Gnog turns puzzle boxes into fun dioramas

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In a way, puzzle boxes are the purest type of game. They have a simple objective — open the box — and the actual game is figuring out how to do that. There isn’t really a tutorial or rules, just things you intrinsically pick up as you fiddle and poke at different parts to find the solution. That physicality is a big part of the experience as well, which is perhaps why some of the most successful digital puzzle boxes are on devices with touch interfaces.

Gnog is a game about solving puzzle boxes from developer KoOp. It was originally released on PS4 last year and then ported to iOS before recently coming to PC. The thing about its puzzles is that they are more than just a box on a table — each is quite literally a character. They all have strange faces on their front side, and they possess a lot of personality. Inside each box is a diorama, one that conveys a scene that makes these puzzle boxes into little adventure games.

In one level, the outside of the box is a spaceship that’s been damaged, while on the inside, there’s a two-person crew working to repair it. The puzzles have you working out how to fix the various broken parts outside the ship, as well as recovering their air and food, before eventually restoring their engine and helping them map the solar system they are in.

It’s this aspect that makes Gnog so interesting as a puzzle box game. Normally with puzzle boxes, or puzzles in general, enjoyment comes from the moments you work something out. The “Ah-ha!” moments when things start to click together are powerful, so much so that they can help you push through the parts in between those moments where things are much less enjoyable and sometimes downright boring. You can only futz with trying to correctly rotate or position blocks for so long before you lose interest.

Gnog, meanwhile, turns the puzzle-solving into something akin to playing with a toy. The simple act of fiddling with these buttons and knobs in each level brings its own amusement. Sometimes it causes something to happen, like a mouse running out of a hole in the wall only to be seen by someone who scares it back in. Sometimes your interactions simply produce a good sound. One puzzle box acts like a musical synthesizer where each button and dial affects the level’s soundtrack, changing the pitch or adding new notes and effects. You’re essentially able to create your own music as you mess around.

This structure rewards the search for a solution to the larger puzzle in a way that isn’t explicitly about the player solving the puzzle. It’s similar to what LucasArts adventure games like Monkey Island or Maniac Mansion did by infusing comedy not only into the puzzles, but into the exploration of the world as well. You weren’t just clicking on things to find a solution; you did it because it was fun to do.

For Gnog, this game design choice, coupled with the game’s playful and colorful style, turns potentially aggravating puzzle-solving into something far more relaxing and endearing. It’s not that the game isn’t challenging, but it’s so cute and charming that those challenges don’t feel stressful.

Gnog was created by KoOp. You can get it on PS4 or Itch.io/Steam (Windows and macOS) for $9.99 or iOS for $4.99. It takes about two hours to finish.