Draknek masters a genre with a game of little touches, big challenge, and giant heart.
I'm a few hours into A Monster's Expedition now, and I am stuck. I've been stuck lots of times already, of course, because that's the nature of puzzle games - but not this stuck. This one's a killer: I've ended up on an island which looks much simpler than most of the scores of others I've been through, but I'm stuck in a sort of micro one-way system that is impossible - I'm telling you, impossible - to get through. You have to push down a tree in a specific direction first - there's only one direction you can push it from - and then that tree is in the way of the other one I need to use as a bridge to where I'm headed next. But here's the real problem: I'm not certain this is the only way. On this island is a post box. Post boxes let you fast travel to other post boxes (don't think too hard about it) and I can tell, on the other side of this little island, there's much more land. Maybe I'm supposed to go solve another island somewhere else, and get to this one from the other way?
So off I go, teleporting around A Monster's Expedition's wonderful not-so-little map solving every last half-puzzle I'd left unsolved. One of these, I say maybe out loud, maybe not, has to be it. One of them needs to get me on a raft, up the top, round the back, to that other island instead of the post box one where I was stuck. I've tried that one for hours and there simply cannot be another way. Impossible. Impassable. I've spent too long on it and I am not that stupid that I've missed something here.
Reader, I won't tell you the solution but I will tell you this: when in doubt, you are always that stupid.
Such is the joy of A Monster's Expedition! A good puzzle game is a reminder that you are always the idiot - never the puzzle - and A Monster's Expedition is a very good puzzle game. It's the latest from Draknek, a small indie team with a history of great puzzlers in Sokobond, A Good Snowman is Hard to Build and Cosmic Express, and in the developer's own words it's a little longer than any of those previous ones, but the spirit is the same. This time, you are a small monster with a nice backpack, who arrives on one island and must, essentially, push down little trees and roll them into little bridges to cross to new islands and explore. Each island is its own conundrum, but every couple of islands you pass through has a little exhibit to break things up: assorted items from the long-passed human world, with accompanying curator's description that never quite gets it.
From those humble wooden stumps Draknek builds a civilization of brain teasers. The puzzles, really, are based quite closely on Sokoban, a type of Japanese block puzzle. You might notice the format from Pokémon, of all things: it's the same idea as the ice and stone-pushing puzzles of the Seafoam Islands, and the like. In A Monster's Expedition, instead of little cubes of stone it's those trees. Initially it's small ones, which once pushed over you can roll - but will roll clean off the side of the island if not blocked - or flip, end to end, if you come at them from the right side. This soon expands a little, to longer trees that can't be flipped but can obviously bridge larger gaps between islands, and beyond that to a somewhat mind-expanding raft system, too.
In a way, that's it. The brilliance of A Monster's Expedition is the way you can play it, thinking quite hard, without ever really thinking about it, so away you go, hopping from one curio to the next. But behind the brilliance is a stroke of genius. What sets A Monster's Expedition aside is a button: the "Undo" button. You only have three things you can press in the entire game, in fact: the directional input of your left analog (no jumping, or dedicated "push down tree" button, you just bosh into it), an undo button, and a button to reset the island you're on. The inclusion of those last two, and implementation of them - the speed and the simplicity and the ability to make much less of a meal out of undoing multi-step actions than Adobe or Microsoft does - is magic. Suddenly all weight and all pressure is gone, and you're free to prod and poke and experiment. What if this goes here? What if I go that way? What if I- nope. It's almost always nope, but it never matters.
There are other things I love. The world's set up in a series of islands but all of them break up into little continents, with climates of their own. Trees, then, have different coloured tops - autumnal browns, tropical greens, deeper greens, wintry frost, blossom pink - and leaving one or two standing, when you get stuck somewhere and decide to go another way, becomes a kind of personal shorthand. Must go back to pink. There's the little elaborations on how the systems work - it's gently systemic, in fact - as you unfold the world before you a little more. Two trees next to each other won't knock each other down, if you nudge one. But then, if you nudge a tree and it doesn't fall, it's leaves fall off, which, you think - having already used that trick to breadcrumb where you have and haven't been - you know all about. But then you learn, by accident probably, that if you nudge a tree into one beside it that's leaves have already fallen off, that second tree falls down, and so you find another key to another island's lock.
This goes on and on. You learn a basic raft, by accident, and the world billows out through the fog, so then you learn another type of raft, using big trees, on purpose, because you know in theory it should work. A weird three-part raft-and-log-bit thing lets you get across a different type of gap. You learn to build corners - I've not been so excited by making a corner out of blocks since I was about five - and you roll logs on top of bigger logs and smaller logs, and push off from logs using other logs and send logs on rafts to where they're probably not supposed to be, and reset and do something else. Everything with a delightful poise and plonk and charm.
And that's the finishing touch, really. Charm is so easily overdone or under considered, but for charm to work it has to already be there, in some way, within the material. A Monster's Expedition has it in spades (a spade is a giant spoon, the exhibition tells me by the way). It's in the way you can stop and dangle your feet in the water, to the sound of a swelling, but still soothing little groove - I'd take a million "can you stop and dangle your feet?" for every one of "can you pet the dog?", for what it's worth - and the little coffee or popcorn stands that you find very occasionally as you make your way.
More, it's in the mechanics of it all, the game itself. There's no tension, no forced direction, just curiosity and momentum and a reward that feels, at times, like a welcome embrace. Pop in and out wherever you like. A free exhibition, on a slow Wednesday you've taken off work, without a message or a sniffy guide. It's in the pacing, if we're getting into the nuts and bolts of it: the way it undulates from a bigger, longer, more complex little forest that eventually breaks into what feels like gliding downhill, one toughie followed by one or two freebies, usually. A deep breath and a little joke, just to puff you back up.
Which is lovely, honestly, because again with any good puzzle that's the point: you are an idiot - until you're reminded, with a coffee, or an exhale, or a game that feels like a hug, that you're not.