A Fantastic Debut
With the departure of Playdead studio heads back in 2016, people were curious about the future with new projects being built by those former employees. One such project was the studio Geometric Interactive, founded by Jakob Schmid and Jeppe Carlsen. Carlsen was the lead gameplay designer on both of Playdead’s successes Limbo and Inside, the latter of which Jakob also worked on as a composer/programmer. 6.5 years later and we finally have Geometric Interactive’s debut title. COCOON’s length is short, but its effect on you will last – it initially eases you in with accessible puzzles, coupled with an intriguing environment and some fantastic sound and art direction, before gradually metamorphosing into a marvelous yet sudden spectacle of an ending.
Tight Level Design and Accessible Puzzles
First emerging into this world, I’m immediately isolated by high rock walls that can’t be scaled, derelict structures left to decay by time are accompanied by lone platforms operated by a simple switch or button. Everything in the first act of Cocoon is so simple yet impactful, utilizing its lack of dialogue and exposition to make me feel alien. Having no way of returning to my receptacle, I must push on.
Cocoon’s level design is extremely tight, never letting the player wander too far from their destination. Most every path leads forward in one way or another, and areas that don’t advance the game along are often cordoned off subtly. Puzzles are accessible and straightforward in the early moments of the game, that is until the introduction of the vibrant colored orbs that this game is built around. These orbs have a select few uses; first and foremost, each orb contains its own unique world – a world that can be entered and exited given the right circumstances. Additionally, each orb can be used to power bio-mechanical machines found all around Cocoon’s universe regardless of the color you use. Lastly, each orb has a particular ability when held by the player. For example, the orange orb allows for crystalline paths to appear in the world where they normally would not.
Well-paced and Accessible Mechanics
Throughout the game, world hopping becomes a staple as things get ever more intricate. The pace at which new mechanics and interesting new landscapes are introduced could not be any more perfect. At every single point of this game, there is an equilibrium of both an ease of comfortability and a push for further exploration of the unknown. By the last few acts of this 4-6 hour journey, Cocoon crescendos into a medley of puzzles that are as satisfying as they are intelligent. Nothing is designed to be too smart for the player; even the most head-scratching moments of this game feel intuitive.
What makes Cocoon even more special is the thought that has been put into the control scheme. Everything except for walking (and very rarely aiming) is triggered through a single context-sensitive action button. This means that activating a switch or picking up an orb is handled by the same input – making the game able to be played with one hand. There is no button mashing or quick-time events, meaning that people with cognitive or motor issues have less pressure to perform tasks in a small window. Failure states in low-stake boss fights only go as far as to kick the player out of the orb they’re currently fighting from, allowing for an immediate return to action. For a full accessibility report on Cocoon, head on over to [link] for more information.
The thoughtful gameplay and mechanics are coupled with some amazing sound and art direction. There is a purposeful quiet in the atmosphere for the majority of Cocoon; floaty ambient synth tracks play as the patter of the player’s feet softly hits the ground. This is juxtaposed by the harsh sounds of the environment, such as the metal scraping of a door or the bursting sound of a jump pad. This kind of feedback makes every action feel larger, ensuring the journey to completing a puzzle is just as satisfying as the destination. Boss fights boast intimidating, chunky techno beats that make these moments far more impactful. The real magic of the sound design, however, is the more subtle features; The player’s wings will quietly buzz when stood over a spot that requires the action button to be held down, and there is a soft tone that plays whenever the player is close to the solution of a problem, growing in presence the nearer to completion.
All this works hand in hand with Cocoon’s art direction, creating a sense of intrigue and anxiousness all the same. Cocoon’s universe is rife with bio-mechanical structures and machines, although it’s played less of a horrific scene than that found in games like Scorn or Axiom Verge. Bridges protrude out like a set of veins with an unsatisfying squelch, large bulbous levers are tethered to the floor with fleshy tendons, platforms uncouple from the ground to reveal large floating jellyfish.
A Seamless Experience
As alien as everything feels, it’s all cohesive – organic even. There is a strong identity to everything on display in the design of Cocoon – most of which is evident in the distinct worlds the player traverses. Universe hopping can get messy and confusing; luckily, each orb’s color reflects the environment within. This helps the player know exactly where they are, minimizing confusion and encouraging further exploration.
The feeling of alienation that the sound and art direction evokes is bolstered by the themes and story that Cocoon gives the player. This is where the inspiration of games like “Inside” and “Limbo” is most prevalent – there is no spoken dialogue or exposition anywhere throughout the game; everything that happens is up to interpretation and more than a little unclear. The concept of literally jumping out of worlds lends to the feeling of an ever-expanding universe, making the player feel infinitely tiny. Conversely, the constant David and Goliath feeling during boss fights wills the player to continue pushing forward no matter how small they may be. All of this leads to an ending that may feel unsatisfying for some. Congruous with the rest of the game, Cocoon has an ambiguous and sudden ending – lacking closure and leaving many questions.
Ultimately, Cocoon’s strong identity and thoughtful gameplay make it one of this year’s best puzzle games. Accessible controls and short playtime make it an easy pick for casual puzzlers. Although the inexplicit narrative may be an issue for some, this is surely dwarfed by the rest of Cocoon’s package – not unlike the universe dwarf’s us all.