Why Stephen's Sausage Roll still haunts me

I've recently reached the second island in Stephen's Sausage Roll. That's one of four completed. I've been playing the game for nine months.

In case you haven't heard of it, Stephen's Sausage Roll is a deceptively unassuming puzzle game wherein you must roll oversized sausages over red-hot grill tiles to cook them. Each sausage functions as a rollable 2x1 block, and each block has a bottom and top side which needs cooking. Roll or slide a sausage onto a grill tile once and one side will be cooked. If the same side makes contact with a grill tile again, it will burn. Cook every side of every sausage and you've solved the puzzle. 

Ironically, this endeavor is often obstructed by your single tool: the pitchfork. This damnable, unwieldy grilling utensil tends to be the last obstacle of Stephen's Sausage Roll's most infuriating puzzles. The game's polygonal protagonist (perhaps creator Stephen Lavelle himself?) can either walk forward and backward or make 90 degree turns, thus swinging his freakishly large, medieval looking sausage-stabber all around him, carelessly knocking his precious sausages into the surrounding waters. This instrument is your only tool and your only enemy.

Much like last year's highly acclaimed puzzle adventure The Witness, Stephen's Sausage Roll presents its puzzles in a non-linear fashion, allowing its players to approach them in any order they choose (though, at the start, you are limited to the first of four worlds). No direction is outlined, no instruction is offered, and save for a quick rundown of the basic controls, the game is void of any tutorials. To learn the game's systems, you need to experiment; check out some of the puzzles; check out all of the puzzles; cook, burn, sink, and stab some sausages; and let your mind mull over the puzzles you've left unsolved. 

This is what I've been doing for the past nine months.

Unlike The Witness, I never feel very compelled to make progress in Stephen's Sausage Roll. Jonathan Blow's sophomore title is a masterfully designed world of epiphanic moments waiting to happen, enticing the player with an atmospheric mystique I seldom find in contemporary videogames. There was no conventional narrative to be uncovered (or at least none that I could ascertain). Instead, a narrative is built around the player's discovery of the island's numerous connecting parts. Even minute details like how the machinery in The Witness behaves — the way doors open and how each laser machine slowly boots up — give the game a mysterious, almost alien quality, further intriguing me and keeping me invested in the delightful unknown.

Stephen's Sausage Roll has none of this; no story payoffs to unlock, no apparent mysteries to uncover — no ulterior incentives for solving puzzles besides the reward of solving puzzles. Seeing as I happen to love puzzle games, this came as a nonissue when I first came across the game. But with nothing luring me back to the sausage-searing fray, I found it hard to stay focused on finishing the game before meandering off to Alienation, Ratchet & Clank, and later, Uncharted 4.

Nothing to pull me back in...except the ghosts of unsolved puzzles and uncooked sausages.

The true hook of a game like Stephen's Sausage Roll is its purity; it's just a collection of extremely well-designed puzzles. (Oh, and fucking hard puzzles at that! Several highly respected game designers have regarded SSR as one of the best puzzle games ever designed.) And those puzzles will always be there, easily accessible and ready to solve. I may go back to Dishonored 2 for another New Game Plus run; I might consider starting the masochistic adventure that is Dark Souls III (after compulsively snatching it up during a Steam sale); and I will most definitely play dozens upon dozens of hours of Overwatch; but the fact that there is an abundance of really, really fucking difficult puzzles waiting to be solved will continue to plague me with unremitting pangs of guilt.

What makes Stephen's Sausage Roll impossible to quit is knowing that I can beat it. Each sausage puzzle encounter is met with the routine of me scrutinizing the puzzle, deeming it impossible, then coming back to it three more times before inevitably stumbling on a solution.

Like most puzzle games, SSR’s players can benefit from spending time away from a puzzle. In The Witness, instead of bashing your head against the wall, one could simply walk away from the puzzle and explore more of the island — and you were normally rewarded with the discovery of new beautiful areas and new puzzles to learn from. SSR's puzzles are (I believe) meant to be mulled over in a similar fashion. But there are no beautiful environments to escape to. There are other puzzles to ponder, but they are all so freaking hard! Instead, I find myself picking up a puzzle, staring at it for a few minutes, making a valiant effort to crack the code, then venturing off to browse my Steam library for a brief two-week distraction.

That was 2016 in videogames for me; an extensive list of 20-80 hour distractions from Stephen's Sausage Roll. There are four worlds of puzzles to solve, and as I said before, I've just completed the first world. Here's to another three years of distractions!