Level design is one of those bottomless pits of theory crafting, where you could spend your entire life discussing it and coming round full circle as you choke out your last words. Woven into the ethereal quilt of game development, level design is, perhaps, the critical thread.
Which is why it’s a total treat, a sugar bomb of visceral vivacity when gamer meets superb level design. A silly hope, maybe, but if one strains one’s preconceptions enough, one could see a future where galleries are organized just for the presentation and ogling of level design paragons. Real arteests, in other words.
And should that future emerge, Croteam’s Talos would surely deserve a spot on the wall.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t played Road to Gehenna, then go get Talos and the DLC now. It’s worth it. We’re going to discuss a solution to one of its puzzles, so read this with eyes shut if that’s a no go for you.
Most of Talos’ puzzles are about finding the perfect angle. Now, bending light with all manner of tool and doodad is an old conundrum concept, but when the player must contend with a third dimension, simple solutions are obfuscated. The purest form of this mechanic in Talos is packaged in its DLC, Road to Gehenna. The puzzle’s name is Pendulum, which is clever and understated, making it cleverer.
Beam reflectors are a well-worn mechanic in Talos, and some puzzles feature up to five of them in all their kaleidoscopic glory. But Pendulum needs only two to work its magic.
So here’s the breakdown: you’ve got the light source, the goal and a huge wall in the middle separating the two. Your job is to get that light to the goal, and to do it with a pair of crates and sentry robots, whom are locked in an eternal dance of back and forth. The initial setup looks like this:
We can’t bend the light around the wall, but hark, there be windows at the top:
First, we place the crates on top of the sentries (who don’t seem to mind much), and the reflectors on top of those (which also don’t seem to mind much). This is what it looks like:
To register a hit, the beam needs to stay unbroken for about five seconds. The sentries’ disharmonic movement pattern makes this impossible, so we need to change that by stuttering them a bit. It takes some fine tuning, but is easy enough once you’ve got the idea. And here we go:
This design works for several reasons. Most laudably, it’s the first puzzle in a line of some 50+ that makes use of this solution mechanism. It forces the player to reevaluate their ideas regarding the function and limits of the beam reflectors. And because the solution requires true lateral thinking, it feels like this is one of those flashbulb level ideas that jolted a Croteam designer out of their sleep.
To be sure, Talos features sterling examples of iteration, as entire series of puzzles scaffold the mechanics in a way that is carefully thought out. The puzzle Goliath is an excellent endpoint of the game’s iterative nature, for example. But iteration is something that puzzle designers rely too much on, at times. Every now and then, a little upheaval with the mechanics is good. It’s those moments where you can nearly sense the designer standing behind you, grinning like a cheeky bastard.
We might expound on this further in another post, but it bears mentioning because it’s something we can’t help but internalize every time we churn through a complex puzzle, in any game. The puzzles that task you with an impossibly long order of operations and variability are mainstays and have their place, but the best puzzles are ones that remain difficult while appearing simple. It’s an effect that is multiplied when the level pares down the available tools. Like any good enigma, there’s a small red herring in Pendulum, but otherwise its elegance is its simplicity.
Kudos to Croteam and Pendulum’s designer for a really smart concept, and kudos for the restraint to only utilize the mechanic once.
PLUG ALERT: We’re Broguelike, and we’re the developers of a little gem called PATHOS. It’s designed for puzzle aficionados in mind, with more than 150 levels and a curve that goes from walk-in-the-park to please-just-end-it-now. We’ve loaded it up with a subtle and challenging narrative, as well. Check us out here: