I generally try not to “cheat” when playing games, which these days basically just means looking up answers. It robs the experience of something and too often I find that it’s hard to put the genie back in the box (bottle? What do genies come in these days?). Once you’ve looked up one particularly nasty puzzle in The Witness, you find yourself spending less and less time on harder and harder problems. Once you know how easy it would be to just keep moving, it’s harder and harder to accept the friction the game gives you. But I also rarely play Zachtronics games, and I think the more I do maybe the more I will become ok with “cheating”. Maybe I should say “looking for help”.
I fell in love with Opus Magnum, the 2017 Zachtronics alchemy engine puzzler, in a way that I hadn’t with a “programming-a-like” game before. It’s gorgeous aesthetics, soothing soundtrack, and open-ended approach to problem solving felt good, and gave me the space to slowly come to the conclusions it wanted me to on my own. After getting a little over halfway through it last year, I put it aside, hoping to come back to it. In 2018 I found myself missing it’s soothing presence and tried to dive back in. Wham! If you’ve ever returned to a game with complex mechanics that are learned over time after a long absence, you will be familiar with the “diving into an empty swimming pool” feeling. It didn’t help that I picked back up on the harder endgame, where a lot of people checked out. But I wanted to keep going. I wanted to see not only what I could create, but what the game had in store for it’s characters.
This soundtrack is seriously the best working music.
So, what do you do when you can’t figure out how to progress in a modern game? You watch someone else play it and figure it out. Often this can feel a little cheap, a little silly, as you suddenly realize that the door was right behind you all along or, worse, that the solution was something you were never going to get, and wonder if maybe you should watch the rest of the playthrough rather than finish it on your own. But watching other people’s solutions in Opus Magnum is another beast entirely. The easy “export to GIF” function after you’ve solved a puzzle creates an elegant little loop of your machine running at peak performance to share with your friends. These show one way of solving the puzzle, yes, but that by no means that I can then solve it. Because the machine is running at peak speed and you can’t see any of the programming language driving it, it’s less a set of instructions or even a blueprint and more a challenge in reverse-engineering.
There’s something incredibly satisfying and tactile about working backwards from other people’s gifs. It feels like hard work in the pursuit of an attainable goal, like building something real. A few years ago I had the best brussels sprouts I had ever tasted. These are connected, I swear. It was at a Lebanese restaurant in the DC area. These brussels sprouts blew my socks off, both crispy, sour, sweet, and pungent. The menu gave a tantalizing few key ingredients, and I spent the next year trying to make my own version, balancing pomegranate, fish sauce, lime leaves, and other ingredients to make my own version of that flavor. Recreating some of the harder challenges in Opus Magnum makes me feel kind of like that. Or like working from blueprints when welding something, or even assembling IKEA furniture.
Just because you know where it’s supposed to end up and all the parts to use doesn’t mean that the work is still done for you. You’ve still got potentially hours of sweating out the exact balancing of dancing pistons and arms, when to stop and start, before it all comes together. And then you can start tweaking. Has anyone else ever felt like this from a game? Is there another genre that makes you feel like this, like strategy or life-sims? Let me know!