Archive for the 'Puzzle' Category


The Humans: Key Disk

Playing The Humans requires keeping the CD-ROM in the drive. Which, okay, is normal for CD-based games. It just stands out for me at this moment because it’s the first game I’ve played this year that has such a requirement.

Although I played the prior games from CD-ROM packages, these were after-the-fact compilations of games originally released on floppy disks. For the earlier ones, there was even a reasonable expectation that they would be played from floppies — in 1986, hard drives were optional. Wizardry and Might and Magic were entirely built around the floppy paradigm, prompting the player to insert the character disk and whatnot; their anthologizers had to rework them somewhat to make them playable from hard drives.

Now, if I’m not mistaken, The Humans was released on both floppies and CD-ROM. Certainly there’s nothing on the CD that couldn’t have been put on floppies — no voice acting or FMV or other enhancements. (Remember “CD-ROM Enhanced”?) And since its installer copies the game files fully to the hard drive (which was no longer optional by 1992), there’s no technical reason why it needs the CD in the drive. It’s purely a matter of copy protection. And it’s copy protection that basically doesn’t work any more. The emulator that I’m using to play the game at all is quite willing to mount an ISO image and treat it as a CD-ROM, and even if it weren’t, copying a CD is child’s play. But back then? What, you have a CD burner in your house? What are you, Bertelsmann Music Group or something?

Copy protection has sort of gone in waves. Early games were effectively “key disk” games simply because they tended to be self-booting floppies that didn’t use a conventional filesystem, but this more or less ended with the rise of hard drives and subsequent player demands that games be playable from them. So instead you got “key word” systems, as we saw in the Gold Box games with their code wheels, but this is an inconvenience for the player, and relatively easy to hack out. (In any key word system, there’s got to be a point in the code where it compares your input to what it’s expecting and decides whether to bail or not. Find and remove that conditional jump and you’re golden.) Then came the CD-ROM, and key disk was suddenly practical again. But now, games tend to come without any disk at all. In the age of digital distribution, copy protection — or DRM, as the kids call it these days — becomes networked as well. I imagine the pendulum will swing back to key disk at some point, but it’s far too early to say how.

The Humans: Tools

This game is going to take longer than I first thought. I often breeze through puzzle games, and I breezed through the first 20 or so levels here, but I’ve encountered a few levels that dished out extended stuck. And not the sort of stuck where you stare at the board uncomprehendingly, with no idea of how the configuration before you might suggest enough meaning to form a plan, but the sort where achieving your goals seems mathematically impossible. The solution to this sort of stuck always comes down to some unknown or underappreciated option, some edge case that you didn’t realize was both possible and useful. So let’s take a look at what this game lets us do.

All humans can move left or right, climb ladders, and form stacks that function as human ladders. Any additional capabilities come from the tools you find lying around. There are four kinds of tool: torches, spears, ropes, and wheels. These are not permanent fixtures to the human who finds them, but can be dropped for someone else to pick up.

Torches are mainly used as keys: there are occasional burnable bushes that are impassible until torched. This provides the level designer an easy way to force the player to visit point A before point B: put a bush at point B and a torch at point A. You can also wave a torch to hold off a wandering theropod, but this is a distinctly secondary use.

Spears can kill things, including your own guys if you’re not careful, and on some levels killing a dinosaur is in fact the goal. But you don’t get the spear back after using it this way, so it’s usually a waste of a spear. The real purpose of a spear is that it lets you jump across gaps by pole-vaulting — humans cannot jump unaided. One of the first tricks you learn in this game is using a single spear to get multiple humans across a gap by having each one use it to cross, then throw it back for the next guy. It should be noted that, unlike pole-vaulting in real life, jumping in this way does not give you any additional altitude. You can’t jump from a lower platform to a higher one.

Ropes are essentially portable ladders: standing by the edge of a platform, you can lower a rope to let those below come up to where the rope-bearer is, or conversely to let humans down farther than they can safely fall. Climbing to higher ground where there isn’t a ladder generally means making a climbable stack of humans, who get left behind in the process, because no one can climb himself. But if you have a rope, no one needs to be left behind. Sometimes the trick to a level is realizing that one platform is positioned directly below another, and is therefore rope-accessible — something that isn’t necessarily obvious, because you see only a fraction of the playfield at a time, and there’s no small-scale map to give you an overview. Also, it took me some time to realize that a human climbing a rope is capable of getting off onto a platform next to it. This is reasonable, because ladders follow the same mechanic, but ladders are wide enough to actually touch the adjacent accessible ledges.

Ropes, spears, and torches can all be thrown or dropped off ledges to pass them around in ways that the humans cannot directly follow, including getting them onto a slightly higher platform, although you really can’t throw very high. The throwing mechanic is a little peculiar. First you press a button to select the “throw” action, then you press it again to start up an oscillating progress bar that determines the strength of the throw, like in various golf games, or the bonus-round minigames in the original Mortal Kombat. Jumping with a spear uses the same mechanic. I really don’t care for this system. Watching the bar means that your attention is on a UI element, not on the character it governs. We’ve had better jumping mechanics since Super Mario Brothers, but I suppose they generally rely on using the height of the jump as visual feedback, and, as mentioned, jumps in this game don’t have height.

Unless, that is, they’re done using the wheel. Wheels are the rarest of tools, and the only one you don’t pick up: you ride them, like in B. C. Wheels let you go faster, but this isn’t really an advantage — it just means it’s harder to avoid falling off of things, which is particularly troublesome because wheels can’t be carried back up ladders. They can, however, jump. Wheel jumps are most easily executed when there’s a downslope followed by a ramp, but this is not absolutely necessary. In fact, one level seems to rely on the fact that, even from a standing start, a wheel can be used to jump from a lower platform to a slightly higher one. Which is weird, because wheels are heavy — heavy enough to trigger pressure plates on their own. As such, there are sometimes puzzles developed around getting a wheel to a pressure plate, and understanding how wheels move can be key. Wheels have momentum. Wheels can be pushed without riding them, if you actually want to drop them farther than you can survive. Actually, if you time it right, you can drop farther than you can survive and still survive: all you have to do is dismount before the wheel hits the ground. I haven’t seen any puzzles that rely on this, though, and I hope I never do.

Now, most humans are identical, but there’s one special sort: the witch doctor. Witch doctors can’t use tools, although they can climb ropes, participate in stacks, and even push wheels (as proved key to one puzzle). Instead of using tools, they provide them. And they do it through human sacrifice. After selecting a victim and a type of tool, the screen goes into silhouette (on a pretty color-gradient background) and a human is transformed into a tool in a swirl of pixels, permanently reducing the human population of the level (unlike normal deaths, which yield replacements). This is a big part of why I think of this game as mean-spirited: I’ve always found the whole idea of transforming a human into an inanimate object distressing — moreso than merely killing, which at least leaves them recognizably human. To turn a person into a thing is to deny their humanity, or to deny that humanity was ever worth anything, to assert that they’re more useful as a rope or a torch. And, in the context of this game, that’s often true.

The Humans as Lemmings Clone

There should be a name for works that imitate another work but completely miss the point, taking the superficial details while leaving out the basis of the original’s appeal. As Sleepwalker is to Sandman, as Ai Yori Aoshi is to Love Hina, as most bad fantasy novels are to Lord of the Rings, so The Humans is to Lemmings.

To someone looking at The Humans for the first time today, it may not be clear that it’s a Lemmings imitation. It was very clear in 1992. Lemmings was in the ascendant, and would be on the mind of anyone making (or purchasing) a level-based puzzle game with a 2D side view. Add to that the “save the tribe” aspect, the control over multiple identical and undifferentiated beings, the puzzles based around sacrificing some of your guys to save the rest, the music — ye gods, the music. Lemmings had this gloriously cheesy pop music that would be embarrassing in any other context, but seemed like just part of the fun there. The Humans does something similar, but with more of a cartoon caveman style, which is to say, a boogie beat and an emphasis on simple percussion such as hand drums and xylophones (or synthesized approximations thereof). It’s odd that this style says “cartoon caveman” so strongly, especially since our most culturally prominent caveman cartoon, The Flintstones, doesn’t use it at all, but there it is.

It also plays a lot like Lemmings overall, and not just in good ways. Most of the time, your attention is on the problem of getting multiple beings from point A to point B. Doing this usually involves multiple stages, where each stage is an opportunity to screw up. When you do so, you have no choice but to start over from the beginning: there are no save points within levels. So on the tougher levels, you wind up repeating the earlier stages a lot — a common pattern in action games, but not so much in puzzle games, where the pleasure is in figuring things out. But it serves to pad out the time required to play it to completion. Even worse, both games feature time limits on levels. While this can be part of the puzzle, challenging you to figure out how to complete your objectives as efficiently as possible, mostly it’s just a way to make sure that you don’t complete a level successfully on your first try, even if you don’t do anything wrong.

One of the more overlooked innovations of Lemmings is that it was one of the first games to figure out how to take advantage of the mouse in a realtime context. There had been games that used on-screen buttons to awkwardly give the player’s avatar orders at one remove, and there had been games that used the mouse to control the player’s avatar directly as a kind of joystick substitute, but the makers of Lemmings were clever enough to realize that the very concept of “player’s avatar” was an unnecessary assumption, a by-product of joystick-centric gameplay that a mouse-based game could do without. Instead, it took an approach similar to what would later become the RTS genre. At no point in Lemmings did the player assume direct control over a lemming’s actions; you could switch them from one mode of activity to another, but they were fundamentally autonomous beings that would march ahead without instruction. The result was an active world, one where things were always happening, sometimes more things than the player could easily pay adequate attention to.

And this is the part that The Humans gets wrong. It’s still plugged into the joystick paradigm, giving you direct control of one human at a time while everyone else just stands there and waits. Actually, that’s not quite true: when you pick up a torch or a spear, you can switch to a mode where you stand there waving it to fend off enemies, and remain in this mode when you switch control to someone else. This is the most Lemmings-like of the actions you can perform, and has obvious precedent in the “Blocker” role from that game. It’s also the least-often-useful thing you can do with a spear or a torch. It’s understandable why they did it this way: they were aiming at console ports, something that Lemmings always did awkwardly, and heck, even on PCs, not everyone had a mouse back then. But the end result is the opposite of Lemmings‘ active world. It’s a passive world, one that’s reluctant to even shoot at you.

The Humans

humansAnd finally, we get to something that isn’t a RPG: The Humans, a 1992 cavemen-and-dinosaurs-themed puzzle-platformer. Although it isn’t the oldest game on the Stack, it’s probably the game that’s been on the Stack the longest — which came as a surprise to me when I compiled the list; for years, I thought that honor went to Bloodnet (a 1994 cyberpunk/vampire adventure game with some RPG elements). I suppose Bloodnet weighed more heavily on my sense of backlog guilt, because I abandoned it so near the beginning: for a time, when the Stack was much smaller, it was the one game that I felt like I hadn’t even given a serious try. (Today, I have over a hundred marked as not even tried at all.) Whereas I was fairly advanced in The Humans when I shelved it, putting it into extended I’ll-get-back-to-this-soon limbo.

I abandoned the game the first time around due to frustration over its pixel-precise demands. And yes, the game does make the gaps I have to jump uncomfortably wide sometimes, so that my first attempt falls short, and my second attempt falls down before jumping as a result of trying not to fall short. But in truth, it wasn’t just the game’s demands that caused my frustration, but my own demands on top of them. In those days, I was not just a completist, but a perfectionist. The game provides you with a limited number of lives — okay, it’s not quite that simple. The game puts multiple cavemen on each level, and lets you switch control between them Lost Vikings-style. If one of them dies, he 1I use the masculine pronoun because there don’t seem to be any females, which makes me fear for the future of the tribe. is immediately replaced by a spare, but you can run out of spares. The number of cavemen you have available persists from level to level, and only increases if you rescue a captive on the occasional level where that’s an option. So, to my younger self, part of the challenge here was to make my tribe as large as possible — that is, to do all the rescues and never let anyone die unless a puzzle demands it. (Sometimes the only way to sneak one caveman past a hungry dinosaur is to take advantage of the delay while it eats another caveman. This is not a very good-hearted game.) Note that this doesn’t really affect your ability to finish the game: you can jump in with a full set of lives at the beginning of any level. There’s a scoring system that would be affected by this, but I didn’t care about that even in my perfectionist days. No, hoarding all those lives was just a self-imposed challenge that I’m willing to forgo today.

I recall attempting the game again some years later and finding that it disagreed with my newer sound hardware. The sounds here aren’t anything special, really — just a bunch of looped tunes that play in the background — but I deemed it to be an essential part of the experience anyway (for reasons I may elaborate in my next post), and reshelved it again. DOSBox takes care of that, of course. But for some reason, DOSBox crashes the installer. I seriously thought for a while that I wasn’t going to be able to play this game: it refuses to run until it has a config file telling it about your sound and video hardware, and the only way to generate that is with the installer, which brought down DOSBox in impressive manner, with ill-formatted double-wide text and a completely unresponsive prompt. Fortunately, I was able to run the installer natively, even though the game itself balks at this treatment.

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1. I use the masculine pronoun because there don’t seem to be any females, which makes me fear for the future of the tribe.

Variations

In a recent blog post, Edmund McMillen talks about his confusion-and-insanity-themed puzzle platformer Time Fcuk. It’s an interesting read, but the one bit that stood out for me was the bit about the alt levels. Apparently certain levels had multiple versions, chosen at random:

i came up with the idea late one night where i envisioned people playing the game and then trying to look up hints on how to beat a level only to find no one had played the level they are on, in hopes that they would feel “crazy”. this of course didn’t have the effect i wanted…

And yeah, it certainly didn’t have that effect for me. In order to notice the variations, you’d have to either replay the game from the start and notice that the levels were different, or compare your experience in considerable detail with someone else’s. And the player doesn’t really have much motivation to do either: if you like this sort of game, you’ll probably play right through it to the end, and if you don’t, you’ll probably just quit in the middle and not go back to it. The interesting thing is that, while Time Fcuk didn’t inspire this sort of comparison, another recent game did in a pretty big way: Dungeon, a retro platformer by Cactus and Mr. Podunkian.

Dungeon is described by its creators as an “experiment”, but feels more like a prank, or possibly even a troll. The concept was that the game had a number of deliberate problems, bugs, and other causes for complaint, which caused people to post on its TIGSource message board — but different installations would provoke different problems. The game apparently uses a deterministic combination of factors such as the OS version and the current username to produce a consistent experience for each player, even as the content varies among different players. So, some players experience frequent pauses, others get monsters that move far faster than they should, others find a certain jump early in the game impossible, etc. (When I played it, I was lucky enough to get variant #7, in which the only issue is that the level titles are artsy and pretentious.)

The forum comments on Dungeon start off as confused as you might expect, with comments along the lines of “What are you talking about, that jump is dead easy”, but it didn’t take long for people to figure out what was going on. The first clues started coming in when people found that they could fix their “bugs” by running the game in some Windows compatibility mode or other, which alters the OS version seen by the game app. Speculation that the game “modifies its own difficulty depending on the machine or something” started less than an hour after the game was released; by the end of the day, people were starting to compile lists of the variations.

So, I guess the lesson here is that if you want something about your game to be noticed, make it obnoxious.

Crayon Physics: Minimally Complete

Well, I’ve managed a least-effort pass through every level in Crayon Physics Deluxe. Overall, I find the balance a bit strange: towards the end, most levels were solvable using the same few techniques. For example, I got a lot of mileage out of creating a large weight attached to a stationary structure (that is, one attached to permanent scenery by two pins), then draping a loop of rope, with both ends attached to the weight, over an obstacle and around the ball, then erasing the stationary structure and letting the weight pull the ball upward and to its goal. My first few attempts at doing things similar to this were more complicated and involved more elements, so if nothing else, repetition helped me refine the technique. Still, the number of places where this was applicable makes me wonder if I was expected to come up with easier but less general solutions first.

In my first session, I had used my usual gaming trackball for input, but the second time around, I came to my senses and hooked up the Wacom tablet. It took a bit to get used to the feel of it — I don’t use it very often — but it’s definitely worth the switch (assuming you already have a tablet, of course). Not only does it make it far easier to draw straight diagonal lines, it’s also more mimetic in this context: a stylus, obviously, handles a lot more like a crayon than a mouse or trackball does. I can imagine a world in which tablets of this sort are included with Crayon Physics as a Rock Band-esque custom controller.

Anyway, I’m putting this aside for the moment, because I’m eager to try other new things, but I intend to get back to it before long. There’s still that final spot on the map to be unlocked before I can really feel like I’m done, but that looks like it’ll be a fairly long haul: unlocking it requires Elegant, Old-School, and Awesome solutions for fully half of the game’s levels, and on a lot of the levels that doesn’t even look theoretically possible. My next post on this game will probably describe the physical mechanisms in detail.

Crayon Physics Deluxe

Continuing into the Steam indie pack, I first made some failed attempts at getting The Path to work on my machine — I’ll have to return to that one later, perhaps after my next system upgrade. Giving that up, I proceeded to Crayon Physics Deluxe, a physics-puzzler based on the novel idea of letting the player add arbitrary objects to the scene by drawing them with the mouse pointer, and deducing their physical attributes from how and where they were drawn. (I described Blueberry Garden as having a hand-drawn look, but allowing the player to draw things really takes that idea to a new level.) I remember trying the prototype of this, Crayon Physics sans-deluxe, when it was new. It wasn’t clear to me then how the simple mechanics could be extended to interesting puzzles. It seems to mainly manage it by adding more types of things you can draw. For example, at one pivotal point, your repertoire expands to include pivot points — drawing a small circle inside another closed object provides a nub that forms the basis for pendulums or levers.

As is fairly common in level-based puzzle games, CPD doesn’t require the player to complete every level to advance. Levels come in batches (depicted as islands on a map), and each batch is unlocked by obtaining a certain number of stars. Each level can yield two stars. The first is granted for simply beating the level — the level’s goal is marked with a star to make this clear. 1Actually, I’ve seen a few levels that have two stars in them, marking two goals. Beating such a level requires hitting both stars. It seems like you still get only one star for beating it, though. The second star requires the player to meet three challenges: an Elegant solution (meaning you only draw one thing), an Old-School solution (no pivot points — that is, a solution that would work in the original Crayon Physics), and an Awesome solution. The Awesome solution is of particular interest, because it’s done on the honor system: players are expected to decide for themselves whether or not a particular solution is awesome.

The Awesome criterion is a peculiar, and somewhat controversial, choice for a puzzle game. Generally speaking, puzzle-solving involves a mode of mind in which all you’re trying to do is satisfy the puzzle’s constraints. Critical evaluation of your own work on the basis of its aesthetic merits isn’t part of the puzzle-solving mindset; it’s more part of the Artist or Designer mindset. So the author of CPD is essentially trying to break us out of puzzle-solving mode and put us in a more creative frame of mind. Some people don’t see the point of this, or perhaps see the point but resent it, preferring to stay in puzzle-solving mode, do the minimum, and just arbitrarily check the Awesome checkbox whenever they need to. But such people miss the point of the game. I say that with some confidence: the author has made statements about the game’s point, and why he added the Awesome criterion in the first place. It’s basically because he saw people doing the bare minimum to complete the puzzles and wanted a way to encourage them to do otherwise.

Personally, I’ve never met an honor system I didn’t want to honor. And that applies even moreso in games, where cheating just means cheating yourself out of the satisfaction of winning honestly. Completing this game requires more stars than there are levels, so if I want to get it off the Stack, I’ll have to perpetrate some Awesomeness. I haven’t marked anything as Awesome yet, but even so, I’m finding that my approach to solutions is colored by the mere anticipation of it. Cheap answers just don’t satisfy.

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1. Actually, I’ve seen a few levels that have two stars in them, marking two goals. Beating such a level requires hitting both stars. It seems like you still get only one star for beating it, though.

World of Goo: Conclusion

After you reach the ending of World of Goo, there are two avenues for pursuing perfection. First, each level has an “OCD” 1“Obsessive completion distinction, according to the game. challenge associated with it — usually of the form “rescue N goo balls”, but sometimes it’s “finish in N moves” or some other variant. I managed to pass a few of the easier such challenges in the smaller levels without meaning to, but I don’t intend to make a serious effort at it. It reeks of frustration.

The other optional challenge is one I’ve mentioned before: freeform goo-tower building at the remains of the World of Goo Corporation campus. This, I spent a considerable amount of time at, both after finishing the game and during the process, mainly while progress was slow. There are in-game suggestions that there’s something to see if you build high enough, but the end cutscene seems to suggest otherwise, that no matter how high you build, you’ll still be striving at the end. At any rate, I found this challenge fairly compelling, and spent a lot of time on it when I finished the game proper.

The next day, while at work, I noticed a unexpected variant on a familiar mental phenomenon. It’s not unusual for the quick but intensive training provided by a game to cause people to see patterns from the game in real life, especially if the patterns are strong, simple patterns that one has never had a reason to notice before. Many people have reported this happening to them with Tetris, and I’ve spoken before about experiencing it with Puzzle Quest. But this was a little freakier: I started seeing the slow wobble of a large goo structure in the unmoving windows on my desktop. (Source code looked particularly unstable, because of the slanting indentations.) I don’t recall experiencing anything quite like this with any other game. Seeing patterns where they actually exist is one thing, but this was seeing illusory motion just because my mind is primed to see it, like a long, slow afterimage.

At any rate, it’s a pretty neat game. Although many of the puzzles are basically variations on building a bridge or tower, it does a good job of always approaching it in a new way. Sometimes it’s the terrain that makes it different, sometimes it’s the available goo types. New goos with different properties keep on getting introduced until very near the close of the game. There’s inflatable balloon goo that can be attached to your structure to help it resist gravity, water-droplet goo that only attaches to one vertex and hangs down (potentially forming long descending chains, if that’s what you need), highly flammable matchstick-goo — come to think of it, all it needs is an earth goo to complete the elemental tetrad. I suppose that niche is taken by the stone blocks in world 4.

The stone blocks are not goo, in that they don’t move of their own accord and you can’t attach them to a goo structure, but they have two attributes found almost exclusively in goo otherwise: you can pick them up with your mouse and reposition them, and they have eyes. Little cartoony ones. Eyes of this sort are the lazy approach to anthropomophizing: I’ve seen them applied to things as unlikely as Tetris blocks and Pong paddles, game elements that really don’t need to be anthropomorphized. And it always seems to be accompanied by incoherent chirps and squeals from the creatures made anthropomorphic. So, yeah, I’m far from a fan of this aesthetic. But then, I look at this game and I ask myself what it would be like without the eyes and the squeals, and I have to admit it would be pretty dry — it would be a lot like Bridge Builder, in fact. Perhaps 2D Boy has actually figured out how to do this style right. It remains to be seen if the secret can be articulated clearly enough to recapture it in another work.

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1. “Obsessive completion distinction, according to the game.

World of Goo: Product Z

Almost done: I’ve been through all the levels except the epilogue. The epilogue apparently has only three levels, but from what I’ve seen, they’re doozies. (The word “doozy” isn’t one I normally use, but World of Goo inspires that sort of vocabulary.)

There’s a running plot thread, communicated mainly through clickable signposts throughout the levels, about the World of Goo Corporation’s mysterious “Product Z”, which is supposed to change the world forever. It turns out to be (SPOILERS!) the Z axis: “World of Goo is now 3D!” This seemed like a really bold move: could the game really make the jump from a 2D interface to a 3D one three-quarters of the way through? It was at this point that I realized how strong my faith in the author was. I trusted this “2D Boy” (ha ha) to pull of the transition well. However, the whole thing immediately turned out to be a lie. There is no 3D, in or out of gameplay. There’s a shift to an “information superhighway” theme, with the World of Goo Corporation Headquarters (where you build your tower) temporarily turning into “My Virtual World of Goo Corporation” until you finish world 4, but unless computers are just supposed to connote 3D somehow, I don’t see why it was even mentioned. I’ll note that the next level is actually set on the ruins of a disused information superhighway, so apparently a lot of time passes between worlds 3 and 4. Maybe the entire 3D era came and went between levels — a commentary on the fate of big-studio games?

Also, the whole computer-themed world passes by without making any puns on “GUI”. I can’t decide if this is a wasted opportunity or a sign of an admirable sense of restraint. Thinking about the other jokes the signposts crack, though, I don’t think I can really believe the latter.

World of Goo vs. Braid

Over at rockpapershotgun.com, there’s a spirited dicussion of the recent PC release of Braid which turned in parts into an argument about whether or not it’s a better game then World of Goo. There is of course no real reason why a player has to pick one over the other — you can play both, for goodness sakes! — but they both occupy the “indie puzzle game” niche and were released in the same year, which means that they were up for the same awards. The Rock, Paper, Shotgun staff itself has been been a hotbed of pro-goo sentiment since before its release, periodically bringing it up in reviews of other games in an offhand “why can’t they all be this good” way.

My own feeling is that Braid is more compelling. I mean that in a simple and objectively-measurable way: Braid inspired me to keep playing until I was finished, while my WoG sessions have been relatively short. Whether that makes it a better game is a matter of opinion. It may just mean it’s an overall shorter game, and the prospect of imminent completion is enough to keep me going. (Compare my recent lack of progress on the other two games I’m in the middle of: both are JRPGs, the canonical weeks-of-padding genre.)

Beyond that, it should be noted that the two games are trying to produce different experiences. Braid aims to be thoughtful and sad, with touches of the uncanny. “Here’s a piece of your childhood”, it says to the player, “only now it’s grown up and disillusioned.” WoG‘s ambitions are in a wackier direction, with over-the-top dark humor: its message to the player is more like “Oh no! The cute little goo balls are being SOLD AS FOOD!” Braid‘s art is impressionist-influenced watercolors; WoG‘s is cartoony ink sketches with a sort of Tim Burton/Dr. Seuss look. Braid‘s music is heavily cello-oriented (even some of the bits that don’t sound like cello are cello); WoG kicks off with a polka. So to some extent, it’s a matter of taste here, of which of these two styles you prefer.

There’s one really major difference in the philosophy of the gameplay design: Braid‘s puzzles have more definite solutions than those in WoG. That is, Braid‘s puzzle-solving primarily involves leaps of intuition — what the DROD community calls “lynchpins” — whereas the WoG puzzles are more about execution: most of the time, you know what you have to do, you just have to create a structure capable of doing it. Any such structure will do, as long as it works. By contrast, alternate solutions in Braid tend to be just slight variations based on the same insight. Again, some like the one, some like the other. I’ve waxed rhapsodic before about the “moment of realization”, and how it’s one of my main sources of enjoyment in games. But puzzles based on that sensation are ones where the player gets stuck, with no idea how to proceed, until they have the crucial insight. And some people really don’t like that.

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