"This is puzzle game design perfection." I made this claim on my GOTY 2011 article in which I explain why Pushmo is such a excellently designed game in three short paragraphs. I've also talked about Pushmo here. Despite its small size, small price, and small screened experience, I still have much to say about Pushmo's design. Pushmo is innovative, elegant, varied, focused, clean, and highly polished in every aspect of its design. This article will explain this in detail.
The biggest innovation in Pushmo lies in its camera view and use of the 3DS stereoscopic technology. The camera view is mostly positioned in the side-scrolling perspective, but it's tilted upwards in a slightly more isometric fashion. This design allows players to see platforms squarely enough from the side to gauge jumps and see the z-depth of the levels. Normally, this kind of camera design would present some serious presentation problems especially for platforming gameplay. In other words, the tilted camera ruins the purely 2D-side-scrolling view which is ideal for gauging the exact horizontal distances between elements. And because the tilt doesn't go far enough to be isometric, the view can be plagued by overlapping 3D elements and Bad3D, an emergent feedback issue that hinders players from making informed decisions about spatial positions along the Z-axis.
Pushmo solves all of these camera design problems with 3D stereoscopic technology by turning all the ambiguous and difficult to evaluate bad3D into easy to understand "normal" 3D. Put another way, the innovation comes from designing 3D gameplay for a 3D screen. Instead of the tilted camera being a terrible design decision, it actually accentuates the 3D gameplay. Though Pushmo's camera design helps players judge distances accurately, platforming isn't what makes the core gameplay challenging. Rather, Pushmo's camera design is more essential in facilitating puzzle reading of 3D spaces. Instead of being forced to figure out the complex 3D structures using a combination of monocular depth perception techniques, players can simply look and know. This design allows players to put more focus and energy on solving 3D puzzles rather than assembling 3D mental pictures from 2D complexities.
First it was Super Mario Galaxy; then it was Super Mario 3D Land. Now Pushmo may get my vote for the most 3D gameplay experience. It's not that Pushmo presents more complex 3D gameplay than the Mario games. And it's not that Pushmo's 3D spaces are deeper with more eye-popping 3D visuals. The reason Pushmo may get my vote is because Pushmo's gameplay is very simple (few complexities) and focuses entirely on a cleanly defined 3D space to create hundreds of uniquely challenging puzzles. Pushmo exemplifies how dynamic and elegant the dynamic of 3D space really is.
The design of Pushmo is extremely elegant (see trailer here). The 3D puzzles are quantified in large block units. Each level is initially presented as a flat pixel art image. Each colored section of the pixel image can be pulled out 3 levels. You can pull and slide these sections out from any side as long as you have a grip on the section and some walking room to slide it along. The goal is to platform your way to the traped kid typically located at the top. That's it for the core complexity. When I first learned that everything I just described made up the core gameplay, I was surprised and skeptical. I figured there would be more to it. I see now that it would have been entirely unnecessary to add more core complexity to this system.
Intelligent Systems could have easily gone too far. They could have embedded secrets inside of the colored panels so players would have to pull them out completely to explore them thoroughly. Fortunately, this is not the case. In Pushmo each panel is a solid structure with no "swiss-cheese" holes or secrets inside of them. Even the additional gameplay gadgets, the "pullout switch" and the "manhole," are very straightforward. The pullout switches only pull out all similarly colored blocks when pressed. And manholes are like portals that allow players to travel freely between each color coded pair. All switches and manholes are always located in the front most position and marked appropriately. That's really all there is to the entire game.
With just a handful of complexities Pushmo delivers 198 varied puzzle levels for its main game. I must admit, like with most puzzle games, I was underwhelmed with the game at first. What I seek in puzzle games is a kind of mental exercise that mostly comes from solving challenging puzzles. I was patient with the first 18 levels of tutorials in Pushmo, and the next 53 levels which were fairly easy. But after the second set of tutorials and the rest of the design wrinkles were introduced (manholes/pullout switches), the full potential of the level design became evident. As I concluded in part 7 of my series Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery, Pushmo's 198 levels are not wasted design because of their focus to the core gameplay, their variety, and the spoiler effect. The following gives examples of the variety in the level design.
Some Pushmo puzzles are complex in that they present large murals filled with many sections or gadgets to manipulate (no.112 Triceratops, no.158 Piranha Plant, No.177 Lemon Soda). Some are not so large, yet are deceptively difficult (No.174 Fire Truck, No.194 S-14)). Some deceive with near symmetry (No.175 Ladybug, No.179 Tower). Some Pushmo puzzles are deep in that they can be read, planning ahead and reverse engineered to thinking functionally, to come up with the solutions (No.157 Mario2, No.176 Rhino Beetle). Some puzzles are dynamic where changing one section will simultaneously change other paths and options; these puzzles can be support a kind of double reading (No.170 Ostrich, S-3, S-4, S-10). Some are solved algorithmically or recursively like the classic Tower of Hanoi puzzle (No.191 S-11). Some puzzles are simple, but work to distract the player with extraneous elements (No.134 Challenge 4-8, S-7, S-9). And finally some levels have folded and "origami" type folded level design in how players must navigate the compressed spaces (No.180 Rocket Ship). Pushmo presents all these kinds of puzzles and puzzles that are a combination of these styles. It is truly remarkable that so much variety comes from so few elegant elements of design.
Pushmo is a perfect examples of mechanics design. Though all you do is MOVE, JUMP, and pull blocks with the GRAB mechanic there are key feedback elements to the mechanics design that make these actions work perfectly for Pushmo's puzzle solving gameplay. Everything about the platforming mechanics is pretty straight forward. However, there is one particular platforming feature that's worth mention. With traditional platforming gameplay achieving maximum distance when jumping off of ledges and paltforms has always been challenging for most players. For games like Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 in particular, players are challenged to engage the hard edge of risk and reward when maximizing jump distances over the deadly bottomless pits. Typically, you want to get as close to the edge as possible without falling off to ensure the greatest jumping distance. However, doing this while running up to the ledge requires sharp timing skills and a good grasp of the game's hitboxes. I've seen many players fail because they jumpped too early or too late.
To alleviate the need for such real-time skills so that Pushmo truly plays like a puzzle game despite its platforming elements, a simple teetering animation was designed to prevent players from falling from ledges. Simply walk up to the edge of any platform that's elevated 2 blocks high or more, and Mallo, the player character, will teeter on the edge briefly before falling. At any time during this teetering animation players can JUMP thus maximizing their platforming distances without needing any significant timing or reflex DKART skills. It's details like this and the way the game uses lighting and shadow, yellow highlights when interacting with blocks, and audio cues to indicate how far you've pulled a block that give Pushmo a high level of polish; a polish that goes a long way to ensure that more players focus on the core of the experience. But there's one more element of Pushmo that pushes it over the top in terms of helping players focus on the core.
Pushmo has all of the elegance, challenge, diversity I desire in a puzzle game though it took many levels to find the challenge I was looking for. As I hinted to above the difficulty curve of Pushmo is very smooth. In the main game there are many levels explicitly designed to teach players new concepts. And with each of these tutorial levels comes a bit of explanation from the Pushmo master. Yes, you can learn everything you need to know from simply playing the tutorial levels. Still, the text is very brief, very clear, and helps players learn concepts that aren't easily conveyed with level challenges alone. The bottom line is text is still an extremely effective and unique way to convey information. There's no reason to find fault in text based tutorials even if you prefer other types of tutorials.
Beyond the tutorial levels integrated into the main game, Pushmo offers additional tutorials that are interactive, nuanced, and very well organized. The categories of "pro tips" and "warnings" cover the possible and impossible jumps that can be made in the game. I found these to be very helpful. Despite Pushmo's elegance, the emergent gameplay is more nuanced than you might think. These additional tutorials go a long way in teaching and scaffolding the development of critical reading skills for the difficult puzzles later in the game.
If you doubt Pushmo's perfection, try to find another puzzle game as elegant, as varied, and as innovative. In the gameplay department Pushmo far exceeds games like Fez. Pushmo conveys a core of 3D puzzle solving better than games like Cubello. It uses 3D space to develop puzzles in the most organic, appreciable, and elegant way as opposed to games like Picross 3D that uses the 3D as a part of the deductive coding system. Pushmo creates dynamic levels with spatial depth instead of using abstractions of 3D space like 3D Logic or Mighty Flip Champs! Pushmo is a game that lets players simultaneously climb around a jungle gym of pixel art and the mysterious obstacle course of the mind. Perfection.