In 1979, author Kit Williams buried a golden hare encrusted with jewels somewhere in the British Isles. Six weeks later he released the book Masquerade which contained fifteen beautiful and elaborately detailed paintings loosely relating the story of Jack Hare. In the book, Jack attempts to carry a treasure from the Moon to the object of her affection, the Sun. Somewhere along the way Jack Hare loses the treasure, leaving the reader to decipher the paintings and find the location of the lost treasure. Upon release of the book, Williams announced that whoever could solve the string of absurdly difficult puzzles in the book would glean the location of the bejeweled hare. This tipped off a fury of treasure hunters, scouring England, attacking public and private property with shovels. Unfortunately named locales like Haresfield Beacon fell victim to so many misguided searchers that eventually officials had to post signs stating that the golden hare was not buried on the premises. It wasn’t until several years later in 1982 that someone came forward to claim the hare with the correct answer (and it turns out he cheated—the victor came to the answer by way of Ken Williams’ ex-girlfriend). Ah the good old days of individual effort. It must have been hard work playing games and discovering Easter Eggs before the Internet made us all individual neurons connected into one gigantic, pulsing, puzzle-solving brain. In the days of the Internet forum, I imagine the three-year Masquerade quest would have lasted all of two days. No manmade puzzle seems too hard or dense to crack when you have thousands of people all taking whacks at it and sharing their theories in a threaded forum.
The forum and walkthrough must seem both a boon and a curse to game developers. It allows level designers to fall into slapdash, sloppy habits—the answer to a puzzle/level needn’t be built into the logic of a level because once it hits market enough obsessive youngsters will bang away at every possibility until they smack down on the right pixel and rush to the Internet to reveal the answer. But at the same time no puzzle will be hard enough to truly slow down a player. Personally, I give a puzzle two or three cracks and then head straight to Google. My flight to answer is only mitigated with portable titles where I have to wait until I get home to “solve” a level. Sometimes it seems developers have come to count on the forums as a part of the actual game playing process. Tecmo’s new title for the PSP, Tokobot, exhibits this tension by offering genuinely interesting play and some rather inscrutable moments which seem to beg for use of that ultimate power-up, Google.
US: Jul 2007
Recalling the modern Nintendo classic, Pikmin, Tokobot revolves around learning to control groups of adorable little robots. Tokobot places you in the role of the intrepid teenager Bolt, an agent for Canewood Labs, a research facility investigating the ruins of an ancient robot civilization. At Bolt’s (i.e. your) service are a collection of tokobots. You order them into different formations and then lock them together to form ladders, helicopter blades, and other simple tools. You then deploy these formations to climb from platform to platform or to swing your cute little robots down onto the heads of other cute, but more antagonistic robots. While the controls can be a bit wonky, cycling through and choosing the right formation provides a nice game dynamic, adding a level of problem solving to what is otherwise basically a puzzle and platform game. After unlocking plans hidden throughout the ruins, more elaborate powers become available allowing you to summon samurai sword wielding robots and gigantic catapults. Instead of arranging and building the proper element, your tokobots just turn into a gigantic crane. Given the simple ingenuity the rest of the game encourages in learning to utilize the tokobot formations, the later power-ups seem a bit cheap.
Undeniably cute and relatively smart, Tokobot provides a title the PSP desperately needed: a game with at least some mildly innovative gameplay, as well as casual appeal. Unfortunately, the game is not without faults. The gameplay does not always work smoothly. Forming your tokobots into a chain to bop enemies on the heads is fun. But waiting for them to all line up again for a second swing is not so fun. To accommodate for this lag, the designers slowed down all of the bad guys. This results is a slightly sluggish pace to much of the action, and a lot of anxious waiting while the tokobots run to the back of the line. It seems like it would have been more satisfying to just be able to swing the tokobots repeatedly.
Often times the actions required to defeat foes and solve puzzles swing between arbitrary and blindingly obvious. I often found myself stuck for a while before resorting to Google while other times simply breezing through levels. In some cases, to guide you the game limits your choices so drastically that the right answer is frustratingly obvious. This resulted in the game feeling hard, but never challenging.
In his insightful book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee argues that games exist within semantic domains. These domains encompass not only the game, but the genre and the body of knowledge around the playing of games. Kids learn not only to play a specific title, but how to research and find ways past difficult patches. The Internet and forums become an extension of in-game experimentation and learning. And by lending to and borrowing knowledge from the Internet, each gamer helps form a great disembodied super-gamer that knows the location of hidden treasures and quickly bounds through every level.
I picked up Tokobot on the promise held out by the core mechanic. I love the idea of being able to create and build your own tools to navigate the environment. Unfortunately, the game is much more deterministic than that. Of course software code is by nature a bit deterministic—software generally only allows for movements allowed by the software. Yet, it seems like there is still a great action puzzle lurking in the premise of Tokobot, one in which the game overwhelms you with possibility, where you really can build your own tools. A game with so much choice and creativity would be genuinely hard—maybe just hard enough to be a challenge to the Google gamer.