Stephen's Sausage Roll review
Stephen Lavelle, or increpare, is one of my favorite solo game designers. He’s also one of the most prolific I know of: his website currently hosts 245 different projects, both bigger games and tiny, laser-focused conceptual projects. I sort of “grew up” in games by playing his stuff-- when I first started paying attention to independent games, I played his projects religiously. I’ve learned a lot from him over the years. He’s got a finely-honed artistic voice and has proven his design mettle literally hundreds of times over. He’s a designer worth respecting.
Now, though, I think I’m ready to curse his name and hold a deadly grudge against him forever. I mean, yes, I think his latest game, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, is great. It’s really really really good, okay? But BY GOD, I’VE BEEN LIVING IN SAUSAGE HELL FOR TWO WEEKS. DELIVER ME, O LORD.
Let’s cover the bare basics: Stephen’s Sausage Roll is an elegantly simple sokoban-style puzzle game about cooking gigantic sausages on a series of twisted islands. The islands are covered in fiery grill spaces. You are a tiny baby-esque low-poly individual who holds a gigantic sausage-spearing implement out in front at all times. Hitting a sausage on the side with your spear causes it to roll; hitting a sausage on its end causes it to slide. Each sausage is two grid spaces long and has upper and lower sides which must each be roasted individually. No sausage “quadrant” can touch a grill tile for two moves; to be roasted perfectly, each part of the sausage can roll over a grill only once.
The rules that govern player movement and sausage movement interact in ways you might not expect. What happens when you press sausages against immovable objects? What happens when the environment gains verticality, and sausages stack on top of one another? What happens when you try to walk on top of a sausage?The game is divided into islands which explore these rule complications one by one. It’s an extremely smart game. It explores the furthest implications of its rules in complete and overwhelming detail.
And it’s the hardest puzzle game I’ve played in my life. I’m not exaggerating. The game is so hard that in two weeks of daily play, for around an hour a day on average, I was unable to finish it. Which is a big deal for me, because I have a track record of being pretty good at grid-based, sokoban-influenced puzzle games like increpare’s previous commercial game, English Country Tune, and the chemistry-themed Sokobond. But in Stephen’s Sausage Roll, Lavelle has created the sokoban-influenced grid-based puzzle game to absolutely obliterate all other sokoban-influenced grid-based puzzle games. It took me a whole week to beat the first island. I panicked, I’ll admit. I was already trying to figure out what I would say in this review if I were too bad to beat even the first island.
I’m on island 3 right now. This is not the final island.
Like increpare’s English Country Tune, Stephen’s Sausage Roll is not afraid to occasionally bottleneck player progression. The Witness worked hard to completely remove puzzle bottlenecking-- on the overworld, at least, there was always something else the player could do if they were stuck on a particular puzzle. But Stephen’s Sausage Roll forces you to fully complete one island before unlocking another, which means that you may frequently find yourself face-to-face with a final few puzzles that you absolutely cannot figure out how to complete.
To proceed, you must improve. You must go into battle against the final sausages. These islands are named-- so the game tells us-- The Isles of Wisdom. Get Wise, fool. Look: I love me a ruthless puzzle game. I loved Sokobond, but I still have a half-handful of puzzles in that one that I haven’t finished. I absolutely refuse to look up puzzle solutions in games like these-- that would ruin the point. In puzzle games like these-- where there’s no secret content to unlock, no story, nothing but the puzzles-- the only reward you get is your Getting Wise.
Looking up a solution would wreck the whole point. I respect that. The sense of accomplishment I get from finally figuring out a tough puzzle is the same joy I get from wrecking a hard Dark Souls boss and the same satisfaction I get from completing difficult tasks at work a day before they’re due. I genuinely enjoy the feeling that I get when I overcome hard, unpleasant assignments. I enjoy it more than I enjoy chilling out and relaxing. Why? I don’t know. Hire me a shrink. It’s just the way I am. And I think it’s the way you’ll have to be, too, if you want to enjoy Stephen’s Sausage Roll.
So yes, that’s the major bar to enjoyment, but I have to mention that there are other things to appreciate about Stephen’s Sausage Roll beyond its mere intricate rolling of sausages. Like many of increpare’s other games, SSR has an understated, elegantly rough-around-the-edges art style. It’s got big, awkward sausages, weird fonts with sloppy outlines, and that awful little nugget-shaped protagonist with those cartoony slap-slap-slap little feet.
But it’s very deliberately odd, and the low-poly, disorganized environments, with their cyclical sunrises and sunsets, are actually a pretty peaceful place to have your butt kicked by puzzles. Shuffling through a patch of flowers with a raw, blotchy sausage speared on your nose, kicking up petals as you go, is kind of wonderful. The music is meandering and odd, but it feels very careful, very appropriate.
Just like its puzzle content, the game’s art and music feel very deliberately designed. Lavelle knows exactly what he’s trying to make. Once you get up to your neck in sausage-world, it feels good. I spent most of this game with a giant sturgeon-frown of self-contempt on my face, but I kept breaking into smiles. When I figured out how to get from island one to island two, I grinned so hard that my eyes stung.
I may have spent two weeks stretched out on the sizzling grills of sausage hell, but sausage hell is, basically, a nice place to be.