In recent years, the adventure genre has shown a noticeable trend away from puzzles as a primary focus. Oh, sure, there are always new conundrums to solve, but often now they’re secondary considerations, their frequency scaled back and their challenge toned down. Gone are the heady days of text adventures and their equally cerebral graphic brethren, replaced by an emphasis on that hottest of buzzwords: accessibility. One result is the "casual adventure" (for lack of a better term) that we’ve looked at before. To one degree or another, many gamers celebrate this transition as a positive change, but for others the question remains:
Where have all the puzzles gone?
There isn’t just one answer to that question, but one that leaps immediately to mind (rather literally, as you’ll soon discover) is the one you’d least expect... puzzles have moved into platformers.
You might think the “puzzle-platformer” is almost an oxymoron – one demanding logic, thought, and strategy; the other reflex, adrenaline, and dexterity. But rather than being diametrically opposed, more and more the need for both skillsets is being merged together in a new form of cross-genre hybrid. Nowhere is this more evident than in three independent productions released in recent months, Braid, And Yet It Moves, and World of Goo. With these games, the “thinking person’s platformer” has officially arrived.
Okay, to be fair, there’s nothing actually new about platformer puzzles: from Lemmings to Lost Vikings to Super Mario, there’s always been some layer of tactical planning involved. Still, as is happening on other fronts, it seems the platforming envelope is being pushed in welcome, intelligent ways, so it’s worth taking a closer look at these titles that oh-so-appropriately take the puzzle-solving experience to a whole new level.
Before we move on, however, let me make clear that these are not adventure games. And unlike the superb genre-defying Portal, the lack of any relevant narrative framework means they really don’t even qualify for honourary adventure status. But on behalf of puzzle fans everywhere, whether adventure gamers choose to follow or not, this article is simply a single, curious step outside of the usual comfort zone and into a brave new world of puzzles, platforms, and a whole lot of goo.
At first glance, Braid has all the appearances of a traditional side-scrolling platformer… Wait, scratch that. At first glance, Braid appears to be one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous platformers ever made. Meticulously hand-painted in a vivid watercolour style, Braid’s luscious landscapes are filled with swirling clouds, chiseled cliffs, majestic mountains, and crystalline caves. Plus a handful of inconveniently-placed ledges, locked doors, walking disembodied heads, keys, and a little dude in a blazer and tie named Tim.
Tim, of course, is you, and he looks like anything but your typical action hero. Which is good, because this is anything but a typical action game. The setup will sound familiar, but the implementation is not. Over the course of six “worlds”, accessed through a central hub in Tim’s house, players must overcome the physical obstacles in as many as eight stages each in order to collect jigsaw puzzle pieces and reach the exit. Braid’s own “How to Play” screen teasingly emphasizes the standard elements, listing only the following:
- Press Spacebar to jump.
- Bounce on monsters’ heads to get higher.
- Collect puzzle pieces
Sounds simple enough, but really that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and precisely where you can kiss all the normal platforming familiarity goodbye. Whereas most platformers make level completion the ultimate goal of each large, sprawling stage, here you can reach an exit merely by walking calmly across the fairly confined screens in most cases. You won’t be able to finish the game that way, however, as the final world is accessible only by collecting each and every puzzle piece in the preceding worlds. And that, to put it rather bluntly, can be pretty freaking tough to accomplish.
While you might think the difficulty lies in defeating monsters and performing outrageous acrobatics, you’d be wrong. There are certainly some tricky jumps along the way, but they’re surprisingly few and far between. And where time is often your opponent in platformers, here it’s your one and only ally. You see, Tim is a rather unremarkable specimen, as he’s only able to climb ladders and make small jumps, and has no weapons to aid him. What he does have, however, is a mastery over time. Or at least, a very unique connection to time, and it’s this connection that forms the basis of Braid’s many puzzles.
Throughout the game, players have the power to “rewind” time at the press of a button (and fast-forward back to the current moment if so desired). Similar to The Last Express and the recent Prince of Persia games in that respect, here the ability is far more pervasive, allowing Tim to go back mere seconds to reverse a bad jump or death, move all the way back to the start of a level if necessary, or stop anywhere in between. Rather than merely offering you a second chance, however, here it’s an integral part of the gameplay, because different elements react differently to the change in time stream. In one world, for example, certain highlighted platforms are immune to the passage of time in either direction, while in another, you can create a shadowy “past” image of yourself that mimics your physical body and interacts with shadow elements accordingly. There are even a couple of "boss" fights, but these are also defeated through time manipulation rather than brute force.
Each world has its own unique element that continually introduces new challenges just as you’re getting comfortable with the last. My personal favourites were the levels in which merely walking left on the screen causes a reversal of time while walking right represents the normal temporal flow (with special acknowledgement of the Donkey Kong-inspired scenario), and for a real change of pace (in every way), the stages allowing you to create a “slow down” time bubble. Clever, clever stuff, forcing you to constantly think outside the box.
In fact, perhaps a little too much so. If there’s a complaint about Braid, it’s that it can start to feel almost relentlessly punishing. The puzzles range from moderately straightforward (which you can probably count on one hand) to the darn-near diabolical (how many hands have you got?). Oh yes, rest assured that your brain will be seriously straining at times to reach that one solution that feels so near and yet ever remains just out of your grasp… only to be followed by the next, as there’s really nothing else to do otherwise. You can move in and out of each world’s levels as you please, and even move between worlds at times, but since every puzzle piece is ultimately necessary, such freedom is only temporary.
The game does little to ease potential frustration, either, almost going out of its way to avoid providing any support. For example, at the start of the game, simple onscreen prompts appear to show you what button to press for certain actions, creating the early impression of user-friendliness. But this is done only for the most basic controls, which are so simplistic as to hardly warrant the guidance. The time element, on the other hand, is never even mentioned, and certainly no hints as to the nature of each world’s “trick” is offered. Of course, that’s part of the challenge and you’ll figure it out eventually, but at times it feels like the game would rather see you fail than succeed, or at least see your patience eroded in the process. If there’s a middle ground, Braid makes little effort to find it, and a little more balance might have gone a long way.
Adding to the difficulty is that some of the challenges themselves are time-dependent… or, well, even more time-dependent than others, in real player time. Switches might begin timers on objects that aren’t yet even visible, or moving obstacles will be past the point of no return before you even know they exist. You can try as often as you like, and the levels are so small that you’ll piece it together soon enough, but some of the puzzles simply don’t seem as reasonable, though none could ever be considered downright unfair.
The controls themselves, at least, are brain-dead easy. Using either the keyboard or gamepad, you’ll have fully learned everything there is to know about three minutes in. I preferred to kick back with an Xbox 360 controller (and since the game was first released on that platform, the configuration was already fully optimized), but the keyboard controls are totally intuitive, so there’s no reason to have any trouble moving Tim around.
There is a reason for Tim’s platforming adventure, though it comes with a significant “but”. Told only through text in a series of books discovered at the start of each world, the tale is ostensibly one of lost love, as Tim is pursuing a princess who was taken from him by a monster when he made crucial mistakes in the relationship. The account of what transpired, however, soon begins to diverge in esoteric directions that makes the narrative hard to follow, which can come across as either romantically poetic or needlessly obscure depending on how mentally fried you are when you reach the next installment. There is good reason for that, however, as Braid purportedly conceals a deeper theme, though I won’t dare reveal the underlying premise here. Mind you, the game doesn’t ever reveal it either, so you may need to do some research online, but if you do play the game, save it for when you’re done.
Regrettably, there’s never any recognizable connection between this backstory and the gameplay. Even delving into the meaning-within-the-meaning, nothing enlightening is uncovered in the gameplay levels, and collecting puzzle pieces has no bearing on the outcome other than unlocking the final world. That said, the ending is a doozy that’s well worth playing through to achieve. Again, I won’t give anything away, but suffice it to say that players will encounter the only truly timed level in the game, followed by the need to re-program your understanding of time all over again.
Not to be overshadowed by the visual splendour of Braid is its soundtrack, which is as diverse as it is excellent. Some tunes sound as if they come from the Highlands, while others are distinctly eastern-flavoured, to name but two of the many different varieties. It’s all very moody, setting a wonderful atmosphere that somehow never manages to feel overdone, no matter how long you spend trying to get that last… bloody… puzzle… piece!!
Braid trailer from David Hellman on Vimeo.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Braid is almost entirely a one-man production, designed by Jonathan Blow with a key contribution from artist David Hellman, making the game a pretty phenomenal achievement. It’s this kind of game that represents the very best of independent development, as it’s hard to imagine such a concept getting the financial backing of a major publisher. But Braid wisely embraces its limitations. It’s a “small” game, and yet it's unlikely to take anyone less than eight hours to get through it, and that probably includes several peeks at a walkthrough, which I openly admit to taking myself. (Hey, I said I was hard!) That’s because every single moment in the game adds value to the experience – in fact, given the constant manipulation of time, most moments offer multiple sources of value, forwards and backwards alike. And if that doesn’t make sense, you’re all set for Braid.
Speaking of time, it’s funny, but in describing this game, I can’t help but think I’ve been pulled back to another product from another era: a small team makes a new kind of game that challenges the accepted norms of its genre, creating beautiful, serene worlds filled with obtuse, often brutally difficult puzzles and punctuated by a remarkably touching backstory. But no, it’s not Myst this time, it’s Braid. And no, it’s not an adventure, but a unique kind of puzzle-platformer. Beneath the surface, though, where their value truly lies, they really aren’t so different after all.
Page 1 exit reached. Advance to the next level: And Yet It Moves.
And Yet It Moves
Most games, and platformers in particular, operate under the standard principle of “If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet must go to the mountain.” And Yet It Moves turns that concept on its head. And sides. And back on its feet again at times. Oh, you still need to maneuver yourself through a series of tricky physical obstacles in order to reach your goal, but in this game you do it mainly by manipulating the game world itself.
Created by the aptly-named Austrian developer Broken Rules (and initially begun as a game design project at Vienna University), And Yet It Moves is another remarkably unique take on the puzzle-platformer. Over the course of 16 distinct chapters, the goal is traditional enough, as you simply need to reach a pre-determined end point to proceed. However, there are no items to collect, no power-ups, no weapons, and no monsters (as such) along the way. Instead, what you’ll face is a series of hazardous natural habitats that can’t be navigated by natural means. Good thing you have the ability to rotate the landscape in 90- and 180-degree increments.
Much like time is the focus of Braid, this mastery over orientation is the crux of AYIM’s gameplay. In fact, it’s safe to say that this particular gimmick is really all there is. Fortunately, thanks to some clever level design filled with a variety of obstacles and traps, it allows for a surprising degree of complexity. Add in the fact that it’s wrapped up in a thoroughly charming 2D paper cut-out aesthetic, and there’s more than enough motivation to play through the four hours or so it will take to complete.
Your power over the environment does not include any effect on gravity, which always pulls objects “down” (meaning, towards the bottom of the screen). That includes you, so the trick is to use this physical law to your advantage. If your only way “forward” (not in the sense of side-scrolling linearity) is by reaching a ledge that’s currently above you, simply tap the flip button and you’ll find yourself falling toward that same ledge, now beneath you. A jump to a different ledge just a little out of range to either side will need a quick tap of the correct 90-degree rotation button to “fall” that extra distance, before switching back to land on solid ground again. It’s incredibly basic in concept, yet rather devilishly unintuitive. It’ll be some time before you stop thinking in terms of what you can do.
Gravity isn’t always your friend, of course. You can only fall so far before dying (which you’ll do many, many times by bursting into little paper pieces with a resounding “Tsutch!”), but sometimes the real danger isn’t distance but momentum. Even as you’re busy turning the world around you, the longer your character remains suspended in mid-air, the more speed you’re actively building up, even if you aren’t visibly moving anywhere. (It’s science – don’t ask me to explain it any better than that.) This becomes even more crucial when later levels introduce swinging platforms, as harmless-looking swings can easily result in spectacular face plants if you don’t account for unintended propulsion. Such an element is perfectly reasonable, although on more than a few occasions I questioned the fairness of its execution. There were times I cringed in anticipation of expected splattage only to touch down safely, while at other times I was stunned by my character’s sudden fragility.
To keep the challenge maintained throughout, the levels introduce more overt traps along the way. Loose boulders will need to be avoided (their threat coming from your effect on the environment, no less), for example, while large animals will block your path and need to be fed or scared off by steering natural objects toward them. Some of these prove a breath of fresh air, while others are more frustration than they’re worth. It can be particularly difficult to guide loose items where you want them, so at those times you may feel like you’re fighting the mechanics rather than applying them ingeniously. Either way, most of these are offered only once, then you’ll never see the same one again.
Later on, AYIM adds even more obstacles in the form of moving and disappearing platforms, small mazes to navigate with both your own character and a “shadow” version mirroring your movements, and even a Simon-type pattern sequence. Apart from the latter, you’ll face these challenges multiple times, and they get progressively harder as you go. While I didn’t resent the difficulty, these obstacles do seem far more contrived than the earlier levels, as if the developers realized they’d taken the idea as far as they could without relying on such game-y conventions as these. It’s anything but a deal-breaker, but it does impact the game’s continuity.
Mind you, And Yet It Moves can justify any stylistic choices at all, as there is no storyline whatsoever tying the experience together. The main character is simply a unnamed protagonist with loping strides and long, wavy hair, with no background, motivation, or reason given for his predicament. He doesn’t even possess any colour, presented merely as a plain black and white pencil sketch. Any other details are left totally to the imagination. This decision is quite all right for a game of this sort, but it’s a credit to Broken Rules that I actually wanted there to be a narrative to uncover. The world of AYIM is so surreal, I wished to know more about it rather than merely be a clueless passenger travelling through.
The game’s unique art style is largely responsible for this appeal. Resembling a collage of ripped paper images of stony caverns and lush (if somewhat disturbing) vegetation, with the occasional rain shower or magma fires mixed in for good measure, the visuals can’t be called traditionally attractive, but there’s an engrossing rawness to the design. There's a lack of overall variety, but none of the environments really overstay their welcome. Any other complaints are minor, from the occasional trouble in distinguishing ledges from background art in denser areas to the tightness of the game-controlled camera, which sometimes leaves you unsure of what's facing you. Fortunately, the world rotation is animated smoothly. It’s not the nausea-inducing experience it might seem, pausing briefly before gliding smoothly to your selected orientation. On the sound front, AYIM is even more sparing than the graphics, with only the occasional subtle musical interlude interrupting the footfall and ambient weather effects of wind, water, and thunder, but this understatement suits it perfectly. At least until the end, when a techno-style track becomes a bit more pronounced for some reason.
Getting to the finale (followed by a brilliant “level” for the end credits themselves) is no small feat, but not because of any complexity on the interface front. Whether using a gamepad or keyboard, the demands are limited to running right and left, a very short jump ability (it’s true, white men can’t jump!), and the rotation option. Simple stuff. So simple, in fact, that you’ll kick yourself when you pivot the world in the wrong direction time and time again, but it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds. Still, its difficulty lies in using the controls correctly rather than in any great display of reflex actions. A few multi-turn sequences tripped me up (down?) briefly, but never for long, and if you find yourself having particular trouble, chances are you’re actually overlooking an easier approach. And Yet It Moves is simply not a game of taxing dexterity, though some is certainly required.
When you do die, you’re simply sent back to the latest checkpoint, represented by transparent versions of your character that point you where to go next. Generally these are spaced adequately, though sometimes the gap between them seems longer than others. Even so, chances are you’ll whip through many of the levels in 10-15 minutes, which keeps the pace moving nicely, and the game auto-saves your progress at every level completion. It’s not a long experience, then, but what it lacks in length it generally makes up for with its rewarding atmosphere and gameplay. All in all, it’s a nice mix of thinking and doing that’s quite unlike anything else, so if you like your platformers with a twist, you’ll find exactly that in And Yet It Moves… literally.
Page 2 exit reached. Advance to the final level: World of Goo.
World of Goo
Last but definitely not least in this puzzling triumvirate is 2D Boy’s World of Goo, which takes its “platformer” label the most literally of the three. Rather than merely asking players to maneuver from one platform to the next, here you typically do so by becoming one yourself. Goo Balls, you see, are … well… gooey little blobs that can be assembled with others to construct towers and bridges and other gap-defying structures. The goal of each of the game’s 50-odd levels is to safely guide a predetermined number of Goo Balls to a suction pipe at the other side of a seemingly insurmountable chasm, whether to one side, above, or even below you at times. Sounds simple, no? Well, simple it is… easy it’s not.
The most common type of grey Goo Ball works largely like the popular building set K’nex. They can be attached to other goos at (roughly) 45 or 90-degree angles, establishing an elastic strand between them as a connection that stretches your newly-formed structure. The first and most obvious obstacle, of course, is basic physics. Goo Balls aren’t heavy, but like a house of cards, gravity will wreak havoc on longer, poorly-supported structures. And unlike real life bridges, which can be supported from both sides, here you’re always working from one side only, making your construction even more tenuous.
And then there’s “goo physics”. Okay, really that’s just basic science at work as well, but it sure starts to seem like something altogether new. For one thing, goo is not solid, and even your connected strands are semi-flexible, so your structures are vulnerable not only to gravity, but to severe balancing issues as well. The latter is further compounded by the presence of the very Goo Balls you’re trying to rescue. All the unused goos will travel randomly around any connections, causing your already-teetering tower to wobble like nobody’s business. Thanks for nothing, guys! The trick, then, is to counteract these challenges with a proper foundation on all available sides. The problem is, you have only so many Goo Balls to work with if you’re to save the requisite number at the other end. Oh, and did I mention that many levels have additional hazards like gusting winds and deadly spinning gears right smack in your way? Right, you’re building this house of (goo) cards while everyone around you is sneezing.
If this sounds a bit too much like “Sim Architect” to be fun, rest assured (or be forewarned) that each of the game’s four chapters introduces new coloured goo types for a wide range of different challenges. Some goos are like helium balloons while others are flammable; some stick to any surface while others can be hurled like little discs. And while stretching the definition of “goo” about as far as it will go, some are little skulls that protect vulnerable types from spikes and others are actual building blocks of various shapes and sizes. There are still more besides those, so there’s enough variation to keep the gameplay constantly feeling fresh – and conversely, to prevent you from ever feeling too comfortable with your mastery over the current goo set.
Levels are accessed by a largely linear overworld screen, and length can range anywhere from barely over a minute to closer to ten minutes for the more elaborate challenges. That time (clocked and recorded by the game as you go) doesn’t take into account any restarts, however. To help you avoid that necessity (though believe me, not entirely), little white time bugs (or perhaps ghosts of spent goos?) will emerge periodically that “undo” your latest progress when clicked on. The concept is sound for correcting mistakes, but in practice it often doesn’t help that much, at least not without using several in a row. Your latest move may have been the one that finally tipped over your contraption, but you may find it impossible to reverse the inevitable loss of balance it set it motion, so success is hit or miss. The levels are so short (when done right) that this never sets you back too far, but at least a few times I was close to the end goal only to find myself forced to start over again from scratch.
Similar quibbles exist elsewhere in World of Goo. There is a definite need for trial-and-error at times, and learning only by failure can seem needlessly punishing when just a little guidance would have gone a long way. There are no instructions of any kind offered besides obscurely worded messages left for you by the “Sign Painter”, which occasionally provide tips about a major new obstacle. Learning new goo attributes is left entirely to you, and while you’ll quickly grasp the differences, it’s not always totally intuitive at first. There are also several levels where quick building is necessary at key points. It’s not physically taxing by any means, but trying to locate a specific Goo Ball from a cluster or set precise points on a weaving goo monstrosity can be an exercise in frustration. Fortunately, such occasions are rare and any real annoyances are minor overall.
There is no difficulty understanding how to construct your goo platforms, at least. Purely mouse-controlled (or remote-controlled for the Nintendo Wii version), you simply click a Goo Ball, drag it to the desired spot on screen, then release it to attach. Eligible spots are indicated by a faint connecting line, removing most of the guesswork, though sometimes these can be hard to see on lighter backgrounds. The outdoor environments are often bright and cheery with warm pastel colours, while the levels occurring inside a factory are darker and more ominous, and the chapter devoted to the “information superhighway” uses a suitably garish 16-colour computer theme. It’s all very whimsical, giving the game a bemused, lighthearted feel, though the style is very Burton-esque and the Sign Painter’s ongoing writings convey a melancholic attitude toward the fate of the goos and the world they inhabit. The music is equally diverse, ranging from fully orchestrated, almost majestic anthems to cool guitars to the main Danny Elfman-visits-the carnival theme. It’s all excellent work.
The Goo Balls themselves have no dialogue or personal characteristics, but their little eyeballs and vocal blurps and gleeps are charming enough that you’ll start to feel protective of them, which provides all the motivation you need to rescue as many as you can. If you do need more, there’s a much tougher “OCD” target that ramps ups the challenge considerably, but you can manually advance as soon as you’ve hit the minimum requirement. The total number of goos above and beyond the necessary quota are saved and sent to a sandbox zone called the “World of Goo Corporation”, where you’re challenged to simply build a tower as high as you can. I didn’t bother, being much more interested in the story-based campaign.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the “storyline” as it’s presented, mainly because it just doesn’t make much sense. Each of the game’s chapters, plus a short epilogue level, conveys its own distinct season and themes, including a giant power source, the creation of a new beauty product, the unveiling of a powerful weapon, and the presence of a supercomputer with spambot tendencies. There are certainly hints at a deeper narrative at play here, but given the ambiguous nature of the messages left behind, I don’t imagine the developers really intended players to follow a cohesive plot, and frankly, just trying to make sense of it turns my mind to goo.
Even after the particularly confounding final destination, I still don’t fully understood the meaning of it all, but I do know how fully entertaining the journey itself was. All told, it took me under ten hours of actual game time, and there was never a dull moment. A few invectives hurled during the toughest parts, perhaps, but never boredom. In fact, the atmosphere is so charming, the levels so manageable, and the gameplay so enjoyable that I found myself pulled into that “just… one… more” mindset that wouldn’t let me break away. And when all is said and done, there’s no more fitting endorsement than to say: give it a try and World of Goo will suck you right in.