[Good puzzle games are often described as addictive, elegant or deep, but in reality they can elicit deeper feelings of overwhelm, vastness and abundance, says author and game designer Ian Bogost in his latest Gamasutra column.]
I want to discuss two excellent abstract puzzle games for the iPhone: Drop7 by Area/Code and Orbital by Bitforge. But there's a problem: it's hard to talk about abstract puzzle games, particularly about why certain examples deserve to be called excellent.
Sure, we can discuss their formal properties, or their sensory aesthetics, or their interfaces. We can talk about them in terms of novelty or innovation, and we can talk about them in terms of how compelling they feel to play. But such matters seem only to scratch the surface of works like Drop7 and Orbital.
Can we talk about such games the way we talk about, say, BioShock or Pac-Man or SimCity? All of those games offer aboutness of some kind, whether through narrative, characterization, or simulation. In each, there are concrete topics that find representation in the rules and environments.
Indeed, it's hard to talk about abstract games precisely because they are not concrete. Those with more identifiably tangible themes offer some entry point for thematic interpretation.
Chess, for example, clearly draws inspiration from military conflict, not only because of its historical lineage and mechanics of capture, but also thanks to its named, carved pieces. When a knight takes a pawn, it's easy to relate the gesture to combat.
Go is somewhat harder to characterize. As philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote of the game, "Go pieces, in contrast [to chess], are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function: 'It' makes a move. 'It' could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant."
Even if one can imagine a go stone as a soldier or an elephant or a Walmart, the game is still fundamentally about territory: whoever captures more of it wins.
Puzzles create more trouble. Some logical and mathematical puzzles, like the Three Utilities Puzzle have clear subjects or storylines. Others, like sudoku, do not. Most often, puzzles are entirely conceptual in form, with concreteness a mere accident of presentation.
A jigsaw puzzle might have a landscape or a hamburger imprinted on its completed surface, but that subject bears no relation to the puzzle itself. It's just a skin that facilitates the job of construction. The same is true of some manipulable puzzles, like tangrams.
Others, like peg solitaire and Rubik's Cube are entirely abstract, with no clear relation to any sort of worldly being or action.
Abstract Game Criticism
As we know well, video games have frequently inherited from the tradition of puzzles. Text and graphical adventures make use of logical puzzles, often ones that require manipulating items to unlock doors. And we have plenty of adaptations of traditional abstract board games. But it's really manipulable puzzles that have had the strongest influence on contemporary abstract games, and for good reason: spatial relations translate well. Video games are good at manipulating objects in space.
A problem arises when we try to talk about abstract puzzle games critically. The truth is, it's hard to perform thoughtful criticism on puzzles, because they don't carry meaning in the way novels or films or oil paintings do. The peg solitaire set on the table at Cracker Barrel does not function as a religious text, for example.
One approach to understanding abstract art is to treat them as metaphors or allegories. In some cases, the art helps us out by means of its title. Marcel Duchamp's cubist painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" immediately reveals the multi-perspective, superimposed forms of a human form in motion. The same goes for Piet Mondrian's famous final painting, "Broadway Boogie Woogie," which reflects the bustle of New York City.
In other cases, no such help can be gleaned from the work itself, and viewers must seek their own interpretations. Such is the case with Mondrian's "Composition with Yellow Patch," for example, which offers no interpretive handle in its title or on its canvas.
Games rarely give much away through their titles, mostly because they don't have a strong genealogical relationship with the history of painting. Still, our interpretive capacity makes it possible to read meaning in anything if we choose.
Perhaps the best-known representational interpretation of an abstract puzzle game addresses the best-known such game: Tetris. In her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray described Tetris as "the perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans." Tetriminoes fall, like tasks to be completed, emails to be read, meetings to be attended. One must act quickly or the onslaught will quickly overwhelm. But once checked, filed, or satisfied, the process just starts all over again. There is no escape, save inevitable defeat.
Critic Markku Eskelinen pugnaciously disputes Murray's account as absurd: "Instead of studying the actual game Murray tries to interpret its supposed content, or better yet, project her favourite content on it; consequently we don't learn anything of the features that make Tetris a game."
Eskelinen points out the curiosity in reading a Soviet game as an allegory for the American work ethic, and offers that "It would be equally far beside the point if someone interpreted chess as a perfect American game because there's a constant struggle between hierarchically organized white and black communities, genders are not equal, and there's no health care for the stricken pieces."
Yet, Murray's interpretation is entirely reasonable. From the perspective of literary or art criticism, she offers something essential: evidence from the work itself. The fact that the game was made behind the Iron Curtain doesn't matter; a work escapes the context of its creation and recombines with new interpretations in myriad unexpected ways (a concept the philosopher Jacques Derrida calls dissemination). Nobody can tell you what a work "really means," provided you can mount textual evidence to show that your interpretation is sensical.
The problem with the Murray/Eskelinen approach to abstract puzzle games is that one wants the game to function only narratively, the other wants it to function only formally. Neither is exactly right without the other. The problem seems to be this: the "meaning" of an abstract puzzle game lies in a gap between its mechanics and its dynamics, rather than in one or the other.