Ask people which superpower they’d want, and you’ll likely hear the same answers. Flight. Super-strength. Invisibility. You’re less likely to hear about the unusual ones—say, the ability to literally reshape the planet to fit your needs. Such an ability is the crux of Carto, a cozy adventure game that grants you enormous power but not so much responsibility.
First released in October for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Switch, and PC, Carto casts you as the titular budding cartographer. At the start of the game, Carto is traveling the world, via airship, with her grandmother, herself a map enthusiast. Lightning strikes the airship. Carto, along with a whole lot of map pieces, tumbles out, and wakes up in an unfamiliar land. A familiar start for sure, but Carto is blessed with that unfamiliar power of, you know, total spatial reconstruction.
Carto’s map is shown as a set of terrain-affiliated tiles: forest, coastline, what have you. At any point in the game, you can pop open the map, pick those tiles up, rotate them, move them, and place them anywhere else. You can even do so for the tile you’re standing on, an easy way to transport yourself around the world. The only catch is that, Bejeweled-style, you have to match the terrain of any tile’s border to the adjacent one. You can’t mesh a forest tile with a grassland one, for instance. But if that forest tile is half-grassland, you can rotate it and get the two to sit together.
It’s a lot like Fez, in that the fundamental mechanic can make one question the nature of perspective, the limits of observation, and the shaky foundation on which everything we can perceive—and not perceive—is built on.
How you shape the map has real ramifications for the world you traverse, and is essential for solving Carto’s puzzles. The game’s core mechanic—pick up tiles, rearrange as necessary—stays the same, but the individual puzzles don’t repeat. Say someone mentions meeting at a pier on the north shore. But the pier tile is currently on the south side of the island you’re on. Okay, you figure, I’ll need to find a place for it on the north shore. Easy enough. Pick up the pier tile and connect it to the island you’re on so it faces north. You won’t find that same exact quandary again, though.
Other puzzles might have you assemble river tiles in a neat circle, or restructure the map to herd sheep, or place forest tiles according to the exact direction a fallen tree points. And the only way you’ll figure out what to do is by interacting with the environment, be that by speaking with other characters or, every now and then, reading literal signs. It’s a brilliant little trick to get you engaging with every corner of the world.
Sometimes, the puzzles are hinged on environmental cues that are just a bit too subtle to register; the game doesn’t always clearly communicate your goals. At one point, I spent what felt like the length of a poorly paced DC movie wandering around a forest. A quick visit to ole Google told me I had to pay attention to which direction the trees swayed in the wind...but the trees swayed back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. So even after cheating (sue me), solving that puzzle required some frustrating trial and error.
But by and large, Carto’s puzzles have, so far, hit the sweet spot. Even those with painfully clear solution methods (create a viable dirt path by, get this, connecting the dirt path tiles) take a few tries to nail down. They’re never too easy, but you never feel stupid for missing an obvious answer. If Goldilocks sought a puzzle game, she’d end up playing Carto.
All of this is wrapped in the warm embrace of a twee aesthetic that extends beyond the already very twee visuals. A walk through the trees buzzes with the same crickets you’d hear while staying at a lakeside cabin. Solving a puzzle triggers an upbeat, minimalist musical cue. You befriend a worm that looks like it crawled out of Eric Carle’s beautiful mind. There’s a persistent pleasantness that gives the sense nothing bad, really, will come to pass.
The stakes aren’t terribly high, anyway. Yes, your ultimate goal is to reunite Carto with her grandma, which sounds grave. But nana constantly stays in touch through notes scrawled on paper airplanes. (See? So twee.) As the nights stay long and the days get colder, Carto is just the type of small, cozy game I’m hoping to get lost in. And when I’m done, maybe a budding cartographer will help me find my way back to our bigger, broader, less comforting reality.