All video games are puzzle games, if you see them from a certain perspective; my definition of a puzzle is that you’re presented with a clearly defined set of rules which are meant to be followed—or broken in an equally defined and predictable way—in order to reach a valid or acceptable end state. They are all challenges, meant to test the player in various categories in order to reach a valid solution; take shooters for example: Usually they task you with the challenge of staying alive while killing all of your enemies; you have to consider your health, ammunition, positioning of your character and that of the enemy, etc. You have a set amount of health and ammunition (which can increase and decrease depending on the game and situation), a set amount of enemies and they take a set amount of damage (which can vary again depending on the game and guns used) before they die; point being, you shoot, they shoot, the end goal is they die and you don’t. Even narrative-driven games are puzzles, but they challenge the player’s ability to interpret, deal with, or follow the narrative being delivered. Actual puzzle games are the most straightforward games to fit in my description and the most challenging; The Witness is a game about taking a line, which always starts from a full circle, to the end point, which is always a half-circle, but along the way, you’ll encounter new mechanics and set of rules (like separating colored squares according to their color or making shapes like the ones found in each square). So how can you marry the inherently challenging aspects of puzzle games with a chill experience? There are many ways to do so, but for this piece I wanted to take a look at how three, recent-ish games have managed to allow a thoughtful experience with the satisfaction of a good puzzle game, while also being a lay-back kind of game.
Let’s start with the simplest one, Picross S3. Picross has been to Nintendo fans, what Sudoku has been to middle-aged, mid-class people on a weekend; a relaxing “time-killer” that requires enough thought and focus to take some of your attention, but not enough to tire you out. As games, they are both prime examples of balancing two conflicting concepts to create a unique one, and they both work because they understand and rely on this; Picross is always about following its simple rule set (the numbers at the beginning of each row/column define the sequence, length, and frequency of the colored blocks) and the defined logic that derives from that rule set (for example looking at minimum and maximum placement of blocks and coloring the blocks that cross the two). The trappings may differ (sometimes you need to color blocks with different colors for example), but the core is always the same, and it only works because it is the same; as a puzzle it works because of the simplicity of the task, the challenge of having a bigger grid, the leaps of logic—which should have become engrained on the player by the time challenge arrives—becoming mandatory to solve the puzzle, the reward of having a nice shape form out of the blocks and having that great feeling of figuring out exactly what the solution is and coloring the blocks like a super computer; as a “lay-back” experience, it works because it never gets too difficult, the assist allow for a more casual (or often sleepy) playthrough, and there are no real “fail-states” so the stakes are not that great. It is prime balancing of challenge and chill, which is why Picross only recently moved to “big-boy” Nintendo consoles, as it was mainly played in commuting and short-burst time-frames on Nintendo’s hand-held devices.
As a complete package, Picross S3 is the best one out of the three games I’m going to talk about, but the other two are the most interesting because they take completely different routes to try and achieve that perfect balance of challenge and chill. Golf Peaks is one of the many games that have come out that are presented as a sport, but have nothing to do with that sport; Pool Panic and Dangerous Golf being just a couple of examples. It’s a card-based, puzzle game that tasks the player with moving the golf ball to the golf hole, and each card has a set number of squares the ball will move before it stops; other mechanics are slowly introduced like cards that allow the ball to travel in the air or mud squares that the ball can travel through but if it stops on them, the ball will sink, while each new set of levels introduce a new “theme” like the ice world with ice squares etc. Where Golf Peaks succeeds over the other two games is the chill side of its balance; the minimalistic art style is gorgeous and fits with the tone, the music is on-point so much so it is the only game of the three that I did not mute to play something else over it, the levels are so short and focused that running out of cards or trying out a flawed strategy never felt like a waste of time. Even the idle animations and the sound effects work brilliantly to slowly make you lean back. Where Golf Peaks ultimately fails though, is the challenge section of its balancing act; with the odd exception, almost all of the levels in Golf Peaks are fairly straightforward and easy to figure out, which becomes mundane and boring by the end. Even the extra levels that unlock after each world is completed, that are supposedly more difficult obstacles for the world that just ended, are fairly easy; they are more interesting challenges than the ones before them, but they are only three for each world, and they are only slightly more difficult than the ones before them, which led to the game feeling less of a chill puzzle, and more of a chill interaction.
The last game for this piece, ISLANDERS, is the most difficult one to discuss, because in theory it does everything it has to do right; it strikes the balance of challenge/chill, it reminds me of one of my favorite games and the reason why I loved it dearly, it’s great to look at and engaging to play, while it never forced me to lean forward or give energy to it I didn’t have (or want to give). Nevertheless it is the game I’ve played least of out of these three and the one that I think of the less, and the why is very complicated to discuss within the context of this article but I’m going to try anyway, because it is worth it. The game it reminds me of, is my favorite RTS game of all time: Banished. This is controversial to say the least because Banished is not an RTS game, it’s a game with all of the RTS resource creation and gathering mechanics (as seen in most RTS games) expanded, without all of the strategy, and that’s why it’s my favorite; the parts that draw me into a genre without the bits that make me dislike it. ISLANDERS, mechanically, is very similar to Banished, but has a few distinct differences; in ISLANDERS, you just make placement decisions in order to gain as much points as possible for as long as possible. You can’t destroy buildings, you don’t get any resources besides the general points you receive when you place the buildings, and you don’t manage any meters of any kind. In terms of the previously mentioned balance, ISLANDERS gets it perfect; there’s plenty of challenge–from making sure you have enough points to receive more buildings to making sure you have enough space adjacent to important spaces in order to receive more bonuses—and there’s plenty of chill—the minimalistic art style inspired from Bad North, the fairly simple guidelines and strategies developed, to the fact that after a set number of points you can move on to another island which means that even mistakes can be forgiven. The catch is that ISLANDERS is endless; there’s no goal besides seeing how many points you can gather in one go, there’s no challenges to complete, no ending—there’s only an end screen with your total points and your ranking on the leaderboard. In terms of the balance, that’s fine, but in terms of being a chill puzzle game, that makes it feel incomplete; whether it’s something inconsequential like the Picross pictures, or something trivial like Golf Peak’s “level complete” screens or extra levels after you beat a world, a puzzle has to have a solution and a reward to be satisfying—ISLANDERS does have a reward in its leaderboards functionality (even if it is pointless for me), but it does not have a solution. There’s plenty of variety and build up, but there’s no last island for people who want a conclusion and a thing to call “the last challenge”; it’s why I hate endless runners or clicker games. Hopefully, the developers can patch in an easy solution; make a challenging end island show up after a number of islands and call the mode “campaign”, make a challenge mode that randomly generates an island and a goal, and have the current mode renamed to “endless”.
The ‘no ending of ISLANDERS’ gripe may sound petty to most, but the reason I think it’s significant and really hurts the game for me is because, due to my current employment and social position I come home late at night and mostly drained out—mix that in with keeping up with the blog (which includes playing games and watching movies), trying to keep up with family and friends, and trying to figure out a way out of this hole I’m currently into, I always don’t have enough time to relax (or I don’t want that time to feel like I wasted it on something insignificant as my mental health—yes, this is obviously irony), I don’t have enough energy to waste and I have more than enough anxiety that I need to ease. Chill puzzle games are a daily source of escapism for me and I suspect for many others, which is why these games are so important to me, just like Sudoku is for middle-aged people; they are part of my hobbies, they make me who I am, but they also allow me to keep me sane and mentally recharge from the bs I had, have to, and will have to endure while actively trying to be a productive and fulfilled member of this society. They must be incredibly difficult games to create, they must be kind of lackluster for their developers because they never really set the charts on fire nor do they make the gaming community go mad on them. But, I am glad they keep making them, and that they keep becoming easier to make, market and sell, because I can’t think of what my long days in my shitty job would be like, if I didn’t have an hour to paint block by block a fucking washing machine!