Right now I am probing cautiously at a tower of sausages occupying the centre of a little grassy patch of land. I have been doing variations of this all morning because I am stuck on the second island of Stephen's Sausage Roll [official site].
You've probably heard sausage chat on the sausage vine over the last week as Stephen Lavelle's meaty tile-based puzzler has garnered praise from the likes of Jonathan Blow (him off The Witness and Braid) and Bennett Foddy (QWOP, GIRP). It's worthy praise from what I've experienced so far but given that's only two islands of puzzling and I can see whole other sections tantalisingly close on the edge of my overworld map I'm going to talk about the puzzling process so far.
There won't be spoilers, precisely, because I'm not going to talk about the solutions to the puzzles, but I am going to talk about a few of the game's mechanics. The joy of the game, for me, also encompassed figuring those out, so if you know you like difficult, Sokoban-style puzzle games or are up for a challenge I'd say you want to stop reading this now and I suspect you will enjoy yourself.
To give a bit of extra guidance before the sausagey real talk: John does like puzzles but not Sokoban-style puzzles and thus has refused to play, while Adam isn't averse to puzzles but points out that he doesn't think in the right way for this kind of thing and thus would only play if someone who does enjoy them was sat next to him, making it a collaborative thing. I am the sort of person who will happily chip away at this sort of thing over a series of evenings, disappearing into a kind of mental puzzle cave, supping on tea and munching Cadbury's fingers as I shuffle here and there, testing and resetting.
You play as Stephen… or, I think you play as Stephen – I've seen fan art (yes, there's fan art) which has the character as a lady and one fellow journo assumed the character to be female. It doesn't really matter, all you need to know is that they wield a five-pronged fork and can toddle about the tiled landscape. On the overworld map you find ghostly figures also holding forks which mark the entry point for each level. To activate the level you orient yourself as indicated by the ghost and the rest of the scenery drops into the sea, leaving you with the relevant parts of the overworld and gigantic sausages which must be grilled to perfection on grill tiles placed around the level.
Each sausage is two tiles long and one tile wide. A grill pad will cook the underside of one tile's worth of sausage. That means each sausage needs to touch a grill pad in four places to cook the top two tiles and the bottom two tiles to perfection. Touching part of the sausage on the grill more than once burns and thus ruins the sausage. You can also ruin the sausages by rolling them off the island and into the sea.
Here is one level:
Here is another:
Aaaand my current fiasco:
You start to see why this isn't a straightforward proposition, despite the simplicity of the idea.
At first, I booted up the game and felt like I'd instantly hit a brick wall. I'd been expecting the game to be hard because of the general tone of the conversations surrounding it and the types of people who were raving about it so I wasn't sure if my brick wall was because it was a challenge impossible for most people or whether it was about not thinking in the right way.
I think it's a bit of both.
There's no tutorial, just an explanation that you use the arrow keys to move, the R key to reset and Z to undo the last move. I wandered that first island until I found a puzzle that clicked with me and I worked my way through that, pushing and pushing and undoing errant pushes. You learn that you can nudge the sausages up, down, left and right. But the control system also lets you pivot around the tile you're standing on, catching the sausage with your fork as you do so. That realisation opens up a new set of moves and you start to make progress. You learn the set of movements needed to get a single sausage across a specific pattern of grill pads and toast it perfectly and that arms you with another piece of knowledge which you can deploy in a new puzzle, breaking something that was previously daunting into smaller move sets.
I took a break after laboriously grilling four sausages and watched an episode of The X Files. The next day I went back and solved the rest of the first island and most of the second in one long, satisfying sweep. I think my brain had re-oriented itself in the night and had a bit of time to process the basic ideas properly so they could start fitting together.
The second island introduced a few new ideas. Nothing changes about your character, but you have new environmental tools and obstacles, particularly in the way of verticality. You start to experiment with pressing objects against other objects, with climbing ladders, with what happens if you walk atop a sausage… The possibility space for the puzzles widens, but because you're experimenting and pottering and poking and thinking all the while you're also acclimatising. The spaces don't feel overwhelming anymore.
The big thing that I find with these types of puzzle game is that a strategy you learned and which served you well in an earlier phase of the game might soon become a bad habit. I mentioned above that you learn a set of moves in order to navigate a particular pattern of grill pads? The danger is that you start to think that is the only way to approach that pattern of grill pads and so you look at those pads and can't see any other way around them. That's when I tend to feel puzzles are "impossible". It's when I know I've hemmed myself into a way of thinking that has locked off the solution but I'm not sure where the error is in order to unpick it.
I think that's why I am not bothered by the lack of a tutorial. It feels weird to have a game like this and no tutorial, but once you realise that the whole thing is about not being hemmed in to particular strategies then you start to see the entire experience as an ongoing tutorial, just one which requires a lot of player input. The only thing the game really can tell you is the controls, because if you added guidance in how to use them it immediately loses the exploration/experimentation side which is *the* crucial tool in all of this.
But it isn't a game for everyone. It will infuriate and frustrate you if you don't think in the necessary ways and you'll just end up rolling sausages around like a kid bored at the dinner table being denied the joy of dessert. That doesn't mean there's something wrong with the game and it doesn't mean there's something wrong with the players who do bounce off. What it means is that these puzzles are a niche interest and I find them (relatively) approachable. I enjoy the challenge of them and the sudden release of tension when the right pattern slides into view. For me there's a rhythm of frustration and reward, frustration and reward.
That picture above with the tower of sausages? It's my current nemesis and whenever I boot it up afresh I feel daunted, but I started tinkering with it and worked out how to cook a single sausage. From there I could cook four sausages. Then I worked out how to cook a sausage on the higher level of grill pads. Now I'm alternating between fiddling and contemplating. I'll still have that knee-jerk dauntedness if I leave the level and open it again but I know I've made progress and that the manageable chunks will eventually come together into a solution.
If you're not the kind of player who enjoys that kind of intense puzzling you might only experience the frustration or the dauntedness, particularly as there's no narrative to carry you through those brick-wall moments or to balance them as with Braid, it's just light touches of humour so far.
Weirdly for a game about sausages the size of hay bales, I'd say this is all meat and no fat or filler. It's a blessing for people like me who will tussle with it over a series of lovely evenings or keep it running in the background to fiddle with throughout the day. For others it will be a royal pain in the arse, an utterly inaccessible gem taunting them with its low poly style and seemingly-simple gameplay.
But so far it is a gem and I can't wait to see what the next islands bring me. Just as soon as I've waddled and swiped and jabbed my way through this tower of pork.
Stephen's Sausage Roll is available now.