Review: SPL-T16 Oct 2015 0
You’ve probably never wondered how to evoke existential dread with a peppy, humble abstract puzzle game. Now you never need to--adding “by Simogo” after the name turns out to be perfect. Just as M. Night Shyamalan can no longer make a movie without a twist ending (because even a perfectly conventional plot would be so out of character for him that it would surprise the audience), Simogo are famous for bending players’ minds. So if it looks like they just found a surprisingly enjoyable, very simple sort of puzzle and released it as SPL-T, players familiar with their reputation can’t help but suspect there’s something more buried in there. So it's a puzzle within a puzzle, made all the more vexing because there might be nothing to find.
The game you’re presented with is as simple as possible, with a pre-8-bit aesthetic and a single action: tap a rectangle to split it in half. Divisions alternate between horizontal and vertical, but rectangles aren’t infinitely divisible. When four or more identical rectangles share a corner, they all become indivisible until their timer runs out and they disappear. That timer is set at the number of splits you’ve made, but reduces by half if the timers of other blocks run out below them, causing them to fall like Tetris blocks. It’s a completely deterministic pursuit of high scores, and that brief description almost completely describes it.
As a puzzle, what makes SPL-T stand out is the variety of heuristics which can help. Even though it's deterministic, I can't even come close to fully conceptualizing the problem space, so I start off by just messing around (admittedly, this is my approach to everything). Sometimes, I'm thinking about timing--when to speed things up by making big, high-scoring blocks, and when to slow things down by making as many splits as possible out of the space I have left. Other times, my attention rests on which columns are about to drop (giving me an effective discount on points from blocks above them). Yet other times I use analogies to material in chess, or specific sets of maneuvers I've noticed suit certain situations well, or investment vs. consumption. Through it all, I'm constantly looking for even more cognitive tools which might help, because the game's proven that a huge variety of simplifying lenses can give me insight. At the level at which I can understand the game, it doesn't degenerate into anything simple.
Maybe I could find the optimal strategy, but it would be pointless--it would be challenging and time-consuming for me, but a relative snap for a computer. Yet I've played the game far more than necessary to review it, because I find joy in developing ways to think about this problem which would be an asinine waste of resources for me to seriously try to compute a solution to by hand. In that pursuit, I'm obsolete. This is a familiar form of displacement by technology, and meditation on that topic may be the closest a typical American can get to the stereotypical desperate ennui brought to us from northern Europe by Ingmar Bergman, Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and ABBA.
Much less obvious is the role of intuition in searching for some hidden meaning Simogo may have planted. There, I have an advantage over even a state-of-the-art program. But, even where the insight of humanity should have mattered, I haven't come up with anything. That's not quite true--I did discover how to change the color of the lines, but only because I dropped my iPad. This is the existential challenge nicely illustrated--I focus my vaunted mental powers to the search for meaning, but only succeed in illustrating the absurdity of that struggle.
How deep do you like your rabbit holes? Because now I'm wondering whether that was the point. Did Simogo intend for players to think about all this, or am I just so well-trained in the art of navel-gazing that I'm projecting it? Does the universe have meaning inherently, or do we create that meaning as we contemplate it and act within it? The simple puzzle game didn't send me here, "by Simogo" did. Fortunately, I know the way out of all this recursive reflection--I need to engage my mind fully in something which won't trouble me about higher meanings. Just a simple mental exercise which will attract my full attention.
Actually, maybe I don't know how to stop thinking about SPL-T.
SPL-T was played on an iPad Air and an iPhones 5S for this review.