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.

Next: The thrilling conclusion where I finally break my silence regarding Snakebird

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43 thoughts on “Hole In My Chest

  1. Nice autostereogram. It’s been a month or so since the last time I saw one. It was from the top deck of the bus. Thanks for resurrecting that particular brain worm. :p

  2. Interesting. The myth you propose – player versus Dragon – almost functions as a meta-layer above the game, where the player has a single life which is only lost when they receive outside assistance (on purpose or by accident).

    This is why I hate hate hate Nintendo tossing me sympathy power-ups after I die a few times on a level. The point at which a level is actually killing me is just when it’s piquing my interest; I’m meeting some actual push-back from the design for a change. But Nintendo comes helicoptering in like ‘beep beep our sensors detect you are a dribbling incompetent and/or child, would you like this level to play itself for you?’ Maybe it’s good for accessibility but I would kill for a menu option to turn that stuff off.

    Would you say this is predominantly a Puzzle Thing? There are walkthroughs for all sorts of games, but where the challenge is rooted in action, the most a walkthrough often can do is advise – the player must still actually accomplish the task set by the game. I can think of two exceptions: in the case of mechanical spoilers which render the challenge trivial, or games where the challenge is so prominent that a no assistance ‘code of honour’ becomes caught up in the meaning of play.

    A puzzle is a very different thing – be it in a puzzle game or an adventure game, there’s often no separation between the inspiration and the implementation. To be told what to do is to have the central act of play done for you, the Dragon slain by someone else.

    We can of course seek out hints or clues, partial solutions to move us along a seemingly impassable track. It’s a process fraught with hazard, as your youtube thumbnail story aptly illustrates. I was always fond of the Universal Hint System, a spirited attempt to offer a way past an impeding puzzle without the bringing the whole Dragon down as collateral damage. It gradually reveals the solution to a puzzle, step by step, to preserve as much of a challenge as possible according to the needs of the player.

    But it wasn’t perfect; you have to find the puzzle you’re stuck on from a master list of the game’s contents, so the danger of exposure to spoilers for things you haven’t reached is ever-present. It might sound silly or hyper-sensitive, but if I’m on act three and from UHS I accidentally learn that there are five acts.. that’s still a kind of micro-spoiler! Now I know have an idea of how the story is pacing itself, can guess at the significance (or not) of certain story beats or plot twists, and so on.

    One other possibility I’d like to propose is that the damage caused by these roadblock puzzle frustrations can spread beyond a single game. There are times when an especially intransigent challenge has killed my interest in an entire genre.

    Example: I really loved Etrian Odyssey for the 50 or so hours it took me to conquer its campaign. It’s split into five areas, or strata, of floors, but quite by chance I came back after the credits and discovered a hidden passage to a sixth. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for.

    The sixth strata took me longer to navigate than all the others combined. It was filled with monstrous enemies and devious labyrinths. There were ‘optional’ bosses you had to beat just to raise the level cap to be strong enough to proceed. And at the end of it all was the biggest brute bastard of a boss I have possibly ever encountered.

    The lengthy diversion on which I’m about to embark is relevant (honest) because the boss is effectively a kind of puzzle. You can’t beat him like you beat the other bosses in the game; what got you here won’t get you there. Just one of his many evil tricks is that if you cast a party wide buff an invisible countdown begins, and in a semi-random number of turns he will perform an attack that effectively wipes your entire team – provided you don’t take a very specific counter measure (which will still leave everyone clinging on at 1 hp).

    Let that sink in. You’re punished for casting party wide buffs. The universally understood strategy for facing bosses in RPGs (and in most games it’s *only* the boss encounters where it’s even worth bothering to buff up.) And on a delay, so there’s no obvious cause and effect. Most people will assume that the party-wipe attack is just something the boss will always do.

    That’s only one of the dirty rotten things this boss does. He heals huge chunks of life every time he falls below a certain threshold. He’ll heal more HP over the course of the fight than he has at the start of it! He only does this a set number of times, but you might easily assume that he’ll go on healing forever. He also switches up his attack pattern every time he heals. At first the patterns are predictable, giving you hope that with enough failed attempts to build up the knowledge you can work out a reliable stratagem.

    But at later stages he will randomly select between multiple, similar, but crucially different sets of attack patterns. Functionally this appears identical to him choosing which move to use completely at random, unless you fight him dozens of times and pay absolutely meticulous attention. Given how hard even basic moves can hurt, and how important it is to prepare for them, this can completely obliterate a player’s confidence that beating the boss is in any way possible.

    The only real way to prevail is to work out all of his phases AND intuit three crucial facts (don’t use party buffs, he won’t go on healing forever, and his attacks are never truly random). This would take a single player, I don’t know, hundreds of attempts? Even then, you need a party capable of surviving the brute nature of his impressive stats and near-overwhelming attacks (without your buffs!). It’s not like you can grind past the level cap and trivialise the fight either.

    To do this you either have to work out a particular game-breaking combination of classes with top-tier gear who can damage buff to an insane level and end the fight before the party-wipe attack can kick in – and this effectively means starting the game from scratch with your uber-party as your end goal – or you have to re-fight all the bosses in order to obtain their secret grimoires in strict accordance with an inscrutable secret algorithm that can only, ONLY have come from ransacking the game’s code:

    These secret grimoires will provide you with a suite of powerful *single turn* party-wide buffs that conveniently don’t activate the omega-death-obliteration timer.

    Needless to say that their is NO WAY I would have been able to beat this boss without turning to a walkthrough. Even having read how to beat him, it would have been simpler to have written off my by then 100+ hours than to have actually seen it through. At the end of it I was thoroughly exhausted. My fondness for the game pre-hidden-strata wasn’t quite entirely extinguished, but I was completely robbed of the desire to ever face another of these dungeon crawler epics (there are another five in this series alone). My relationship with the genre bore as much of the damage as I did, and I may never return.

    Perhaps this is exactly the sort of thing Nintendo is trying to avoid with new players when it rushes to lend a helping hand. Were it not for the invincibility leaf, someone, somewhere, might be rambling at unreasonable length of their struggles with level 2-2 of Super Mario 3D World and how they can never go back to the mascot platformer.

    A positive note to end on: I don’t think I’ve ever beaten a single adventure game without the help of a walkthrough. Not one. And yet when I think back on the likes of Toonstruck, Broken Sword, Monkey Island, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango and Teenagent, the overriding emotion evoked isn’t of frustration with the puzzles that defeated me, or the disappointment of failing to slay the Dragon, but fondness and gratitude for the wonderful characters and worlds they gave me.

    Time heals all wounds, as they say. Perhaps even a hole in the chest.

  3. If you construct a myth around the heroic player overcoming puzzles, then it’s tautologous to say it feels unheroic when they fail to overcome, and consult a walkthrough.

    Perhaps the issue is your narrative framing: when the hero fails, are they really any less of a hero? Or has it merely changed the genre of the story being told into tragedy?

    I grew up playing adventure games a whole lot more than puzzle games. Or more accurately, we played adventure games—us kids. It’d be rare to have less than three heads facing down any problems the game threw our way, and sometimes as many as six. But even so getting stuck still happened from time to time.

    We had a set of CDs with thousands of shareware programs and games on it, and one of those was called “UHS: the Universal Hint System”. Instead of simply providing puzzle solutions as walkthroughs do, its hints started out broad and vague, gradually getting more specific: it wanted to nudge you into finding the solutions yourself instead of just throwing the answers out there. Here’s an example from Monkey Island:

    With three heads, often just one hint was enough to get back on track. When I was by myself though, the inability to detach from previous lines of thought was still the real problem; like you getting stuck because of your incorrect but promising-seeming Nova 7 opening. The vague hints wouldn’t break my line of though enough to seem of any help—and it was all too easy anyway to drill down to the actual answer, and just get the puzzle solved. Sometimes that led to the slight hollow feeling that comes from being denied the thrill of “getting it”; but sometimes that felt vindicating when a puzzle was ridiculously obscure or too culturally specific (monkey wrench?).

    But with adventure games, there’s usually no rule systems to learn to solve the puzzles. Getting rid of one obstruction doesn’t affect your ability to approach the next puzzles afresh. But as you’ve pointed out in earlier posts, getting given the answer in a puzzle game quite often means you’ve missed the very point that the puzzle was meant to teach, leaving you significantly worse off for the future.

    I still don’t play many puzzle games. I still get stuck quite often in games; or lost. And I still look up walkthroughs to get by. And though I still try to read/watch as little as possible to avoid spoiling anything more, I no longer feel any shame or disappointment afterwards.

  4. There are a LOT of people rambling at unreasonable lengths of the invincibility leaf, and how they can never go back to the mascot platformer 😛

    Likewise I’m sure there are people having exactly the opposite reaction to Etrian Odyssey’s sixth strata — else why would the series have survived to five games? I myself made it to the sixth strata… never finished it, but I remember it very fondly.

    It’s not a wound. It’s a lesson.

  5. goddammit after literally decades of thinking autostereograms were a prank on me from the rest of the world I saw one tiny bit of that for a microsecond and now it’s going to drive me up the wall

  6. Mr. B
    Thank you, it’s the one I made for The Unbearable Now.


    Holy shit is this comment longer than the post?


    No, not quite. CLOSE THOUGH.

    I don’t think the walkthrough-as-spoiler problem is primarily a puzzle thing. It does stretch to adventures and sometimes games like Subnautica where you might not be able to find a few key items. But I wanted to talk about it here because I’m not sure anyone has really considered the relationship between the puzzle player and the player seeking help. The thread here really goes back to Dead in the Water, where most puzzle games are quite passive-aggressive with the player, and if the levels are mismatched to player ability, they expect the player to do a lot of running.

    This is darker side of the Dead in the Water. If you fail at the puzzle game, then either the developer was at fault or you were. It’s one or other, right? And does that make you mad? Make you sad? Or are you lucky enough to shrug and walk away? Because this is the reason I wasn’t really touching puzzle games because I tended to view them as hardcore player fantasies of the cerebral kind. Puzzle game as humiliation rather than pastime.

    “Now I know have an idea of how the story is pacing itself, can guess at the significance (or not) of certain story beats or plot twists, and so on.”

    Oh you’re as bad as me. I extrapolate all sorts of implications from the tiniest of spoiled facts.

    Wow, I don’t know how to respond to your Etrian Odyssey odyssey except I can see how that might have traumatised you against such games. Still, maybe we should chat about how I ventured into Ultima IV’s final dungeon three times just because I got the answer to the final riddle incorrectly. I mean, this is all bad design. Occasionally, you’ll get the odd art game that expects you to climb mountains with the merest hope that insight will be delivered, but generally something like that boss fight is out of order.


    Hello! I wouldn’t say I actually think of myself as a puzzle hero – I’m not sure I have the looks – but I think this framing conveys exactly how I feel when I have to confront a walkthrough. I find it particularly hard to surrender to a walkthrough when it comes to a puzzle game.

    Perhaps a counterpoint is when I played The Room and kept on dipping into the well of hints. I rarely felt “oh wow, I should have got that.” More of a shrug. I didn’t feel I was missing out that much because sometimes I felt the game was being a little obscure. But The Room is not about learning and exploiting rule systems whereas a logic puzzle is and that seems to make everything different. Hints do not damage that feeling of playing with arcane clockwork mechanisms but logic puzzles are all about the solving. You don’t play for graphics or narrative (not really).

    I also tweeted about how I completely spoiled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Infocom adventure with a hint book. Hints are like bloody Pringles, once I start, it’s difficult to stop. Basically, I avoid starting them now.

    My Dad would have no worries getting me to “fix” games back in the 8-bit days to give them more lives or even infinite lives because, as far as he was concerned, the developers were at fault. And I really appreciate the confidence in that view because I am a lot more uncertain about whether I should be seeking help or not. I suppose it’s the neurotic response: I’m very sorry I couldn’t do your game.


    I take it when you say “it’s not a wound” you’re referring to Etrian Odyssey? Separately, I feel like I’ve missed out on all the Invincibility Leaf Drama.


    oh my GOD they are not pranks

  7. Earlier drafts of my comment were more explicit, oops. What I mean is playing a game and having a ‘bad’ experience and having that genre poisoned for you forever… is sometimes, or perhaps often, not *damage done* to an otherwise positive relationship so much as it is a light shone on a crucial element of the genre’s appeal, which is what makes others love it & you hate it.

  8. I see, Mr. D. So I just looked up at when Etrian Odyssey came out. 2006! That’s still recent history! Wow. I was expecting it to be from the 90s when grindy, happily kill-off-the-layer stuff was all the rage. You’re right. Obviously some people loved that stuff. You should put me on notice.

  9. Put you on notice for what?

    And grindy, happily kill-off-the-player stuff is still all the rage. Haven’t you noticed?? Maybe not, ensconced in your puzzles. But perhaps discovering your solution was wrong is its own kind of player death… its own happily kill-off-the-player with clever placement of a wall here, an alien there.


    So very good comments all! CA is right that the walkthrough for this kind of thing is just like standing back and watching someone else play. Which can be awesome, as with Dissembler, but it can be a terrible feeling when you’re supposed to have done it. Sometimes you slap your forehead and say “I should’ve seen that”–that’s not too bad necessarily, and it can be a lesson learned–sometimes you’re just aghast at the demands on you. And sometimes you just think “What was the purpose of doing that when I was supposed to be able to play the game myself?”

    But doing it with a little assistance can be OK–if the assistance is well designed. Several people mentioned the Universal Hint System, which seems like it’s basically like the Infocom Invisiclues (bigger sellers than the games, apparently). Getting a solution after a couple of Invisiclues can be very satisfying, and there’s an adaptive element in how many Invisiclues you have to reveal before dawn breaks over Marblehead. But the Invisiclues have to be well designed in order to gradually reveal enough but not too much at each level.

    In Stephen’s Sausage Roll I used hints on two levels. One of them I had figured out a few things, and I had simply failed to see that another thing was possible–basically a failure to count squares properly. Then there was a fair amount of work left on the level, and it was satisfying to do it. Another basically ruined the level, but I blame the person who posted the hints; they basically started with “Do the obvious thing at the beginning” and the thing you had to do at the beginning was not at all obvious unless you knew what to do. So I bulled through to the hint that gave away the big insight, and there wasn’t much more to the level beyond that. So, meh.

    There are other ways of doing this kind of hint. In Cragne Manor–OK, look, I know probably none of you will play Cragne Manor, it’s a huge sprawling text adventure, I’m not disappointed I’m just very very hurt, but really Faithful Companion is nice and bite-sized and isn’t about guessing verbs and has a good puzzle you should try it–anyway, the big thing is that there are eighty different rooms many of whose puzzles depend on items found in other rooms, and many of whose puzzles don’t, and many of which have no puzzles at all, and even before you start on the puzzles this is intimidating. So we put (that is, I and some others badgered Jenni until she put in) a device which tells you whether you have the items you need to solve the room’s puzzles. Which cuts down a lot of the cognitive burden of the player. Of course for the rest of it I needed tons of hints on individual puzzles–chatting with the other authors helped.

    Also to keep Invisiclues from being too spoily they traditionally include some fake questions, and I said on chat that Cragne Manor often seemed like it was made up of the solutions you find under the fake Invisiclues. Then another author tried to make up a fake invisiclue but it turned out to be something that was actually in the game.

    Then there’s another thing about the game taking away your ability to complete it on as high a difficulty as you’d like. That kind of sounded like what happened with that one Breakout-like game with rounded corners? Holedown it was.

  11. My excuse for writing such a ridiculously long post is that either a) you encouraged me or b) you tried to discourage me, but in a manner insufficiently distinct from encouraging me. 😀

    Sheepish disclaimer: all I was trying to offer (although impose might be a better word) was an example of a puzzle so vexing my defeat to it spread beyond the game and affected my (and only my) disposition toward every other like it. Even with its ridiculous boss, Etrian Odyssey is positively benign in comparison with something like Wizardry IV. This let’s play is worth a couple of hours just to get a sense of the sheer audacity of it: . I’m definitely not trying to claim it was a genre killer for anyone other than me, because obviously it was the opposite: successful enough to spawn a string of sequels and arguably brought the dungeon crawler back from the dustbin of history.

    I think we’d mostly agree that as attractive as this sort of spectacular set piece difficulty is to some, it’s alienating to a greater number of others, which is why both puzzle games and dungeon crawlers are largely the preserve of a fairly hardcore niche. But I really don’t want to be prescriptive about difficulty in any way, or try to insist on some universal or causal relationship between accessibility and appeal. Difficulty is one of the great conundrums at the heart of game design and it would be a bod far cleverer than me that could claim any especial insight thereto.

    Here’s something that in my arrogance I didn’t consider: thinking of it in terms of a challenge set to a community rather than an individual player, a boss that hard becomes something thrilling and inclusive, an event in which players can collaborate and perhaps compete to reach the solution. But that adds an additional layer of complication to the hows (and whos) of designing a game and tweaking its difficulty. If the Everest of the dungeon crawler is Wizardry IV (although maybe it’s since been surpassed), well, that was put out in 1987, in a vastly less connected world. It truly was a game made for the individual expert player; the box was apparently covered in warnings saying as much:

    It makes me curious if there are puzzle games designed to throw down a gauntlet to their player-base in aggregate, rather than the individual player. ARGs probably count right?

    Finally: I’m with matt on these auto-stereo-echocardiogram things. Pranks, definitely pranks, or possibly secret Illuminati Freemason Lizardperson ciphers. Suspicious to see them displayed here. Very suspicious.

  12. droqen

    Put me on notice for dismissing a relatively recent game as some out-of-date title from the 90s because that’s how I read the design.

    On “kill-off-the-player stuff is still all the rage”: I do get this and everyone is always brandishing Dark Souls and every roguelike there is when discussing that. (I really need to get back to Below but it tends to be a time-sink.) But CA’s description of the end of Etrian Odyssey sounded so incredibly batshit that I could scarely believe this was an actual game. Then I read about Wizardry IV and I was like GAH WTF I do not understand this.

    I don’t know if failed solution attempts feels like death in the same way. The process of solution tends to be fluid, even though we often articulate “solution attempts” as if they were discrete things. When you’re Monte Carloing around, you’re just poking at the level. It’s more akin to a slow death of the soul, the way claustrophobia tells it. You realise you’re going around in circles and that realisation is true death.


    “CA is right that the walkthrough for this kind of thing is just like standing back and watching someone else play.”

    Irony is most of the walkthroughs are I refer to these days are YouTubes 🙂

    I think there are two parts of the problem, so to speak:

    * Like many game design problems, implementing a good assist system is Hard

    * The Dead in the Water argument: the hardcore gamers who don’t call themselves hardcore gamers and don’t want their puzzles dumbed down

    The second argument has bigger issues about what we, as playing individuals, can convince ourselves is playing satisfactorily. I’m sure some people just rip through puzzles with a walkthrough at their fingertips. But finishing game isn’t important to me. It’s comprehending how you finished the game.

    And, in response to the Holedown reference, I am mindful of that. I’m going to ramble a bit now, because it’s the only way to get some of these thoughts out.

    I just think we need to chart a path that caters for more than just the hardcore. Listening to what CA says, and via a separate Twitter conversation with droqen, I cannot shake off the feeling there is something insular about modern puzzle design. I don’t mean “oldskool” design was better, but that it still has to make progress.

    I think The Witness is really a step forward in opening things up but perhaps bolstering my point the initial reactions to The Witness were “it’s just a line-drawing puzzle game???” tells you how a lot of people see puzzle games. As a sort of niche interest which are “cheap”. That holds investment in ambitious design back yet puzzle design keeps chasing after the more hardcore, and divorces itself almost entirely from the “casual” puzzler. Gateway drugs are few and far between.

    Sorry that’s all pretty helicopter view without specifics or strong evidence.

    I’m sorry we, the Electron Dance community, have not yet played Cragne Manor. I’ve actually had a tab of it open in my phone since you mentioned it. But most web games don’t work very well on a phone.


    I just find it harder to respond to long comments as poor Pedro will attest to. I think I never got back to his epic comment rant on art last year. But if you can all talk amongst yourselves for a while, that’s perfect 🙂

    I find your description of Etrian Odyssey’s sixth strata – as well as what I gleaned about Wizardry IV – to be completely alienating. Jesus, a secret keystroke counter?? Why? What does that contribute towards the game?

    And I have to tread carefully, because I fully support the principle of a designer creating what they want to create. But if you go commercial and plan on being a successful business, then it strikes me that driving down an entire subgenre into the most hardcore of the hardcore is not a recipe for prosperity.

    Not every game needs to be for everybody. But Cosmic Express is amazing yet, last I heard, A Good Snowman did much better. We know as time goes on the market gets harder, simply because more people are developer and selling games, that’s a given. And Alan Hazelden’s games are definitely some of the better designed when it comes to being open to players of different stripes.

    I don’t have any answers here, but I think the questions are worth bringing up.

  13. The feeling you describe, approaching the wall of the ultimate puzzle and feeling unable to conquer it, is something that makes many puzzle games unapproachable to me. I really WANT to like puzzle games–I love thinking and I love figuring things out, but something about the puzzle video game leaves me stressed and angry. I still try, despite that, the point-and-click adventure games still tempt me, and games like Portal and the Witness also grasp me. Im usually good at avoiding walkthroughs–its rare to be so utterly stumped that I have no other option, but I remember one game series in particular, the Zero Escape series, that had me eventually grabbing for a walkthrough. For me it felt like I had done as many of the escape the room puzzles as I could, as I wanted, but there was still more game left for me to play. I became too tired.

    It’s interesting to think about how puzzle games have to be designed: to teach, to tempt, to invite, to speaj to players–and they have to do this in their length, their style, their approach, and more.

    Perhaps puzzle games should have internal hint systems to avoid the spoilers of the internet? If a system could be designed it could give away a piece without ruining the glorious mystery entirely, like your YouTube lookup example.

  14. Hello Jackoneal2! I have been spending more time in the YouTube comments than in the Electron Dance comments this week…

    I completely get this feeling and I lived with it for years. It was Full Bore that pulled me back in but, ironically, Snakebird that got me back inside. Because of Snakebird I wrote this series. Because of this series I played a lot of puzzle games. Because I played a lot of puzzle games, I became more confident and beyond that feeling of “I am unworthy”. And it was the memory of this Pre-Snakebird Me, this aspect of puzzles not feeling welcoming to the outsider, which prompted me to write Dead in the Water.

    I struggle with hint systems for puzzle games. It’s not quite the same as hints/cheats for other games. These puzzles are 100% the content of the game and hints are an admission that something has gone awry in the communication between you and the developer.

    Student: Teacher, I don’t understand. What should I have learned today?

    Teacher: Don’t worry about it. Here’s a hint.

  15. Student: Teacher, I don’t understand. What should I have learned today?

    Teacher: Don’t worry about it. Here’s a hint.

    Well wait, I do this all the time! From “Here’s a hint, now can you go on with this problem” to “OK, I’m going to have to walk you through this step by step, and hopefully that will teach you how to the next one.” Though my problems (I mean: teaching someone how to do logic proofs) are procgen in that the idea is that they’ll be able to do the next one, and arbitrarily many after that.

  16. I had the fortune of crushing my hubris in a real world, one week therapy session known as the World Puzzle Championship (paper puzzles most closely related to Cosmic Express or The Witness). I came in telling myself I could run a marathon at 100m pace, and it turned out I was a couch potato. Once that stopped hurting, my expectations were readjusted; I could now rejoice in victories rather than expect them. I could learn new techniques again. And I could enjoy Snakebird without needing to reach level 60. Especially when the bird looks very displeased to stuff his beak in another’s tail feathers.

    The Zero Escape games are wholly bereft of redeeming qualities, and their US success is best understood as a sop to sophomoric fools and perhaps as Stockholm syndrome. They are nominally visual novels with puzzle elements. The puzzles are scarce, trivial and tedious. The visuals are minimal and artless. The novel fails in pretty much every way imaginable, and even invents new ways to suck by being endless, and endlessly repetitive at every single level of structure. Do not construe this as a challenge or a curio, avoid like Ebola.

    As you likely know, Snakebird Primer is coming out, with easier puzzles. One might read this as developer penance.

  17. I’m not going to rush to defend the honour of the Zero Escape games or anything, but at the risk of outing myself as that thing most derided by Serious Intelligent People, a sophomore, I will say I didn’t find them wholly bereft of redeeming qualities.

    They set up a feeling of tense, claustrophobic mystery pretty nicely. The writing and characterisation is fine for the medium, although I think most people would agree that the medium has generally abysmal standards for such things.

    The plotting is intricate, in that there’s a lot of people moving on divergent paths across a wide space and over a longish timeline, and are robust enough that if you want to you can deduce who is going where, and doing what, and at what moment, even when the game doesn’t explicitly tell you.

    This was actually my favourite thing: if you’re paying attention you can piece together enough of what’s happening to solve certain mysteries before you arrive at them, and fill in details surrounding unexpected developments that sheds interesting new light on them. This takes what can be a rather pulpy, at times even hacky narrative, and elevates it in a way that feels appropriate to gaming, with the player cast in the role of story detective.

    In terms of finding the Objective Good in games, we’re obviously getting all the way out on a highly subjective limb here, but these invisible narrative puzzles are a lot more satisfying than the simple adventure game fare that gets you through the games. Perhaps that explains the popularity and success of the series among a certain niche. Of course it’s also possible that all those people are just stupid and wrong.

  18. Reading it back that last sentence seems like a sarcastic barb but I didn’t mean it that way! I’m ambivalent about the Zero Escape games, as I am about a lot of games where narrative is the focus. In comparison to even a modestly accomplished novel, play or even TV drama these games often come up a long way short, but nevertheless seem to often stimulate a lot of players.

    Sometimes I’m among that number, but try to hold myself at arm’s length. Sometimes I fall headlong in love with the story in a game. Sometimes I want them to *be* a novel, but only so I have something physical I can throw against a wall in disgust.

    So the question then is, is there something wrong with fans of such games? Or is there something special, something transformative, about the convergence of games and narratives that we haven’t quite understood, even after all this time, some mechanical quality that even a indifferent narrative can lend a game to produce a sort of ludonarrative elevation?

    The Zero Escape games have this much at least: all the characters have a past and a personality, which instil a motive, which leads to an agenda, which informs their action. It’s clean and consistent throughout. Often they will hide some or all of this from you, but the information may be available elsewhere. You can track their actions across the story and it all parses: you can fill in gaps regarding their motivation from their actions and their past, or in their past from their motivation and their actions, or their actions from their motivation and their past. Sometimes this leads to reveals that catch you off guard. Sometimes they will confirm your deductions. Both offer a kind of thrill.

    If this fascinates you, this is fascinating (your mileage will very much vary here). The act of playing helps unravel this web, and although I don’t think it would be impossible to do something similar in another medium I do believe it would be unwieldy and perhaps tediously told. These are games in which the plotting is arguably more interesting than the story.

    I got a similar feeling recently playing The Sexy Brutale. It has a similar intricacy with all the guests, their personalities and pasts motivating their present action, moving about over the course of a day. It manages to fit in a lot less narrative overall (the game is has at least a 3x shorter run-time than a Zero Escape game) but makes up for it with a far more gamey gameness (although the puzzles are similarly simple) and a more palpable sense of existence in its beautifully realised world. It’s another game where the story itself didn’t bowl me over, but watching the actors moving through the world and coming over time to understand the whys and ways they were being driven about was really absorbing.

  19. In the second game of the 0e series, one comes across a list of rules for good telling of mysteries. Reading through makes clear how the game breaks all of them. It smirks at you, mouthing “Ain’t I a transgressive stinker?” In the finale of the first game, the writers absolve themselves of the responsibility to make sense: things became as they are because they were foretold so, and thus they happened. Attempting to make sense of it is a fool’s errand. You are baited by details, but are likely unable to recall which timeline brought you to this new scene; maybe the reason things don’t gel is because you can’t handle all the branches you tell yourself.

    In truth, you can never find out why the captain appears and disappears. There is no reason for the submersible to exist, nor is there anything useful to glean from that end. There is no reason for a mummy to exist, and then she doesn’t. Your Orient Express transforms into Bumblebee and promises to piss popcorn into your eager mouth instead.

    There is a bug in these games that damages the save state. There is an always occurring, game-length animation scripting glitch that accidentally turns a character into a smirking psychopath. They persist, despite decades and ports. It’s the same level of care that the VW Bug shows with its pyrotechnics. The kewl reveals. The forced puns. The paranormal pretzels of time and cognition. The pyrotechnics are dense, dense and numerous, and will keep you in a padded seat uncomfortably long. So lean back gasping, and enjoy your popcorn.

    Please take a suggestion of Shibuya 538 as an apology for the above crime. It’s another tropey multi-character Japanese game where one may hop, skip and jump through time and space, but the character with the stuck head is in a panda suit rather than armor. It is very silly fun, and not pathologically obsessed with you reading every single line they wrote for it.

  20. Couldn’t get to these comments as I’ve had to work extra hard on the final Ouroboros essay after discovering far too late that Snakebird Primer was out this week. I was planning on rolling the essay out next week – but Snakebird is in the news again so, damn it, this is the week I had to post! I’m burned out after writing myself to death over the last few days, so this comment is unlikely to be long or detailed 🙂

    Welcome hroom!

    I do wish I could reduce my “personal expectations” when it comes to puzzles. There’s definitely something more healthy about being able to disengage from a logic puzzle game when you feel like you’re done. I’m not quite there yet and, I fear, my commitment to puzzle games for the last year has actually made this worse. I only disengage from a puzzle game if I feel like it’s genuinely unfair or the it has grown boring.

    Re: Snakebird Primer – I had similar thoughts to you on its meaning and dropped a line to this effect into Tail Meets Head.

    I’m afraid I already picked up the Zero Escape trilogy some time ago as research material, although I haven’t yet played. There are a few things I want to check. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of visual novels, to be fair, so I wasn’t going in with huge expectations. And Japanese style and characterisations grate more than they used to (despite my past life in Japan).

    Nonetheless, I appreciate your absolute disdain for the trilogy! Whenever I do break the seal on my Steam purchase, I will have your commentary close at hand.


    I also enjoy the “narrative as puzzle”. There are plenty of games which go for it but few which really stick the landing. The one that jumps to mind is short game Verde Station which I spoke highly of a few years ago, although my article here is rampant with spoilers. Ethan Carter is okkkkayyyy. I guess Gone Home is really in the same genre despite much of it being quite explicit, but there’s one particular dark secret in there which is only alluded to. Edith Finch? I guess there’s also Dark Souls, right? Which is deep with lore but rarely spells it out. (I don’t have time for Dark Souls lore, to be frank.)

    Still, I am reminded of, I think, Tale of Tales who were scathing about converting narrative into a puzzle. That it’s still chasing the “challenge” aspect of games, instead of embracing just being a story.

  21. That reminds me of Tom Chick’s review of inside, Joel.

    Here’s the spoiler-free takeaway if you’ve yet to play it:

    “Inside is a brilliant story inside a mediocre game. It would have been a better game if it had been what is unfairly derided as a “walking simulator”. Videogames have grown up enough that the game part of their name can mean many things. We no longer have to jump for coins or reload weapons or wait for spells to cooldown or slide crates into place. We’re not children who need to be dazzled with moving parts and shiny effects and experience points. I’d argue Ken Levine helped usher videogames into this level of adulthood with Bioshock. But it’s unfortunate that otherwise fantastic storytellers like Amy Hennig (Uncharted), Neil Druckmann (Last of Us), the Firewatch creators at Campo Santo, and even Levine himself with Bioshock Infinite are detracting from remarkable stories with obligatory and uninspired gameplay. There are ways to work interactivity into a meaningful story. There are ways to keep gameplay from becoming busywork on the way to the narrative.

    […] Inside can’t resist padding its story with what passes for gameplay. Who knows whether it’s because Playdead didn’t have the confidence in their story or because videogamers need to push crates onto pressure plates in order to call something a videogame. Whatever the case, Inside is a provocatively outside-the-box story in a disappointingly inside-the-box game.”

    Inside remains impressive for its divisiveness. People can’t agree whether it’s good or bad, whether the story acts in service to the gameplay or vice versa, or even whether it’s Limbo 2.0 in all but name or nothing like it. For what it’s worth I strongly disagree with Chick’s assessment that the game would be improved by the excision of its puzzles, or that its story, as it exists, could emerge from such an invasive procedure intact.

  22. It might sound silly or hyper-sensitive, but if I’m on act three and from UHS I accidentally learn that there are five acts.. that’s still a kind of micro-spoiler! Now I know have an idea of how the story is pacing itself, can guess at the significance (or not) of certain story beats or plot twists, and so on.

    This is one thing I really like about eBooks, it’s possible to read a book and not know whether the ending is three chapters away or on the next page. Reading Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency would have been completely mind-blowing that way. (It has one of the best ever “What? That can’t possibly be the ending! What about…wait….oh….oh…OH!” endings.)

  23. I went through several stages of this playing Curses, the first interactive fiction that Graham Nelson released using Inform, his reverse-engineered updated engine for making and playing Infocom-style games. It arguably kicked off the modern renaissance of interactive fiction currently celebrating 23 years of both the Interactive Fiction Competition and the Xyzzy Awards.

    I played a decent chunk of Curses and got stuck. Someone from the rec.arts. repeatedly gave me one clue: “Think about the romance novel.” I fruitlessly thought about it for at least a day or two and asked my friendly correspondent for another clue, but he refused. And then the experience that only happens in movies. I was almost asleep and suddenly sat up in bed because I knew the answer I was looking for. It was a pretty amazing feeling and pretty wonderful the next day when I tried it and it worked.

    I got most of the way through the game (I think I must have got a few more hints, but I don’t know where), but then got stuck again in the endgame and got the UHS hints for the game (back then UHS was a stand-alone program you had to download along with the hints file for whatever game you needed help with). This was tantamount to buying the Invisiclues book for an Infocom game (which I had done as a kid playing Zork III), which UHS was pretty clearly inspired by.

    I was disappointed to find that the endgame puzzle that had stumped me followed the rules of the rest of the game, but only mechanically, and seeming to ignore the narrative justification for those rules. Looking back, I think maybe it made more sense than I realized, but at the time I completely lost confidence in the game and used hints freely to finish it off.

  24. (Sorry, that was me above forgetting to put in my name & info. Also I was trying to quote CA in the first paragraph of my first comment, but got the markup wrong.)

    The most satisfying hint or spoiler is the one where you’ve overlooked something that you’re pretty sure you never would have gone back and noticed, and the oversight seems more contingent than systematic. That’s happened to me several times and while there’s sometimes a bit of disappointment in having missed something, it usually feels more like a relief, and doesn’t seem to have the same tendency to make me more likely to reach for hints sooner at the next difficulty.

  25. CA – it is the eternal question about whether those dull mechanics can be carved out and leave a coherent game behind. What is often forgotten is that the dull gameplay has created a mountain to climb this giving power to the story. We can argue over alternate gameplay but just removing it can be absolutely destructive. Still, I’ve never wanted to play Limbo or Inside. They look aggravating.

    Urthman – I am much like you in this respect, I am very sensitive to spoilers and cannot stop my conscious brain evaluating all of the possibilities that the tiniest morsel of data could imply. The relationship between narrative and mechanical spoilers is interesting though, I admit I hadn’t thought much about that.

  26. I don’t want to bombard you with chat about games you’re not interested in*, but I’m not even prepared to give ground on Inside’s puzzles being dull – not because I actually think they’re good (they’re very simple) but because they never registered for me in that way due to the structure of the game.

    The story/gameplay divide doesn’t breakdown in a way that, say, a JRPG does: dull grind deserts dotted with oases of narrative reward. I feel like, experientially speaking, Inside represents something a lot more tightly meshed: where puzzles are a pleasant friction, something to push against but never really be impeded by, keeping the fidgety bits of the mind occupied while leaving the rest free to soak in the atmosphere and story, which is something all around you, happening everywhere at once. It’s Samorost by way of a roadtrip through hell.

    Like the puzzles in a Zelda dungeon, their simplicity belies their purpose, which is to carefully break up and pace the activity of play. Which isn’t to say they aren’t capable of aggravation – the success of the design is contingent on the player’s progress not shuddering to a frustrating halt, which will be by no means guaranteed for everyone. That’s a point to Tom, but not one I think he can laud as an absolute.

    This isn’t the only type of game that exists between the poles. There are the perfect ones, where the mechanics are the message, games like Papers, Please and This War of Mine. This is the other thing – the thing disowned by both camps as being the classic messy compromise of games. This is Nathan Drake and his criminal record.

    But I want to stand up for this kind of game, even if ultimately, I’m really not crazy about Inside. I still find it preferable to something like Virginia, a game so denuded of player agency I’ve seen it described as ‘pedal-powered cinema’ (and which also reminded me, through its sleeve-worn influences, that passive media have been making puzzles out of their narratives through mystery and obfuscation long before games arrived on the scene).

    I’m making a note to play Curses if I can track it down. And also to re-read Dirk Gently, because obviously. That ending, haha. Don’t e-readers provide you with progress bars though? The thought somehow fills me with unease.


  27. There’s a whole websited devoted to links to interactive fiction games! Here’s Curses!

    I have to say that I’ve never played it, as the old giant games with inventory limits and never knowing what you should be working on next and the constant fear that you’ve done something fifty turns ago that will make the game unwinnable for reasons you don’t quite understand (or don’t at all understand) always utterly paralyze me. If you want a giant interactive fiction game that has no inventory limits and that you can’t make unwinnable and that will always tell you whether the problem you’re working on is one you can solve, may I suggest Cragne Manor? I can’t say that you will find that the puzzles follow a consistent puzzle/narrative logic, as by design the amount of communication among the eighty-some authors was limited, but it’s good fun.

  28. HOWEVER it took me less than a hundred turns to get something out of the romance novel in Curses!, because I am awesome.

    (vs gur cbvag vf gb svther bhg gur erny anzr bs gur nhgube)

  29. Curses, like almost all interactive fiction, is free and freely available. You can download a .z5 file to play in the interpreter of your choice or just play online in a browser from a link here:

    Curses is excellent and a classic so worth trying, but as the first game of the modern era, it still has a lot of the difficulty and frustrations (in both interface and game design) of the old Infocom games. If you liked Trinity, then Curses, and even more so Graham Nelson’s second game Jigsaw, might be for you.

    But there there has been A LOT of strides in Interactive Fiction and if you are new to the genre, you might want to start with

    The top 100 highest-rated works of IF from the IF Database (Curses is #55)

    Interactive Fiction Top 50 of all time (2015 edition) – as voted by the IF enthusiast community (Curses is tied for #41)

    A recent poll of the IF community of best games for beginners (Curses is not in the list)

  30. > “The relationship between narrative and mechanical spoilers is interesting though, I admit I hadn’t thought much about that.”

    I’ll give a made-up example of the kind of thing I was talking about.

    Say you have a game where you are exploring the mansion of a guy who hid things in places indicated by where the person in a portrait is looking or pointing. So you have a nifty game mechanic where you see a painting and then try to workout where it is telling you to search.

    But then in the endgame you go to a restaurant unrelated to the mansion owner (it didn’t even exist when the mansion owner was alive). There’s a picture on the wall, so game-mechanically you might say, “Aha! I should search where the guy in that picture is looking” but narratively there’s no reason to think anyone would be hiding things that way here. So I didn’t think to try that, and when the hints told me that’s what you are supposed to do, it made me feel like “Oh, it’s just a game, not a story that makes sense.”

  31. (vs gur cbvag vf gb svther bhg gur erny anzr bs gur nhgube)

    Yes, Mr. Awesome. Very good.

  32. Of course I immediately ernq gur obbx bs cbrgel naq tbg qhzcrq vagb n pbzcyrgryl qvssrerag ybpngvba, possibly making the game unwinnable by abandoning inventory. I really am not very good at this kind of game, that was just dumb luck having done the things I needed to do to find the clues for that puzzle, and having been told by your comment that there was a puzzle there, and being a bit of compulsive nantenzzre.

  33. > Don’t e-readers provide you with progress bars though? The thought somehow fills me with unease.

    Yes, but it is at lease possible to ignore them. I have never found a way to hide from myself the fact that there are only 4 pages left in a book I am holding.

  34. Did you just spoil Nova 7’s solution on an article about accidentally looking at spoilers? Why?? =(

  35. > I am very sensitive to spoilers and cannot stop my conscious brain evaluating all of the possibilities that the tiniest morsel of data could imply

    That’s exactly what my brain is doing right now… Love the articles man, but please add spoiler warnings!

  36. RbbtPk: My apologies. Urthman also beat me up about spoilerage recently! I’ve removed the offending image and also included a mention of spoilers for Cosmic Express (because I have to talk about the endgame to get into the “redemption” angle).

  37. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of the CRPG Addict, but in slowly picking my way through his (monstrous) archive I came across an article which reminded of this one.

    Chet tries to hash out a moral ‘code of conduct’ for when it is and isn’t acceptable to leverage outside assistance in a game. The list he comes up with is prescriptive, grognard-y and tinged with something akin to moral puritanism. Amusingly, almost his entire community disagrees with the idea of a general conduct that the player in general should hold themselves to, but does agree that his blog is improved for his adherence to it, which is an interesting circle to square.

    Over the past six months I’ve ploughed another 100 hours into an Atlus RPG, this time Shin Megami Tensei IV, because apparently I hate myself. It’s remarkable, though: a titan of theme and thoughtfulness, almost criminally overlooked, hidden away as it is in a niche genre on a niche platform. Imagine if Ulysses had been published not as a novel but a series of Teletext pages. Anyway, in the end game I discovered another suite of ‘challenge’ bosses with bafflingly hidden criteria. I came to post about them here in a ‘I can’t believe the mad lads did it again’ sort of a way, but reading back, it’s really nothing that comes even close to the madness of the sixth strata. Except that you need to pass a 1 in 256 check to even trigger the fights..!

    What are you even about, Atlus.

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