Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Facing the End

So, it turns out that the backstory of Stephen’s Sausage Roll totally goes there, but not quite in the way I had expected. The feel is less squick than melancholy. Sadness at the passing of a civilization, at the loss not just of its physical forms, its buildings reduced to ruins and its people grotesquely dehumanized, but of its past, as all the knowledge that the people sought to preserve all their lives vanishes with no one to remember it. Like Link on Koholint, it’s questionable whether anything that happens on the island is anything more than a dream — a lingering dream of the doomed and dead, that confuses and combines the old celebratory feasts with the funeral rites that dominated their final days. Preparing the dead meat for its final rest.

This concern with legacy even informs the final few puzzles. The final chapter is largely concerned with puzzles that have mobile components other than sausages, and one of the things you notice as you go along is that they’re only mobile in puzzle mode. Once you’ve solved the puzzle, they’re frozen in their final positions. Some places take advantage of this to control exploration: solving a puzzle might require pushing some blocks to form a bridge to the grill, and once you’re outside the puzzle and the rest of the world comes back, you use the same bridge to advance to the next puzzle. But this isn’t something you really have to think about until the last few puzzles, where you can easily cook all the sausages and still leave things arranged wrong, blocking off further progress. It isn’t enough to deal with the remnants of the past. You now have to think about the future as well. This is the game’s last big twist.

The climactic puzzle makes it almost inevitable that you’ll mess this up at first. I honestly thought it was just a victory lap, a puzzle in name only that just gives you a whole bunch of sausages in an open space with nothing preventing you from cooking them, as a reward for getting through everything else. I should have known SSR would never do anything that friendly. It is, instead, a puzzle that’s all about setting things up so you can climb a spire after the puzzle is closed. The sausages are basically irrelevant. The game had the power to make difficult non-sausage-based puzzles all along and is only now pointing this out.

And after you’ve done that, then comes the real victory lap: the grills throughout the world light up outside of puzzle mode. Finally, you can cook the remaining overworld sausages! I observed before that you always have the ability to walk all the way back to the beginning of the game, if you’re so inclined, and now the game motivates you to do so. To revisit in reverse all the places where you spent so much time. The people of the island strove to preserve their memories and memorials, and now you have memories of your own associated with the island. So of course you share their fate in the end. In another game, this would come off as cheap irony, but here, it’s really the only possible way to cap off the game’s themes.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Compound Puzzles

I’m still in what I believe to be the final stretch. It’s a long stretch, and the puzzles are getting monumentally difficult. Clearing just one per session feels like an accomplishment.

The DROD fandom uses the word “lynchpin” for a puzzle’s crucial insight, the non-obvious realization that enables you to solve the whole thing. A lot of DROD puzzles consist of a lynchpin plus a bunch of tactical maneuvering. I’m finding that a lot of the later puzzles in SSR have multiple lynchpins. You tinker with a puzzle for a while without getting anywhere, and then you realize “Wait, I can push this thing over by this ladder and stick my fork in this gap and lift the whole thing out of the water!” or whatever, and that opens up new possibilities, but it doesn’t solve the puzzle. It just gives you the tools you need to start thinking about the real puzzle. I’ve also seen a puzzle or two that are just outright multi-stage affairs, where you have to get a sausage from its starting position to the grill with a series of unrelated mini-puzzles along the way.

Once again, this stands in contrast to A Monster’s Expedition, where every island is small and elegant. Ah, but AME has larger puzzles that span multiple islands. I suppose the difference in feel has to do with the sense of what the smallest unit of puzzle is. In AME, where boundaries are fluid and every change persists, you can frequently think of the different parts of a compound puzzle as separate puzzles. SSR doesn’t allow that. Puzzles are sharply defined, with discrete conditions for entering the puzzle and leaving it, and if you leave without solving all of it, you haven’t solved any of it.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Twists and Turns

Heavy spoiler for puzzle content continue here. This is one of those games that it’s impossible to talk about in any depth without spoiling puzzles. It’s a game of twists and turns, and the twists and turns take the form of breakthroughs in solving puzzles.

I’ve been describing the levels in SSR as being grouped into “worlds”, but in another sense, it’s all one world: one environment, with puzzles embedded in it. You can just walk all the way back to the beginning whenever you want. Individual puzzles, however, are self-contained. When you activate one, the rest of the world literally falls away, sinking into the water to temporarily isolate you. Two other changes happen at the same time: the grills light up, and certain immovable pink boxes with their own special shader turn into sausages. When you grill all the sausages, some unseen force eats them, removing the pink boxes from the overworld. There are also green boxes that turn into sausages when you complete all the puzzles in what I’ve been calling a “world”. The green box sausages are thus available in the overworld between the puzzles, and are used to reach the next world, typically by pushing them into a gap so you can walk across it.

That’s the pattern for the first five worlds, but the sixth breaks it in all kinds of ways. It all starts with a puzzle that appears to be absolutely impossible, because it gives you a sausage to grill and no grill to do it with. This puzzle is actually accessible from world 5, but can’t be solved until you you’ve solved all the world 5 puzzles and, by so doing, have a green box sausage that isn’t on bridge duty. That’s the first twist: that you can bring sausages into puzzles just by physically bringing them into the puzzle and leaving them lying on non-sinking ground. Suddenly the puzzles aren’t self-contained any more. The second twist is that you can keep stuff from sinking by wedging a sausage under it. It has to be a very specific sort of terrain feature: something with an overhead protrusion right next to the puzzle, so that a single sausage can lie half on the puzzle ground and half under the thing you want it to hold up. Up to this point, the sinking of the ground around the puzzle seemed like just a graphical flourish, but this twist establishes it as something physically real, and capable of physical interactions with puzzle elements.

And once your habits and assumptions have been so thoroughly upset, this immediately becomes the theme for all of the following puzzles. I had been thinking of the unlocking of green boxes as the thing that defines the boundaries between worlds, but now, every single puzzle unlocks one or more green boxes, giving you overworld sausages to use in the next puzzle.

Will there be more twists that alter the basic nature of the game in even bigger ways? Maybe not. Several things suggest that it’s all coming to a climax. For one thing, I’ve reached a point where the island curves back on itself, so that I can see the little wrecked boat where the game starts. That seems like an endgame thing. For another, there’s the plaques. Each world has an informational plaque or two in a prominent place, giving a little piece of the island’s history. In this gauntlet of green boxes, where every puzzle lets you go a little farther, there’s a plaque after every puzzle, giving you backstory at a much faster but still maddeningly slow rate. Right now, I’m at a point that seems like it’s just short of confirming all my worst suspicions, and it casts a lingering sense of dread over the whole game. It’s like A Monster’s Expedition crossed with Silent Hill 2.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: The Fork

Puzzle spoilers ahead. (Puzzle spoilers are the worst kind. According to studies, plot spoilers actually increase people’s enjoyment of a story. I’m a bit skeptical about that myself, and suspect that it doesn’t really apply to all kinds of story, but even so, it’s undeniable that plot spoilers hurt a story less than puzzle spoilers hurt a puzzle. The pleasure of a puzzle lies mostly in the process of figuring it out.)

The puzzles in world 5 become a lot easier once you’ve solved even just one of them, because once you’ve done that, you know their uniting theme. It’s even a theme that I was anticipating: the first time I accidentally lost my fork back in world 3, my reaction was “There are going to be puzzles based around making you do this deliberately, aren’t there?”

And that’s a tricky thing to require of the player! When it first happened, I didn’t really understand what I had done wrong, or how to reproduce it. It turns out to be fairly simple, once you know how. You just have to put yourself into a situation where you’re falling but the fork isn’t, separated by a cliff edge. And since you’re not permitted to just walk off cliffs directly, the only way to fall is to do it while riding a sausage.

After you’ve dropped your fork, you can pick it up again just by being in the right position to do so, standing at the handle end and facing it. In fact, this happens automatically, and that can be a problem. You can’t tell the player character that it’s not time to pick up the fork yet. One of the reasons to drop your fork is to get it past an obstacle that you can’t pass while holding it. To do this without inadvertently picking it up, you might need to walk backwards, so the player character can’t see what they’re pushing.

I spoke before about how the controls are alienating. Fork-dropping puzzles are alienating in the specific sense that they clash with the instinct to identify with the player character. In these puzzles, you’re tricking the player character into doing what you want. The PC has a number of automatic behaviors that aren’t under your direct control — not dropping the fork, not stepping off cliffs, picking up the fork whenever possible — and your job is to fight them. In a strange way, it reminds me of The Fall, an adventure game where you play an AI with constraints on its behavior, where the puzzles are largely solved by deliberately provoking emergencies for the sake of the emergency powers they grant you.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Some Patterns

By now, I’ve blown past where I stopped playing Stephen’s Sausage Roll the first time. Back then, I had gotten stuck on the third world, the cold-themed world. Having now gotten through that, I took world 4 at a leap, and am now having trouble getting started at all in world 5. The game reminds me of this at the start of each session: your initial position is at the location of the last puzzle you solved, which, for me, is pointedly still in world 4.

By now, I’m noticing repeated structures. If there are three grill tiles in an L shape that’s accessible from only one side, that’s recognizable as a device for completely grilling a single sausage in a specific orientation. Quite a few levels in world 4 contain a small tower with a ladder up it, with a 3×3 cross section and a little knob in the center of the top. The usual purpose of such towers: you can climb up with a sausage stuck to your fork, pull the sausage off against the knob, and then push it off the edge to stack it on top of another sausage waiting below. If the knob also has a ladder, you need to use it get on top of the sausage yourself before you roll it off the edge by trying to walk crosswise.

And sometimes there are passageways you can’t traverse with your fork, an effect produced by the constraints of ladders and/or inconveniently placed pillars. This is most commonly a pattern that means exit route: you can’t go that way, but you can come back through it.

Return to Stephen’s Sausage Roll

A Monster’s Expedition reminded me enough of Stephen’s Sausage Roll that I had to pull it out and give it another try, starting over from the beginning and hoping to finish it this time. And playing the one right after the other, it’s striking how vastly different their attitudes are. AME is the “good twin” here, all gentle and welcoming. SSR wants to make you uncomfortable. Suspiciously tinkly music that occasionally goes discordant, noisy and unclear textures, weird movement rules — in AME, pressing an arrow key always just attempts to move you in that direction, but in SSR, what it does depends on your orientation. Even after playing for most of a day, I still spend a lot of my time fruitlessly pivoting in place.

And when you do move, you have to be careful to avoid smacking sausages into the wrong place with your fork, because you take up two tiles and it’s awkward. The easiest way to avoid trouble is to walk backwards most of the time. You can’t just walk up to a ladder and climb it, because you can’t reach it past your fork; you have to back up to it, then turn and climb it sideways. Once you’re at the top of the ladder, the controls make it impossible to turn to face it, because pressing in that direction will just make you climb back down. An inadvertant flaw? No: there are puzzles based around it. I’d complain about the controls a lot more if I didn’t think they were deliberately alienating.

And when you make a mistake, you can explicitly fail. Burning a sausage, or knocking it off the island, results in a big failure message and the necessity of undoing or resetting the puzzle (although I notice that you can keep on playing while the message is up). AME never did that. That is, it’s certainly possible to render a puzzle unsolvable in AME, but it never tells you that you failed.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll and English Country Tune

I’ve started replaying English Country Tune for comparison purposes. Taken at a highly abstract level, it really is a lot like Stephen’s Sausage Roll. Both are basically games about pushing things to destinations in a tile-based 3D evironment, with identical controls for navigating and rewinding. The biggest difference is that ECT is more thoroughly 3D: you can move on any surface of the agglomeration of blocks you’re clinging to, and the direction of gravity is highly conditional.

Both games consist of groups of puzzles which unlock other groups of puzzles when completed, but ECT handles this fairly abstractly, through what amounts to a menu, even if it is a strangely-presented one. SSR links its puzzle together much more cleverly. The “menu” you use to select puzzles is an island, which you navigate in exactly the same way as you navigate the puzzles. But that’s not all. Each puzzle consists of an isolated patch of ground, in a particular shape, with grills and so forth, in the middle of a large body of water. The island is literally composed of the terrain of all the puzzles, pieced together like a jigsaw.

ECT has a weird and unsettling atmosphere. Despite the name, its music consists largely of ambient organ chords with a lot of tension in them. Everything in the puzzles is sharply geometric, but artificial dust motes drift around, creating a sense of decay. Restarting a puzzle briefly makes a cloud of black pixels swarm around you like flies. Things that look innocently abstract have unsettling names: the first puzzle asks you to move a ball to a goal spot, but it refers to the ball as a “larva” and the goal as an “incubation chamber”. Some later puzzles involve a cube that projects light beams. This is called a “whale”. It’s all very alien.

I’ve noted feeling a sense of menace in SSR, but it’s a great deal more restrained about it, which might make it worse. Sausages are a singularly fraught thing to base a game around, being both phallic symbols and meat products. There are plaques that mention how there used to be a great civilization on the island, and my first thought on learning that was “What happened to them? Were they made into sausages?” But the game has so far refused to address such fancies, staying firmly in a straight-faced realm of childish tinkly music and sloppily pixeled building blocks. “What? It’s just sausages”, it seems to say.

Now, I’m only up to the third set of puzzles in SSR. But so far, the puzzles as a whole have had a greater cohesion than ECT. ECT is essentially based around an interface for moving around on the surface of a solid made of cubes, and the various puzzle sets explore different mechanisms for exploiting that: one world for pushing larvae into incubation chambers, one for whales, another for planting seeds on every face of the surface, etc. In short, new sections change the rules. SSR hasn’t had to do that so far. Some of the rules are latent at first — for example, you can’t pierce a sausage with your fork until you you have something to push against. But the actual mechanics don’t seem to change at all. All that changes is what the puzzles make it possible to exploit. The third set of puzzles has a focus on stacking sausages on top of each other, and on walking on top of sausages, which can cause them to roll backwards. This is stuff that was introduced in the second set of puzzles, but not used to anywhere near the same degree. I’ve noticed that under certain unusual circumstances, it’s possible for me to lose my fork. I expect that I’ll eventually hit a set of levels that requires me to do this deliberately.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Easing Up

Day 2 of playing Stephen’s Sausage Roll found me getting through puzzles much more quickly and smoothly than day 1. I definitely think that taking a break and sleeping on it had a positive effect here. Sometimes that’s what it takes for unfamiliar rules to sink in. One of the first things that you have to get used to in this game is that you have to walk backward a lot of the time, because otherwise your fork gets in the way. At this point, I’m doing that as a matter of course. Where I would previously look at a puzzle for the first time with pure bafflement, now I’m capable of at least identifying goals — this sausage has to go there, etc. — due to my better understanding of how sausages behave.

The game seems to be gated by periodic obstacles such that you have to finish all the puzzles in one section before proceeding to the next. The second section introduces the notion of height. In section 1, the only natural obstacles were grills and gaps in the terrain. In section 2, there are walls, which you can push sausages against to impale them on your fork, then pull them off against another wall. This means there’s a whole new mechanism for the puzzles to explore, but for my part, I find its implications fairly intuitive. Where each puzzle in section 1 was a struggle, to be tried and abandoned and revisited, I’ve completed all but two of the puzzles in section 2 on my first attempt.

Essentially, there are two mechanics that needed to be introduced to the player, one that’s hard to grasp and one that’s easy to grasp. But the hard one had to be introduced first, because it’s the basic movement mechanics. I suppose that subsequent sections will add further complications, as is customary in puzzle games. Given what’s happened so far, I have no idea whether they’ll make things easier or harder than what I’ve seen.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll

OK, yes, I’ve taken the bait. My impression from pre-release screenshots and the like was that Stephen’s Sausage Roll was going to be just another entry in the burgeoning genre of little Puzzlescript-like puzzle games — a genre that the author is no stranger to, as he’s the creator of Puzzlescript. (SSR even uses the same hotkeys!) But the price point seemed awfully high for that. So I asked around, and found out about its testimonials, and now I’ve bought the thing. I suppose you could accuse me of falling prey to the bottled water fallacy, of valuing it more simply because it’s more expensive. But I kind of want there to be more of a market for premium puzzle games, so I’m doing my part to support that.

Also, I did quite like the previous commercial release by the same author, English Country Tune, even if I never completed it. That one got very difficult.

SSR pretty much starts out that way. There are no “beginner” levels that indirectly tutorialize the mechanics; you’re just thrown into the deep end (he says, not yet knowing how deep the real deep end is). There’s a plaque near your initial position that describes the controls, but it seems like something of a joke, because you need to use the controls it describes to reach it. The first few levels are small, but that means they’re cramped, and it’s difficult to make a single move without nudging a sausage into the abyss. Making any progress at all requires multiple non-obvious realizations about basic movement.

The basic mechanics: Your goal on each level is to cook a group of very large sausages by pushing them onto grills, Sokoban-style. (This is not explained explicitly in the game, but once you see what a grill tile does to a sausage, it’s pretty obvious what you’re meant to do.) Sausages are two tiles in size, and both tiles must be cooked. Furthermore, each sausage-tile must be cooked on both sides: pushing a sausage latitudinally rolls it over. Many block-pushing games make a point of removing blocks that have reached their final destination or otherwise been fully processed. That does not happen here, and cooked sausages can become serious obstacles, because pushing a cooked side onto a grill burns it and loses the level, although just leaving a sausage on a grill does not burn it. You have a fork permanently fixed to your front, which can be useful for poking sausages off grills (which are impassible), but which is always in danger of delivering pushes you don’t want. The way it swings as you turn reminds me a little of DROD, even though it controls completely differently. After cooking all the sausages, you have to return to your starting point. I’ve seen one level so far that makes that the hard part, by making it so that the obvious way to cook the sausages leaves them in positions that you can’t get past without smacking them with your fork and burning them.

And that’s about all I have to say for now, because I haven’t yet gotten far enough in to make grand pronouncements about what it all means. Hopefully I’ll be able to make enough progress to say more in my next post, but the prospect feels daunting and even a little menacing right now.