Recommending Understand, a Game about Discerning the Rules

by MondSemmel6 min read28th Oct 202139 comments

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Gaming (videogames/tabletop)Exercises / Problem-SetsSkill BuildingDeliberate PracticeRationality
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I play a lot of video games. Enough to occasionally find a rare gem like the puzzle game Understand. Its inspirations include the games The Witness,  Baba is You, and Zendo, as well as the 2-4-6 task in psychology. Understand costs 4$ (3.3€) and is available for Windows and macOS on the Steam game client. (EDIT: For Linux compatibility, see this discussion.)

But before I get to the game itself and why I recommend it on Less Wrong, a brief aside:

Why Recommend a Game on LW?

I've easily played >1000 video games, including most critically acclaimed puzzle games irrespective of popularity. That's a lot of time spent on leisure. When gamers compliment a game, they call it "addicting", which is a pretty insane state of affairs. In any case, I would not recommend most puzzle games or even programming-style optimization games to a community interested in understanding and improving the world. Skills learned in any particular game rarely generalize, and the opportunity cost of spending time on potentially addicting games is high.

With that said, this is the one game I recommend here. I think it does something genuinely unique which could be used to practice a few core rationalist techniques, and I consider its design and presentation far from addicting.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let's get to the game.

What is Understand?

The game's aesthetic befits one-man studio Artless Games. There's no music, either.

The premise in Understand is delightfully simple: each level consists of a couple of screens with a common but hidden ruleset. Your task is to draw a path on each screen (controlled with the mouse) which satisfies these rules (represented by one or more dots below the screen). So early on the challenge is almost entirely in discerning the hidden rules.

For this you get various bits of feedback. The game tells you how many rules there are, and when you draw a path it tells you which specific rules it fulfills. The first screen in each level shows you a valid path which fulfills all rules, and the next few screens are cleverly designed to teach by example. So you'll use deduction and trial & error to draw paths and uncover the rules.

The game consists of ~130 levels à 5-10 screens, which makes for a lot of game, but you can already get something out of it within the first hour of play, and there's no need to play through it in its entirety.

(My more in-depth review of the game, which may be mostly of interest for gamers and completionists, can be found here.)

Level Playthrough

If you'd like to see how that plays out in practice, I've recorded a 1-minute playthrough of an introductory level. (Otherwise feel free to skip this section.) Shortcomings: This example is necessarily a bit fake since I already knew the rules of the level; introductory levels in puzzle games are rarely particularly challenging or innovative; and the sound got a bit clipped due to the recording software.

On the first screen, I copy the suggested path. Then I try an arbitrary simple path which is accepted. On 1-7-3, the third screen, I try circle-square paths which don't work, then a circle-circle path which does. On 1-7-4, a path through all circles and some squares (or vice versa) fulfills the first rule but not the second, while a path through all circles or all squares (but not both) fulfills both rules. By this point I figure I've understood the rules (something like Rule 1: The path must go through all symbols of one type. Rule 2: The path must not go through any other symbols, or equivalently, all symbols on the path must be the same.) and solve the rest of the screens.

Understand for Rationalists

Understand is a rarity in that it relentlessly asks the player to form and test hypotheses while only providing very limited feedback; it's a pretty cerebral experience. For me playing it feels like doing experiments (drawing paths) in a very simple 2D world, and so to succeed at it requires practicing some of the same skills required in experimentation and truth-seeking. Those include:

  • Avoiding positive bias: Like in the 2-4-6 task, it's often trivially easy to find a valid path on the first few screens, at which point one might be convinced one knows the rules, even if they're actually something else entirely.
  • The scientific method, including forming hypotheses ("I wonder if rule 1 is that the path must begin on a star shape."), making predictions ("So if I begin the path on the star shape, rule 1 should be marked as fulfilled."), and falsifying them ("So let me start the path on another tile and see what happens.").
  • Noticing confusion or surprise: "I've solved all screens so far based on <complicated hypothesis for rule 1>, but now on this screen I can't find a valid path. Is that because this screen is difficult, or because my interpretation of the rule is wrong?"
  • Doing efficient experiments: In principle all screens could be solved by trial and error and without understanding the rules, but in practice the search space quickly becomes prohibitively big. So instead you have to discern the rules, but the space of conceivable rules is also too big... so you have to make hypotheses and run experiments in a way that maximizes the information you gain.
  • Extracting as much information as possible from limited and possibly adversarially filtered evidence: "Why do the first few screens look like this? Is the developer trying to hint at something? Or is he maybe trying to trick me into pursuing a wrong direction?"

Ultimately, I'm recommending Understand here as potentially a decent tool to practice some of those core skills of rationality in a low-stakes environment. For instance, I picked up the skill of Noticing Confusion via the Sequences and HPMoR, and nowadays I constantly get good use out of it; but I never got started on many other techniques suggested on the site due to lack of training opportunities to turn them into habits. So I'm hopeful Understand could be one such training opportunity for skills like the above, especially for those of us who aren't able to interact with other rationalists in person.

That said, while most people play video games by themselves, I can even imagine Understand as a decent cooperative experience (with multiple people sharing hypotheses and one person controlling the mouse), e.g. for couples or group houses. Unfortunately the game is not available on smartphones, which makes this more cumbersome.

Suppose, I'm interested. Now what?

If you already have a Steam account, you can buy the game here. Otherwise you must first download and install Steam (this involves creating a free Steam account).

Finally, if this post prompts you to try this game, I would love to hear your experiences.


Thanks to Duncan Sabien and the LW feedback service for feedback on an earlier draft.

PS: As I wrote in my full review, the game is long and occasionally gets difficult, in that some screens are hard to solve even if you've discovered the rules. But I'm happy to provide hints and solutions upon request.

PPS: If you're intrigued by the game and have a Steam account, but you balk at the price or you didn't find my writeup convincing enough to spend your own money, I'll sponsor some copies (as Steam gifts) to people with 100+ karma on the site. Just ask in a comment or private message, and include a link to your Steam profile. In exchange I'd appreciate a comment with your experience of the game.

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If you have 100+ karma and would like me to sponsor you a copy of the game, just reply to this comment or send me a private message, and include a link to your Steam profile. In exchange I'd appreciate a comment with your experience of the game.

I likely won’t buy the game if you don’t sponsor it, but if you do, then I’ll be able to find the time to play it, and let you know what I think within 2 weeks (would be shorter, but Halloween weekend is coming up, so I’ll be busy during the largest stretch of free-time I have).

https://steamcommunity.com/profiles/76561198217407285/

Edit: here is my review

I have just discovered that one can only send gifts to Steam friends. (Presumably this was changed at some point? I'm reasonably sure I once sent someone a game by email.) So I've added you on Steam, but you'll have to accept my friend request before I can send you the game.

I have been independently recommended this game by three sources within 24 hours, so yeah I'll play it.

I highly recommend well-facilitated Zendo for "training" and fun; this seems like it probably hits the same notes. Stretch goal: be as efficient as possible, attempting to learn the sorts of rules the creator would make and using those priors to win unreasonably effectively. I have no idea if that will work in Understanding, having not yet played, but if several people play Zendo together and get good at it (and don't try to change their "GMing" based on the fact that people will try to model the creators), you can see some absolute magic happen as folks guess rules correctly with ridiculously small amounts of data.

I've only played Zendo once. As I understand it, there are are a small number of pieces to make rules about, while rules can be arbitrarily complex. So in this situation you could indeed get better at modeling your fellow players and become more efficient at winning.

In that perspective, playing Understand is a bit like playing Zendo against the game's designer, who has hand-crafted ~130 levels (rulesets) à 5-10 screens (koans), though you're not only trying to guess the rules but also to draw paths on each screen which satisfy them. Anyway, this means that the levels are a finite resource. So to me efficiency doesn't quite seem like the right goal for playing the game.

In a spirit of deliberate practice, I think to get the most practice of rationalist techniques out of Understand, one might:

  • early on, try to understand all the subtle ways in which the game gives you feedback or evidence
  • in each level, try to discover the rules while doing as little experimentation (drawing paths) as possible, as if doing each experiment was expensive
  • try to notice sensations like confusion or surprise, which can give valuable information regarding fruitful hypotheses to pursue
  • keep play sessions relatively short, since practice sessions presumably hit diminishing returns at some point

And so on.

Conversely, if you're sure you've correctly identified the rules of a level, and nonetheless find a few screens unsolvably difficult, from the POV of deliberately practicing rationalist techniques I see little reason not to ask for hints or outright look up solutions for these screens. I like puzzle games and mostly enjoyed that part, too; but that's not why I recommended the game here.

I feel like a game like this has a lot of potential, but this one wasn't for me, likely because when I get in the mood to play games, it's usually because my brain is being too slow to accomplish anything productive, which places an upper bound on my optimization potential for a given problem. Steam lists my playtime at 72 min, and I unlocked the following levels:

1-1 (solved)

1-2 (solved)

1-3 (solved)

1-4 (solved

1-5 (solved)

1-6

1-8

2-1

At this point I still don't know what anything does, and while I was able to narrow down the ranges of possible paths at the ends of some levels, I was usually unable to generalize outside of a given level. Much of my success was due to brute force search through possible paths. You can ask me about specifics, or what I thought about certain puzzles if you are curious.

Thanks for taking the time to write this! Yeah, a weird puzzle game like Understand may not be a good experience when tired, and maybe the game does indeed not work for you.

Anyway, I can describe how I approached the game, to maybe give another perspective for how one can play it. In principle, the initial puzzles can be understood and solved without lots of trial & error or brute-force searches. Maybe this inspires you to have another go? (And if not, that's fine, too.)

Let me take level 1-3 as an example. (Note: spoilers follow.)

Since the main challenge early on is to figure out the rules, rather than to draw a valid path on each screen, I often try to learn as much as I can from each screen before proceeding to the next (though all screens are unlocked from the start). But that's my aesthetic preference, and there are other approaches. (For instance, trying to quickly solve the first few introductory screens in a level, then coming up with hypotheses for why the puzzle dev made these specific screens to introduce the rules.)

That said, here's 1-3-1:

6 tiles, 4 symbols, 3 rules (indicated by the circles at the bottom); and an initial suggested path that begins in a circle, ends in a square, and goes through a down-triangle.

If we just follow the suggested path, we see that it fulfills all rules on the screen, but we don't learn anything new. So instead, we want to come up with hypotheses for what each of the three rules correspond to, and then falsify these hypotheses.

Just from looking at this setup, I have the following hypotheses:

  • Like in the earlier levels, the suggested path begins in a circle and ends in a square. This seems like a common theme (maybe in the entire game, or maybe just in world 1, who knows at this point). But does the direction here matter? That is, if I begin the path in the square and end in the circle, does it fulfill all rules? -> Do the experiment. -> It only fulfills rule 3, so direction matters!
  • Continuing from there, a natural assumption is "we have to start in a circle and end in a square". How can we test that? Well, what if we draw only parts of the suggested path? -> Do a few experiments like that. -> If we start in the circle and don't end in the square, rules 1 and 3 are fulfilled, but rule 2 never is. If we don't start in the circle but end in the square, rules 2 and 3 are fulfilled, but rule 1 never is.

So at this point my current best guess for the rules (which I can still refine on future screens) is:

1: start in a circle

2: end in a square

3: ?

Continuing from there:

  • The suggested path goes through a down-triangle but not through an up-triangle. Can we go through an up-triangle? -> Do the experiment, e.g. draw the path circle-upper_triangle-square. -> This path does not fulfill rule 3.
  • What does that suggest for rule 3? Maybe "go through one (or all) down-triangles"? Or maybe "go through no up-triangles"? How can we distinguish those hypotheses?
  • Here's a meta technique that can often help answer questions like this: Ask yourself, which rules are fulfilled if I just draw 1-tile-long paths? -> Do the experiment in each of the 6 tiles. -> All 1-tile paths fulfill rule 3, except the one through the up-triangle. This is inconsistent with rule 3 being "go through one (or all) down-triangles".

So my current best guess for rule 3 is:

3: no up-triangle


So here we basically managed to discern all rules of the level just based on the first screen, and using little trial & error. But if that hadn't been enough, we could've proceeded to the next screen, tried drawing a path based on our current understanding of the rules, and if that path hadn't been valid or we couldn't find any valid path at all, we could've repeated the above-mentioned process.

That's just one approach to this game, but I found it a fruitful one. In particular, many levels have 3+ rules, one or two of which are very simple stuff like "start in a circle", with the remaining rules being the actual challenge of the level; and once you've identified those easy rules, your trial & error experiments become far more purposeful and less wasteful.

Thoroughly confusing game. No, I should say: thoroughly confusing user interface. Some explanation would be good! For example: on the bottom of the screen are circles. I take it these represent the “rules” that the drawn path fulfills? But what does it mean when instead of circles, there’s a single outline oval (well, a roundrect, but let’s not quibble)? Is that… a single rule? Something else? Why does this level (1-1-4) have this oval when the previous three levels have two circles?

I clicked around essentially at random until I got “level completion”. It turned out that, yes, this oval/roundrect did indeed represent a single rule. I still don’t know:

  1. Why an oval instead of a single circle? This is a very odd, and gratuitously confusing, visual design choice.

  2. Why does this level have one rule where the previous three levels have two rules?

  3. What is that rule?

I reserve my judgment on gameplay until I’ve played a little longer, but as far as the UI design goes—thumbs down.

I think the UI is following the same principle as the game itself: You have to try to understand what it does from the few cues that you get.

That may be a good principle of game design, but it is an extremely bad principle of UX design.

tl;dr: The rule circles in the last screen of each level are hidden for game design reasons. This is indicated by the oval shape over the area where the circles would usually be.


First a meta comment: Yeah, the game could be more clear about that. I suspect that the reason why the game doesn't explain this detail is that explaining details in-game requires language, which requires translation to a ton of languages, which is costly for a small developer. So indie games instead lean on existing intuitions, on nonverbal communication, and on players figuring things out by trial and error. Usually that works out fine; sometimes it doesn't, even in high-budget games. I managed to play one of the AAA Dark Souls games for 30 hours before understanding some central mechanic, which was surely not intended by the devs...

Now, on to your actual question. First, my terminology: The game consists of regions, levels, and screens. 1-1-4 would be the fourth screen of the first level in the first region. Each level (like 1-1) has a unique set of rules to figure out, but these remain the same between screens, so 1-1-4 has the same rules as 1-1-1 to 1-1-3.

Because the game's main challenge is usually to discover the rules in a level, but the game can only test this by asking for valid paths, many early levels would be easy to solve by purely brute-force drawing of paths without actually understanding the level's rules. The rule circles (= one circle per unique rule which the path must fulfill in this level) are very helpful to discover the rules but also help for brute-forcing ("just draw a path on each screen until all circles light up"). So that's presumably why the dev hid these rule circles on the final screen of each level.


Anyway, I appreciate this comment, because seeing such a different experience really makes it clear that people engage with stuff from different starting points, priors, preconceptions, etc. In this case, I could not have predicted that someone would stumble on that part, specifically. (This is not meant as a criticism; I stumble on lots of things that are obvious for others - just rarely in gaming, with which I've grown up.)

One final point: One of my prerequisites for recommending this game was that I developed so-called "trust in the developer". That is, I also had some suboptimal experiences early on (in that I managed to solve 2-ish early levels without being able to articulate the rules), which made me doubt the competence of the dev; but as I played more, my doubts were continually resolved, and by the end when I struggled with a level I had enough trust in the dev not to second-guess them. But developing trust doesn't always happen (whether it would be warranted or not), and when it doesn't, puzzle games become a chore, since it makes one second-guess everything: "maybe the dev is incompetent", "maybe my solution doesn't work because the game is bugged", etc.

Anyway, I hope you'll come to enjoy the game. But if you don't, Steam has a no-questions-asked refund policy within 2h of playtime and 14 days of purchase.

Briefly commenting on this part:

First a meta comment: Yeah, the game could be more clear about that. I suspect that the reason why the game doesn’t explain this detail is that explaining details in-game requires language, which requires translation to a ton of languages, which is costly for a small developer. So indie games instead lean on existing intuitions, on nonverbal communication, and on players figuring things out by trial and error.

It’s possible that this is indeed the reason that the developer would give (I really couldn’t say, so let’s assume so)—but if so, it would be a very lazy excuse. Nothing prevents you from putting in icons and text! (Indeed, that’s the standard approach to such things, in UX design.) And then, if translating/localizing said text is too much work (which is likely), you can just… not translate it. Anyone who doesn’t speak English can rely on the the icons. But most people who’ll be playing the game do speak English, so this would be strictly superior, and massively so.

This seems uncharitable. The real world is more complicated than that, so things are almost never strictly superior. (Usually the answer to "why don't people pick up this free 20-dollar-bill on the ground?" is "it doesn't exist".)

Specifically with regards to translations, a dev tells Steam which languages their game is available in, and then Steam displays this game only to customers who both understand these languages and have told Steam that they want to see games in those languages. (I suspect other app stores have similar policies?) So you either fully translate your game, or lose sales, or lie to a store that could kick you off for lying. In case of Understand, the dev chose to make a game with basically no in-game text, and a fully translated store page.

But most people who’ll be playing the game do speak English

This is possibly true, but not necessarily so. For instance, here is the Steam language user survey for August 2021. The direct English-speaking proportion is only 33.6%, and I don't know what percentage of Chinese- or Russian-speaking Steam users can also speak English.

Finally, if most people on Steam spoke Chinese rather than English, I suspect you would not advocate for games to display icons + Chinese text, if translating stuff was too cumbersome.

If Steam policy is as you say, then we can certainly blame Steam for the UI being bad—we can say “Steam policies enforce bad UIs”—but in no way whatsoever does that make the UI less bad, nor does it make a hypothetical UI just like this one except with English text any less strictly superior.

I do not agree that “things are almost never strictly superior”. In my experience (and UX design and software development is what I do for a living), things are often strictly superior. People’s reasons for not doing the strictly superior thing are bad reasons much more often than they are good reasons.

I'd definitely prefer just icons to "icons plus text in a language I don't understand". The text would be visually distracting, and I'd be wondering what it meant and whether it was trying to tell me something I hadn't yet figured out.

This is an easily solvable problem: allow the user to toggle the text labels off (but default to them being on).

Folks, these are not new UX design challenges. On the contrary, they are long-solved problems; they’ve been solved for decades. There is no reason to suddenly reinvent the wheel, or to start violating established best practices. Doing so will just result in confused and annoyed users—as it has here.

Honestly I don't think that would solve it for me? For one I need to find, without text, the way to turn the labels off. For two, even if I succeed, it won't be visually distracting any more but I'll still be wondering what it meant and whether it was trying to tell me something I hadn't yet figured out.

Fantastic game, thanks for recommendation!

Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

Seeing how you do math research, do you share my sense that this game requires / benefits from some basic skills that are also required in rationality and research, albeit at a necessarily much shallower level?

I don't know about skills plural, but the game definitely drilled in that particular skill of aiming to falsify one's hypotheses instead of just confirming them. That's a skill well worth a dozen hours of deliberate practice in my opinion.

I got it mostly for my kids but I tried and got into it for a dozen levels. :-)

I wonder how machine learning would handle this game. Can it figure out the rules?

How would you operationalize that?

One problem here is that the game cannot test whether you understand the rules, it can only test whether the paths you draw follow the rules. In principle most regular levels (not including the meta-level at the end of each region) could be solved with an extremely tedious brute-force approach of drawing random paths.

So what would it mean for the ML system to figure out the rules? Maybe you could give it the goal to "minimize the number of paths you need to draw in a level to solve it"; but then you separately have to train the system somehow, and what is your training data in a game with handcrafted rather than randomly generated levels?

I'm not sure and that's the point. I would say your description matches real-life problems quite a bit which makes this applicable to quite a few research topics in AI. 

I don't have any of the prerequisites to play this, but I've set myself a six-month reminder to see if it's available on Android.

I do not currently expect there to be an Android port (e.g. some of the meta puzzles in the game play around with features of operating systems, which could not just be ported over), but maybe the dev will make one.

But I'm a bit confused as to what prerequisites you think the game requires. It requires a desktop computer (or laptop) and an operating system (Windows or macOS are natively supported, and according to a comment thread Linux probably also works; have added this to the main post), plus the Steam game client (freely downloadable on all OSes from their website; see the final section of the post).

some of the meta puzzles in the game play around with features of operating systems, which could not just be ported over

Ah, thanks. It looked like it would be a fairly easy port.

"Any of the prerequsites" was admittedly an exaggeration. I don't have Steam and don't really want to get it, partly because then I'd likely play more games. (Plus I dunno if it would work on my eight-year-old personal laptop, and it would be crossing ethical boundaries on my work laptop. Plus I'd have to look into how much I trust the client, whether I need to bother with sandboxing, etc.) Nor do I have Windows or macOS, and it sounded like Proton was one extra complication but maybe it's easy.

Sure, fair enough. I would be somewhat surprised if an 8-year-old laptop couldn't run Steam and this game (it's a <20 MB indie title consisting entirely of static images; I expect any browser to be more resource-intensive than that), but can absolutely understand not wanting to install a game client.

This reminds me, a little, of a similar post:

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/gvCwotnq2cBTYqEsS/no-really-there-are-no-rules

(Game: Baba Is You)

Yes, Baba is You is a great puzzle game (and as I mentioned, even the Understand dev cited it as an inspiration). I would personally have been a bit hesitant to recommend it here (see the section "Why Recommend a Game on LW?" in my post), but I did enjoy it myself.

Can this be played on Linux? I was about to buy on Steam but noticed it only listed Windows and macOS system requirements and I don't want to buy something that'll sit in my library unplayable.

I'm a bit out of my depth here since I've never interacted with Linux in anything but a rudimentary manner. Everything that follows is stuff I've just looked up.

Anyway, the game does not officially support Linux, but according to users it seems to run fine in Proton, which makes sense as it's a lightweight 18-MB game with no demanding hardware requirements.

What is Proton?

Proton is a new tool released by Valve Software that has been integrated with Steam Play to make playing Windows games on Linux as simple as hitting the Play button within Steam. Underneath the hood, Proton comprises other popular tools like Wine and DXVK among others that a gamer would otherwise have to install and maintain themselves.

How to enable Proton / Steam Play?

It can be enabled in Steam -> Settings -> Steam Play. (A screenshot of the settings page can be found in step 3 here.)

(That "Steam Play" option is not available for me. I'm not sure if that's because I've installed Steam on a Windows 7 PC, or because it's only available in the Steam beta branch. If it's the latter, you'll first have to join it via Steam -> Settings -> Account -> Beta Participation -> Change -> Steam Beta Update, and then probably restart Steam.)

Then what?

Anyway, once you've enabled Proton, apparently you can just start Understand as if you were on Windows. ProtonDB says that the game will run just fine, but if you buy the game and it still doesn't work, Steam has a no-questions-asked refund policy within 2h of playtime and 14 days of purchase. Or I could gift you a copy for your troubles, and if you can't run it on Steam with Proton, you can still refund it and I'll apparently get the money back.

This seems to be a good solution. It worked for my machine out of the box (after clicking though some warnings about how I understand that this is experimental).

https://www.protondb.com/app/1299400