This is One of the Funniest Puzzle Games I've Ever Played

'Zip-Zap' is a mobile game of mechanical humor.

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Jun 23 2017, 2:00pm

All images courtesy of Philipp Stollenmayer

The central conceit for Zip-Zap, a tactile puzzle game for iOS and Android, is so perfectly conveyed in the thirteen words of its App Store description that I'm just going to copy it in its entirety:

  1. Touch to contract.

  2. Release to let go.

  3. Bring the clumsy mechanical beings home.

"Home" is a small, white circle on each single-screen level of the game, and you must bring either a mechanical contraption or a grey ball to rest in it. Touch to contract. Release to let go. Wait in the circle for three seconds. And that's it. Sometimes, simple ingredients can combine to make more than the sum of their parts, and, moving through the game's levels, something brilliant began to make itself clear: Zip-Zap is one of the funniest puzzle games I've ever played.

Humor in games generally comes in two varieties. There's the narrative kind, seen in Portal 2 or Lego City Undercover, where talented writers and designers desperately try to account for players plunging off-script or resolutely heading in a certain direction. There are one-liners and running gags and it's hard as hell to get right but brilliant fun to see working well.

Then there's mechanical humor. A mis-timed jump in Breath of the Wild sees you shield surfing blissfully off a cliff. A single, inconsequential bat in Spelunky sets off a chain reaction that brings most of the level down around you. A molotov cocktail, intended to scare off some invaders in Battlegrounds, nearly sets two friendly players on fire. This sort of humor, usually based around slapstick, derives itself from the unusual or unexpected results of mechanical interactions, and as such is usually driven by the game's systems, rather than directly by the hand of its designers. Sure, the Spelunky team encouraged its systems to spiral out of control, but they didn't hand-place the bat, nor did they stage the disaster that followed.

Zip-Zap, though, manages to be something rare: a game of mechanical humor that is deeply, visibly authored.

This wasn't clear at first. I was gently guided through five or ten puzzles that taught the most basic mechanics—how, after irrevocably screwing up a level, you can swipe left to instantly reset it—how on completion, each colorful piece on the screen drops satisfyingly off the bottom as though all the screws holding the level together have been removed. I breezed through these levels and found them simple and charming and began, almost effortlessly, to assign personality to the mechanical contraptions.

The swinging pendulum transformed in the mind's eye into a figure on a swing, legs extended. The little rotating paddle diligently guided the grey ball to the circle. Nothing in Zip-Zap has a face, or eyes, or any identifiable features, honestly. The only sound made is a sort of metallic creak. The contraptions react so quickly and readily to your touch, however, that level by level they are imbued with life. This was the first great trick of the game: by the end of its first chapter, I had stopped thinking of the game's components as abstract pieces of metal.

During the game's next two chapters, the full cast of characters begins to emerge. There's the swinging pendulum, who grows increasingly capricious across a couple of variations. There's the springy "X," made of two little components joined in the middle that lies itself flat when you touch the screen. There's the long red line that turns into a sort of bucket for transporting another, inert piece. My favorite is something that might be a horse or might be a chair. When you touch the screen, each of its joints activates simultaneously and it propels itself suddenly in a direction of its choosing. Often this is off the side of the screen.

The game got harder. Not startlingly quickly, and rarely frustratingly, but there came a moment where I looked at the task the game was asking me to complete and realized that I had moved out of the realm of tutorials. The game was asking me to carry a single, uncontrollable piece to the white circle on the back of the chair/horse and it was probably at about this point that I started laughing out loud. The level would begin, and the yellow piece would drop onto the back of the stationary horse. I would look at the lay of the land for a moment and try and work out what I should be doing, then lower my finger onto the screen.

The horse would immediately fling the yellow piece off to the right. On my second and third tries, I would tip the horse over before the yellow piece could reach it. The tactic of rapidly tapping the screen to shuffle the horse forward proved fruitful up to the point that I held my finger down for a moment too long and it slowly tipped forward onto its head and the yellow piece slid down its neck. Each try lasted about three seconds and somehow grew funnier the more exasperating it got.

Other characters too, began to develop traits as endearing as they were less than ideal. The line/bucket would invariably close uselessly as the ball fell some distance to its left, a hand clutching hopefully at something far away. The springy "X" would behave itself right up until the final, crucial leap, when it would launch itself in the wrong direction and we'd have to start again. The swing would gain such excellent momentum in its quest to wrap itself around the white circle that it would overshoot spectacularly.

At first, I thought this comedy of physics was emergent, rather than authored, in part because I don't traditionally associate physics interaction with authored comedy. Level by level, though, as the game got funnier and funnier, I realized that Zip-Zap was doing something pretty special. It was telling jokes.

Often, the reason I was persevering with the trickier levels was that I was curious about what horrible trick the game would ask me to perform next. Sometimes, it wouldn't be immediately apparent what joke a level would involve until I would touch the screen and a solitary ball would fall from the heavens onto the back of a contraption, sending it toppling straight off the level. At other times, the level's trap would be visible from the start and I'd pull a face and grimly tap at the screen.

The vocabulary Zip-Zap develops is as much one of jokes as it is puzzle games. There's the classic "introduction, development, conclusion" seen in the puzzle design of Super Mario Galaxy or Portal, sure, but there are also running gags, setups and punchlines. This is a game that understands that something happening very slowly is as funny as something happening impossibly quickly. On one level, this is nothing particularly new; The Witness demonstrated last year that a puzzle game can exploit its mechanics in favor of making a player laugh, but in Zip-Zap, this is combined with the very pure joy of seeing something fall over.

I realized that Zip-Zap was doing something pretty special. It was telling jokes.

This is what happens when you start playing Zip-Zap next to your friends on the way to a bar. You poke at the screen, and you say "oh no," as a contraption topples forward onto its head, and then you say "oh no!" as it slides slowly off the platform. Your friend next to you looks over your shoulder. "How do you play?" they say, and you hand them your phone, and they say "oh no!" and then the person next to them leans over to the two of you and asks what you're playing.

"This is impossible," says your friend, and tries a few more times and it's just a complete disaster. They hand the phone back to you and you screw it up spectacularly and everybody laughs. Your third friend takes it and glares at the horse/chair with an expression of grim determination. There is silence for about two minutes, and then, as the train bursts out of the tunnel into the evening, they put both arms up and say "yes!"

And all three of you put your arms up and cheer as the white circle fills and the screen clears, and the next level is one of those impossible ones with the swing and it takes you the rest of the evening.