Review: "Cocoon" - An Outstanding Puzzle Game Design Textbook
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I've completed Cocoon, and without giving away any spoilers, it's a brilliantly conceived puzzle game. Throughout my gameplay, I hardly experienced any roadblocks. The only point I got stuck was due to a mechanism involving a mid-air drop, a feature previously introduced but I had forgotten about it since I took a long break before that puzzle.
Up until the final chapter, I found the design of the puzzles to be very polished, something one could come up with after thoroughly studying games like Portal. The gameplay experience was delightful, the design intriguing, yet somewhat lacking in originality. However, when I reached the nested puzzles of the final chapter, I was genuinely blown away. To design puzzles of such nature requires not just talent but a deep control of complexity. It's the unique selling point of this game. Sadly, after this chapter, the game abruptly ends. Given the potential, there was ample scope for expansion. It's a pity we don't get to see more of such brilliant puzzle designs.
From here on, there are spoilers. If you haven't played the game and don't want to lose the fun, I'd advise not reading any further until after you've completed the game.
The design of puzzles and tools in this game gives me the impression that the core philosophy revolves around "multiple uses for a single object" and "mechanisms crossover."
First and foremost, each sphere has the following functions/characteristics:
(Universal) Functions as a placement object to be placed on a pedestal and activate mechanisms, similar to the cube of the "cube-button" design in Portal.
(Universal) Acts as a "prohibited item" to stop players from passing through some checkpoints. There are many checkpoints where players can't pass with the sphere. It has to be placed on a pedestal before a player can proceed, akin to Portal's mechanic where one can't bring the cube through the emancipation grills. This interplay between basic mechanics exemplifies crossover design.
(Universal) Serves as a portal entry point. At specific locations, it acts as the key to open a portal to a corresponding color world, a fixed portal entry point. However, in later levels, a sphere's portal isn't the only entrance to a certain world. With this feature, some fantastic nested gameplay emerges — a "the world within the world" concept.
(Universal) Functions as a portal exit point. When emerging from a particular color world, it indicates the exit location. This can be seen as an extension of ability #3. Essentially, the sphere's portal feature is bidirectional, but the entrance and exit points can be distinct. Many puzzles revolve around entering through one portal, adjusting the exit point, and then leaving through another portal. This design splits a pair of two-way portals in Portal into four one-way portals (entry and exit between World A and World B and vice versa). It's a clever design nuance.
(Universal) Container function. When one sphere enters another world via the corresponding sphere's portal, moving the outer sphere also moves the inner one. This container feature is handy in scenarios with a limited number of pedestals. Also, nested containing is the key concept of the final puzzle of the game. This container function is also aligned with the "cocoon" concept in the game title.
(Distinct) When held by the player, spheres can activate specific mechanisms upon contact:
a. The red sphere opens paths, just by holding it. It operates similarly to a torch-lighting mechanism but has excellent crossover potential with moving platforms.
b. The green sphere offers vertical transportation and requires monitoring of the vertical mechanism's state. It works like a toggleable switch. The state of the vertical mechanism doesn't always depend on the green sphere, presenting dual-switch mechanics using time delays for puzzle designs. I don't recall if the game includes many puzzles like this, but it seems like an appealing concept, especially since the secondary switch is in the green sphere world.
c. The purple sphere swaps positions with fixed points on the map. This feature, combined with the cube and portal functions mentioned earlier, offers vast puzzle crossover potential.
d. The white sphere shoots bullets. The bullets serve as mechanism triggers and can pass through portals multiple times, offering significant crossover potential with the aforementioned portal functions. There's a puzzle where bullets activate the green sphere's vertical mechanism repeatedly. I wished the player could "catch" the bullets with the spheres they hold, creating time-delayed actions, but unfortunately, that's not possible in the game.
Moreover, many environmental mechanisms within the game have multiple functions too. For example, moving platforms in the game can serve as pedestals, weight for activating switches, trackers, and keys. The small robots also function as both prohibited items and keys. There are countless other examples, and you'll find that each item in the game has two or more ways of being used. The diverse applications are often manifested through the crossover design of independent mechanisms. This is why the design feels so meticulous; no mechanism is a disposable, one-off use. All design directions are interconnected in a networked fashion.
In addition, the game's art direction, dynamic scene performances, audio design, and non-text narrative approach are all worth studying, offering numerous techniques to learn from.
In summary, it's a brilliantly crafted textbook on puzzle game design. It could even be considered as supplementary exercises to the Portal series.