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‘Snake Pass’ Wants to Reprogram Your Gamer Brain, and You Should Let It

Sumo Digital’s new puzzler adopts a control scheme quite unlike any game I’ve previously played, and I love it.

It's pretty well known that our brains are divided into two sides, the left and the right hemispheres. The left controls the right side of our bodies, basically speaking, and the right the left. And some functions tend to sit more on one side than the other—language on the left, attention and focus on the right.

In video games, movement commands—at their very base level, the most elementary controlling of an on-screen avatar of any form—are typically mapped to one side of the pad. It might be that the right trigger represents the accelerator in a racing game, or that the left stick directs a third-person perspective "us" around a 3D space. Yes, this core function will be combined with steering, context-sensitive complements, jumping and shooting, and so on. But it's rare that the most basic principle of Do This To Move This requires more than a single side of the brain to enact.

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So rare, indeed, that I can't think of a game before (the just released) Snake Pass that necessitates the combining of right and left sides to get anywhere, at all. Like, just to get off the starting block. Sheffield studio Sumo Digital's first self-published title asks the player to think like a snake in order to proceed through its 15 stages of collectibles and obstacles. And this means rewiring your grey matter to get to grips with a control scheme that is both ingenious and exacting, and kind of wonderful when it begins to click.

All Snake Pass screenshots courtesy of Sumo Digital.

Thinking like a snake, in this instance, means slithering to move from A to B and beyond, which in the game requires holding the right trigger button (ZR on the tested Switch version, though I've also played on Xbox One) and nudging the left stick back and forth, right to left, to commence the wiggling, writhing momentum—maintaining an "S" shape represents the best way forward. Simply holding the trigger won't move the game's starring reptile, Noodle, very fast at all; and it's only through stick, trigger and face button harmony—"A" on the Switch raises Noodle's head, allowing him to climb bamboo frames and access higher parts of each level—that meaningful, deliberate progress can be achieved.

This control scheme was born from an internal game jam, where one of Sumo's staffers was playing around with rope physics, and a piece of it fell to the ground but remained controllable—I'm paraphrasing from sketchy memory here, based on what someone from the studio told me at a preview session a few weeks ago. In that sense, Snake Pass is reminiscent of Ubisoft's Grow Home, another small, cute-looking game that served to essentially showcase, or trial, a novel mechanic born from closed-doors playing around. Grow Home's was the individual control of its robot B.U.D.'s hands, to grip onto and climb a massive beanstalk. Snake Pass's is this singular slither, entirely unlike any other means of traversal I've ever (memorably) experienced.

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It's entirely unintuitive at first, especially when Noodle—who can't drown, we're reassured by a loading screen message (but he can fall from any of the game's floating islands, putting him back to the previous activated, fairly generously spaced checkpoint)—flips around to face the player, sliding into the screen. Then, Noodle's right is no longer Noodle's right, it's ours, unlike the old Micro Machines control scheme of a direction remaining correct from the controlled character's perspective, not the player's.

You can switch to "easy" controls in the options, which maps all movement to the left stick. But don't, because once you master Snake Pass's intriguing arrangement of inputs, it becomes a wonderfully relaxed, take-your-time experience, and somehow "easy" feels like a cheat towards achieving that. There's no time limit, no risk of "failure", the challenges remain pretty consistent across the stages, and the game both looks and sounds delightful. To steal a line from fellow Waypoint writer Kate Gray (sorry, Kate), this is even more "Rare-like" than the forthcoming, comparably colorful Yooka-Laylee.

See? Can't drown. Everything's fine.

There's a palpable connection to said classic British studio, too, as Snake Pass's music—chilled, yet tropical, and all a bit lovely—comes from David Wise, who worked on the old Donkey Kong Country series (and, really, you can tell).

Come the fourth floating island of Snake Pass's opening stage, I felt like I'd got the hang of Noodle's navigational quirks—but the learning process I went through to get there wasn't, for me, an irritation (although I've read other reports coming from the opposite perspective). For me, Snake Pass is a game that makes mucking up fun, through its expressive central serpent, and simply by giving the player very little in the way of punishments for not quite constricting (via the other trigger) in time, in order to really cling to a bamboo safety net. Flop over the side and it's no bother, you're straight back into the snaking; it just might be that you need to re-collect a coin or keystone. It gets the brain sparking in a new way, both sides of it, reprogramming what regular gamers understand about movement and momentum.

And I really appreciate that. It's incredibly healthy for any medium of the arts, or school of design, to try new things. I don't envisage Snake Pass's controls catching on elsewhere—and why would they, given the clearly limited application potential? But as a standalone release, this is a successful experiment in challenging convention in an attractive, approachable fashion.

Snake Pass is out now for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.

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