A light unto the nations
What do you think about when you hear the words “puzzle game”? Chances are, you’re imagining a game with a slower pace than usual, where you calmly figure out the solutions to a set of problems. There’s nothing wrong with that – many great games fit that description – but it’s hardly the sort of thing that sends shivers down your spine or gets your blood pumping.
Not so with Linelight. This is one of the most intelligent puzzle games I’ve ever played, and yet solving its puzzles provides the sort of adrenaline rush one would expect from playing DOOM or punching a Neo-Nazi. And while those are still things you should do whenever you get the chance, Linelight is a masterpiece of a different kind, infusing genius puzzle design with the sort of magnificent beauty and excitement that are so rare in the genre.
Like with most great games, Linelight proceeds from a very basic premise: you are a small beam of light constricted to travel across a one-dimensional path. Your goal is to clear game worlds and pick up as many stars along the way. Stars come in two colors, yellow and green, with the latter much more challenging to obtain than the former. Yellow stars themselves can be mandatory, picked up by solving puzzles that block you from advancing further into the level, or optional, locked away by puzzles whose difficulty lies somewhere between that of the mandatory yellows and the extra-challenging greens.
The first few puzzles are naturally very simple, requiring little more than triggering switches in the correct order to clear a path that was previously blocked, or picking up a key while avoiding a deadly laser. But every world adds another element to the mix that, combined with all previously-introduced mechanics, exponentially increases puzzle sophistication. Later worlds introduce yellow beams that only move when you do, à la SUPERHOT, or beams that mimic your path. I feel like I must at least mention these two examples to give a clue of the sort of creativity that Linelight brings to the table, but I also feel bad talking about them, because it is such a joy to discover how each new mechanic function, how you can use it to your advantage, and how you can combine it with previous mechanics to solve ever more challenging puzzles.
What’s truly amazing about these mechanics is how truly human they feel. For a game about tiny little beams of light, Linelight puts more character into its world’s inhabitants than many a fully-voiced, fully motion-captured AAA game. A purple beam follows you around a level, stopping hesitatingly for long periods of time before resolutely following through, like a curious pet that is wary of approaching you, only to rush at you in an explosion of excitement. Another beam of light travels around an open space, liberated from the restrictive line, flying around gracefully as if enjoying its freedom before going where it must head. And those yellow beams — I can swear they’re smirking devilishly as they realize they got you trapped in a corner. There is so much talk about how to make a game narrative great with better writing or more cinematic elements, and here’s one that does it with little more than flickering lights.
The characterization doesn’t end there. Each world contains a “chase sequence”, a part of the level where foe becomes friend, with the beam type introduced in the level now playing the part of an ally as it travels in a line parallel to yours and becomes a tool for your advancement. These are the parts where one truly realizes just how incredibly beautiful Linelight is. The combination of colors, movement, and subtle particle effects feel the screen with life and excitement. It is almost as much a joy to watch as it is to play, and is the only game I’ve played so far that I feel like speedrunning if only so I could later watch the video and marvel in the beauty of the proceedings.
This is a game where nothing is put to waste and nothing is tacked on. Each puzzle element is not only amply used, but is also given a respectful farewell. When your erstwhile adversaries finally leave the screen for the last time, there’s this bittersweet feel to it, as if this colored line that killed you a bunch of times was a real character – and thanks to Linelight‘s brilliance, it was, in a way.
That Linelight is such a labor of love, that its developers were invested down to the last detail, is underscored by the way Linelight uses an aspect not many games give that much thought to – the soundtrack, and in particular, its dynamics. When your beam is destroyed and you must restart, the background music’s melody tracks are muted, but the rhythm continues. This signals to you that something has gone wrong, but it allows the music to keep going seamlessly into your next attempt without cutting the flow or creating awkward looping effects. It’s a small thing, and yet so noticeable, so effective on an almost instinctive level.
“It’s hard to write about Linelight, but it’s not because it’s too dull for me to say more about. In fact, I’m desperate for more people to talk to about this game, because there’s so much I left unsaid.”
It’s hard to write about Linelight, but it’s not because it’s too dull for me to say more about. In fact, I’m desperate for more people to talk to about this game because there’s so much I left unsaid. I want as many people as possible to play it, to experience it unspoiled, like I did. I want everyone to have the same sense of joyous discovery that I’ve had working out how to interact with this world. I want everyone to feel how, to paraphrase one hbomberguy, the mechanics of the game melt away, and one is left with an actual world to explore. This is the sort of game we have here, an aptly-named, brilliant light shining in the deep darkness of Steam.
If it feels like I’m using a lot of superlatives, it’s because Linelight truly earns it. With its deceptively deep puzzle design, its artistic beauty and its fully-realized world, it somehow manages to be a puzzle game that’s incredibly accessible and – dare I say it? – an art game that is genuine and free of pretense. Do not be discouraged by the lack of hype or the price point – Linelight is well worth the time and money it asks of you, and then some.