Puzzling Messages in 'Picross 3D'

by Scott Juster

21 April 2011

Picross 3D might not have a "story" in the traditional sense, but it still has a lot to say.

Works that feature traditional narratives often enjoy the distinction of being the most popular, critically acclaimed, and carefully analyzed form of video games. Blockbusters like Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption center around plots reminiscent to those found in film or literature. Popular independent games like Limbo or The Path also adhere to themes that have been explored in other forms. Obviously, video games differ from these traditional media, as players actively collaborate in the story and have at least some control over crafting the character behavior. Thus, game criticism often focuses on the dialectic between the themes a game’s plot conveys and those advanced by its rule systems. The BioShocks of the world elicit a preponderance of essays that parse the ways in which their stories and rules interact, but comparatively little is ever said about about what Gran Turismo tells us about the cultural role of automobiles or whether Madden NFL makes implicit arguments about football’s social value.

I recognize the bulk of my work has (and will probably remain) focused on games with plots, but I thought I would try and mix things up a bit. What kinds of values do games without stories impart? What do they say about the medium and about culture in general?  In search of answers, I turned to Picross 3D.
Picross 3D is a puzzle game based on a kind of puzzle called a Nonogram, in which combinations of gridded blocks can be removed or preserved in order to form a recognizable shape. While a difficult concept to describe, it becomes quickly intuitive when seen in action:

Superficially, the game is quite straightforward: there no monsters to slay, quests to complete, or spells to cast. It’s a game about making objects out of numbered blocks. However, even this seemingly simple premise demonstrates the unique qualities of the medium and carries subtle philosophical messages.

As opposed to crosswords or math problems, Picross 3D’s puzzles are reliant on technology. One could simulate a 3D shape on paper, but that would require multiple renderings of the same puzzle since the game hides information that can only be revealed by rotating the shape. Picross 3D lets players temporarily slice away planes of the puzzle in order to see clues inside the shape. A physical model could simulate this, but it would negate one of the game’s challenges: players must remember that layers of depth exist even if they cannot immediately see them. If physically holding these “invisible” layers was possible, it would be much harder to forget about them. Manipulating Picross 3D’s puzzles is an elegant example of the difference between reality, simulated reality, and imagined reality: the puzzles give the impression of tangibility without having a physical form and the player must actively manipulate them with digital hands while remembering that some parts of the puzzle still exist even when invisible.

Picross 3D uses this simulated tangibility to carry on the medium’s long tradition of dexterity-based challenges.  While figuring out which blocks to break can be done with pure logic, implementing the solution requires physical skill. Big puzzles zoom the camera out and make each block smaller, which can make the intended target easy to miss. Rotating the shape can get disorienting and elicit careless mistakes. Marking a block as safe versus destroying it requires exact button presses and stylus work that penalizes absentminded errors. Like most video games, knowing how to accomplish a goal isn’t enough: one must have the skills to execute a winning strategy. Although Picross 3D tests the player’s logical reasoning, there is an electronic judge that is constantly evaluating the player’s performance as well as the outcome. 

This relates to what is possibly Picross 3D’s strongest argument: there is a “correct” way to play the game.  Even games with a linear plot often leave the player ample space in which to accomplish goals in a variety of ways. In Halo, all that matters is that the player reaches the end; the game makes very few demands in regards to how fast this is done or with what weapons. Picross 3D frowns on experimentation by keeping track of the player’s mistakes and kicking them out of puzzle should they make too many.  Even one mistake results in a point deduction that can limit progression to the later puzzles. This dynamic illustrates that Picross 3D’s aspires to teach an ideology of logical perfection as opposed to trial and error.

Picross 3D demands this learning happen quickly. Most puzzles have two time limits: failure to solve the puzzle by the first time limit results in a point penalty, while failure to meet the second time results in a forced retry. These time limits impose short, episodic play sessions that fit well on a mobile platform. They also enforce the game’s requirements of quick, highly methodical play. Picross 3D’s rules communicate the message that there is a “right” way to play: flawless and fast.

The game’s cultural commentary is more open to debate, but it does contain some interesting implications. Every puzzle starts with a generic, gray rectangle of blocks that must be sculpted into a shape.  While playing, I couldn’t help but think of Michelangelo’s (possibly apocryphal) quote: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Embedded in this quote is the philosophy that the raw material out of which art is crafted is itself without much meaning.  \However, what is one person’s “rock” is another person’s holy object. I am reminded of North America’s Mount Rushmore as well: originally a sacred place for the Lakota Sioux, white Americans appropriated it as a temple for some of their most revered figures. Before it was adorned with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, they saw it as a big gray slab. Though the link is subtle, Picross 3D made me consider the boundary between the space where one object ends and the next begins.

Many of Picross 3D’s puzzles turn out to be mundane household items that only come to life when freed from their blocky confines. As much as I fancy myself a responsible world citizen, my conception of the origins behind common items like cell phones or skateboards is uncomfortably Picross-esque: it is easy to see everyday items as simply popping into being from some unknown mass of raw materials. My position so far up the industrial chain is one in which an item’s components and method of creation become abstractions. Picross 3D is not so much about making items as it is about finding and possessing them; a mode of existence with which those of us in industrialized countries are all too familiar.

While it may not make any specific claims about storytelling or social issues, Picross 3D conveys several messages. Despite its simple concept, it takes advantage of its unique medium. Its approach to challenge and difficulty reveal the ubiquity of reflex-based challenges in video games, even ones that might seem to have more in common with math problems than Mario Bros. While Picross 3D offers no explicit cultural commentary on art or the means of production, its progression structure, visual style, and the process by which players acquire items reflects the lives of those who play the game.

Anyone who plays Picross 3D will have plenty of time to reflect on the experience. They just have to make sure not to daydream while the clock is ticking.

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