used to bouncing off these types of puzzles, it’s too easy to roll eyes at a Sokoban structure and never quite invest yourself in it. I’ve definitely suffered from that. I think immersing myself in all this, particularly over the last year, has summoned into being an appreciation for games that get it right. At least, games that get it right for me.
While I loved Chess when I was younger, I feel less interested today. It shouldn’t bug me, but the idea that “higher play” involves memorizing a bunch of opening strategies gets on my nerves, I feel like I just want to live in the moment in Chess (I lose all the time, by the way). That’s ridiculous when you think about it, because all strategic games involve learning patterns and potential traps. Huh, now I’m imagining the Prima Guide to Chess with a different opening strategy on every page.
My most awaited article(s) of the year! 😉
Yeah, Snakebird is horrible, just like Sokoban. Lovely presentation though. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t think through solutions. I just kind of bumbled through what I played, hoping, expecting, willing it to click at some point. Worse, when it starts getting really tough, one wrong move early on and you’ve essentially got to start again or rewind/undo a lot of your work. Induction has that to some degree and I enjoy(ed) it, but that loop was much shorter and more forgiving.
“I could draw you a few charts of frustration against time but the frustration would be off the charts.”
“to figure out whether it was the Sokobanality of Snakebird”
Looking forward to these pieces Joel!
Feels a little lonely here among all you puzzle-haters. I’m all like give me those sweet, sweet puzzles. I would 100% be on Snakebird if not for Reasons.
Part of it is that I feel like there’s a feeling of control and fairness there; if I get brickwalled in an interactive fiction game it’s often something I feel like I shouldn’t have been expected to figure out, but in most puzzlers it’s definitely my fault. Or where there’s a hidden mechanic, there’s a small enough possibility space that it’s possible to figure out the mechanic by experimenting. But anyway, even if I have to get hints or a walkthrough I can say “Well, I should’ve figured that out” though sometimes I do have some Design Thoughts about why it doesn’t work for me.
Speaking of getting brickwalled it’s probably about time I looked up a solution to that one puzzle from Cosmic Express, or got some hints from a friendly person.
Joel: Yes, there’s an iPad (and presumably Android tablet) version of The Talos Principle. To be fair, in addition to being every bit as gorgeous as the Windows version, it has a well-thought-out control scheme, where you can move entirely with one hand, using a pinch-in/pinch-out gesture for forward and backward movement and swipes for directional control. Your other hand is free to interact with on-screen objects. It’s about as good as solution as I’ve seen to the problem of 3D movement on a touch screen, yet maybe because it’s not a form of motion control I’m used to, it feels clumsy to me. By the time I remember how to move, one of those floaty things has blown up in my face.
Matt: I’m not so much a puzzle hater as a puzzle agnostic. I don’t go out of my way to find good puzzle games and therefore probably miss a lot of games I’d love. That’s why I’m eager to see where Joel goes with this. I’m pretty much where Joel was when he started writing this blog: There are so many good 3D games on the market that I rarely move outside that comfort zone. Maybe it’s time that I did.
I played a little of a beta build of Induction and I’d already decided it wasn’t my bag before I’d even installed it. I made a lot of progress and had just got to the bit where I had no fricking idea what was going on (time paradoxes) when… I accidentally lost all my progress due to the beta being a beta and I couldn’t get excited about it again.
And thanks for reminding me! Induction is supposed to be in here somewhere… rifles through Google Docs…
On the bright side, puzzle-haters are happy to read a series about puzzles 🙂 You know that level of Cosmic Express you’re having problems with? That’s basically Snakebird for me, every damn level. Which level of Cosmic Express are you stuck on, again?
I’m not going to comment too much on your fairness angle now, because that’s the flesh and blood for most of this series. I’m sure we’re going to have great conversations down here…
It’s spoily, but I’m still here. (It’s not that I’ve been stuck on it the whole time as I’ve barely even looked at it since then. Because I’m stuck.)
I don’t know if I have real advice for you. What I found, after hitting that level again and again, is that what made all the difference was how you started. Start the wrong way and it became impossible.
When did you realize you didn’t like Sokoban? Is it a dislike specific to Sokoban or does it extend to sokoban-likes? How does Citadel factor into this, which is in the same genre?
Greetings, Ori, Master of Six Match. The Citadel was made at the time when Sokoban felt fresh and we saw a wave of games based on the concept. Much, much later, I’d seen plenty of cheap casual Sokobanlikes and I tired of them. I won’t spoil too much here as I will get into my “dislike of Sokoban” later as things are not what they appear.
I also hated Snakebird. It does something that I find a lot of game designers love: The Turn 1 Dick Move.
Despite being mildly chummy with Increpare, I hate all of his games. He always does levels where you must do an unobvious operation at the start of the level. Otherwise you complete the task and, oh look, there’s a screw left over. You then have to restart, remove the lock, then try to remember the rest of the solution. It’s like every level is expected to be played twice. Stephen’s Sausage Roll is so full of this that I sent him a very long and very angry email about it when I play tested it.
But it seems everyone else is okay with this thing. Especially game designers. So we get endless praise for Snakebird and Sausage Roll, but they feature a sort of difficulty that feels cheap to me. Clearly others like this sort of design. Personally is poisonous to me.
Steed, Matt W has talked about this issue before in the comments and I think it was a description of draknek’s work where you’d follow the “obvious solution” and find it doesn’t work at the final hurdle. I guess it’s not as big an issue with Cosmic Express because you can see the puzzle in one go, but with a Sokobanlike you might only see the problem after moving through 20 moves.
With Sokobanals, though, is there any way of avoiding this? That you’re expending resources of some kind (space, mostly) and it’s only when you run out that you discover you’ve overspent. Cityglitch, which is more a roguelike than Sokobanlike, doesn’t have this problem at all.
I must admit this wasn’t what broke Snakebird for me, I just wasn’t any good at it. But it’s an interesting point and I’ll probably throw it in when I come to write about what I consider to be Cosmic Express’ worst and final level, Nova 7.
I feel like Alan is the least offensive at doing this. His games invite you in, sit you down with a cup of tea, and only after you’ve gotten comfy will Alan snatch the cup off of you and try and chuck it in your face.
I think dick move levels are nasty but when you’re in command of the mechanics, it’s a fair test to see if you’ve been paying attention. When a game pulls this stunt before you understand what’s going on, that’s cheap. And I feel that game designers or fanatics who have a priori mastery forgive this sort of bullshit because god forbid they be taught how to play.
The “Jonathan Blow couldn’t be wrong” Twitter link doesn’t work anymore. I’m very sorry, I feel like my penchant for following links and reading articles months late keeps adding to your housekeeping chores 🙁
Looking forward to the series! I often like to immerse myself in puzzle games, but not all subgenres are for me. Sokobanlikes generally don’t rub me the right way and Snakebird didn’t either. This series is particularly welcome because I’m sure you’ll mention a lot of nice games I have never heard of.
Hello again Fede! Looks like Jonathan Blow has done a purge of some of his tweets and this one has bit the dust. I’ll just remove the link.
You’ve got a lot to catch up on – the 16th part went up just today! You’ll find some interesting games and some interesting questions contained within…
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