Video games are not static. This is a given, a truth so obvious that it barely needs stating. What was once Pong and Pac Man turned into Battlefield 1 and Final Fantasy XV. It's a process which never stops, but when we think of ways games might reinvent themselves in the near future, we tend to focus primarily on the dramatic. We think of how we can make more games which speak to us like Firewatch does, in a voice we recognize and says things we already know, like a warm conversation with a loved one. Or games like Papers, Please, which reveal something of our shared history and how we might react to oppression and surveillance.
By comparison, the humble puzzle game seems to languish. If puzzle games exist in a pure form, they tend to be seen more as toys or diversions, as PopCap Games' catalog seems to be, not serious games. The most popular modern puzzle games—think Portal and Braid—are generally presented as something "more," with elaborate storylines and fancy graphics to obscure the fact that you're playing a mere puzzle game. They're usually solo experiences, and their increasingly mobile platform focus has a practical effect that it can be tough to find the good ones, particularly on Android.
Red Bull Mind Gamers aims to change how we think about puzzle games. It's ruthlessly competitive and explicitly social. It's also, frankly, kind of weird, but weird in a good sort of way which makes it a bit difficult to fully describe. It's wholly unlike anything you've probably seen before.
It's more accurate to say that Mind Gamers is a series of puzzle games, all quick-playing and intense. Currently, Mind Gamers features 15 puzzles playable on the game's site, and more are added all the time, made by a diverse array of students and game designers. The games are based on well-worn tropes of the genre and hark back to simple, free puzzle games of decades past: bring a line to an end point, set a number of squares on a line without any of them touching. (If you are eager to make a comparison to The Witness, you wouldn't be the first.) They're all very simple at the easiest settings, but quickly ramp up in difficulty as levels are solved.
This is all pretty straightforward. Where it breaks from the expected is in its esports format, a sprawling multi-city tour with a big contraption which teams of players interact with called the Cube, a modular room with four screens. The Cube shows up and stays in a city for a few days before packing up and moving on, with winners hoping to get to the March world finals in Budapest.
At the competitions, players tackle single-player puzzles, just as you do on the website, but enter the Cube should their team qualify. There, the puzzles change: Strict logical puzzles turn into creative problem solving, and what was a solo experience suddenly relies on social navigation, as your team members join you.
Konstantin Mitgutsch, a research affiliate at MIT Game Lab and one of the Cube's masterminds, sees the social aspect as forcing something new into the puzzle space.
"You need diverse teams," he says. "It's not enough to just have a good puzzle solver. You need the hardcore puzzle solver, yes, but you need a visual learner, verbal communicators, and such. There were four students in Paris, in the early 20s, and they were absolutely great as single players. But they went to the Cube and were devastated at the multiplayer failure."
Adam Leibowitz and Matt Needles, members of esports team Long Time Listeners, found the move from single to multiplayer compelling in actual play.
"We got into the game and they didn't really present us with any rules," Needles recalls. "It was just, 'here's a thing, figure it out.' I think, especially with our team, different members of the team picked up on different aspects of the game. And then, whether it was shouting across the room to each other or walking across the room and helping each other, it went from one person staring at a screen to two, three, or sometimes all four of us working together."
The explicit design decision to put players in direct physical contact with one another to facilitate their teamwork, rather than relying on headsets and virtual rooms, harks to ideas of physical embodiment and games. That's heady academic speak for the way we interact with games physically, as well as how games physically "play" us—the way we bob our heads as we jump in a Mario game or the acceleration of our heartbeats in a dark virtual hallway.
"It goes back to old styles of sofa multiplayer gaming," Mitgutsch says. "The old style of gaming was single player, but you share the physical space via the presence of others or passing the gamepad. Having the team portion be physical, that was an important experience to us, because it's kind of been lost in the internet."
For Needles and Leibowitz, this element introduces an element of learning-on-the-fly to Mind Gamers. "There's an interesting emergent learning process going on," says Leibowitz. "If you're familiar with The Witness at all, a lot of us compared it to that. The puzzles were very similar to that."
His mention of The Witness is a reminder that the most interesting part of Mind Gamers isn't the puzzles; we all play puzzle games, in some form, even if it's just a level or two in an adventure game or platformer. And, as Mitgutsch points out, millions play mobile puzzle games, and they don't even consider themselves gamers. So dragging lines around a grid, trying not to overlap, is interesting and sometimes difficult, but it's hardly groundbreaking.
Instead, what sets Mind Gamers apart is the idea of getting back to a lost style of gaming, one which is tactile and audible, played as a joyously physical experience, which is so new. And old, which is the strange bit. Looking at the visuals of the Mind Gamers experience, from the puzzles themselves to the way the interior of the Cube looks, recalls an aesthetic 20 or 30 years old. It's an aesthetic of electronics lighting dark rooms, with shades of neon and people talking about what's on their screens. It's The Wizard and Hackers.
It's an optimistic view of games and technology which seemed to wither under the onslaught of Web 2.0 and endless game sequels. Mitgutsch is quite open about his rosy view of what Mind Gamers means to him.
"It's academic, yes, but it's fun, touchable, and playable," he beams. "It's populist."