This is another article written by Leaf, you can follow her on Twitter at Leafdoggy.
I think I’m probably not alone when I say that Portal 2 was the first game to make me realize what puzzle games could be.
See, puzzle games come in a few different flavors. There’s your Professor Laytons, where there’s puzzles, sure, but they don’t really share any common themes between them all. Then there are point and click adventure games like King’s Quest, where puzzles can span the whole game, but they’re simple, trial and error affairs. They don’t bend your brain so much as they flex your memory and perception.
From there, you have the room escape games of yore that flooded flash game sites, and which eventually gave way to the escape room games we have today. They condensed the point and click formula into a small space, and in doing so really strengthened the puzzle elements—though, often at the expense of the narrative. They were some of the first games to really make me think outside the box.
Now, that’s not to say that those other games don’t make you think outside the box. They certainly do, or at least they try. So, what did room escape games do differently?
They gave you a box.
In a sprawling world, players have untold options. They have the entire game to search for clues and find answers. On the surface, that sounds like a good thing, but is it really? Give a person a combination lock, and they know they’re looking for a number. Give that same person a whiteboard, and they know nothing. So, can they really be expected to find that number you hid away?
That’s what room escape games did. They gave you the lock. They put you in a tiny room, and told you “the answer is in here, don’t bother looking anywhere else.” You didn’t need to worry about searching the entire forest outside, so you could take the time to check things more thoroughly. Would you really look under that pillow if you had an entire world that could hold the answer? The constraints gave the games the freedom to be more obtuse with the answers.
So, what if the games limited you even more?
That’s when you get into the real meat of puzzle games. The games that don’t give you a whole world of answers, but rather, a set of rules. The games that focus on a single type of puzzle, making them harder and harder until the answers are buried so deep that they’re difficult to find. Things like sokoban games and physics puzzles.
And that brings us back to Portal 2.
There’s a reason I specify Portal 2. To me, the first game still felt like those average logic puzzles. There was a story, sure, and a space that held the levels, but in the end, it was still just a series of puzzles presented to you one after the other.
Portal 2 was… different. It took the logic puzzles with their precise design and focused solutions, and built itself back up to those sprawling worlds from less self-contained puzzle games. They weren’t puzzles fit in throughout a world, but a world built out of that one type of puzzle. It was intricate and interconnected and interesting, a world that didn’t just feel like a shell around the puzzles. It was a whole experience.
It was a height I’ve searched for in puzzle games ever since, a bar that I struggle not to hold other games to. And that’s the thing: I shouldn’t hold other puzzle games to that bar, because that’s not what most puzzle games are. It doesn’t make Portal 2 inherently better than those games. It just makes Portal 2 different.
It’s a bit hard to say what exactly sets these games apart, these… World Puzzles, I’ll call them. They’re logic puzzles, but they’re also whole worlds, realms crafted out of puzzles. What’s the line between Portal and Portal 2, though? Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe Portal did all of these things first, and I just didn’t notice them until the sequel. I don’t know where the line should be.
I do know that Portal 2 isn’t alone, though. In the years since, there’s been a handful of other games that struck me in the same way. Baba Is You has always been my favorite, but there’s also The Talos Principle, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, The Witness, Solas 128. They’re not even always good; I’ve certainly been disappointed before. They all have that ‘something’ different, though.
Filament, released last year by Beard Envy Games, is one of those games, and it’s one I feel deserves to be right up there alongside those games.
At its most basic, Filament is a game about winding cords around pegs. You have to light up all the pegs, and your cord can’t cross over itself. It’s constantly iterating on that and adding different ways to shake it up, but that’s the main premise.
That may sound simple, but believe me, the puzzles are far from easy. Even just the normal ones get tough, and when you start adding special rules onto that, it can get downright ridiculous. It’s a good difficulty, though. Sometimes, puzzle games can leave me feeling like I never really quite understand how everything fits together and interact. Snakebird, for instance, left me feeling like that. Filament didn’t, though. I knew how it all fit together, how the cords interacted with things, what I could and could not do. It was a game where I could often work my way backwards through a puzzle; ‘I know I need to do this last, so I can’t do anything that blocks off this path,’ things along those lines. It’s a game that makes me confident about figuring things out, and proud of myself when I finally do.
The different new mechanics are always fun, too. They’re generally intuitive, and there’s a huge variety of them. It’s reminiscent of The Witness in that regard; the basics are solid, unmoving, but it always keeps you on your toes, anticipating the next challenge.
A fairly common mechanic, for example, is one which requires you to hit certain columns more than once. It’s deceptively simple, adding a whole new dimension of thought to the puzzles. By the end of the game, I felt like I had a deep knowledge of it, with patterns and strategies I could use specifically for those obstacles.
They don’t stay that simple, of course. Take this beast of a puzzle:
Four separate areas, each with their own cord, connected by pylons that have to be hit in a certain order. It has you jumping between the fields, needing to solve parts of one section to unlock necessary pieces of another in a true test of your skills. You can see an inkling of the mixing of mechanics here, too. The gates of light are their own, with a whole section dedicated to them elsewhere in the ship.
These twists are presented brilliantly, too. Like The Witness, the game doesn’t outright explain them to you. It presents you with simple examples, and uses its visual language to make it clear what you’re meant to do. It’s rarely a question of what the game is asking of you, so you’re free to puzzle out how to give it what it wants.
And, of course, it builds a world around the puzzles. The game takes place on an abandoned spaceship, and there’s remnants of the strange pylons all around. They’re plainly important, and as the story unravels around you, you steadily learn more about the things you’ve been interacting with the whole game. Plus, you have to use the environment and the puzzles to even learn the story in the first place. It’s all told primarily through computer terminals, and to access different files, you have to input a unique pattern by winding a line through a grid of squares, a miniature version of the main game’s puzzles.
And where do you learn these passwords?
Well, primarily you get them as rewards in-between groups of puzzles, and this has some fairly strange effects on the story itself. See, at any one time throughout most of the game, you have access to a handful of different paths you can take. There’s not much linearity in the order you tackle different branches of puzzles. There’s not even really a path that feels ‘correct.’ Everything is just spread out around the ship. You’re not being drawn in a direction; you’re exploring an area in whatever way feels natural to you.
Because of this, the story is kind of piecemeal. You only ever get one log at a time, and the timeline is completely scrambled. Things aren’t presented in any particular order, and it’s up to you to string them together. You learn a lot of information more than once, but at the same time, it’s entirely possible to just miss something.
Honestly, it’s a pretty effective way of telling the story. It really feels like you’re wandering around an abandoned ship, trying to piece together in your mind what happened, and why everybody is gone. You don’t even have to do it, really. You could just ignore the terminals entirely. The onus is entirely on you, as the player, to decide if you want to know more, and that just makes it feel even more like you’re solving a mystery. It felt a lot like Obra Dinn at times, truly capturing that feeling of detective work, although obviously less-so than in Obra Dinn.
I wouldn’t recommend skipping the logs, though, because the story was actually really good. It’s well-written, and I really came to know and care about every member of the crew as I worked out the tragedy they were barely holding each other together through. It’s a touching story, and by the end of it I was solving puzzles because I was desperate to know more just as much as I was solving them for the fun of it.
There are also secrets hidden throughout the ship, which give you access to special logs in the terminals. It’s a great way of rewarding keeping a sharp eye as you wander the ship—although, odds are you’ll be looking either way, because the design of the spaces around the ship is impeccable, and it really feels like a place where people lived and worked.
Honestly, everything about the game is well designed. I’m a big fan of the relatively simplistic art style, and they really do a lot with it, making some truly beautiful setpieces. The music is good and relaxing, and even the voice acting—sparse as it may be—is well performed. It really is masterfully made.
Oh, and if you’re worried about there not being enough of a challenge for you, the game’s got you covered. It took me thirty hours to finish every puzzle, and it spent every hour getting tougher and tougher. Some of the mechanics get gruelingly difficult on their own, and when the game starts putting them together, it can get ridiculous. The game is not at all afraid of going too far.
Apparently, the game has a hint system now, too. It didn’t when I played it—and I actually had to look up one or two solutions towards the end—so I can’t speak to its effectiveness, but it should hopefully make the game a bit more accessible if you want to experience the story but aren’t that confident in your puzzle skills. Honestly, it would be worth it. The story is good enough for it.
Now, do I believe the game is better than Portal 2? At the moment, yes. Portal 2 is great, but Filament had a bigger impact on me. Part of this is because I preferred Filament‘s line puzzles, part of it may be because I prefer rooting for the underdog over a big company like Valve. In fairness, I haven’t played Portal 2 in a long time so I don’t know if Filament is truly “better,” but I’m confident in saying that I personally like it more.