Alien Worlds, Natural Intuition
Kambole Campbell on Cocoon
In the video game Cocoon you play as a little beetle man, tasked with carrying an orb on his back, Atlas-style, through a biotechnical world (and multiple worlds within that world) to an unknown destination. Made by Geometric Interactive, the game gives a sense of being inexplicably compelled, pulled along to that endpoint, which recalls the previous work of game director Jeppe Carlsen (also lead designer and puzzle designer) for PlayDead. Cocoon shares the silent, purely contextual world building of Inside and Limbo, on which he served as puzzle designer—you learn only through tangible interaction—but its isometric viewpoint and fixed, top-down camera visually depart from Inside and Limbo's side-scrolling. Plus, where those games evoked a recognizable, fun-house mirror of the human world, Cocoon is completely alien.
Your little bug man strides through a fluid and constantly changing environment, a captivating mixture of the mechanical, the biological, and even the mystical. These spaces look like an overlap between temples, nests and factories, its statues—some resembling the very bosses you fight at intervals between puzzle solving—look like deities. There are also statues of bugs that look just like you, complete with the burden of the orb on their back, lined up in ominously neat formation—is this a fascist dystopia? Maybe. It’s only through environmental context that Cocoon’s sparse narrative reveals itself, and even then the game is content to leave things unexplained by its wild, cosmic ending. There’s no other input—neither narration nor voice direction, no title cards or script. The game’s restrained writing is purely physical.
Cocoon’s story remains elusive, but this world’s idiosyncratic rituals, systems, and behaviors point you towards puzzles and bosses. Despite its intentional alienation, Cocoon is strangely intuitive to play, in a manner that belies succinct description. The UI design from Niels Fyrst is minimal; most indications for what you can interact with directly, or corresponding keys to different unlockable objects, are all relayed through matching color and shape or peculiar symbol. While there is no narration or text to see you through these problems, the soundtrack from Jakob Schmid is more directly communicative: its synthetic chimes gradually intensify as you get closer to solving a puzzle, the dynamic audio contributing to the game’s harmonious sense of rhythm, training you to feel out the right direction just by listening, should you ever get turned around.
The orb is the key to navigating Cocoon’s various puzzles. As you progress, you acquire four orbs, each a different color. They serve two purposes: they’re a power source for various objects you encounter, but each orb also houses its own navigable world, with its own puzzles to solve. You access these worlds by plugging the orb into a specific device, which almost appears like a reflecting pool—after holding the action button for a brief moment, the bug man zooms out into the foreground, and dives into the orb. The worlds within the orbs are each a new mystery to uncover; the first is an arid desert, the next is a dense bog, the third a fleshy and rather grotesque hive-like area.
Each inner world holds the key to opening various doors to the one outside, and vice-versa, and at the end of the path, is a boss, beaten by some new movement mechanic introduced only for that fight. Defeating each boss unlocks a new ability. For example, the first orb you gain, an orange one, makes new paths appear in a radius around it, at certain prescribed points. Another orb helps you navigate new platforms by switching them from vapor into a solid. Perhaps my favorite addition is an orb that lets you replicate it by plucking a large, orb-shaped plant from the environment, leading to even stranger puzzle solutions. As you collect the orbs in sequence, you move into a rhythm, hopping in and out of each new orb to make a path to the next boss. It becomes propulsive, and, as one problem melds into another, Cocoon’s hours of gameplay truly race by.
The thrill of Cocoon is discovering the various utilities made possible through its central conceit. You can nest each orb inside another like a cosmic insectoid Matryoshka doll, and some puzzles require you to exploit how its different worlds can be placed inside another. A late game puzzle sees you open a door from the overworld to the one inside one of your orbs, which means you can carry the orb inside itself, creating a paradoxical loop. As you progress, the already weird world is made even weirder by the encounters with other contraptions and denizens you interact with: living geometric shapes are birthed from black goo and help with your puzzle solving after flying you back to your destination, little quadrupedal robots pop up and join you on your quest.
In description, it may sound convoluted, but in practice it’s surprisingly simple. Though the game’s problems become more conceptually mind-boggling as you jump between worlds or to worlds within worlds to find what you need, there’s a steady build in the complexity of each problem, so that by the time you encounter the weirdest ones, the rules feel clear.
It recalls how Valve’s 2007, first-person puzzle game Portal trained you to “think with portals” about how you could break fundamental rules of the world without fully breaking the game. In Portal you would utilize a gun that allowed you to teleport from one point to another, manipulating physics through impossible means. Cocoon trains you, quickly, to think about how your abilities work in concert with your ability to hop in and out of the world.
A later, reality-bending puzzle saw me flicking switches with a laser that I was firing into one world from outside of it, by aiming a certain ability at the orb holding said world. Some puzzles are satisfying on a less high-concept level, too. At one point, I had to open a door, by directing a helper robot onto a pressure pad, which acted as a switch. However, I couldn’t keep the bot on the switch for enough time to make it through the door. I soon realized that I could use a nearby launch pad and drop the orb on the robot as I flew over its head, and it would walk over the switch at the exact moment I needed. My exclamations after solving these puzzles made me realize just how much Cocoon had me in its grip.
That the game slowly trains you to understand this all with nothing but visual cues is a testament to its astounding design. It’s intuitive in how it stimulates the player to piece those clues together, allowing us to slowly realize what we’re able to do. Sometimes the lack of context can be a little frustrating—some puzzles provide the right amount of resistance, while others can feel like hitting your head against a wall. But, like any puzzle game, these frustrations make the eventual “eureka!” moments all the more satisfying. Little in Cocoon makes any earthly sense, but also yet, while you’re playing, somehow it makes all the sense in the world.