Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Puzzle games of the year: my favorites

Yesterday I tossed up fifteen short takes on puzzle games I've played this year. Today, longer comments on the two puzzle games that most impressed me in 2020:
  • Filament
  • A Monster's Expedition


A top-down puzzle game where you wrap cables around posts. I really liked this one. The basic mechanic spins off into dozens of variations: forbidden posts, ordered posts, colored posts, gate-opening posts, pairs of posts... it goes on.
By itself that would be a perfectly fine game. But it's also embedded in an explorable environment full of secrets. I love secrets! It's a big abandoned spaceship where the computer terminals are controlled by, guess what, wire-wrapping puzzles. Terminal-activation codes are hidden all over the place. It sounds silly, but the technology makes sense in a weirdly retro-future way.
(Bonus points for the abandoned spaceship which is full of daylight and bright colors and yet, somehow, still creepily haunted.)
I could quibble about the environmental storytelling. It's mostly conveyed through punchcards containing the crew's email and log entries. That's fine, but (a) you wind up reading each email at least twice -- once on the sender's card and once on the receipient's. More for group messages. And (b) you get a card every time a new set of puzzles opens up. By the time you reach the hard sets, you've seen all of the rooms and most of the emails; there's relatively little left to unlock. (And (c) the emails feel a bit tacked on to begin with.)
In other words, the back half of the game does a crap job of rewarding you with narrative. Your reward for solving puzzles is just harder puzzles. Yes, it's a puzzle game, but it has story elements and they could have paced them better.
As I said, quibbling. The actual endgame is an (enormous, mind-expanding...) new room filled with puzzles that combine variations from earlier in the game. (Much like Sensorium!) Plus a few new ideas. You want puzzles? This game has enough puzzles for you.
I will admit that I looked at walkthroughs for some of the tough ones. It was... possibly too many puzzles in some of the sets. And the epilogue scene doesn't exactly make sense that I can tell. Nonetheless, I highly recommend it.

A Monster's Expedition

Okay, look. Last year I went apeshit about Baba Is You. Puzzle game of the year, of the decade, I told everybody who would listen that Baba would be known as a landmark of puzzle design for generations.
(Of course you don't need me to tell you that. Baba has a slew of awards and accolades to its name.)
So listen: A Monster's Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions) is going to be a landmark of puzzle design for generations. In a completely different way! AME isn't a continual explosion of semiotic fireworks. It isn't an unending landslide of new puzzle-pieces that rewrite the rules of the universe.
AME, let's be clear, is about chopping down trees and pushing logs. There are also rocks. It's a block-pushing game. Except that the blocks are cylinders, so they roll if you push them sideways. You can push a log into the water to reach the next island. That's the whole game.
What AME does is take these simple elements and unfold them into a rising symphony of new possibilities. And it does this so smoothly, with such unerring craft, that every time you say "Wait. You can do that?"
To be clear, each new possibility always existed. It just never came up before because the level design didn't lead to any position where it happened. So you didn't notice. But then it's time for you to notice, and it's right there in front of you. Over and over, you gain mastery over the elements -- the logs and rocks -- and are then presented with a new way to combine them that you didn't even realize you could have tried. And then you reach the next set of levels, and it happens some more.
In Baba, in practically every puzzle game, these new possibilities are new game elements which are introduced at specific points. Here's a teleporter. Here's a bomb. Here's the word "LEVEL". Now solve some teleporter levels or bomb levels or LEVEL levels.
AME doesn't do that. It introduces... I think two new elements. Here, I'll spoil it (without spoiling the game at all): AME starts with trees and rocks. Later it introduces taller trees (two-space logs) and shorter rocks. That's it. But these are woven into probably a dozen unique mechanics, introduced sequentially in different groups of islands. Maybe more. I didn't count.
And I'm not even getting into the way islands are connected, such that you travel from one to the next on paths that are entirely emergent and yet take you exactly where the designer wants you to go. Or the way you don't get stuck, even though the island-reset button is not inherently safe. (You can imagine situations where resetting one of a pair of islands leaves you stranded on a beach. It just never happens because the designer was careful.)
(Okay, I got stranded once. I think three islands were involved. It took effort. The game keeps multiple autosaves so I was able to recover easily.)
Also, to be clear, the puzzles are sneaky and clever and challenging and never quite impossible. Difficult, yes. I'm sure plenty of people will try the game, solve a lot of islands, bog down, and never reach the formal "you won" point. That's fine. It's still worth playing.
(This is why Baba had a "midpoint" goal -- a satisfying ending for people who are not completist puzzle fiends. AME doesn't have anything like that, and maybe it should.)
(I have not said anything about the narrative, because there basically isn't one. There's a series of funny one-line takes on modern life. It's pleasant but not a big feature of the game. I always appreciate a narrative frame -- I did in Filament -- but hey, not all games. What AME does have is a consistent tone: inviting, peaceable, unhurried, generous.)
So: AME is not splashy. It's a deft, quiet, intensely thoughtful exploration of a simple idea. Its craft is so understated that it's easy to overlook it entirely. (Compare my comments on the narrative flexibility of Heaven's Vault.)
Do not overlook it. Think about systems so dense that you don't have to introduce bombs and teleporters to change them up. Think about ways to put players in the line of discovering a new thing, and ways to have that line not open up until the time is right. Think about arrangements where the player's only option is to try something wacky; think about delightful, revelatory reactions to that wacky act.
Also, play A Monster's Expedition.


  1. Thanks for the list! AME is awesome. The hidden mechanics aspect is indeed genre-defining,that's because it already comes from Stephen's Sausage Roll, a fairly influential puzzle game.

    Other than AME, another game that stood out to me this year was
    5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel.

  2. I've seen both of those mentioned, although I haven't gotten to either of them.

    I know I *should* play SSR; people talk about it constantly. But it gets into an area of "can't walk down this path more than once" mechanics which tends to get on my nerves. I approach puzzles by wandering around and feeling my way through. If moves "burn resources" (or, in this case, sausages) then wandering isn't as much fun.

    Of course, I'm saying this at the bottom of a review of Filament! Filament has lots of mechanics of the form "can't go 'round this pillar more than once." It still felt very explorable to me. It's a very subjective reaction, I guess I'm saying, so I should give SSR a try.

    As for 5D Chess, I don't find ordinary chess much fun; same for "ordinary" chess puzzles...

  3. Yeah the sausage burning coupled with the stiff movement can be a bit grating in SSR, though the now staple undo button helps with that. It's also an insanely long game. I will say that it ends up being a favorite of almost every person that gets to the end, and for good reason.