2020 IGF nominees: puzzles

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Tagged: reviews, manifold garden, kine, igf, alucinod, the sojourn

Now a quick break from narrative games. I enjoy puzzlers as well as story-based games. Of course plenty (most?) story games have some kind of puzzle element, but there's also the Portal-ish genre -- puzzle games with some kind of story element.

Both evolved from an era where we didn't distinguish the two genres so much. Didn't treat them as ends of an "adventure game" spectrum, anyway. Yes, I oversimplify; there have been pure-puzzle and pure-narrative/hypertext games since videogames began. But now we can talk about a cohesive Portal-like category: long sequences of puzzles iterating on a rich mechanic, depicting an immersive first-person environment but not much relying on the physicality or history of that world as a place. Think Talos Principle, Xing, that sort of game.

(I won't get into The Witness, which plays coy about the physicality and history of its island world! It rather deliberately walks both sides of this category boundary.)

Anyway, we got a fine selection of puzzle-focused games. Here are some notable examples.

  • Manifold Garden
  • Alucinod
  • The Sojourn
  • Kine

(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played a free review copy of Kine. The others I bought and played on my own.)

Manifold Garden

Gravity-shifting puzzle game. That's old hat at this point, but this pulls out one new trick: the world wraps. Okay, two tricks: there are occasional (fixed) portals.

We've been playing in wrapped 2D (torus) game worlds since Asteroids, but this is the first first-person 3D torus world I've run into. You can see around space. This is mind-blowing to begin with, and then you realize you can fall around as well -- jump into the abyss and fall down out of the sky. And since it's a gravity-shifting game, you can do this in any direction.

It would be really easy for this game to be impossible. In fact, the designer has done a stellar job of making it graspable and explorable. The spaces are mind-expandingly vast but (by definition!) they're not infinite. Stretches of repetitive geometry are broken by interesting features, which are always meant to focus your attention. And heck, if you want an overview of an "infinite" space, just jump and fall through it for a while. Landing doesn't hurt.

The path of scenes is not strictly linear -- you sometimes return to an area to finish it off -- but I never went very far off track. (I think there are some optional side branches, but I didn't manage to open any of them. Hard mode if you want it, I suppose.) I often felt disoriented but I never felt lost.

(I should note that other players have had mixed experiences. I've seen people complaining about going off track or accidentally backtracking.)

The puzzles explore the mechanics well, without undue busywork or repetition. The game knows what it wants to do, does it, and gets out. I finished in three or four sittings.

I saw some discussion (twitter thread, Naomi Clark) about whether the game's glorious mind-expanding spaces really deserved its fussy block-stacking puzzle action. I can sympathize with that complaint. I don't mind me some fussy block-stacking, but it's not exactly apropos, even with gravity tricks. The puzzle elements that fit thematically were the idea of falling vast distances to go "uphill" and sending streams pouring around the geodesics of the world.

That aside, I have only two minor quibbles:

The stream-diversion mechanic is not obvious, particularly if you didn't look at the controls and notice that the left/right triggers rotate the cube you're holding. I'd have been much happier if you diverted a stream by dropping a cube on the stream's edge.

Second, the game is called "Manifold Garden", but the only manifold is the 3-torus. Okay, plus some cut-and-paste portals. But nothing non-orientable? Not even any skewing? Come on, change it up a little.

(Unless the extremely trippy denoument scene got into some hyperbolic geometry? I couldn't tell. It looked like just kaleidoscope tricks, but I could be wrong.)

This thing is damn near perfect as a puzzle game, and it's visually stunning to boot. Highly recommended.


Gravity-shifting puzzle game. As a bonus, the title sounds like "Dracula" spelled backwards.

The game is extremely clean and minimalist -- there's practically nothing in it but shiny floors and shiny walls. A few elevators and crates and pressure plates, just to acknowledge that yes, the gravity mechanic can be applied in those directions. No narrative beyond throwing in some creepy human silhouettes.

It suffers somewhat from the designer fixée of "we must wrap up with a big puzzle finale". Most of the game alternates between constrained puzzle areas and expansive walk-through vistas -- a good balance. However, the endgame has a couple of very large puzzle areas which I thought were just too much to deal with. They bogged down the experience when it should have been accelerating to the finish line. This will be a matter of taste, of course.

I enjoyed the thing overall; it's a solid puzzle experience. But it didn't take me anywhere really new. As for the visuals, it does its one trick really well, but I wanted something, anything to constrast with "infinite sterile plastic". (The point where everyone fell in love with Portal was when the walls cracked, right?)

The Sojourn

A sterling example of the Portal/Talos genre: a bunch of 2D grid puzzles laid out in an extremely shiny 3D environment, dusted with a barely detectable hint of narrative.

The puzzle model is really quite good. It's a this-world/that-world gimmick, and the first few levels might not seem that deep. But the game adds more ways to jump worlds as you progress through. It winds up playing with a pretty intricate bag of tricks. The core levels are relatively tractable; if you want your brain to ache, try 100%-ing the bonus levels.

I'd say that it overstays its welcome just a bit -- I would have been happy with 20% fewer (core) levels. But again, that will be a matter of taste.

It's extraordinarily pretty, albeit in the repetitive way you get when the point is the puzzles. The various warpings, rays, and sparkles you encounter as you move between worlds help keep the environment from getting stale.

Oh, but that terrible impulse to add a Universal and Spiritual but definitely Vague and Nonspecific narrative element! There's a whole sequence of tableaus of wisdom or light or reason triumphing over war and greed and ignorance. Or, at least, a protagonist person triumphing over people with swords and moneybags and blindfolds. And then all the level rewards are little spiritual fortune cookies. Maybe they're Objectivist fortune cookies; they have that smell. You're supposed to feel smug about how you already knew this stuff. And it's all so incredibly shiny and symbolic.

Could be worse, I suppose; could be poetry.

It's a perfectly fine batch of grid puzzles in a pretty environment. If that's what you want, you should play it. Just, maybe, we could have a character or a voice next time?


This one isn't first-person. (I have a visceral thing for first-person games, but I'll play the other people too!) It's a rolling-block puzzle game where the blocks are these funky shapes that shift back and forth when you push a button. Stick out an arm to lift yourself, push off a wall, or shove another block.

That is the raw-bone description of this game, but "funky" is the key word there, because it's all goofy musical instruments trying to make it big on the Big Stage and everything is in a constant state of jazz. And they give each other lip as they roll around. Frankly it's adorable.

The music track is of course a big part of this. (Don't dare call it "background music"!) The appropriate instruments are constantly going at it. The honking and tapping of your game moves blend in -- not seamlessly, but it's jazz, right? It works. Solve a level with a sting and a fill; move on to the next. I was bouncing in my seat.

The puzzle mechanic is on the edge of arbitrary. The shapes of the "instruments" aren't all that connected to their identity. The rolling rules have some annoying one-way-ness to them, and you have to think about block orientation in a somewhat tedious way. But the puzzles take those rules an awfully long way, so I guess it all proves worthwhile. I've played through a lot of the puzzles (maybe half? if I'm reading the map right) and I am able to navigate around the state space if I work at it. "Solvable if you work at it" is what puzzle designers aim for.

The world is pleasantly thematic without being slavishly thematic. The grid is made of speaker stacks and records and music stands, but sometimes also photocopiers and office furniture, because musicians gotta pay the rent, right? And then sometimes also an equalizer board or a dance floor or a stage. I won't say it's a deeply integrated or physical world, but they keep changing the theme up. And, again, adorable.

Delightful to play, delightful to listen to.