Diffuse Amalgamated Research Group (DARG) aggravated me. The text is difficult to read. The instructions are cryptic to non existent. The in game help is insulting; "help for noobs." The music is repetitive, and the lack of sound effects makes the experience somewhat nerve racking.
And I'll say that I've had my fill of Portal like narrative additions. Though these non interactive flourishes are cute, I thought I'd take the opportunity to point out how many other games have been so inspired by Portal. Along with DARG there's Time Kufc, Use Boxmen, Flood the Chamber, and You must Burn the Rope. All of these games in one way or another invite a level of ambiguity while being a bit self aware with its subject matter especially at the end. Perhaps it's an indie thing to do. After all, Portal started off as the indie game Narbacular Drop.
Enough talk of DARGs non gameplay shortcomings. We need to get to the bottom of exactly what kind of puzzle game DARG is and and how one goes about reading its challenges. You may be tempted to put DARG into the puzzle challenge category because most levels have a game over or "retry" timer that constantly counts down. However, this timer works more to create faux/dramatic tension than to seriously threaten the progress of puzzle solving. Also consider that mistakes cannot be undone. Instead, mistakes are punished with a game over and a restart. Because of this design, players are more likely to solve a level with plenty of time rather than cutting it close.
Interestingly, though you solve each puzzle/level in DARG by clicking on circles, many of the puzzles vary in their reading techniques and dynamics. DARG is short so I'll just go over each puzzle.
The first level is the simplest. Here we learn the basics. You can only click on the circles, which lights them up and any square connected to it. Be careful though. Squares can be turned on or off in a toggle fashion by connected circles. Furthermore, if you click on the two circles in the lower left that are connect by red lines, you'll give power to the "EXPLODE" box. Explode and it's game over or retry level for you.
Even with this simple level, it's easy to see that reading such puzzles will involve tracing the path you need to light up, finding the squares you want to avoid lighting up, and keeping a careful eye on switch (circle) and light (square) groups that have multiple connections. This last part is the very definition of a dyanmic; ie. an action that affects or is affected by multiple other actions. And it only gets more complex from there.
Check out this level. Notice how each of the green circle switches are connected to at least 2 squares. The goal of this level is to light up all the horizontal green squares without lighting up all of the vertical squares connected by the red line to the "EXPLODE" box. This multi input/output switch design creates a dynamic that allows for the puzzle to be read. If only one switch was connected to one square each, there wouldn't be anything to read into. You would only have to look at the lines connecting the switches and click on the appropriate ones. Looking is not reading. Instead, players can read the level by observing how the multiple circle switches layer up to change the on/off stage of each square and proceed to shuffle things around.
Look how complex the connections can get! And on top of it all, there are new factors to read. The two puzzles in the image above feature numbered switches. Now, clicking on a circle switch doesn't toggle an on/off state, it adds a number value to some kind of number line. The math is simple, but the crisscrossing of connections requires a careful read of the level.
In the image to the right (click to enlarge), the top level uses number switches and a dynamic of 2D top down space to create a unique puzzle level in DARG. To disarm the bomb, players have to make each row and column add up to 5. The challenge is dynamic because each switch you click affects 2 distinct math problems (the vertical and horizontal). To read this challenge, one must recognize the various ways the presented numbers in reach row and column can add up to five, and use those possibilities to guide the adjustment process.
The middle level was incredibly frustrating to work through, until I realized that it was a remake of the classic Hanoi puzzle. Having beaten the hardest pancake challenge in Professor Layton 2 (which is also a Hanoi puzzle) I made quick work of this puzzle. The core design of the puzzle is based on the computer science concept of recursion. Unfortunately, I feel that this particular puzzle didn't come with enough explanation. If you're not familiar with Hanoi puzzles, I doubt you'll have the patience to figure out the rules and solve it.
In the last level in the image every circle you click on flips the polarity of that circle and the four circles in the 4 cardinal directions surrounding it. In other words, one click affects 5 circles. Understanding this dynamic is the key to developing a formation that allows for all the red circles to be turned off. The goal is to clear the board of all the red circles.
In the end, DARG brought out the puzzle master in me. And for this, my experience with the game was a good one. I imagine that less experience and smaller fans of puzzle games would give up on this game and never complete it. Leave it to solid gameplay to wash away all other issues in a game for me.