Space Tow Truck PC Review
I’m really afraid this one’s not going to get the attention it deserves. I myself only found out about it because of all the demos I’ve been playing this year – it was nothing more than a happy accident. From there it was the game’s creator, Eric Laflamme, that followed up with us directly after seeing the gameplay video. He alleviated my concerns that the demo is a little basic, never getting to show off much of the more advanced levels that are promised on the Steam page, and let us know that he’s actually a physics teacher, who believes ”we lack games to feel, understand, and democratize pre-university physics”. I would have to agree. Most everything I know on the subject is from the massive amounts of YouTube edutainment I consume, which I assume is not common behaviour, and that still leaves me wanting to put the topics covered into practice. The message also felt a little like an unofficial challenge, so I naturally had to accept lest my pride be left bruised.
I’ll admit I was a little worried. In the email Mr. Laflamme also detailed that chapters 5, 6, and 7 (the endgame) were “a real challenge”. Was I about to make myself look like a dunce on the internet? Besides a few very silly mistakes, fortunately that wasn’t the case. Honestly I think I did rather well against the increasingly more bonkers trials and complex concepts, having a total blast the entire time. So how does it work? It’s pretty simple really – there’s a graph centre screen containing the vehicle you’re to control, floating batteries to be gathered, and any obstacles or platforms you may need to work with. There’s also a scrubber at the bottom whose time sets the limit for the level and can be used to track how a failed run went. All of this is purely informational – it is the question you need to answer. On the left is essentially a list of items that you’ll be altering variables for. This is how the game is played. By changing the values of the car’s initial position, initial velocity, timers, and specific mechanics, you’re essentially programming a set of functions. Plug in the correct figures and watch it go!
If successful the car will move around the graph picking up all of the available batteries before the time limit is up. That’s pretty much it from stage to stage, the difference mainly being the physics mechanics involved, starting with simple graphing to teleport around and avoid drones but soon becoming the management of delta-velocities and, eventually, acceleration/deceleration. Mind you, you’ll never be altering which mechanics will be used in a particular problem or reordering how anything runs; these limitations help cap the scope of each level and simultaneously set certain restrictions that the player needs to think around. For example, there may be more velocity changes than necessary and so the challenge becomes ‘how do I integrate these extra movements?‘. This goes further by often disabling certain entries entirely, locking in the predetermined numbers, or by inhibiting their range. Hence the ‘puzzle’ part – it’s not all math, many people will be happy to know. It sounds more difficult than it really is, as these setups are advantageous, too, by allowing the player to work backwards. Only got 5 seconds but need to cover 50m? That’s 10m/second in that direction. Initial velocity done.
After first plugging in what you know must be true because of the stage layout, timer, and variable conditions, it’s time to fill in the gaps. Sometimes this means simply reading from the many (and increasingly elaborate) value tables, that remove the need to repetitively solve equations for the many inputs to be tried, and other times it means hypothesising. Frequently a new level will be fairly open and so it’s only through a little cross analysis and trial and error that we can reduce the available options, eventually honing in on the correct answer. This becomes even more important when playing the side-on gravity stages, as you attempt to work out how to get the most out of the few ‘jumps’ you have. And the final mechanic, black holes, are almost entirely focused on forcing players to divine the one true route, calculating multiple conjoined circular motions aside. I just loved it. All of it. The theorising, the plotting of my assumptions, reading the tables, walking back through the ‘code’, testing, and, of course, adjusting where needed.
In fact, the only problem I have with the title at all is the narrative, which I promptly decided to skip after experiencing some of it in the demo. It simply didn’t interest me at all and the long bouts of back-and-forth texting with the Space Tow Truck company only seemed to push back against my craving to jump into the next puzzle. I did, however, very much enjoy reading through the other bundles of text that unlock after each level and cover the histories and discoveries of important scientists, most of which actually have moon craters named after them it turns out. I suppose it boils down to the simple fact that I don’t think the story is particularly engaging, so I didn’t find it worth it to push through the seemingly endless chatter for the odd funny joke. I also believe I’m not the target audience anyway, so it matters not, especially when there’s the option to remove that part of the game entirely.
I’ve come away from my great time with Space Tow Truck a little smarter, a little more knowledgeable of some basic mechanics of physics and in the history of science in general. I did get solidly stuck at the introduction to a particular area – acceleration along a curve – but managed to recover after going back to the teaching hints that appear when anything new pops up, figuring out my rookie mistake. I of course could have brute-forced my way through that section but that’s not really my style. I wanted to know exactly what was going on, to actually work out the answers myself and understand the underlying systems. Somehow it gets this information across rather effortlessly and concisely in the short tip explanations.
Mr. Laflamme – you succeeded.
The sad part is that I haven’t seen anyone else even mention the game, so I guess it’s partially up to me to spread the word now. And, hopefully, we’ll be seeing more trials added in the future. The email also mentioned the consideration of a “hardcore DLC” with “insanely hard puzzles”. I’d be up for a shot! Until then I’ll be bugging anyone and everyone I know with even a passing interest in puzzle games to pick this one up. Not only is it educational, entertaining, and stimulating, but it’s also for a good cause. Catch knowledge!