This is the seventeenth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.
In the last exciting episode, I made reference to the flow channel, where your puzzling skill is a perfect match for the challenge before you. But at the far end of the flow channel, a player can be swimming in euphoria. Your diamond sharp skills etch into the most brutal challenges. You can even see through some puzzles like glass.
This is not to be confused with merely making it to the end of a game. And I’m not talking about finding the puzzles easy. I’m talking about when it feels like you’ve ascended from reasoning into instinct.
It is why we subject ourselves to the frustration. We are in pursuit of an exotic experience that is not as common as you might expect.
Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) is a score attack turn-based puzzle in the mould of Bejewelled (PopCap, 2001) and I talked about it back in January. When you first play Six Match, you’re just having a laugh with it, because it jangles nicely like a slot machine in a pub. It passes the time.
This innocence does not last. The design draws your brain into the future and you acquire SIGHT. Instead of just reacting, you begin to see what will happen. You realise you can postpone failure. You can keep this game going for a lot longer, if only you stop to think.
The further you push, the more you see. You can move while the board is cascading. Why? What does that do? Do you get a bonus for that? Look, I don’t know. I didn’t say I had all the answers. But I saw it. And I can tell you trying to take advantage of that feels fucking reckless.
In later stages, when there are six colours on the board, you will scan the entire board every move, trying to exploit your six, valuable moves to not just establish a match but also gather colour together elsewhere. Having prepared matches can save you from oblivion, especially when the permanent stampers begin to gum up the board.
And once you’re swimming at this level of play, you’ll feel the danger instead of merely observing it. Descending to the bottom of a board riddled with stampers feels like diving to the bottom of the Marianas Trench — and you’re unsure if you’re going to make it back up to the surface. The bottom of the board is littered with skeletons of the fallen.
I always have questions. I know Six Match has “waves” – here come the skulls, for example – although I am still unclear on whether score or move count triggers them. I tried counting the moves and watching the score but I was usually too engrossed in the game to be sure. My suspicion was waves were triggered by move count, because if they were triggered when punching through score thresholds, then the “poker hand” at the bottom of the game becomes partially irrelevant. Reason being, as the game speeds along, it gets harder, so having the poker hand accelerating the score before the difficulty kicks in becomes meaningless. Poker hands become near impossible to strategise during the late game. So why bother with them if all they do is speed you through difficulty?
Yet, Six Match is a cautionary tale for the deep player. Six Match eventually felt like a burglar tramping through my brain, flipping mattresses and furniture in search of valuables. I became too obsessed with the perfect game which could stretch for hours; it was exhausting and I eventually couldn’t go back in. Electron Dance friend saltyhorse wrote about his own Six Match burnout. And what I feel he identified was that once you’ve mastered the strategy of a score attack game, there’s only one thing left, the one thing you can’t do anything about and it can drive you to drink.
Settling into Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018) takes a while. And I mean, a real long while. I’ve explained before that I really didn’t get Dissembler until I graduated from the handcrafted levels onto the procedurally-generated content. And there all hell breaks loose. Each day you get six new puzzles which I previously described as ranging from “a piece of cake and a cup of tea” to “traumatic mindmelters”. Through the dailies, I developed a real talent for solving Dissembler puzzles. In an unusual twist, I segued from Monte Carlo player (solve by guesswork) to deep player which is a very rare occurence.
Today, I feel those colours under my fingers. Moving colour is like smearing a blob of paint across a surface and it will smear only so far.
What magic. What wonderful magic.
The previous examples suggest that extensive play is the only way to achieve deep playerhood. But The Flames (Rosden Shadow, 2017) is a short puzzlescript game with just ten levels. It’s a blockpusher with an unusual mechanic in which wood catches light when it comes into contact with fire. Wood will burn up after a few moves and you can still push burning objects, which can spread the fire onward. Sometimes you will need to use fire to exit a level, sometimes you will need to avoid fire to exit a level and sometimes you will need to do both.
Good Sokobanlikes tweak the Sokoban rules just enough to produce a puzzle that does not work the same way at all. The burning mechanic of The Flames does this; regular Sokoban instincts are useless here. The correct sequence of moves is often hard to determine. Tenacious players are doomed to spend a long time staring at its small levels.
The key move in The Flames is the pass. If you push something flammable alongside a source of fire – rather than into it – it gives you the maximum bang for buck, in terms of how far you can get the flammable object before it turns into ash. It is pointless to push a burnable up to a fire source only to then spend two turns walking around the object to push it in a perpendicular direction – it’ll be ashes before you get anywhere. The pass isn’t enough to see you through the whole game though!
The Flames is a spacetime game. Because objects burn after a few moves, time is equivalent – for a burning object – to space. You start to count the moves because it feels smarter than experimenting. Where are your pushes going wrong? Where could you tighten up? Where is the trick you’re missing?
Because The Flames is short, the ten levels do not guide you to burning block enlightment. In fact, the player has to stare and pontificate if they are to get anywhere. In this way, it fosters the conditions for deep play.
The comments are here for a reason. Tell me about moments in puzzle games where you began to feel puzzle structure instead of just reasoning through it.
Next: Andromeda 14