When Jonathan Blow released his long-awaited adventure game The Witness in January, it attracted critical acclaim, but many reviewers warned that it contains some of the most difficult puzzles they’d ever encountered in a game.
Well, Stephen’s Sausage Roll is more challenging than The Witness.
Both games take place on islands that can only be escaped by meeting the challenges devised by the designer. In this case, that’s Stephen Lavelle, the prolific indie developer behind fascinating unorthodox titles such as English Country Tune, Strip Tease and Slave of God. His approach to the idea of a puzzle game is very different to Blow’s.
While the island in The Witness is expansive and graphically intensive, this world (built as a 3D upgrade of a 2D prototype) is made of low-res tiles. It’s colourful, with just enough detail to discern key details – grass, a tree with falling leaves or blossoms, a shipwreck – but is definitely less immediately appealing than the big-budget screenshot bait of The Witness. And as with Blow’s title, there’s an interesting contrast between the world and its contents: where puzzles in The Witness are abstract, here they have a concrete – if silly – theme.
Stephen’s Sausage Roll, as it turns out, is a play on words. This is not a game about meat wrapped in pastry, but one in which you solve puzzles by rolling sausages around. Each puzzle contains one or more sausages and one or more crackling grills. You solve each puzzle the same way, by manoeuvring the sausages on to the grill tiles until they’re evenly cooked.
Each sausage is two tiles long and one tile wide, and as far as the game is concerned a sausage has two sides, so there are four sections that must each touch a grill tile once so that they can brown with a satisfying sizzle. Burn any part of the sausage by grilling it more than once, or drop it into the pixelated ocean, and you fail and have to start again.
The task is complicated by the movement of the player character. You control a low-poly humanoid figure wielding a giant five-pronged fork that takes up an entire second tile by itself. You move with the arrow keys: press left to rotate to face the left or – if already facing left or right – to move left by one tile. The fork becomes useful further into the game but it’s also an obstacle, preventing rotation unless your character has enough empty tiles around them.
It takes time to get used to the movement, but the island itself is a lesson in navigation. Each puzzle is a section of the island; when you select it, the surrounding terrain falls into the sea, the abstract pink cuboids turn into sausages, and the grills are lit. You select puzzles by lining up your character with a ghostly fork-bearing outline, so even accessing them requires figuring out how to ease your way into nooks in the geography, useful training given the lack of explicit tutorial besides a sign that tells you what buttons to press.
Precise movement is necessary in the puzzles themselves, where extraneous tiles have been stripped back. You might think that the limited space would help you to predict the correct path, but it’s only one factor. You have to consider the orientation of the sausages, the obstacles between them and the grills, the potential for them to become obstacles in turn, as well as your ability to get where you need to go without accidentally nudging a sausage beyond your reach or knocking it into the sea.
Fortunately, you have two other actions available to you: undo and restart. It can sometimes be useful to press R to wipe the slate clean and consider a puzzle afresh, but often you’ll just want to press Z – or hold it down – to undo your latest moves. Maybe you slid a sausage one tile too far to retrieve, maybe you burned something, or maybe you managed to cook three whole sausages except for one corner of one and you want to retrace your steps one by one so that you don’t have to solve the entire puzzle again.
As you progress, it becomes more and more necessary to experiment, and the undo option is a useful way to refine that. It’s rare that you can just move around until you stumble onto the solution but it’s also difficult to hold everything in your head, so the ability to go back a few steps is incredibly welcome. It lets you break down the puzzle into chunks, trying it out a section at a time, combining mental calculation with physical experimentation.
Stephen’s Sausage Roll does a lot with very little, but even its gradual increases in complexity can feel like leaps. The island is divided into sections that each introduce new approaches. Cleverly, each new ability is discovered rather than added, and the world gradually reveals its ruleset: the reason you couldn’t use your fork to spear sausages in the first puzzles was because there were no walls for you to brace against; you couldn’t stack sausages on top of each other (or you on top of sausages) because there were no stairs. So when walls and stairs are introduced, new avenues open. Still, each time you discover a new rule there’s an adjustment period that will inevitably frustrate some players into giving up.
The way these rules are layered on top of each other one at a time is satisfying, as the puzzles become gradually more complex, built from recognisable parts. But it also limits the structure of the game. In The Witness you can wander from section to section, trying out different kinds of puzzle and resolving to come back to ones that eluded you on a first attempt. Here, each new section of the island is inaccessible until you’ve solved every puzzle from the previous, which means that although each section contains several puzzles that you can try in any order, at a certain point you’ll end up with just one left to solve before you can move on, and it’ll probably be the most difficult.
But perhaps that lack of distraction is a good thing. When you can’t wander off and do something else, your only option is to sit and stare at each deceptively simple sequence of tiles, abuse the undo key, maybe sleep on it and come back with a new resolve, until it all finally clicks. If you’re determined enough to see that process through, the experience can be euphoric. It’s doubtful you’ll ever have had such an emotional response to a perfectly cooked sausage.