The First Step by Vsevolod Sevostianov and Katrin Kuskova is a simple puzzle game that doesn’t tell you the rules.
Each level is a grid of colourful, patterned tiles (though if the patterns aren’t to your taste you can turn them off). You click on one of the tiles and set in motion a ball of light that will start a journey from tile to tile, removing the tile it leaves, one by one, until none remain or it has nowhere to go. The way the ball moves is determined by the colour of the tile it is on, for example red will move the ball to the left.
The concept is simple, but your understanding of the game is its uniqueness. You aren’t made aware of the properties of each colour tile, and as teleporter tiles are introduced you are left to learn that for yourself and fail in the process.
This is where The First Step is special, you are encouraged to learn from your mistakes through trial and error. The serenity of the audio and visuals brought me to a state where I was happy to relinquish control, let the ball take its path and see what better place it could have started. I never felt like I needed to learn the properties of the tiles. Instead I was contented with failing and improving which, in wider life and games, is a hard feeling to capture.
Inconsistently, the game does offer a tutorial for a new mechanic in the final 3rd. As tiles that make your ball jump a space are introduced, a pop-up appears to tell you the properties of each colour jumping square. I mostly ignored the window, it’s a strange choice to go from being offered no information to suddenly being guided. Despite the information interruption the feeling of cluelessly fail forward continued, but a sad shadow of feeling the need to engage in a more traditionally puzzle solving way haunting my progress.
The strong sense of positive failure is also challenged by the fact that you are given a set of lives. You get quite a generous set, but there is a growing sense these your failures will cost you as a set of poor judgement calls can start to burn these lives away.
These stalking stakes give your choices weight, you can’t just click randomly and you do have to think to progress, but the thought of replaying the same puzzles wasn’t fun. The ball moves at a leisurely pace and, though I didn’t lose all my lives and don’t know what happens in that case, I likely wouldn’t have seen the end if I was sent back to the start.
The First Step offers a space to reflect on accpeting failure. The game won’t take you more than 20 minutes if you manage to get by on the lives you’re given and the journey might just fortify you against the pressures of the world.