In the golden age of the worker, when worker’s rights were freshly won and the unions were widely respected as groups that helped tip the scales away from the bourgeois and towards the proletariat, one of the greatest threats to the newly rejuvenated working class was automation. “One day, the robots will come and destroy everything we’ve worked for in the name of profit,” they would say. Instead, the robots came and made things more efficient, safer and increased productivity greatly. Then, the politicians and the upper class came and destroyed everything they worked for in the name of profit.

In our time, it is a pretty safe bet to say it is no longer a golden age for the worker. It is, however, seemingly a golden age for independent games. Enter Vessel, the fluid based puzzler and first game from the liberated ex-EA employees over at Strange Loop Games. Vessel approaches the automation issue from a steampunk perspective, where liquid based lifeforms called fluros have been invented by the game’s protagonist, who looks a surprising amount like Bruce Campbell, M. Arkwright. These creatures have become prevalent in society, taking over the majority of factory and manual labor jobs in almost every industry. As the story progresses, you come to find out that these formerly mindless creatures have begun to evolve and pursue their own goals. In the process, they’ve stopped a multitude of important machines. Ever the scientist, Arkwright decides to investigate the fluros’ evolution, repair the machines and find a way to bridge the gap between humanity and the fluros.

This story, like many indie games, is told in a very minimalistic way. There is no dialog, really, with the protagonist’s thoughts conveyed through journal entries that offer a small bit of insight into the game’s world – although they mostly exist to give you a basic rundown of the various mechanics that come into play. This leaves the real story, and especially the fairly surreal ending, mostly up to your interpretation. There are times where that can be a cop out, but this is not one of those times. I always found that games, and really all forms of entertainment, that use an “up to interpretation” story only work when the content is strong enough to prop it up, and Vessel’s certainly is.

The gameplay here absolutely shines. Strange Loop created their own engine from the ground up in order to handle the fairly complex fluid physics present here, and the attention to detail shines. The engine’s ability to handle dynamic liquid simulation puts Vessel a sea apart from its competition. The multiple different liquids all flow, accumulate, evaporate and react in a completely logical manner. Containers can fill up, overflow and be emptied. Pretty much anything you can do with water, you need to do in Vessel to make your way through its large amount of varied, and progressively more difficult, puzzles.

I can’t put enough emphasis on how well designed those puzzles really are. Vessel is very well paced, and the way it introduces the game’s concepts steadily is novel. It doesn’t give you many clues as to what you should do with the knowledge it gives you, and there aren’t any big red arrows or signs saying “HIT THIS BUTTON” or “MAKE STEAM HERE” so you’ll have to do all the leg work yourself. Like the minimalism in the story, the minimalism in feedback given to the player works because of the way the game is made. Of course, a scientist wouldn’t need, or even want, everything spelled out to him easily. He would want to experiment, document and improve on his methods to solve these problems. Vessel, and its emphasis on the player figuring out the interactions between not just fluros and the environment, but fluros and other fluros, is as close to the scientific method as we are going to see in a puzzler.

These interactions between the various types of fluros, as well as the various types of material they can be made out of, comprise the bulk of the problem solving. Some levels will see you needing to open up a number of doors so you can place a fluro on a button, while others will need you to find ways for two fluros of differing materials to collide so that the gas or steam they create can open up a different area. It is quite a rewarding experience when you finally do get all your little water creatures and lava creatures and “You Can’t Do That on Television” slime creatures to do what you need them to do.

Even Vessel’s aesthetics are exceptional. I always felt that, despite my “gameplay before graphics” attitude, it was the experiments with art direction indie games tend to take that really drew me to them originally. I was always a retro gamer. Even as games got more and more advanced, I still clung to my love of the 16 bit era. When the AAA console games started moving towards realism and billions of polygons, I was quite happy to find people creating 2D games still. The advancements in tech, and even in artistic ability, within the gaming industry have been so large that these 2D platformers and puzzlers end up looking just gorgeous. Vessel – with its colorful backgrounds and great lighting – is as good a looking as any indie game has ever been. The music even shines, as it features a number of pieces from well-known composer Jon Hopkins, all arranged adaptively. The music adjusts to what you are doing and it ends up adding so much to the game’s feel.

While this all might sound entirely perfect, I have to burst the bubble a bit. There are some issues that show that Vessel is slightly wet behind the ears, with a handful of problems that break the fluidity of the game’s flow. Sorry, I’m way under my quota for liquid puns here. I have to catch up or else they revoke my membership to the Shitty Pun of the Month club.

While the puzzles are legitimately among the most well designed I’ve seen in quite a while, the platforming elements fall a bit short. The controls aren’t always as responsive as you would like, and jumping can be a bit iffy in some situations. Also, for people who aren’t really used to using the brain pathways that lead to being good at puzzle games, Vessel’s lack of hand holding might be a significant barrier to enjoyment. Most stages are intuitive enough that you’ll figure it out, but some take a significant amount of experimenting. There are even a few that suffer from design choices, like one type of fluros that will follow you around and hit switches but is frustratingly slow, or a puzzle where you know exactly what you have to do but simply can’t get the fluros to cooperate.

Compared to the rest of the game, these problems are barely spit in the ocean of awesomeness. Vessel is easily one of, if not the best, indie games of 2012 so far. It is well designed, gorgeous to look at, and incredibly entertaining. Strange Loops has created a game that is more coheisive than most, with absolutely everything – from the graphics to the music to the puzzles – combining to put emphasis on the setting and mood. It is even a good ‘bang for your buck’ purchase as it offers you around 10 to 12 hours of squirting entertainment, which would usually cost you way more if you were looking for squirting entertainment on the internet. Hell, I was so engrossed in it I pretty much sat down and played the whole thing in a single sitting.

I really have to pee.

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Well paced and intelligently designed puzzles with incredibly well done physics
+ Great to look at and listen to
+ Long for an indie game, and well worth the money
– Lack of hints or overt direction could turn off some gamers
– Occasional technical issues, including a save bug that is in need of a patch
– Some puzzles can become frustrating due to hiccups with the fluros

8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.

Vessel was developed by Strange Loop games and published by Indie Loop for the PC, and eventually for the XBLA and PSN . The game was released on March 1, 2012 with an MSRP of $14.99 on the PC. XBLA and PSN release dates have not been confirmed yet. The game was purchased by my main squeeze because she is a goth chick and thus immediately attracted to anything steampunk. It was played for around ten hours until completion. Specs of the PC used are as follows: Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 @ 2.83ghz, Nvidia Geforce 570 GTX GPU, 8GB RAM, and Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit. I would write more but all this sloshing water is really taxing on my bladder.