Friday, September 10, 2010

The Fascination with Casual Games

When I have the time and space to be so, I'm a fairly serious about my computer games.  I don't mean I take games seriously - I reserve that distinction for people who are more committed to their World of Warcraft* characters than their real lives.  No, what I mean is, I play games that most people balk at, the kinds of games that people point to when they're talking about why PC gaming is dying (because the games are too complicated for a general audience).  For example, I'm a big fan of Europa Universalis III, a game with a practically vertical learning curve, no victory conditions, and one of the most awful, boring combat systems you'll find in a strategy game.

* Blogger, evidently, thinks "warcraft" isn't a word, as angry red squiggles pop up when I type it (it sugests "watercraft," "aircraft," and "hovercraft" as alternatives, among others).  This is odd because warcraft was a word far before the series of games came into existence.  More hilariously, "Blogger" also induces angry red squiggles.

Another example: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI.  I'm linking to the Metacritic page because the blurbs there tell you a lot.  IGN writes, "The considerable investment of time and focus it takes to begin to enjoy Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is probably enough to turn off most gamers."  Absolute Games says, "The pace of this game is laid-back even by the standards of the 4X strategy genre. Most people will hate it for being obscure and boring."  A particularly harsh review from PC Zone UK muses, "It lacks the logical connections that most strategy games have."

But I love it!  Well, most of it.  The problem with Romance, for me anyway, is not its so-called steep learning curve (I found the game quite easy to get into) or its extreme micromanagement.  Rather, the problem is an abysmal tactical and strategic AI and the rather shallow limits in the number of choices the player can make as leader of his ancient Chinese faction.  The game looks amazing, but its problem is that, far from being too hard, its far too easy.  Add in an atrocious interface designed for console (strategy games on console? really?), and you have the makings of a disappointing title, overall, but for all of the opposite reasons from the ones the reviewers give.

I could list more games, but the point is, I prefer deep, strategic, complex games with challenging AIs.  I prefer turn-based games over real-time games, I prefer games that ask me to design (in one way or another), rather than games that ask me simply to be awed by beautiful graphics and to kill everything that moves.

It might come as a surprise, then, if I say that I am fascinated by a large number of recent Casual Games.  The genre is nothing new - think Bejewelled or even Tetris - but the level to which casual gaming has risen is truly stunning.  In addition to the literally thousands of free flash games - some of which quite good - available at dozens of websites, there have been a handful of standout commercial games in the last few years that I want to mention in particular.  Why?  Because it turns out that a good developer, with some creativity and a good design process, can create a game every bit as deep as a Civilization title without forcing the gamer to spend ten (or twenty, or a hundred) hours playing just to achieve victory.

Osmos is a recent standout.  Not only is the game beautiful in all of its 2D splendor, but it's highly intuitive and incredibly relaxing.  Also, it's one of the single most difficult games I've ever played.  The later levels cannot be defeated by willpower alone; rather, they require intense focus, strategy, and a fairly sophisticated and intuitive understanding of orbital mechanics.  One level in particular - which had me screaming, cursing, walking away from the computer - is so difficult that it took me probably in excess of 50 tries to beat it.  And yet, even in my frustration, I was happy; this was a challenge worth meeting.

Completing F3C-3 (Epicycles 3) from hemisphere games on Vimeo.

The level in question is "Epicycles 3," in the Force tree of the game.  Your goal is to progressively absorb other motes until you're big enough to absorb or otherwise destroy the four "attractors," in the game window.  The tricky thing is, in order to move, you have to expel mass, and thus you're in a constant fight to get larger whilst also moving to the right place.  In most levels, doing this is fairly straightforward - though cleverness and patience are always virtues - but in Epicycles this is a truly Herculean task.  As you can see from the video, the developers of the game realized the level was so difficult that they felt compelled to put up a tutorial just for the level.

Flotilla is a game I haven't played much, but I love that it takes only fifteen minutes or so to complete a play-through.  Often, at least for the beginner, much less.  What makes Flotilla great is its combat system - which is really the whole game.  It's incredibly abstracted, thanks to the wire-frame animations and general lack of graphics, but it has a certain charm to it as well, and the tactical depth is incredible.  Casual though this game may be, it's no walk in the park to play.  As I said, the beginner (like me) is liable to get blown out of the water repeatedly before he gets the hand of how to effectively pilot his ship.  But this is a game where defeat does not weight heavily on you, because you can simply fire up a new ship and get blown to bits by someone else.  And even if you do manage to survive your battles, your "Capitan" is on his proverbial last legs anyway, so death is inevitable.

A similar game to Flotilla, though a bit older, is Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space.  The concept is eerily similar, but the execution very different.  Combat is 2D instead of 3D, and you're much more likely to survive the thing.  Like Flotilla, Weird Worlds takes minutes, not hours, to play, and there's a certain satisfaction in exploring the entire map you're provided at the beginning of each session.  Even better, in Weird Worlds, is all the frankly bizarre stuff that happens.  Sometimes the galaxy gets invaded by a freakish alien menace, sometimes stars go supernova, and sometimes you get sucked into a black hole because you thought you could make it around the thing when you actually couldn't.  Even in death, however, there's always the opportunity to fire up a new 10 minute session and to see what will happen this time.

Passage is a game you've probably never heard of.  It takes five minutes to play, and you'll probably only play it once or twice, but it is truly one of the most fantastic gaming experiences I've ever had.  The play area is only 100 pixels by 16 (4 of which are used for a small scoreboard).  But what it accomplishes with that space is amazing.  It's poetry.  It's art.

I don't want to give the game away, because not knowing what it is makes for much of its charm.  Download it, play it, and be stunned.  You may even cry, it's that good.  And once you've had a chance to play it, I promise to do a whole post on it at a later date.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is somewhere between casual game and traditional PC game.  I say that because actually beating Puzzle Quest - as I have not done - takes as long as beating a normal RPG.  The gameplay is almost all Bejeweled, but the bejeweled puzzles take place as a part of a classic RPG storyline where you, as a young mage/knight/warrior/druid have to fend off some evil nemesis yadda yadda.  Actually, the story is more compelling than you'd think, and the artwork throughout the game is charming and fun.  There are even some (somewhat simplistic, but fun anyway) strategic elements to the game, including building up your castle and choosing which mount to ride into jewely battle.  In all, you don't lose in Puzzle Quest, so it is decidedly casual, but no game is as indicative of the rise of casual gaming in the PC world as it is.

Finally, the crowning jewel of the casual game world, at least to my mind, is 2D Boy's World of Goo.  It is brilliant, both in its fantastic level design and in its humor.  The mechanic is fairly simple and intuitive, and learning the game takes no time at all, but the twists the game's "story" goes through - and the levels with it - are all so wonderfully unexpected and fresh that one wonders why major developers can't find people this creative.  One part in particular - when the goo world suddenly turns into a Tron-like retro 80's look and the gameplay mechanics shift fairly substantially - had me literally jumping up out of my chair in excitement.

What's best about World of Goo, and what makes it perhaps even more emblematic of modern casual gaming than Puzzle Quest, is its wide-ranging appeal.  To a true, serious gamer it is hilarious, full of cynicism and barbs intended for both society at large and the gaming world in particular.  For the truly casual casual gamer, it is both fun to play and intuitive.

For my part, playing World of Goo is easily one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had, on par with more in-depth games like Civilization IV or Mass Effect.  Which surprises me.  I suppose the question is, what makes these simple, mostly 2-dimensional, casual games so compelling?  Or, perhaps more aptly, why are (mostly independent) casual game developers doing such a better job being creative and innovative than big companies like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, or Firaxis?  That's kind of a leading question of course, because a smaller package means it's easier to take risks, and there are a great many casual games that fail to deliver on their innovative promise.  Nevertheless, casual games are becoming more and more prominent, and can deliver - even for a serious gamer - a truly in-depth, strategic, and stimulating gaming experience.  Who knew?

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