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Beyond Angry Birds

The many pleasures of iPad games

A few months ago, a producer at a major video-game company startled me by admitting that the economic viability of the triple-A video-game production cycle — the expensive development process, in other words, by which games like Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Uncharted, and BioShock are unleashed upon the world — is in all likelihood doomed. Shortly after that, a developer told me he has a hard time imagining how single-player narrative video games are going to survive in the long run; such games, he believes, will eventually be seen as a historical anomaly. Neither man was particularly thrilled to imagine a future largely absent of the kinds of games he makes and most cares about, but current trends could not be ignored.

I told the developer that he sounded a bit like my fiction-writer friends going on about the inevitable death of the novel. “It takes one person to write a novel,” he told me. “To make the kinds of games we’re talking about, you need several dozen people — probably more like a hundred — with training across several fields. If the money’s not there, which is increasingly the case, the games can’t be made.”

The two most enjoyable console video games I have played in the past six months, Bulletstorm and Dead Space 2, underperformed commercially despite superlative reviews. (Not even the condemnation of Fox News, which asked if Bulletstorm was “the worst video game in the world,” could push that game into best-sellerdom.) Another game I loved, Shadows of the Damned, which was developed by Shinji Mikami and Suda 51, two of the most admired, influential, and eccentric minds in games today, moved something like 26,000 copies in its first month of release. Even recent “successes” like Portal 2 and L.A. Noire, which were reviewed everywhere, failed to sell as many copies as projected.

This is to say it is becoming ever easier to share the crepuscular outlook of my developer friends — if, that is, the kinds of games you most often play are console games. For gamers whose chosen platform is, say, the iPad, the future of the medium seems quite a bit sunnier. I have never been much for handheld games, cell-phone games, or smaller games in general, but after spending several weeks playing games on my iPad, I can say that the best of them provide as much, if not more, consistent engagement than their console brethren. In fact, a really fine iPad game offers an experience in which many of the impurities of console gaming are boiled away. Many of these pure games — less grandly known as “gamey games” — have little of the narrative ambition (or, to put it less kindly, bloat) typical to console games and, as a consequence, don’t bother trying to push the same emo-cognitive buttons. They get in your head, to be sure, but through different passageways. Another way of saying this is that console games do everything in their power to form a relationship with you, which can be great and rewarding and, just as often, aggravating and tedious. iPad games, on the other hand, are like someone you meet in a bar and find yourself screwing in the bathroom 10 minutes later. This is not a criticism.

The first iPad game I played was Angry Birds, which is great and infernal, and about which no one needs to write or say another word. After an obligatory detox period — my dreams had begun to star helmeted pigs protected by slabs of ice — I decided to see what the iPad could do when it came to titles spun off from console franchises. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which was not originally an iPad game and has been available for a while now, is startlingly expansive. Unlike most iPad games, it does its best to tell a full story, which revolves around a young, Chinese gangster-in-training named Huang, whose uncle Kenny is a local crime boss. Unfortunately, the story Chinatown Wars has to tell is not terribly interesting, and its plentiful nonvocalized, cut-scene dialogue (“Great! This could help you regain face.”) falls far below the high standard set by other GTA games. The cell-shaded art design and overall style of Chinatown Wars, however, are first-rate. The game’s top-down perspective is somewhat reminiscent of the first two non-three-dimensional GTA games, and it makes frequent and clever use of the iPad’s touchscreen interface, as when Huang needs to escape from a car that has been plunged into the water. How? Tap the windshield until it breaks, of course.

Busting through a windshield by tapping your iPad screen is cool, and way more kinesthetically appealing than the blunt-instrument-waving interface system of something like the Wii. Somewhat less cool is getting around the world of Chinatown Wars by using the floaty virtual joystick found in the bottom left-hand corner of the iPad screen. GTA games have always been about moving around and getting in trouble. This is the only GTA game in which moving around guarantees you will get in trouble, because it is impossible to travel 16 feet without killing four pedestrians and plowing into the nearest police car. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the iPad is not exactly the premiere platform for driving games. That said, Chinatown Wars is absolutely worth playing, if only for its drug-dealing minigame, in which you tool around town meeting junkies and finger-dragging bricks of coke from your briefcase to their duffle bag, and from which I took slightly more pleasure than felt morally comfortable.

Chinatown Wars brought me into first contact with what I am going to call iPad gaming’s Movement Problem, whereby precision navigation within a given gamespace is complicated by the necessarily imprecise nature of tracing your finger along a touchscreen, which is not helped by the inevitable accumulation of sebaceous oils upon its onyx surface. Mass Effect Galaxy, a spin-off from BioWare’s acclaimed third-person shooter/sci-fi RPG hybrid Mass Effect, tries valiantly to come to terms with the Movement Problem. Moving the game’s player-controlled character — Jacob from Mass Effect 2 — is achieved by tipping the iPad one way or another, thereby allowing the simulated momentum to “carry” Jacob across the screen. Keep in mind that while you are doing this you are also trying to shoot and clobber enemies. It is all about as ungainly as it sounds.

Visceral Games’ iPad run at Dead Space, on the other hand, makes almost no changes to the core gameplay mechanics of the console Dead Space, in which an armored dude carrying gnarly industrial tools wanders dark hallways while pants-crappingly frightening space zombies jump out and attempt to maul him. Playing through the iPad Dead Space is a genuinely scary experience, though a lot of its in-game deaths come cheaply, via the touchscreen interface, which winds up involving a lot of swiping motions and single and double finger-taps, remembrance of which tends to sail out the window when your back is to the wall and the monsters are closing in. (Like a lot of iPad games with complicated combat and movement systems, the game’s tutorial never seems to end.) That the Dead Space-ness of the iPad Dead Space feels so authentic is a small triumph of game design, but I also could not help but wonder, after a while, why the game existed. Dead Space is good but not half as compelling as the console Dead Spaces, and you eventually realize the game is sort of like listening to “Nessun Dorma” played on the theremin: You are too impressed that it is not terrible.

Far and away the best iPad console spin-off is Mirror’s Edge, which, as far as I can tell, solves the Movement Problem completely. The console version of Mirror’s Edge, which was developed by DICE and released in 2008, is a first-person runner that emphasizes parkour movement, deemphasizes combat, and features a story that takes place in a near-future dystopia in a city somewhat like Hong Kong. The goal of the console Mirror’s Edge is to move the game’s heroine, Faith, through urban environments with grace and style, often while people in helicopters are shooting at her. It is one of my favorite games of all time, and I wondered how on earth an iPad game could hope to approximate the unconquerable feeling of flow generated by playing Mirror’s Edge well. Here is how the iPad Mirror’s Edge does it: It preserves the terrific art design of the console Mirror’s Edge — imagine the music of Enya transformed into an urban landscape, painted by Crayola, and ruled by Syngman Rhee — and changes everything else. The iPad Mirror’s Edge is a brisk and largely forgiving side-scrolling platformer that gives you plenty of room to run. The means by which you control Faith are a little sloppy, yes, but so is trying to go from a full sprint to a dead stop in real life. To get Faith running, swipe once; to jump, swipe up; to slide or roll, swipe down; and when Faith is gliding along a zip-line or down the side of a slanted glass skyscraper, tilt the iPad to give her greater momentum, which unlike Mass Effect Galaxy manages to make a kind of vague accelerative sense. The iPad Mirror’s Edge is superb almost in every way, the exception being its story — though “story” would probably be more accurate. According to various load-screen text dumps, you are running Faith from one place to another so she can do things crucial to the plot. I have now played the game through twice and have no recollection of what any of those things were. Is that important? Not really. But it would have been interesting to see the game’s designers attempt to reconfigure the narrative style of Mirror’s Edge as bravely and ingeniously as they reconfigured everything else.

The iPad games with which I had the most intensely compressed bursts of fun were puzzlers. Angry Birds is, of course, a puzzler (also a torment machine), and like all great puzzlers it mixes an unexpected conceit with a pleasing aesthetic world and complicates simple goals with the friction force of straightforward physical laws. Anyone who maintains that video games make you dumber could stand to play a couple of good puzzlers. Whether the form of intelligence exercised and strengthened by puzzlers has any practical application outside of playing puzzlers is another question. Until I find myself in a situation that requires slingshotting large objects at fixed positions, I withhold judgment.

Ratloop’s Helsing’s Fire follows the formula for a good puzzler in an almost disconcertingly calculated way. Unexpected conceit: elaborations on a bunch of stuff nicked from Stoker. Pleasing aesthetic world: two-dimensional 19th century spook-house dungeons. Simple goal: Illuminate and destroy multicolored rats and skeletons with the one-two punch of torches and magic tonics. Friction force: the physics of light within enclosed spaces. The gameplay involves finger-dragging a torch around small rooms (added bonus: If you play Helsing’s Fire in the dark, you get to pretend you have actual fire coming out of your fingertip), and illuminating appropriately colored enemies and leaving inappropriately colored enemies in shadow. When you have your torch properly positioned, you wipe out the enemies with the tonic potion that corresponds to their color. That is the core experience, pretty much, though it gets trickier as the rooms develop more nooks and crannies and the enemies sprout shields. The challenge never rises to iPad-must-be-destroyed frustration, which proved a nice change of pace from a certain other puzzler that shall not be named. The game also has a winning sense of humor, as when, in one of the game’s brief, mostly text-based cut-scenes, Dracula shows up and says to Helsing and Raffton (his droll assistant), “Your collarbones will make nice drumsticks.” However, Lucas Pope and Keiko Ishizaka, the minds behind the game, badly needed a copy editor, as much of their otherwise witty dialogue is marred by elementary usage blunders, such as missing direct-address commas. Petty of me to complain? Maybe. Lazy of them to publish a game with such easily fixable problems? Absolutely.

Firemint’s Flight Control is the best kind of puzzler, in that it strips down a real-world occupation — air traffic control — to its essential components and gently ups the difficulty level until you are convinced that what you are doing is as nerve-wracking as the complicated job it has puzzlefied. I have no explanation as to why using your finger to create flight paths for incoming planes and helicopters and guiding them to their appropriate runways is so transfixing, but really good puzzle games tend to defy rational analysis. It may be that spatial-management games have a deeper evolutionary purpose and prepare us for moments in which the intense consequences of spatial-management failure are not merely fictional. I played a lot of Flight Control on airplanes, which is as inadvisable as a Friday the 13th marathon the night before debarking for summer camp.

I wish I lived in a world in which 2D Boy’s World of Goo was as popular as Angry Birds, because World of Goo is by any metric a more beautiful, involving, and enchanting puzzler — one of the best video games period, in fact, this critic has ever played. Developed with the life savings of two young designers who once punched a clock at Electronic Arts, World of Goo is the rare video game that virtually anyone can enjoy: parents, kids, Call of Duty twitchers, significant others, sentient androids, superintelligent chimps. It is hard to describe the game without using vaguely pornographic language (“In this level, you have to build a goo tower”), but that is part of its charm. Here is a game in which vaguely sexual signifiers collide with vaguely geopolitical imagery: The game world’s “goo,” with which you build teeter-tottery structures, resembles nothing so much as petroleum. It is like seeing a gorgeous piece of sneakily subversive pop art squirm, flex, flow, and topple at your command. The best part of World of Goo is how perfectly suited it is to the iPad’s touchscreen interface, even though its gameplay was originally conceived with a mouse in mind. I have now built goo contraptions with both a mouse and my finger, and the difference between the two is about as severe as that between masturbation and full-on intercourse. The mouse is a serviceable device, certainly, and gets the job done, but using the direct application of a body part to make computer magic removes one crucial layer from the already cyborgian experience of playing video games. World of Goo has been around for almost three years now, so take it from a fresh convert: If you care about games at all and have not yet played it, buy, steal, or borrow an iPad immediately and get on it. World of Goo is that good.

Once upon a time I played a ton of simulation games, most of which were Sim® games. At one point in college I had three cities going in SimCity and two towers going in SimTower and a multicellular organism going in SimLife, and at least 30 percent of my days were being squandered in monitoring and adjusting my creations. Watching (then) unfathomable complexity grow out of my simple decisions proved fascinating and, eventually, despair-inducing. When I finally recognized I was going to be wearing Kleenex boxes for shoes if this kept on, I deleted all three games from my hard drive and never looked back. Consequently, I refuse to come within a city block of another large-scale sim, but I found some wonderful smaller-scale sims on the iPad, including Games Cafe’s Sally’s Spa, in which you assume the role of an average woman who decides to launch a global empire of single-employee spa resorts that cater to male models, wealthy heiresses, and the elderly.

Sim games are kissing cousins with puzzle games, but what you wind up managing is not space but time. Good puzzle games rarely feel like work, but smaller-scale sims are different. Sally’s Spa, like a lot of smaller-scale sims, makes you the boss of an imaginary workspace. It purposefully engages with the emotions of going to work, which are not necessarily unpleasant, but stays wisely away from the emotional hassles (or, relatedly, the paychecks) that result from actually going to work. The rules are simple: People come into your spa for saunas, facials, massages, herbal baths, and mani-pedis, and your job is to service these customers and get them out the door as fast as possible. You can upgrade your equipment to hasten things along, and light candles to reduce your customers’ stress level — though not, alas, your own stress level, which in my case remained soaringly high throughout. Amazingly, the game does not get tiresome even after the thousandth time you have used the touchscreen to dab facial mud on some heiress’ mug or groomed the eyebrows of yet another Bridezilla, probably because the atmosphere of this exceedingly tense little game is all aloe-body-butter and mint-tea and scented-candle mildness — a brilliant use of conceptual contrast if there ever was one. At one point I handed Sally’s Spa to my girlfriend, who retreated upstairs with the iPad. I did not see her again for several hours, though I did soon hear her shouting, “COME ON, YOU BITCH! MOVE, SALLY!”

The most enjoyable sim I played on the iPad — though it was not developed for the iPad — is Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story, which is another older title I regret not having played sooner, for it comes packed with wit and metacritique of an industry in desperate need of both. In Game Dev Story you start a game company and go about your game-developing business. My company, Blowjob Studio, initially hired two writers and two coders. Would we make quick money doing work-for-hire ringtones or would we try our collective hand at a PC title? PC title, thank you. But what kind of game would we make? A historical adventure game. I plugged a lot of resources into its “realism” and “polish” and “innovation,” but not so much into its “niche appeal” or “cuteness” or “world.” When it came time to hire artists to design the characters, though, I had only a little money left. This meant I was not able to afford the services of a “comic artist” reassuringly named Jake Kirby but had to settle for the work of a lesser artist. What makes me think the creators of Game Dev Story know of what they speak? The game swiftly becomes a brutal exercise in balancing limited staff ability with a creatively acceptable and financially profitable outcome. The writers I started out with, for instance, I had to fire, because they could not do a simple task without complaining of exhaustion or voicing their uncertainty. (Also convincing: my virtual developers’ shitty salaries.) Blowjob Studio’s first game, Schlongstorm, sold only 32,000 copies. Its next game, the “animal trivia” game Shitburger, sold more poorly, at which point I began to take the game seriously and did some outside work for quick cash: I died a little, I think, doing those ringtones. I came back at the market with a wrestling simulator called Ass Monster, which sold 100,000 copies. I followed that up with the ninja shooter Titwizards, which put me out of business with only 45,000 copies sold. My biggest problem with Game Dev Story was that I could never figure out what was going to be a hit. #andthenIrealizedthatsthepoint

Anyone who follows my writing on video games knows that the problems of video-game narrative are my special focus and interest. What I did not expect from my bout of iPad gaming was how comparatively ahead of the curve a handful of iPad games would be on the issue of how games tell stories. Billed as a “story you can play” and originally released for the iPhone, Erik Loyer’s Ruben & Lullaby represents an interesting attempt to stuff into a video-game frame something along the more traditionally evocative emotional lines of a graphic novel or short story. The titular heroes of the game (if it can be called a game) are a young interracial couple having their first argument. The player interacts with Ruben and Lullaby — depicted in slightly responsive comic-book-art-style panels — by rubbing the iPad screen to calm them down, tapping the iPad screen to determine where they look, and shaking the iPad itself to make them angry, all of which feeds into whether they will stay together or break up. Neither Ruben nor Lullaby speaks; their emotional states are evoked by smooth jazz music cues. It is a fascinating and uncompromising attempt to do something new with digital storytelling — one wishes the average big-budget console game had one-tenth of its characterological audacity — but in the end it proves about as emotionally affecting as a Roy Lichtenstein painting. The game is simply not as responsive as it needs to be, and Ruben and Lullaby’s fate has no real weight. They are never more than mere illustrations — a sad but instructive fate for a game that tries valiantly to address real-life pain.

While World of Goo was probably the most technically impressive game I played on the iPad, my favorite iPad game was Superbrothers’ Sword & Sworcery, a beguiling mash-up of old-school point-and-click adventure games and The Legend of Zelda. Indeed, Sword & Sworcery is basically Zelda in skinny jeans and a fauxhawk, which sounds insufferable until you realize how deep and abiding the game’s affection for its progenitor truly is. This may be the first self-consciously hipster work of human expression I did not intermittently want to strangle. Sword & Sworcery looks like a Hieronymus Bosch painting displayed on the Atari 2600, and never in my lifelong experience as a gamer have I seen pixilated graphics put to such haunting use. There is not one trace of presentational crudeness here: The forests appear lonely and enchanted, the monsters scary, the characters expressive, and the music is phenomenal. You play as a young woman known as The Scythian, who wanders around a large game world fighting the occasional monster, interacting with the occasional NPC, and casting the occasional spell. You do an awful lot of thinking in Sword & Sworcery, as it spoon-feeds you precious little by way of direction. (“Confused?” a character asks you at one point. “Excellent. Keep calm & carry on.”) The game’s simple battle and spell-casting system makes terrific use of the iPad’s interface, whereby you rotate the iPad to enter into the desired action state. It is, finally, a wonderfully funny game, always up for some savage pokes at the nonsense endemic to video games with wizard-and-warrior trappings. Early in the game, for instance, a magic book called the Megatome gives The Scythian access to other characters’ thoughts. When you begin to scroll back through these thoughts you find one character thinking, “I kind of wish I knew more about The Scythian’s compelling & epic backstory, because I bet it would make sense of everything,” and another admitting to himself, “I have a really low tolerance for lore.” Sword & Sworcery, you had me at the intro screen.

The other standout experience from my weeks of iPad gaming proved to be the most old-fashioned: EA’s Surviving High School, which comes backed by Charles Babbage-era tech and is based on a premise as cutting edge as Edward Packer’s Your Code Name is Jonah. Yes, Surviving High School is an unvarnished specimen of Choose Your Own Adventure storytelling. In a typical episode, you are a new kid in school who winds up competing for his team’s starting quarterback position against the loathsome jock, Adam, while simultaneously trying to juggle popularity maintenance, physical fitness, and homework. You also get to decide whom to pursue romantically — the cute one, the goth one, or the rich one? Graphics and audio are minimal: a few talking heads, some stock background images, and a handful of repetitive music loops. The gameplay, such as it is, consists of tic-tac-toe word games and synonym finders, as well as a bizarre football minigame in which yardage gains and turnovers are determined by pushing flashing on-screen numbers. I will say this for Surviving High School: Its football simulation is the first football game, real or virtual, I have actually enjoyed.

What makes Surviving High School special is that a few of its characters genuinely surprised me, and a number of its scenarios have real emotional bite. The jock Neanderthal against whom you compete for the quarterback position turns out to be a wounded, likable kid who suffered a grievous family tragedy, and the snooty rich girl, if you play your cards right, actually comes through for you in the end. This is the rare high school simulacrum in which even parents come across as totally human people.

Here is an interesting thought: Of the two most literarily compelling video games I played this year, one (Sword & Sworcery) incorporates maybe four pages of text total and the other (Surviving High School) is intended for the driver’s-ed crowd. Exactly how damning is it that both games feature characters that play more fascinatingly against type than virtually all of the committee-written games that emerge from the other side of big-budget game development? Utterly and completely damning, I would argue. I would also argue that it suggests that the problems of so many narrative games are not, at the end of the day, terribly complicated. Maybe they are not problems at all but rather ordinary failures of human imagination.

For what it is worth, I have a hard time imagining a world in which narrative video games no longer exist, though I can quite readily imagine a world in which that type of game experience becomes something more like the entertainment norm. If this is the way things go, storytelling video games like Red Dead Redemption will be judged — properly, I think — as stories first. Meanwhile, the gamey game will flourish, too, most likely on the iPad and devices like it. These games may or may not have a light narrative overlay, but they will be judged — once again, properly — as games first. I confess I like the sound of this future, because it will allow what is already a startlingly diverse medium a luxury too seldom afforded it: the freedom to deviate from a whole range of expectations rather than merely one expectation.

Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, The Father of All Things, and Extra Lives, which is now available in paperback.

Previously from Bissell:
Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noire

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