Monday, December 16, 2013

Happiness is an idle game

A while ago, I got a request from a journalist. I want to thank him, because he pointed me to something new and interesting, even if I didn't have a good answer to him. What he did was to point me to what so far is called the "Idle game" movement, represented mainly by Cookie Clicker, A Dark Room and Candy Box.

So much for that day - it turned out jet-lag and what I rather want to call "slow reveal" games are a perfect combination. I spent the day clicking back and forth between A Dark Room which soon became a firelit room, Cookie Clicker and Candy Box, revelling in a play experience I didn't know I had missed.

My favourite was A Dark Room, which is probably the reason why I prefer "slow reveal" to "idle". A Dark Room doesn't really let you idle. I have to open that pane regularly to click to gather wood and meat, check if my villagers are sick, build stuff and later go on quests. It has a certain "idle" quality in that once I have clicked a few boxes, I have to wait until resources fill up again, and if I die while questing, I have to wait until I can quest again. But it is not idle in the manner of Cookie Clicker and Candy Box. Right now I am waiting for 379,562,151,938,677 cookies, so I can buy another antimatter converter and make more cookies. I am aiming for 100 antimatter condensers (for now), and the main work I have to do is to wait. To give you an example, while writing the paragraph above, I built a house, three traps and a workshop in A Dark Room, I ate 647 candies in Candy Box (in one click), and waited through another few billions of cookies in Cookie Clicker.

So what are these games? My first immediate thought was Ian Bogost's infamous Cow Clicker. Cow Clicker was designed as a casual game parody, and was quite good at it. So good actually, that people refused to give it up. When Bogost took the cows out of the game, people clicked on the empty box, and wrote about the emptiness of a life without the mooing sound of the virtual cows in the non-game. (Btw - there I hit 379 562 billion and something, and could buy another antimatter condenser.) Like Cow Clicker all the games are highly playful and ironic, and they play with genres as well as with their own progress: layers of meta on top of actual, functional game engines.

Unlike Cow Clicker, they play with much more than one genre. All games are to a certain degree resource allocation games. Cookie clicker is definitely one, where the main goal of the game is to gain resources. It is also about gamification, as what you do is wait for the resources to build up, gain achievements and register progress. There is no risk - even the wrinklers, the monsters that eat at the cookie world, don't really delay the progress that much. I can miss clicking on the occasional golden cookie, but - well - perhaps it's me, but that doesn't feel all that risky.

Candy Box has more action. The candy box part at the beginning feels like Cookie Clicker in that it just allows a very few acts, but in this case, you don't have to click. All you need to do is wait, and while you wait you gain candies. Then you eat some or throw some away or save some, and you wait some more. After a lot of waiting (we see where the "idle" comes from), it's possible to play, and slowly, as you gain more and more resources (candy and lollipops), you can start exploring. This is where the game changes to a more regular old-fashioned adventure, with action! Candies can be used to by gear and upgrades, and by and by you can start outfitting your little avatar and go on adventures all the way to hell. This game even lets you learn how to craft, and crafting is a vital part of making it through the levels.

A Dark Room is my favourite though, with it's almost poetic minimalist beginning, and the explorations into a world that is slowly revealed to the player. This too includes a lot of waiting, but now there is a risk to waiting. My first settlers were deeply troubled by raids, and their traps were constantly ruined, forcing me to rebuild over and over again, for instance. The exploration part of the game was a little slow-reveal game within, as the map was totally unexplored until I started to walk into it - and so I died and died and died again. The game had four phases, one which was just waking up and waiting, one was allocating the initial resources, one was exploring the landscape, and then there is the space flight.

Slow reveal games are perhaps the essence of adventure games, at least Candy Box and A Dark Room. At the same time they are extremely casual, as we don't have to go out and actually do that much of the resource allocation work. No killing of chickens to gather enough feathers for the arrows, no emptying the secret hiding places of every inhabitant in the village for coins. All you need to do is wait, let it run, chck once in a while, when you need to pause anyway, to see how the game progresses. If you're smart, you make a little routine out of it - stretch, check game, back to work. Unlike smoking, it's a casual habit that lets you get out of a rut, take two minutes to reset, without giving you and your environments lung cancer.

And they are not trying to make you spend a lot of money on them. Unlike games like Candy Crush (which I have been playing for a few months now, hardcore mode, which for me means not buying any help), you can just play. The game isn't trying to trick you into anything. It is incredibly liberating after all those casual games on Facebook, where the genius of a small horde of graphic designers is dedicated to making you lust for those micro-transactions.