This is the final part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
It was October 2016 and I had been playing Snakebird (Noumenon Games, 2016) for about a month. Finding it impossible to make progress around twenty levels in, I strapped the game to a concrete block and threw it into the choppy waters of the Thames. And while I did this, others continued to carry the Snakebird banner high, proclaiming its brilliance. I didn’t get it. I really didn’t get it.
I wanted to know why. I scribbled into my book of half-baked ideas an article about why I don’t like Snakebird. But the exercise would be pointless without an answer to the question.
Time passed. I had many notes that sketched out areas of potential interest and I found myself more interested in the player side of the puzzle game equation rather than the design side. I wanted to think about how puzzle games might be failing their players instead of players failing their puzzle games. Failure can become very personal, hardening players against continued experimentation in the puzzle genre.
I grew frustrated with the whole concept, though. I could never weave these ideas into a complete whole. I was looking at an infinite number of darts thrown at an infinite number of dartboards by an infinite number of monkeys… but not one bullseye.
Screw it, I thought, I’m going to write the series anyway, even if I don’t have any conclusions. I’ll call it The Ouroboros Sequence because Snakebird is behind the whole series and I knew I wasn’t going to be any wiser about my disaffection for Snakebird after reaching the end. The truth was in the title, up there in every episode. No revelations would be coming. We’d end in the same place as we started. Disaffected with Snakebird, reasons unknown.
And yet. And yet.
This journey has not been a waste of time.
We have returned to the beginning, to Snakebird. But things are most definitely not the same.
A Theory, A Plan
Over the course of the series, I developed my pet Snakebird theory which went like this:
Snakebird was a puzzle game for the hardcore, thus its tight design did not encourage players to review their solutions (Dead in the Water). I suspected this meant I was not learning the lessons I was supposed to. Therefore my progress was happening entirely through guesswork (The Monte Carlo Player) and I eventually got mired in levels where blind guesswork was not enough. At that point, because I was hitting the same puzzles again and again (All Roads), I was going around in circles and felt trapped (Claustrophobia). Eventually, I used a walkthrough to make further progress and that was the death knell for feeling invested (Hole In My Chest).
But how to test the theory? To figure out if there was truth in this, I decided to have a second pass at Snakebird. I admit I wasn’t really looking forward to it; playing the game had left such a horrible taste in my mouth. A really bad taste, like something had crawled in there, had babies, and the whole family had died from a grotesque skin infection.
The plan was to proceed through the levels in precise order and never leave levels I was “stuck” on. I would carefully analyse each solution and attempt to intuit heuristics. What was a puzzle trying to tell me? Did I miss the clues? Would I need a walkthrough?
In the middle of last year, I kicked off a fresh game of Snakebird and wrote notes on every single bloody level. These notes ran to 4,000 words. The things I do for this site. The things. I promise no swears. Cross my heart.
Let me quickly say the following analysis reflects my particular strengths and weaknesses which will be different for every player. I also do not think every Snakebird level sports a unique solution; I’m pretty confident some levels have multiple solutions.
The first few levels comprise the first year of your Bachelor of Snakebird Arts at Sokoban University. Get out the magnifying glass because we are going to need to look at detail.
The economy of Snakebird level design is marvellous. Level “0” doesn’t just introduce how a snakebird moves and that fruit must be eaten before the level completes… no, it also conveys that eating fruit extends the range of a snakebird. Simple and important. But this last lesson is incomplete, as we shall see.
Level 1 is more focused on how fruit extends a snakebird’s range. The level is also trying to get you to notice how a snakebird moves, as orientation and trajectory can make or break a solution. This is an absolutely essential Snakebird skill but fiendish to master. I remember not getting a feel for it this early.
It is time to revisit our understanding of fruit. While fruit is a positive for most of the game, there are examples where consuming fruit will lead you into the valley of the shadow of snakebird death. In this level, if the snakebird stands up directly and snaps up the fruit, it will become trapped and perish.
Two lessons here. The obvious one is tight spaces are dangerous because this is the key problem here – how do you get your snakebird into that small space, eat the fruit and get out alive? Like the previous level, eating the fruit causes the snakebird becoming trapped.
I said two lessons. In this level, if the snakebird falls on its face, which is a natural consequence after climbing up to get the fruit, the snakebird can trap itself. This highlights that a snakebird’s body can be just as much a hinderance as any other obstacle.
Everyone’s favourite obstacle: the spike. We’re here to learn that snakebirds must remain grounded in the presence of spikes.
A mistake I am sure even veterans make is to bend the snakebird when over a spike. Unless you can get the head supported, this is a countdown to death, for that bend will fall into the spikes once the tail leaves the ground. The snakebird in the above shot is doomed. The bend of doom, I call it.
Level 4 throws you a red herring right away: the level opens with the snakebird pointing the wrong way, but it won’t be clear until the player has dabbled with the puzzle. Snakebird is now guiding players towards the fundamental tetris drop maneuver. When a snakebird falls, particularly in the vicinity of spikes, it must often fall in a particular shape to solve the puzzle. In this level, the snakebird must fall in a precise shape to make it down from the far left platform onto the middle section safely.
There is yet another subtle fruit lesson. Eating fruit makes the snakebird grow, this effectively means the snakebird’s body does not move. That is, growth is a stationary move. By this point, it’ll be baked into the player’s brain that each move results in actual movement, but this is not true when eating fruit. Without that understanding, eating the fruit at the bottom and surviving will seem impossible.
The tetris drop is explicit here. To get the fruit on the right, you must curve the snake to fall safely on top of the spikes. The fruit on the left is impossible to collect unless the snakebird is long enough (bend of doom).
Level 6 is actually a form of tetris drop: the snakebird must fall in a vertical straight line to be able to eat safely. However, I do not find this level satisfying; the confined space means it is not clear whether the snakebird is safe until after several moves which are difficult to predict in your mind’s eye. This feels more dependent on Monte Carlo for success.
The seventh level introduces the wonderful wacky world of multiple snakebirds.
As a result, it’s a bit of trial by fire. This is where my Dead in the Water feelings come to the fore and I am staggered there is not a gentler introduction to snakebird-on-snakebird physics. Without prior experience, it is fiercely difficult to figure out how to shape the two snakebirds so as to help each other. (Notice also this is the first level without fruit.)
Level 8 is diabolical. It requires the player to grasp a new mechanic – that snakebirds can push each other – and a discover another fundamental maneuver, the reverse park.
The green snakebird is needed to bridge the spikes for the red one, so it can tetris drop safely onto the island in the middle of the spikes. Doing this the normal way means the green snakebird charges out two steps onto the spikes; it will then be impaled on the next move, whether attempting to move forward or turn around.
If only the green snakebird could move backwards… and there is your solution. Use the red fella to push the green snakebird backwards over the spikes so the green snakebird can then safely move left, off the spikes, once the red snakebird has used it to reach the island.
This new maneuver, using a snakebird to reverse park another into position, is hard-earned but crucial.
At the start of my analytical run through Snakebird, I was terrified that I would become as stuck as before and end up abandoning the game. This anxiety transformed my approach into one of deliberate practice as discussed in The Monte Carlo Player.
Gradually, it became clear I had a much stronger understanding of Snakebird this time around and began to relax. There are less concrete lessons to learn once you hit level 9 and levels are more about cultivating an organic approach to each new situation. Where are the problems? What must a solution look like?
I’ll call out Level 11 as a design misstep. You must eat the fruit in correct order so that the snakebird does not get trapped. After several attempts, players will realise the cherry is the problem. Because of the position of the cherry, it is not possible to eat all the fruit in a single loop around the cave. However, it should become obvious that the cherry must be eaten on the first loop.
Thing is, this is not an enticing challenge. Neither does it impart a useful skill to the player. To the developer’s credit, this style of puzzle only ever turns up again once. But much, much later.
Now if you thought Snakebird was pretty difficult so far, well… you really had not seen anything yet.
Level 14 is a minimalist nightmare. So small, so impossible. And now we’re confronted with the “baby” two-block snakebird which has substantial mobility and mortality problems – this little thing dies very, very easily. It’s no problem getting one snakebird to the exit – but two? The apparently superfluous platform to the right is a hint to the trick move: reverse parking baby blue onto it solves everything.
And the challenges continue. Level 15 stumped me for a day, but then I hit level 17 and I began wondering, maybe this was the end. This was where it stops.
The problem is to find a way to get these snakebirds both down to the bottom alive. Endless snakebird deaths, endless rewinds… this is one of those levels where you must work backwards. What must the solution look like?
It’s impossible to coil the giant snakebird down there, so baby must go first. And… baby has to fall facing up otherwise baby will be stuck facing away from the exit and be dead. Even if you arrive at this realisation, the stench of impossibility remains. If I drape the long green snakebird over the spikes then how on earth is baby blue going to be standing up… wait.
Slowly, the structure assembled itself in my mind, step by step. My thoughts were a Rube Goldberg machine of effect rewinding into cause until I arrived at the full sequence, the impossible solution realised. It’s actually a damn sight longer than I thought and the baby is running back and forth. It’s all reverse parking and tetris drops. And my God it is a beautiful solution.
Now, a move that should be obvious and thus never earns itself a set piece puzzle is something I’ll term the stretch. You’re going to wonder why I bother mentioning it all when I tell you what this magical move is. The stretch: lie a snakebird out flat. Ta da! Thanks for watching, that’s all folks.
The stretch is important because it maximises a snakebird’s horizontal reach and many levels are built around these reflexive stretch moves. The stretch has been key in several levels already: in level 17 the long snakebird needed to stretch across a chasm. But level 19, oh boy, is all stretch.
This is the level that probably encouraged me to quit. My reaction upon seeing it was something like: you are joking, mate.
I had no understanding of how this could be done first time around. What shocked me at the time was the distance between the lonely island and the fruit implied the snakebirds having to be stretched out. There was no slack. Jesus, I thought, how the hell am I going to turn them around?
I gave up trying to solve it and reviewed a video walkthrough… which actually made things worse. I’d switch back to the game and couldn’t remember the steps. My brain hadn’t understood exactly what was going on so unless I had the walkthrough out beside the game, I wouldn’t be able to get through it! This was the moment I understood. I understood that I hadn’t understood anything. The beginning of the end.
In 2018, however, there was no mystery at all. It was bloody obvious. If I need snakebirds to stretch out to the right but be able to return safely to the exit on the left… then it’s reverse parking! I solved it in minutes.
I tried it again last week, cold. I successfully solved it commuting between Southwark and Green Park on a crowded Jubilee Line train.
“You have vanquished the past, Joel,” you might now decree. “You have escaped from beneath the grave shadow of Snakebird failure.”
Well. You would be wrong there. You would be wrong because we have not yet discussed level 21.
I remember losing my mind over this level during the original run, seemingly going around and around in circles with the same moves. Nothing seemed to make any difference. Trying to pick off any of the fruit seemed impossible. I never solved it. I just left the game and never went back.
In 2018, I attacked this level with renewed optimism. I was not the same person I was two years ago. Oh no! I knew about reverse parking and tetris drops and stretches! I can take your punches, Snakebird!
This knowledge and enthusiasm had precisely zero impact because I was unable to read the level at all. I could not see what type of solution I was looking for and eventually my play collapsed into desperate Monte Carlo, praying that inspiration would jump out at me.
Inspiration never struck but Monte Carlo revealed the solution: particularly tricky tetris drops were needed to survive the fall from the upper fruit onto spikes; and once the top fruit were consumed, the snakebird could reach the cherry safely. Although I analysed the level, I never understood the lesson of the level. I did not know what I had missed or what I was supposed to learn.
The fight was still on.
I tried 21 again this week and had the same problem reading the level. I did eventually manage to figure out the difficult tetris drop needed to get the fruit on the upper left, but it felt far from a confident performance.
I was now into all-new territory, levels I had never seen before, and Snakebird and I then fell into a sort of rhythm. I would battle through several levels then hit a challenge in which I would experience life-threatening mental constipation.
Let’s talk about one of these, which had a solution which was so preposterous, it called for a brand new maneuver.
The next set of Snakebird levels introduced frames which were either there to get in the way or facilitate solution… or both. They were your basic Sokoban blocks but I found “frame” was more useful to describe them as they had these thin sections which could pass through solid parts of the environment.
In the above image, four blocks are held together to form a cross, but only the four blocks interact with the environment. The thin lines can pass through rock and snakebird. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that, because it made for a weird headspace where you could push frames “through” solid objects. This lead to frustration when frames fell when you least expected because you didn’t have a handle on whether the block parts were adequately supported. I guess all players get there in the end, but it was hard work perverting existing mental models of how Sokoban blocks should work.
And this brings us to brand new manuever I had to invent when solving level 26.
The snakebirds need to cross a long sea of spikes. And the solution is incredible, preposterous and highly unintuitive. You put the red snakebird in an ‘S’ shape over a block then use the blue snakebird as an “engine” to push them across. It doesn’t break the physics rules of the game, but it feels like it breaks everything in your brain. And I found this move almost by accident!
Once you get to level 29, you have a much better understand of the frame mechanics. In this level, you have to create a staircase with boxes to get two snakes out – laborious more than anything. There is one trick at the start to lift both boxes up, but it was constantly frustrating how a single wrong move would wreck the entire sequence – and on a mobile screen, wrong moves were my jam. Undo, undo, undo. Snakebird is an intolerant game, every move is vital. And I think this doesn’t help anyone love it.
After the frame levels, we reach portal mechanics. Oh, I hate portal mechanics in puzzles and I feel they are a cheap way of generating complexity by corrupting the normally Euclidean nature of game space. I loved Portal but I realised I’d already had enough when I quit playing portals-in-2D game Gateways (Smudged Cat Games, 2012).
Still, the portal mechanics in Snakebird have lovely foibles. As soon as a snakebird touches a portal, they will transport to the connecting portal, in exactly the same shape. If their shape and position is incompatible with the destination, they won’t teleport. And after teleport, the snakebird won’t teleport back again while the snakebird maintains contact with the destination portal.
This leads to two types of puzzle: tetris portalling, where you must find the right shape to use the portal, and what you might consider anti-portalling, where you don’t want to trigger the portal because it is stopping your snakebirds getting somewhere. This can be done using a shape that doesn’t fit the portal properly or blocking the portal somehow.
It was slow going, figuring out how portals worked… and then I hit Level 35.
The pear at the top requires a relatively simple tetris drop into the portal at the bottom. But to reach the bananas, it appears the snakebird must emerge out of the bottom portal in a reverse ‘C’ shape with the head at the bottom. Like… where the hell can you construct that portal move? This was a real impasse.
Turns out there is only place that particular shape can be formed and if you do that it leads to a double portal drop that lands you in precisely the right spot. Genius clever, but I didn’t know if it was possible to think that deeply into the puzzle. If you focus on the snakebird shape, the puzzle funnels you towards the correct action, but this was another one of those Rube Goldberg machines: push in the right place and it all naturally falls out. I solved it through Monte Carlo and I understood how it worked – but I do not think I could solve this at the time without guesswork.
After the portal levels there were a couple of frame levels before I entered the final snow zone.
At this point, you’ve either got with the program or kicked the game to the kerb. Puzzles now varied between “most vexing” and “you what?”.
So here’s a level I decided I never wanted to do ever again. There are quite a few of these “dancing on a head of a pin” levels and they’re all bloody intolerant, one wrong move and it falls to shit. Fine, sue me, I broke my swears rule. Look, these levels are asking for it.
Now I’m not sure I can say I “solved” 40 but rather Monte Carlo’d it. I just kept throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck, trying to rule out sequences which were obviously dangerous. Eventually, I escaped into… oh man…
At some point in the game, the player realises that snakebirds can use fruit as a platform. It’s not really needed on the early levels, but it’s a pleasant revelation to discover this is a thing. Here’s a solid example of where it becomes key. Eat a fruit and your snakebird will fall to a watery death.
Contrary to Level 40, this one really felt like I solved it. I drilled down into the possibilities hard and understood the do’s and don’t’s of each move. And there was this divine tinkle of the penny dropping when I realised the solution had to be asymmetric. An earned victory. Come on, we can do this.
Level 42 stumped me for ages but resulted in punch-the-air euphoria. Level 43 was a “you what” on first sight, but the solution gradually came to me.
And then 44.
On the verge of disaster. This was it. The Rome of Snakebird had arrived to assassinate the game. I would report back to my readers that 44 killed me and it was all over. God damn this level.
There was just so much to unpack in the intricately placed details. I had several different stages of discovery. Once I had figured out how to get the bananas on the left, I was baffled how to get the strawberry. Everything I tried failed; I just couldn’t see how to do it – the portal means there’s a Rube Goldbergesque sequencing to the level which I found difficult to predict.
I hit upon a highly specific tetris drop through the portal that required a reverse park to engineer. But then, the problem with fruit, which doesn’t really bother you during most of the game, is that, well, you have to go in mouth first. And reverse parking means the snakebird is going in arse-first. Boy, did it take some reconfiguration to pull this off.
The next problem, after getting both fruit, was saving one of the snakebirds. Yes, it was one of those levels where, whenever you reach that moment of YAHOOOO I’VE GOT IT I AM GENIUS, you open the Matryoshka doll of mindfuck to find another Matryoshka doll of mindfuck. Because even though I figured out how to save that snakebird… neither of them could get to the exit.
I KNOW I’M STILL SWEARING
The portal I’d been exploiting this entire time to get the fruit was blocking the exit.
Mummy, I want to go home now.
The worst thing about a level like this is that it involves such intricate precision to get to a particular state that pressing restart is painful. Rewinding moves too far can also be painful. And now 44 was really getting on my nerves.
I knew I had to block the portal somehow after getting the second fruit but how? Monte Carlo found nothing and I was wandering in circles. Claustrophobia began to encroach and the commutes were feeling increasingly grim.
Then I had a batshit thought because I had run out of reasonable ones. Perhaps… perhaps it’s possible to do the fruit the other way around? Who knows?
It was just about possible. Just about. And I spotted during the process that the snakebirds could reach the floating portal from the ground. This means instead of having to get through the exit-blocking portal, you can portal into it.
Christ. Oh Christ, my heart.
I did it.
44 is Snakebird in a bottle. If you don’t see the right trick then you, my friend, are destined for your own private torture chamber in Hell. Puzzle-solving as a masochistic act.
Level 45 was challenging but nowhere near as difficult as 44. After that, it was time to take on the six star levels which had been haunting me throughout. The star levels gradually unlock as you make progress through the game. As a result, you can take them on at any point, but they are mainly there to dazzle you like the village ruins in The Witness. Most of these puzzles require a black belt in Snakebird-fu. They can seem utterly impossible if you take them on before that point.
I mean, the state of this.
However, this time around I was, indeed, a fully-certified black belt in Snakebird-fu. I knew I was going to have to hang the frame on the spikes at the top and I’d have to swing the frame forward somehow. Oh… oh, of course. We’ve already done this. The snakebird engine move from level 26!
It was not easy and there was a lot of pushing and shoving and rewinding before I got the three snakebirds across. It felt particularly laborious which meant the anxiety level was through the roof. Imagine if this was an intolerant level where squandering one early move meant ten pushes later your snakebirds are out of alignment and there’s no fix without rewinding back the ten moves. But that never happened and every problem I faced was dealt with as it arose, not six months in the past.
As I said, a bit laborious but I was well pleased with myself.
Level 2* was another glutton puzzle like level 11, but much larger, and I hit upon the solution quickly. Level 3* another crossing-the-void-with-a-frame puzzle but the first few moves are largely dictated by the initial configuration; definitely challenging, echoing 44’s Matroyshka shit, and requiring a lot of messy work to achieve victory.
But I guess I have a problem with the number 4. The Japanese consider 4 to be unlucky because it sounds like death. 44 almost ended me. 4* was here to finish the job.
It looks remarkably structured but this one really tests your mental ability to deal with frames. These dumbbell shapes will fall if both square ends are unsupported so I spent most of my time mouthing “fuck” every time one dropped.
This became another Monte Carlo level because I could never quite get a mental handle on complex frames like this. Sure, I knew to avoid certain silly moves, but when I hit upon the solution it was completely unsatisfying. It did not make me feel smart. It made me feel lucky.
And after I defeated 4* with luck, I dropped my phone with unluck.
And my entire world was destroyed.
On impact, the battery was jolted out of the phone and the screen went black. No biggie, I thought. All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. I plugged the battery back in, restarted the phone and reached for Snakebird. Huh, I thought it was a bit odd I didn’t get the cloud-themed title screen associated with the star levels. No matter. I wanted to see level 5*. I started the game and up popped the first tutorial level. Huh, okay. Back to the map and–
Fuck. Oh fuck me. Oh you have got to be fucking of fuck fucking fuck kidding – what IN THE ACTUAL FUCK
The Third Game
So it came to pass on the twenty-fifth day of July in the year of Our Lord, 2018, that I began my third fucking game of Snakebird.
Certain levels were easier on this pass but a lot of came down to recalling the trick without having to probe thoroughly for a solution. It was interesting that a lot of the answers still did not jump out at me. During the third game, the only level I gave up on was level 21, the one involving what felt like unintuitive tetris drops. It took just one week of commuting to reach Level 5* again. While level 5* was tricky, opening with an apparently impossible problem, I was able to solve it in good time. And level 6* was, to my surprise, a piece of cake. That’s it, then? I’m done?
Not so fast, my little cucumbers. Completing all the star levels unlocks one more level. The finale. The big one. The boss.
Do not be fooled, reader. This surprisingly small level has an enormous amount going on – just think about how easily you could lose a snakebird eating those cherries into a dead end. I could take you on a blow-by-blow account of how this level plays out but let’s skip to the end. I had no love for it because it was a laborious labyrinthine Matryoshka level. I worked my balls off for each inch of progress within that confined space – and every problem solved revealed a new problem. And, guess what, you realised you needed to rewind eight moves and set up an entirely different configuration. The three snakes often need to be in exactly the right position at each stage. Again and again, rewind, redo.
Without doubt, clever puzzling but it’s the most Snakebird of levels. It left me with a feeling that I wanted to smash my phone on the floor again.
Nevertheless… nevertheless… I solved it. Snakebird was done. And it left me with the biggest mindfuck of all. You see, I fucking enjoyed it.
Good Luck On The Conclusion, Mate
Whoa, okay. What happened there?
There’s the obvious. We can argue that research for The Ouroboros Sequence had improved my puzzle skills but, please, there’s more going on here. It’s not about the skills, it’s about the attitude.
I reckon I was right about why Snakebird failed for me initially and I had a completely different attitude going in for the second run. I had committed myself to not just solving levels but deliberate practice: I made sure I understood how each level had been solved. As I’ve pointed out in this series, puzzle games fail to encourage review, so this was a new approach for me.
Through Ouroboros, I had developed puzzle mindfulness, the ability to concentrate completely on the constraints and consequences in logic games. Before I had approached them casually and hoped to acquire wisdom through osmosis rather than analysis and deliberation. Some puzzles work well with osmosis, but Snakebird is Sokobanlike which needs your undivided attention.
I do not assert that this is a good thing or a bad thing. Dead in the Water suggested players are being left behind through such indifference – and perhaps the release of Snakebird Primer (Noumenon Games, 2019) is an admission of this. Contrast with Recursed (Portponky, 2016) which develops complexity gradually and I found the rule set fascinating: it sucked me in, rather than feeling I had to work up enthusiasm. And Cosmic Express, as you know, got me through tough times.
Yet, as I articulated in Why We Do This, the experience of forging a brand new mental model in the heat of challenge is a glorious thing. You encode a new puzzle language directly onto your neurons, so that you understand the tetris drop, the stretch, the reverse park, even if you do not have names for them. Once I had committed to Snakebird, I was hooked.
Jelly no Puzzle (Qrostar, 2013) is infamous as one of the hardest puzzle games out there and, naturally, when I was reminded of it in the comments, I took it on, to test my mindful approach. And they are not wrong, you know, Jelly no Puzzle is a real fierce bastard, a thug of a puzzle game, and I found it much harder to identify heuristics compared to Snakebird. My jelly journey was chronicled on Twitter and it took me about a month. As with Snakebird, I did not enjoy all of it, but I did enjoy most of it.
I now understand I need to do the same thing with Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016) which I had become frustrated with to the point of quitting. I should wipe all my progress, start afresh, and work through it mindfully and consistently. No taking off a month here or there. Solve, review, understand, repeat.
And so, we have the answer to why I hated Snakebird in 2016.
It was because I had not yet learned how to love it.