Icebreaker: Basic Gameplay

So, what sort of game is Icebreaker? One that doesn’t really fit into a genre category narrower than “action”. People have stretched this as far as “strategy/action” and “puzzle/action”, which I suppose is necessary to distinguish it from mindless action, but neither description really fits — the level of thought is more tactical than strategic, and the only reason anyone would describe it as a puzzle game is that they classify anything sufficiently abstract that way. If you ask me, the genre it has the most in common with is classic arcade games, things like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Breakout: games with simple controls and world models, where the player is always bent on the same goal. That goal being, of course, to destroy everything. To clear the screen, by shooting, eating, or bouncing things off of everything, until there’s nothing left.

The things you destroy in Icebreaker are pyramids. Steeply acute ones. 1This could mean either “ones that are acute in a steep way” or “ones that are acute and resemble steeples”. Either description fits. The main playfield is an isometric grid of regularly-spaced pyramids, the “seekers” that chase you through this grid like Robotrons are animated pyramids, even the player’s avatar is a pyramid on its side. This is basically “programmer art” that stuck — the author’s website describes how the entire game started out as a programming exercise that took on a life of its own. Now, how do you destroy the pyramids? Do you shoot them, or eat them, or bounce things off them? A little of each, it turns out — at least, if I can extend “eat” to mean “collide your avatar with” and “bounce things off of” to cover any sort of induced collision with objects not under your direct control. There are three basic colors of stationary pyramid: red, green, and blue. Red pyramids are deadly to the touch, but can be destroyed by a blast from your cannon. Blue pyramids are cannon-resistant, but shatter when you ram them. Green pyramids you can’t destroy at all yourself, but crumble on contact with a seeker. It’s really the green pyramids that save the game from being trivial. When people call it a “strategy/action” or “puzzle/action” game, they’re mainly thinking about the need to lead the enemies to specific places instead of just shooting them.

There are further complications as you go along: you get obstacles like walls and pits, terrain like slippery ice, smarter enemies (the basic ones are prone to getting stuck), and new colors of stationary pyramid with different properties — purple pyramids that turn into pits when shot, stone pyramids that have to be shot ten times, rainbow pyramids that pick a color at random when rammed or shot. But the three basic pyramid types have a special relationship that these advanced types do not: they occasionally change color, cycling from red to blue to green to red. (This ordering is important, because it prevents blue pyramids from turning into deadly red while you’re charging at them.) The changing colors keep the action from being too predictable, even on boards that start out very regular, and also serve to upset equilibrium. Blue pyramids that are hard to reach eventually become shootable; a seeker stuck behind pyramid need only wait for it to become green to get through it.

Aside from the tutorial, there are 150 levels. A big level grid shows you which ones you’ve completed, and at which difficulty. There’s no unlocking of levels — you can access them all from the very beginning. However, the “next level” button on the victory screen makes it slightly easier to play them in order than to not play them in order, so that’s what I’m doing.

1 This could mean either “ones that are acute in a steep way” or “ones that are acute and resemble steeples”. Either description fits.

2 Comments so far

  1. A_Gamebook_Fan on 19 May 2010

    Please don’t forget to give us a review of Andrew Plotkin’s Icebreaker text adventure easter egg!

  2. Noumenon on 2 Aug 2010

    Having read all your Icebreaker posts in reverse order, I think it would have been nice to include at least one screenshot. Your descriptions are very clear, though.

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