All puzzle games need "oh" moments.
Platform: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), Windows Phone 7
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Game Title: ilomilo
Release Date: 2011-01-05
ilomilo is an Xbox Live Arcade offering of questionable capitalization, featuring protagonists shaped like thumbs with tiny little limbs of their own running around a world of pastels and paper cut-outs, and it is rife with "oh" moments.
All puzzle games need "oh" moments. These are the moments immediately following those times when you've been struggling with something for quite a while, you've exhausted what appear to be all of the available options, you've done the same set of things three or four times, and the solution still seems distant. And then, "oh." There's the answer. Suddenly obvious, it's almost as though the answer to the unsolved puzzle has presented itself to the player, rather than the player having worked through it to figure it out. Despite the snap perception that the puzzle seems to have solved itself, however, the player knows better. The "oh" moment is one of the most satisfying parts of playing a puzzle game.
ilomilo was built for these moments because its world is constructed in such a way that absolutely nothing is immediately recognizable. Even in its easiest levels, there's a sense of disorientation brought on by this weird little world. As the beginning stages of the first proper level are traversed, the intuitive sense is that the puzzles, at their essence, are quite easy; even so, playing through them takes time. Gravity and physics are given new rules, rules that are, again, at their essence, simpler than the rules we have come to understand but still different enough to throw our sense of familiarity. "Easy" puzzles still require concentration because the concepts of "up" and "down" become relative rather than absolute.
All this time learning the rules pushes the "oh" moments off until later in the game. But they appear.
There's a moment in the second world -- ostensibly an underwater realm, though the physics and gameplay don't change a whit despite the new environment -- where the "oh" moment appears for the first time. The point of the game is to help a “thumb being” named ilo reunite with another thumb being named milo on a game board built out of blocks. Certain blocks can be picked up for the sake of helping ilo toward this goal, some of which have special properties. Prior to the second world, the player gains extensive experience with two types of blocks, a plain block that can be picked up and put down at will and an extender block that can form bridges or towers depending on whether it's placed on solid ground or thin air.
(It occurs to me that this makes very little sense in writing, and rest assured, it makes almost as little sense during gameplay. Also, rest assured that it's very playable regardless.)
In the second world, the game's helpful font of information (his name's Sebastian, proper capitalization and all) tells ilo, milo, and the player about something called a "trapdoor block". Despite the information, the context in which one should use a trapdoor block is not entirely clear. Here's what happened to me: I found one of these supposedly helpful blocks, I put it somewhere that looked useful, and it wasn't useful at all. I often forget that the thumb-things can't jump, you see. So I put it somewhere else, somewhere that allowed milo to step on it. And step on it I (as milo) did, and nothing happened. So I put it in a few other places and kept stepping on it and . . . nothing, and I was confused. And suddenly, having stopped moving for a second in confusion, I fell right through it to the other side. At which point, gravity reversed, and I landed on the other side.
I will grant that this is a mechanical "oh" moment, and no game can be built on mechanical "oh" moments -- after a while, they feel like cheap tricks, and a puzzle game is at its best when the mechanics are understood -- but using those mechanics to their fullest potential takes patience and practice. The second half of the game provides plenty of these moments, the best of which tend to be in small worlds that tease the player with an ilo and a milo in close proximity without allowing them to actually meet on the same plane. That, you see, takes effort. That, you see, takes patience.
ilomilo's puzzling stands on its own, then, though it would hardly be getting the notice that it has without all of the quirk that it projects. While I certainly can't fault it for doing so -- better to be quirky than ignored, after all -- the willfully odd presentation actually works against it in a number of places. By existing in a world so utterly alien to our own, ilomilo loses the sense of absorption that many of the best "artsy" games have been able to achieve of late. There's no personal identification with ilo and milo's quest to reunite; despite a slowly developed story that could surely be analyzed to death as allegory for something or other (another time, perhaps), the player may as well be moving geometric shapes around the board. There are even a number of grammar issues in the exposition sections, though perhaps this is nitpicking in a game with a non-capitalized nonsense-word title.
Still, if you love puzzles, none of that will matter.
One of the bonus levels in the game features the goo-balls of World of Goo. They're not integrated into the gameplay at all, but there they are in the scenery, towers of goo reaching for the cosmos. It's an apt reference, given that the audience for the two games should be remarkably similar -- although the two have little in common in terms of gameplay. World of Goo had "oh" moments too, whether the result of discovering the potential of a new type of goo-ball or realizing the strength of a certain configuration of connected goo.
You get that feeling from ilomilo, and it's worth playing for those moments. It may not make you think much after it's over, but it will certainly tax your brain while it's on.