Backlog: Puzzle Agent

[I like making these more about pictures than words, so I am going to try to include more images more often when doing this series.]

I don’t generally like adventure games. I didn’t grow up with them as many people did and I approach most of them now, with my many years of RPG playing, as I do speaking a foreign language. That is, I’m pretty sure I’m getting the meaning right most of the time, but I seem to get caught up in the syntax. Is it nouns first? When do I include extra punctuation? Basically, it’s awkward and slow going most of the time.

However, just because I don’t understand something doesn’t mean I should avoid it. And so, with some fear and a touch of trepidation, I tried out Puzzle Agent a few nights ago.

Puzzle Agent Logo
Huh. A factory in the background. That reminds me of Twin Peaks.

I really like the art for the simple reason that I can tell that it was done by one person. The pencil shading around the edges really endeared it to me. As someone who also tends to make most of the art assets for my projects, I appreciated seeing the hard work another person put into their game. Even though the style doesn’t quite work with close-up shots,  I liked that the people had a certain fuzziness to their edges. It added to the narrative of both Agent Tethers and the townspeople being… well, sketchy.

Puzzle Agent and its primary references
It's Twin Peaks meets Fargo.

In the couple hours that I have put into it so far, I’m finding it both frustrating and funny. I like the story, the people and the visual language it uses. I’ve picked up on the Twin Peaks, Fargo and, at the very beginning, 2001: A Space Odyssey references. I like those. I even like what little I have seen of the people in Scoggins, Minnesota so far. It’s the puzzles though that are driving me crazy. I’m pretty bad at them.

All puzzles done so far in Puzzle Agent
Here are the 11 puzzles I've done so far. (Some of these are solutions, so I've purposely made it hard to see them.)

It’s gotten to the point, with two puzzles in particular, where I was extremely close to looking up a guide. I would try something, move some options around and then sent it in to be judged. In one puzzle, I went through seven different submissions before I finally got it right. That was after three separate hints too. As I said, I’m not good at these and they are, beyond anything else, what is keeping me from getting through the game.

Spoken exposition from Agent Tethers
Diane, I think this might be a clue. Also, the cherry pie is delicious.

One of the more interesting aspects to the game, once I realized it, was that the tape recorder actually works really well as an exposition device. As Agent Tethers finds clues, he can speak them out to highlight them to the player while also having a reason to do so: he’s recording them.

Something that games in the adventure genre have, in the few that I have played, is the need to constantly tell the player information for the next puzzle or part of the story and end up, in most cases, having the character speak to themselves. Huh. A bloody knife. I should investigate that.

It was refreshing then to see what the tape recorder could be used in this aspect. Not only is it a direct reference to Twin Peaks, but it works as a narrative delivery device. (I was so impressed with it that I wrote it down as something I should think about for my own future projects.) Integrating exposition to the player within the in-game fiction is a clever way to give information while not breaking the fourth wall by having the player inventory-dive for clues. I applaud Puzzle Agent for doing it well.

Crane shot of Agent Tethers
More of this. I want all of this.

My favorite thing though, beyond the tape recorder usage, was that the game is not afraid to detach from the player’s point of view and step back to convey meaning. The above picture especially, I thought, was really great. Instead of going through dialogue necessary to establish Agent Tethers’ attitude in the moment, the camera can simply move into a crane shot and show, in simple visual language, that the Agent is both alone in the world and slightly off center. It’s a wonderful moment.

That’s what I want more of in both this and other games. It’s good to give the player agency whenever possible, but it’s also important to remember that video games are primarily, for better of worse, a visual medium. The more games can do to use that to their advantage, the better in the terms of story-telling possibilities. I would be very happy indeed if I saw such beautiful moments in other games that have greater budgets and bigger teams.

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