Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The game that plays itself

Delicate decision-making: what videogames to bring on my honeymoon? The best, most sensitive decision, the decision least likely to be greeted with howls of outrage were it discussed on a daytime talk show, would be to leave all the bleep-blorp at home, but... the hand-to-mouth nature of freelance livin' demands constant production; I had to keep working, if only half-assedly.

Then came the Facebook message: A friend has invited you to play Dungeons & Dragons Tiny Adventures. Hey... a light RPG experience, delivered via a platform I'm going to be accessing at least once a day anyway, with that nerd-irresistible flavor of D&D branding? This could be the answer...

I have a long and loving history with Dungeons & Dragons off the tabletop, dating back through the Baldur's Gate games and Planescape: Torment, through the SSI “gold box” titles and on to the two Intellivision cartridges. These were both great carts, but while The Treasure of Tarmin dazzled with its first-person perspective and exciting lightning-bolt-throwing action, it was the earlier game – titled, simply, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – that provided what is still my all-time favorite onscreen D&D moment.

The thing about the Intellivision AD&D game was, it had no onscreen stats display, no radar or health bar or ammo counter. Everything was organic and immersive; in the highly abstracted mountain mazes you moved through, your health was represented by the color of your little adventurer dude, the proximity of enemies expressed through the sound of their moving and breathing in the darkness, your stock of precious arrows counted out by a series of clicks. There have been few situations in my life of videogaming that have given me goosebumps – I'm getting goosebumps now, just thinking of it – like the moment, standing at the threshold of a pitch-black chamber from which emanate the growls of a riled-up dragon, when I'd press the “count arrows” button and hear a single, dismal click. A wonderful expression of the mystery and terror of dungeon-delving, that was.

Dungeons & Dragons Tiny Adventures on Facebook, not so much. You fire it up, choose your intrepid adventurer from a handful of pregenerated characters based directly on the illustrations from the pen-and-paper Players' Handbook, give him or her a name, and that's it for character creation. In fact, that's pretty much it for all meaningful player input. I'd stumbled upon the perfect game to review on a honeymoon: D&D Tiny Adventures, it turns out, is the game that helpfully plays itself.

Click on the “FIND ADVENTURE” button and select a mission, and your character moves through encounters at ten-minute intervals, with all ability checks and combat rolls taking place automatically whether the “player” (more of a “reader”, actually) is looking at the page or not. Click the button, walk away, and an hour later come back and read all about what your guy got up to in the spooky forest or dank sewers or abandoned mansion or wherever while you were taking care of important real-life business. After a little light loot management, you can just click the game's single control – FIND ADVENTURE – and start the process over again, a totally automated fantasy trip.

Under ordinary circumstances, this would be unacceptably lame. This past week, though, it's been a nice little diversion. I'll wake up and send halfling rogue Boson Darkmatter (character name ripped from Google News sci/tech headlines!) on some fantastic errand, go get some breakfast with the lady, do some shopping, maybe visit a gallery or museum, and when next I open my laptop, taking advantage of the WiFi at some bar or cafe, there'll be a whole little swords-n-sorcery (well, at this point, rusty-daggers-n-potions) narrative waiting for me. More often than not, it's a narrative of humiliation and defeat – the automated die-rolling algorithm has phenomenally cold hands – but, hey... it's not my fault!

Zero effort, zero frustration. Zero input, zero attachment. Dungeons & Dragons Tiny Adventures might just be the future, the equivalent of no-calories, no-caffeine sodas, a completely virtual game experience for busy, busy people who can't be bothered with the hassle of actually playing something themselves. It's an almost mystical experience, transcendentally empty.

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