Review – Glow Artisan

I have been meaning to review Glow Artisan for a very, very long time. Unfortunately, I had trouble sinking my teeth into it after just a couple of days (though those couple of days were, admittedly, fun). Did my struggles signify that it was, in fact, a bad puzzle game? I had to weight all the possibilities. My conclusion, at least for now, is that Glow Artisan is a good game, but it triggers a major psychological stumbling block within me.

Glow Artisan takes place on a grid of small squares. You are meant to color in the grid, using the three primary colors (which naturally create secondary colors when mixed) and an eraser. In addition, there are rules which dictate how you can manipulate each hue. A series of “glow emitters” sit next to the left and upper edges of the grid, which allow you to pull what is essentially a strip of color, either down through a column, or to the right, through a row. The eraser, on the other hand, blasts away all the contents of a row or column. Using these tools, each puzzle asks you to replicate a specific image or pattern.

Together, these rules do a great job at adding a strong challenge to an otherwise simple concept. Some squares of the grid simply cannot be colored in without leaving a potentially unwanted trail of color “behind” it. However, the lack of control you have over the eraser means that in trying to remove that unwanted color, you could easily blow away other parts of the grid which are exactly the way you want them. Completing a Glow Artisan puzzle requires you to keep track of several variables. You need to determine the order in which to perform each move, as well as what direction to color in (from the top, or from the side). Advanced puzzles also ask you to take into account how the colors will mix. For example, a harder puzzle may have a cluster of green, purple, or even white (all three colors intersecting) in the middle, prompting you to then figure out how to get it there in such a way that further moves won’t erase it (or overwrite it).

Glow Artisan is reminiscent of a traditional, physical puzzle. It gives you a starting state, and an end goal, and lets you take all the time you need to get from one to the other. Contrast this to what we typically think of as a puzzle video game. They generally have a failure state, and are either timed, or will steadily march toward the failure state, prompting the player to stave it off for as long as possible. Glow, on the other hand, allows you to chew on a puzzle for as long as you need, and come back to it when you can.

It also approaches the concept of color in a very different way than other puzzlers. The concept of color has always been a key aspect of the genre; how many games are permutations of matching like shades together in order to clear space on a board? With Glow Artisan, the objective isn’t destruction, but creation. Instead of randomness, there is planning. It goes against the grain, and in doing so, finds some inspired design.

I do not think, however, that Glow Artisan stemmed purely from a desire to run counter to the rest of the industry. Rather, I think it sprang from a desire to explore the concept of color from top to bottom. This is evident in not only the way the game plays, but in its extra features. Not only can you generate your own puzzles from scratch, but there is also a feature that allows you to use your device’s camera to generate a puzzle via a photo. I’ll admit that I haven’t been able to use the feature to create anything worthy, but it shows a desire to explore the properties of color in not only games, but in art and life (and even if this feature doesn’t always work well, you can still generate puzzles by hand, which is far more necessary a feature).

All that being said, there is one very “gamey “feature to Glow Artisan, and it happens to be the thing that trips me up. Each puzzle has a goal to aspire to, in the form of gold, silver and bronze medals. You earn them by completing the puzzle with as few moves as possible. There is nothing requiring you to earn these medals, but unfortunately my years as a gamer have trained me to covet these trinkets. It eats away at me any time I can’t solve a puzzle with at least a bronze. I might have “passed”, but failing to earn a medal makes me feel as if I still failed. I was sufficient, but I wasn’t the best, or even one of the best. That shouldn’t bother me, but as Jackson recently discussed, games have a habit of conditioning us into thinking we are smart or special in order to convince us to play them. When a game asks me to work as hard as Glow Artisan does to earn its (literal digital) gold medals, I find myself giving up.

Do I think the medal system should have been removed from the game? Not really. I think it is a good way to encourage players to get better. Clearing a level is one thing, but clearing it efficiently can teach you tricks and strategies you can later apply to future puzzles. But this leads to the dilemma facing puzzle games, fighting games, and any other kind of game which demands a certain amount of strategic thinking. You want the player to naturally figure out patterns and strategies, starting with the most basic observations and growing into an advanced understanding of the game’s mechanics. If instead you hand out every little secret, the challenge wanes, and the player loses the thrill of discovery.

On the other hand, each game, and each player, is different. There’s no way to make it so that every single person will become a master, but at the very least, you want to make sure that they don’t hit a roadblock too quickly. Most of us will hit a limit in our skill, but if it takes long enough to get there, then when we quite the game for good, we can walk away feeling like we managed to at least get somewhere with it. Enabling this growth in a general audience is not easy, but it is something to work toward, and it is the one area in which Glow Artisan is lacking. The closest it comes to a solution is its AutoSolver, which gives you the gold medal solution for up to three puzzles a day. Technically, you can gleam ideas by watching the Solver in action, but it moves fast, so it isn’t easy to observe and think upon what it does to get around the problems you had. To be fair, this feature is meant to help players who are stuck, not to serve as a learning tool. But if you need something to help you overcome your current puzzle, chances are good that the next few aren’t going to be any easier. I feel like the game wants to be, at times, a serious challenge, and a stress free playground, but the signals tend to mix.

Aesthetically, Glow Artisan is clean and simple. Despite being ported from the DSi, the iOS version feels as natural a fit as any other game in the App Store. More importantly, it was the first iOS game I played which understood what it means to be a game with touchscreen-only controls. So many games on the make the mistake of having you place your fingers all over the screen to execute complex actions, while also using the entire screen to render the game. You wind up being unable to see what’s going on, and you begin to question whether the word “compromise” is in the vocabulary of any App Store advocate. Glow Artisan also has you moving your fingers across the screen, but this is a game which requires thoughtful, deliberate action. When you make a move, you know what is going to happen, and what the screen looks like under your finger. You never really block yourself from seeing important information, and ultimately, it wouldn’t matter anyway, since you’re only really concerned with the results of your actions. Glow Artisan is a touchscreen game because it wants to be one, and not because someone thought it had to be.

As a piece of game design, Glow Artisan is unique and passionate. As a portable game, it is polished and simple. As a puzzle game, it gives back as much as you put in. I still struggle with it, but I keep trying to improve, little by little, month by month. This was not the first game I bought on the iPod Touch, but it was the first that felt like it was worth my money, the first that sold me on the idea of touch screen gaming. Most importantly, it the first that felt like it wanted to be a game, rather than a temporary distraction for an attention deficient brain.

For all those reasons, I’ll go to bat for it. Even if I can’t beat it.

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