Sokoban [1982]

The puzzles we’ve seen in Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77] and its immediate children aren’t puzzles in the sense that a jigsaw puzzle is. They’re either lock-and-key dependencies, mapping, or wordplay. In most cases, solving these puzzles relies not on putting together what you know, but on what you don’t know: how do I get past the snake? With a bird. How do I do all the things I need to in time? With a shortcut you didn’t notice or had yet to unlock. How do I get past the dragon? With a pun. They’re games of resolving or overcoming information and/or resource asymmetry. Cleverness is thinking outside the box.

In Sokoban [1982], cleverness is thinking inside the box. In fact, it’s the original box-pushing game.

Devo – Patterns [1982]

Sokoban is not the first “pure” puzzle video game, and not even in the sense that it’s predated by ports of pre-video game puzzles like the Tower Of Hanoi [1883]. It’s just early and notably influential. Even if you’ve never heard the word “Sokoban” before, you’re likely familiar with the concept just by my saying “box-pushing.” The player is presented with a cursor-avatar in a field of crates, and the objective is to place them in the indicated zone where crates belong. To do this, you may only push the crates, and only one at a time, which means you need to always be considering how you leave yourself the space to get behind the crates, on the opposite side of the direction you wish to move them. Complicating this are the tight corridors in which the crates are distributed, levels which are hand-designed to be very obtuse and difficult, but never impossible.

The space of Sokoban, like we’ve seen in many era computer games, is divvied up into a discrete though invisible grid where movement is not a smooth vector glide like at the arcade but a pronounced snap into position, recalling Chess [c. 600] and its heavily-regimented rules of movement, or a steady, regular rhythm with no syncopation or tuplets of any kind. If movement were more realistic, you would be able to turn, to get a floor jack under those boxes and pull them or shimmy them diagonally through tight corners. If the motion were smooth, the game would become magnitudes more frustrating, to the point of basically becoming a gag game — just imagine pushing a box only a pixel too close to the wall, from where you can’t retrieve it. Either way the game revolves around precision in movement, but the challenge to the player is not to dexterity but to strategy under rigid constraints.

The concept here is so expandable that not only are there sequels with dozens more levels adding no new mechanics, but probably hundreds of outright clones of the mainline “official” Sokobans, and thousands more that take Sokoban as the underlying grammar for some new mechanical idea they have on top of it, and games otherwise entirely outside of the remit of the puzzle game are notorious for having parts where the usual gameplay takes a break to abruptly become Sokoban. We know who made Sokoban, Hiroyuki Imabayashi, who seems to have used it to found a studio, Thinking Rabbit, but it seems, whether through shyness or lack of interest, further biography and behind-the-scenes stories have faded into an obscurity I can not pierce. What is left is not even so much a game as a single idea, passed down with no heed of origin.

Like the introductory segment of fellow genre-defining game what spread like a folk song before seeping into seemingly almost every game after it (in a much less limited capacity) Colossal Cave Adventure, Sokoban conforms shockingly well to what are, today, considered some best practices in puzzle game design, if not arch show-off austerity. There’s little difference in approach to onboarding between this game and something like Flow Free [2012] (although that game is a bad example because it basically has hundreds of warm-up puzzles before it gives anything challenging, while Sokoban has a single elegant introductory level.) Sokoban revolves around one intuitive mechanic of motion that can be wordlessly tutorialized, and then successive levels iterate upon it, showing how it is ostensibly simple but giving rise to bedevilingly complex situations. Contrast, say, Chip’s Challenge [1989], which takes more of a maximalist approach, giving you an overload of things that all do different things all interacting with each other. Here, there are only 4 things: You, the boxes, the walls, and the loading zone indicating dots, and each one does one thing. It’s extremely systematic, extremely transparent, and extremely minimalist in a way that just doesn’t ever go out of style.

Key to its transparency is the reappearance of the common top-down view, which connects its tight corridors to the wave of maze games from 1980 on. Though there have been implementations in 3D and psuedo-3D, a Sokoban puzzle where you can’t get a good view of the entire puzzle sounds deeply odd and frustrating. Omniscience is more vital to this game than any other I’ve yet covered, mainly because it’s so deterministic. Levels can be basically broken down into cells, little mini-staging grounds of only a few boxes that don’t interact with the others. There’s no random elements, no animated enemies, and the reactions to your actions are consistent, clear, and limited. The game places such trust in you that the button to move on to the next is the same as the button to reset the level if you’re not, because you wouldn’t get those two states confused would you? There’s no undo command, and you are only allowed to restart the level from scratch 4 times before you are sent back to level 1. That’s a standard kind of stakes-raiser, almost certainly owed to the heritage of arcade games and lives systems; I think it gets put into video games from this early era forward often simply because that’s the kind of thing video games have more than careful deliberation of its effects and padding and tension, but here, when such an unfair and upsetting penalty restriction is ladled on top of such a scrupulously fair what-you-see-is-what-you-get game, it’s essentially an insult. It’s like it’s telling you you need to go back to Sokoban school. After beating the first level, the player shouldn’t need to go poking and prodding at the crates to try things out and then go back and try other things out (although I think we almost all do, practically.) There’s not going to be any surprises: anyone capable of understanding the rules should be able to look at the arrangement of the level and work out the solution before even pressing a button to interact with it, and the safety net of the limited resets allow not for experimentation but for pressing the wrong key at the wrong time by mistake. The game demands performance nearing perfection from you, and you in turn come to expect it of yourself, internally belittling yourself for your slightest mistakes.

Sokoban, like Donkey Kong [1981] just had, takes as its everyman protagonist an explicitly part-time blue-collar laborer. (“Sokoban” literally translates to something like “warehouse worker.”) They’re less of a character, not just because primarily Sokoban lacks the narrative scaffolding and attention to caricature of Donkey Kong, but also because our avatar is, as mentioned, a cursor in the Rogue [1980] mold, not subject to realistic physical limitations like gravity or exertion. Nevertheless, it is by far the more realistic mimickry of manual labor. By abstracting away the physical component, which you might think is what defines manual labor, it emphasizes the mental demands of it that can be even more tiring than the lifting and shoving. The always-bespoke problems and changing situations that pop up even on an assembly line and stop me from quite being able to get into a mindless rote rhythm even as they’re so similar I get boredly familiar with their general contours, the constant anxious precarity of employment status and the fear that I might need to start all over again, the lonely isolation of professionalism — I mean, even when I’m not literally alone as depicted, I don’t really care to know my co-workers. That perfectionism? Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t really know how to half-ass things, even though the older I get, the more I realize in the abstract that it’s probably virtuous to engage in time theft.

The most aesthetically pleasing level, to me.

Level 10 of the original is suitably climactic and difficult that it feels like a satisfying closure on the things Sokoban has introduced, despite being in the grand scheme of things just a beginning. There are 10 more levels, an epilogue the size of the rest of the game and even more time-consuming, that have basically been scrubbed from the Sokoban codex — the 50 essentially canonical levels from this and Sokoban II [1984] that get passed down into the clones. This is because they, in typical puzzle game fashion, introduce a new simple additional mechanic to the old formula they’ve introduced: walls that can be destroyed on touch, but only from one side. It’s a zag and a half, and also completely unsignaled: you’re just supposed to work out you’ve been presented with an otherwise impossible level and go hunting for the trick. I don’t think it’s skipped because of the difficulty of re-implementing it, I think it is just plain unpopular. Myself, I mostly like this added layer, the process of excavation and discovery, the way I learned to think a bit like a level designer to identify likely spots for holographic walls where they’d be hard to access and in about the second most convenient spot for a hole to be.

That is, until it gets utterly ridiculous in the final 2 levels, the last of which sets you up with exactly 4 identical coin-flip scenarios where you have to guess left or right, and if you pick wrong you’re screwed. Exactly 4, you might recall, is the number of restarts you get on a level before you get fired and have to start again from level 1. This underlines why it’s so unpopular, and that’s that disappearing walls are seemingly made to fundamentally violate almost everything thus far set up in this article as part of the design grammar. No more neat minimal correspondence where what you see is what you get, now behaviors are inconsistent. Now there’s no transparency, you don’t get to know what you’re up against and make a plan until you’re elbow deep. Now solving puzzles may not rely on your box-arranging skills but on finding the right hotspots and then moving the crates down the obvious and wide-open path. It’s like a bad day at working a new job where you get saddled with some new stuff and everyone acts annoyed at you for not instantly getting it. It’s like thinking you’re done with a normal day and getting told about just one more terrible thing you gotta do before you can go home. It’s like how this article goes on for like two paragraphs after it seems like it should be finished and ends on a too-cute-by-half note.

Once again, huge thanks to The Data-Driven Gamer, who both showed that there were extra levels only in the original Sokoban and that emulating it was achievable.

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