Sid Meier, who doesn't make puzzle games, has a saying that everyone who does make puzzle games has probably thought about from time to time. Actually, it's more of a question. A challenge. To paraphrase, since I am stupid and have lost the exact wording, Meier likes to ask his team: Who is having fun here? Voila: the question as hand grenade. Is the designer having most of the fun? If so, what about the player?
Another way of putting this is to say that, weird as it sounds, I'm starting to suspect it's easier to make a puzzle game that's ingenious than it is to make one that's satisfying. (As a design idiot, I should mention that I imagine none of this is particularly easy.) Boxboy!? Boxboy! definitely looks like it's going to fall into the first camp: minimalist, monochrome art, a brilliantly clever team behind it (HAL Laboratory, of Kirby fame) and a simple premise ripe for endless clever riffing. You're a 2D square, right, and you can sprout chains of other 2D squares from three sides of your head/body unit. That's it. Bring on the switches.
I was all set to admire what followed rather than truly enjoy it. But then something happened: Boxboy! surprised me. It's a delight! (Of course it's a delight. It's HAL Laboratory.)
Behind the disarmingly simple art style, all Dilbert ruled marker lines and blank white spaces, Boxboy! is the perfect puzzler for playing on the move. Each level is short, and composed of teeny micro-challenges that build on each other intelligently, teaching a mechanic and then tasking you with using it in a way that requires gentle lateral thinking. An early level might have you producing a stream of boxes to use as a plank to cross a pit of spikes. Next, the pit of spikes will be a little too long to cover with the number of boxes you can produce (this quantity changes from level to level, depending on the nature of the puzzles you're facing). The goal is always the same: get from the start of each level to the goal, but there is real variety here - staggering variety given the simplicity of the premise.
Some of this emerges from your basic actions. Boxboy can sprout a bunch of squares and then detach them - to use what he has produced as stairs, say, or to hold down a pressure plate that opens a door. But he can also keep the line of squares attached, walking about with a spontaneous Tetronimo sticking out of his skull. Why would you want him to do that? Because if you get one of the new squares resting on a surface, Boxboy can retract himself to that new position rather than simply jettisoning the whole thing. Or he can push himself off the ground. Some levels use this stuff to send you snaking through bendy channels. Others use it to run you from one sticky pad to the next. Some even have you hooking your way up virtual mountains, leaping and telescoping between distant ledges.
Then there's the level furniture that's steadily introduced, one set of challenges hinging on hooks and pulleys, while another might position positive and negative nodes around the place, encouraging you to complete the circuits with your own blocks. What keeps this fun, I think, is the speed at which the game inverts established ideas, and the manner in which it separates each puzzle within a given level so that you never feel that you're slogging through something truly unwieldy. If things go wrong, you can simply return to the beginning of the puzzle you're currently on, and you can even pay for a hint - it's generally the complete solution - with a Play Coin.
As you might have guessed, Boxboy! is not a particularly taxing game for the most part, a fact that is often perceived as a crime in puzzlers. This doesn't really matter, though, when the pace of the game, the ebb and flow of thought, is so elegantly controlled. I've started to think of Boxboy!'s individual challenges as little nuggets of shattered Zelda dungeons: you know you will get the answer in a minute or two, and yet the moment of understanding will still make you feel clever. This is a weird sweet spot to hit, and it requires generosity on the part of the designer. The real ingenuity in Boxboy! is how much the creators have clearly been thinking about the people playing it. Sid Meier approved!
The generosity extends, too, allowing for a surprisingly lengthy campaign padded with stuff like score- and time-attacks. There's also the challenge of mastery: getting through each level without going over its specific box limit, and snagging the little floating crowns that crop up in hard-to-reach places. Even that starkly stylish design approach has more life to it than you might expect: just watch Boxboy's legs swing in the breeze as he dangles from a crane.
Don't watch for too long, of course. Two minutes from now, the cranes will be a distant memory, replaced with something else that is just as fun to master. Boxboy! is a treat.
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