It’s brave, to make a game like Skipper in 2017. Today’s most widely played games want to keep you captive for as long as possible, buttering you up with new abilities or upgrades while whispering sweet nothings about the prizes that lie ahead, just a few gold coins or experience points away. If your current task has lost its appeal, there’s always something else to do, some other attraction to cleanse the palate and keep you playing. This is video games as binge television, a treadmill set just right so that you could keep running forever if you wanted.
Conversely, my first session with Skipper, a tiny puzzle game made by the equally small developer 2xMilk from Idaho, came to a grinding halt when I reached a problem I just couldn’t untangle. I wrestled with this same level for a good half hour, tweaking strategies, throwing them out entirely, trying them over again. Skipper doesn’t give you hints, nor does it let it skip a level and return to it later. All I could do was put the controller down.
When I came back the next day, I still couldn’t do it.
2xMilk pride themselves on making “really, really hard games” and go as far as calling Skipper “hardest low poly game in the universe” in their marketing material. Certainly Skipper is challenging, though it has thankfully plenty other qualities too – while I recognise that difficulty alone is a selling point for some, that’s certainly not the case for me.
Like all good puzzle games, Skipper is simple. Your task is to get some cubes across a grid-lined board to a goal, moving them one square at a time. To begin with there are just black cubes, then other colours are introduced. Each cube, when moved, leaves a corresponding coloured trail behind it, like a tail winding across the board. Because cubes can’t cross squares painted in their own colour, every play is final, like chess. Add some gates triggered by switches, and things quickly get hairy; you soon find yourself neurotically shifting between cubes, coating and re-coating the board in different colours, tracing interweaving lifelines for your cubes to navigate.
Though things can get quite manic as the levels get more complex, Skipper is never overwhelming. Partly, this is thanks to its underlying simplicity. The rules are sufficiently straightforward that the solution to a given puzzle always feels within reach; if anyone can easily understand how to play, it surely follows that anyone can see it to the end, the thinking goes. Skipper also does a good job of introducing new ideas gradually. An early level might have one gate to negotiate, for instance, while a later one could have three.
The primary reason Skipper remains a meditative and generally pleasant experience, however – even when you reach a particularly vexing impasse like I did – is its aesthetic. It’s hard to work up much of a fury when faced with the game’s little floating island worlds, surrounded by a sea of azure polygons that glitter in the light as they bob in digital the breeze. Granted, there’s not a lot to it as visual styles go, but it’s effective. The same can be said of the soundtrack, a looping ambient piece that isn’t especially interesting compositionally – it’s mostly just a repeated descending piano figure and some sustained notes – but possess warm, lo-fi tone that contributes to the game’s overall sense of calm.
And for the lion-share of my time with the game, Skipper successfully sustained this mood, producing in me a kind of sedate, thoughtful state of befuddlement. While the difficulty does ramp up in a gradual, linear fashion through the first half of its 31 puzzles (with more apparently forthcoming) there was the odd difficulty spike, and the back half is spotty. I’d be interested to see whether players typically get stuck on the same puzzles, or whether certain problems just come more naturally to different brains.
For me, that ambiguity is Skipper’s most laudable feature. At a time when most games are tuned to create a consistent experience for as many players as possible, producing a smooth curve of banal satisfaction, Skipper is a game that’s confident enough to let you get stuck – to give you no other option but to stop playing.