One of the most basic pleasures of video games is pandemonium. Players of Grand Theft Auto can attest to the joys of an unscripted five-star police chase through oncoming traffic. First-person shooter fans know that delicious moment of anticipation right before you are seen by the enemy and the whole clockwork world throws a fit. The very sight of you disrupts the established order of guard patrols and lame banter. Even the cuter encounters of Angry Birds and Super Mario are given to mayhem, leaving the dreams of pigs and turtles in pieces by level’s end. It’s as if nothing untoward ever really happens in the world of the game until you and your chaos come along.
Of course, there are plenty of games that go the other way. As agents of order we plan, we rearrange, we make our mental to-do lists. Puzzles in games satisfy our urge to put everything in its right place. Whatever is out of whack, we’ll gladly put back in whack. Many turn-based RPGs keep their randomness calculable so our own diligence and strategy will hold sway. We still kill, but we’re more civilized about it. And if you’ve ever seen any elaborate Minecraft projects, then you know what a domesticated landscape looks like once a randomly generated world has lost its randomness. It’s amazing how you can be traveling in the blocky wilds and then see on the horizon, before you even know exactly what you’re looking at, the unmistakable signs of intention, craft, control. Your eyes, they just know: A human has been there.
Tower defense games take up the tension between order and chaos directly. They are essentially a series of last stands against an ungovernable horde. This horde has numbers, doggedness, good shoes, optimism. You have technology, currency, a land claim, your master plan. Your decisions are remarkably few: where to place your “towers,” when to upgrade them, where and when to intervene on the ground. If you are efficient, responsive, and know how to best distribute your resources, your little kingdom will not perish from the earth.
Tower defense games are most satisfying when things are almost, but not quite, out of control. Plan poorly and you’ll be quickly overrun; plan too well and the game basically plays itself. But when you can just match the rush with fortification, meet the swelling crowds with a steady hand, the sensation is something like watching waves crash against a rocky shore. You can see the tide and imagine what it would feel like if it washed over you and pulled you out to sea. But you can also feel the land beneath you, holding fast, not breaking, not this time.
When I heard about the first Plants vs. Zombies, I had no idea why these two species were pitted against each other. Weren’t both fundamentally disinterested in anything besides sun, water, and brains? I hadn’t yet played a tower defense game, but the rooted vs. shambling distinction made sense once I did. These were old-school zombies, slow but relentless, versus genetically modified plants, bred to defend the suburban lawn. The main adventure did a fine job of introducing its roster of plant towers and zombie mobs along with believable circumstances (nighttime, pools, angled roofs), all while steadily tightening the screws. It looked like farming, it felt like war, and the whole package was both icky cute and surprisingly cohesive.
The sequel is more of the same, which turns out to not be nearly enough. The subtitle says “It’s About Time.” It’s not. It’s about some new plants, some new zombies, a few historically themed gameplay changeups, and a boatload of freemium tweaking. Some critics have applauded its relatively unobtrusive implementation of free-to-play elements. By unobtrusive, they mean you can still play through the game without paying (which is also true of Candy Crush Saga now that King has removed the content gates). They must also mean unobtrusive like air, since the freemium price tag is now everywhere and you can’t help but breathe it in. Because Plants vs. Zombies 2 isn’t as luck-based as Candy Crush, that same sense of distrust and paranoia doesn’t quite creep in. Instead, it introduces a constant economic calculation into your game experience, which always leads me back to one question: Is this really worth my time? (OK, maybe the game is about time.)
My answer is ultimately no. In practice, this approach to free-to-play means grinding through old levels with added restrictions to earn stars and keys that unlock new worlds, plants, and powers. But this sequel just isn’t interesting enough to sustain that, especially if you’ve played the first game. The core experience — the sun-gathering, the grid, the plants you come to rely on — is simply too repetitive. PopCap certainly tries to mix it up (there are nearly as many mini-games as plain old tower defense levels), and some of the new gameplay elements are compelling enough (the old West’s mine cart tracks that give your plants mobility, and the lane-changing player-piano zombies are particularly cool). But the attractively isometric, almost Crystal Castles–style map offers too many bite-size choices and not enough motivation to complete any particular one. The first game offered a cohesive experience in crisis management and suburban warfare that didn’t allow you to progress until you had actually improved. Plants vs. Zombies 2 says this: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try a different level. Or please, enjoy this generous game-breaking power-up. We don’t want you to experience a moment’s frustration. To which I can only say, why bother defending the lawn at all?
Kingdom Rush Frontiers suffers many of the same sequel faults as Plants vs. Zombies 2. It is essentially more of the same, an expansion rather than a true sequel, and I wouldn’t even call its few changes improvements. Yet it keeps a tight focus on what it does well: overwhelming numbers, simple but strategically varied options, onscreen bedlam. It cuts out all the resource gathering that drags down the beginning of each PvZ level; it builds optional challenges around established elements, not one-off carnival attractions; and it focuses on space, its twisting paths and choke points, as the grounds for all strategic choices. This adds up to a far more distilled, resonant experience of being almost, almost out of control.
In Kingdom Rush Frontiers, your options for responding to any present emergency are very limited. You can’t continually plug holes in the dam; you must think in broader terms, across the entire system you are building. Whereas Plants vs. Zombies 2 fills the screen with clutter and demands your constant attention so that you are always reacting in the moment, like a waiter with too many tables, that moment is usually too late in Frontiers. Instead, you must continually analyze the traffic onscreen and plan long-term solutions rather than simply manage frantic busyness. This leaves you engaged but not so rattled, and it results in a small but significant difference: In Frontiers, you get to regularly sit back and watch the enemy waves crash against you. You set things in motion, you analyze and adjust, and all the while you are given moments to observe the chaos and be awed.
The trouble with all this is that the experience has no natural end. You don’t come to tower defense simply to win — what is winning but a brief respite before the next attack, for defense has no end. You come to feel your order, your personal bureaucracy, a worthy match for the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world. Grapefrukt’s Rymdkapsel takes a different approach to containing the tower defense experience by downplaying the defense and focusing on the tower (or space capsule, in its case). It’s more real-time strategy game than true tower defense, and the enemy light beams that do come threaten with increasing speed rather than overwhelming numbers. It has only one scenario with three goals, not a series of levels, and as such is designed to end. Not end as in run out of content, but end by reaching its natural conclusion, completing its thought.
What is Rymdkapsel thinking about? Judging by reviews, you’d think it has something to do with minimalism, as this is what is most remarked upon and easiest to see in screenshots. But its minimalism is not just an aesthetic choice. What it reveals is Rymdkapsel’s fundamental concern with space, the forms we use to shape it, and how these forms fit together and allow passage.
In this case, the forms are tetrominoes. Tetris pieces have proven remarkably supple over the years, from their puzzle piece origins to Fez’s repurposing as hieroglyphics for secret codes to this more practical consideration as hallways and rooms. Rymdkapsel’s minimalism makes clear that all the familiar RTS elements it employs are secondary to how you use these pieces to lay out your space capsule. Everything depends on efficient paths for your minions so that they can both reach resources and man the towers in time. Since tetrominoes are randomized for each game and a single game is relatively long (compared to PvZ2 and Frontiers), layout choices really matter. They cannot simply be undone and optimized. You’re going to have to live with them a while.
Rymdkapsel shares with Frontiers a fundamental concern with space, but the potential chaos you have to stem in that space is internal. Ultimately, it is not rebuffing some external threat but managing your hapless minions that defines Rymdkapsel’s true challenge. You must seek a steady flow of traffic in your space capsule rather than the blockage typical of most tower defense games, and in this way the game literalizes that old adage: Get your own house in order. At least before you go invoking the castle doctrine.
Tower defense games seem harmless enough, but there is a troubling current running through them, one that Kingdom Rush Frontiers makes particularly clear. The frontiers of its title (desert, jungle, mountain cave, tropical island) are untamed spaces peopled by stereotypical savages: nomads, tribesmen, and a variety of beasts that read as distinctly “other” (thick-skinned lizard men and Lovecraftian horrors from the ocean depths). Your sky-bound towers represent not only order but civilization itself amid these teeming barbarians. They have numbers, sure, but even this is an implicit criticism. If only they could organize themselves as we have, do some family planning, then maybe we could talk. Instead, we invade their lands, set up camp, and declare new borders. “For the king!” your men declare. “For honor and glory!” What else can you call this but colonization?
Even Plants vs. Zombies, with its cultivated fields and suburban domestication, pits your civilizing impulse against the unwashed masses, those who want nothing more than to deprive you of your refined, scheming brain. Even two of its sequel’s time periods, the pirate seas and old West, are settings defined by their lawlessness. You must play the new sheriff in town, the new captain of the ship. Mastering every variable, dominating every field, watching the heathen waves crash against your agricultural might.
You don’t have to contemplate the colonial logic of tower defense to feel something unsavory about the whole experience. I both enjoy this type of game and hope not to play another for a long time. If a control freak resides within you (and mine is irrepressible), then you will already know what it’s like to feel completely engaged while playing but hollowed out and wasted afterward. I judge my video game experiences largely on what, if anything, still lingers hours and days later. Being compelled at the time of play matters, but that often turns out to be rather thin gratification. With tower defense, though, it’s not that it leaves nothing behind. Part of my mind remains a clenched fist, still poring over mental maps. It’s that this feels like a compulsion rather than an engagement with my imagination. I am left with something fearful in me roused, something that would be better left sleeping.
I’m full of plans and to-do lists in everyday life, but I prefer my games to be chaotic, mercurial. Perhaps I’m drawn to difference. Or maybe games provide a safer space to lose control. Of course, most virtual chaos is actually an illusion. Video games are still, in their programmed hearts, on the side of order. They are predictable, repeatable, mannered, and the most dependable source of chaos remains the player. I delight in unintended consequences myself and love when games embrace randomness and resist mastery. Designers, though, worry too much about unduly frustrating players, about being unfair, when the most flagrantly unfair game in modern memory — Candy Crush Saga — has no shortage of players. I’m not advocating for more Candy Crush, but I do want something more lifelike and less gratifying out of games, something that doesn’t play so expertly upon my desire for control. You have to wonder what might be gained if game developers were inspired less by the established order, by the towering edifice of other games, and more by the blooming, buzzing, barbaric world outside the door.