One of the things that I love about video games is the potential for synergy between gameplay and theme. The free-running of Assassin’s Creed relates to the ideas of freedom and political liberty, while the plodding technicalities of Papers Please reinforce the dystopian nightmare of Soviet Russia. Today, I’d like to talk about the thematic potential of puzzles, specifically as they relate to Monochroma.
Contextually, puzzles can tap into the theme by using plot-relevant components. For example, if a game wants to show you that there’s been a massacre, they might require you to tug a hand out of a pile of bodies and use it to get past a fingerprint scanner. It’s not particularly subtle, but it’s better than nothing. It’s something that Monochroma sort of does, if only in the sense that the puzzles are mostly environmental. You need to get across a dock, and there’s a big crane that might help. You need to get onto the roof of a house, and there’s a friendly robot that might boost you up. That sort of thing.
However, puzzles can also tap into the theme mechanically. The whole idea of negotiating an area, manipulating the environment to make it work for you – that can have thematic implications. In one sense, you can probably argue that every game is about negotiating or manipulating an environment – it’s one of those definitions that’s so broad as to be practically useless. In the previous post I argued that puzzle games were more intellectual, in the sense that part of what you have to do is sort of conceptualise the environment and then play out the different combinations and positions to figure out which one’s going to let you proceed. It’s the kind of definition that’s only going to survive for about two seconds in the real world, but it’ll tide us over here.
We might draw a comparison to those shitty brain teaser toys – you know, the chunks of metal that you have to separate and put back together and so on. If you compare that to, say, a game of hockey, you start to see the distinction between puzzles and other games. Puzzles are more conceptual, more strictly defined in terms of their solution (ie there’s usually only one solution, and a strict set of steps to get there), while hockey is more about performance and skill, more physically embodied, more fluid in terms of its solutions. I mean, yes there’s only one goal box you’re shooting for, but there’s a whole field full of players and it’s pretty fluid as to how you get around them – as opposed to those metal puzzles, where it is very rigid. There’s a set number of steps, and unless you carry them out precisely in that order, you’re not getting anywhere.
So with that general distinction in mind, let’s get back to Monochroma. The game thematically revolves around the idea of alienation in an industrialised world. It presents itself as working in the tradition of German expressionism, which is a complicated thing to define, but broadly can be said to have risen in response to industrialisation. Industrialisation was considered a bad thing by these people because it was seen as essentially dehumanising. You’ve also got a massive process of urbanisation, rapidly growing cities – so people feel like they’re getting lost in the ‘machine’ of modern life. Hence the black and white aesthetic of Monochroma, hence the vibes of silent children alone in the sprawling coal-ridden metropolis, hence the looming, angry machines.
Within that context, there’s a few ways to read the puzzles. On the one hand, we could see them as emblematic of the difficulty of navigating the industrialised environment. It’s hard to get by, hard to get where you’re going in life. You can draw a parallel to Kafka’s The Castle, with its nightmare bureaucracy. The idea is supported by the fact that the kids spend all their time scrabbling around on rooftops and alleyways – they aren’t using the environment in the way it’s supposed to be used, because it’s not possible to get by if you’re playing by ‘the rules’ of this ruthless industrialised world. That said, if we’re taking Kafka as a parallel, the progression implied by all these puzzles might well undermine that theme.
The whole idea of Kafka is this overwhelming sense of hopelessness. I don’t think hopelessness is really something experienced in Monochroma – it’s certainly not encouraged by the puzzle mechanic. When you think about it, puzzles are about progress. You come to a puzzle, and the expectation is that you’ll be able to figure it out. Puzzles are about deduction, solutions, about understanding and successfully manipulating a system to your advantage. Kafka’s Castle is nothing like that. Where Monochroma is about understanding and overcoming the system, The Castle tells us that the systems are too big to wrap your head around. Where Monochroma is about solutions, the protagonist of The Castle is overwhelmed and impotent. Puzzles are about logic and comprehension. The Castle is about fear and alienation. Puzzles say ‘Yes you can!’; The Castle says “No you can’t.”
So I’m not totally convinced that puzzles thematically suit a game like Monochroma. You can see how they function thematically in something like Braid, where (according to one reading) overcoming the puzzles ties into the larger theme of scientific progress. I appreciate how the setting of Monochroma ties into themes of alienation, but I suspect that, as with Braid, the puzzles more closely support themes of knowledge, achievement, and success.