I love it when a game doesn’t talk down to me. Too often, I find myself in a scenario like this: An NPC says “Hey, maybe there’s a lever nearby that will open that door!” The lever is then marked with a blinking arrow, or actual text reading “LEVER.” When I arrive at the lever, another message appears. “Press E to activate lever.” Yes, thank you. I get it. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t give me an intuitive sense for the mechanics, and I don’t get to explore on my own. All it does is make me prove that I can obey commands and push buttons. That doesn’t make me feel like I’m playing. It makes me feel like a trained seal.
This limitation is refreshingly absent in Incredipede, a beautiful, brain-bruising puzzler from husband-and-wife team Colin and Sarah Northway.
Your task is to help a fantastical creature named Quozzle traverse the wilderness in search of her missing sisters. Quozzle herself is little more than a silent eyeball, and her means of propulsion are whatever limbs you choose to give her. By fitting Quozzle with a chassis of bone and muscle, you guide her through short obstacle courses, using spatial visualization and physics to win the day. Sound easy? Ha.
Incredipede respects the player’s intelligence by telling you nothing more than the bare mechanics — how to move forward and back, how to create legs, and which directions muscles pull in. After that, you’re on your own. This is the game’s greatest strength, in that the player’s only course of action is creative experimentation. No level has only one solution, and tempting as it is to transform Quozzle into a multilegged monstrosity, the simplest approaches are often the most elegant, and the most satisfying.
Which is not to say those simple approaches are obvious. Oh, no. Incredipede had me tearing my hair out on more than one occasion, and there were a few times when I got frustrated enough to jam on the control keys wildly, in the hopes that I’d knock Quozzle across the finish line through sheer force of will, rather than finesse (I do not recommend this approach). This is going to sound contradictory, but while Incredipede gives you the freedom to think, in some ways, I think it could’ve gone just a smidge farther in helping the player out. Trial and error is all well and good, but by the end of the first map, I still didn’t have a solid feel for how muscles worked, and a few of my solutions had been the result of dumb luck rather than actual understanding.
Fortunately, though the gameplay happens mostly in vacuum, there’s a side feature that lends a hand. Every level gives you the option to see other players’ solutions – and not just videos – you can actually play them yourself (but it doesn’t count toward your own successes). This may sound like a cheat sheet, but I found it brilliant. Learning by doing will make you a better player in any game, but so will learning by example. Portal and Portal 2 are games that I consider myself rather good at, but though I’ve logged many hours in challenge maps and community-made puzzles, I know that part of my skill came from watching videos of speed runs and alternate solutions. Sometimes watching somebody else’s approach gives you ideas that you might not have come up with on your own. It’s the same principle as mastering any other skill: mimic the experts, then make your own path. So while Incredipede’s shareable solutions come in handy if you get thoroughly stuck, the way I used them was by watching them after I’d already solved the puzzle. Not only did the medley of possible solutions fascinate me, but I also picked up a few good tricks that came in handy down the road. And of course, if you come up with a solution that you’re proud of, you can easily share it from within the game. The circle of life continues.
And speaking of, though the mechanics are engaging, the game’s origin story is nothing short of an adventure. In 2010, the Northways packed their bags, grabbed their laptops, and traveled the world. Incredipede was made not in a studio, but in jungles and unfamiliar towns. This comes through in the finished product, which is an ode to natural diversity. You can see this not just in artist Thomas Shahan’s evocative backdrops, but also in Quozzle herself. I was both charmed and creeped out by her, a feeling I know well from my lifelong enthusiasm for all manner of skittery things. My reaction toward Quozzle was the same I’ve had after pushing back a leaf and discovering something alien crawling beneath. Do I pull away in caution, or do I coax it onto my hand? I’m never quite sure which of these impulses to give in to, and I felt similarly about Quozzle (though charm eventually won out).
Incredipede’s gameplay could have worked on its own without a story, but the gentle fable taking place in the background was what tied the whole package together. [Editor's Note: Did we want a post about the game on our site specifically because its creators chose to define their character as female even though Quozzle's visual design is gender neutral? Yes.] Quozzle is a gutsy little protagonist, and surprisingly emotive for an eyeball. She winces when you pull legs from her, she closes her eyelid with confidence when a solution is found, she stares in terror when she tumbles off ledges. Even though I was the one controlling her, she was the one I was cheering on. Whenever a poor configuration of legs sent her into painful cartwheels, I felt guilty. “She had to be brave,” the game reminded me, “and clever.” I knew it was talking about Quozzle, but I felt like perhaps it was encouraging me as well.
This isn’t a game to be played all in one gulp, but rather leisurely, a few levels at a time. Maddening though some puzzles can be, the feeling I had in the end an active sense of wonder. While the pacing’s not perfect, and the difficulty can spike inconsistently, I recommend this one to all puzzle aficionados and fans of indie quirk. There’s a little bit of Spore here, and a touch of World of Goo as well, but in the end, Incredipede stands (and flails, and falls) on its own.