2020 Has Provided Another Fulfilling Year of Puzzle Games

There’s been a peculiarly palindromic quality to the Puzzle genre in 2020. Unintentional as it most likely is, it’s still worthy of mention nonetheless. That we started the year with a game focused around light-and-dark mechanics and that only a few days leading up to Christmas, Morkredd — a game about guiding two shadowy figures whilst maintaining close proximity to an accompanying sphere of light — too requires spatial awareness as to where light and dark are positioned. Not that much of a spectacle to dedicate an entire article to, you’d be right to proclaim. Hence why it’s pleasing more so to report that 2020 has once again proven that puzzle games are by no means growing stale or that its many developers and studios are [un]knowingly conforming to the same uniform identity on what the genre may actually entail. Years past have shown it continues to impress with games that are both bold and brain-busting in their varied complexities. But in a year that has been challenging and testing in a number of other ways, it wouldn’t be a stretch to presume some have been in need of a good time-sink. And in 2020, puzzle games have delivered on that front.

Basked in charm or hoping to deliver on a worthwhile narrative; those encompassing color liberally to those that instead conceal just how much of the world we get to witness. It helps that Puzzle games, on principle, are born out of the very philosophy of ideas. The very concept of a conundrum, a riddle one has to solve (and in most cases, prove they’ve actually grasped the rules imposed) — the most abstract of principles one can utilize. The palette entirely devoid of limitation and restriction. Is your game 2D, 3D, “2.5D”? Is it first-person, third-person? How much focus does the story have, if there’s indeed a story to tell? There’s no template to abide towards, no legacies to uphold. What keeps this genre interesting to follow, however, even after years of so many great — even the brandishing of “modern classic” a feasible debate to be had — is the fact that success in this genre isn’t just a case of quick reflexes or time invested. Much like Horror, different people experience different, entirely subjective, levels of emotional response by what is presented. In much the same way, no one person will come to a puzzle game and succeed in exactly the same way. Progress, process, or maybe just the amount of good luck, is unique to each and every participant.

The Pedestrian Review Screenshot 2
That doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of how well these games are designed from the perspective of, on the puzzles themselves, explaining its rules, its very mechanics. Even those releases this year whose natural progression and latter content is relatively unchanged — whose challenge is by way of addition, rather than subversion — but aren’t shy of mixing up the presentation of the surrounding world. Skookum Arts’ The Pedestrian was an early release this year that did just that. A seemingly simple concept: aligning signage panels to guide a stick figure in and out of entryways. Whose panning viewpoint and perspective glided from one part of the metropolitan setting — but the start of its subtle charm. While little was explored on the notion that this very city was eerily devoid of people, of life in general, in the long-run it didn’t matter. The Pedestrian upheld its promise of trickier encounters as it introduced environmental blockades just as it increased the number of panels one has to mix-and-match in said limited space. The Pedestrian was far from story-heavy or story-ingrained and while the weird juxtapose of some cozy, downtempo soundtrack alongside this baron weaving of factories, sewers, apartment blocks and streets alike may linger as something that could’ve been explored, Skookum Arts’ peculiar concept still found the time to instill a sense of planning ahead in its players.

But then there are the types of games that’ve, fortunately, found ways to spark intrigue and genuine bafflement as to how far a given concept can go. These were my exact thoughts coming away from Filament. Immediate flash-backs to the early parts of a game like The Witness ensued: “Fine, but just how much can you build a game around this singular premise?” A lot, as it turns out. Filament was a much-needed time-sink this year — presumptions foolishly set immediately dispelled by just how far one sound pitch can take you. Just how many dozens of hours can be logged guiding a knee-high robot towing a cable? For me: around 45 of them. The objective remained the same and yet developer Beard Envy cooked up some of the most cunning, deceptive and at times mind-numbing methods of solution I’ve seen in a puzzle game this year. And that’s before you come across the final area where, oh lord, they’ve only gone and combined several rules at once (as you do). Discovering such a variety upon moseying into another sector or living space is always a neat little reveal, but what good does that do if the progression is entirely linear?

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remedied this by providing much of its breadth of content from the very start. And it’s amazing just how quickly victory is eventually attained when you decide to go and do something else. To cleanse one’s palette, explore another part of Filament’s spaceship abode before coming back and solving that accursed puzzle on first go. To reconcile with the fact you personally are better at puzzles that have you following specific routes, over those that require enabling/disabling particular elements. The less said about the rule that has you mixing RGB colors, the better. Originality and keeping things fresh will always go a long way to maintaining focus and fixation. No matter your experience or even your success with the littering of puzzles to be attempted, execution plays just as vital a part in separating the good from the not-so-good releases.

Relicta’s block-pushing, gravity-manipulating shenanigans may have provided plenty of carefully-planned, multi-step eureka moments, but what good does that do when its story, its presentation is tied so heavily into proceedings? That’s even without the notion that the manipulation of blocks (or such other interactive objects in a 3D space) is worn ground in this genre. So what happens when you return to a familiar face from the recent past? SUPERHOT remains one of the genre’s most visually-distinctive titles to date. But what of its latest MIND CONTROL DELETE expansion? Four years on and the minimalist, low-poly, suggestively-dystopian simulated stylings of SUPERHOT are as engaging as they’ve always been. That doesn’t mean MCD was excused from shaking the formula up at unexpected moments. Coming face to face with seemingly-familiar red foes, only now parts of their body were now devoid of that same red vulnerability. Then you had antagonistic forces that at points tried to turn your own tricks against you.

Tetris Effect: Connected Review Screenshot
Then we get to the surprise announcement that Tetris Effect would be getting a Connected expansion and all discussion does indeed run the risk of veering a little too much into whisked-away nostalgia. Thankfully, Tetris Effect: Connected delivered on its early teasing of a fleshed-out online multiplayer component. The titular mode one that, much like the base game brilliantly orchestrated in 2018, exemplified Tetris’ ageless divinity as one of gaming’s greatest creations. A puzzle game that’s both tactically-minded but brimming with strategic opportunity. Always teetering between plain-sailing and utter disaster as enemy AI duke it out with three allied players. And just like the base game’s Journey Mode, the best moments of Connected are those not pertaining to line-clearing. That of its visual and sound orchestration; of those tiny, sampled snippets of music and vocals syncing with each piece slotted into place or rotated along the way. Despite it being the lowest difficulty on offer, one can’t help but repeat again and again the first set of stages in Connected mode. Faint snippets of “I’m Yours Forever” (the track featured in the original game’s announcement trailer and has since gone on to become a sort of unofficial theme for Effect in general) gradually mixed in. Coming closer to the forefront as players fight on and at points find all three boards fuse into one.

Which leads us to the here and now, quite literally the end of the year and the point at which, usually, all talk of 2020 (in both a casual and official sense) is all but done. And yet, the Puzzle genre manages to throw up one last little trick in the dying embers of the year with, as previously alluded to, a little game by the name of Morkredd. A welcome surprise on a personal level; a game of which one has been following since first experienced at a past convention of upcoming Switch third-party releases. Though it was a different platform to show up — one of the many games to be added to Xbox Game Pass — the temptation to see how the final build shaped up hadn’t wavered. It’s a game I’ve been playing in-between other commitments during the Christmas break and while I’ll leave full thoughts for another time, here’s a little tease as to what you can expect. Co-operative puzzle games are nothing new, as is the idea of controlling both characters at the same time.

Morkredd Screenshot
Yet Morkredd is one of those cases whose frustrations and unforced errors don’t in fact work against the experience. A puzzle game in which every move feels like it’s tenuously close to spelling disaster, making the brief victories that much sweeter. The fact that I’m even discussing new releases in the closing weeks of the year is but the first worthwhile topic to raise about the state of the Puzzle genre in 2020. The second is that in a year that has been arguably challenging for us all, the genre has not stopped in providing a bevvy of releases that — mentally-stimulating they may be — have still managed to diversify the ways in which logic, pattern-recognition and deduction alike can manifest. As a long-time devotee of this region of games, the results have not only been mechanically varied, but aesthetically too. Here’s to another year of one of video game’s most consistently-refreshing and stimulating genres in 2021. Keep the conundrums coming.