Blocks That Matter

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Swing Swing Submarine for PC and Xbox 360, originally released in 2011.
Blocks That Matter falls into what has now become a rather broad genre classification; namely, the puzzle-platformer category. Blocks That Matter shares this label with such disparate titles as Braid, Max and the Magic Marker, and Wyv and Keep, while having practically nothing in common with any of them.

The game begins when a pair of game developers is suddenly abducted and taken to a cabin in the woods. The men are named Alexey and Markus, which is a reference to Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris, and Markus Persson, the creator of Minecraft, both of which are block-based games.

Fortunately, the men weren’t really working on a video game at all, but rather a secret project involving the creation of a tiny drilling robot called a Tetrobot (again referencing Tetris, and also describing the robot’s function, as outlined below). They activate the Tetrobot remotely and send it out to find and rescue them. Also during the introductory sequence, the fox from the developer's own Seasons After Fall makes a cameo (see the 2D CRED section below).

The robot is not properly equipped for a rescue mission, so first it must build up its powers by collecting upgrades. At the start of the game, the robot can only run, jump, and break blocks with its… er, head. Basically, the robot is just a block with appendages, an antenna, and a drill port. By the end of the first level, the robot gains the ability to drill through certain types of blocks, and the player begins to explore how each type of block can be manipulated, and how they can be used to solve the game’s puzzles.

The basic mechanics are not terribly complex. The robot can drill or break most blocks in the environment, and store them for later use. The robot can then use these blocks to build platforms to reach new areas, access treasure chests, and eventually reach the portal to progress to the next level. But there are a couple of added kinks to this formula that make it interesting, and really add to the game’s puzzlish sensibilities.

First off, blocks can only be placed 4 at a time; no more, no less. So if you don’t have at least 4 blocks in your possession, you won’t be able to place any. Secondly, the blocks must be connected to at least one floor or wall in the environment, and all 4 blocks must be connected to each other. As such, your basic building blocks are tetrominoes (thus the Tetrobot name) and all of your block-building solutions must allow for room to place all 4 blocks. Furthermore, since you can only drill to the left and right – and you cannot drill while jumping – you have to be careful not to inadvertently block your own path or place blocks in areas where you cannot reach them.

Blocks are created from several different types of materials, with the most basic forms being stone, wood, and sand. Each type of block operates somewhat differently. For instance, if you place a block made of sand and you don’t have a solid surface beneath it, it will fall. In the early levels of the game, this just means that you have to be careful about block placement. But in later levels, you can take advantage of this property to create temporary platforms, drop blocks into designated areas, and even squash enemies.

Wood and stone blocks will not move when placed, but wooden blocks can be burned, so you have to be careful in later levels where lava drips from the ceiling and fire-based enemies roam the environment, potentially destroying your blocks. Once again, however, this can be used as strategic advantage, as wooden blocks are destroyed in a chain reaction, so connecting several of them together can allow you to burn a disconnected brick and open up a new path.

You are free to cycle through your stock of collected blocks if you intend to make use of any particular type. Previously placed blocks can be re-drilled and added back to your inventory, provided you dropped them in a place that your drill can reach. This also means that you can create non-tetromino formations by placing a series of blocks and drilling away the ones you don’t need. You can use this to create floating platforms and to ensure that you have enough blocks remaining in your inventory to complete the level.

Block conservation is often required in order to access the treasure chest tucked away in each level, but you are also rewarded with stars for bringing enough remaining blocks to the finish line. Opening chests and earning stars opens up challenge levels which require a solid understanding of how each block type operates and how to use its properties to your advantage. For example, some unsupported blocks fall, but there is a delay of a few seconds before they start to move. Likewise, a huge stack of unsupported blocks will only fall one layer at a time. Understanding this will allow you to build a temporary staircase so that you can reach the exit… if you move quickly.

As you play, you earn new powerups that allow you to do things like set off a chain reaction of explosions to permanently destroy a row of blocks, and the ability to drill through new block types. New blocks include obsidian blocks that cannot be drilled, but which fall when unsupported, TNT blocks that destroy everything around them when drilled, metal blocks which require an upgrade to drill through, and crates that contain 4 blocks in one.

Some blocks can be used to trigger switches as well, opening up new parts of the level. One particularly interesting type is the ice block, which can be shoved in a straight line Pengo-style, stopping only when it reaches a wall or a ledge, in which case it falls straight down. Ramming the ice block into a solid wall generally renders it useless, since you cannot stand next to it to push it again. As such, many levels involve setting up a path through which you can safely navigate an ice block in order to reach an ice switch.

With the strong focus on the puzzle side of the puzzle-platformer hyphenate, the overall pace of the game is not hurried at all. Generally, players are free to take their time to determine the best solution to the puzzle, and may pause and survey the entire level at any time. There are short bursts of raw platforming as the player jumps over enemies, runs away from giant rampaging slimes, or attempts to dash across a series of wobbly blocks before they fall to the ground.

At any point, the player can restart the level. This is not done by entering a menu and selecting “restart”, but rather by holding down the “nanoreset explosion button”. When you do, the screen begins shaking, and the shakes become more and more violent until the Tetrobot explodes with a little pop, and returns to the portal at the start of the level.

Each level has a treasure chest. Since you are free to examine the entire level at any point, they’re not technically “hidden” chests, although they often take a fair amount of ingenuity to reach, and you must be able to make it to the end of the level with the chest in your possession before you can open it. In addition to unlocking challenge levels, each hidden chest also contains one “block that matters”, which displays as an icon on the level select screen once it has been unlocked. These blocks include the ever-famous Tetris block, the question block from Super Mario Bros., a companion cube from Portal and special character blocks such as one that shows Meat Boy from Super Meat Boy represented in cube form.

The game has 40 levels in the adventure mode and 20 challenging bonus levels. In addition, the player unlocks audio tracks from the game as he progresses.

Swing Swing Submarine is a France-based studio founded by William David and Guillaume Martin, both of whom were previously employed by UbiSoft.

Seasons After Fall
Development of Seasons After Fall was temporarily placed on hold during the development of Blocks That Matter and its follow-up, Tetrobot and Co. The game features a wild fox that is traveling across the landscape, exploring, platforming, and interacting with the guardians of the seasons. The key to progressing is the player’s ability to change between any of the 4 seasons at will, and doing so may have dramatic effects on the environment. For instance, if your path is blocked by water, you may change the season to winter, causing it to freeze and allowing you to pass. If you cannot reach a high ledge, you may water a seedling, which will sprout into a full-sized tree before your eyes as you change to the proper season, allowing you to climb up.

The studio has also created several experimental Flash-based games, including Tuper Tario Tros., Greek and Wicked, and Meet Me at the Banana Disco.

Tuper Tario Tros.
Tuper Tario Tros. Is a mashup between Super Mario Bros. and Tetris, where standard Mario blocks fall from above, creating platforms, steps, and obstructions. The player is free to rotate and place the Tetronimo formations – dropped by Lakitu – according to the standard Tetris rules, thus altering landscape of the Mushroom Kingdom. The player can also switch modes at will, exiting the block falling mode to deal with the blocks as platforms, and the music also changes to the tune from the associated game.

The primary restriction is that the environment slowly scrolls from left to right, so the player must place blocks accordingly so that Mario can make it through the stage. Mario must also deal with enemies as they move around on the blocks according to their standard rules. However, the enemies also move freely during the Tetris mode, meaning that the player either has to crush them with blocks or switch back into platforming mode to kill them with Mario.

Any unplaced blocks are removed when switching from the puzzle world to the platforming world. At the end of the level, the player actually has to build the post-flagpole castle out of blocks while dealing with falling Goombas, and do so under a time limit.

Greek and Wicked
Greek and Wicked is a game modeled after the LCD-based handheld systems of old. Using the acronyms to their max, Greek and Wicked’s “GW” is both a reference to Game & Watch and God of War. In fact, this is a God of War game styled after the Game & Watch series, complete with a Mr. Game & Watch painted up like Kratos and carrying a pair of chain blades.

The game is based on the Hydra battle at the end of the first level in God of War and it is a surprisingly faithful take on that battle and the presentation featured in the Game & Watch series. The main character moves one “unit” at a time, and his form changes based on where he is standing, again typical of the G&W series.

The purpose of the game is to lure each of the heads on either side of the screen to attack you, stun them with your chain blades, and then climb up to the nearby platform and drop a spiked weight on their heads. Defeating both of the heads reveals the main large head which leans forward to attack you, allowing you to dodge and apply a liberal application of chain blade carnage to its face. Once you have caused enough damage, you actually go into a QTE to finish of the creature, just as in God of War. From there, the game repeats with faster enemies.

Meet Me at the Banana Disco
Meet Me at the Banana Disco was originally created as part of the 2010 Global Game Jam, which requires that developers create a game based on a particular theme within 48 hours, although Swing Swing Submarine has since revisited the game and made some improvements. The entire game is about how difficult it is to communicate with someone in the noise of a nightclub.

The player travels through the themed rooms of the nightclub, each of which is playing its own type of music, as you attempt to collect phone numbers by guessing at the required arrow presses. Anyone you manage to “seduce” will follow you out of the club, at which point you’ll see who they are, be it a man, woman, or monkey.