Underlying HARMONY SUMMER is a tension between terminality of song and of game, what does it mean if a game outlives its music? Or music its game? A song begins and ends while its partnered game discards wholesale the concept of time, or a song loops on and on long after its game’s obvious stop, like a notebook whose inner pages exceed in width and height the size of its cover. These irregular territories reoccur along the whole length of the hardpack.
We encounter one such disparity in BEARS BEARS BEARS. The game sheds memory such that, within it, every position feels like any position. We arrive at a place, how did we arrive there? To walk backwards might send us in any of a thousand directions, each history equally possible. The space is unbound, having no definite entrance or exit, but the song begins and ends.
Consider this track as textural, rather than spacial, therefore. Mere presence, place-feeling, precedes any particular arrangement. Where we are and who we are lose importance. Movement, the sense of flight, the mishmash colors whirling past, these matter.
Compare to this the music, a structure made of time, it progresses, and it lends this structure to the purely textural experience of the game. An aimless player, who plays pragmatically rather than aesthetically, unbemused by BEARS BEARS BEARS’ facsimile of flight, might take the song’s end as opportunity to quit - an extension of grace to those irredeemably bored. The structural nature of the song provides railing to acrophobes. The relief of this pressure may allow a player to move into a more aesthetic mode of play on instinct.
The track is, beyond all else, joyful. The music hits, loud, fast, overwhelming, and we become lost within it. We are awash in a whirl of colors, we are flying rapidly nowhere, we become the background we see, our thoughts are sand.
The music serves an entirely different purpose in TARANTELLA SICILIENNE. A short, repetitious melody sputters from the speakers, over and over, and upon the song’s finish the song begins again. This is in one sense a reflection of the farmer’s cyclic toil and in another a reflection of the farmer’s unimportance. At the game’s beginning we might even conflate the toiling farmer and the music: somewhat harsh, somewhat repetitive, but diligent and basically good natured. After the farmer’s death, however, the music continues cheerily, playing as it always played. The farmer is thus rendered a rather pathetic character, whose passing even the narrator seems to ignore (“It is never too late to learn.”) The game exists wholly outside of the player’s influence. The Polish army still somewhere marches on, but our camera does not scroll. The ultimate tragedy of the farmer is his smallness, nothing in his world cares for him, and the continuing music merely confirms his insignificance.
Following TARANTELLA SICILIENNE, SAINT BASIL flips the terminality of song and game. The game moves in a loop considerably shorter than the length of the song. It is almost inevitable that a player interested in progression will reach the game’s beginning before the song’s end. Inherent to the idea of a loop is that of degradation, repetition changes an object such that even digital reproduction cannot produce absolute equivalence. SAINT BASIL begins in a happy mode. The mice are cute, the song is danceable, the colors are glad and bright. With every recapitulation, however, a sense of falseness grows. Somewhere in the song’s middle we realize the trap. He we are, forever orbiting the mouse planet! No escape! We see the mouse children sing, we see them enter the chruch on a sunny day, leaving the sunflowers to the sun, we see them take the sacraments of the mouse church, pray, and the process repeats. The loops are invariant. Perhaps we lolligag at the entrance of the church, or perhaps we wander near the base of the crucified mouse rather than to our seat as directed. No matter, the game has infinite patience. It will outwait us, and in time we will continue in our prescribed path. Beside the loop there is nothing to do. In the beginning, we dance with purpose, but the music ends. We dance although there is nothing to dance to, we sing although nothing sings along with us. What now do the music notes rising from the mouse children signify? They trace invisible sine waves, mathematical, unresponsive. After enough time in silence, we begin to wonder if our dance was ever more than coincidence. SAINT BASIL is a cheery veneer over nothing. In time, it makes as much sense to enter the church as it does to wait outside in the yellow field forever.
Along with the idea that meaning may be drawn from setting works of differing terminalities against one another comes the idea that works’ terminalities might coincide. Games typically inhabit this space, the whole idea of procedural music could be conceived as an attempt to synchronize game play and music play with one another, or to at least minimize their dissonance. As a whole, HARMONY SUMMER occupies itself more with irregularities than similarities, and nowhere does the music become procedural, but there are a few tracks, such as DANCE OF THE INHABITANTS OF THE COURT OF KING PHILIP XIV (OF SPAIN) and GREEN FUZ, where game and song cooperate.
These tracks both strike me as primarily formal experiments, the main concern of which is the linking of sound to space with a special consideration toward length. Each takes the form of a more or less straight path from left to right, and GREEN FUZ, in particular, does not even scroll vertically. There is some time to wander in each, but the time it takes one to walk from left to right side of the area essentially corresponds to the amount of time it takes for the song in the background to finish. The game and song converge elsewhere too. The heavy black lines on the pink-white background of KING PHILIP evoke the raspy guitar’s unaccompanied vibration, each rendering its subject with a certain simplicity. Meanwhile, GREEN FUZ is, well, green and fuzzy, imitating not only the title of the song, but also its muddy, indistinct nature.
Near the latter half of HARMONY SUMMER, VALSE SENTIMENTALE enters and stumbles in circles, gracelessly chasing after the idea of itself. The opening lines read as though something were trying to be communicated, or as though something once was.
If SAINT BASIL places us at the joyous beginning of a loop, just before decay, VALSE SENTIMENTALE lets us in at the middle, well after. Do we recall what were we saying at the start? Something about mean streets? Something about men? After dancing our dance without music for so long, we have forgotten even the dance itself. Now we flounder, we play a single player game of charades, an attempt to imitate that thing we imagine ourselves to have been imitating - or - what kind of thing would we have imitated in order to make our current imitation? We devise the present, which follows naturally from the past, itself an imagination of the present, a patchwork of supposition.
Neither game nor song in VALSE SENTIMENTAL have terminality. While the music loops distinctly, the game merely reflects its beginning in its end, so that we might imagine it repeating infinitely.
The subtitle, “BOGEY’S BACK,” suggests a place within a fictional tradition of rugged men coming out of self-imposed seclusion to solve one final case (Sherlock’s back! Rambo’s back! Duke Nukem’s back!). Where ordinarily our protagonist might be seen overcoming the ravages of time - a workout montage will do it - the protagonist here succumbs to them. The main body of the game is memory. The detective moves through this city, gesturing at the ghosts of his former jobs. Nothing seems definitely unsolved, yet every resolution still fogs the town. Descriptions of former cases in blue dialog boxes clot the lower portion of the screen. Our protagonist cannot see the city for his memory of it. Everywhere is dead bodies, corpses, axe murders, gunshots, criminals brought to justice. The ground is a patchwork of textures, sometimes a brick is a wall and sometimes a floor. Blue cars lounge randomly in quilted streets. Leering red faces spout lines out of sequence from colleagues and criminals past. We wander around. We stumble blindly until we reach an exit, incapable of navigating this discordant landscape fluently, “Where am I?” our avatar wonders aloud.
At its end, the game leaps once more into itself with a satisfied grin. What a filling meal! Let’s have seconds! Mean streets… something something mean… We must imagine that through each loop this world degrades further and further, half remembered memory of memory, devouring itself to subsist, new body cells grown of the body’s old cells, an eye becomes a foot, a foot becomes a stomach, everything becomes shit.
SUNDAY GIRL, in particular, evokes its song well without actually playing it. A studio apartment, a lazy afternoon, quiet murmur of traffic outside, sun beaming through the window, you leave the kettle on too long. SUNDAY GIRL captures the carefree feeling of loving a song in solitude. Hum out of tune, sing in two languages, forget lines. The feeling, not the implementation, matters most. Even while absent, the song is still present.
As an alternative to GOTY lists, I want to give you a short list of games that mattered to me, Ian Snyder, in 2013. I don’t care whether these are the best games made in the year 2013. Each has flaws which rather than marring them make them remarkable.
I often find game designers too precious with their work. Much time is spent constructing delicate glasswork games which (if you believe the designers) shatter when brought to a new system or setting. If the designer does not tightly control the player’s experience, how can we know if they’re having fun at all! Once planted, this attitude weeds into all aspects of a game’s design. Experiences one might have in overlap of the Intended Experience are slowly barricaded, leaving in the end only a narrow field of possibilities.
Fjords feels, at first, almost totally apathetic towards me. When I err, it plainly tells me so. It does not seem to mind my frustration, it does not take pains to make itself evident. If I quit in a huff and never return, Fjords would go happily on baking pizza apart from me. I detect no precious design in Fjords. The game allows me the freedom to misunderstand it without redemption. This likewise frees the game to be misunderstood. Bizarre sounds, awkward screen size, oft illegible graphics all bind together to improbably, beautifully exist.
Much of Fjords regards multiplicity. You will begin at the same terminal, the same house, time and time again, but will not move through it the same. New ideas and discoveries shape your motion, leading in turn to new ideas and discoveries. From the beginning, Fjords locks nothing away. The game remains essentially unchanged as you move through it, apparent changes merely reflections of your own understanding. No object is one object, but is many objects waiting to be believed into being.
As a point of comparison, I’ll offer up Increpare’s Queue. The most obvious similarity: the IV drip narrative and reframing of wait as play. Additionalyl, both games take people in positions of powerlessness as their subject matter. In Queue, each nameless artist depicted depends upon government welfare programs for support, while The Entertainment examines the structure of informal, interpersonal debt. Both games build a relationship symmetric to their subjects between themselves and the player, as well. In Queue, the player is literally awaiting content from the game, only pressing ‘x’ once or twice as if to say, “Yes, I accept this,” a perfect mirror of its protagonist. In The Entertainment, this relationship carries a little more anxiety. The player, if they so choose, constantly clicks to see the next dialog option, or moves their head to take in the scenery, a constant foregrounding of paralysis. The only meangingful interaction to us is to listen faster, to express frustration with the game for moving too slowly. One may draw parallels as well between the game’s endings, both sudden, supernatural shifts, although where Queue’s feels as though dozing off, The Entertainment jolts us awake.
Where Queue is almost purely miserable, however, The Entertainment clothes itself in the visual style of Kentucky Route Zero. Through the course of the play we experience lighting shifts, act breaks, spacialized sound… brick sandwiches, a visual gag never mentioned by the actors. Queue does not concern itself nearly so much with setting.
If nothing else, The Entertainment easily takes 2013’s “Most Elaborate Pun on the Word ‘Player’” award.
Sincerity masquerading as irony.
At the end, a scene outside an Applebee’s perfectly evokes a certain kind of suburban meandering. There is an incredible emptiness to it, a feeling I recognize as belonging to midwestern grocery stores at two in the morning. The vacant parking lots and buzzing neon signs offer promise of relief to the vast nothingness, but they crumble as we reach for them. In its best moments, the game speaks to a profound vacuity.
The game is also constantly silly, even in the moment described above I was laughing as I played.
Jelly no Puzzle
I claimed, in my opening paragraph, that each of these games had flaws. Jelly no Puzzle may be the exception. Perfectly realized mechanics and astounding level design. There’s nothing else to say about it.
Pictured above is the level I find most beautiful, level 28.
Here is a little holiday gift from me to you! A card game for you to play with anyone who will tolerate your love of weird card games you found on somebody’s blog. As of yet, it is nameless.
The goal of the game is, roughly stated, to posses as many cards as possible.
- one 52 card deck (no jokers)
- a group of marking tokens for each player (beads, pills, poker chips all work well, but any small and numerous item will do)
- one or more friends
How to Play:
Each player is dealt five cards from the deck. On their turn, a player plays one of their cards and pulls a new card from the deck to replace it.
Any card played must be played adjacent to a card already played (except for the first card, because there would be no card to play next to).
The goal of play is to complete patterns within the slowly growing grid of cards. (Valid patterns will be detailed a little bit later.) When a player completes a pattern they take possession of it indicated by placing their tokens on the cards involved.
If the freshly completed pattern overlaps an older pattern, the older pattern is broken and its owner loses possession of it. Their tokens are removed from the broken pattern.
When a player plays their final card, they score all the cards currently in their possession. Other players’ scores are not totaled until they also play their last card. Every card is worth its rank, face cards are all worth ten.
- a pair, 3 of a kind, 4 of a kind (2-4 cards of the same value)
- a flush (5 cards in the same suit)
- a run (5 cards arranged in order of their rank)
For a card to be considered part of a valid pattern, one must be able to draw an uninterrupted path from the first to the last card in the pattern using one line. The line may make 90 degree turns, but cannot move diagonally.
Here are some examples of valid patterns:
While these are examples of invalid patterns:
And I believe that covers it! It can be learned rather quickly, but nevertheless has a great deal of depth. I hope you enjoy it!
- I’ve recently taken to playing the game twice and adding the second games score to the first before declaring a winner, which allows for new strategies to emerge across multiple games.
- The game is very different with two players than with three for more. It is possible to know perfectly your opponents hand in the end of a two player game once enough cards have been spent.
- Another interesting variant might be to play the game with partners, as seen in Hearts, Spades, Bridge, etc.
- There’s some question of how a combined run/flush should function. Can it break a plain flush or a plain run? And if so, can it be broken by a plain flush or plain run? The way I’ve been playing is flush+runs can break plain flushes or runs, but cannot be broken by plain flushes or runs. A little idiosyncratic.
- Names people have suggested to me: Heartbreak Hotel, Quarsy, and Buttpile
This one’s been in the works for a while. Experiment 12 is a collection of 12 games from 12 developers. Each developer had three days to complete their entry, and each entry was meant to have some formal relation to its predecessors. I believe that originally the idea was to have a narrative thread that carried through every game and came to some conclusion, and that idea was preserved somewhat. But like an old campfire story, each storyteller is telling their own version. In each iteration the teller forgets something old and discovers something new. The narrative moves like sound in a parking garage: all echo.
I’d like to briefly highlight some of my favorite discoveries made by the other storytellers.
01 - Terry Cavanagh
Chapter 1 is a wonderful beginning, and a hard act to follow! Well considered, mysterious and lonely, he creates a strong atmosphere immediately. What strikes me more than anything, however, is this image of the main character’s arm from the enemy contact animation. It’s such an odd moment, the body twists into a position contorted and unnatural, and then Cavanagh is wisely content to let the moment rest. It goes on for barely too long, which is exactly the amount of time it needs to go on! A pleasant discomfort.
If you’ve played my chapter you know I also loved the 3D interruption that occurs midway, as it was a formal object I experimented with in mine as well.
03 - Jack King-Spooner
I was unable to pass the second of these levels, so there may be a great deal in this chapter I am missing. Of what I saw, I absolutely love the asides given to you by characters standing out-of-place in the surreal otherworld. When you die, a worm will eat your lips. The enemies which chase you are simple enough, but the painful static that accompanies respawning is like an electric shock, enough to make me fearful of touching anything. We begin to feel as though we are the experiment - a mouse lost in a maze - suffering shocks at random.
04 - Guilherme Töws (Zaratustra)
Chapter 4 utilizes a fantastic visual device that I don’t remember ever seeing used in a game to quite this effect. Each room, if no enemies are touched, will remain onscreen for the rest of the game. There is also a return to the visual motifs established in chapter 1, as to its idea of persons being kept in tubes. My favorite moment comes at the end, however, where the player is forced to come in contact with an enemy to move into a new room. The relationship with obstacles moves from an antagonistic one to a symbiotic one. This also has the effect of wiping clear all previous rooms still onscreen, as though offering a blank slate to the next developer in the chain.
05 - Richard Perrin
Visually, this is my favorite moment from Perrin’s chapter. The distant tower we have taken for our guiding light is far away, submerged and unreachable. The moment comes as a genuine surprise.
The light at its peak in not reflected in its base, making it feel not a structure half sunken, but rather an eerie, hovering monolith. The slant of the form, it’s obvious midway crook, recalls for me in feeling the painful animation of the protagonist’s arm repeated through Chapter 1.
06 - Michael Brough
Chapter 6 internalizes the the multiscreen idea first proposed in Chapter 4 and spits it back out at you in a frenzied, rising panic. Each screen is active perpetually, and by the end it becomes a whirling, beautiful chaos already too complex to handle and expanding exponentially still.
07 - Robert Yang
By far the least comprehensible chapter, chapter 7 is a game whose rules you don’t understand in a foreign language. Herein is all the feeling of gameplay with none of the consequence. Given enough distance, every choice become arbitrary. It is notable the asset reuse between this and chapter 5, the two are anchored in a common language. But where chapter 5 is making an attempt to be understood, chapter 7 takes all that you have been struggling so far to understand and obfuscates it totally. It grabs at familiar images and creates of them an alien.
08 - Alan Hazelden
I’ve a particular, biased interest in chapter 8. Many of the levels here are taken right from my own chapter, although they here appear in text. Hazelden distills the levels into something much simpler, and much more pure. Open spaces are stripped out, so long as the level’s general form remains recognizable. The player’s movement is quantized. There are no randomly wavering tiles. It is impossible to stand between two places, one may only ever be at a single definite location. This shifts focus from the feeling of movement to the consequence of position. Chapter 8 may be read as a dispassionate, removed view of what in chapter 2 was a personal and physical experience. Gone are the visions, gone is the constant simulation of nausea. All that remains are impersonal observations and recordings. It provides us a fascinating view of the same set of levels from an opposite perspective.
09 - Benn Powell
A reverse missile command in spartan presentation. I admire its bare simplicity, nothing more is here than what is necessary. Just enough shape exists to suggest missile, satellite, moon, earthbase. A welcome addition would be the ability to see the line of the last shot you fired, but it is not a strictly necessary feature and so its absence is no surprise.
10 - Jake Clover
Of any graphic in Experiment 12, I think these are my favorite. Their form implies both ballerina and alligator, and the place they inhabit is no less strange. The scene seems to have its own mind, of which we are allowed only minimal participation in. We began, in chapter 1, as a single entity, likely human, and in a familiar dystopia. Now we are one of many, and of alien thought. Our perspective has shifted from inside the protagonist to outside. Our avatar is no longer human, and we do not understand its language.
11 - TheBlackMask
By far this chapter seems to me the most literal of any. More than any other chapter before it, chapter 11 seems to have a clear idea of what’s going on. We’ve shifted perspectives again back to a human, an individual, and what an individual’s role in all this mess could be. There are echos here of earlier chapters’ focus on the tube entities as legion, but it is here inverted and we see the legion from the perspective of one it has overcome.
There’s a relation here to the nature of the development experiment. Where chapter 6 might be said to be about the effect of every game combined, chapter 11 seems concerned about the individual voice in conflict with the group. Thus the theme repeated: a policeman abandoning his post, a journalist acting against police orders, a single scientist perpetrating mass murder.
12 - Jasper Byrne
Byrne’s is a gorgeously rendered chapter, and brings the whole experiment full circle. Once more, the visual language grows from chapter 1, including even the presence of the ticking clock. As with chapter 1, the clock will reset at 24:00 and one must reset the clock in order to complete one of the puzzles. We are sent back to 00:00, another experiment is begun, the cycle perpetuates.
If you like, you may read some of the other developers’ words about the game:
In no particular order:
8. Set up a 3D camera somewhere and stream the video to the Oculus Rift headset so that the wearer can watch themselves from outside their own body and move around.
11. Eleven / Video
27. Minecraft Acid Shader Mod / Video
The first order of propriospace (actual space) is the nearest. It is what we touch, and it is whatever touches us. It is the block we are pushing now, it is the link we are clicking now, it is the sentence we are reading now, it is the enemy we are avoiding now.
The second order of propriospace (known space) is everything that can be seen. It is everything we know exists, and everything we think we may touch or may touch us. It is the player at the level’s other side, watching us. It is the end of the paragraph we’ve not yet reached. It is the deathtrap that hangs above us, about to fall. It is the nearby wall we aren’t touching.
The third order of propriospace (propriospace) is everything that can be. It is imagined. It is what we suppose must come after this. It is what we believe is behind the door. It is an unproven model of reality: once seen, it evaporates. It is et cetera. Third order propriospace (henceforth “propriospace”) is without end. It is not always infinite, although it may be. When we suppose that all the places we’ve not yet seen do exist, or draw out on paper maps to imaginary games, or wonder, “Where do the Space Invaders come from?” we are walking in propriospace.
As a game continues, our ideas about the game crash against the game and shatter. Although it was yellow, the next world was not made of cheese. Although she seemed untrustworthy, Mrs. Throckmorton was not the murderer. Although we thought there would be more, the game is over. There is a sadness here, as all our conflicting suppositions cannot be correct. Through mere looking, our infinitude of possibilities becomes a single, ordinary room with a vase with flowers and a beam of sunlight that falls on the chair from the window (someone left open the door, however, and - thank goodness - we see only a small section of the room beyond this!) Once there is nothing more for us to imagine, once the propriospace ends, the game has been completed.
The function of a level is to make real (to realify, to realize) a space that was previously imaginary. The function of level designers is to meter the flow from unknown to known, to set the rate at which propriospace melts. There are two philosophies of level design. One may either dole out the smallest possible part of the whole that does not bore, or one may reveal the largest part of the whole that does not overwhelm.
Not all reveal is erasure, however. The best levels do not redact, but extend the border of propriospace. They show us possible things we had not imagined could be. They make us believe in a place without edges. They open up a cave before us, and when we shout we hear no echo. They set off our mind like a firework.
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We slip through solid walls. We enter an all black room. The world hangs above us like a storm, nude and inverse. We are filled with a sudden, accidental knowledge of the whole. The game is complete.
simian.interface is a puzzle game that isn’t really about this sense of analytical “understanding” — it’s more interested in perception and brief but powerful moments, which I guess is a very different kind of understanding — a tactile unspoken understanding of “feel.”
This goes undervalued in a great many puzzle games, perhaps under the assumption that to feel is not as deep/meaningful/important as to think?
Let’s imagine for a moment that a puzzle is a maze (we’re probably talking non-euclidean). Any move that can be made is represented as open, navigable space, and any move which results in a dead end can be represented as a wall (and here the terminology syncs up nicely: dead-end, wall, maze). For our purposes, there are two ways to move through: we may open our eyes and avoid the walls, or we may walk around until we bump into a wall, navigating by touch.
Simian.interface is a puzzle game, technically, but it is a puzzle game whose projected solution space has no walls. This makes the metaphor of navigating space literal. The “puzzle space” of simian.interface maps 1:1 to its actual space. It is a puzzle game which may only be felt out, not thought out.
I want to address the idea that thinking out a puzzle’s solution - puzzling out a puzzle - is superior somehow to feeling it. When presented with a thing to “solve” I think we too often assume a rational approach rather than an intuitive one (it’s right there in the word “solve!”) And, indeed, feeling a puzzle can sometimes seem like an aimless wandering about.
Regardless, there’s something here. I believe puzzles can be felt out just as deeply as they can be thought out, and I think this tends to be a more playful mode of solvency. Perhaps this connection between feeling-around and play, in part, is why we tend to place more value on puzzling than feeling; play is frivolous mindless and silly, but puzzling is studious, thoughtful and scholarly.
I don’t agree, however, that either method is better. It’s unfortunate that the majority of puzzle games first explore rationality as a mode of thought, with felt solutions discouraged. There are myriad ideas here left undiscovered. As far as depth in felt puzzles, simian.interface has only just sprouted from the ground, and there is much space to grow upward yet.
There are a few tactics one can use to encourage felt solutions, and this is by no means a comprehensive list, but here a seven of them:
- Tactility - as seen in: World of Goo
Tactility can be described as anything that makes the game feel more “kinetic,” some have called it juice. It’s any kind of motion in a game that makes you make stupid noises with your mouth (“weeee!” “ooo!”). Tactility encourages a mode of play which is not goal-driven. Simply put, if something is fun to just mess around with, the player is more likely to mess around with it just for fun. This stops the rational mode, even if only for a few, brief seconds. In World of Goo, it’s the squish of the goo balls and the way the goo tower bends and sways as it grows.
- Degrees of Solution - as seen in: World of Goo
Again, World of Goo. By “degrees of solution,” I mean that the player may move toward a solution slowly, rather than all at once, and that there may be many solutions, not one. In World of Goo it is always obvious the kind of general structure one must build, but not the exact nature of the structure. Within the correct solution there is room for experimentation and expression, which leads to feeling play.
- Continuous Puzzle Systems - as seen in: Cities of Day and Night
Continuous puzzle systems do not happen in discrete steps. Sokoban is an example of a non-continuous puzzle system. In Sokoban, each move takes the player up or down or left or right into quantized positions. Each move has specific meaning, and, importantly, the game stops after the move is completed. If the player does not move, neither does the game. In a continuous puzzle system, however, the game is constantly moving regardless of the player. The game never stops and waits for the player. Nothing need even occur during the time the player is inactive, but it must be possible for something to occur.
Continuous puzzle systems often have a win-state, but no fail-state; the solution may be achieved at any time, from any position.
Cities of Day and Night, especially during the night, is filled with such puzzles. There is no ‘interact’ button in Cities of Day and Night. The arrangement of the landscape dictates the puzzles, and the player responds through movement alone. At night, the puzzles may be solved from any position. The act of understanding a puzzle involves simply moving in the way the game instructs. A failed solution gives no game over screen, no dead end, no indication at all of its failure. The puzzles in Cities of Day and Night are not failed, they just remain. Since these puzzles cannot be thought out logically or even defined easily, they must be intuited.
- Overwhelming Information - as seen in: Corrypt
An easy way to stop logical play is to ask the player to process more information than they can. I’ve written before on how Corrypt accomplishes this.
Of course, sheer quantity is not the only way information can overwhelm. If the sort of information received is nonsensical enough (without being entirely unintelligible) this may also be able to overwhelm the player. Example: 13 Gates.
The idea here is not to crush or defeat the player, only to make rational thought difficult. We want them to keep playing, but only in the feeling mode. It is possible for information to be too overwhelming and drive the player completely away.
- Triviality - as seen in: simian.interface
Triviality is in part why simian.interface is not as “deep” a puzzle game as others. Triviality occurs at any point when it is so easy to work out a logical solution to a puzzle that doing so becomes boring. Crucial to this approach is providing some alternate mode of felt play which is more engaging than logical play. Simian.interface employs a great deal of tactility to keep the player engaged.
A personal note: I feel triviality is a better in small amounts, as a way of transitioning the player away from thinking into feeling. A game which employs triviality through the whole will feel trivial.
- Unpredictability - as seen in: Dwarf Fortress
I’m cheating here a bit, Dwarf Fortess is not a puzzle game. There are parts of Dwarf Fortress that are puzzle-like, however, and those are the parts I mean to look at. For our purposes, we will split Dwarf Fortress into two games. The first we’ll call “Dwarf Fortress” and the second we’ll call “Figuring Out How To Play Dwarf Fortress.” I’m still stuck playing the latter. We’ll consider it a puzzle game whose final solution is a method for playing Dwarf Fortress.
Through my own unfamiliarity with the game, each move I make in Figuring Out How To Play Dwarf Fortress is essentially unpredictable. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I press any of these buttons, and thus I cannot plan ahead or play rationally. Instead, I must act either through intuition or at random.
- Impossible Puzzles - as seen in: ?????
I’ve had this idea in my head for a long time now, I don’t know of any game that’s tried it seriously. Create a set of “puzzles,” none of which have any kind of solution. The puzzles must look possible to solve at first glance. The puzzles must provide interesting opportunities for play. The puzzles must not be boring. I don’t know whether or not to make it explicit to the player that these puzzles cannot be solved. Playing these puzzles should not feel futile. Playing these puzzles should have the feeling of striving toward a solution, but without the ability to arrive at any.
This is what remains of my VESPER.5 savegame:
Someone says that the plants will kill you, and I look at them anyway.
I am standing before a well, and I realize all at once the game is a map of the last month writ out in virtual space.
I pass a distinctive pattern of two X’s in the wall.
I forget the game for a week, and cheat to make up every move at once by altering my system clock.
I am waiting until midnight, a close friend at my side, to watch the pilgrim stand up.
It rains. It is like the shadow that rain makes.
I am sick, severally.
Someone is gone.
I see the end.
When VESPER.5 ends, it deletes your save. Every move you’ve made, that you’ve watched again every day you’ve played, is gone. I don’t know why I should feel such a sense of loss at this. Perhaps I had begun to think of the game as a too literal map of lost days. It’s savegame was not merely a record of the moves I made in the game, but also of the things I’d done those days outside the game. I shouldn’t have expected it to last.
At the game’s end I am left with more memories retained than if I’d never played it, but it feels like less. I feel lighter.
So this is to VESPER.5. This is to everything I’ve forgotten. This is what I can remember, written out, so as not to forget it.
Recently, I sat down with a friend with the intent to design a board game.
We are semi-frequent collaborators. Throughout highschool we built a good development relationship, and now whenever we’re both back in town we try to make a point of designing something together. On this occasion, we’d been stuck designing a game for a good three hours, feeling intermittently on the verge of a breakthrough and very far from any ideas at all. I began to ponder the nature of games we made, and was growing rapidly dissatisfied with them.
Our collaboration originally grew out of modding the rules to existing board games, such as Risk, so often our final products reflected the rules of their origin. That is, it happened that many of our games tended to involve domination, shows of strength, and had a general focus on victory. These games promote a mindset I’m rapidly finding less interesting. Domination games often lead to situations where players incur damage against one another, ruining the world as they go. Chess is a bloody battlefield. Monopoly robs all players but one of their money. What would a game, for example, focused instead on sustainability look like? Domination games also tend to create unfortunate endgames, where the singular winner is known long before they win. For most players this will become uninteresting.
How would these games look if their victory conditions were removed? Here I propose a framework for examining the play aspect of all games. Consider what happens when you remove the win condition from a game. Are the actions taken in the game interesting of their own accord, or are they being taken merely in service of victory? Is it still reasonable that people would play the game? Does the game begin to look absurd?
We should begin to consider, then, victory as a means to an end. It should serve as nothing more than a goal which nurtures certain kinds of interesting play. One should not design a game towards victory (build the biggest army so that you can win) but rather away from victory (winning incentivizes building a large army, which should be an interesting action of itself if it is worthy of your play). Wait - did I say victory was a means to an end? Nevermind. Victory is an end to a means.
After this realization, my friend and I began to design a game with the kinds of actions we wanted to perform first in our minds. This led to the following game (which I would still classify as a domination game, technically, although less so):
- Take a 52 card deck and lay all the cards face-down in a pile on a table that is not made of glass.
- Each player takes a turn shuffling the pile and turning over 2 cards. If the suits match, the player keeps the cards.
- Steal as many cards as you can without other players noticing.
- If another player catches you in the act of theft, you must give them the cards you were taking.
- If another player falsely accuses you of theft when you were not thieving, they must pay you the number of cards they accused you of taking. If they cannot pay, take the equivalent amount from the pile.
- When no more cards can be taken, the game is over, and the player with the most cards wins.
The result is a game which elicits an attitude of paranoia. At any time, another person may be stealing, which leads to a constant watching. At all times, you suspect others of watching you (because they are!).
Our hypothesis was that it is fun to cheat, so a game should be made which encourages this action explicitly. Note, the rules detail mostly actions which are taken in the game. Only the final rule describes win conditions, and exists only to shoo away that pesky question of, “Why are we doing this?”
As for me, I intend to further explore this mode of design, as I hope and believe it will continue to yield play-worthy results.