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.

2 Comments so far

  1. matt w on 13 Sep 2020

    Someone at Electron Dance, or maybe in his Twitter mentions, pointed out that the monster also makes an appearance in Cosmic Express, driving the train. It’s small and easy to miss. And though Sokobond has a much more austere aesthetic than any of this team’s Monster games, the museum plaques here reminded me of that games’ chemical facts (and occasionally nonfacts) as rewards for puzzle solving.

    The gentleness of the design, and the assurance with which the designers introduce the nonobvious travel, is very important to me. In your entry on the Talos Principle I mentioned that “break out of the level to achieve a goal that isn’t the signposted level goal and requires you to work across several apparently self-contained puzzles” stresses me out, in the same way zarfian-cruel games do; I never know when I’ve just locked myself out of something or what I’ve locked myself out of. Electron Dance (Joel Goodwin) mentions that about Monster’s Expedition and there’s a thread in his replies where someone gets very stressed about it.

    But here, I have the feeling that it’s an open world, there will usually be an obvious puzzle to work on even if I’ve missed the unobvious ones, and I trust that the designers won’t leave me at a point where progress requires hunting the map for the three islands that you can recombine in some obscure way. I feel like the obscurest secrets will be optional.–That’s not even strictly true, there was one island where the obvious and almost possible thing was to build a raft on one side to cross to an island one tile away, but in fact the only way off that I could find was to build a raft where I could push off. And there’s been a couple other situations where I had to solve a particular puzzle or I was stuck without being able to go forward or backward. But at least there it’s clear that I’m stuck, I don’t need to worry about walking past the puzzle I need to solve.

    The big problem with the gentleness is that it’s addicting. When I finished a Stephen’s Sausage Roll level I would have to take the rest of the day off, but here I always want to do just one more island. The other problem is that my eight-year-old always wants to play on her save file.

    btw speaking of Stephen’s Sausage Roll you really should get around to finishing it, and I daren’t say anything about why.

  2. matt w on 14 Sep 2020

    Something I realized after I typed that: The no-puzzle islands are important not just for pacing and (physical) spacing but for the gentle open-world design. The open world means there need to be several puzzles open at once, which means a lot of islands must have more than one exit. But an island that requires solving puzzles in a way that opens up two exits at once is often stressful, because you can’t be sure that both the nearby islands are actually reachable until you solve the puzzle; there are many cases where you can see a nearby island but can’t reach it. So the no-puzzle islands provide a lower stress way to branch.

    A similar technique is that sometimes there will be an island that has a puzzle and also has a tree in the corner, where it’s absolutely clear that the only way to push it is so as to form a bridge to a nearby island. Though this does raise the possibility of Shenanigans.

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