Imitate, Renovate, Innovate, Abdicate?

Some of the readers here will have figured out by now that I’m a fan of thought-provoking games in general, and in particular those that do something very different to stand out from the norm.

Sometimes my brain then proceeds to play havoc by trying to take me down a line of thought that ultimately can’t go anywhere, and that is what I want to talk about today.

This isn’t some random anecdote, but a (very) brief chronicle of some of my thought processes over the last week or two.

About 20 years ago, I first encountered this odd little puzzle game, called Tower of Babel. The twenty-year-ago me didn’t quite fathom it, understood the point of it but didn’t quite see how the pieces fitted together – but I realised even then it was quirky and different.

Like a lot of games of its time, the plot didn’t really stand out, but that’s not what’s important. The scenario, ultimately, is this: you have miniature worlds, in floors of up to 8×8 tiles, and arranged in areas up to 4 floors high, and around these environments, you have three robots and a puzzle to solve.

One robot can shoot things, one can push things, and one can pick up energy modules and activate devices in those little worlds. Naturally, there are obstacles to overcome, some passive (like activating devices at the right time/in the right order), some active (like robots that sit in the world whose sole point is to shoot laser beams, primarily to prevent you sauntering around casually)

Puzzle games that involve moving characters around in order aren’t especially new, even back then, but the real piece of ingenuity in the game was the ‘pre-programming’. You could give each robot up to 8 orders (like Forward, Turn Right, Forward, Turn Right, Fire), and then run these programs – in essence you could not only direct the movements manually as you wanted, but you could set them up and watch them move. Sometimes you specifically had to for the level to be solved.

Of course, that was 20 years ago I first saw it. Games have moved on, graphically as well as mechanically. But this game has something that keeps drawing me back, even though at some point I have solved every level in it (many of which I’ve since forgotten how to solve!)

Well, of all the times I’ve thought about reworking ToB for a modern environment, I keep hitting brick walls at what I’d do with it. It’s followed the progression that the title of this piece has: imitating the original, trying to capture what made it so great, renovating it to keep what was there in terms of gameplay but update the graphics and sound and tweak a few things, innovate to actually try and do something new with it, and lastly abdicating on the idea.

I recently came across a remake, which while admittedly is incomplete (it’s missing mostly polish rather than fundamental things), it seems to cover both the imitate and renovate aspects – it is the same game I first discovered 20 years ago, though with better graphics, and the levels aren’t limited to 8x8x4 (I think they’re 16x16x6 but I haven’t checked)

But I’ve quietly been going crazy trying to figure out what I’d to improve upon the design, or the mechanics, to introduce something new into it – because somewhere in my brain, the message keeps popping up that there should be something.

Now, interestingly, there is a splinter project based on ToB, called Triogical, that isn’t 3D and the relationship is more inspirational rather than literal, seeing how the pre-programming aspect is gone, leaving it down to the three actors, the other objects that can be interacted with, and so on. It still makes a damn fine puzzle game (which you can get for Windows for free from and if you look hard you might find a few maps from me in there, ported from the original ToB!)

There is a part of me that likes some of the ideas in Triogical, and I do have a few ideas of my own – but the sad part is that none of them seem like they’d actually fit, and that I’m left with things that tweak and at best renovate, rather than doing something new with the game.

I hate not being able to find a way to innovate.

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