Friday, September 01, 2006

13 casual hours

Aching wrists and a spine like split timber, eyes fogged and belly rumbling with the vicious chemistry of instant decaf and windfallen sour apples from the tree outside my window, a thick mat of emoticon-download and online-casino popunders carpeting my desktop… welcome to my 2 a.m., the finish line of 13 hours of immersion in what the voice of ‘net marketing calls “the casual game space.”

Whether it’s one of the teeming millions of colour-matching crystal games, a cutesy little cartoon puzzler, some kind of Lemmings knockoff, a retro-arcade joint, a piece of pretentious “interactive fiction” or an abstract block of braintwisting logic exams for the Mensa set, a small game, browser-based, is meant to be quick-playing, a pick-up and put-down coffeebreaker. And so they are, most of them; design quality and play value are such that the addiction factor on any single web diverson is pretty low. But in aggregate, as a steady stream, when moving from game to game to game is itself the addiction? Shit.

Most clicktrancing office drones and bored housepersons have at least a rough sketch of a social structure around them, setting limits on how many glasseyed minutes can be indulged. Today, here, it was just me, my electric kettle, my apple basket, my coffee-spattered iBook and gamelet after gamelet semi-randomly clicked up from the bottomless archives of casual-games blog Timewasting becomes research -- becoming painful timewasting again when the time-to-fee calculations put me down below five bucks and hour. The genre’s target market, however, is all on the clock.

This is the future of gaming, in two (maybe three) ways. First, it’s where the money is; after a brief post-bubble bust, online ad revenues have been taking off like a motherfuck, and game pages, places where eyeballs rest for long periods of time, are prime real estate.

Second, it’s consumer development. Unlike all but the most esoteric movies and music, videogames require a complex core of fundamental skills and vocabulary in order to be consumed and appreciated, a core that needs to be learned. For the games market to grow there need to be more gamers, and Mom-simple casual games are the recruiting office, the training centre… the “first one’s free” schoolyard gateway drug that’ll lead (so the hope goes) to Bev from HR becoming a hardboiled (poached firm, at least) gamer on her own time and dime.

But for a lifetime gamer, the trivial shit that clogs the casual pipe doesn’t hold much in the way of appeal; I played Columns on Sega Game Gear and Sokoban on a PC with a CGA card, and I don’t really need ten-score different ways of matching gems or shoving boxes now. What got me snagged this morning, afternoon, evening and night – god damnit! – was a constant parade of point-and click adventures.

I still can’t believe it; is there a style of gameplay more predictable and formal? From how many rooms did I escape this afternoon? How many spooky mansion murder-mysteries did I unravel, methodically mousing over static scenes with an eye on the pointer, watching for it to change into the little hand that indicates something clickable? How many safes did I find behind paintings… and how many combinations did I find scrawled in the likeliest of unlikely places? How many machines did I repair, how many oddly-shaped stones did I slot into oddly-shaped depressions? Answer: lots. The genre is ancient, its mechanics worn and familiar, its conventions calcified… what kept me playing for hours, through dozens?

Ironically, it was the variety. Not in the fundamentals – most point-and-clicks that attempt genre-defiance come out unplayably obscure – but in the production, the aesthetics; from atmospherically photorealistic horror riffs with grade-A spooky soundtracks through clunky “tongue-in-cheek” adventures drawn in MS Paint and written by nerds for whom the word “wombat” is the distilled essence of comedy, the point-and-click form comprises the whole of human artistic inclination and abilty. It’s been inspirational, really.

And that’s the third way in which casual games are the future of gaming: they’re the segment that can be participated in directly by independent creators, the last refuge of the one-man development shop. Slick commercial releases aside, the bulk of little games are the products of individuals or small groups working with little or no funding, and the variety on display puts the mainstream mass-market to shame. Casual games are the industry’s experimental laboratory, the punk underground. Could I design a MMORPG better than World of Warcraft? No. But could I design an hourlong point-and-click adventure scarier than Exmortis or funnier than The Goat in the Grey Fedora…?

Probably not; indy game creation may be within common reach, but it’s pretty far out of my grasp. Making an adventure game – like making music, making pictures, making movies – still takes shitloads of work… and don’t think I haven’t half-assedly begun and abandoned my own projects. Like most people, I’m content with – worse than content; hypnotized, /sedated/ by – grazing on this huge field of work, filling otherwise productive hours with the endless diversions of others’ imaginations… casually.

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