By Nathan Grayson on April 9th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.
Being from Texas, I can count the number of snowmen I’ve built on one hand. Being from Texas, they were also about the size of said one hand. I did get the chance to slap together a bulbous yeti of truly epic proportions in college, though. I took so much pride in that dumb thing that I nearly tried to put a hit out on whomever kicked it down during that coldest of winter nights. I can identify with A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build‘s title, is what I’m saying. The game itself, however, is probably not what you’re expecting – a thing of snow-white relaxation and contemplation, not astute snowperson defense. It’s a simple yet wickedly challenging puzzler from Sokobond designer Alan Hazelden, with lovably, huggably soft personality to match.
Each snowperson has a name. A name! Awwwwwwwww.
The GIF is pretty indicative of what moment-to-moment gameplay looks like, but it doesn’t even begin to dive beneath the tip of this iceberg. I got my hands on a press demo and quickly found that, while AGSIHTB never stops being soothing, it won’t just hand over its bounties to a brain on auto-pilot. The game’s vibe, tone, and feel are all joyously snuggly, but your mind must be ready to squeeze like an anaconda.
In each grid-based area, you have three snowballs of three possible sizes. In order to assemble a good and properly proportioned snowperson, you need only stack one ball of each size atop one another, with biggest on bottom and smallest on top. Roll a snowball over a snow square and it’ll go up a size, a fact that’s often core to your puzzle solving efforts. Once a snowball hits size three, however, it cannot get any larger.
Meanwhile, if, say, two snow chunks reach size three, it’s probably best to hit R and reset a puzzle. There’s no way to melt, shrink, or laser-eye/fire breath them back down to size (worst monster ever). It’s about working methodically, considering each move in advance of making it, and then going, “Eureka!” well after you’ve created the body of a Snowman Centipede three or four times in a row.
The concept, at least, makes simple, immediate sense. No need for a tutorial. Levels, however (or world sections, really; the whole thing is one big interconnected park with multiple paths), throw up all sorts of seemingly mundane obstacles and snow/grass patterns, which end up raising the challenge ceiling at a brisk but not unmanageable pace.
Early puzzles required me to simply negotiate minor spacing issues. Maybe I’d need to use my biggest snowball to roll up snow and clear a path for the others (already appropriately sized) to reach it. My gumdrop silhouette monster would stack each uniquely sized slab just so, and then I was off to the next challenge. Easy peasy.
But then nefariously arrayed park benches entered the picture. And sandboxes. And birdhouses. And shrubsssssssssss. Suddenly, snowballs could get caught in various grid rows, or I could accidentally wall myself off from being able to solve a puzzle, or I couldn’t simply stack each slab in a nice, orderly, god-fearing line. The kid gloves came off, and frost began to lick at my fingertips.
Even then, however, AGSIHTB managed to preserve its simple complexity. I’d approach each new challenge thinking, “Oh thank goodness, this one looks slightly less abominable than the last.” Then it would surprise me. The demo’s difficulty was deceptive, the sort that doesn’t initially lead one to believe it’s all a lost cause. And then, just as I was about to give up, I’d figure out some wily new trick like stacking a size one snowball onto a size three, then shoving it off the size three so it’d end up on its opposite side.
That trick was an easy way around embiggening a size one snowball, well, at all. Often necessary, in other words – though not always required. Some puzzles struck me as more linear than others, but I came across a few where I could’ve easily rolled my way to three or four different solutions. Paired with the fact that at least two puzzles tended to be open for solving at any given moment, that kept my frustration to an absolute minimum.
Plus, how could I not smile when a snowperson – once three lifeless hunks of sloughing slush – suddenly sprang to life upon completion? My monster would shout its name (every snowperson has a name) in excitement as it sprouted a unique face and itsy bitsy articles of clothing. It was the cutest thing, a moment that yielded so much personality with so few words actually spoken. Same with the almost disdainfully sloppy way my monster would shove snowballs from atop each other, like a perturbed toddler or a perturbed (and perhaps slightly drunk) me. I have never wanted to hug a videogame so badly in my life.
I really like what I’ve played of A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build so far. It won’t roll puzzling as we know it into an entirely new shape, but perhaps it will give the genre a dainty little hat and a carrot for a nose. Part of me worries that the game’s Santa-Claus-esque bag of tricks will quickly run dry (how many ways can you vary up such a simple formula?), but that’s more of a speculative concern than a forecasted fear at this point.
A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build will be out “eventually.” Given that it began life as a Christmas project that then took on a life of its own, one would assume that it won’t be too much longer. At this point, though, who snows?