This is the fourth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
In 2008, a recommendation on Rock Paper Shotgun led me to Cursor*10 (nekogames, 2008) in which the player has to make it to the 16th floor – but the player’s life only lasts a short time. With each new life, the player is accompanied by the ghosts of their previous incarnations, working side by side to reach a common goal. If you need to click a box 100 times, it’s a damn sight quicker if a previous life is there to assist you with the clicking. It was the first time I’d seen this sort of mechanic, but unlikely to be a world first: Braid (Number None, 2008) released later in the same year utilised a similar mechanic.
But I’ve seen this design pattern again and again over the years in puzzle games. Today my mission is to explain why I hate it.
While some games argue this is “time travel” puzzling I’m christening these “playback” puzzles based on how The Talos Principle (Croteam, 2014) more honestly presents them. In Talos, you turn on a device which records your actions which then plays them back through a ghost duplicate. The playback ghost will operate as if you were working with another player to solve the problem, making it local co-op for one. Can’t press two buttons at the same time? You could if there were two of you. Can’t reach that ledge? You could if you could give yourself a boost. Talos goes a little further than most because your ghost self has ghost copies of blocks and fans – which means Talos playback puzzles are more about doubling resources than just about being in the right place at the right time.
Rose and Time (Sophie Houlden, 2010) is an interesting riff on the playback puzzle, which recalls those science fiction tales where protagonists are worried about “crossing their own timeline” and upsetting what they remember seeing – an idea stretched to delightfully absurd lengths in Spanish thriller Los Cronocrímenes/Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo, 2007). In Rose and Time, the player must retrieve crystals from each level – picking up a crystal will send you back in time and then you’ll have to avoid being seen by your previous incarnation so as not to cause a paradox. After just a few levels, you are juggling multiple versions of the protagonist and quickly becomes difficult. While the initial inspiration was a “stealth game” where you have to hide from your past self, that’s not really how it comes across: my experience with Rose and Time suggests it is more about forward planning, creating the ability to hide, rather than purely dodging your old self. Mistakes at the start can prevent solution.
More recently, Induction (Bryan Gale, 2017) is a minimalist playback game which takes the time travel theme and allows you to mess around with the past, provided you don’t ruin history completely. (I guess you can shoot Hitler, just as long as you don’t kill him.) There are the usual elements – buttons to trigger, little barrels to push around – but the only way to get through each level is to go back in time and build on what you previously did. You can change what happened but you cannot create an outright paradox: your old self must still be able to travel back in time at the same place you originally did.
Now during my Talos days, every time a playback machine appeared I would groan and inevitably go check out other puzzles until I had no choice but to come back. At the time I just assumed my groan was due to playback puzzles being harder as they multiplied the possibilities at your disposal. But, over time, I came to an understanding that these puzzles annoyed me for very particular reasons.
When you’re working through a recording phase, you need to think about where your future self should be and how much time your future self needs to do things. If you move too quickly, you’ll deny yourself the time to complete certain actions or tolerate small mistakes. This imprecision often drives players to build a cavernous safety margin in which the future self gets to do their thing. So you put your block here then wait, I dunno, maybe 20 seconds? Then you pick up the block and move it somewhere else and wait, maybe, another 20 seconds. Here, in fact, is where Induction excels as it allows you freedom to not just rewind but also fast forward through waiting.
Rose and Time players also have the power to rewind the action whereas in Talos making one mistake with your recorded run means you’ll have to do the whole thing again. However, while rewinding is useful for small errors, these puzzles are always a Jenga tower of cause and effect and making a mistake at the base of the sequence means the whole thing will come crashing down. Rewinding is not going to fix that.
Action games seem a better fit when your past incarnations become your enemy – consider the superb platformer N++ (Metanet Software, 2017) in which multiple copies of the player can be in hot pursuit. Like Rose and Time, early access Echoplex (Output Games) appears to be a hybrid – where you need ghosts to do work for you, but they will kill you if they catch up with you. I haven’t played Echoplex but this line from Brendan Caldwell’s preview seems telling: “A lot of the solutions have to do with precise timing – using your old clone to do something you know you’ll need in the future.” Indeed, playback puzzles are often about timing.
Naturally all puzzle games involve repeating actions and exploring consequences but the timing aspect often seems antithetical to contemplation. There’s no time to think once the recording starts, you’ve got to get moving, stay on track. While in theory it sounds like beautiful co-operation between multiple versions of the player, the reality is like working with an idiot who follows orders to the letter and has never learnt to improvise. And that’s what makes exploring the possibility space so exhausting. What was supposed to be a cerebral challenge can sometimes border on an arcade, twitchy experience while expecting you to do a lot of waiting. Hang on, that really does sound like a stealth game…
The playback puzzle is a clever design pattern that injects complexity into otherwise straightforward tasks, much like the way “portals” screw around with your appreciation of space in puzzle games such as Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis, 2017) or Lazors (Pyrosphere, 2010). But I find the traditional playback puzzle aggravating – not because of the inherent difficulty but because they are particularly laborious and, ironically for mechanics often associated with time travel, time consuming.