In a gaming landscape where most titles ask players to run, jump, shoot, and perform countless feats of dexterity and reaction time, Glitchspace reinforces that knowledge is power.
Glitchspace takes you on a journey through a glowing cyberspace world filled with floating platforms that you must traverse to make your way to an unstated goal. With no real story to speak of, the only driving force is your willingness and ability to learn the ins and outs of this mysterious and sterile expanse. Appropriate to its setting, your primary method for making your way through the environment is writing a form of software to manipulate the very world around you.
Despite this basis in computer science, you don’t have to be a programmer to solve the puzzles presented in Glitchspace. There’s no typing endless text strings into an editor or memorizing syntax. Fortunately, all of that is abstracted away using a simple 2D canvas and a visual programming language invented specifically for the game called “Null.” It borrows the basic ideas of logic and program flow that govern most software development, but it’s presented in a way that almost anyone could understand with a little effort.
As you encounter red blocks throughout the world (called “cuboids” by the game’s rules), you can click on them to display a Null canvas ripe for your own manipulation with various bits of logic contained within nodes that have various inputs and outputs depending on their function. There are nodes for basic programming features like numbers, math, and Boolean logic, but the real power comes with tools designed to interact with physical things in the world. You’re able to move, stretch, and rotate cuboids, apply force to the player and in-world objects, or make obstacles solid or passable. There’s no real fear of putting things together in the wrong way, because these objects only fit together in patterns that make sense.
Puzzles in Glitchspace start out with simple connections between two or three nodes. Need to get to a higher platform? Use an Apply Force abstraction with a strength and direction modifier to launch yourself where you need to be. With the handful of tools you start with, these puzzles are relatively simple, especially if you’re familiar with even a little bit of programming or computer science. But more tools are added as you progress throughout the game’s story, and eventually you’ll be faced with sprawling networks of logic that defy understanding at first glance.
While building programs with Null is very different from actual development, there are some fascinating similarities that could be useful to apply in writing your own code. To get anywhere of note with the game, you’ll have to understand how one set of instructions flows into and interacts with another. You’ll need to understand the basic programming tenets of true vs. false and greater than vs. less than. And later in the game you’ll spend a fair amount of time doing a kind of debugging on your code, trying a few different methods and seeing how objects in the environment react to your program.
Glitchspace teaches you how to take on each new challenge through a combination of straightforward tutorial messages and clever hints delivered through pre-existing cuboids in the world. When you approach an unfamiliar situation, there’s almost always a block nearby with some existing properties that you can change in only limited ways, if at all. These fixed points give you some time to examine the logic of your current situation and learn how to apply these tools yourself. As you progress through each of the 31 chambers, the game lets go of your hand little by little, usually leaving you completely to your own devices before moving you on to a completely new area.
This method of teaching usually works well, but there are times when it feels like some bits of the tutorial are missing. Sometimes you’re given a brand new tool without any real explanation of how it works, and poorly-worded labels don’t help either. In these cases, you’re reduced to frustrating blind trial and error that would be much more forgivable if the rules of the world were better defined. Glitchspace also fails at properly explaining how and why certain nodes can modify each other and why some can’t, and multiple tools that are confusingly similar just compound these issues.
There is a constant push and pull in Glitchspace that results from the repeated attempts (and failures) at these challenges. Like with many puzzle games, there’s a feeling of satisfaction that comes after overcoming a particularly difficult obstacle. Very late in the game you’ll start to unlock nodes that offer the ability to do things you wouldn’t have dreamed of at the start, and revelations that stem from those abilities are admittedly awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, finicky controls and inconsistent collision cause annoyance nearly as often as solving a problem provides pleasure. Often I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when finishing a particular chamber, glad I would never have to see that series of riddles again.
The real shame of Glitchspace is that the learning you do throughout the course of the brief story mode gives you a peek behind the curtain of real programming, but not enough to give you any meaningful skill outside the game. And once you’re done with the brief story, there’s not much reason to go back and apply your newly-found skills. Space Budgie says a sandbox mode and level creator are coming in the future, but even after years of development and Early Access, those much-needed features aren’t available at launch.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was provided to us.
The visual programming puzzles in Glitchspace can be both fun and educational, but gaps in its teaching are likely to leave players feeling frustrated as often as they are satisfied.