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Disappointed with Q.U.B.E., Indie Fund

April 14, 2012

The Indie Fund, which I’ve mentioned previously, is a funding initiative created by a few indie developers, notably Jonathan Blow (Braid), the co-founders of 2D BOY (World of Goo), among others. The support from Jonathan Blow alone is enough for me to want to keep an eye on the games that the organization backs. Back in February, I discussed their second release, Dear Esther, which I decided was interesting and important to the game community, but did not appear to have much lasting value. This past week, I finally got around to playing Q.U.B.E., the first game backed by Indie Fund to be released, which came out at the beginning of January. I bought the game very shortly after it came out because I trusted the opinions of the developers behind Indie Fund. But it seems that my faith was misplaced, because Q.U.B.E. proved to be a frustrating, simple, and ultimately dissatisfying puzzle game.

The Gameplay

Deceptively Simple? No—Just Simple

Like any good game, you’re given no instructions to begin: the opening scenes and the environment suggest to you the controls. And there are only two (apart from movement/jump): left mouse button to use your left hand, and right button, right hand. In the otherwise white rooms are boldly-coloured cubes of red, blue, and yellow (to begin—a few more are added later). Each colour has its own mechanism of extrusion. Your right hand brings the cubes out, the left pushes them in. By stepping on and being propelled by (blue ones act like springs) these cubes, your goal is to progress to subsequent rooms, which are unreachable without their help.

In the first 10-15 minutes you learn how the game and basic cube types work. But even though they are fundamentally different in their function, they can combine into only very simple puzzles. As more mechanics are added, the level of challenge—which starts low—hardly increases. Why? Because the puzzles communicate their solution very clearly. Sometimes, the first step is obvious, and after doing it, the next step becomes obvious, and before you know it, you’ve solved the puzzle. Other times, you’re presented with a daunting puzzle to solve, and you need only fiddle around with a few elements and the solution falls into place. Toronto indie developer Ryan Creighton (Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure and Spellirium, both of which I’ve mentioned before) recently coined the term “on-rails puzzler” for games “where solving the ‘puzzle’ entails going through a number of steps that have only one solution.” And there’s no doubt that Q.U.B.E. fits this description.

This puzzle looks impressive, but is almost trivial to solve.

But why is it like this? Either the game elements themselves are not capable of generating interesting puzzles, or the developers were terrible at designing them. A few weeks ago I discussed NightSky, an extremely rewarding puzzle game built on simple mechanics: so surely Q.U.B.E.‘s puzzle elements shouldn’t restrict the quality of the game. Ultimately, I believe that it’s the latter: the developers could have added red herrings, some deceptive dead-ends, or condensed the puzzles in space to make the solution less immediate. Perhaps they communicated the instructions too well.

Patience is the Only Challenge

The simplicity of the puzzles acknowledged, I can’t go on to say that the game lacked difficult puzzles. There were one or two that actually had me puzzled. But the remaining hard ones were so not because of clever design, but because they were broken. About half-way through the game you encounter panels that enable magnetic fields that pull white cubes slowly in their direction once you enable them. For these cubes, you’re effectively dictating the direction of gravity. It adds some admittedly interesting puzzles to the game, but above all, it adds frustration.

Instead of being pulled steadily and reliably, the cubes will sometimes stutter, thus slowing down briefly, or jump forward slightly. That means that pulling two cubes at once may have one cube moving faster than the other! Two significant puzzles require great precision in the activation/deactivation of the magnetic panels and the movement of the cubes, which is nearly impossible to achieve. Furthermore, cubes will rotate if their edge hits something, but some solutions demand that they remain along certain paths. There was even one puzzle that didn’t have a reset button (all the others do), so when the cubes got rotated off of their intended path, I had to exit to the main menu and reload the checkpoint.

On top of requiring impossibly precise cube movements, it became even more difficult when the cubes ignored collision detection.

Redundant Puzzles are Redundant

In total, the game took me abut 4 hours to complete, but it didn’t need to be that long. After completing the initial stages, you’re carried by elevator to a darkened sector. But the puzzles there are just a re-hash of the first puzzles, except…uh…darker. There is literally no more challenge than just having to solve puzzles similar to previous ones, but without being able to see everything clearly. They do the same thing at the end of the game, where the player is given the ability to decide which colour of cube should go on which panel, having the player construct the simple puzzle before solving it. It’s as though the developers realized that they were terrible at designing puzzles, so they re-packaged the few that they could thing of, even leaving some of the work up to the player.

There’s Always Room for Some Minor Complaints

It’s hardly worth talking about, but the game also features a story of sorts. I suppose that the designers felt that they had to justify why the player was in this facility and why things are breaking. But in fact, it doesn’t really do that. Instead, like the puzzles, the idea isn’t really fleshed out and ends up being pointlessly vague and empty.

I’d also like to point out that the game’s title, Q.U.B.E., stands for “Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion”: the forced acronym only adds to the pile of evidence that the designers took a lackadaisical approach to game design.

Shaken Faith

On the whole, the game experience clearly communicates that the developers did a poor job with the design and execution of the game. The puzzles are unimpressive, the physics engine is faulty, and the puzzles are effectively re-used to make the game longer. What “story” exists is hardly worth mentioning, just feeling tacked on to try to explain why the player is even there. This game, simply put, is not worth playing. Do not buy it.

After mixed feelings over Dear Esther, followed by the utter disappointment that is Q.U.B.E., I’m forced to question whether support from Indie Fund is a mark of anything worthwhile. I had assumed until now that if a game was backed financially by such successful, skilled developers, then surely those games must be of some superior quality. But I’ve found that to be untrue. The fund is currently backing another five projects, and I’ll probably hesitate to buy the later ones until I’m sure that they’re any good. (The only exception is Monaco, the development of which I have followed for some time, and I was convinced of its worth before I knew that Indie Fund supported it.) Maybe I ought to just stick to the games from the Indie Fund developers themselves.

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