Sometimes, odd mixtures make for great new experiences. Chilli and chocolate; prawns, mayonnaise and tomato ketchup; peanut butter and jam (jelly for those Stateside). Girls Like Robots is one such mélange, with developer Popcannibal putting social awkwardness, small-town Americana and tile-based play into a blender. The result is a remarkably smart game where you place tiles representing girls, nerds, robots and pie (among others) in the best places on a grid to keep the social group happy as twanging strings play soothingly in the background.
The relationships start simple, but soon get complex. Girls like robots and robots like girls, but robots can’t handle being completely surrounded by them. Nerds get their kicks from being near girls and edges, but dislike each other. Everyone loves pie except robots, who just can’t compute its awesomeness. And this is merely the beginning, with fish, cows and bugs all steadily drip-fed into the mix.
It may sound hard to keep track of, but the UI includes a thermometer-like guage that measures the overall warmth of feeling both visually and numerically. Positive relationships score points; negative ones subtract from your tally. Reach the goal score to progress to the next level (though you can skip ahead if you’re stuck), with two higher marks serving to reward the emotionally intelligent – the game’s equivalent of the classic three-star grading system.
While the blend of puzzling and smile-raising, oddball narrative that ties each level together would be strong enough to carry off a three-act structure, GLR delights in energetic remixes of its core ideas. You might be asked to bounce glow bugs off ladybugs into king bugs, eschewing a regular grid altogether. You might be given only the power to switch the positions of tiles on a full grid. Or you might need to make the bottommost row of a stadium pileup ecstatic, clearing it Tetris-style before the whole stack comes tumbling down like some nightmarish human Jenga tower.
Such is the pace at which new concepts are introduced that while the difficulty curve is occasionally uneven, the inventiveness on display rarely ceases to delight. Some ideas are onscreen for barely 30 seconds, but very few feel throwaway. In this respect, it shares a lot of its charm with the best Mario games.
There are small gripes – having to use an undo button rather than pick tiles back off the grid irks in ‘standard’ scenarios, for instance – but they slowly melt away in the face of such eclectic gameplay. Seating arrangements have rarely felt so intelligent, knowing, or inventive.