The Second Sky: Arky Rooms

I’m in a position in The Second Sky that’s more familiar from JRPGs than from puzzle games: very near the end, but holding off on completing the game because I want to finish more side-quests first. In a RPG, there are usually practical justifications for this: completing those last few quests could give you items or other boosts that help you against the final boss. At the very least, you can expect to get a little extra XP in their pursuit. That doesn’t apply to DROD puzzles. Neither will the bonus puzzles become unavailable after I win. Nonetheless, it is lodged in my brain that this is the proper order to do things in. Side-quests, then victory, and then, because this is DROD, going back to hunt for the secrets I missed and unlock the Mastery area.

One thing I discovered in my last session: a secondary office for the new First Archivist, who Beethro calls “Arky” to distinguish him from the First Archivist who attacked the surface, containing a note explaining his puzzle design MO. I should note that Beethro and Arky are reconciled now; towards the end of the story, Beethro finally gives him the apology that was all he wanted all along. Beethro’s really grown as a person over the course of this episode. But even after he’s your friend, there are still “Arky rooms” to contend with. The “Inventory” room back at the train hub even tracks them as a special category.

Arky rooms are always secret rooms, and thus optional. Their hallmark is a note from Arky describing what makes the room impossible to solve. An actually impossible room is trivial to make, but the point is that these rooms look like puzzles, and this tricks delvers into trying to solve them. In fact, the rooms are perfectly solvable, and Arky’s explanations of why they’re not contain hidden false assumptions. The effect is to make Arky seem humorously incompetent, and this is heightened by the way that the notes describing tricking delvers have been left around for delvers to find.

There’s one other purpose for the notes: misdirection. If it weren’t for the notes, the player might not notice that the room is “impossible”. There’s one note that describes how opening the room’s tar gate requires clearing three invulnerable 2×2 bocks of tarstuff with only one powder keg. I read that note on entering the room, and sure enough: the room has blocks of gel, tar, and mud. The sole powder keg could be placed between two of them, but had to miss the third. I assert that it is the effect of the note that it took me as long as I did to realize: Hey, wait a minute, a 2×2 block of mud isn’t invulnerable! I can clear that with my sword! It was like the room’s punch line. Arky seems all the more incompetent for making such a stupid mistake, but then, through the note, he managed to pass his stupidity on to me. Perhaps he’s cleverer than he seems?

The note in the secondary office says that the main trick behind his puzzles is to make ones that he personally can’t solve. If someone else finds a solution, he pretends that it’s what he had in mind all along. If no one finds a solution, it just makes him seem cleverer than everyone else. And it’s got me thinking: This actually might not be a bad approach for puzzle design in DROD. Obviously you want to not actually release puzzles that no one has been able to solve, but the “Let someone try to solve something I think is impossible” part? DROD players have proven their ability to find solutions that the designers didn’t think of. That’s how we got the kill-the-Slayer Achievement in Journey to Rooted Hold. Or consider taking the same approach with yourself as the player: design a puzzle, then remove something that the solution to the puzzle relies on and try to solve it anyway. I suspect that some similar process is behind all the theme-and-variations puzzle designs in this game. I mentioned a pair of levels called Easy Way and Hard Way. I have since discovered that it continues into Harder Way and Hardest Way, four sets of the same puzzle designs with the solution to each made impossible in the next.

5 Comments so far

  1. matt w on 29 Dec 2017

    I had some design thoughts about this, but I’m just going to start with a shameless plug for my own work–have you played Faithful Companion? Please play Faithful Companion! It’s a really short text game with approximately three puzzles and won’t take you very long at all, unless you get stuck on one of the puzzles, and there’s some story behind it that is relevant here.

  2. matt w on 30 Dec 2017

    OK, spoilers obviously, but if you’ve played Faithful Companion here’s the story:

    Gur guerr-ybpx qbbe vf qrfvtarq gb znxr lbh guvax gung lbh unir gb gevpx gur tubfg vagb chfuvat bar bs gur ybpxf sbe lbh juvyr lbh bcra gur bguref. Ohg jura lbh gel gung, lbh jvyy svaq gung gur tubfg varivgnoyl ybpxf gur svefg ybpx whfg nf lbh haybpx gur ynfg bar. Gur gevpx vf gb qhpx onpx bhg, ybpx gur tubfg bhg, naq haybpx gur qbbe ng lbhe yrvfher.

    Ng yrnfg, lbh zvtug guvax vg jnf qrfvtarq gung jnl. V vagraqrq lbh gb znavchyngr gur tubfg vagb haqbvat bar bs gur ybpxf sbe lbh, naq juvyr qbvat gung V gubhtug, “Un un, lbh pna cebonoyl fubeg-pvephvg guvf jubyr chmmyr ol ybpxvat gur tubfg bhg.” Gura V grfgrq gur chmmyr orsber pbqvat gur ynfg ebbz–naq sbhaq gung vg qvqa’g jbex, jvgu cebonoyl gur fnzr qvfznl gur cynlre snprf gur svefg gvzr vg unccraf gb gurz. Ohg gur svefg qensg bs gur tnzr jnf orvat jevggra sbe Rpgbpbzc naq unq n guerr-ubhe pbqvat yvzvg, fb V qvqa’g unir gvzr gb pbzr hc jvgu n jnl sbe gur vagraqrq fbyhgvba gb jbex. V ernyyl unfgvyl purpxrq gung lbh pbhyq va snpg ybpx gur tubfg bhg, naq gura V pbqrq gur svany ebbz. Bayl yngre qvq V ernyvmr gung guvf jnf n zhpu orggre chmmyr guna gur bar V’q vagraqrq.

    So here it wasn’t quite an unexpected hack that let me short-circuit a puzzle I thought was impossible, it was an unexpected hack that let me short-circuit a puzzle I wrongly thought was possible (at first).

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 1 Jan 2018

    I’ve just played through Faithful Companion. I remember starting playing this when it was new, and getting stuck on the puzzle you describe, and not finishing it. This time, I managed to think of the short-circuit you describe, but only after failing at the obvious approach for a while. (One variation I really thought was going to make a difference was tricking the ghost into *opening the door* on the same turn that I release the third latch — because the ghost always acts after you, and I figured this would save a turn. But it doesn’t work, because you still have to spend a turn trying to open the door to set that up.)

    Anyway, it’s a very DRODdish puzzle. Fiddly and mechanical and lynchpin-based.

  4. matt w on 2 Jan 2018

    …I flew too close to the sun by putting two links in a post, and it went into moderation, so I’m trying to break it up into two halves.

    One thing about alternate solutions, or puzzles designed the way you mention by removing the thing that lets you solve them, is that they seem like they can create red herrings. Like, there’s a level or two of Stephen’s Sausage Roll where there’s a ladder that never seems to get used, and I’ve seen a couple of people complain about it–to the extent that I wonder whether there’s a different solution to one of these levels.

    Part of this is the design ethic of SSR, though, which generally seems very much oriented toward using every element (or having them be necessary as a way of blocking solutions). As opposed to an ethic that depends in part on red herrings or (not quite the same thing) what I called Schmuck Bait in reference to Cosmic Express and Sokobond. Which games also sometimes have things that are there for symmetry rather than because they’re essential for the puzzles (e.g., sometimes in Cosmic Express there will be four symmetrically placed special tiles, and the solution has to break symmetry and bypass one of them).

  5. matt w on 2 Jan 2018

    I get the idea that this happens in DROD often–that there are elements you don’t strictly need for a puzzle, partly because you need space to fill in the levels, partly because there are lots of alternate solutions and secrets to discover. But also that since DROD has dynamic enemies, there’s a lot more chaos in the technical sense that could lead to unexpected uses for terrain features. There could be lots of different places to encounter a Slayer or wave of roaches or whatever.

    Because SSR doesn’t seem to use red herrings in the same way, its way of frustrating you relies a lot more on the kind of apparent impossibility the Archivist’s notes describe. In fact when I was looking up some comments about the levels with superfluous ladders I found a couple posts where someone wrote out exactly such a proof why the level was impossible and had to figure out which false assumption they’d made. (Also: Aarrrgggh, The Backbone.)

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