This week I played Shadowmatic, which is a puzzle game for IOS in which you create various silhouettes on a flat surface by rotating objects in front of a light source. You try to deduce what you can make with the shapes provided and spin them around until you strike gold. So consequently we have a game focused around staring at a blank wall. Better break out the Valium, because I’m not sure I can cope with this level of excitement.
Oh, I’m being too cruel. I like puzzle games, honest. I like the challenge, the intellectual stimulation, the ponderous approach that rewards intelligence and creative thinking. And that’s why I’m going to play some of the excellent World Of Goo later, rather than what we have here.
The problem is that Shadowmatic doesn’t have anything to hold it together, beyond sheer stubbornness and an overexcited lighting engine. Good puzzle games, like The Talos Principle, Portal and the aforementioned Goo game have all had a narrative holding them together, or at least some strong central goal. Does Shadowmatic have a story? Does it bollocks. You just line up one mess of angular, twisted wood with another, without any context or reason to justify it. There is occasionally unintentional, immature humour, derived from the fact that the shapes can combine into ones you weren’t expecting. Thus what should’ve been a horse and cart manages to become something out of the darkest corners of the Internet. Even my flatmate, glancing over my shoulder at my iPad, immediately stated that the shadow I’d made looked like two people locked in an amorous soixante-neuf, albeit not in those words. A shame, considering that I was just trying to get the angles right on a toy train.
But who cares about story? Well I do, actually, though I can manage without it if I have to. See, even if a plot is absent, it is possible to have a puzzle game that entertains and enthralls. Tetris, one of the most elegant games in existence, manages to achieve a level of tension equal to disarming nuclear devices, using only a set of falling tetrominoes and a kick-ass theme tune. Admittedly, Shadowmatic isn’t going for high-stakes tension, instead trying a zen-like state of contemplative thought, the kind of relaxing trance that accompanies easy crosswords on Sunday afternoons. And I have to say it does that quite well through the graphical style and overall tone. The pretty visuals and serene sense of calm (both of which seem to be the norm for puzzle games these days) did make me feel very chilled at first, almost to the extent where I didn’t feel the need to shoot the postman with a crossbow from my bedroom window.
But the challenges offered here don’t gel well with this kind of attitude. Firstly, you’re timed on how quickly you can complete them, which is totally at odds with the idea of languorous consideration. Even the most peaceful Tibetan monk will turn into an emotional wreck when locked in a room with a single task and a ticking clock. Every second that passes makes you feel as though the game is sucking air through its teeth and making a note that says “D-, must try harder.”
But the thing that made the puzzles too tiresome to continue was the fact that the game doesn’t actually tell you what you’re supposed to be crafting, and this leads to some annoying results. When a few pieces of meaningless wood are dropped in front of you, Shadowmatic folds its arms, sits back, and waits to see what you’ll do next. So I flip them round, spin them on every axis, reposition them around each other, trying to see what secret is hidden in this mess. Is it a duckling? A teapot? A 1/67th scale model of Theo Jansen’s animated Strandbeest seen from a Northerly angle and partly obscured by both a copy of Queen’s “A Night At The Opera” on LP and Jeremy Corbyn’s left testicle? Your guess is as good as mine.
And your guess is also the only chance you have of getting the answer organically, because the only other options are to drink from a finite pool of hints, or to use a little tracker that marks when you’re getting the trinkets close to the right positions. Allegedly, at least. Half the time it seemed to go off with no cause, and the hints are just useless, because even with the knowledge of what you’re trying to make it can be impossible to get the right position. You’re telling me to make a cat, Shadowmatic? Is that a cat standing up, lying down, sitting in place, or suspended in mid-air with my foot up its arse? Because something tells me that only one of these incredibly different poses will do, when it comes to your petty, bureaucratic mind.
That said, the game isn’t irredeemable. It’s just dull, which may explain why I got it for free from a Starbucks “Pick Of The Week” card. Seriously, I don’t hate Shadowmatic. I even think that the shadow-based puzzles could work if reimagined slightly, thought they’ll never be that original when games like A Shadow’s Tale or Contrast already exist. Maybe dial back the guesswork, throw out the timer and give a bit more purpose and variation? There’s some potential here, overshadowed (lol) by a lack of imagination and the need to be a little too artsy and pretentious. Make a game enjoyable before anything else, Triada Studio. When you’ve done that, let’s see what shows up.
Shadowmatic isn’t strong enough in any area to be more than kind of dull and a little bit irritating. It’s not without merit, but Pixar animating software and an aesthetic like an interactive screensaver can’t do enough to make it worth my time.