The Gardens Between

Spoilers Ahead!

You’ll never guess what I did. I beat a video game that came out in 2018…in less than 5 hours! What’s my secret? Well it’s simple really. The game is short and good. Ta-da.

The Gardens Between has the confidence to never utter a word or write a single line of text on the screen, but it still teaches the player how to manipulate time. Each level is a rotating diorama through which you must guide two friends. Each of them has a unique ability that helps both of them advance. While the levels are scattered with real world objects from these friends' memories of time spent together, they also contain otherworldly doodads that must be satiated with luminous balls. One character holds a lantern that can transport these light orbs, and the other can flip switches to change the state of the level.

Those are pretty much all the mechanics of the game. Move time forward and back, watch the characters move with time, and press a button when they are near something they can change. You know that you can only do a couple of things, and that's how the game fools you into thinking it will be easy. But The Voxel Agents have woven together levels with those mechanics that makes this a challenging and rewarding experience.

Vidya Games

An extra benefit of controlling time and not the protagonists is that it forces you to look at the level as a whole. The environment rotates as you move forward and back (a feature that is key to some of the puzzles) and you can move along at a snail's pace if you choose. It feels a bit like turning a gem to see all its facets in the light. Or like turning your wrist so your watch reflects the sun into your friend’s eye. That's when you really start to notice all the objects that have been dropped in to navigate around. There's general kid stuff like Jenga, dominoes, and couch forts, but also things Only 90s Kids Will Understand™. You've got your SNES analogue, your CRT TVs, your VHS tapes, and a, uh…wave frequency modulator…thing.

It would have been easy to drop these in as set dressing but instead they are key parts of puzzles. Each time I realized this I went from thinking "How clever of them!", to thinking “How clever of me!” immediately after solving it. I think that’s what you want from a puzzle game.

The story told through interdimensional dioramas is a simple one about childhood friendship. In different environments these kids are split up for varying amounts of time, always brought back together at the end of the level. Yet, in the closing scene they are finally split apart by one child’s family moving. You spend the whole game keeping them together and in a few seconds all your work is undone. It's a little frustrating, but it also captures how being a kid is a series of lessons on powerlessness.

Yeesh, getting a bit broody in here huh? Let's forget about that stuff now, I have to call out the animation at the end of each level. While one of the characters is usually following the other, when they reach the end both stand by a portal. Sometimes you have to wait a couple of seconds while one catches up, but they always end up looking at each other, the door to the next world between them. The girl holds the lantern out, the boy grabs it, and they are transported through time and space together, connected.

Together

SteamWorld Dig 2

Like most things, Steamworld Dig 2 can be summarized by a Simpsons clip:

Usually when I play a game with such an unvarnished loop I bounce right off, making the arrogant assumption that my mind can't be manipulated so easily. SteamWorld Dig 2 is one of those rare games that reminds me that I can be fully enthralled by just the right kind of progression system. It says something good about the developers (or something bad about me) that I was hooked by a game that is essentially a labor simulator. That’s not a great pitch, but let me explain.

In SteamWorld Dig 2 there is a small story told about a town and the robot you control as she searches for the player character from the previous game. Most of the time that story is backgrounded so you can get to the real meat of the game, digging down to gather resources and turning them into more efficient digging. This is very similar to the first SteamWorld Dig but there are many small additions and tweaks to the movement, the upgrades, and the world itself. When I first saw a trailer, I’ll admit I was not impressed. It looked like more of the same from the first game and I didn't think "quality of life" improvements and a few new gadgets could hook me.

I was so wrong.

Image & Form have refined the loop in Dig 2 to a razor sharp point, and loops don't even have points! It feels like they calculated the ideal amount of time between upgrades for your pigtailed spelunkatron. They probably have some silly internal acronym for it like TTU: Time To Upgrade. The second I started getting bored of digging, I had enough rocks (sorry, minerals) to sell and then buy the next thing to make digging fun again.

The upgrades themselves mostly follow the path of turning a thing that is a pain early on into a thing you never have to think about. Lantern light depleting, running out of water, returning to town, and even dying are all pretty much non-issues after a few hours. That kind of stuff is welcome but removing things that aren't fun doesn't automatically add fun. Weird how that works. For a good time, you have the gadgets. A grappling hook, a steam grenade launcher, and a much improved steam jetpack make the already satisfying movement even better. More importantly, each one feels powerful. The first time you use a new tool, your mind races with new possibilities. That's the mark of a good upgrade.

Good Grappling Hook I highly recommend grappling away from all your problems.

If you need a little break from the mindless digging, the slightly less mindless puzzle rooms are a welcome respite. Dig 2 never forgets the kind of game it is though, so none of these puzzles are too tough. I usually found myself standing still for a few minutes, having that a-ha moment, and getting right back to the grind. The challenges presented are just hard enough to make you feel good about solving them. Maybe not finishing-a-Rubik’s-Cube good, but at least finding-that-last-word-in-a-word-search good.

Every bit of SteamWorld Dig 2 is crafted to be satisfying. Despite being a “make the numbers go up” kind of game, it never disrespects your time. Earning or finding a new way to move around is rewarding, and by the end you feel like you’ve mastered the mine. Games with this kind of loot loop almost always make me feel a little dirty when I play them, like I’ve let my mind quit working and just hooked it to a dopamine IV. Dig 2 avoids this with a little challenge, a little choice, and by not sticking around too long. It’s well worth the handful of hours it asks for, and makes me keep my fingers crossed for a trilogy.

The Perfect Information of Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

It seems that modern stealth games are sacrificing more and more of the satisfaction that comes from never getting caught. They trade this away so that when your cover is blown, you can take down enemies in a flurry of bullets or blades. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is not interested in giving you a "go loud" fallback. It makes you earn everything.

Shadow Tactics is the only game I've played in the genre it is attempting to revive: real time tactical stealth. It controls like a MOBA, and has the same perspective, but you are moving multiple characters through each level. It may be winning extra points for freshness since it's a completely new-to-me genre, so I want to mention that first.

The game is laid out in traditional levels, with no choices to make in between. There is no RPG-style progression or loadouts to manage. Instead, you are given different combinations of the five characters to control in each mission. They might gain or lose a move depending on the context, but that's about it. I found this refreshing since I never doubted that I had the right tools for the job.

Slice and Dice I appreciate something nice to look at when I'm bifurcating people.

The missions themselves are a series of connected puzzle rooms. Your objectives usually amount to getting somewhere on the map, doing something there, then getting out. When you spend long enough in one level, you start to see the solutions that the designers set up. But because you have control of multiple characters with their own items and abilities, it never seems like there is one true way to complete an objective. In most areas you have the option to take out enemies one by one, then simply waltz past the bodies. Or, you can create a series of distractions and slip from cover to cover. Both are satisfying thanks to the freedom and precision the game affords. The fact that all this plays out in real time heightens the tension without the game having to resort to stressful timers. You can observe patrol routes and make note of hiding places. Take all the time you want to plan your next move, but when it's time to execute, you must do so flawlessly.

Each character has a way to distract enemies plus some sort of special move. Different enemy types are explained well and you always know how they will react to what you do. Some are immune to certain weapons, while others won't react to your distractions. Almost every level introduces a twist like snow that reveals footprints or night missions with reduced enemy visibility. All this keeps you from falling into a rut of distract, sneak up, assassinate. Like the old saying goes: variety is the spice of murder.

What really sets Shadow Tactics apart is its UI. In a stealth game, there is nothing more frustrating than not knowing why your cover was blown. It's clear that the designers at Mimimi Productions agree. A huge amount of attention was paid to NPC vision, which is represented by a complex but highly readable cone. It's green when an NPC sees nothing of interest, filling with yellow if you cross into the cone. If the yellow reaches you the cone turns fully red, meaning you are seen and pursued. However, if you can remain crouching in the striped part of the cone, you stay invisible. When planning your next move, select any enemy in the level and see their field of vision. If all that's not enough, you can select any area on the map and a line will be drawn to all enemies watching that location.

Beware the cone In the sneaking stoplight, red means GO.

I'll let Mimimi Lead Designer Moritz Wagner tell you why all that UI stuff is so great:

"Shadow Tactics is a game of almost perfect information. There is no fog of war, enemies don’t randomly spawn and their behavior is always predictable (as long as they aren’t actively searching for the player). Players can analyze a situation completely if they take the time to do so."

Having this "perfect information" allows for a cool thing like Shadow Mode to exist. This is a system allowing you to queue up one move for multiple characters and execute all of them with a single key press. Using Shadow Mode made me feel like a tactical stealth mastermind in ways that other games don't even really attempt. I found myself seeking out scenarios where it would be all but required.

Of course, if the player knows everything then the game can be much tougher. Enemy vision and patrols are often calibrated so that you have to patiently observe and go through quite a bit of trial and error. This doesn't feel punishing because the quicksave and quick load live up to their names. I was never more than 5 seconds away from retrying a maneuver. I found myself experimenting much more than I would in a game where failure means a 30 second load to a checkpoint I reached 5 minutes ago.

Now, about that difficulty. It almost never felt like my skills weren't keeping up with what the game threw at me. I was failing just the right number of times before I had a breakthrough. However, at some point one of your assassins just straight up hands out guns to the rest of the team. At first this seems like a sort of Get Out of Jail Free card, especially since the guns have a limited number of shots. But then I encountered an area that was jam packed with enemies watching not only every route to the level exit but also each other. As hard as I tried, I could not find the right combination of stealthy maneuvers to take them out. So, I resorted to shooting one and hiding until the remaining bad guys stopped looking for us. I rinsed and repeated this until the herd was sufficiently thinned. It was a situation where I was glad to have the guns, but disappointed that I had to rely on them so much.

Playing Shadow Tactics is all about the feeling you get from a perfect execution. The developers know that, and they not only challenge you enough to make you earn that execution, they also give you the tools you need to get there. If you desire that feeling and don't mind quite a bit of experimenting, Shadow Tactics is a worthwhile endeavor.

Into the Breach and Genre Snobbery

I'm really enjoying Into the Breach. It takes a lot of work and courage to build a game where the player can plan their next move with all the necessary information right in front of them. Player omniscience is a scary thing because it can lead to quick mastery or boredom. Apparently, it can even get a game assigned to a different genre.

In reading stories about Into The Breach I've stumbled upon more than a few comments saying that this strategic Starship Troopers simulator is actually more like a kaiju-killing puzzle. So why do people think that, and why is the term "puzzle" used like a put-down? The answer lies in the game's scope and the fact that it has nothing to hide.

Gamasutra Comment

This Gamasutra commenter argues that ITB isn't a strategy game because you know too much, and there isn't enough randomness. If that isn't quite clear, they go on to put a pretty fine point on it:

Strategy games require bullshit

This is an agreeable line of reasoning to other commenters, but it struck me as dismissive. I get that uncertainty adds tension and makes a game feel like it can't quite be solved the way a puzzle can. However, removing that dice roll element does not mean automatic simplification. Knowing how the attacks will unfold for the next move does not make your choices any easier. There are still dozens of questions you have to ask yourself. Can I afford to lose another city? Is another hit to my mech worth blocking an enemy's emergence? Should I burn a single use weapon this time, or save it? Should I let this pilot die so I don't have to read anymore of his corny dialogue?

Hoping this was just a confined bit of genre snobbery, I went looking elsewhere. It turned out a similar sentiment had cropped up over at Rock Paper Shotgun.

RPS comment

"Mindless repetition" and "trivial variations" feels pretty harsh. ITB has a significant number of mechs, pilots, and weapons you can combine and a good variety of enemies that will force you to change up your strategy. See, I used the word. Do I win? In fact, the game layers on complexity as you progress with more ways to move, take, and receive damage. Surprises still happen, but only because you've forgotten something that's indicated clearly on the battlefield.

I'll cap off this series of hot takes with the spiciest one of all:

tabletop puzzle games? You mean jigsaw puzzles?

Well, I'm glad they're having fun at least.

It might seem like I'm trying to keep the tainted name of "puzzle" off my precious strategy game, but I'm not. I even agree that there is quite a bit of puzzle running through ITB, but it doesn't degrade it. I love having all the data I need to make a plan and execute a perfect series of moves to save a dystopian island's only bar. I love that the game fits on one screen and I don't have to send a doomed scout mech pounding off into the fog of war.

Some call Into the Breach a puzzle when it bills itself as strategy. Whether this is meant as an insult or not, it reveals the best thing about the game. It is a triumph of focus and design that can show you everything it's going to throw at you and still present a satisfying challenge.

You Should Play The Division Alone

The Division is a good loot shooter, but that's not what convinced me to buy it. It was partially the 1.8 update, which I heard improved a ton of endgame stuff. That's the boring, technical reason.

The other reason is that I could never quite keep it off my mind after playing during a free weekend. I was walking down a beautifully rendered New York street during the Christmas apocalypse. Suddenly, a desperately sad song began to float towards me from a forgotten radio. I stopped and stood between piles of trash and exhausted vehicles, listening to it reverberate off the brownstone walk-ups. It reminded me of the time my friend and I visited his sister in New York at Christmas. Our flight back home was canceled because of snow. With no plans left, we wandered around the streets of the city. There are things that other loot games do far better than The Division, but I have yet to play one that has it beat on atmosphere.

You would probably miss the scene I just described if you played with others, at least in the way most groups play these games: run to objective, shoot shoot shoot, pick up gear, mark a new map icon, repeat. Something about this pace of play makes me anxious.  Don't get me wrong, it's great to catch up with friends over a hostage rescue or two.  I just don't enjoy the pressure of feeling like I have to sprint to the next mission when I really want to check out a piece of intel, or duck into an open apartment to see what was left behind.

I'm still working through story missions and I still get a little bit excited to see what the next safe house will look like. These are really the only places (besides the ECHO holograms scattered throughout the city) that you get to see more elaborate scenes. Sometimes it's just a corner with a bunk bed and some board games scattered around. Recently I was running around the Base of Operations and stumbled upon a group of refugees gathered around someone fumbling through a tune on the guitar. It's a simple vignette but it works as a calm interlude between shooting and sprinting. Then there are the audio logs. My favorite kinds of these are the mundane ones that are only tangentially related to the events of the game. One is a dad asking his daughter to take care of their bees, so that they'll at least have fresh honey. Another is a man describing his plan to ride out this whole thing on a farm he bought in Virginia. You never know what you're going to hear when you pick one up, and that's what keeps me going after them.

Base of Operations Guitar Playing Hopefully I get the "request Wonderwall" emote in my next loot box.

To be clear, not all this stuff works. The ambient dialogue ranges from goofy to just plain bad. You can feel the game working so hard to convince you that the people you are gunning down are PURE EVIL. With audio logs, the ECHOs, and other not-so-subtle storytelling paraphernalia they attempt to turn looters and city workers into cartoon villains. There's also the occasional reminder that, oh yeah, this virtual New York was actually concocted in Sweden.

Iced Cold Beer The Big Apple's favorite way to drink beer.

If you can look past that stuff, you don't even have to make it to the endgame to find a lot worth playing. I don't know if I'll ever participate in the wide variety of high level shenanigans. For me, it's enough knowing that it will always be Christmastime in New York.