January 14, 2015

Crayon Physics Deluxe (2009)


Crayon Physics Deluxe
developed by Petri Purho (Helsinki, Finland)
first published January 7, 2009 by Kloonigames (= self-published), for Windows, $19.95
[well, technically, first published as licensed iOS port by Hudson Soft, January 1, 2009]
~50 MB

Played until declaring I was done, having completed 64 of 76 puzzles, in 4 hours, 1/12/15–1/13/15.

[official trailer]
Video of the game, including solutions to all the levels, is linked in the entry below.

On August 3rd, 2011, the “Humble Indie Bundle” was brought to my attention by a Facebook post. Specifically, Humble Indie Bundle 3 was on at the time, offering six games for “pay what you want”: Crayon Physics Deluxe, Cogs, VVVVVV, Hammerfight, And Yet It Moves, and Steel Storm: Burning Retribution. I already had VVVVVV, but I had heard of Crayon Physics, Cogs, and And Yet It Moves and was at least a little interested in all of them — plus the whole idea of “pay what you want” for any bunch of games was very exciting to me. The page suggested a donation of $5. Sounded great to me! I paid $5 and got 6 games.

As it turns out, during the remaining week of the sale, they would retroactively add 6 more games to my purchase. Thus a total of 12 games at $0.42 apiece, two of which I already had; so, if you like, $0.50 apiece for 10 new games.

Of the first five new games listed above, I immediately played Cogs and And Yet It Moves to completion — both of them fairly short games — and did give Crayon Physics a very quick look but didn’t really dig in. The other two I’ve still never touched.

So here we go. First up is, as you can see, to do Crayon Physics for real.

Well: I put in the time and attention and care, so it’s definitely been done for real, but I didn’t get to the end of the game. And I didn’t ultimately change my first impression of it, formed three-and-a-half years ago.

Crayon Physics is a Rorschach test for players. It is what you bring to it. Whether it works for you has mostly to do with you. Admitting that it doesn’t really work for me is embarrassing, because I’m not proud of the reasons why. But the reasons are real for me; there’s no way to just will myself to be different so that I’ll have more fun with this game. This entry will end up with me criticizing the ways the game is flawed, but I’m saying now: I already recognize that any criticisms I have are just manifestations of my own issues.

Of course, that goes for anything: complaints reveal only the state of the complainer, since the universe simply is. But games aren’t just any old things in the universe, they’re a social exchange, so it’s my prerogative to assert my perspective, just as the person who made the game is asserting his. Even if my perspective is an unfortunate one.

The reason this game doesn’t work for me:

The game poses problems (“move the ball to the star”) and then wants you to have fun designing, creating, engineering their solutions. Sounds great, but I am completely thrown off by the fact that the specific constraints of each problem are not themselves a spur to fun. That is, every problem in the game can be solved in dull, unrewarding ways. Which is not to say that every problem can be solved easily; some do require a bit of thought and/or experimentation. But even the hardest puzzles do not actually determine or demand interesting responses; solutions are still very likely to be inelegant and self-similar, if you let them be.

Essentially every puzzle can be solved by either 1) pushing the ball to the star with a weighted seesaw; 2) yanking the ball to the star with a pulley and counterweight; 3) glitching the ball around by abusing the game engine, which will snap things into position to prevent newly drawn objects from overlapping with old ones. Not to mention that a good many of the easier screens can simply be solved with 4) a ramp.

If you just do these things — as I found myself doing (well, not the glitching; I have principles!) — you will find this game very boring and unrewarding after the initial conceptual charm wears off. If, on the other hand, you find other things to do that delight you, you will be delighted.

I am not unfamiliar with the impulse to make things up that delight me. That attitude and that state of mind is very important to me, and I am touched by the invitation to do so that this game offers. My problem, and it is my problem, is that for me problem-solving and imagination are distinct, nearly opposite states of mind. That’s not how it should be, but it’s how it is.

Being given puzzles and asked to solve them is a prompt not to my whimsy, which moves in any and all directions, but to my determination, which moves in one direction, driving toward its goal. Though sometimes it might seem outwardly like I am a “creative problem solver,” actually whenever I’ve come up with a clever “lateral thinking” solution to a puzzle, it is always because I conducted such a thorough hunt for solutions that I even checked side alleys; not because I marched blithely to my own drummer.

This is a terrible state of affairs and one that I want to improve! Being able to be whimsical, imaginative, blithe, self-delighted as a response to a posed problem would change my life for the better in every possible way. But I am what I am right now, and right now is when I gave this game a shot.

My psychology is such that I could recognize exactly what the game was encouraging, but deep down I still wanted to be forced or seduced into being kooky and creative, not just invited. I recognize how unhealthy that is.

The game looks like crayon drawings to remind the player of the emotional freedom of childhood; the game has wistful dreamy music to remind the player of the wonder of the imagination; the game is full of silly doodles to remind the player of the pleasures of being loose. The game begins with a screen that says “It’s not about finding any solution. It’s about finding the awesomest one.” The puzzles are defined very simply and are full of blank space in which to be creative. You can even doodle on the map screens that organize the levels.

None of that does the trick for me. “Okay, sure, I get all this, I get how it’s supposed to work,” says my mind, fixated on the idea of finding out how things are supposed to be, which is at odds with inventing my own way. “Well, if I wanted to be creative my own way, I wouldn’t turn to a computer game! I’m here to engage with someone else’s vision, solve someone else’s puzzles,” says my mind, fixated on keeping a complete opposition between being on my terms or someone else’s. I just don’t know how to share this space, even with someone as thoroughly unassuming as Finnish indie game developer Petri Purho. It is a social problem as much as a motivational one.

Crayon Physics makes me face the fact that I come to games as I come to so much of the world, looking for an opportunity to be good at handling things rather than doing things. I want it to change but I have to find my own way there; that’s the very nature of the problem.

Now that I’ve acknowledged all that, I’ve cleared the way for the unseemly complaining.

Because… I very much want to say that I’m actually not so far from the right state of mind as all that. That, in fact, this game makes some missteps that had a serious impact on my willingness to play along. In fact I can’t see how they wouldn’t affect everyone’s experience of the game. It’s the game’s fault, I say! Not me! The game!

First of all, the dreamy tone is sweet and all, but the connotations are, for me, wrong. The foofy sad music and the wind blowing clouds of yesteryear through the menu screen all buy into the mindset that a child’s world of play is a fragile, evanescent thing. No it’s not. Kids’ crayon drawings are bold and assertive; they put everything they’ve got into them. And if I’m going to put everything I’ve got into this game, all my wild whims and notions for crazy machines, I should be put in the mindset a kid is actually in, which is anything but wistful and fragile; it’s the feeling of love of life. The music and the design are nostalgist, which is always an aesthetic error. (Watch for this to be a recurring theme in my comments on indie games of the last decade!)

(Also: the aforementioned foofy music consists of only three tracks, two of which are passable and one of which is quite inept, totaling 11 minutes 8 seconds. They play in a constant endless loop. That’s just not enough music! The food is terrible and the portions are too small. It gives a strong sense of amateurishness to the whole game that could very easily have been corrected with more tracks and more taste.)

Second of all, the game design does attempt to prod the player’s ambition, but in the wrong direction.

The game awards a single “star” for the first time each problem is completed, but then awards a second star once the problem has been solved in ways that satisfy three different criteria: “Elegant,” “Old School,” and “Awesome.” An “Elegant” solution uses only a single object. An “Old School” solution uses no interconnected objects (i.e. no ropes or hinges). An “Awesome” solution is simply one that the player is proud of, delighted by: once you have solved a level, you are free at any time to check this box and confirm on the honor system that what you did was in fact awesome.

Unlocking the final level requires accumulating 45 more stars than there are levels in the game, which means getting the second star at least 45 times. Setting aside “Awesome,” that makes “Elegant” and “Old School,” the two game-imposed criteria for ingenuity, very strongly endorsed as ways of applying oneself to the task. In theory these might sound like good criteria for rewarding creativity, but if the object of the game is to be a venue for lively invention, they’re not! Trying to use only a single object, or use no interconnected objects, rewards not creative exuberance but rather tedious finessing of the game’s finicky engine, trying over and over to build the same old long weighted hook-lever thing just just right so that it happens to bump the ball as intended, or dropping blob after blob on the back of the ball, trying to get it to just roll forward, dammit.

As for “Awesome”: while being rewarded for a self-elected, purely subjective achievement of awesomeness is a nice idea, it really grates against my polarized attitudes (as described above) for it to be the third thing on a list wherein the first two things are these rather mercilessly objective hurdles where you’re graded by the computer.

I’m not the only one who finds this hard to swallow. There’s a kid on Youtube who does a “speedrun” of the game (14:14) but first explains that his standard for completion omits the final level because it would require embracing exactly this subjectivity: “As long as you say a solution is Awesome, it’s counted as Awesome. And you can get stars by that. And I just don’t like the idea of this game just needing you to do that. Like… no. That’s just like people liking their own pictures on Facebook. That’s… no. Can’t do that. That’s bullshit.” The game encourages him to offer himself love, and he rejects it. That’s bullshit. Only other people determine whether I am worthy.

This is what I mean about the Rorschach. I’m no speedrunner, but I’m enough of one at heart that I sympathize. I’m either going to be proud of myself subjectively or objectively. Can’t do both. That’s… no.

But I’m aiming myself at yes.

Third of all — third complaint, remember? — the game engine just isn’t reliable. Yes, it looks friendly, but it doesn’t act so friendly. The ball doesn’t always sit right on the lines; things get stuck on each other sometimes; very tiny variations in how something is drawn have big repercussions for how it behaves. Yes, that may be how physics works, but a crayon is not a precision instrument, and a mouse imitating a crayon really isn’t. Creating approximately what you have in mind is easy, but creating what you actually have in mind is hard, and that’s what the game will demand. Drawing a smooth curve — so important to many “Elegant” solutions — is extremely difficult to achieve, and not in a rewarding way.

It’s possible that I would have enjoyed the game far more on a touch screen with a stylus, which I think is how it was designed to be played.

And also! It makes you redraw everything from scratch if it fails, so you can’t make careful tweaks! And also! And also I have more complaints about the game but let’s move on.

For all that, many people loved this game exactly as intended and threw their creative selves into it. Why? Maybe because one wants to believe that this innocent attitude is whole and returns us to a state of pure play, even if by virtue of the design it doesn’t. It indicates a very pure game that it isn’t quite. Many games back in the old Commodore 64 days of my youth were the same: mediocre designs, strictly speaking, but very compelling as indicators. In fact many works of art are; they are sufficient to create their intended irrational impression but not to be considered rationally. When one sees Crayon Physics for the first time, one immediately and strongly gets it and believes in it. That can be enough, if you don’t have special emotional needs like I apparently do.

Art is the having of a vision and then creating something that conveys it. Such “flawed but indicative” works absolutely do that; I can see the designer’s vision. That kind of work could in turn conceivably infect some audience members with the urge to do what hasn’t yet been done, which is to not just pass on the vision but render it functionally real.

There are enough games out there that one is free to dismiss games that don’t work both ways — both as visions and as machines — just as one is free to dismiss movies, books, paintings: no need to settle when there are so many. But that can also build up a habit of “passing judgment,” of deliberately looking for what might be lacking, and that habit will always tend to devalue things that feel right but don’t “work,” and overvalue things that “work” but don’t feel right. Both halves at once is best, but each half alone has something to offer.

I like what Crayon Physics suggests; I enjoyed the fact that playing it sparked my imagination to think how great it would be to play such a game as it.

That’s different from thinking it’s actually great, but it’s not nothing. However you can get essentially the same spark by watching other people play it on Youtube.

There are a zillion playthroughs of this game available on Youtube. It is an interesting game to watch people play, because it reveals a lot about personalities. Many people, you’ll see, have the same divot in their minds that I do — they just want to solve it any old way and aren’t able to take pride in their work because that would be a different mode of being. I’m not linking to those because there are so many and who needs it.

Videos like this one and this “Elegant” response (of a custom-built level; the game comes with a level editor) suggest an exuberant and inventive way of playing that I wish I could attain. But, as I’ve now said at length, I can’t.

This guy likes using weighted cams that push the ball. His solutions all have a certain panache.

Here, to satisfy my intention to post complete playthroughs, is one guy’s complete set of solutions that satisfy both the “Elegant” and “Old School” requirements at the same time (30 minutes total). He made his own highlights reel if you want to just watch that. I assure you that, having been playing the game, these are astounding and the guy must be some kind of savant — it’s like watching someone making free throws blindfolded, over and over. The fact that they won’t look like anything special if you haven’t played the game, is, I think, a sign of what’s wrong with the game. Also be aware that he probably had to do these many many many times before they worked.

The game is by just the one guy, with menu graphics by his friend and music borrowed from other people. He’s one of these indie game dudes who makes quick prototypes lots of little experimental ideas (or used to, anyway), and this originated as one of them, called Crayon Physics, which is why he felt the need to call the commercial version Crayon Physics Deluxe. This game made a considerable splash back in 2009 and, I gather from Youtube comments, became common in schools as a quasi-educational activity. I don’t go in a lot for “things that make you feel old!” but I can’t help but be struck by the fact that a lot of these kids are commenting about how watching the videos makes them nostalgic for the good old days when they used to play Crayon Physics in high school.

It just goes to show what I’m saying: my pile of games is too damn big. Okay, that’s another one down.

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