Puzzles for when the world is too much

Listen. I can't afford to keep buying skincare products.

I thought I was maybe it was just me, but given the recent rash of thinkpieces dedicated to Why Millennials Love Skincare, I am (for once) decidedly on trend. And it makes sense. Living in the US in 2018 is a constant reminder of how little control we individually have in the world. Sure, there is power in the mob, but pushing back against the gears of capitalism on one's own can feel outside of our individual abilities, especially on a day-to-day basis.

In grappling with waves of anxiety about our own ability to affect change, it would make sense to lean into small acts of pointed control. Routine and ritual are a security blanket against the entropy of the universe. 

Thankfully for my bank account, I have recently replaced buying acid exfoliants with another tool: puzzle games.

Ever since my hours spent in early childhood playing Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, puzzle games have helped me scratch a certain itch for a small sliver of order and control. Puzzles are problems posed with the knowledge that they are solvable (unlike the problems that come with hormonal adolescence or, say, that of political existential dread). In the moments just before solving, they are like those "perfect fit" videos, where everything suddenly falls into place if you just turn it the right way.

Below are a few suggestions for puzzle games to peruse if you find yourself needing to scratch a similar itch, and ranked according to what level of the-world-is-on-fire feelings they help address.

For when there are a couple of small fires but you're on your way to work anyway because this is just how the world is now: 

MONUMENT VALLEY 1 & 2

Monument Valley  by Ustwo Games

Monument Valley by Ustwo Games

Monument Valley is a short mobile game series, wherein you help a small be-hatted person navigate an M.C. Escher-esque world. 

The puzzles aren’t especially confusing or difficult. Though there might be a couple of moments where you try to figure out exactly what needs to go where, the game is more about ambiance than challenge.

And what an ambiance it is. The music is gently tonal, and the colors all seem to be in a perpetual golden hour of lighting. Some of the level design gave me the same feeling as staring too long at that glorious fractal broccoli in the supermarket, with some levels opening up like puzzleboxes on one’s screen.

It’s also a moment of respite from words, instead adeptly building feelings within the player through gameplay. An early puzzle in Monument Valley 2 has a parent and child moving in tandem; every time the player moves the parent, the child also moves. Getting them both to the end of the puzzle together is the puzzle, while also being a lovely nonverbal analogy for the level of bonding between the two characters.

I found it lovely to put on noise-cancelling headphone and open up the game on public transit. While crammed in between commuters, and despite playing on a small screen, it felt both vast and personal, and much needed.

For when you’re taking a moment to ignore the fires to instead stare into the abyss, and you are also wondering “what if the abyss was cuter, tho?”: 

DONUT COUNTY

Donut County  by Ben Esposito

Donut County by Ben Esposito

Donut County has been compared to Katamari Damacy, except that instead of using a ball to collect objects, Donut County gives the player control of a hole in the ground that grows as it eats up items.

Who knew that eating up the lives and existences of these characters could be so gosh-darn cute?

Developer Ben Esposito crafts a lovely little vignette in Donut County. The characters have witty one-off retorts (a la Night in the Woods), and the arc of the raccoon perpetrator of all this chaos is strangely effectively sweet. It’s a game full of “I don’t need this, but I like this” sorts of inclusions, like the glossary of all the items you’ve accumulated called the Trashopedia, which names each item and gives a raccoon-appropriate view of what it is (“Candle: really bad version of the sun. Tastes OK”).

Donut County’s downfall is two-fold: that half of the already easy puzzles have their clues given away from the game’s trailer, and that the game ends just as it feels like it’s getting started. Just as I felt like I was entering new, slightly more challenging territory, the game was over. None of the levels were so difficult that I wanted to revisit them by playing again, no matter how pop-y the level music or twee the graphics.

Nevertheless, it’s sweet dumb fun, and sometimes that’s all a person needs.

For when all the fires have come together into one giant fire monster and you’re wondering how time can ever move forward from this point:

GOROGOA

Gorogoa  by Jason Roberts

Gorogoa by Jason Roberts

Gorogoa sat in my game library for a long while before I played it. Sure, it looked beautiful, but I was having a hard time choosing it first over the other games I had yet to play. But you know when something seems to wait for just the moment when you need it?

In Gorogoa, a boy tries to solve puzzles so as to gain materials to defeat a giant dragon who has stomped into his city. This journey goes across time and space, and the boy as a character is almost always present, but never fully fleshed-out. For this game, it works. There’s an air of the mystical without trying to shoe-horn a “why” requirement onto any of the actions.

The entire game takes place in a four-square design. Each square might be blank or show an image. The player can interact with any image individually, zooming in or out to get different perspectives. By zooming into the right perspective, the player might reveal an item that can be pulled into another square to complete the puzzle, or can change the order of the squares to cause two to interact with each other.

It’s a little like an interactive version of Zoom, a book where each successive page reveals itself to be a zoomed-out image of the page that came before. Part of the joy for both Zoom and Gorogoa is a joy of new perspectives: the reveal of something seemingly familiar as both strange and new.

The game’s default setting clues the player in to where on each image can be clicked for interactivity. I kept this on, and still found some of the puzzles challenging. But if you’re a point-and-click veteran, or someone looking for a little added difficulty, you have the option to turn this off in the settings.

Regardless, Gorogoa’s eschewing of any traditional narrative gives the game a feel of questing. You might not know exactly why you’re doing the thing you’re doing, but you know that to do it is the goal. And, when things finally clicked (sometimes literally) into place to reveal something larger than you thought it was, it feels a little like magic.

For when there are too many fires for you, right now, thank you very much, and you would just like to dissociate for a little while:

THE WITNESS

The Witness  by Jonathan Blow

The Witness by Jonathan Blow

The Witness was one of the first games I wrote about on Gentle Gamers, and, honestly, I don’t have too much more to add from my original thoughts. However, it most certainly needs to be added to this list. For a game that’s literally just a bunch of line puzzles, it occupies a place in my brain and heart.

The Witness was a game that, at one point in my playing it, I felt the distinct need to lie down, even though I was already playing in bed. I was so thoroughly upset by a puzzle that I had yet to beat that I got on the phone with my partner and literally cried.

None of this sounds particularly fun, now that I write it out, but the opposite side of that particular low was the stunning high that came with solving the puzzle, finally, after looking at it for hours.

The Witness makes everything in the game shining and beautiful, because you’re going to be looking at each vista for a while as you solve the puzzle. It’s a game about making you emotionally uncomfortable, even when surrounded by digitally-rendered beauty. It invites you to question why exactly are you so upset about a bunch of computer-game puzzles.

After playing The Witness, I found myself questioning how I approached frustration. There was nothing in the game that told me I needed to feel upset or low or frustrated. And, when I felt the incredible high of solving a puzzle, there was always another (usually even more) difficult puzzle right after.

The Witness instead invites the player to approach their frustrations as a given and to sit with them, rather than let them overwhelm or overtake. Since finishing the game, I’ve also thought about statements from developer Jonathan Blow in reference to a final, non-mandatory puzzle in the game that is heart-clutchingly difficult. This particular puzzle, unlike any of the others in the game, is timed, in addition to being randomly generated (to prevent looking up the answer online). Blow discussed how players complained that the challenge felt unfair with the rest of the game, and how having it as a “challenge” at all felt outside of the meditative ethos Blow had otherwise cultivated.

Blow countered with a question as to why people felt that it was a requirement to complete the puzzle at all. In an interview with Kotaku, Blow says “I don’t expect myself to master 100% of Gravity’s Rainbow. In fact the idea of ‘mastering’ a novel is kind of silly. It must not be a very good book if you can do that! So the fact that we have this kind of expectation of games is a sign that the work hasn’t really been that deep, all this time.”

In other words — and pretentious book choice aside — there is a skill in knowing that we don’t have the answers to everything, that (further) we can be (further still: are) complete without the answers to everything. Especially in this day and age, it’s a difficult lesson to learn. So, perhaps now is a great time to return to The Witness and re-learn to celebrate the joy in finding the puzzles we can solve, and challenging ourselves to see them through til the end.