Puzzling platformers

A “puzzle” in a game can mean different things – in games focused on them, a puzzle is traditional – a discrete set of game objects and figuring out how they fit together creates the challenge in the game. In action-oriented games they usually consist of more immediately apparent solutions and serve as a change of pace rather than a challenge in itself. In the former, the goal is to make the player feel smart, in the latter it is to give her respite. In my humble opinion, this causes some genre confusion as a lot of games are being dubbed “Puzzle platformers” without actually being about the puzzles. Also, a lot of people express – professionally and privately – their resentment over the genre citing its ubiquity when I think it’s more about lumping different games together based on superficial similarities.

My personal ideas regarding what constitutes a good puzzle-centric game can be summarized in a few points, and these are some of the central things we strive for in the development of Backworlds;

– The game should not have a heavy focus on precision or timing – if you have figured out a solution to a puzzle I like it being easy to solve. For accessibility reasons, but also to keep the player from guessing whether she is on the wrong track or just unable to perform a tricky maneuver.

– Mysteries and secrets are a cool addition, but I like the puzzles themselves clear and not reliant on hidden or extrinsic information. This is mostly so the game encourages the player to think rather than hunt pixels.

– Every new puzzle should bring something new to the table – if a puzzle has been solved once, another puzzle with small to no differences is just busywork.

… Note that I am not saying that these things are inherently bad in games – not at all! Diversity is a good thing too. I do enjoy the occasional pure cerebral experience though. Speaking of which, here are a few games I think are doing that really well:

Gateways (Smudged Cat Games) can be described as a 2D Portal – only, the portals preserve rotation, scale or time as you create them. It is a technologically impressive and enjoyable game that scales up nicely in difficulty as you unlock new gateway types.

Closure (Glaiel games) is a game where light dictates not only what you can see, but also what exists, what walls are in your way and what platforms you can stand on – the concept of Backworlds is similar to it. Besides having some really good puzzles that skillfully works in an additional difficulty level with optional pickups, it is a very stylish game.

Tetrobot and Co. (Swing Swing Submarine)
is, at its core, more related to Sokoban than a platform game – it is a somewhat more pure puzzle game than the other two. It has a lot of really ingenious ways to use a relatively small amount of game objects and when you figure them out you feel really clever.

… Regarding Backworlds, we are still iterating on the design on some levels and doing some more free-form building on others. It is taking a while but the advantage of it is that we can both focus on that work – the disadvantage being that we do not have a lot to share here. But progress is being made!

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