Game Pile: Unblock Gridlock

Unblock Gridlock: Real Sounds In Fake Space

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You might know this game, at least by looking at it. I learned about it the first time from watching ASMR channels softly talking while they tried and solved the different puzzles of a physical version of the game. They call it Rush Hour, because that tends to be the branding attached to it.

It’s a sliding block puzzle, where you have a bunch of blocks that can only be slid along their longest axis. The idea behind it is inspired by a thing from a bygone history, where people would depict in magazines lots of cars all locked in against one another, stuck in place, until the road cleared, all at odd angles, and getting out involved shifting everyone just enough in the right way.

It’s funny to think about how ‘rush hour’ as a concept is kinda dated to me. Obviously it happens, but I grew up knowing it was one of the worst things my dad had to deal with, and we had to map whole days around it, but also now I couldn’t tell you a thing about it because I catch the bus everywhere. Perk of living in a place with nice public transport, not going to lie to you.

The original puzzle design driving Rush Hour is the product of a designer known as ‘Nob.’ Nob is short for Nobuyuki Yoshigahara, a prolific puzzle designer from Japan. Now, I don’t know Nob’s work very well, but based on reading up on Nob’s work, the reason I can’t really appreciate the scope of Nob’s work is the reason why standing on the ground outside my house, I can’t really see the scope of Australia. I don’t know Nob well but by what I can see, looking at his work, as a game developer, and its scope, it is remarkable for its *vastness.* The man wrote over 80 books on puzzles, and was at one point writing seventeen monthly columns on puzzles across a host of different puzzle publications. If you’re into puzzles, you probably are into puzzles made by people who built on the work of Nob.

My favourite anecdote learning about this history, by the way, is that when the 4×4 Rubiks Cube was released with a mechanical flaw that meant it could fail under stress, Nob was so intrigued by the design that he redesigned it – someone else’s design! – and mailed the revision to the publishers of the game. This being the 1980s, they implemented his changes. You got one of them little metal elk puzzles? Yeah, there’s a reason there’s an ‘N O B’ inscribed on them.

Nob was also an early adopter of computer technology to design and solve puzzles. Foreshadowing.

I don’t know why Rush Hour became a darling of the ASMR set. For those of you unfamiliar, ASMR refers to the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a science-sounding way to describe a phenomenon of experiencing pleasant tingles due to a wide variety of subtle stimuli that are hard to explore in most everyday situations. It’s a big deal on Youtube, a platform that gave the medium a lot to work with and if you’re not interested in it, you might not know anything about it. It has that name because it’s a lot easier to talk about, and a lot easier to search rather than ‘that nice fuzzy feeling in the back of my head.’

It’s also the genre of reading like this. I’m deliberately aiming for a soft-spoken version of my normal presentation without making anyone feel like their ears itch.

ASMR is a really interesting, broad community – I think I’m in the ‘selfconscious fictional’ part of it, where I want someone to talk to me nicely about something obviously fantastic. Some folks want to hear a pretty girl playing with cellophane, some folks want to have their cranial nerves examined, and some people like to watch methodical, slow playing of manual tabletop games. It’s a thing that provides structure for a video that’s often about forcing yourself to not act quickly, not do things maximally efficiently. Sometimes, when you go looking, you’ll find an ASMRTist playing Rush Hour.

Rush Hour has a lot of potential as an ASMR game. It has moving physical pieces. It can make pleasant sounds when the pieces are slid into location. It rewards thoughtful consideration of pieces and what they need to fit in various places. It’s something you can get better at over time, too, which means the learning process shows itself in longer videos. It’s brightly coloured, to make sure it’s reasonably easy to understand what it’s doing.

I know I’ve been talking about Rush Hour a lot in this video ostensibly about a different game, Unblock Gridlock. That’s because Rush Hour serves as the underpinning of it, but there is a big difference in computer games and videogames, and that flows from a place of scope. The Rush Hour physical game ships these days with forty cards, showing forty puzzles, and they’re complicated, but the really long solutions can’t really be shown on a card easily. It’s not like you’re going to get a puzzle that’s forty steps long.

What you do get, though, is a weird cousin of procedural level generation. Under the hood, Rush Hour is a math puzzle. The math is about graphs, and involves something called nondeterministic constraint logic, but ultimately, if you can give a computer anything that fits on a Rush Hour board, it can solve it pretty much trivially, because largely, computers are pretty good at solving this kind of math. That means that while Rush Hour presents you with forty puzzles, Unblock Gridlock presents you with a positively bananas 9,392 puzzles. I’m pretty confident to make that many puzzles, the designers made the computer generate possible puzzle configurations that could be solved within a certain number of steps, and picked a reasonably-sensible set of those.

It’s a good value proposition if what you want is a giant pile of puzzles to work through. If you get a Jumbo 10,000 Puzzles book and think bet, well, Unblock Gridlock is going to be good for you. It feels kind of bottomless to me, and I say that with over a hundred puzzles under my belt after seven hours of play, in little two-and-three-minute increments.

And now I’m gunna talk about something that’s a bit of a bummer.

Oh, and in Unblock Gridlock you’re playing a cop, so, mnyeh to that I guess.

It’s a great puzzle game, I like it a lot. I just need to dedicate myself to controlling when and how I play it.