This is the seventh part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
She believes she has exhausted all of the beautiful possibilities in the puzzle rules before her. But there are only 15 levels. 15 exquisite, perfect creations, full of nuance, each offering something unique and precious. It’s too short. Jonathan Blow didn’t make billions with 15 line puzzles. How many puzzles did The Witness contain in the end? 500? 600?
“There’s only one thing for it,” she muses. “Make bigger puzzles.”
The technical term for this design transition is jumping the shark.
Suppose we set ourselves a challenge. Make a block pusher… but we’re only allowed to work on a 2×2 grid. This pocket reality is too small to support puzzle life. We need to stretch our canvas if we want interesting things to happen. Every time we enlarge the universe, new puzzle opportunities spring into life, scenarios that were not possible before. On a 3×3 grid, the classic three-block-wall problem emerges, as depicted in the following image, where the player must somehow get to the other side.
Still, we cannot keep inflating the universe forever. If we present a player with a 100×100 Sokoban puzzle, they would have every right to pop round and kick our collective asses. There’s a reason few are willing to entertain the ridiculous Taikyoku Shogi.
More moving parts means more mental juggling. Faced with an enormous possibility space of outcomes, players are more likely to default to brute force instead of reason. Also, it’s unlikely you’ll find truly fresh challenges out there; they’re just the same kind of puzzles with an injection of the complexity steroid. Do not make the same mistake millions of wannabe game designers have fallen for – puzzle complexity is not the same thing as puzzle joy. You know how I feel about lots of numbers. ‘Complexity’ and ‘Interesting’ are two different words. I know this. I checked them out. The dictionary was on my side.
I brought PuzzleScript title The Flames (Rosden Shadow, 2017) to your attention last time because its ten levels are small and tight. They feature just a handful of elements – pushable wood, wood wall, stone wall, fire barrel – which are easy to understand. Yet the levels are fiendish.
This is precisely why I like the light deflection-refraction puzzler Archaica: The Path of Light (Two Mammoths, 2017). The largest puzzles never become Satan’s chessboard. So few moving parts, yet so much grief. There is nothing quite like the austere beauty of a compact puzzle.
Compare with Operator Overload (Benn Powell, 2017) which has a lot more puzzle content, but often needs to dig deep for that content. And by deep I mean large; see exhibit A below.
Large puzzles can have a fatiguing effect on the player, particularly if they’re feeling in a more casual mood. A glance at a large grid filled with identical elements and, as the Klingons say, today is a good day to sigh.
Time to be a little more charitable. There is no neat, easy distinction between interesting and uninteresting complexity. Different puzzles operate in different ways. I would wager a 20×20 grid with just four pieces to play can still be interesting.
Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018) proves that visual size is not a reliable guide for complexity. Dissembler is a recent favourite of mine that I still play daily, where you must flip tiles to make matches of three and eventually clear the board. It starts simple but gradually ramps up. The levels are never huge but because every single tile must be removed, it means every single tile is involved in the solution.
But Dissembler also throws in the “tile-within-a-tile” which exposes a different colour upon match. Physical size is therefore deceptive as the number of matches required may be larger than you expect. For a game like this, move count is a better way of measuring complexity in turn-based puzzles. The solution to the following puzzle is 11 steps long which, by Dissembler standards, is pretty high consisting the dimensions.
I wrote extensively on The Talos Principle (Croteam, 2014) a few years back. It’s pretty good at keeping the puzzles tight, but the optional stars often require brilliant masterplans to be conceived and implemented using components from multiple puzzles. This is the perfect kind of large challenge. Optional, inventive… seductive. The excellent Road to Gehenna DLC does inevitably tread down the large level path a few times including one the designers admit is large: they call it ‘Goliath’.
But Goliath demonstrates what makes a big level work: the possibility of breaking the puzzle down into something manageable. Analysis of Goliath, investigating cause and effect, will gradually clear away the fog of complexity that obscures the solution. It really isn’t as hard as it looks. This is why Dissembler, mostly, works even for the more complex challenges because Dissembler is ultimately about travel: a good player will know where colours need to be and how far it is possible to move them over the duration of a puzzle.
We all have our personal limits, though. I have a mental breakdown when it comes to cog-based puzzles: they become overwhelming with just a handful of cogs. This explains my allergic reaction to These Robotic Hearts of Mine (Alan Hazelden, 2011) when I dabbled with it at the Eurogamer Expo. I won’t touch Prismatica (Loomus Games, 2015) with a barge pole. I just can’t see through these types of puzzle.
I found the genius Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis, 2017) also belonged firmly in the Dissembler camp of “manageable complexity”. In each Cosmic Express puzzle, you need to draw a rail that lets a train pick up every passenger and drop them at the stations they need, subject to various constraints. Even the largest puzzles successfully focus your attention on issues or tasks, such as different ways to shape the route or reorder the action… until Cosmic Express jumps the shark with its final level, Nova 7.
I was already experiencing size fatigue when I reached Nova 7 but there was a moment of pure horror when it was revealed to me.
A vast blank canvas. It was clear what kind of level this was going to be. You’d always be short of space and never be quite sure what you were doing wrong. It wasn’t about solving a puzzle but approaching a giant project of optimisation. In fact, this is precisely what The Flames is, because solving levels requires the player to minimise the number of steps taken, but developer Rosden Shadow was mindful to keep things small which keeps you focused on the how. I hated Nova 7. Although I had a personal feud with a level called Andromeda 14, it was Nova 7 that felt like a betrayal. And if you want to take Cosmic Express to its ultimate conclusion, you have to solve Nova 7 more than once.
Of course, there are designers who play with size deliberately for effect. In Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016), the player is thrown into ‘The Great Tower’ without any warning to brace for impact, which looks like this:
The discontinuity between this level and everything that has gone before is so shocking that the player is under no illusions that this is “a designer accident”. That shock is deliberate. If this was a horror game, we’d call it a jump scare.
But it suffers from exactly the same problem as all large levels: the sigh. I am most likely to abandon a puzzle game when the levels get large. The more time I spend on a level, the more my love and interest ebbs away. I make that promise of “I’ll come back when I have some time”. That’s like promising someone you break up with, “I hope we can still be friends”. Good luck with that.
Incidentally, the last level I played of Stephen’s Sausage Roll was The Great Tower. But don’t worry. I’ll come back to it when I have some time.
Appendix: Level 25
In recent years I’ve become unhappy with the last “real” level of The Citadel (Joel Goodwin, 1991). It is a classic BIG FINAL LEVEL.
It’s not as bad as it might seem. If the player has become experienced with the game’s mechanics, this is the kind of thinking process I’d expect to occur:
- The exit is behind square pits. You need the block.
- The exit is also behind a sea of round pits. What is the minimum number of boulders needed to reach the exit? 6.
- How many boulders are needed to get the block out? Moving the block anywhere requires you to move space in front of and behind it. If you want to move the block directly upwards into the shortest exit row, it will cost you 13 boulders – and you will not be able utilise boulders trapped against the top row of the puzzle. In contrast, the more seemingly wasteful horizontal extraction approach can be done in 12 plus you can use boulders trapped on the northern edge of the puzzle. This is the bit where players are more likely to dive in and make a mistake on first pass, not realising how much space needs to be developed around the block for extraction.
- Right, you must find 18 boulders. The player should decompose the left half of the level in the following manner.
- First, there’s a 2×2 block of boulders, they are just noise, a wall. There are 4 easily-rescued boulders around this block, but the fifth is tied into the northern boulder cluster. We can come back to that.
- Next, the southwestern boulder cluster. I can squeeze 4 out of this, including 2 boulders trapped against the wall, if I push in the boulder at the top and trap it against the wall.
- Finally, the troublesome northern cluster. Even now, I don’t have any heuristic to maximise the number of boulders, I just stare it and try to find something that doesn’t trap and lock boulders away. Sacrifice is vital to get the necessary ten boulders but where is this sacrifice committed? The correct sacrifice is to push boulder A up then push boulder B all the way to the back; a single boulder sacrifice. Note that obtaining boulder C is dependent on a clean solution to southwestern boulder cluster.
But have players learnt everything they need to by this point? Will doubt undermine their rationalisations? Will they plan or just dive in? Is this level enjoyable to solve?