Poetry in puzzling
Another week, another word game. But this one comes with a pedigree: From the game designer behind previous letter puzzler Lexitect,and an artist who worked on The Phantom Menace, QatQi promises to be something special. Even the title seems evocative and mysterious.
QatQi is named after two useful Scrabble words, so no surprise that it shares the same basic concept of placing letters on a grid to make words. But instead of a square board, you’re playing on an uncertain map of corridors and rooms which must be uncovered through slow exploration. And instead of known bonus squares, you’re hunting for multipliers in the darkness, and they only show up when you play next to them.
It’s one of those slight shifts of perspective that results in seismic changes. The addition of exploration results in an explosion of strategic possibilities. Long words score bonuses, but your constructions need to fit round tight bends and navigate precisely into cramped corners. When you uncover multipliers, you may need to reconsider previous plays to make the best use of them.
This novel investigative approach has some unexpected knock-on effects. Because the mystery of discovery only works once, QatQi is broken down into a series of individual puzzles rather than the levels and rankings seen in most word games. There are a lot of these puzzles — spanning a range of difficulty from the inane to the impossible — and a new one is added daily.
But deprived of the usual aim of prolonging your play session by progressing through a series of increasingly difficult levels, QatQi instead challenges you to get the best score you can on each puzzle. To do this you must agonizingly balance word length, navigation and bonuses, with each small change and every combination having pros and cons. It’s a friendly fiend, inviting you into its wonderful parlour even as it sucks your brain from your ears.
Given the hidden nature of the maze and the multipliers on each puzzle there is, inevitably some trial and error is involved. Sometimes you’ll suddenly uncover a bonus in a position where the letters around it make it unusable; On others the word you were planning will run into a wall you didn’t know was there. There’s an undo feature, but there’s also a catch: you start with just 200 and to get more, you need to buy them.
It’s a particularly cruel funding model. Without undos, the game is robbed of much of its challenge and enjoyment. So you feel compelled to ration what you have, whether from your starting free allowance or a paid increase. But you can’t. You need them, because you’ll have no idea what’s waiting in the ether outside the gently pulsing blue circle that marks the start of each puzzle. You need to backtrack, and reconsider your decisions in light of new discoveries. But always, always you’re constrained by the knowledge that each undo costs money. Using them starts to feel like losing blood.
To rub salt into the wounds, the game is filled with statistics, breaking down your performance in excruciating detail and comparing each and every failure unmercifully against global averages, and your scores against other puzzlers in the vicinity. If you want to improve your rankings then you’ll need to backtrack over most of the puzzle and start afresh, at which point those 200 free undos start to look like pinpoints in infinity. Developers must eat, of course, but there’s no good reason for this infuriating approach to profit over just charging for the app in the first place.
Pay model quirks aside, the presentation is faultless. Words radiate outlines and circles within circles as they are built, faint boundaries from your creations reaching out into the black space beyond. Possible words, curios chosen from the dictionary of a genius, flash tantalizingly across your feeble scratchings. Haunting minimalist electronic music washes over you in soothing waves. The whole experience seems pregnant with mystery, a haughty modernist temple to the discoveries waiting in the ebony, should your clumsy fingers stray close enough to reveal them.
I had not thought that a word game could be so beautiful. Beautiful to see and hear, but also the stern, unyielding beauty of logic. A bright, soft mask covering a heart of meticulously sculpted ice. So beguiling, so entrancing that the intrusion of something as mundane as money, blundering in to break the glamour, seems almost perverse — But it does. A shame that the result is pockmarks on the face of perfection.