Breath of the Wild’s Puzzles Are Better Than Portal 2’s

I might regret that title, but let me talk it through. Are Breath of the Wild’s puzzles better than Portal 2’s puzzles? I love the puzzles in Portal 2! It’s almost a perfect game and now I’m questioning how good it really is? How did I get here?

Core to the enjoyment of solving a Portal puzzle is the satisfaction felt at the end of a level. At the outset, everything you need to solve the level is in front of you. The tools are dead simple: two portals. You, your portal gun and your wits (and maybe the occasional Companion Cube or two). As you go along, additional tools are added, but they only serve to enhance the portal principle. Pure satisfaction is yours when you reach the end, feeling like you’re the only person that has ever solved this puzzle in the way you did. It really taps the brainzone where pleasure and satisfaction is registered. As the levels progress, the ideas and solutions build upon themselves until (spoiler alert) you’re opening a portal on the moon. Each step along the way is another accomplishment, success building on another success until you finally make it to the end.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has tapped into that same brainzone for me, to the point that I’m wondering if BotW’s puzzles are better than Portal’s. But why?

In BotW, you have a few more tools at your disposal. The runes on your Sheikah Slate give you more options for solving a particular puzzle, along with your weapons. It’s up to you how you use them, as most puzzles can be brute forced. But solving a puzzle with an elegant solution feels infinitely more satisfying.

Case in point: there is a puzzle where huge metal balls are tumbling down a sloped surface that is interspersed with blocks and obstacles that impede the descent of the metallic balls (think a giant pinball machine, and you’re half-way there). There is also water falling over the back wall and down the slope. You, being a brute, could use magnesis (the rune that allows you to manipulate metal objects) to freeze one of the pinballs and force it near the end of the slope. But you’ve got to maneuver the huge pinball while avoiding the other pinballs that are tumbling around you. One false move and your precious pinball is going to miss the last obstacle and tumble over the side, with no other pinballs left to manipulate. Brute force is doable, but not easy (and I would assume, not as satisfying). I know it’s not easy because I tried it. Over and over again.

The elegant solution is to use crynosis (the rune that allows you to create up to three pillars of ice out of water) to deftly guide the ball to its destination, gently moving it down the slope into the awaiting receptacle. The solution presented itself to me as I was about to give up after the fiftieth attempt to brute force my way. It was an “a-HA!” moment of the highest order. Elegance in and of itself is a reward. There’s an added satisfaction that you figured out what the level designer had in mind. He deemed you smart enough to eventually figure it out and rewarded your superior intellect with an extra satisfying ding at the end. Your brainzone was touched. You didn’t get an extra spirit orb for doing it “right”. You didn’t get a rupee bonus. The feeling of accomplishment is a reward all its own.

This experience happens over and over again. Some puzzles are easier, some are less elegant, but all end in a feeling of accomplishment.

And that’s not even mentioning the puzzles contained in each of the four Divine Beasts. Not only are you manipulating the physics around you but you are also physically manipulating the level, rotating it or turning it on its side. It’s an added layer that magnifies the difficulty and demands more of the puzzle solver. But again, elegance is found in the solution.

So why am I feeling like BotW’s puzzles are better than Portal 2? I think part of it is the variety. Puzzles in Portal are the game. They are the means that lead to your escape. The puzzles in BotW are both essential (solving the Divine Beasts) and superfluous (you could ostensibly finish the game without completing every shrine). There are also hours of the game spent not solving puzzles. The crafting, exploring and fighting space out the puzzles at a reasonable pace that allows for puzzle satisfaction to come at regular intervals.

So maybe I’m saying The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is just a better game than Portal 2. Because it is. But in the end, I think the puzzles are superior, too.

On Steam Sales and Backlogs

The most recent Summer Steam Sale has come and gone, and in its wake are numerous Steam libraries overflowing with games, probably more than will be possible for one person to play. We’ll all chuckle and joke about our growing “Piles of Shame”.

I didn’t pick up a single thing in this most recent sale, which is a first for me. I can usually convince myself I might as well pick something up. It’s on sale, after all! That got me thinking about past sales and the number of games currently gathering dust in my library.

Click to Embiggenify

As far as I can tell, you can’t sort your Steam Library on “Date Purchased”, but you can sort it on the date you last played each game. If you have purchased, but not actually played, a game in your library, the last played date is preceded by the word “New”, meaning it hasn’t even been installed. As I looked through my library of almost 200 games, it looks like the Winter 2012 Steam Sale was the most fruitful for me. In the interest of space, I’ll just link thumbnails of some of the items I picked up in that sale:

There are some “Triple-A” titles here, including Darksiders and Sim City 4, but I’ve also got some titles I don’t even remember buying. Larva Mortus? Grotesque Tactics?

I know what this is. I recognize the signs. I’ve watched enough A&E to know: This is HOARDING.

Digital hoarding.

I’ve seen enough episodes of Hoarders to know that I’m hoarding these games. It’s almost become a badge of honor to have all these games in my library. “Look how silly it is! I’ve got all these games I’ll never play!” Justifications like “they were on sale” and “it was cheaper to buy all the DLC together” slightly ease the discomfort. Don’t even get me started on Humble Bundles. They have contributed to this mess just as much as Steam Sales.

The argument could be made that digital hoarding isn’t hurting anything. There aren’t cockroaches in my kitchen because I never installed Future Wars. But that title is there, in my library list, like a wedge in my brain every time I look at that list. It just sticks in there, nagging me with a sense of disappointment. Disappointment in myself that I still haven’t loaded up this thing that I paid for and disappointment in my lack of willpower in purchasing the trash in the first place. (Note that this post is not a reflection of the quality of the unplayed games in my library. I wouldn’t know. I haven’t played them.)

So as we kick of “Hate Tony Week” (everyone hates me once a year when the wife and kids are gone for summer camps and I have 5 uninterrupted evenings with as much gaming as I can manage) I’m going to take a hatchet to my “backlog”. My Pile of Shame will be turned into a Massacre of Bad Games. In between sessions of Doom, Dota, and Overwatch, I’m going to ruthlessly eradicate large swaths of my library. I’ll give them all a fair shake, but my time has become too valuable and too scarce to waste on bad games. So I’m going to install some of these games, give them a chance and if they don’t make the cut they get the axe. No longer worthy to take up a spot in the list, they will be banished.

And I will no longer feel guilty about hoarding them.

Video Games and Marketing

Video game marketing and TV commercials have come a long way since I’ve been a gamer. We’ve gone from these “corny” Zelda commercials (I say “corny” lovingly, because at the time I thought they were pretty awesome) to having a “World Premier Trailer” show up during an NBA playoff game. We’ve gone

As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve also been thinking a little about marketing these games to kids. To be fair, those Zelda commercials were targeted to kids (albeit older kids) and maybe that’s why, twenty-five years later, they appear corny to my jaded eyes. But now, during the holiday season, I have become more acutely aware of how kids are targeted from all sides with commercials and marketing geared specifically for their attention. And it works. With the date of a hot new game release approaching, you can bet that the promotional efforts for the game will seemingly become more amplified. It seems like every time you walk into electronics section at Wal-Mart and other major stores, there are employees and displays with various products to offer as a promotion resource for the latest new videogame. If I were a kid, how could I resist.

They are effective. I recently read this good article by JP Sherman at the Escapist and suggest everyone go read. What struck me the most telling was that web advertising is still the wild frontier. While there is hardly any marketing of violent video games to kid audiences, websites that kids frequent still routinely show ads for M-rated games. Even shows that cater to the younger teenagers have decreased their advertising of violent video games, which was a surprise to me.

In the end, it’s still about monitoring not only the content our kids are consuming, but what is on the periphery as well. We let our kids use sites like Kizi, which houses tons of flash-based games, but the ads are still troublesome. We still look to find ways to let them have fun online but maintain that safety net at the same time.

I’d love to hear any techniques you guys use. Or sites you have found to be mostly safe.

Gross Anatomy

I have probably already mentioned this before, but Jeremy Parish is one of my favorite video game writers/historians. I add “historian” to that description because his knowledge of video game history (particularly console/Japanese video game history) is deep.

Lately he’s been doing these “Anatomy of a Game” posts and recently he started examining The Legend of Zelda for the NES. He hasn’t finished the series yet, but I am thoroughly enjoying all of these articles.

The Legend of Zelda is probably the most important contributor to me becoming a “gamer”. I had played many games before then (I owned a ET cartridge for the Atari 2600, people) but I have vivid memories of hours spent playing Zelda. My exploration of Hyrule actually mirrored those formative years of growing up for me. We moved to a new city the year I turned twelve years old. I went from going to schools in the not-exactly-the-pinnacle-of-education Cleveland City School District to the relatively successful schools in the peaceful suburb of North Royalton. At the start of the seventh grade I didn’t have any friends and video games served to fill that vacancy for a while.

I was playing The Legend of Zelda and, quite honestly, I was pretty lost. Not making a lot of progress in the game nor in the game of life. I happened to bring my fold out map of Hyrule to school one day and a girl in my class noticed that I was studying it before class started. She took it from me and started drawing on it. Horrified, I asked her what she was doing. “Just helping you out,” she replied. She proceeded to mark out places where bombs would open new caves, bushes would reveal secret passageways and where I should go first. She didn’t reveal everything (I honestly don’t know how she had memorized as much of the map as she did), just like the game. Her hints and suggestions gently guided me on the path to discovering things for myself. My eyes had been opened to the possibilities.

I don’t know how many times I actually finished The Legend of Zelda, but I will never forget the sense of wonder I experienced exploring that world. Jeremy’s posts have definitely stirred those emotions almost twenty fives years later.

(You can see all his Anatomy of a Game links here.)

It all makes sense

This is a like a video game version of The DaVinci Code. The more you read, the more it makes sense. And the sadder you’ll become.

Then read this and get really sad. (Note that there are multiple chapters):

The idea, here, is that The Sims Social is rife with sticky walls and mental fly-paper, trying to keep you staring at the world until you become so accustomed to its face it’s the same as being in love: you’re staring at your guy making nachos, or writing blog posts, because the game has attached this mammoth importance to making more money, to moving up in the world, to buying new furniture, and here it is giving you a fifty-percent bonus. You’re trapped, whether you’re actively “enjoying” yourself or not. You’re “doing it correctly”, and the game is rewarding you, and it’s easier than pressing the right buttons with the right timing in Rock Band, and all it required was a little sleight-of-brain. You feel good about yourself. You look at this cartoon world long enough, and something of an Inverse Pavlov happens. Your brain begins to know that you are “enjoying” yourself, even if you hate this insipid thing. In spite of a love-shaped hole in the center of your spirit re: this electronic monster, you will not turn away.

The game is a Chinese finger trap of the mind: soon you realize that inspiration is free, which, in economics terms, means that the inflated value of single-energy-point actions when “inspired” is not a “bonus” or a “maximum” value — it’s the baseline; it’s the “minimum”. Once you grasp that your character can be made inspired with a little flick of the game’s mechanics, you’ll never want to do money-earning actions without being inspired — and if you do (and this is the important part!) you’ll feel lazy.