Questing for Pure Ludological Joy

Thoughts on a browser game created by a former classmate from SUNY Polytechnic Institute.

Typical gameplay situation in Quest

 You're in a maze of little pixel corridors, all alike. You see a yellow key.

Minimalism demonstrates the convergence of game design conventions across the convoluted genre spectrum better than bolted on complexity stolen from other categories. Yaw Amanquah's browser game Quest feels like an adventure game, a roguelike, and a tile-based mobile puzzler. It is none of those. However, the way that the game inspires the fundamental sense behind those genres exemplifies the unity of narrative and mechanics when boiled down to the barest basics.

The minimal premise is highlighted by the unassuming color palette and the block-based design. You control a red square as it glides through a simple maze-like environment, finding keys to get past locked doors. Hidden away in inconvenient parts of the multi-colored chambers are the treasure chests, each one incrementing a counter at the top of the window on collision with the player square. You must navigate back to the start room to get ranked based on how many treasures you found. All this must be done without so much as brushing against the black walls that divide rooms, causing the game to reset instantly in loss.

Quest rewards patience and cautious exploration. The slight drag applied to the movement of the of the square causes you to crash into the walls easily when you become annoyed and start trying to speed-run through the maze rooms. Since Quest is the kind of game where you probably need to lose in order to discover how to win, losing tends to make you keep loosing as you become angry and agitated.

Finding all 7 treasure chests to achieve a rank of "A" after safely backtracking to the first room feels like a considerable achievement. Each room presents its own puzzle to solve, some of which will probably only be solved after multiple failures and experimentation. These puzzles combine geometrical logic problems with coordination challenges and with the adventure convention of finding keys in order to open new areas and to make new connections between areas.

Screen shown after returning to the start room
The game's favorite trick is to hinder navigation by manipulating the background color of the track. A couple of these puzzles appear to be fiendishly difficult when first encountered, giving the impression that the game is smirking at the player. However, these puzzles are solvable with the patience to scout out the geometry thoroughly and the adventurer's honed memory for details, along with the ability to rush decisively when needed.

One puzzle crosses the fairness threshold by requiring the player to break one of the established rules of the game world. This puzzle assumes that the player will experiment with breaking the rules after exploring everything, and I would probably not have discovered it without having been spoiled by overhearing the game's creator talk  in about his secrets in real-life. This unfairness evokes the mischievous smirk of the traditional adventure game, despite lacking an explicit parallel to the deadpan voice of the adventure narrator.

The game strongly evokes the old graphical Atari adaption of the original text adventure, paying homage to the classic with its nearly identical square avatar and rectangle-based geometry, as well as the pixel-drawn graphic for keys. However, where Atari's old Adventure is a fast-paced and eclectic experience, full of playful sound effects and chaotic moving elements, Quest feels contemplative and deliberate, forcing the player to study the map. In this, Quest actually feels more like a traditional text adventure or point-and-click adventure than Atari's classic adaptation does.

Quest offers simple, strongly unified gameplay with no extraneous elements. There is no room for anything much like a narrative in this austere experience. However, the elegant execution of gameplay transcends genre labels while evoking the experiences of more complicated kinds of games. In design less is often more, and Quest feels like a game that is designed to express the most essential principles of ludology. In doing so, it presents a satisfying low-key experience with the potential for the fun of beating puzzles with logic and for contemplative peacefulness.


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