A Monster’s Expedition: A Final Kindness

I’ve found myself devoting more time to A Monster’s Expedition. Not as much as Steam thinks I have, mind you. This is a game without urgency, and that seems to make me willing to alt-tab out and leave it running in the background while I check my email, or watch a movie, or take a nap. But also, I’m still finding passages to new islands frequently enough to make mere wandering around appealing.

One big way the game encourages this behavior: After you’ve won, it inverts its cloud policy. At the start of the game, there’s cloud cover obscuring your view of the world everywhere except for the islands you’ve visited and the sea lanes you’ve passed, and a little margin around that. Sometimes, if an island is close enough, you can barely glimpse its edges through the mist. Sometimes they’re completely obscured until you find them. But after you’ve won the game, the rule changes from “Clouds everywhere, except known islands” to “Clouds only over unknown islands”. The map is now mostly clear, except in spots that, because of the clouds, you know must have islands in them. This gives the game a certain Pac-Man-like appeal as you try to clear the board of every last crumb of cloud, but it also provides guidance. If I think I might be able to build and launch a raft in some spot, I can trace where it would go and decide if it’s going to hit anything of interest or not before I spend time trying.

I’m at the point where most of the remaining puzzles are probably the larger sort, involving multiple islands together. I haven’t been keeping good track of this, but I’m pretty sure that some of the puzzles I’ve solved have required time travel, in the sense of solving an island one way, then resetting it and solving it another way that uses a log or raft or even just an alternate entrance that you used the first solution to obtain. Checking puzzle dependencies on a thing of this size must have been a large undertaking. But the clouds make it all seem just a little bit more approachable.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Facing the End

So, it turns out that the backstory of Stephen’s Sausage Roll totally goes there, but not quite in the way I had expected. The feel is less squick than melancholy. Sadness at the passing of a civilization, at the loss not just of its physical forms, its buildings reduced to ruins and its people grotesquely dehumanized, but of its past, as all the knowledge that the people sought to preserve all their lives vanishes with no one to remember it. Like Link on Koholint, it’s questionable whether anything that happens on the island is anything more than a dream — a lingering dream of the doomed and dead, that confuses and combines the old celebratory feasts with the funeral rites that dominated their final days. Preparing the dead meat for its final rest.

This concern with legacy even informs the final few puzzles. The final chapter is largely concerned with puzzles that have mobile components other than sausages, and one of the things you notice as you go along is that they’re only mobile in puzzle mode. Once you’ve solved the puzzle, they’re frozen in their final positions. Some places take advantage of this to control exploration: solving a puzzle might require pushing some blocks to form a bridge to the grill, and once you’re outside the puzzle and the rest of the world comes back, you use the same bridge to advance to the next puzzle. But this isn’t something you really have to think about until the last few puzzles, where you can easily cook all the sausages and still leave things arranged wrong, blocking off further progress. It isn’t enough to deal with the remnants of the past. You now have to think about the future as well. This is the game’s last big twist.

The climactic puzzle makes it almost inevitable that you’ll mess this up at first. I honestly thought it was just a victory lap, a puzzle in name only that just gives you a whole bunch of sausages in an open space with nothing preventing you from cooking them, as a reward for getting through everything else. I should have known SSR would never do anything that friendly. It is, instead, a puzzle that’s all about setting things up so you can climb a spire after the puzzle is closed. The sausages are basically irrelevant. The game had the power to make difficult non-sausage-based puzzles all along and is only now pointing this out.

And after you’ve done that, then comes the real victory lap: the grills throughout the world light up outside of puzzle mode. Finally, you can cook the remaining overworld sausages! I observed before that you always have the ability to walk all the way back to the beginning of the game, if you’re so inclined, and now the game motivates you to do so. To revisit in reverse all the places where you spent so much time. The people of the island strove to preserve their memories and memorials, and now you have memories of your own associated with the island. So of course you share their fate in the end. In another game, this would come off as cheap irony, but here, it’s really the only possible way to cap off the game’s themes.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Compound Puzzles

I’m still in what I believe to be the final stretch. It’s a long stretch, and the puzzles are getting monumentally difficult. Clearing just one per session feels like an accomplishment.

The DROD fandom uses the word “lynchpin” for a puzzle’s crucial insight, the non-obvious realization that enables you to solve the whole thing. A lot of DROD puzzles consist of a lynchpin plus a bunch of tactical maneuvering. I’m finding that a lot of the later puzzles in SSR have multiple lynchpins. You tinker for a puzzle for a while without getting anywhere, and then you realize “Wait, I can push this thing over by this ladder and stick my fork in this gap and lift the whole thing out of the water!” or whatever, and that opens up new possibilities, but it doesn’t solve the puzzle. It just gives you the tools you need to start thinking about the real puzzle. I’ve also seen a puzzle or two that are just outright multi-stage affairs, where you have to get a sausage from its starting position to the grill with a series of unrelated mini-puzzles along the way.

Once again, this stands in contrast to A Monster’s Expedition, where every island is small and elegant. Ah, but AME has larger puzzles that span multiple islands. I suppose the difference in feel has to do with the sense of what the smallest unit of puzzle is. In AME, where boundaries are fluid and every change persists, you can frequently think of the different parts of a compound puzzle as separate puzzles. SSR doesn’t allow that. Puzzles are sharply defined, with discrete conditions for entering the puzzle and leaving it, and if you leave without solving all of it, you haven’t solved any of it.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Twists and Turns

Heavy spoiler for puzzle content continue here. This is one of those games that it’s impossible to talk about in any depth without spoiling puzzles. It’s a game of twists and turns, and the twists and turns take the form of breakthroughs in solving puzzles.

I’ve been describing the levels in SSR as being grouped into “worlds”, but in another sense, it’s all one world: one environment, with puzzles embedded in it. You can just walk all the way back to the beginning whenever you want. Individual puzzles, however, are self-contained. When you activate one, the rest of the world literally falls away, sinking into the water to temporarily isolate you. Two other changes happen at the same time: the grills light up, and certain immovable pink boxes with their own special shader turn into sausages. When you grill all the sausages, some unseen force eats them, removing the pink boxes from the overworld. There are also green boxes that turn into sausages when you complete all the puzzles in what I’ve been calling a “world”. The green box sausages are thus available in the overworld between the puzzles, and are used to reach the next world, typically by pushing them into a gap so you can walk across it.

That’s the pattern for the first five worlds, but the sixth breaks it in all kinds of ways. It all starts with a puzzle that appears to be absolutely impossible, because it gives you a sausage to grill and no grill to do it with. This puzzle is actually accessible from world 5, but can’t be solved until you you’ve solved all the world 5 puzzles and, by so doing, have a green box sausage that isn’t on bridge duty. That’s the first twist: that you can bring sausages into puzzles just by physically bringing them into the puzzle and leaving them lying on non-sinking ground. Suddenly the puzzles aren’t self-contained any more. The second twist is that you can keep stuff from sinking by wedging a sausage under it. It has to be a very specific sort of terrain feature: something with an overhead protrusion right next to the puzzle, so that a single sausage can lie half on the puzzle ground and half under the thing you want it to hold up. Up to this point, the sinking of the ground around the puzzle seemed like just a graphical flourish, but this twist establishes it as something physically real, and capable of physical interactions with puzzle elements.

And once your habits and assumptions have been so thoroughly upset, this immediately becomes the theme for all of the following puzzles. I had been thinking of the unlocking of green boxes as the thing that defines the boundaries between worlds, but now, every single puzzle unlocks one or more green boxes, giving you overworld sausages to use in the next puzzle.

Will there be more twists that alter the basic nature of the game in even bigger ways? Maybe not. Several things suggest that it’s all coming to a climax. For one thing, I’ve reached a point where the island curves back on itself, so that I can see the little wrecked boat where the game starts. That seems like an endgame thing. For another, there’s the plaques. Each world has an informational plaque or two in a prominent place, giving a little piece of the island’s history. In this gauntlet of green boxes, where every puzzle lets you go a little farther, there’s a plaque after every puzzle, giving you backstory at a much faster but still maddeningly slow rate. Right now, I’m at a point that seems like it’s just short of confirming all my worst suspicions, and it casts a lingering sense of dread over the whole game. It’s like A Monster’s Expedition crossed with Silent Hill 2.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: The Fork

Puzzle spoilers ahead. (Puzzle spoilers are the worst kind. According to studies, plot spoilers actually increase people’s enjoyment of a story. I’m a bit skeptical about that myself, and suspect that it doesn’t really apply to all kinds of story, but even so, it’s undeniable that plot spoilers hurt a story less than puzzle spoilers hurt a puzzle. The pleasure of a puzzle lies mostly in the process of figuring it out.)

The puzzles in world 5 become a lot easier once you’ve solved even just one of them, because once you’ve done that, you know their uniting theme. It’s even a theme that I was anticipating: the first time I accidentally lost my fork back in world 3, my reaction was “There are going to be puzzles based around making you do this deliberately, aren’t there?”

And that’s a tricky thing to require of the player! When it first happened, I didn’t really understand what I had done wrong, or how to reproduce it. It turns out to be fairly simple, once you know how. You just have to put yourself into a situation where you’re falling but the fork isn’t, separated by a cliff edge. And since you’re not permitted to just walk off cliffs directly, the only way to fall is to do it while riding a sausage.

After you’ve dropped your fork, you can pick it up again just by being in the right position to do so, standing at the handle end and facing it. In fact, this happens automatically, and that can be a problem. You can’t tell the player character that it’s not time to pick up the fork yet. One of the reasons to drop your fork is to get it past an obstacle that you can’t pass while holding it. To do this without inadvertently picking it up, you might need to walk backwards, so the player character can’t see what they’re pushing.

I spoke before about how the controls are alienating. Fork-dropping puzzles are alienating in the specific sense that they clash with the instinct to identify with the player character. In these puzzles, you’re tricking the player character into doing what you want. The PC has a number of automatic behaviors that aren’t under your direct control — not dropping the fork, not stepping off cliffs, picking up the fork whenever possible — and your job is to fight them. In a strange way, it reminds me of The Fall, an adventure game where you play an AI with constraints on its behavior, where the puzzles are largely solved by deliberately provoking emergencies for the sake of the emergency powers they grant you.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Some Patterns

By now, I’ve blown past where I stopped playing Stephen’s Sausage Roll the first time. Back then, I had gotten stuck on the third world, the cold-themed world. Having now gotten through that, I took world 4 at a leap, and am now having trouble getting started at all in world 5. The game reminds me of this at the start of each session: your initial position is at the location of the last puzzle you solved, which, for me, is pointedly still in world 4.

By now, I’m noticing repeated structures. If there are three grill tiles in an L shape that’s accessible from only one side, that’s recognizable as a device for completely grilling a single sausage in a specific orientation. Quite a few levels in world 4 contain a small tower with a ladder up it, with a 3×3 cross section and a little knob in the center of the top. The usual purpose of such towers: you can climb up with a sausage stuck to your fork, pull the sausage off against the knob, and then push it off the edge to stack it on top of another sausage waiting below. If the knob also has a ladder, you need to use it get on top of the sausage yourself before you roll it off the edge by trying to walk crosswise.

And sometimes there are passageways you can’t traverse with your fork, an effect produced by the constraints of ladders and/or inconveniently placed pillars. This is most commonly a pattern that means exit route: you can’t go that way, but you can come back through it.

Return to Stephen’s Sausage Roll

A Monster’s Expedition reminded me enough of Stephen’s Sausage Roll that I had to pull it out and give it another try, starting over from the beginning and hoping to finish it this time. And playing the one right after the other, it’s striking how vastly different their attitudes are. AME is the “good twin” here, all gentle and welcoming. SSR wants to make you uncomfortable. Suspiciously tinkly music that occasionally goes discordant, noisy and unclear textures, weird movement rules — in AME, pressing an arrow key always just attempts to move you in that direction, but in SSR, what it does depends on your orientation. Even after playing for most of a day, I still spend a lot of my time fruitlessly pivoting in place.

And when you do move, you have to be careful to avoid smacking sausages into the wrong place with your fork, because you take up two tiles and it’s awkward. The easiest way to avoid trouble is to walk backwards most of the time. You can’t just walk up to a ladder and climb it, because you can’t reach it past your fork; you have to back up to it, then turn and climb it sideways. Once you’re at the top of the ladder, the controls make it impossible to turn to face it, because pressing in that direction will just make you climb back down. An inadvertant flaw? No: there are puzzles based around it. I’d complain about the controls a lot more if I didn’t think they were deliberately alienating.

And when you make a mistake, you can explicitly fail. Burning a sausage, or knocking it off the island, results in a big failure message and the necessity of undoing or resetting the puzzle (although I notice that you can keep on playing while the message is up). AME never did that. That is, it’s certainly possible to render a puzzle unsolvable in AME, but it never tells you that you failed.

A Monster’s Expedition: Final Words

I’ve reached the end of the expedition, the point where the monster gets on a boat to go home and the credits roll, but I clearly haven’t solved all the puzzles. There are still islands that I can see but not reach. This game will probably last me a while, but unless it does something really unexpected, this is going to be my last post about it.

Overall, I’m really impressed by how pleasant it is, how it goes above and beyond to make sure your experience is a good one, even when you’re stuck and frustrated. Take the music. Lots of puzzle games play soothing ambient music in the background — so much so that I’ve joked about “Abstract Puzzle Game with Soothing Ambient Music” as a distinct genre. A Monster’s Expedition has gentle ambient chords, but then it adds musical sounds on top of it that reflect your actions: a few notes on a piano or guitar when you push a log, a little tap on a cymbal whenever you undo a turn. I half-suspect that there are hints encoded in this, that you get more pleasing notes when you’re on the right track.

The undo functionality is particularly sweet. Normal movement is animated, and can lag slightly behind your keypresses, but undo is instant, even when you’re in the middle of a lengthy raft trip. It took me a while to notice this, because other games have trained me to not expect to be able to undo in the middle of what is effectively a cutscene. But what really impresses me is the reset functionality. Consider the problem of what it means to be able to reset a puzzle in a game built entirely in a single coherent space. Reset applies to just your current island, the extents of which are a little vague, because you can be on a log in the water and still reset. But the islands aren’t self-contained. If you manage to roll a log across a raft onto a different island, what happens then? The answer is that when you reset an island, all logs originating there teleport back to their initial positions, no matter where they are in the world. That’s more state-tracking than I expected.

I suspect that some of the puzzles I haven’t solved yet exploit this. I’ve definitely solved a few puzzles by means of similar meta shenanigans, although I’m not sure if they were necessary or not.

A Monster’s Expedition: Double Parity

I’m getting into the tougher parts of A Monster’s Expedition, and I’m noticing patterns. Islands are grouped into clusters, separated by long raft rides, each with its own distinct skin for the terrain and trees. And they function on the DROD model. That is, there don’t seem to be any new gameplay elements introduced after you start encountering double-length trees fairly early on, but each island cluster focuses on a particular interaction. You’ll have a group of puzzles where you need to position a log where it’ll stop another log from rolling too far, a group of puzzles where you have to push a log into the water in a place where it doesn’t make a complete bridge so you can climb onto it and push another log from an otherwise inaccessible direction, and so forth. Recognizing these themes can be a great help. Sometimes when I return to an incompletely-solved cluster, I re-solve some of the easier puzzles to reminds myself what I should be looking for in the harder ones.

Another useful pattern: parity. When you push a single-length log lengthwise, it doesn’t shift, but rather, tumbles. If it’s positioned east-west, and you push it from the west side, it’ll pivot up and come to rest upright, one tile east of where it was. Once it’s upright, you can choose to push it down from the north or south, changing its direction. This scheme has the consequence that if you never roll a log from the side — and you frequently can’t roll logs without losing them over the edge of the island — then its possible positions and orientations are bound by parity in two directions. In any 2×2 square, you’ll have one tile where it can only be upright, one where it can only be east-west, one where it can only be north-south, and one where it can never be at all. Rolling the log, making it move until it hits an obstacle such as a rock or another log, can break this: if it rolls an odd number of spaces, its parity will be changed in the direction it rolled.

Trees always start off upright, so I find it useful to think of the grid of the world in terms of places where a particular tree can be upright without rolling. This is a pattern you can just perceive, if you try. If you know where a log needs to go, and what orientation it needs to have there, then you can scan to see if it has the right parities, and if not, what obstacles could change that. It takes a good long time to reach the point in the game where it’s at all useful to think in these terms, though. Mostly you can just assume rocks are useful because they’re there.

A Monster’s Expedition

A Monster’s Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions) is a new sort-of-Sokoban-like puzzle game from the creators of Cosmic Express, Sokobond, and, most particularly, A Good Snowman is Hard to Build, which it resembles in a number of ways, starting with the appearance of the player character. Where Snowman had you pushing around large snowballs in the chambers of a hedge maze, Expedition has you push logs around in a network of tiny islands. (The logs start off as trees, but turn into logs when you give them a shove.) The islands and the pushing of cylindrical objects remind me a fair bit of Stephen’s Sausage Roll (which I should get around to finishing sometime), as do the numerous informational plaques. But Expedition is infinitely gentler than SSR, both aesthetically and in terms of difficulty curve.

One of the key factors in this gentleness is that not every island is a puzzle. The islands all exist in a frankly enormous connected space, impressive when you pan around it in fast travel mode. And some of them are just connections between other islands, ways to control the flow. You get from island to island by pushing logs into the water to make bridges or, sometimes, rafts (about which more later). When you get to an island and all it has is a couple of trees in exactly the right positions to make bridges to other islands, it feels like a respite from puzzling, an easy task as a cushion between the hard tasks.

One thing I’m really liking about it is the elegance of the behaviors. Although the rules are complex enough to produce puzzles, they feel simple because they make sense, visually if not logically. Logs move one space if pushed lengthwise, but roll until they hit an obstacle if pushed from the side. You can stand on a stump and walk onto an adjacent log, but you can’t step onto a log directly unless it’s in the water. If a log is in the water, you can walk along it, but attempting to step off laterally just makes it spin in place. This stuff is very easy to internalize. Similarly, the goals are natural and implicit. You’re not trying to push things to demarcated destinations that arbitrarily make doors open. The way that logs bridge gaps to other islands follows naturally from their behavior.

There’s one moment in particular where I was in awe of the designer’s mastery of their craft. Mild spoilers for the game’s beginning follow.

When two logs fall into the same water space, they spontaneously turn into a raft. This is something you discover early on. You can walk on rafts like logs, but unlike logs, you can step off them in any direction, and this seems like the main thing distinguishing them. You reach an island that has a windmill on it — clearly an important landmark that you want to reach, but the way is blocked by a tree, and you can’t push the tree down because the spot you’d have to stand to push it from is water. With a little cleverness, however, you can use a couple of other trees to make a raft there! And so you stand on the raft, and you push the tree, expecting it to fall, but instead, the force of your push launches the raft, sending it drifting far away into unexplored waters, revealing a larger world. It’s at this point that the game displays the title, effectively telling you that you’ve left the prologue and entered the main part of the game, but more importantly reassuring you that what you just did was right. Even though you were tricked into guessing wrong about what was going to happen, the game isn’t going to punish you. Rather, it’s rewarding you with something better than you expected, because it wants you to keep trying things.

I’ve managed to find my way back to the windmill, but I haven’t finished the game yet. On the basis of precedent (particularly Snowman), I expect that eventually everything will feed into a semi-hidden metapuzzle that makes you re-solve old puzzles in new ways. The thing is, even this follows kind of naturally. Because the goals are implicit, they’re flexible. Sure, most islands are set up so that there’s only one useful thing you can do with the logs. But you inevitably consider other possibilities when you haven’t yet figured out what that one thing is.

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