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Engare review: The geometry of Islamic art becomes a treasure of a game

Enlarge/ Welcome to Engare.Mahdi Bahrami

Your first-blush impression of new video game Engare, perhaps more than any other arty "indie" game in recent memory, will likely boil down to what you think about video games in general.

If you're looking for something to blow the industry's tropes out of the water, then Engare should skyrocket to the top of any list you're making. It's a clever, deceptively simple, and beautiful rumination on geometry and Islamic art-making traditions. Try attaching a generic, smoldering white-man box cover onto that concept.

If you're a well-versed "gamer," on the other hand, Engare may not strike you so intensely at first. At its core, it's a spirograph art game with a series of relatively simple puzzles, and it comes with a freeform art toy that unlocks its puzzles' tools to make whatever patterns you please. The puzzles and the art tools, separately, are straightforward.

But combined, Engare's complete package really is a wonderful interactive math… thing. Call it a game, a tool, a toy, or a widget. Whatever semantics you choose, there's a story in Engare's fantastical geometric shapes, and the way you click through its progression is powerful and unique.

Circles, lines, and pulleys

  • Engare's first puzzle is simple enough: figure out how to draw a line that matches the green box above.
  • We place the dot at the top of the circle, and then it rolls…
  • … and the dot follows all the way around the ball's rotation while it also moves forward in space. The result: a little divot line!
  • Now to do the same with a box that falls off an edge. The gray outline is a failed attempt from earlier. The green dot is where I'm SUPPOSED to start.
  • And there, we've recreated the requested line.
  • Puzzles get… decidedly more complex. We have three circles to contend with: one as a central guide, one that spins around the central guide, and a rotation INSIDE another circle. There's also a curly line from a failed attempt to match the orientation of the demanded puzzle solution.
  • And here's another rotation-combination puzzle. Three pegs in all are rotating here.
  • Here, I FINALLY find the right spot on the pegs to draw the requested shape.
  • And now the game completes the full pattern for me.

The game, made almost entirely by 23-year-old Iranian developer Mahdi Bahrami, starts with a 2D scene of a circle repeatedly traveling along a line. Above this, an instructional card shows a curved-diagonal line. Drop a dot on the moving circle, the game says, and it will generate a bold line, like ink on a page. As the ball (and thus, your dot) rolls, the inked line unfurls; if you put the dot on a different part of the circle, then your inked line may have more curve or angle to it, based on the total motion of the moving, rotating circle. Your object is to recreate this exact curved-diagonal line. If your first ink-drop doesn't do the trick, try again.

Each puzzle presents an increasingly complex array of moving and rotating shapes, lines, and dots. You have to watch the repeating patterns and rotations in a particular puzzle to understand where to drop an ink dot and draw the demanded line. At first, you'll have to recreate simple turns, curves, and zig-zags. By the end, you'll be making insane curlicues and rug-like super-patterns.

The whole reason I'm even writing this game up is because I went into Engare's opening and saw little more than simple puzzles. Maybe it's The Witness's fault, but I see lines, circles, and patterns in my natural world all of the time. I'm obsessed with the math inherent in all of the organic and man-made designs that surround me at a moment's notice. (I'm weird like that.) This game, at first, did little more than reinforce that view of the world.

  • I only had to solve for one line in this puzzle. But Engare started drawing a BUNCH of lines when I solved it.
  • The sensation of color and shape lighting up on these new, matching lines blew my math-loving heart away.

But even this jaded math wiz-kid couldn't help but drop his jaw, loose his tongue, and bulge his eyes at the first time Engare cracked open its math-rich heart. One early puzzle (shown above) ended with its seemingly simple pattern repeating over and over and over and over. Unlike other puzzles, this pattern kept drawing itself, even after I'd fulfilled a simple line-and-turn pattern. And with each pass of the drawing pattern, driven by a spinning, central circle, Engare drew and filled a new, bright color.

This is what the game's creator is trying to shout, I thought. This is his unique, cultural perspective. This looks like the Persian rugs he saw his grandmother weave as a child.

That's a cheat for me to think of, I admit, as I'd seen Bahrami present an early version of Engare at GDC's annual Experimental Games Workshop in 2014. It was his second game about Persian rugs, turns out, and he talked about his own family stories when presenting the concept. But Engare, as a finished game, picks and chooses its cultural content. It's not necessarily subtle, thanks to the game's use of Islamic architectural design, Arabic alphabet, and regionally appropriate soundtrack from Austin Wintory. But the game doesn't further stress its cultural ties with a discrete story or specific instructions. You solve puzzles to create beautiful, geometric shapes, and, in the process, you'll very likely connect the results to gorgeous rug patterns and building designs that you've seen elsewhere in the world.

A new generation’s SimCity?

<em>Engare</em>
Enlarge/Engare's pattern-generation tool.

After completing enough puzzles, Engare unlocks its pattern-generation toolset, and the results are quite simple. Place dots or drag lines, and amazing patterns emerge. The further you get in the game, the more complex these pattern-generation tools get. On their own, they simply make pretty things appear when you push their sliders forward and back.

But in Engare's case, every massive, crisscrossing slew of curves and lines and patterns has already been proven out by the puzzles you've solved. Your reward for doing well in Engare isn't unlocking more pattern-generation options; it's the ability to understand the incredible combination of rotations and line patterns that went into each one and how they're all geometrically solvable thanks to their adherence to X and Y axes.

Official Engare gameplay trailer

By the time you get to Engare's final puzzles, you'll run into truly brutal head-scratchers. These require that you manually manipulate a puzzle's spinning, moving parts until you find the right series of angles, especially once you have to deal with separate parts of a pulley system. Only once you get this right can you drop your ink dot and solve the puzzle in question. These final puzzles require a level of spatial and geometric recognition unlike anything I've ever seen in a video game. They're breathtaking—and may very well look less like interesting puzzles and more like maddening math homework, should this game not be your cup of tea.

That's really the loudest warning I might offer: any grown-up who has ever shuddered at the thought of returning to geometry class should run, not walk, away from Engare. Additionally, the game has launched with some optimization issues, including weird bugs on weaker processors (particularly when trying to track a mouse cursor) and obnoxious mouse control for tracking and placing ink dots on the game's later, harder, and faster-moving pattern wheels. And be ready for a game that runs out of puzzles very quickly. (On the one hand, it's good for a game to bow out before its gimmick gets old, but this is a rare example of a game whose puzzle design's upper limit is the infinity of math. An expansion pack could totally happen here.)

But I'm so delighted that the years of wait for Engare, after teases at events like GDC, turned out to feel absolutely magical and unique in the gaming realm. I want to install this game on the hard drive of every self-proclaimed nerd—and every elementary and middle school's computer labs. I want this wild geometrical-shape spirograph experiment to be a edu-tainment rite of passage, just like SimCity and Carmen Sandiego were for me. And maybe above all else, I want the Western world to look in awe at the culturally unique stuff that gaming can create when it's put in the hands of more diverse creators.

The good:

  • A geometry-driven puzzle game that generates beautiful, colorful patterns when you succeed. That's my jam.
  • Scales incredibly well for older and younger players alike.
  • Tasteful inclusion of cultural influences without walloping players over the head about them.
  • Lovely musical score from Austin Wintory.

The bad:

  • This could be longer without wearing out its welcome.
  • Pattern-generation tool feels a little too disconnected from the puzzles that it's borne from.
  • If you don't want a game to feel like math homework, this isn't for you.

The ugly:

  • Technical hiccups at launch.

Verdict: Buy two copies; donate the second one to a school computer lab.

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