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Indie game Pico turns annoying pop-ups into puzzles

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

The creators of Pico say they wanted to turn something almost universally despised — the pop-up window, the bane of internet browsers everywhere — into something fun and relevant to gameplay. That's accomplished by making the movement and careful positioning of tiny operating system windows part of the puzzle-solving in developer Digital Dream Quartet's PC game.

Pico made a playable appearance at this weekend's Indiecade event in Culver City, Calif., as one of the festival's finalists. The demo, a proof of concept of Pico's window-based gameplay, is incredibly clever. Each level is broken up into a series of small windows, some fixed, some that can be moved, each containing a slice of the 2D map.

Players guide the eponymous Pico through 2D levels by clicking on the spot they want him to move to. Players must rearrange the structure of each level to give him a clear pathway, whether that's to reconstruct a ladder he can climb to a second story or a set of steps that lead to a higher platform. Pico can move back and forth through each tiny level, but players can also quickly reset their 2D puzzle to its original state with a single click.

For example, one section required Pico to bring a key to a locked door on a second floor, connected to the first by a ladder. But the key was too heavy to carry up that ladder. The solution: bring the window containing the second floor down, stitch it to the first, and carry the key horizontally, bypassing the more obvious ladder route.

Pico's goal is simple: He's searching for his father, a story that played out in tiny annotations beneath each window. The puzzles, however, quickly became complex, and I found myself stumped by one of the early levels that required some layering of windows and a bit of backtracking. Regardless of the challenge, the concept is sound and those early levels showed great promise.

Hopefully, Digital Dream Quartet — a group of students who met at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center — will have the opportunity to turn Pico into something bigger, more complete. Their plan, they say, is to bring the game to Windows PC, Mac and Linux, if Pico generates enough interest to become a full game.

The next level of puzzles.

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