Today marks the release of what some puzzle fans are calling one of the genre's most difficult games yet: Stephen's Sausage Roll, the latest game and second retail release from designer Stephen Lavelle. Now available on Steam, players assume the role of a small man stuck on a vast island. Armed with a barbecue fork, he must perfectly grill sausage links twice his size in a series of puzzles in order to make his way around the map — which in itself operates like a puzzle.
Players can move across the puzzle grid clockwise or counter-clockwise, turning the sausage over a grill to get it completely cooked on both sides. Turning it too many times will burn it, however; the game board is also surrounded by water, and knocking the sausage into the pool also results in a game over. Timing your pokes, prods and spins of the sausage — at least one or more at a time — is extraordinarily hard. Getting it right, however, results in an undeniable feeling of satisfaction.
With an odd title, strange core concept and unimpressive graphics, it might not be immediately clear why Stephen's Sausage Roll has already won fans like Bennett Foddy (QWOP) and Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness). They and others aren't just singing Stephen's Sausage Roll's praises, however. They're calling it "the Dark Souls of puzzle games" and even one of the best games of all-time.
"In many ways it is the most ambitious puzzle game anyone has ever made," Foddy told Polygon in an email. As both a New York University Game Center professor and veteran in challenging game design himself, Foddy has the credentials to make such a claim. He also knows the Stephen's Sausage Roll project more intimately than most — in fact, he coined its memorable title.
It's hard to say when, exactly, Stephen's Sausage Roll entered production. Lavelle doesn't comment publicly on his works, but his Twitter serves as a development log of sorts. In January 2013, he tweeted about a game he'd been working on, one of his first since the release of English Country Tune. (Although his website plays host to a hundred-plus games, English Country Tune remained his only commercial release prior to Sausage Roll.)
@increpare I hope you call it "Stephen’s Sausage Roll"— Bennett (@bfod) January 27, 2013
Foddy and Lavelle had exchanged feedback on each other's work for years; Foddy described this as typical of the indie game scene. But christening this project might be his biggest contribution to Lavelle's design portfolio thus far.
It's a joke-y title, but one that Foddy sees as fitting. "The game is extremely playful and irreverent in a number of ways, just like Stephen himself — so I feel like the name fits pretty well, and so does the website."
But could that title throw people off, I asked? Could the name Stephen's Sausage Roll distract from the game itself, causing people not to take it seriously? "I'm not sure it's that important for people to take games seriously, unless the games are serious," Foddy said. "Do people take Mario games seriously?"
Invoking Mario in a conversation about Stephen's Sausage Roll speaks to how highly regarded the project is. Since that early 2013 tweet, Lavelle has shared screenshots and other production odds and ends. Watching his timeline from 2013 until now is seeing the game unfold, slowly approaching its final state.
Come on, Stephen. You need one idea. Just one little idea...you can do it... pic.twitter.com/3tOMFup6ns— Stephen Lavelle (@increpare) July 15, 2015
Lavelle's interest in crafting a continuous puzzle environment is apparent in the finished product. Players can complete puzzles in any order, assuming they can access them on the board. That's important in helping players not to get stuck on one puzzle endlessly — something that is still not totally unavoidable in the maddeningly hard Stephen's Sausage Roll.
But the puzzles are highly varied, despite them all relying on the sausage-flipping mechanic. "[It] is a huge game, but you never are faced with the same problem twice," Foddy explained. "Every level requires you to make a new realization in order to solve it, which is extremely rare in puzzle games, notable or not."
He went on to compare it to, interestingly, The Witness, itself a notoriously hard puzzle game; Stephen's Sausage Roll is more oriented toward problem-solving, he said, while The Witness feels more "like work."
The creator of The Witness, Jonathan Blow, might be Stephen's Sausage Roll's most vocal supporter. Since 2014, when he played it at that year's E3, Blow has heaped praise upon the game.
Stephen's Sausage Roll gets my Best of E3 award and I am not even halfway through the game yet...— Jonathan Blow (@Jonathan_Blow) June 13, 2014
Blow told Polygon in an email that he finds Stephen's Sausage Roll to be "a very inventive game[,] and it keeps hitting you with surprises all the way through ... but the surprises aren't contrived, they spring naturally from the game as it has already been set up."
Foddy elaborated upon that, saying that "because it is 3D it has a huge ‘state-space' — by which I mean that the number of positions and rotations the sausages can be in is absolutely enormous, even on small levels. For this reason, there are almost no levels in the game that you can solve by brute force."
That cognitive workout is what has kept Foddy, Blow and others enraptured by the game since their early play tests. Its puzzles are challenging because neither the solutions nor execution of them are simple, the designers explain. That level of difficulty is something that Foddy described as akin to Dark Souls, a compelling and attractive feature in spite of its brutality.
Finished playing an early alpha of Stephen’s Sausage Roll today. Already, by some distance, the best game I’ve played in my life.— Bennett (@bfod) June 15, 2014
Still, the sentiments expressed by its most ardent fans — some of whom even shared pre-release fanart based on the sausage-grilling adventure, such was their devotion — might strike those who have yet to play it as hyperbolic. There's not much in the way of gameplay footage yet, although early adopters have since taken to Twitch livestreams of their runs through its difficult puzzles.
Still, those who have played it, like Foddy — and me, who has already found it addicting and hard to put down, despite the challenge — feel that this could be Lavelle's commercial breakthrough. His website offers free game upon free game, and English Country Tune found its fanbase. But, the QWOP creator told me, Stephen's Sausage Roll is different.
How demanding its puzzle-solving is "will no doubt turn some people away," he said, but that "I believe that Dark Souls and Flappy Bird (and Minecraft!) have shown that there is an enthusiastic audience for the most demanding of games, once the word gets out."