Puzzle Puppers is a game created by the team at Cardboard Keep. The objective? To get your little puppers fed!
Puzzle Puppers accurately describes itself as a puzzle-based game that is ‘Easy to learn, difficult to master with deceptively simple puzzles and mechanics’ — fitting the overall ethos of the game. Everything about Puzzle Puppers, from its game design to its visual design, is built around the concept of it being fun and accessible to new players.
German Shepherd or Chihuahua?
One of Puzzle Puppers’ standout features is its visual design. James Wakeham and Timothy Bermanseder did an outstanding job in really nailing down the overall aesthetic of what they wanted Puzzle Puppers to be. Everything about the character design, level design and UI elements are all cohesive in their narrative, painting a friendly and open picture of a game designed for everyone, regardless of gaming experience.
It would be very easy to overdesign something like Puzzle Puppers, but sticking to simple themes and designs makes the package an endlessly appealing one,with design choices that stick in your head long after you’ve walked away from the screen.
Yelps and yaps
One of the standout things that caught my attention immediately was the work of Rob Krix and Ken Lampl, who worked on the sound and music of Puzzle Puppers. It is a common trope of puzzle games that looping sounds often become frustrating, prompting the player to turn it off. After a couple of hours in the playthrough, I didn’t find myself looking to turn the sound off once. This is primarily due to the fact that the sound design and music design play so well off each other. The occasional yaps and yelps of the puppers you interact with break the tension of the sound loop, bringing your attention straight to the dog and the task at hand.
Personally, this is the hallmark of people who know good sound design — a way of using sound as a guiding mechanism for the player in the level while using small instances of sound to give more depth to the environment. This juxtaposition of music scoring versus sound design pays off hugely. Much like when a dog barks for a long time, you tend to ignore it, but short, sharp yelps are enough to bring you back to the task at hand. It’s to Puzzle Puppers credit that the sound design is embedded so effortlessly into the gameplay.
Moving and shaking
As most people in 3D design will tell you, it can be incredibly difficult to make an object look and behave naturally. This is something you may think is a bit of an oxymoron considering that solutions to the puzzles in Puzzle Puppers are about stretching the pupper to get to their food. However, Timothy Bermanseder and Rob Krix pull this off with tremendous success.
Not only do the puppers look fluid — and real regardless of their contortions — but they always feel like they belong in the space. The animation choices are astonishingly lovely and gratifying and more often than not, I try to pop my pupper in and out of holes in the ground to see their happy faces look around their environment. When you get thirty plus levels into the game, that cuteness is hard to maintain, and yet it has never failed to put a smile on my face.
On guide dogs
Thematically, I feel like one of Puzzle Puppers’ most missed opportunities is around accessibility. In a game where you are quite literally guiding dogs, the lack of accessibility tools is disheartening.
Through my experiences playing the game, I always craved a little tutorial to give me a heads up as to what I was meant to be doing. While the goal (getting the pupper to the bowl) is readily apparent, working out the methods of how to get there took me a few minutes.
Now, while it’s possible I missed a cue, I did honestly think I had encountered an input bug when I tried to click, and nothing happened even when I tried to interact with WASD. I did eventually work it out, but it took a couple of minutes and I feel that with the introduction of a formal tutorial, this could have been avoided.
This sentiment also applies to later levels where things are not so clearly defined. For example, while I was able to identify what the holes in the ground were for, I could not so clearly work out the rules for the water slides etc. This would also be an essential inclusion for younger gamers too — Puzzle Puppers has a lot to offer more inexperienced players, and it’s vital that rules of gameplay are clearly defined for them.
There is a lot of praise to lavish upon the game designers for excluding a fail state in their games. This encourages the player to keep trying different combinations to reach bonus objectives (such as grabbing the meat on the way to the bowl) without risk of failure. In all things, it is important to create an environment where failure is actively encouraged — as it’s only through failure where we learn our most significant lessons.
There is a limited function in the settings menu to change keybindings or input options. This reduces the Puzzle Puppers’ playability for anyone who needs specific keys or setups to play — a significant missed opportunity for such a thoughtfully crafted game.
Other opportunities to improve accessibility can be found concerning sound options for volume control for either the music or the sound effects. Equally, there is no option for any assistive sound such as audio descriptions or aids. Considering how well put together the sound design is, I feel like there is a missed opportunity here in the sound design for visually impaired players. Think of all of the squeaky toys or barks you could put in for accessibility!
It’s a creative avenue that is rich and fruitful, should the team wish to explore these changes in upcoming patches. Little changes can mean a lot to players, and I’m confident that the inclusion of these features could be endlessly beneficial to both the players and the development team.
Who’s a good pup? Yes, you’re a good pup!
Puzzle Puppers is a thoughtfully designed and robust puzzle game with attractive and charming characters. While improvements can be made to its onboarding and accessibility, there is a lot of good to be found in this pleasant and charming puzzler.