This is the twentieth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
Consider the puzzle game as a mythmaker.
A plucky naive player sets out on a great journey. At first, they face simple trials through which they develop the confidence they will need to triumph against terrible odds. They encounter such incredible challenges that they feel they’re never going to make it. They emerge from this fire transformed and are now the true hero, the one to slay the final puzzle dragon.
But it’s a Sith dragon brandishing a lightsaber and despite the player’s transcension to herohood, they are no match for this terrifying foe.
The player, reluctantly, turns to a walkthrough for help. They copy out the moves.
The myth is dead.
It doesn’t feel heroic, it feels shitty. It feels like that dragon stabbed you through the fucking chest.
(Warning: Contains some spoilers for Cosmic Express.)
As I discussed last week, Nova 7 is the level of Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis, 2017) where I was overcome with puzzle agoraphobia. It is the largest level, containing every element seen so far: portals, cross-pieces, wildcard destinations as well as all three alien types: purple, yellow and slimy.
I was never able to decompose it into meaningful pieces. Solving it in one place meant the solution failed somewhere else, fixing that created another problem until, eventually you ran out of fixes. Many puzzles always have this whackamole aspect, which often leads to the “Turn 1 Dick Move” problem because the obvious solution only falls down once until you’ve run out of fixes. But puzzles are autostereograms: the correct solution only emerges from the noise if you look at the puzzle in the right way, and learning how to do that is the real puzzle.
Nova 7 wasn’t like that. I was searching for a needle in a haystack where the haystack was scattered in a murky sea of toxic industrial effluent. I found it too large to draw any conclusions. After Nova 7 devoured hours, I was drawn to a walkthrough. I tweeted as if it was no thing, but it was a thing. A walkthrough doesn’t really solve anything, does it?
We’ve all experienced the impossible puzzle. Despite valiant efforts, you can’t find a chink in its armour and eventually surrender before its unassailable might. None of us want to experience this. We want to feel that we were better than the puzzle, that we learnt to defeat it. You hero.
For popular puzzle games, you know there’s a walkthrough available somewhere on the other side of Google. If I dip into a walkthrough early, it kills my faith in the game. There’s a smothering suspicion that you’re never going to understand the game’s quirky logic and maybe the puzzles are bullshit anyway and probably the developer is at fault, probably… probably. The walkthrough is a drug addiction that slowly corrupts your logical soul. You’re not solving the game, you’re swinging from walkthrough to walkthrough. Admit it. Let’s have a fucking intervention and get all your family and friends to talk it out.
Use a walkthrough deep into the game and the impact is heartbreaking. My inner manic depressive whispers that I was probably no good at this anyway, I’d just been lucky until this point. I’ve surrendered victory and might as well watch the credits on YouTube. Finding a solution through random guessing can also have similar karmic repercussions.
Just recently, I was up against my personal “Andromeda 14” of Jelly no Puzzle (Qrostar, 2013). It was level 26 and it looked like this.
For a Jelly no Puzzle level, it appears simple. The level is divided into two distinct sections connected by a giant C-shaped block; this feels like a natural decomposition into two sub-puzzles. You start working on the top half and the green and blue jelly blocks must migrate to the bottom half. But I was extremely limited in what I could do, my moves felt almost predetermined and they led to no solution. The more I looked at it, the more impossible it seemed. I couldn’t identify the magic fix. A paranoid suspicion grew like a cancer in my relationship with the game: when Jelly no Puzzle was in its heyday, people had played it on Windows. Maybe this Android version was an imperfect copy and no one had realised…?
I just needed someone to vouch for the app. I opened YouTube and went carefully searching for walkthroughs. If I found one for the offending level, my faith would be restored. I could keep fighting the good fight, knowing there was a solution in there somewhere.
I made a terrible mistake. I found a walkthrough but the thumbnail for the video showed an intermediate state… which gave away the magic fix. I was apoplectic. I didn’t want a goddamn hint, I wanted to repair my faith. I had solved every level so far without a walkthrough to ensure the victory carried meaning. But no. I ruined it. I tore out its heart and stamped on it. The myth was dead.
This little anecdote is why I don’t feel the answer to a brick wall situation lies in hint systems.
I don’t consider Yellow (Bart Bonte, 2017) or The Room (Fireproof Games, 2012) to be logic puzzle games, they’re more like a series of discoverable microsystems. They both ask the player to play around with a toy and look for patterns, then use the pattern to slide the victory condition into place. Both offer hint systems if the player gets hopelessly stuck. I find such hint systems lower my threshold for bullshit. And I don’t mean necessarily the puzzle is bullshit but that, with a ready-made path of least resistance baked into the game, I’m more likely to give up after a mere smattering of minutes and assume the puzzle is bullshit then reach for the hint. I “solved” a lot of The Room using hints. TL;DK hint plz.
However, if individual puzzles have less meaning, then a surrender to the walkthrough is not as devastating.
Procedurally-generated puzzles are unique but not special in the sense of a handmade challenge. Every day, Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018) offers you six procedurally-generated puzzles and if, after 24 hours, you can’t solve some of them, Dissembler will proffer a solution. You can proceed through the solution one step at a time and take over at any point. The ephemeral nature of the daily puzzles means that while looking up the solution feels like failure, it does not feel like failed myth. It isn’t an all-out action movie, but an episodic cartoon; we’ll get you next time, Dissembler!
Perhaps I should not treat a puzzle game as a personal life goal and be willing to admit: this puzzle isn’t for me. Go on. Say it right now. Open up whatever puzzle has been ailing you for weeks; maybe it’s The Great Tower from Stephen’s Sausage Roll or Nova 7 from Cosmic Express or any bloody level from Jelly no Puzzle. Open it up right now and say aloud, “This puzzle isn’t for me”. Even if you’re reading this on the toilet.
But, dear Reader, I was fortunate. Cosmic Express offered an olive branch of redemption for my failed hero. The dirty secret of Cosmic Express is the existence of secret challenges littered across the game, each one proposing you find another solution to a level. Discovering these challenges was wonderful as I was in awe at how much treasure had been mined from the mechanics. Some of these alternative solutions felt nigh-on impossible to conjure, yet my love for Cosmic Express drove me to find them all.
After you finish Nova 7, Cosmic Express launches into the credits but, quietly, has unlocked extra challenges and tweaked Nova 7 so that it has to be solved differently. Thus, while I might have cheated through Nova 7 the first time, I was determined not to cheat the second time. I was aware the only thing I had got wrong on Nova 7 was my opening move. It was an unnervingly similar oversight to that which I had made on previous nemesis Andromeda 14: I had erroneously discarded an alternative opening strategy because it seemed unlikely to produce a solution. Now tackling Nova 7 again, I would not shut out “obviously false” alternatives.
Because I was unwilling to give up a second time on Nova 7, it took five more months to complete Cosmic Express. Much of that time I let Cosmic Express lie fallow but it still devoured hours of effort. I didn’t acquire any magic insight and it was largely a Monte Carlo approach, running through possibilities and occasionally throwing in an observation about how to improve the chances of the solution succeeding. I didn’t feel any smarter having completed it.
Was this necessary? Isn’t this just that old completionist schtick that you have to finish the game no matter how tedious it is?
While I had escaped from the misery I had been wallowing in, I did confirm one thing. One thing that had been obvious for months.
That the puzzle wasn’t for me.