2019, a personal video game retrospective
Last year, I did a sort of year in review post which began with an explanation of the difficulty in creating such a post. I don’t tend to consume a lot of media as it comes out, and… 2019 was even worse in that regard. I think my escapism was fairly concentrated this year in two media: video games and comics. Hopefully I’ll do a second post on the latter after sorting out what all actually came out
this last year. But for now: VIDEO GAMES.
Solo: Islands of the Heart
Solo: Islands of the Heart is, in the words of the developers, “A contemplative puzzler set on a gorgeous and surreal archipelago” wherein the player “Reflect[s] on love’s place in [their] life with a personal and introspective branching narrative.” This sounds like peak me: I love puzzles, surreal landscapes, love, and introspection! To top it off, the game offers some flexibility regarding gender representation; you’re not automatically forced into a binary heteronormative default. I snatched it up pretty quickly after learning about it (and confirming that it at least attempted to be queer-friendly) and completed a run after a few days of casual pick-up-and-put-down play. While I’m not sure that it was quite what I’d hoped it would be, it made enough of an impression on me that I feel the need to write about it. Be warned, there may be some things that resemble spoilers ahead, but the game is very much dependent upon what you put into it, so I’m not even sure spoiling is… a thing.
The basic gist of the game is that you hop around from island to island trying to activate totems. There are two pieces to each; you activate a small one, which shines a light at a large one which you can then talk to. Talking to the large totems asks you a question related to love, after which a new island opens up. There are some other minor puzzles along the way, like helping smitten dogs reach one another or watering gardens; these are all optional and don’t move anything forward in the game. Puzzles involve moving five different types of boxes around, generally so you can move upward to a place you can’t reach, or float via parachute to a far away bit of land. They are, for the most part, pretty simple and somewhat flexible in terms of solving. They can be frustrating in terms of guiding just how high up or far out you need to be to land on that island – suddenly you’re in the water again swimming back to your pile of boxes.
In my experience, there was a considerable disconnect between the ‘do a box puzzle’ and the ‘talk about your love life’ elements. I suspect that part of the idea here is to allow the introspective side of your brain some time to relax by running the lateral thinking bits instead. And, as a whole, I didn’t really mind that disconnect – but it stacked up with other things. I mentioned that it was fairly easy to misjudge just how high or far out you’d need to coax the boxes, lest you plunge into the sea. This happened to me quite a lot, often multiple times on the same puzzle in later stages. Swimming is slow, and faster swimming is achieved by hitting a certain rhythm with the swim button. This decision, too, I can easily justify as an exercise in mindfulness instead of impatiently button-mashing. But these things compound – things start feeling like busy work keeping you at bay while the totems think of something to ask.
Regarding the questions…
The questions the totems ask are not trivial, they run a fairly wide gamut and certainly lend themselves to introspection. Early on, one basically asked if I was polyamorous which… is honestly a very important sort of acknowledgement in a game like this. You’re asked how important things like sex and shared values are; you’re asked if you would abandon your family for a lover. You’re also asked questions that relate more directly to the path you choose at the beginning – that is, are you in love, have you loved and lost, or have you never loved at all. It’s easy, when answering this at the beginning of the game, to fall into the trap of your character being you. And, to be fair, I think that it would be a waste of energy to not align your choices in the game with your personal life and feelings. But, it’s important to keep a bit of distance, as the game will occasionally contradict your answers or dive into things that quite possibly aren’t at all applicable to your situation.
For example, having chosen in earnest the ‘in love once, but not now’ option, I was asked a lot of questions as to why I thought the relationship failed. One was about time, did I think time played a role. After answering ‘no’, the next question basically opened with ‘okay, but time basically had to play into it’, directly contradicting my honest response. This was the first moment where I got annoyed and began to realize I needed to distance myself from the little tiny on-screen version of me that I was shaping. Some of the responses were, to me, absurd to the point of throwing me right out of the game’s depth, such as “You can’t fully hate what you don’t fully love”. But again, the key was to answer honestly while consciously separating myself from my avatar.
About those gender options…
I’d be remiss to not touch on the matter of gender. You can independently choose one of three body styles for your character, and one of three ‘genders’. While the game refers to it as gender and gives you the option of male, female, and non-binary, what it actually means is pronouns. To be clear, I’m glad that they put an effort into making this game inclusive, I’m glad that you can use they/them pronouns. But that’s not gender, and there’s no reason not to call it what it is. Both you and your partner1 get the three options; you can change yours at any time. It’s a root-level option in the pause menu, right with ‘Back to the main menu’ and ‘Settings’. This is absolutely the right way to handle a thing, and should be seen as an example for all developers to follow. Your partner is static upon initial choosing, which… is honestly a little weird, given the player’s flexibility. I would like to see this reconsidered.
I’m glad that I played this game. I’d have to be very cautious in recommending it, however: it’s very short, it’s not great as a puzzle game, and the disconnects mentioned (between puzzle and introspection, between player and avatar) are a little tricky to reckon with. I doubt there’s much in the way of replay value – even writing this, I’d like to go through the beginning again to pull some direct quotations but at the same time… I really don’t want to. I might play through a different path if I find myself in love again, but even that feels like a toss-up. Still, there aren’t a lot of games doing this sort of emotional introspective adventure, and I think there’s a lot of value in it. And even though the matter of gender may be a bit flawed, enough of an attempt was made such that the game feels fairly inclusive (or, at least, not intentionally exclusive).
Baba is Turing Complete (external)
Baba is You is a wonderful puzzle game that has been frustrating the heck out of me lately. Its primary conceit is that puzzles are solved by moving textual blocks around to form subject/predicate constructions that rewrite the rules of the puzzle. Matthew Rodriguez has, as explained in the external link above, implemented Rule 1101 in Baba is You, with a video of the automaton in action on his Twitter feed. Matthew Cook famously proved Rule 110 to be Turing complete, which means (given an infinite grid, blah blah) the grammar and mechanics that make for a puzzle in Baba is You also make for a Turing complete system.
Humorously, the first response on the Twitter post is along the lines of ‘can it play DOOM?’ which… Sure! A Turing machine can theoretically do all of the computations that DOOM makes! Ignoring how much processing power and RAM one would need for this (a convenient thing to ignore, but we’re talking hypotheticals here), folks always seem to jump right from Turing machine to something resembling a modern computer. The only thing on the table is computational ability, and at a bare minimum, one still needs a viable I/O interface in order to do anything beyond turning bits into other bits.
Brains: Japanese Garden
Brains: Japanischer Garten (Japanese Garden) is a
single-player game brain-teaser, if we’re being honest, from Reiner Knizia. With Knizia’s name on it, it’d be easy to assume that it’s actually some sort of solo game, but really it’s a simple set of puzzles based on this theme of a Japanese garden. If anything, it reminds me of those ThinkFun puzzles with the chunky plastic pieces, except this uses seven cardboard tiles and a stack of paper containing the puzzles. Alternatively, there is a mobile app, which I think I would recommend over the physical edition as a simple value proposition. I’m assuming since ‘Brains’ is so much more prominent than the ‘Japanese Garden’ title that perhaps more of these puzzlers are coming down the line from Knizia.
Ruleswise, the puzzle itself is quite simple. The theme is utterly unimportant (though it means we get the lovely art, so that’s something). It’s a well-designed puzzle despite not being particularly unique or groundbreaking. What fascinates me is the whole tile-laying with placement rules as a solo puzzle is actually rather clever, and opens up some thought processes on how one could make puzzles of, say, Carcassonne. I mull from time to time over ways to implement solo Carcassonne play, particularly using the limited tile set of the Demo-spiel. One way that I’ve played has been to use one meeple, and allow her to move a tile per turn in lieu of placement. Moving off of a feature scores it as is, and a meeple is placed on the feature on her side to indicate that the feature has been scored and cannot be scored again. This may or may not warrant its own post (likely not, as I think I just covered everything), but my point is that I’m always looking for a way to throw down tiles by myself. This puzzle-like concept in Brains: Japanese Garden certainly has potential with other tilesets.
Game-in-a-post: Dim Corridor
I’ve been playing with some ideas lately for positionally-based toggle puzzles, similar in concept to the classic ‘Lights Out’ game, though I’ve primarily been thinking about one-dimensional puzzles. My first attempt was far too simplistic and easily beaten, though I have carried some of the ideas along into this little puzzler, which I call the ‘Dim Corridor’. This is a work in progress, but as of this version, the rules are as follows:
- Spaces have three states: lit (■), dim (■), and unlit (■).
- Your goal is to make every space unlit.
- Clicking a space affects both it and its two nearest neighbors: ordinarily this means one space to the left and the right, but either edge affects two spaces toward the inside instead.
- If the clicked space is lit or unlit, it simply toggles to the other
- If the clicked space is dim, it takes on the state of lit or unlit only if exactly one of those two states is represented by the two neighbors. Two dims or one lit and one unlit will keep the clicked space dim.
- If a neighbor space is lit or unlit, it becomes dim.
- If a neighbor space is dim, it becomes whatever the clicked space is. Note that the clicked space is decided first – if it changes, the new state is what the neighbor becomes.