When you write about games, the temptation is to write about proper games: the ones the people in the know play, for which you have to actually invest in a console or a top-end PC, and which come with a cast-iron guarantee that they’ll eat your life until you finish them (or for all eternity, in the case of the Elder Scrolls). But I realised the other day that I currently spend more time playing games on my iPhone than I do on my Xbox. And since mobile games are being touted as the saviours of the industry – just look at EA’s recent $1.3 billion buyout of Popcap – it seemed time to show them some love.
It used to be Angry Birds, the game everyone and their grandma loves. The trouble is, I apply the same level of crazed completism to ‘casual’ games that I do to RPGs. I didn’t just have to finish every level of Angry Birds, I had to get three stars in every level. And I didn’t just have to get three stars in every level, I had to find every single egg too. I’d like to say I had fun, but the truth is it was soul-destroying. By the time I was on my 100th try at getting that pointless red bird to pass through enough glass bricks, there was absolutely no pleasure left in it. It was just a grim obligation.
Happily, my need for Angry Birds has waned. And like all junkies, I’ve replaced one addiction with another and am now hooked on Popcap’s own Peggle, a sort of pinball with frills and a slightly strained sense of humour. Still, you’ve got to admire a game which calls its sequel Peggle Nights and plays Ode To Joy at you when you complete a level. Unlike Angry Birds, which thrives off my inner barely contained aggression, there’s something slightly Zen about Peggle. I could almost meditate to the sight of the ball swirling elegantly along a row of pegs, hitting the purple points-booster and then landing in my free ball tray. Unfortunately, the same idiotic need to beat absolutely everything remains and, since I don’t think I’ll ever clear all the pegs on all the levels, it apparently means I’m going to be playing Peggle for the rest of my natural life.
The thing about these games is that they’re compulsion without very much actual enjoyment. Psychologists have figured out a lot of what makes gamers keep gaming: it has to do with things like the variability of the interval between rewards and the ratio of the reward to the effort involved. Many casual games feel like they’ve been created by people with the results of all those psychology experiments on the desk beside them. They’re highly refined, and by that I mean that they contain too many E numbers and saturated fats, not that they have upper-class accents and impeccable table manners. If Morrowind is chewing coca leaves while wandering the Peruvian Andes, Angry Birds is selling your cat to a passing stranger for the next rock of crack.
Of course, there are other sorts of mobile games out there. I downloaded Zenonia ages ago, but still haven’t bothered trying it, mainly because it looks dangerously like a JRPG. Not that I have anything against the Japanese, obviously. But I do have something against their RPGs – mainly the fact that they make me want to gouge out my eyes so I don’t have to look at all those spiky-haired, barely pubescent heroes and then shove my eyeballs in my ears so I don’t have to listen to any of the god-awful dialogue.
On the other hand, I have played through both Puzzle Quest games, which include as many random encounters as Hironobu Sakaguchi will have to fight his way through during his ironic punishment in hell. Puzzle Quest is a very weird game, an RPG in which battles are fought on a Bejeweled board. And yet it includes quite a lot of genuine RPG elements: levelling up to get better stats and more skills on a variety of different trees depending on your class, not to mention collecting gold to buy better weapons and armour and even creating runes to upgrade them. All of these things, of course, are achieved by playing yet more games of Bejeweled. There is, and let me be very clear about this, a lot of playing Bejeweled involved in playing Puzzle Quest. But I still finished the whole damn thing.
All of which brings me, by a torturously circuitous route, to a link David sent me this week. It’s… Actually, I can’t begin to describe it. Here it is:
The thing is, you could only make this about a game like Oblivion. I have seen an Angry Birds comedy sketch – it’s about the peace talks between the birds and the pigs. But I’ve just told you the whole joke. The Oblivion YouTube doesn’t even really have a punch line. It’s funny if you’re familiar with the game because of the way it uses actual events and locations in an utterly daft way, because its silliness subverts the essential earnestness of the Elder Scrolls, because we all know what to expect when a sorcerer does a summoning spell, and it isn’t… that.
That YouTube encapsulates why I’ll never love casual games the way I love proper ones, no matter how much I play them. Proper games make me feel like I’m part of something, but casual games just make me feel like I’m doing something, and I’m not always even enjoying it.