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Cocoon shows the best puzzles aren’t always hard

Cocoon’s designer talks about how he approached making the game

An image of the puzzle game Cocoon. A small bug  walks along a glowing orange bridge while carrying an orange orb. Image: Geometric Interactive/Annapurna Interactive
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Cocoon is an absolute marvel of a puzzle game. It’s chock-full of puzzles that encourage “aha” moments due to their elegant presentation and intuitive design; the sheer simplicity of some of the solutions will leave you slack-jawed. The premise is deceptively simple: You control a bug who can carry an orb that gives them powers and simultaneously functions as a tiny world the bug can enter. As the bug discovers more orbs, more powers, and more worlds, the game becomes more of a mind-bending experience, and as it turns out, it’s one that game designer and director Jeppe Carlsen told Polygon he only achieved by letting go of the notion that puzzles always need to be hard to be good.

Cocoon is the debut game from a studio called Geometric Interactive. Prior to pursuing Cocoon, Carlsen cut his teeth as a gameplay designer at Playdead for games like Limbo and Inside. This new isometric adventure goes hard on the puzzles; players will solve one after another with an occasional boss fight sprinkled in between.

Much of the game’s brilliance comes from its simplicity. In addition to directional inputs, the game only has one other “action” button that players use to pick up and place orbs, or to teleport into each orb. Because each orb has its own power and contains its own world to explore, players progress through the game by jumping between those orbs and using each orb’s unique power to solve the mysteries inside its world. To craft the unique world of Cocoon, Carlsen had to challenge his preconceived notions about what does and doesn’t make for a “good” puzzle.

“I think generally, with the puzzle design, Cocoon versus some of the work I’ve done in my past, I’m less focused on it being difficult,” Carlsen told Polygon in a recent video call. “When I started my career, that was basically the only thing I cared about, right? Originality, but also it needed to be difficult. Like, people should not just solve this; that’s a bad puzzle, right? For Cocoon, I’ve sort of grown out of that a little bit.”

Rethinking the value of puzzles beyond their difficulty allowed the team to explore the possibilities of expression through these challenges. In this mode of thinking, puzzles can be a vehicle for communicating something about the world or story. They can delight or surprise players. Evaluating the puzzles along a broader range of value beyond just difficulty helped the developers craft Cocoon into the fully-realized version of the game.

“I’m evaluating my puzzles on many more parameters than just, is it difficult? So it’s more like, is this prepping the player for something important for me? Am I training the player to think or do a specific action? That’s a value,” Carlsen said. “It can have an interaction that feels nice — like, slam dunk. That’s a value, just a pure interactive value that adds to the puzzle, aside from it possibly being difficult. But I think I’ve gotten better at that. To think about the puzzle more broadly than just, ‘Is it challenging?’ Which is one parameter, but there are many parameters that are interesting. I’m more interested in: ‘Is it stimulating?’”

Focusing on the functional application of puzzles and the variety of values they provide brought a fluidity to the game and its difficulty progression. In this way, Carlsen used easier puzzles to tutorialize concepts and rules of the world without excessive hand-holding. Carlsen would angle the player’s approach in a specific way, setting them up to understand or learn something new.

“The whole point of the game is that I’m designing these rooms and trying to make them as accessible for you to figure out [and] get a little epiphany yourself, for that feeling that the game literally told you how this works,” said Carlsen. “I call them ‘thinking rooms.’ It’s like I’m trying to design a room that is as suitable as possible for you to think and get the idea that I want you to get.”

And it worked — Polygon’s review of Cocoon described the end result as “impossibly good.” Cocoon is out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.