Tuesday 28 May 2024

Stephen's Sausage Roll

Stephen's Sausage Roll is a puzzle videogame, created by Stephen Lavelle and first released on the 18th of April, 2016. I first played it two years later, on April 19, 2018. A few weeks after that I completed the game. Enthralled by what I experienced, I first attempted to find the words to clarify my experience in 2019, almost five years ago. Back then I was unable to express what makes Stephen's Sausage Roll so unique that its shadow looms over any other puzzle game I've played since. It nevertheless has been on my mind in all that time and I've replayed it in full somewhere in 2020-2021. Recently I've started playing it again, and this time I feel like I had some insight into what the game forces you to do that makes it such a radical experience.

The premise of Stephen's Sausage Roll is seemingly simple, even banal. It's a sokoban-style game, which means that the player controls a character and you have to push objects on a grid-based system to put them in specific positions. You play as an unnamed character, often called Stephen. You're holding a oddly-shaped fork and you roll sausages onto grills.
The game consists of an overworld of interconnected levels, each containing a single puzzle. Within a group of puzzles the player is free to choose in which order they want to solve the levels. To enter a level one simply aligns 'Stephen' with the Stephen-shaped translucent outline in the overworld. 

You then enter a level that contains the player's character, one or more grill tiles and one or more sausages.

The objective of each level is then to grill all sausages on both sides. You do this by pushing the sausages so they roll over.

When all sausages are grilled, you have to return to your starting position. This is non-trivial in some levels.

And that's it. That's the game's entire foundation. Grilling slightly more than 200 sausages is all you have to do. It's a simple premise, but it reaches a great depth through its pitch-perfect execution.

Reaching this depth is only possible because everything in Stephen's Sausage Roll has a function. Even if rolling sausages seems like a silly premise, the shape of the sausages determine their movement. Each sausage is two tiles long and one tile wide, but most importantly it is cylindrical, has a top and a bottom and therefore it can roll over. This in turn determines its movement, which can be distinguished between a roll and a slide. The comically oversized fork of Stephen makes it so your player character also takes up two tiles, but he instead has a front and a back and a centre of rotation that is clearly placed on only one of the tiles. In later levels it also becomes possible to separate the fork from the figure, which brings a whole new dimension into play.
The same exacting attention to detail is unmistakeably present in the level design. The world of Stephen's Sausage Roll is fully interconnected, the overworld is simply what happens when all the ground tiles from all the levels are present at the same time.

This is all the more impressive because in each of the levels, taken on their own, there are exactly enough elements present to solve, or sometimes create, the puzzle. There is not a single superfluous tile in the entire game. At times there are open 'fields', but their function is usually only to make the awkward movement of the character more tolerable to the player. 

Take The Great Tower, for example. This is commonly the level where the shock of possibilities really dawns on the player. Up until that point all sausage rolling has taken place in a two-dimensional plane and then this daunting behemoth shows up unannounced. Yet the level itself is quite generous. There is a large field where the player can mess about with the mechanics while dismantling the tower, so they can (sub)consciously teach themselves how the sausages (inter)act in a third dimensional plane.

And teaching yourself how Stephen Sausage Roll works is a vital part of the gameplay. The game is often described as 'difficult' and when this is seen as a negative aspect, one of the criticisms aimed at the game is that it doesn't do a good job at teaching its rules to players. I would very strongly disagree with this sentiment, however, because it simply isn't true. There aren't a lot of rules or mechanics present in Stephen's Sausage Roll. In fact, I already covered nearly all of them in this post so far. Thus knowing the rules to the puzzles in Stephen's Sausage Roll is almost trivial and anybody with the slightest knowledge of video game mechanics will instantly be familiar with them.
What's unique about the game is not the complexity of its rule set, but that it's only concerned with the ultimate logical consequences of that set of rules. From a few simple rules, Stephen's Sausage Roll extracts a great number of complex, and at times unintuitive, possibilities. What's more is that it expects of you to understand these right from start of the game.
The first levels in Stephen's Sausage Roll are likely the most difficult to the player, because they have to internalise the logical outcomes of a system they aren't yet familiar with. Most levels in Stephen's Sausage Roll demand that you reason backward from the unseen, but implied, end state of the puzzle. The player has to reverse engineer the puzzle-making process, so to speak.

As a player you have to understand the final position of all the sausages if you want to be able to solve the puzzles. This doesn't mean that if you know an end position you have also solved the puzzle, as is the case in many other games. No, in Stephen's Sausage Roll this is simply the beginning. Nowhere is this more clear than in an early puzzle titled the Clover.

At first glance the level appears relatively straightforward, as all sausages are located directly next to a four-tile grill. Yet when you proceed to grill the sausages in that way you ultimately end up in the following predicament when you attempt to return to your starting position:

This is an 'unexpected' outcome because as a player you're initially only thinking of the abstract goal of the puzzles: to grill some sausages. Yet returning to your starting position is a crucial aspect of the puzzles and thus it is not the grilling of the sausages that one needs to be concerned with, but grilling the sausages so that they end up in a particular position. In order to do this, you need to trace your steps backwards from the end goal and see what initial movements can lead to this outcome.

This backwards reasoning is somewhat common in puzzle games, but Stephen's Sausage Roll is the only game I can think of that absolutely requires this kind of understanding if you want to progress in the game at a reasonable pace. There is very little, if anything, in the game that entertains a player with an incomplete understanding of its mechanics. If you experience frustration in Stephen's Sausage Roll, and there will be plenty of moments where you do, it's only because of your own incomplete understanding. From the very beginning the game always provides you with all the knowledge you need, but not a single sliver more than that.
Even if I am now quite familiar with the possibilities of Stephen's Sausage Roll, in all my playthroughs I found that the game got easier, not harder, as I went on. Even as the complexities of the puzzles grows exponentially towards the end of the game, having much more experience with its rules means that it's far easier to see and understand the solutions to these more complex puzzles.
And at the point where you as a player have acquired this necessary insight into its mechanics, then the levels look less and less like puzzles, but more like an attempt to express a certain idea about the game and its possibility-space. In nearly all instances these are elegantly communicated through the minimal, yet absurdist design, and the game becomes a beautiful glimpse into the mind of Lavelle as a designer.

Although I've come much closer to expressing my feelings about Stephen's Sausage Roll with this text than I did on previous attempts, I still don't believe I've quite been able to articulate the exact nature of what makes Stephen's Sausage Roll so extraordinary. After six years this short text of adjectives is apparently the best I can do. Therefore I strongly suggest you play the game for yourself and experience first hand what I and many other commentators have difficulty finding the right words for.