2D puzzle-platformers were practically an indie go-to joke for a while. We were at the point, maybe a year or two ago, where you couldn’t sneeze at a game developer meet-up without stumbling onto someone’s conversation about their puzzle-based hop-and-bopper about water/acid/gravity/the laws of thermodynamics (bonus points if they were going for a “retro” aesthetic as well).
Folks even started getting a little shy about it. “Oh yeah, I’m making a puzzle-platformer”, they’d say, laughing nervously, as if the Braid-did-it-better cliché had eaten the genre whole.
But there's hope!
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Lucky for me, I actually love 2D platformers, all the more so if they have puzzle elements. I couldn’t be happier that the little subgenre feels like it’s full of life and starting to evolve in very cool ways. Scott McCallum (aka GroZZleR)’s Fractured is a particularly smart browser-based example that got under my skin almost immediately.
It’s a simple platformer, with a clever caveat – the 2D screen is arranged in a jumble – the whole is divided into mismatched slices and strewn across the screen. Each level presents a new maze to power through, allowing the player to naturally connect the screen shards in his/her mind until it’s obvious how to muddle through.
The game works so well because it’s designed to make you feel smart – the most addictive sensation in all of puzzle-dom. It just feels intuitive – you never have to map out the route from screen to screen deliberately, as you’ll easily fall (or stumble, or jump) onto the solution. Playing it feels utterly natural, making you feel like some kind of visual-spatial genius for figuring it out without sketching things on graph paper off-screen.
This is precisely what makes Fractured special – as much as I hate to compare it this way, it feels almost Portal-lite in its ability to subtly communicate exactly what you need to do and where you need to go next. Jump in one shard, and the very tip of your hat shows up in another, lending to a flash of inspiration and the next step along the way. Look closely, and notice that a tree sprite is bisected onto two shards in a strange angle – jump over and find the next stepping-stone to your goal. The game never punishes missteps, encouraging you to explore and inch along towards victory. It never hands you success, either, hitting that sweet spot where brilliant design makes you feel confident in your own brilliance.
It's a rare feat - perhaps even rarer in the Flash world. Hats off to McCallum, and to everyone else innovating the genre out of its cliches.