Games I played in 2020
Looking back at the games I played this year, the most overwhelming thought is "wow, that was this year?" It seems like forever since I played Pipe Push Paradise, but apparently not. Everything else this year went by in an instant, but in my gaming life I've explored a new solar system, cracked cases with only my hearing, and rescued boarkind from Lovecraftian horrors.
While there are some minor criticisms, every single one of these games was a great experience that I would absolutely recommend. There shouldn't be any spoilers beyond the basic premise of the game and any time I refer to anything late-game I try to be vague about it. So, in the order I played them, let's look back at my gaming experiences of 2020.
- Pipe Push Paradise
- Toki Tori 2+
- Safe Robber
- Celeste: Farewell
- Boogie Woogie
- Puddle Knights
- Selene's Labyrinth
- Hiding Spot
- Tetrobot and Co.
- Push Blox 2
- Full Bore
- Outer Wilds
- A Monster's Expedition
Pipe Push Paradise
In Corey Martin's Pipe Push Paradise, you find yourself on a peaceful tropical island with the world's strangest plumbing infrastructure. Undoubtedly inspired by Stephen's Sausage Roll, it swaps the meat for variously-shaped metallic pipes which must be hooked back into the water supply. As these pipes roll around they'll extend up into the air and lay back down — this greater sense of 3-dimensionality makes for some fascinating and unique puzzles. With the help of a few additional mechanics along the way, the pipe pushing potential keeps on expanding until you're doing all sorts of plumbing gymnastics, lifting pipes on pipes to reach other pipes.
Featuring puzzles of all kinds of difficulty, the game kindly labels each one so you can choose which order to tackle them. At every stage of the game, there's always a good mix of puzzles to take your pick from, so the most challenging puzzles never overstay their welcome. Every puzzle has you working out a unique and satisfying trick and never treads the same ground twice. Thankfully, the game kept on giving, surprising me with just how many great puzzles it had in store. All this presented with a vibrant art style and some cosy classical guitar against a backdrop of ocean waves makes for a very pleasant puzzle solving experience.
Toki Tori 2+
Toki Tori 2+, apparently a sequel to the original Toki Tori, has little in common with it besides the cutesy art direction. The vastly different gameplay, however, makes it one of very few entries in the ever exciting Metroidvania-of-knowledge genre. That is, the entire world is open to you from the start, but you'll only be able to explore it when you know how. As you learn to stomp and tweet to interact with the exotic world around you, suddenly areas you've travelled through before have whole new paths to explore and puzzles to solve. In a clever twist on the standard Metroidvania world structure that I'm particularly fond of, it lays the world horizontally along the ground allowing you to see distant areas of the game through parallaxed trees.
The puzzles themselves are challenging and frequently surprising, but a lack of a rewind undo system can make some of the more finicky puzzles a little tedious. The inherited art style is nice but quite noisy, sometimes a distraction from the puzzle solving and secret hunting. Nonetheless, Toki Tori 2+ provides a wonderful world to explore with plenty of "aha" moments and is a great entry in a genre sorely in need of more games.
Safe Robber is the first in Marcos Donnantuoni's trilogy of burglarising procedural puzzle experiments. His games, including the previous Dis Pontibus, use a bunch of clever techniques to not only generate the puzzles themselves, but also curate those puzzles and lay them out in the game world. Safe Robber also includes a sprinkling of manual curation to make the final touches. The result is a collection of puzzles that feels more hand-crafted than you might expect, particularly in terms of the unique qualities of the puzzles and the game's overall difficulty curve.
The mechanics of Safe Robber have you breaking and entering an entire neighbourhood of houses — presumably they all went on holiday together — pushing around the oddly placed furniture to gain access to and extract a safe from each one. This incredibly lucrative heist feels mostly like a tech demo with its minimal audio and simplistic graphics, but still has a great set of puzzles. I'd love to see what could be done with taking the world generation even further, building on some of the ideas that were explored in Dis Pontibus. If you'd like to see the very best in procedural Sokoban puzzle generation, you'd do well to check out Marcos's work.
Celeste, one of my favourite games of the last few years, feels much more like a puzzle game than your average platformer. While some precision jumping and boosting is helpful, much of the game is about finding the right way to navigate a dangerous environment. The free Farewell expansion, which I played this year, adds considerably more of the same great level design at a difficulty comparable to the original game's most technically challenging chapters.
Some of the later levels rely a little too heavily on not giving you any checkpoints, but it's such a joy to play that I found myself saying "just one more try" regardless. Lena Raine's music is a wonderful motivator. With all these long attempts, however, the new parachute mechanic would have greatly benefited from a toggle control, rather than having to hold the trigger buttons down — by the end of the game, my hands were genuinely in pain. I really should have taken more breaks.
Jack Kutilek's Boogie Woogie has the classic Sokoban "push blocks to their goal positions" objective, but with an interesting twist: there are two types of block, red and blue, which behave differently when something moves in front of them. The red block will move into the space as soon as it becomes unoccupied, and the blue block will push whatever is standing in front of it until they hit a wall. The interesting ways these two blocks interact with each other results in a whole bunch of interesting and challenging puzzles that will have you creating chain reactions and flying over chasms without ever introducing new mechanics.
Boogie Woogie particularly stands out for being a very nice looking PuzzleScript game, which is quite a feat to pull off. The pseudo-3D effect and animations really help to convey the mechanics and make the game a joy to play.
I was getting ready to only talk about Puddle Knights' expansions before realising that the base game also came out of this year. What a great year for chivalry. In Puddle Knights, you guide some colourful knights, laying their capes across puddles to help the nobility of the land keep their feet dry. The most impressive aspect of Puddle Knights, thanks to its creative theme, is how natural and intuitive the mechanics feel despite their relative complexity.
Not only is the base game a great collection of satisfying puzzles but the two free expansions kept delivering more quality content. There were only a few puzzles that I had to stumble through due to the very large possibility space, but the vast majority of them required careful deliberation to find the insightful trick. If there are more expansions in the future, I will be playing them for sure.
INSIDE has you controlling a young boy inexplicably drawn through a surreal post-apocalyptic world towards somewhere nothing good can possibly be happening. Like its predecessor, Limbo, it features a dark and desaturated art style and some incredible sound design that fills the game with an ominous atmosphere. The puzzles are enjoyable but are rightly there to serve the story.
INSIDE is most importantly an incredible demonstration of world building through visual storytelling. As you sneak your way through each area, many of which are pretty breathtaking, careful observation of your environment and goings-on in the background will give little clues about what might be going on in this place. By the end of the game, I still had plenty to chew on. Fortunately, the game gives you good reason to play through it again, allowing you to take what you learned from the end and recontextualise everything you saw along the way. Slowly, even after you've found all the secrets, the reality of this grim world starts to set in.
João Ferreira's Snaliens — which I still have to remind myself is snakes+aliens, not snails+aliens — puts you in charge of a trio of ship-wrecked aliens, each with a different ability, puzzling their way back to their rocket. Snaliens has quite a mixture of different mechanics and explores how they work together, building circuitry-based contraption puzzles out of the various cables, switches, gates, and other such devices.
It's main gimmick, although it does not appear in every puzzle, is an object that the aliens can pick up which follows them like the body of a snake. This ends up having all sorts of great interplay with the other mechanics which creates some really fascinating puzzles. It's a little strange that the game didn't entirely focus on this idea, but the other puzzles without that mechanic were still very enjoyable in their own right. Perhaps the only strangeness is that the game is named after it. If you're looking for a pure puzzler with tons of clever puzzles and a lot of variety, this is it.
Selene's Labyrinth is a wonderful demonstration of what you can achieve with the PuzzleScript game engine if you're willing to contort it against its will. Using lots of clever tricks that make any PuzzleScript game a nightmare to maintain (I know because I've done similar things), jcGyo has managed to make a cavalier-projected world with a real, genuine z-axis, allowing you to climb ladders, walk over bridges, and stack blocks. The puzzles make use of this 3D geometry but it plays with it even further by having you navigate Escher-like impossible spaces which will occasionally catch you off guard.
The game itself is short and sweet with some optional bonus collectables to find along the way. The puzzles mostly require you to push blocks into position so that you can use them as bridges and, although there aren't many, many of the puzzles are actually pretty neat.
In addition to the 3D effects, Selene's Labyrinth has other thematic details that make it feel special, like waterfalls cascading through the level geometry and reflections in the water. If I were talking about any other game, this would seem like strange praise, but this is a PuzzleScript game and an inspiring example of what can be done with the engine.
The main character in Corey Martin's Hiding Spot wants to hide away from everything. Relatable. In this clever twist on block pushing games, you are finally able to make use of the playable character's god-given limbs to crouch down, grab, and pick up various office furnishings. These boxes, desks, and other such things each have their own assymetric behaviour when you push or pull on them, making for some very interesting puzzles. The most fascinating aspect of these puzzles is their uniquely creative goal, requiring you to encase the character in a 1x1x1 space surrounded by furniture.
The game's sombre art style and ambience manage to convey its psychological and mental health themes without ever explicitly acknowledging them. It's also a very peaceful atmosphere, perfect for puzzle solving, with the occasional humorous moments as you perform all sorts of strange furniture-on-head balancing acts. Some of the furniture was occasionally buggy but a quick undo would always deal with it.
Very different to Pipe Push Paradise and seemingly smaller in scope, it's easy to see how Hiding Spot might have been a chance to explore some of the ideas coming to Corey Martin's upcoming game, Bonfire Peaks, for which I am waiting in anticipation. It is nonetheless full of great ideas and fascinating puzzles in its own right.
Shackle, by Steven Miller, takes the basic Sokoban formula and tweaks it with a very simple addition: your character is shackled to a ball and chain. As you progress through the game, the ways in which this mechanic interacts with the more usual boxes, switches, and doors are constantly surprising and turn your Sokoban instincts on their head. The low resolution, muddy art style takes a little while to get used to, especially distinguishing between switches and doors, but it captures the gloomy dungeon-like aesthetic well.
The puzzles are very well designed, singularly focussed, and ramp up in difficulty steadily but quickly. Some of the latter puzzles, which require untangling complex dependency chains (heh, chains), took a little while to parse and wrap my head around, although were still very satisfying to solve. There's a few uses of red herrings that were sometimes fun, sometimes a little too distracting. Despite that, the puzzles were very enjoyable and I was glad when the game delivered more than expected. Overall, Shackle stands out for having such a clever base mechanic that provides so many fascinating twists.
Tetrobot and Co.
Tetrobot and Co. has you flying a little robot around who can pick up blocks from a distance and throw them, but only along the row they're in. Each block material, like wood or stone, interacts in different ways with the various traps and gizmos that are introduced throughout the game. While the main level objectives have some neat ideas in them, the truly great puzzles come from collecting the three golden memory blocks found in each level. In fact, if you like challenging puzzles, I'd suggest pretending they're mandatory.
Not every puzzle is a hit, sadly — towards the end of the game, just as everything is ramping up, some gimmicky puzzles are thrown in that are a little disappointing. Not only that but the game seems to get buggier towards the end, particularly with some of the real-time elements, so be prepared to undo a puzzle into an uncheesed state out of upstanding puzzle solver principle. Nonetheless, many of the complex multi-room memory block puzzles are wonderful to wrap your head around and are still worth the time.
Push Blox 2
Push Blox 2 is an abstract puzzle game in which you use a cursor to lift and push blocks which will stick to other blocks of the same colour. It features real-time movement which it embraces for its puzzles, allowing you to, for example, drop a block and move to a switch just in time to open a door for the block to fall through. It takes a little while to get used to the options this opens up for you, particularly with regards to pushing blocks while they're falling, but it's always predictable and never requires pinpoint accuracy.
With various contraption-like mechanics, like conveyor belts and lasers, the puzzles have you deciphering the level and figuring out the unique trick that will get all the blocks to their destination. While it introduces the mechanics with a relatively gradual difficulty curve, it gets very challenging in the latter half of the game and offers even more difficult alternative solutions for some of the puzzles. The acoustic guitar soundtrack written and performed by the developer's father makes it a pleasant experience to spend time with these difficult puzzles. To keep you motivated, as if the smartly designed puzzles weren't enough, finishing the game will get you added to the in-game "Master Board". If you're okay with the abstract theming and are looking for some cleverly designed, challenging, contraption-like puzzles, Push Blox 2 is worth your attention.
Desperately in need of a game to fill the detective-shaped hole in my heart left by Return of the Obra Dinn, Unheard looked promising. Unheard asks you to solve a variety of mysterious cases — a stolen painting, an explosion at a police station — but the catch is you have to gather evidence only by listening. Moving between the rooms on a floor plan, following the multitude of initially anonymous characters, you'll have to piece together all the fragments of conversations you're able to hear. Since you're hearing everything directly from the people involved, you'll be constantly questioning if what they're saying is even true — do they have reason to lie? Some of the later cases, particularly the free expansion, will have your mind twisted in knots as you try to get to the truth.
Very impressively, the game has been entirely translated from Chinese and features complete English voice acting, although it's a little hammed up but still entertaining. A minor word of warning — one of the latter cases has some questionable takes on mental illness, but the gameplay itself is still very clever. As you progress through the game, you'll start to question if these are truly isolated cases or if something even more mysterious is going on.
Another much needed entry in the Metroidvania-of-knowledge genre, Full Bore features an incredibly strange but creative theme. As a boar with the ability to stomp and dig through blocks of various materials, you find yourself accused of stealing gems from the boss of Full Bore Mining Co. and are tasked with finding them and bringing them back. To this end, you must explore the surprisingly huge open world, learning how to interact with the different blocks in order to solve fiendishly tricky puzzles. As you go, you'll uncover the surprisingly deep lore of this strange boar-inhabited world, which takes you through a wild mix of themes, from Hinduism to Lovecraftian horrors.
While not entirely gated by knowledge, much of the world is accessible to you early in the game and to access it you'll first need to first learn some clever ways of interacting with the various blocks. It also features a healthy amount of secret content that you'll only uncover once you solve some of the mysteries of the world. The game does, however, suffer from very much the same problems as Toki Tori 2+, with an undo system that is at times very frustrating and an overly noisy art style. Regardless, Full Bore is a fascinating world to explore with its unique themes and clever puzzles.
Sensorium is a first-person puzzler, heavily inspired by The Witness, that sets out to explore the five senses. Of course, the immediate curiosity is how a game could possibly convey touch, taste, and smell, but its interpretations of these ideas are actually very creative. The majority of puzzles are framed around logic gate circuits which when solved will activate a cable that leads you to your next puzzle.
The world of Sensorium is very satisfying to explore with all sorts of nooks and crannies to find secrets in. Each area, dedicated to one of the five senses, has a unique identity and consistently surprising puzzles requiring a combination of logic and lateral thinking.
The post-game secret hunting is mostly enjoyable, but suffers from having a couple of secrets that are a little unfair amongst many that are very well hidden in a complex open world. With no other indication of the secret's locations, this makes it difficult to know if the remaining secrets are similarly well hidden or require an unreasonable contrivance. Fortunately, the most unfair of these secrets has been patched since I played. Overall, the game creates a wonderful sense of exploration and discovery with puzzles that keep on surprising.
Outer Wilds has you exploring an almost toy-like solar system, discovering the antics of an ancient civilisation and uncovering the secrets of the dire situation you find yourself in. The story covers themes of exploring the unknown for curiosity's sake while asking the player to do exactly the same, an incredible union of plot and gameplay. As you translate snippets of ancient conversations, the lore unravels the secrets of the solar system's puzzles, opening up more of the world for you to explore with your new-found knowledge. I'm never a fan of lore for the sake of lore, but in this case it is always concise and useful while simultaneously full of character and emotion.
Each planet, with its own identity and densely packed with detail, has so many surprises and secrets to uncover as you come to grips with its unique forces of nature. You can set the course of your own journey, visiting the planets in any order you choose, with all paths carefully designed to lead to a satisfying sequence of discoveries. The solar system is, however, very dangerous (and occasionally a little terrifying) as you are subjected to forces beyond your control. The multitude of ways you can die leads to some hilarious moments that make your personal journey very memorable.
My only minor criticism is that the in-game help system, a computer inside your spaceship that maps out your discoveries, can sometimes show things that you've seen but might not yet have pieced together. Fortunately, you can opt out of using it, which I would recommend for those who want the most puzzling experience. It's immensely satisfying (and a little moving) when everything you've learnt starts to fall into place. By the end you'll wish you could go on that journey just one more time.
A Monster's Expedition
A Monster's Expedition has you, as a monster, navigating an exhibit of charmingly misinterpreted human artefacts inexplicably strewn across an archipelago of tiny islands. To do so, you must push over trees and roll their logs around to form bridges and rafts that transport you to the next island. This theme makes the base mechanics feel so natural, yet provides a huge amount of depth to the puzzles. In fact, there are certainly some unexplored ways to apply the mechanics, but the game doesn't feel any less complete without them — the vast quantity of existing puzzles already explores more than you'd imagine and is full of great surprises.
While most Sokoban-like games don't try to appeal to anyone but the most fanatical puzzle solvers, A Monster's Expedition makes leaps and bounds towards appealing to a wider audience. For a start, the difficulty curve is extremely kind, with each puzzle typically adding a little twist on previous ones. Where there are stumpers, the open world structure gives the player the freedom to walk away and try a different puzzle. It also just feels so great to push over the trees and roll them around, partly because of the little flourishes of music that play when you do so but also because the controls and animations are so buttery smooth.
In addition to the main path of puzzles, there are a number of snowmen scattered about that are much more challenging to reach, requiring multi-island thinking and creative use of the reset feature. They could, however, have done with a little more subtle sign-posting towards the intended solution, perhaps by uncovering more of the target island or by clearly blocking off certain paths, as the possibility space is so gigantic that much of the challenge is just seeing what is expected of you. Nonetheless, it is incredibly satisfying when you do finally untangle the knots of bridges and raft channels and embrace your new snowman friend.