This is the ninth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
Last year I developed an interest in the qualities of beam reflection games. I’d never really had a hankering for them until I tried Archaica: The Path of Light (Two Mammoths, 2017) and it got me thinking about whether the ideas contained therein were actually unique. The levels were tight and buzzing with ideas: beam splitters, beam generators, mixing different colours of light, portal-type objects that teleport lasers…
What were the origins of the reflection puzzle? I began to dig.
I asked Archaica developer Two Mammoths about their design inspirations and they pointed me towards the Chromatron by Sean Barrett which was released in 2002. I think we’ll call Chromatron’s style Windows 3.1-esque and given the visual choice today I’d plump for Archaica despite a few UI fumbles such as the environment occasionally obscuring a puzzle.
The overlap between Archaica and Chromatron is significant but what stands out to me is Archaica’s efficient layout and Chromatron’s “agoraphobic” presentation: one large, fixed grid. Archaica scatters the pieces about the level – instead of having to drag them out from a toolbox – and the number of available spots to deploy them is tightly constrained in most levels. I am attracted to small puzzles that seem impossible because the difficulty is divorced from the “cheap” complexity of going large: it feels clever that a solution is effectively hidden in plain sight instead of obfuscated behind a wall of complexity. However Chromatron’s grid is fixed so the impressions of size are often untrue.
Chromatron has three sequels, containing 200 different levels in all. Looking back, Barrett feels too many of the levels recycle the same ideas and he would do things differently today. He also told me he used a Flash game called Reflections as his starting point for Chromatron which he did not realise at the time was an out-and-out clone of Aargon (Twilight Games, 1999) down to the actual level designs. This is an early example of a free game grabbing coverage that the commercial design source didn’t and Reflections did not even put in the level design work. This reminds me when someone remade my Atari 8-bit puzzler The Citadel for a commercial release on PC and used all the levels I had designed (although they did create a lot more of their own). Reflections did not build on Aargon and thus had no value beyond spreading the word about beam reflection mechanics.
This is the reason why Chromatron never got a graphical overhaul. Sean Barrett: “The art for Chromatron 1 was originally placeholder art meant to be replaced by something fancier and I was planning to charge money, but then I discovered I’d reinvented Aargon‘s mechanics and just killed it as a pay product and released as is.”
I asked Steve Verreault of Twilight Games where they had conjured the idea for Aargon from. How far did the lineage go back? Verreault designed Aargon with Curtis Monroe and explained they had been unaware of any earlier reflection games – which actually go back to the 1980s – and it was The Incredible Machine (Kevin Ryan, 1993) that had inspired them. “We didn’t look at other games when coming up with the rules for our game or the way it played. It was trial and error mostly. At the time we weren’t even sure if it would be possible to make something puzzling by aiming beams of light around. Ironically Aargon ended up being quite a difficult puzzle game focusing on a niche of people that liked a real challenge. The first test level was created by Curtis who created a puzzle of splitting a beam into 3 colours and back again.”
Okay, this is important.
The Incredible Machine asks the player to construct bizarre Rube Goldberg machines to solve specific objectives. For example: “Stop the shootout between Pokey the Cat and Bob the Fish. You must let both guns fire, but you can’t let the bullets hit Bob or Pokey.” The player has a prescribed set of tools for each task and must place each item so that once the action gets underway, the problem solves itself. Drop a bowling ball onto a scissors which cuts a wire, which releases a bucket, which bounces on a trampoline, which blocks a fired bullet…
What Twilight Games built on this was the idea of a steady-state laser puzzler. The player is not working through a sequence but effectively composing a jigsaw. If the pieces are all in the right place, it’s job done. However, with The Incredible Machine you do not know if you’ve assembled the jigsaw correctly until you start the action; in Aargon, the solution is immediately evident.
The first games featuring reflection mechanics I can find are Deflektor (Vortex Software, 1987) and Laser Chess (Mike Dupong, 1987). Most of the reflection games prior to 1999 operate in a similar way, the player twiddles with lasers to take out objects and clear the screen. I say most because I found someone else almost got to Aargon’s steady-state design innovation. Five years earlier, DOS game Laser Light (Pixel Painters, 1994) asks the player to set up a steady-state solution but the player still needs to activate the laser to see if they’ve pulled it off a la The Incredible Machine. With Aargon and Chromatron and Archaica, the lasers are always active.
And here’s the ironic bit.
Barrett told me he was attracted to this design because unlike Sokoban which is laborious and involves remembering a sequence of moves, it’s just a task of assembly and less frustrating. But there is a pitfall.
One of the classic gotchas of the beam reflection game is to require a solution in which a single reflector bounces two different beams at the same time. The player, at first, is convinced they do not have enough reflectors to get through the level. The flaw with the steady-state design is that once the pieces are in the correct position, the results are instantaneous: several beams which were firing into dead ends suddenly splinter and sweep the puzzle in a kaleidoscope of colour. If you accidentally solved the problem through experimentation – easily done for a player not familiar with the gotcha – the level is simply done.
This can rob the player of understanding. You have to study why the problem was solved yet some games are pretty eager to get the player moving along. Well done! CLEVER GIRL. Chromatron and Archaica both give you a chance to review and continue playing with the level; Aargon locks down the level and the player can only observe. Lazors (Pyrosphere, 2010) is a decent, tight zen game for the daily commute, but it covers up a completed level with a bravo. If you wait, you do get a chance to play with the level, but I can see players just clicking straight through onto the next challenge.
Last year’s Operator Overload (Benn Powell, 2017) took a step back from steady-state embracing the old-skool two-phase approach of Laser Light and The Incredible Machine. The player must fire the lasers then watch as the game lazily draws the beams from source to destination, so you can see how everything works. Operator Overload’s designer, Benn Powell, told me this was important to impose clarity on levels that support lots of lasers, although I was wary of that particular revelation. It was done to facilitate big complexity… and we’ve already covered that more things on the screen does not necessarily translate into more fun.
One last thing before I finally stop talking about these beam reflection games. Puzzle games involving balls bouncing around are, mechanics-wise, often similar to beam reflection games. Take a look at Micron (Apparition Games, 2012) which has you lay down reflectors to bounce balls into an exit bumper. I initially assumed this put it in the same camp as Operator Overload, that it was just a clever way of seeing the path of your beams, but the first clue that all was not what it seemed was the lack of an undo.
Many levels in Micron do not support a steady-state solution. For example, players need to drive balls to hit a bumper, which opens a chamber, then have balls hit another bumper inside that chamber. This can only be done if the player adds reflectors to a puzzle in progress. Some levels go further forcing the player to siphon off a set of balls to be used separately; all of which means Micron cannot be sensibly translated into a laser reflection game.
It might look like a laser reflection game, smell like a laser reflection game, sound like a laser reflection game… but it ain’t one.
Alright, that’s enough about reflection puzzles. Next time, I want to discuss some puzzle designs which feel fresh.
- There’s a little mathematics here that might be of assistance, although I haven’t followed through the details. David Kempe showed that laser reflection games, based on the set of mechanics in the Reflections clone, are NP-complete which indicates a certain threshold of complexity and resistance to algorithmic solution. Joseph Culberson showed in 1999 that Sokoban is PSPACE-complete, which implies it is even more complex. This suggests one reason for how they endure as puzzle templates.
- The story goes that Costa Panayi, the developer of Deflektor, was apparently inspired by a science programme about lasers he had seen.
- Lazors, like Archaica, does not use a toolbox from which you drag pieces out from; they are scattered across the board already. Lazors exploits this in the “Darkroom” set of challenges where there are seemingly too many pieces on the board, obstructing your lasers.
- Alan Hazelden’s PuzzleScript game You’re Pulleying My Leg is a Sokoban/laser reflection hybrid which gets my agoraphobia going. It’s one large connected puzzle.
- I like Micron as it does not have billions of levels and does not rely heavily on size for complexity. I did get a bit tired with all the portaling puzzles, though.
- Updated 6 May to include quote from Sean Barrett regarding Chromatron‘s graphics.
- Update 28 June: Reader Jon_Dog told me that The Incredible Machine featured multicoloured laser puzzles. I followed up on this and the information was almost correcct: the 1994 sequel, The Incredible Machine 2, featured them as you can see on this YouTube video. Which raised the possibility that Aargon’s inspiration was actually TIM2 and its laser puzzles… which upsets the picture presented in this post. I went back to Steve Verreault of Twilight Games to find out. He could not be sure when the team played the sequel, but Verreault was adamant that “the only real inspiration from TIM was the idea of mixing and matching lots of different pieces to solve a puzzle”. So while TIM2 might have got in there with a little laser puzzling before Aargon, the chain of design inheritance is unchanged.