This is a post in a series of posts cataloging writing I did for the game site Zam.com, which later became ReadySet. I was the editor of Zam.com from late 2015 to early 2018. It’s shutting down today, so I wanted to preserve some of my writing from that time here on my site.
These are a group of reviews I wrote about things I either liked a lot or had really enthusiastic opinions about. I’m grouping them here because I’m not sure I should clog my website up with a lot of posts about old products that came out two years ago.
The reviews here include: The Wailing, Virginia, Imbroglio, Mu Cartographer, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll.
The Wailing review
The rural Korean village of Gokseong has a problem. People are killing one another in frenzies of homicidal glee. They’re also growing rashes and boils all over their bodies, erupting in foul-mouthed rages, running around naked at night, seeing ghosts, hiring shamans, and burning down their own houses. And snacking on bad mushrooms,maybe. Oh! And they’re hanging themselves, sometimes. Basically: shit is very bad, and nobody is quite sure what’s causing it.
The Wailing, by crime film director Hong-jin Na, is a brilliant (and occasionally brilliantly silly) melange of horror tropes that feels like someone blended every single good horror-film idea from the last 50 years in a gigantic blender. The result is a hard lump of refined horror that makes only a medium amount of sense.
But somehow, miraculously, The Wailing nevertheless manages to remain deeply and intensely rewarding on a moment-to-moment basis, even though the overall story — deliberately — is never entirely coherent. I saw it in a theater, but I wish I’d seen it at home, with friends and a bowl of popcorn and the windows screwed down tight so we could all scream “what the everloving fuck?” every five seconds, because that’s what this movie deserves. It’s an absolute rollercoaster of disjointed genres and tones, and I loved almost every moment of it.
The film stars Do Won Kwak as Jong-goo, an overweight, less-than-intelligent low-ranking policeman who lives in the countryside village of Gokseong with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his beloved daughter Hyo-jin. For the first hour, The Wailing is a horror-adjacent darkly comedic mystery. What made a local build a giant nest in his house, collect mushrooms, and then brutally murder a local ginseng farmer and his wife? Why is this murderer covered in boils? Does all the mushroom shit in his blood have anything to do with it? Or — as locals whisper — was he led to do this by a middle-aged Japanese man, a new arrival in town whom many claim a) strips naked to eat rotten deer carcasses in the woods and b) is actually a ghost?
Jong-goo’s investigations of the first couple murders in town are deeply, deeply, comedic, to the point where I started to wonder if I’d got my information wrong and this film was actually a parody-horror film. Jong-goo and his colleagues are profoundly inept, and their investigations are a series of slapstick setpieces. I spent this whole first hour desperately trying to identify the horror subgenre this film was trying to be. A zombie movie? A ghost story? A psychedelic drug fad gone wrong? There are moments in the beginning of the film where it genuinely seems as if there will be a scientific explanation for everything happening in Gokseong.
But the film goes steady with none of these explanations. By the time Jong-goo’s family is touched by the rage-rash plague, the tone of the film has changed. Director Na starts out playing improbable lightning-strike injuries for laughs but ends the film with bloodsplattered homes and genuinely-scary, even quite literally subterranean journeys into the hearts of various darknesses.
First, we leave comedy-land for criminal thriller territory. Then the film turns into a Korean version of The Exorcist, then immediately veers hard back into comedy for an action scene where a lynch mob tries to hunt down the Japanese visitor, then dives into a pit of drama and genuine horror which only gets more and more intense — and more and more about religion — the longer the film goes on.
It is absolutely impossible to predict the direction of the plot at any point during the story, and so long as you are willing to accept each scene for whatever-the-fuck it is, it’s an amazing ride. The Japanese man is, perhaps, the best representative of the film’s completely bizarre approach to the many horror tropes and religious traditions from which it draws. He is portrayed variously as a ghost, a satanist, a demon-hunter, an eeeeevil foreigner, and a misunderstood mortal; my personal opinion about which he’d turn out to really be changed about every ten minutes for over an hour straight.
The most tremendous scene in the story is a traditional exorcism which is, probably, the loudest and most terrifying religious ceremony I have ever seen in any movie. Although it is much more naturalistic than its cinema inspiration, I found it much scarier than The Exorcist simply because I had no idea what was going on. I am sure that my overall understanding of the film was hindered by my inability to parse any references to traditional Korean spirituality, but even an uninformed viewer can feel the confusion and terror the exorcism scene inspires in the participants. It is so long and loud that by the end of it, no one — in the audience or in the film — is quite sure whether it could possibly be helping Jong-goo and his family.
The film is definitely about something: it’s about exactly the experience I had in the theater. Both the audience and the characters are totally unable to identify why the bad things are happening, and everyone’s dashing around wildly in search of explanations and solutions. A host of different authorities offer guidance and advice, and Jong-goo and his fellow townsfolk spend time courting a shaman, a priest, traditional medicine, and modern hospitals.
This is a film about what happens when authorities collapse and sense flies out the window on batty wings. As it draws to its conclusion, various characters each desperately try to solve the problem by following the instructions of their own beliefs. By the final few scenes there are so many different valid interpretations flying around that we completely understand Jong-goo’s helpless confusion.
For a movie about so many classic horror tropes, it’s unsurprising that the main character would do a lot of outrageously incompetent shit, and Jong-goo is obviously written as an overt bumbler and coward in order to excuse a lot of the bad choices he must make to keep the plot rolling along. There is no reason for him to disassemble an evil shrine with a pickaxe while multiple religious authorities watch, but he does; there is no reason why he should allow a curse-possessed murderer to keep living at home, but he does. He antagonizes a guard-dog twice and is surprised when it slips its leash both times.
His fellow policemen are all exactly as incompetent — and so are all the municipal authorities in town. (A scene where firemen and police respond to a home arson is completely slapstick.) But the how-could-he-be-so-foolish plot holes in The Wailing are of only minor concern when everything else is such a ridiculously and deliberately amped-up fairground-ride of horror absurdity.
Worse, however, is the fact that the film never really treats its characters’ xenophobia and racism critically. Koreans have had (and continue to have) pretty good reasons to be angry with the Japanese government, which refused for decades to officially apologize for systematic sexual slavery and other war crimes committed during WW2.
At times, however, The Wailing seems to be saying that it’s really extremely reasonablefor Jong-goo and other cops to be hostile and violent toward the lone Japanese dude living in town. I was expecting a “gee, wow, this is bad, actually,” scene that never came, and although I know I don’t completely understand the cultural context for this part of the movie, it still left a very bad taste in my mouth.
Regardless, The Wailing is such an accomplished crosshatched over-the-top frenzied mix of comedy, horror, thriller, and mystery that when I walked out of the theater I could only make claw-hands at the moon and demand to myself: what the hell did I just see? That’s the point, though, as far as I can tell — this is exactly what Na wanted me to feel. Whatever he was trying to do, he absolutely did it.
When you load up Virginia, the first thing you notice might be that the main menu is letterboxed, like a wide-format film. The second thing you might notice is that instead of “start game,” the game asks you to “begin feature”– as in, feature film. Before you start playing, you will sit through a long series of opening credits nearly identical to those you may have seen in a lot of movies. You may notice, in those credits the name of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a famous orchestra which often records the scores for films. Then you might notice that the game itself is still letterboxed.
At this point, you should begin putting clues one and two and three up through six or ten together and realize that you are about to play a videogame of a film. I mean– a videogame that has pillaged the shit out of filmmaking. Er, bear with me: a videogame that is exploring the vast and (remarkably!!) still fresh zone between whatever feels like a videogame to us, and whatever feels like a movie. If you put a gun to my head and told me I had to pin a solid genre definition on Virginia, I’d call it an experimental first-person narrative game which is designed to look and feel like a movie.
In Variable State’s Virginia, you play Anne Tarver, a newly-graduated FBI agent just starting her career. Anne has been assigned to accompany another FBI agent, Maria Halperin, to investigate the case of a missing teen in a town called Kingdom, Virginia. Anne is not just there to solve the case, though– she has been asked to accompany Maria as part of an internal-affairs case. Over the course of the story, you grow to discover that something possibly supernatural is afoot– but you also discover a series of decidedly un-supernatural mysteries, shames, and cruelties.
Virginia borrows liberally from both Twin Peaks and The X Files. Its main musical theme is nearly a copy of some music which appears in Twin Peaks, and certain story elements– characters, plots, even a disorganized, basement-level office filled with filing cabinets and projectors– seem heavily inspired by The X Files. It strikes a mood halfway between Twin Peaks’ spookiness and The X Files’ often-hallucinatory weirdness. It includes a bizarre drug trip. It includes situations which seem to ignore cause and effect. It includes extended scenes which I am not sure “actually happened” to the characters “in real life.” It leaps around wildly in time and space.
IT CONTAINS ABSOLUTELY NO DIALOGUE.
And that, really, is the thing that makes Virginia special. It’s not just a videogame designed to look and feel like a movie: it’s a videogame that looks and feels like a silent film. The entire story is conveyed through a series of mime-like character interactions that you either witness or participate in– a woman slapping a man, a teen hurling a precious item over a fence, a fateful handshake, repeated over and over again. The low-poly characters in this story have absolutely top-notch expressive animation. The entire story relies on the skill of the animators to convey plot without words. They succeed. It’s amazing.
But it’s not all just mimery– Virginia uses other silent techniques as well. Characters’ struggles, backstories, motivations, and desires are usually represented with prop objects they will carry, dream about, recieve, or hide. You’re given a FBI dossier early in the story which comes to represent your relationship with your partner. Your partner, on the other hand, carries and worries about a necklace which comes to represent her mysterious past. When the plot becomes too confusing to illustrate entirely with mimed vignettes or symbolic objects, someone will usually hand you a TOP SECRET FBI dossier and give you a couple seconds to scan the written contents for context.
When it’s not using mimes, special objects, or text-filled dossiers to tell its story, Virginiarelies on its editing– as in, film editing. It moves with hard, fast cuts between images and locations, exactly like the game which very obviously inspired this technique (and which Virginia’s creators thank in the credits): Thirty Flights of Loving, a vignette narrative game released in 2012 by Blendo Games.
Like Thirty Flights, Virginia transports you rapidly from place to place and relies on you to look at where you are, look at the people and things around you, and draw a conclusion about what has happened to you since the last scene occurred. At one point in the middle of Virginia, you pop from a photography darkroom directly into a police station, leaping from the discovery of a clue directly to the investigation’s result, skipping the arrest and interrogation entirely. At another point, a series of cuts from scene to scene in a small-town bar require you to imagine how two characters reconciled their differences and became friends. Virginia trusts its players to assemble the story themselves out of the provided parts. It feels good to be trusted like this by a videogame– I rarely experience that, to be honest!
It’s particularly amusing to feel so trusted and respected by a game which is basically trying as hard as it can to feel exactly like a movie. A lot of people complain about “games which are like movies” because they feel that those games do not trust their agency enough. Even now, you may be sitting here thinking to yourself, “Gee, I don’t want to play a videogame which is like a movie! That’s bad, right?”
Over the last decade, I’ve heard a lot of people accuse a lot of videogames of being too much like movies. The assumption these people usually make is that a videogame should not be like a movie– that movies and videogames each have little to nothing to offer one another, and that videogames must diverge from films as fast and energetically as possible in order to find their way as a medium.
This is, in my opinion, extremely silly! There is no reason why games shouldn’t pillage anything they want from filmmaking, and there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t try to create hybrid experiences. We’d be silly to limit people’s creativity by holding them to any prescriptive idea of what games can or should be. Players who complain that an experience is too much like a movie are, I think, really complaining about something else– a lack of satisfying agency, a feeling of powerlessness, or an overscripted awkwardness that draws glaring and negative attention to the ways in which games aren’t actually movies.
Virginia, on the other hand, is largely without that kind of awkwardness. It’s clear very early on exactly how scripted the game is. There is little conflict between its expressive scenes and its players’ agency because player agency is limited to discovering and triggering expressive scenes. You will not be collecting clues or solving challenges or earning rewards: your reward will be the satisfaction and fascination you experience every time you trigger a new, mysterious moment.
This works because Virginia lays out its ground rules almost immediately, and sticks to them with serious dedication. The game’s first scene walks you step-by-step through the process of applying lipstick in order to teach you how its interactive hotspots work– and, I think, to get you accustomed to the idea that you do not have the freedom to start and stop this process or walk around or do whatever you like in the middle of it. When the game wants you to apply lipstick, you’ll apply lipstick, goddamn it. In Virginia, you are often free to explore environments for as long as you want, but the hotspot is king, and in order to eventually progress through the story, you must click on all your prompted hotspots in order as they appear. Often, your ability to walk, sit, or stand is quite limited. Your role here is to perform and witness a series of intriguing vignettes which make you feel like a character in a story. That’s it.
And it’s great. Genuinely, I loved this. I am a sucker for Twin Peaks and The X Files, but I think I would have enjoyed this odd story and its strictly-limited interactive rules even if I had never seen either of those shows. Virginia is often mindbogglingly beautiful. Its lighting and color work are incredible– nighttime gas-stations, dawn-lit meadows, and sunsets over rolling, forested hills are all absolutely perfect. Its characters’ cartoonish yet subtle facial animations communicate layers of feeling and help to define complicated, suspicion-riddled relationships. Its interior scenes in particular are full of fascinating little low-poly details. Your hands– the part of yourself you see the most– are incredibly eloquent, showing your character’s horror, excitement, and shame in a way that doesn’t feel even the least bit awkward or stilted.
And, about these characters: Virginia stars two black female FBI agents, and gives them distinct, strongly-opposed personalities without even having them speak on-screen.When it comes to creating characters who look and feel unique, Virginia is putting a lotof other games to shame, mainstream and indie alike. It’s extremely refreshing! Over the last few years, television has started to discover, I think, that audiences want new kinds of stories about different kinds of people. We want to be surprised and intrigued by characters whose life-stories and personalities we can no longer predict. I think Virginiashows us a way that videogames can follow the same path.
If you are the kind of person who likes stories to end with cold, hard, answers to specific, strongly-stated mysteries, I’m gonna warn you: Virginia is not interested in giving you these things. You are going to get– uh– a bird. A bison. Some out-of-body experiences. Some time travel? A half-answer flickering by at the corner of your eye in the last minute of the game, easy to miss if you look the wrong way. Many characters’ stories are only half-told. They enrich the world, but add more questions than answers. If you like the kind of answer-phobic attitude characterized Twin Peaks and The X Files, you’ll probably love the way the story is handled in Virginia. If you didn’t, you won’t. If the idea of a narrative game which looks like a movie and feels like a movie and is only as long as the average movie repels you, you’ll also probably be disappointed.
But if those things repel you, you are missing the hell out! Virginia is definitely a must-play for any fans of first-person narrative in videogames. I wouldn’t be surprised to see echoes of its scenes and its interactive techniques appear in other videogames over the next few years. It takes a lot of risks, and all of them absolutely pay off. It’s a masterclass in videogame narrative design. It feels fresh and weird and it respects your time and your smarts and it’s beautiful as all get out.
And it’s chock full of references to my two favorite 90s TV shows, so, yeah. There you go.
“Imbroglio” is a fantastic word. It’s legitimately fun to pronounce– “im-BROL-yo,” from the italian for “to confuse”– and it means, basically, “a terribly confusing embarrassing disaster situation.” If you fell asleep on a train and woke up in a strange town without your phone or wallet, that would be an imbroglio. If you lost your date at a halloween masquerade because everyone was wearing the exact same Rick Sanchez costume, that would be an imbroglio. If you were driving a hearse and it went over a speed bump and the coffin shot out the back of the hearse and the dead guy shot out of the coffin and caused a car crash that went on for several blocks, that would be an imbroglio, and also a scene in a slapstick dark-comedy indie film. Imbroglios are bad to be in, but often fun to watch. The Coen Brothers are pretty damn good at imbroglios.
Michael Brough’s latest game is called Imbroglio. It’s a fast-paced micro-roguelike with deck-building elements and a spooky labyrinth theme, and it definitely wants you to feel as if you are trapped in an imbroglio while playing it. The trick to Brough’s Imbroglio, however, is that you, the player, control the terms of the embarrassing disaster, setting yourself up for success or failure. It’s a game about taming chaos, or creating controlled chaos– or, perhaps, creating the kind of uncontrolled chaos you think you can (somehow) live in.
Here’s how it works. The player chooses a hero– there are eight, each with different abilities– and creates a “board” of sixteen cards which represent the grid of the play area. During the game, whatever card the hero is standing on represents the weapon they will use to attack. The player must anticipate enemy movement and position themselves so that when they attack, they’ll be standing on the tool which is most useful for dealing with the current enemy. Between enemies, players snatch up score gems which shift the labyrinth, giving the four-by-four grid a new set of dividing-walls, separating the cards on the board in new ways, and forcing the player to deal with whatever problems that might create.
The board is what makes this game so different from other small roguelikes I’ve played recently, like Hoplite (another fantastic phone roguelike, by the way). The board is, basically, the whole game: you react to situations tactically, but you create the terms of the encounter with your board design. You must create a board which synergizes with your hero’s abilities, and you must learn to play the boards you create, too: you can’t just hop around the map and attack at random with whatever you’re standing on. The monsters all have two different health bars of different lengths, and you should always attack a monster with a weapon that targets its shortest health-bar. Some weapons are ranged. Other weapons refill or drain your two health-bars. Some inflict status effects. And on top of this, weapons level up the more times you kill with them. So you’ve got to deliberately stand on specific weapons and kill with them a whole bunch of times if you want to unlock some of their higher-order abilities.
I’ve given you this mechanics information-dump because Imbroglio’s brilliance is its mechanical depth. It is a tightly-woven web of systems and currencies and strategy and tactics that rewards both experimentation– new boards, new heroes– and practice. I have played as Masina Rebel Queen for several hours, and I’ve gotten steadily better and better at her, making only slight changes to my board over time as I learn more about how to best use her unique skill. But I’ve taken more liberties with Susannah Holy Templar, a hero who is only allowed to use weapons which target a monster’s red health-bar. Her best boards all involve different combinations of high-damage red weapons, so she can deal with monsters that soak up more red damage. Her default board also comes with a lot of ranged weapons, for shooting those red-resistant monsters from afar. I’ve moved a lot of those ranged weapons around the board, but I’ve also experimented with boards that use close-range red weapons which have better damage scaling. When I play those boards, I have to work hard to level the fast-scaling weapons up so that they’ll be more useful to me. Each hero comes with different challenges, and there are zillions of different board designs you could make to deal with those problems, and zillions of different tactics you could use to play those boards in the best way. Right now, to me, the possibilities do seem rather endless.
You may be familiar with Brough’s other work– 868-HACK, his lo-fi, hacker-themed roguelike, was a 2014 IGF finalist for excellence in design. (Imbroglio was a 2016 honorable-mention for the same award.) 868-HACK took place entirely in a six-by-six grid and featured a ‘streak scoring’ mechanic, where players would get more points for completing the full game many times in a row without dying. Imbroglio is much smaller and tighter: it’s got that four-by-four grid, has no streak scoring mechanic, and focuses more on the desperate race to higher and higher scores within a single play session. This is, I declare, good: the problems you are trying to solve in Imbroglio are more specific, more tightly-contained, and less random than the ones you are trying to solve in 868-HACK, but just as complex– perhaps even more so. And that’s how I like it.
If you like experimenting and practicing to solve specific, tightly-contained strategic and tactical problems, Imbroglio will quite possibly be exactly your jam. It’s up there with 868-HACK and Hoplite, my other two previous favorite iOS roguelikes. I see it having a very, very long life on my phone.
I’ve been checking the leaderboards all day, because I am currently thirteenth-best in the world (last night: seventh best) at Masina Rebel Queen, and if anyone else passes me, I am going to lose my shit.When I get home tonight, I’m sitting myself down and trying to score over one hundred points with Masina. I know what my weaknesses are with her, I know I’ve got to get better at them, and I have a few thoughts about how I’m going to do it. It’s that strategic, board-building layer that makes this kind of thinking and planning possible, and that layer that will give the game a very, very long life life its players, I think. At any rate, it’s got its hooks in me already.
Imbroglio is currently available on iOS.
Mu Cartographer review impressions
I first heard of Mu Cartographer during the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC this March. The EGW is a (relatively) long-running GDC event designed to highlight truly weird game design — bizarre and strange and never-before-seen kind of stuff.
Real risk-taking! Bleeding-edge innovation! Sometimes, the stuff you see at the panel is so vast or odd or art-installation-esque you could never fit it in a house. Sometimes, it’s weird stuff that eventually gets released and played widely enough that you might now recognize it — games like Mushroom 11 or Starseed Pilgrim or Spaceteam, which all appeared at the 2013 EGW.
Is the stuff at this event always that purely weird? No, not always — particularly recently, it’s started to seem like there’s less and less truly “experimental” stuff on stage. Mu Cartographer by Titouan Millet, however, definitely lived up to my (arbitrary, probably) standards for “real experimental gameplay,” so I’ve been keeping it at the back of my mind for a while now.
Mu Cartographer pitches itself as a game about learning to use a kind of mysterious control panel to go on a treasure hunt. You’re given a screen cluttered with draggable interface elements — spare clusters of shapes and lines and wiggles and dots. The center of the screen is dominated by a circular slice of 3D topography that changes shape, color, and position based on the adjustments you make in the interface. The topography represents, it seems, a strange, profoundly un-earthlike world. It’s not always quite clear whether your machinery physically changes the world outside, or whether it merely alters your perspective of this world so dramatically that it looks like your interface is changing the world outside.
The most important interface element is a text browser that allows you to move between three libraries of extremely short, evocative text snippets written by the story’s three central characters. They write and behave like classic, khaki-and-pith-helmet-wearing British wilderness explorers, so that’s what I’ve assumed they are; the story is so carefully pared-down to their single-sentence diary entries, however, that we never quite get any of the context necessary to be sure about this.
Most of their writing is focused on this weird, alien dimension they’re trapped in — they express tweet-length bursts of excitement, awe, and horror. Selecting a text snippet in the browser makes the interfaces change; they’ll start to give you hints and clues about where to go and what to do to find the next chunk of the story. The rest is up to you.
Mu Cartographer, at first, is frustrating. There is no tutorial, and at no point does the game ever tell you in English what you’re looking for — or when, while exploring a branch of interface setting combinations, you’ve found everything there is to find.
Playing the game made me think quite a bit about the unwritten design language that underpins a lot of software interfaces in our world. We’re familiar with the power sign, with save icons, and even now with the “hamburger menu” icon frequently found in phone app interfaces. We are familiar with certain ways of depicting a scroll bar. We know that red and X shapes mean stop and close; green buttons frequently tell us we’re confirming something, or telling something to start. The interface in Mu Cartographerdoesn’t use any of these! It has its own language, and you’ll have to learn it.
You’ll also have to do a lot of experimenting yourself. The various interface elements sometimes affect one another in non-obvious ways, so you’ll have to stay sharp and pay attention to small changes. You might also get stuck. I’ve come across at least three different moments when I came up hard against some totally inscrutable problem that kept me stumped and stuck for a while and required a leap of imagination to break past. This is the core goal of the game, really: for the player to have an “eureka” moment or two. There are not a lot of clues; you just gotta make the leap yourself.
I genuinely liked this experience. I also liked the story told in the text snippets; it’s very simple, but quite atmospheric. The story and the music and the cosmic humming and the topographical weirdness in the center of the screen create an environment with a really solid mood of trans-dimensional sci-fi mystery and epiphany. Which is astonishing, really, because there’s not a lot in this game — just a small number of obscure but simple systems, a library of tiny texts, and few suggestive sounds. Titouan Millet has created a very expressive game out of what sometimes feels like almost nothing. It’s genuinely brilliant.
I was occasionally frustrated by moments of difficulty that seemed accidental, or somehow not part of the designed challenge: for example, there’s at least one map setting that makes certain hidden objects the same color as the background they’re set against. Largely, though, Mu Cartographer is a carefully-built little game; I don’t have a lot of examples like these.
If you are looking for something low-key and genuinely experimental — Millet calls this game an “experimental treasure hunt” — Mu Cartographer is probably your jam. “Cosmic mystery” is a mood that a lot of games have been aiming to capture recently, No Man’s Sky chief among them, and it’s very, very cool to see such a small, spare game capture that feeling so well.
Stephen’s Sausage Roll review
Stephen Lavelle, or increpare, is one of my favorite solo game designers. He’s also one of the most prolific I know of: his website currently hosts 245 different projects, both bigger games and tiny, laser-focused conceptual projects. I sort of “grew up” in games by playing his stuff– when I first started paying attention to independent games, I played his projects religiously. I’ve learned a lot from him over the years. He’s got a finely-honed artistic voice and has proven his design mettle literally hundreds of times over. He’s a designer worth respecting.
Now, though, I think I’m ready to curse his name and hold a deadly grudge against him forever. I mean, yes, I think his latest game, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, is great. It’s really really really good, okay? But BY GOD, I’VE BEEN LIVING IN SAUSAGE HELL FOR TWO WEEKS. DELIVER ME, O LORD.
Let’s cover the bare basics: Stephen’s Sausage Roll is an elegantly simple sokoban-style puzzle game about cooking gigantic sausages on a series of twisted islands. The islands are covered in fiery grill spaces. You are a tiny baby-esque low-poly individual who holds a gigantic sausage-spearing implement out in front at all times. Hitting a sausage on the side with your spear causes it to roll; hitting a sausage on its end causes it to slide. Each sausage is two grid spaces long and has upper and lower sides which must each be roasted individually. No sausage “quadrant” can touch a grill tile for two moves; to be roasted perfectly, each part of the sausage can roll over a grill only once.
The rules that govern player movement and sausage movement interact in ways you might not expect. What happens when you press sausages against immovable objects? What happens when the environment gains verticality, and sausages stack on top of one another? What happens when you try to walk on top of a sausage?The game is divided into islands which explore these rule complications one by one. It’s an extremely smart game. It explores the furthest implications of its rules in complete and overwhelming detail.
And it’s the hardest puzzle game I’ve played in my life. I’m not exaggerating. The game is so hard that in two weeks of daily play, for around an hour a day on average, I was unable to finish it. Which is a big deal for me, because I have a track record of being pretty good at grid-based, sokoban-influenced puzzle games like increpare’s previous commercial game, English Country Tune, and the chemistry-themed Sokobond. But in Stephen’s Sausage Roll, Lavelle has created the sokoban-influenced grid-based puzzle game to absolutely obliterate all other sokoban-influenced grid-based puzzle games. It took me a whole week to beat the first island. I panicked, I’ll admit. I was already trying to figure out what I would say in this review if I were too bad to beat even the first island.
I’m on island 3 right now. This is not the final island.
Like increpare’s English Country Tune, Stephen’s Sausage Roll is not afraid to occasionally bottleneck player progression. The Witness worked hard to completely remove puzzle bottlenecking– on the overworld, at least, there was always something else the player could do if they were stuck on a particular puzzle. But Stephen’s Sausage Roll forces you to fully complete one island before unlocking another, which means that you may frequently find yourself face-to-face with a final few puzzles that you absolutely cannot figure out how to complete.
To proceed, you must improve. You must go into battle against the final sausages. These islands are named– so the game tells us– The Isles of Wisdom. Get Wise, fool. Look: I love me a ruthless puzzle game. I loved Sokobond, but I still have a half-handful of puzzles in that one that I haven’t finished. I absolutely refuse to look up puzzle solutions in games like these– that would ruin the point. In puzzle games like these– where there’s no secret content to unlock, no story, nothing but the puzzles– the only reward you get is your Getting Wise.
Looking up a solution would wreck the whole point. I respect that. The sense of accomplishment I get from finally figuring out a tough puzzle is the same joy I get from wrecking a hard Dark Souls boss and the same satisfaction I get from completing difficult tasks at work a day before they’re due. I genuinely enjoy the feeling that I get when I overcome hard, unpleasant assignments. I enjoy it more than I enjoy chilling out and relaxing. Why? I don’t know. Hire me a shrink. It’s just the way I am. And I think it’s the way you’ll have to be, too, if you want to enjoy Stephen’s Sausage Roll.
So yes, that’s the major bar to enjoyment, but I have to mention that there are other things to appreciate about Stephen’s Sausage Roll beyond its mere intricate rolling of sausages. Like many of increpare’s other games, SSR has an understated, elegantly rough-around-the-edges art style. It’s got big, awkward sausages, weird fonts with sloppy outlines, and that awful little nugget-shaped protagonist with those cartoony slap-slap-slap little feet.
But it’s very deliberately odd, and the low-poly, disorganized environments, with their cyclical sunrises and sunsets, are actually a pretty peaceful place to have your butt kicked by puzzles. Shuffling through a patch of flowers with a raw, blotchy sausage speared on your nose, kicking up petals as you go, is kind of wonderful. The music is meandering and odd, but it feels very careful, very appropriate.
Just like its puzzle content, the game’s art and music feel very deliberately designed. Lavelle knows exactly what he’s trying to make. Once you get up to your neck in sausage-world, it feels good. I spent most of this game with a giant sturgeon-frown of self-contempt on my face, but I kept breaking into smiles. When I figured out how to get from island one to island two, I grinned so hard that my eyes stung.
I may have spent two weeks stretched out on the sizzling grills of sausage hell, but sausage hell is, basically, a nice place to be.