Puzzle Design Spotlight: VVVVVV (Prize for the Reckless)

A puzzle doesn’t have to be perfect, if such a thing exists, to be “perfect.” It’s a relative term – relative to the game’s mechanics and pacing. If everything is fast fast fast and then sloooooow, that sloooooow feels like smashing into a tree.

And this is how VVVVVV nails it. It casually directs you right into that tree.

SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the five or six people who haven’t played VVVVVV, and you’re the completionist sort, be advised that one of the game’s trickier side goals is deconstructed here. As the drive to discover is the only reason any of us are here in the first place, we’d hate to ruin this piece of discovery for you. But if you’re nihilistic about these kind of things, press on.

No one is going to confuse Terry Cavanagh’s gem of a table-flipping flipper with a “pure” puzzle game. It’s not supposed to be that. What it is supposed to be is a play on perception, bending the mind in a hundred subtle ways to elicit failure again and again. There’s no jumping, and there sure as hell ain’t no double jumping. It’s you and one simple reverse gravity mechanic (Terry is a master of the one mechanic wonder). Naturally, it racks up the body count.

By pure puzzle design standards, Prize for the Reckless isn’t perfect, but it is “perfect” for VVVVVV. The mental hard-turn needed to grasp this trinket’s solution is so demanding because Terry throws it like a changeup. The only speed in VVVVVV is top speed, and because death is so omnipresent, Terry is kind enough to generously litter his game with checkpoints. Understandably, players dive-bomb on them to keep everything progressing – again, at top speed. VVVVVV encourages this without thinking. The trap is set.

Let’s crack open Prize for the Reckless, then. Here’s the initial setup for the puzzle:

initial Setup

The room with the trinket is built with a pair of entrances and the player can do naught but impale themselves, so clearly this is a multi-room solution. VVVVVV, though, resets platform states if the player dies or leaves the room, so this is where the rub comes in. How do you free up that moving platform, port back over to the bottom side of the room and manage it without resetting everything?

Terry prefers his mechanics to emerge with little, if any, exposition. In truth, that’s what gamers prefer too, but it’s so much harder for the designer to pull off. It’s communicating by clues and wrinkles.

But like the mark of a natural storyteller, a natural designer shows instead of tells. So this is what Terry does with VVVVVV – he shows how the platforms behave during the early game through some simple repetition. That rammed-in intuition seeps its way to the surface while wrangling this trinket.

Simply put, we’re going to grab the checkpoint sitting in Prize for the Reckless, wrap our way around to the top of the room, activate the moving platform and then suicide so we can port back to the bottom of the room. Easier said than done, and that wasn’t so easily said.

So let’s snag it and move into the next room:

This is how Terry runs the player into the aforementioned tree – the checkpoints are now, for the first time, hot lava because we can’t just be respawning anywhere. If you’re still stuck in top speed mode, you’ll reflexively run your little dude into those checkpoints, and you won’t get the trinket as a result.

That means navigating this route got a lot harder, in a novel way that is ingenious.

This room is particularly devious now that grabbing the checkpoints is off the table:

One more quick descent and we’ve made it full circle:

Luckily, there’s only one thing you can do in this room:

Voila:

Of the 20 trinkets in VVVVVV, this is the toughest one to acquire. While the notorious Veni Vidi Vici and Edge Games may take superb platforming dexterity, Prize for the Reckless is the only trinket that forces a brand new approach on the player. The duality of execution and careful foresight stands out so much because it’s the one stage in the game where that combo is the star.

The rooms involved in this puzzle demonstrate the beauty of multi-purpose staging, and there’s a cute verbal clue as well. The layout of A Deception suggests a second purpose, and though the room’s name smacks you in the face once you get it, it only makes sense once you’re in the right mental frame. Terry is operating on several levels here, like any dedicated designer must.

VVVVVV trains the player to rapidly size up rooms, their obstacles and exits, but there’s only one segment where an action taken in a previous room affects the future. And yet, it’s done with such gentle emergence that it feels sublime rather than unsettling.

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:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/679300/PATHOS/

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