Chains: The End

Finishing the remainder of the levels in a burst has left my hand worn-out. I suppose this is one of the areas where the touchscreen version is superior. You might think that the laptop trackpad I’ve been using isn’t too far removed from a touchscreen, as far as the hands go, but you use two things at different angles. Also, with a touchscreen, it would be impossible to lose track of where the cursor is, as happened to me occasionally. So I’d suggest playing this on a phone if you have any desire to play it at all. Too bad Steam doesn’t support such devices yet.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about this game. It does some good experimentation with types of challenge, but only on some of the levels. Plus, the experimental parts, like any true experiments, fail sometimes. For example, there was one level toward the end (the only no-time-pressure level that posed any real challenge) where you have to balance the bubbles in two pans of a scale — each bubble has a number inscribed on it indicating its weight. Your only way to alter the contents of the pans is of course by deleting chains, and bubbles you delete are replaced with new ones, weighing a different amount, after a substantial delay. Anyway, I never really solved this one: I was just getting the hang of thinking in terms of value differences between chains, when all of the sudden it solved itself. Some random replacement bubbles came in that just happened to match the weight of the other pan. I’d feel cheated, and want to try again and do it right, except for the fact that the puzzle wasn’t all that engaging, and doesn’t really have much of anything to do with the game’s core mechanic.

It's a triskelion! Get in the car!Probably my most positive experience was on the penultimate level, titled “The Mill”. Here, bubbles fall in batches into the buckets of a three-lobed whirligig, which spins slowly to spill what it holds. The goal is to delete 300 without losing 20. Frequently it’s impossible to nab the last crumbs in a batch. This is a time-pressure level, but it strikes me as having just the right degree of pressure: the mill rotates slowly enough that I wasn’t just frantically trying to pick things off as quickly as possible, I was thinking about optimization. Also, my own victory here was particularly dramatic. There came a point when I was very close to making quota, but the unchainable residue in a batch was going to put me over the limit when it fell. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the nearly-emptied buckets after I nearly-emptied them, so I wasn’t sure exactly when in the cycle they dumped their load, relative to when the new batch came. When the new batch did in fact come just in time for me to win before I lost, it felt like the cavalry had arrived in the nick of time.

Levels in this game end with a peculiar lack of fanfare. There’s always an on-screen display of your progress, but it’s small and doesn’t draw attention to itself, and finishing a time-pressure level usually requires enough concentration that I don’t go looking for it. (The Mill is one of the few that permitted that luxury.) So winning doesn’t involve a great sense of anticipation, and can feel abrupt: you’re in the groove, making chains fast enough to keep pace, and then things just stop. A little text message appears in the center informing you that you’ve unlocked the next level, and would you like to go there now? And that’s all the recognition you get of your accomplishment at that moment. Beating the last level at least takes you to the credits screen, which thanks you for playing.

The credits screen is interactive, by the way: the words “THE END”, made of movable letters, are in a bin of bubbles, which you can chain to your heart’s content. There’s no goal here, and anything you delete is replaced from the top, but you can at least do things like undermine the bubbles supporting the letters and make them fall over or out of place.

Overall, this is a very elegant game. I mean this both in the visual sense — it has a clean, simple aesthetic that I find quite attractive — and in the mathematical sense — this is a game that gets a lot of mileage out of very simple rules. I think I liked it more than I disliked it, if only because it did manage to develop its core mechanic in unanticipated directions.

Chains: Easy Mode

I was starting to think I had underestimated this game. It looked like a match-3 with a gimmick, but it was actually turning out to be a puzzle game in the truest sense of the word: something where you have to figure out solutions. The randomization means that the solutions aren’t move-by-move precise like in a chess problem, of course. They’re tactical solutions, approaches that yield better results. But they’re still things that you have to figure out. For example, in the “Coathanger” level that I mentioned last post, the key things I figured out were: (a) it’s important to alternate sides so that the coathanger doesn’t start swinging too wildly and throwing things off, (b) it’s better to make chains on the inside, where there’s pressure keeping the bubbles from rolling away while you’re trying to link them, and (c) contrary to what you might think, it’s better to delete stuff on the side that’s currently on the upswing, because that way the loose bubbles roll away from the edge.

But then, the moment I decide that this game is richer than it appears, it starts repeating itself, and worse, starts giving me tactically simple levels, with stable architecture, where the only possible approach is just finding chains as quickly as possible. This isn’t the sort of challenge I want, so I finally give in and drop down to “Beginner” difficulty level to get by them.

It’s actually pretty hard to notice exactly what the difficulty level changes. Turning the difficulty down definitely makes things easier, but it doesn’t do it in the more obvious ways, like making the bubbles fall slower or reducing the number of bubble colors. I’m pretty sure it affects the maximum link-length — that is, the easier the setting, the farther apart the bubbles in a chain can be. This alone makes a tremendous difference: far too many times have I wasted precious moments trying to make a chain whose third link turns out to be just out of reach.

I’m not completely sure of this, because my attention while playing is mainly on pursuit of goals, but it seems to me that easy mode also makes the bubbles exert a slight magnetic attraction on one another, so that they cluster together more easily in nice tight packs. This is hard to judge because gravity tends to do the same to them, given enough time to work. But it’s definitely the sort of thing that would help, keeping bubbles in easily chainable formations instead of drifting apart. But it’s definitely a subtle effect. It makes me wonder a little about Medium difficulty. Am I receiving help there that I’m unaware of? If I switched to Hard now, would I start noticing it?

Chains: The view from across the stream

Another day spent in Chains. After spending a good long time on the Stream, and almost but not quite convincing myself to drop the difficulty down to Easy just so I could get past it, I finally had a breakthrough. My winning technique was a bottom-to-top approach: I start at the bottommost clog on the board and delete the largest, most space-filling chain I can see, then work my way upward, doing the same, creating pockets of emptiness that bubbles can fall through to create new chains for my next sweep. I still don’t know exactly how the game measures “flow”, but this approach at least gets things moving all over.

Having done that, I zoomed through the next six levels in short order. They continue in the same pattern of alternating levels with time pressure with levels without. I’m finding the levels without to be trivially easy — you’d think that the extra thinking time would allow for tricky puzzles, but I’m finding that it requires more thought to discover efficient tactics for the time-pressure levels. Perhaps this game was calibrated for a different sort of player than myself, but it seems unbalanced to me. Again I think of the choice to present it as a linear series of levels, rather than having them all unlocked from the beginning: the disparity of difficulty probably wouldn’t bother me so much if they were presented as mini-games selected from a list, or a Wario Ware-style grid.

About to lose a fewSo far, I’ve spent more time on that Stream level than on the rest of the game put together, but that could change: level 11, titled “Coathanger”, looks like another toughie. It pours bubbles constantly onto a two-sided platform that swings left and right, and asks you to prevent more than 30 bubbles from falling off. Previous challenges to keep stuff from falling off were more absolute about it: if anything left the screen, it was an immediate loss. On the Coathanger, the level designer knows that this is an unreasonable demand. A certain amount of slop is inevitable. And by allowing it, they gain the freedom to make the level that much harder.


Level 1Too weary to launch into a major game on getting home from work, I instead look for something simple and casual that I can play on a laptop on the bus. I think I got Chains as part of the same Steam indie pack as Obulis, and, like Obulis, it seems designed for playing on phones — although I think I vaguely remember playing a PC demo for it some time back, or at least for something very similar, involving colored bubbles of varying size.

The basic mechanic is that bubbles fall from the top of the screen, and the player can delete them by tracing a chain — a path that joins together three or more like-colored bubbles. The chain can zigzag arbitrarily, but each link mush be sufficiently close to the last. I suppose it’s in the general family of “match-3” games like Bejeweled, but it differs from most in that it’s continuous rather than grid-based. I suppose Zuma fits that description as well, but there’s a little more physics going on here. Bubbles have weight and momentum, and bounce off each other somewhat.

Given the above mechanic, what does the game do with it? One can imagine various different goals and rules that work with deleting chains, and rather than choose one such, the developers here apparently chose to implement everything they could think of. There are 20 levels, and rather than just varying the board layout, each level is effectively a different game. When you complete a level and unlock the next, it asks you if you want to go on or stay on the same level. This would be a strange thing to ask in most level-based games, but here? Here it’s more like asking “Do you want to keep on playing Bejeweled or would you like to switch to Tetris instead?” I feel a little like structuring the game as a sequence of levels is unnecessary, that it would be better to just have them all unlocked from the beginning so that you can just choose whatever game you feel like from the main menu.

Incedentally, I choose the particulars of that simile — Bejeweled and Tetris — because those are more or less the paradigms for the first two levels. In the first, the bubbles are all the same size and contained in vertical columns, forcing a grid-like formation, and additional bubbles fall in only to replace the ones you delete. There’s no time pressure here, and no real risk of failure: you just keep making chains until you’ve deleted 100 bubbles, at which point you win. (At one point, I thought I had run out of possible moves, but that was because I hadn’t yet realized that you could connect chains across the solid-looking column walls.) Level 2 isn’t nearly as Tetris-like as level 1 is Bejeweled-like, but it shares the fundamentals: things piling up inexorably over time, with the player frantically trying to delete stuff before it piles up too far. The model here is that bubbles are constantly falling into a bin with a hinged bottom, held shut by a pulley and counterweight. If the weight of the bubbles exceeds that of the counterweight, the bubbles start to leak out the bottom and you lose. Which seems like a rather fancy way to say “don’t let things pile up too much in the bin”, but if you’ve already got the physics, why not?

Oh no!Level 3 is a quick one: it gives you several columns of bubbles in different sizes and point values (the value being determined by the size), and asks you to make a chain with a specific value. You might need to delete some stuff to make this possible, in which case, as in level 1, more bubbles will fall from the top to replace the ones deleted, but it’s basically a simple exercise in addition, similar to making change. The level after that is another time-pressure one, and difficult enough that I haven’t got past it yet. In a way, it’s the opposite of level 2: instead of keeping the bubbles on the screen, you’re told to “keep the stream flowing for five minutes”. The “stream” in question is a gently-curving frame with a couple of small barriers suspended in the middle to create blockages, which obviously you have to clear. The big difficulty with this is the ambiguity about what it means by “flowing”. Does it judge it by the rate at which things are entering from the top? The rate at which they’re leaving the bottom? The average downward velocity among all the bubbles? These are different goals, that require different approaches. There’s a (subtle and easy-to-miss) meter on the screen giving your current rate of flow, and you lose when it reports a flow rate of 0, but it seems to lag behind events a little; sometimes I lose at a moment when I’ve just cleared a major blockage and things are moving freely past both barriers again.

So far, both of the time-pressure levels are much more difficult than either of the others. What’s more, I don’t think the time-pressure levels are as well-suited for my purposes. Part of the appeal of casual games is the idea that you can pick them up and put them down whenever you feel like it, with no significant loss of state. The Stream level here requires you to play it continuously for five minutes. Sure, that’s not a large time commitment, but if I’m playing while I’m waiting for the bus, and the bus arrives four minutes into the level, I feel a little put out. Sure, you can pause the game, but that interferes with flow.