The act of organizing is a powerful act. It allows us to understand the chaos, organize the objects around us, and focus our mind. A Little to the Left, a puzzle game and first attempt at Max Inferno, sets out to capture this, asking you to organize household items while dealing with the occasional disturbance from a cat. The problem is that A Little to the Left is a puzzle game, which holds it back.
let me explain. Imagine that we have a random set of books in front of us. You can arrange them in alphabetical order by author. I could organize them by title instead. I could go for something less practical like the color of the covers, which wouldn’t help much if I had to find a specific book, but it would be aesthetically pleasing. Part of the power of organizing comes from creativity and control. There is no “right” answer in scavenging, but A Little to the Left challenges you to find it.
At worst, I felt like I was on the world’s most frustrating episode of Only Connect without a Victoria Coren-Mitchell to discuss my answers with. And this is where A Little To The Left struggles where others like Unpacking succeed. I can choose how I categorize things and someone else might see a different way of categorizing them, but both would be equally valid. Tidying up is creative, but once you frame it as a puzzle to solve, it’s no longer an exercise in your own mind. Some puzzles in A Little To The Left have multiple solutions, but too many times I’ve found myself wondering, “How am I supposed to arrange these items?” instead of “How do I want to arrange these items?”. At times I was so at a loss as to how to place everything, even though I understood the general pattern of what the game was asking of me that everything felt terribly annoying.
Some solutions are not that intuitive and I only solved them thanks to trial and error. These puzzles are usually the ones that “snap” an object into place when you’ve placed it correctly, but there’s little satisfaction in using brute force. In those that don’t have that “snap”, you may have placed things correctly, but only slightly off the position they need to be for the game to register them as solved.
Luckily, based on the feedback, Max Inferno added a feature called “Let it be”. It allows you to skip one puzzle and move on to the next, so you can keep going even if you get stuck. It’s a welcome addition when a puzzle just doesn’t click with you. There’s also a hint system that consists of a hand-drawn sketch of the answer, so you simply have to arrange everything on the screen to match the sketch. I didn’t like that because a clue should never immediately reveal the answer. In the end, the clue serves almost the same purpose as the let it go feature, which allows you to move on to the next puzzle while losing the fun of trying to figure out the answer.
If this was just a game about cleaning things up, it wouldn’t be so disappointing to be given a blueprint to follow. But it is, and it’s a shame that the theme A Little to the Left uses to present its puzzles is organized because, despite the few (slightly annoying) frustrations I mentioned earlier, it is basically a really good puzzle game. Most of them are well designed and require a lot of logic. Some of them rely on you to spot a pattern or make sure you’ve paid attention to issues from previous solutions.
There’s also Max Inferno’s own unique take on classic puzzles. A specialty are puzzle pieces, but the goal is not to put them together into a solid rectangular picture. Another puzzle is like a tangram but with additional rules to help you figure out where to place each shape. There are even a few variations of Tower of Hanoi (or what I always remember as the pancake stacks in Professor Layton) where you have to stack objects in order of size. These puzzles, which often have only one solution, are the most satisfying because there is a shared understanding upon which to build. I know what you want from me when I get jigsaw pieces. I don’t know what you expect me to do when I get a bunch of different leaf shapes.
If the game offers you puzzles that are easy to click or relatively easy to deduce, it’s a pleasure to play. You learn more about the mindset of developers than meets the eye. It’s as if you’re really taking a look at how they would furnish their home. This is even emphasized by the game’s visuals and tone. Objects will rattle and shake as you interact with them, each with their own unique sound. The pop of a cardboard box, the crunch of a slice of toast, and the squeak of a cloth all remind you of the game’s home environment. It was hard for me to ever really get angry with the game when the rendering of each item was so carefully crafted. The game favors a cool pastel palette that’s easy on the eye, and the soundtrack uses lighter instruments like a xylophone and an array of stringed instruments to maintain a light and airy atmosphere throughout.
It’s a shame that A Little to the Left is held back by its puzzler nature. Despite its gorgeous hand-drawn graphics and mostly well-thought-out puzzle design, it fails to escape the contradictions it introduces by offering tough solutions to the freeform creativity of cleanup.