The Year of the Crush: How the Radically Unfair Candy Crush Saga Took Over Our Lives Candy Crush Saga

In her extraordinary novel The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner’s protagonist, Reno, describes chance like this:

“Chance, to me, had a kind of absolute logic to it. I revered it more than I did actual logic, the kind that was built from solid materials, from reason and from fact. Anything could be reasoned into being, or reasoned away, with words, desires, rationales. Chance shaped things in a way that words, desires, rationales could not. Chance came blowing in, like a gust of wind.”

As of this writing, five of the top 10 highest-grossing iPad games are Big Fish Casino, Doubledown Casino, Slots — Pharaoh’s Way, GSN Casino, Bingo Bash HD, and of course, Candy Crush Saga at no. 1, as it has been most of the year. We are clearly drawn to structured entanglements with chance. We use rules and money to define the stakes, and we use cards or dice or candies not as generators but as channelers — mediums — of the chance we believe is already out there, secretly running the show. Despite whatever other beliefs we have about fate or God or a deterministic universe, we often act as if luck is quite real in our daily lives.

Candy Crush Saga has capitalized on this to become the mobile game of the year. Not the best, nor the worst, but the mobile game that dominated the charts, that succeeded at free-to-play in a way that will be studied for years, that penetrated the wider culture and came to stand in for all of addictive, time-wasting mobile gaming in 2013. And yet Candy Crush is not simply game of the year in the way that Stalin was once Time’s Person of the Year. It’s a genuinely compelling game that fully commits to radical unfairness. In fact, this is the primary source of its appeal.

After I first wrote about Candy Crush last spring, I figured I was done. I had spent four dollars for basic access to the first 95 levels, and I swore I would never pay a cent for a single overpriced power-up or extra life. Most of what I wrote before remains true today. The game relentlessly hustles its wares and preys upon its own addictive qualities to extract money from players (though the offensively priced charms have been removed). It erodes trust with developer King and often induces an addled paranoia in players. It makes one fear for the future of not only mobile games, but video games in general. Though I found the core game compelling, after about a month I was just no longer willing to pay for more levels. I’d had enough.

This summer, however, King added another way to unlock content gates — “quests” that did not require money or Facebook nagging but simply asked me to replay three random levels, achieve a higher score, and wait at least 48 hours. Waiting happens to be something I’m good at, or at least something I’ve come to accept about playing freemium games without paying. And so the saga of my Candy Crush began all over again. I’ve played it nearly daily for the past six months, making it my most-played game of 2013. No other game even comes close.

This is no confession of gaming addiction, though. It is entirely possible to play Candy Crush every day without feeling guilty or spending a dime. King proclaims that the majority of players who reach the final level never buy a thing. As someone who has the final levels in sight and has still only spent that original four dollars, I now understand why this is true.

Each Candy Crush level begins with a survey. Your eyes, so primed for matching colors, immediately find multiple possibilities to choose from. But how do you choose? This isn’t chess, where mastery comes from predicting so many moves ahead. You can’t calculate all the possibilities because there are simply too many interacting parts and you never know what random candies will fall from the top. The form of each level is fixed, but within its structure, the candies constantly shift and react, alive with contingency. Change one thing, change everything — it’s a limited but dynamic system, like traffic, like weather, one that feeds on itself and offers new possibilities with each turn. The contingencies shimmer like Coke fizz in your brain. And the game has you.

You do improve at Candy Crush over time, but only by repeatedly failing and developing broader strategies (identify and target problems squares, be patient using special candies, work from the bottom to encourage cascading chain reactions). At the level of the individual move, though, nothing is assured. You can make the best moves and still lose; you can choose poorly and win. Each move is another chance, and it can go either way every time. Often you never even know whether a particular move was good or bad, only that it reconfigured the board, only that a series of choices led to advancement or staying stuck on a level for weeks. This may sound like bad game design: punishing nominally good moves, rewarding accidents, and providing ambiguous feedback for most decisions. But this uncertainty and ambiguity is one of Candy Crush’s biggest draws.

Gambling is the most existential of vices, because it depends upon an interface with the universe as a thing that simply happens. In this way, chance is just a synonym for the universe itself, for its happening. Unapologetic games of chance, like Candy Crush, offer ways to prove to ourselves that luck really is on our side, that the odds are actually in our favor, that our desires are momentarily aligned with the universe. Of course, we have to go back to the table again and again because life just keeps happening. And, truth be told, most days we don’t feel so lucky.

What Candy Crush does better than just about any other game is model an essential fact of life: its radical contingency. Young people feel this in cities, in nights out, where all the colliding elements give an overwhelming sense of possibility. At any moment, something could happen and set your life on a new course. But the stakes of this contingency become even clearer as you age. The world becomes a thing not only imagined but experienced. Your brain, evolved to anticipate contingencies, if-thens ad nauseam, actually sees the unexpected and often tangled consequences of a given moment and their accumulation over a lifetime. You watch as people around you struggle to control chance, maybe impose a little of their own design on the universe, if they’re lucky. You see the less lucky thrash and flail or die in senseless accidents. You feel their contingency wink out.

Candy Crush

Of course, it’s the form of Candy Crush, the crush of chance rather than its candy content, that evokes this radical contingency. Like many games, it models in miniature, simplifying and making it safe to explore what often overwhelms in life. And it so easily inserts itself into the lives of its players, sometimes detrimentally so, because it cannot be played for long, except at great cost. It distills the chance and contingency going on around you, but it measures it out in coffee spoons. And so it becomes a regular interface between you and the universe. A daily ritual.

Try telling any of this to the self-described core gamer. They prefer skill-based — not chance-based — games. If they spend hundreds of hours on a game, they expect to get a super-secret ending, or at least some legendary armor out of it. Maybe they think it’s cute that their mothers play games, too, but it really has nothing to do with them. Let them have their little games, they think, out there on the periphery. Besides, they’ve got bigger concerns, like next-gen console wars and waiting for Half-Life 3.

The thing is, these core gamers are not really core anymore. When nearly every person games in some form, this old guard ends up defending an increasingly narrow, insular turf. It’s a territory defined not by what they know about video games but how they ignore everything else. And this “everything else” is exactly what Candy Crush Saga invokes for its countless adult players.

Many games are rightly criticized as power fantasies, but almost all video games share a more common fantasy — a fairness fantasy. If you work hard, improve yourself (or your character), or just put in the time, you will be rewarded. It’s the video-game version of the American Dream. Games are designed to be fundamentally winnable through player efforts. Equal access isn’t granted to all skill sets, but you can be sure that the puzzles will have solutions, that choices can be optimized and sacrifices will be rare (since games are so fussy about being balanced), and that 100 percent completion is, if difficult, at least theoretically achievable with enough practice. If a game is ever cheap or unfair, this is a cardinal sin, a provocation to rage-quit, for the entire system is predicated on the understanding that gaming is a hermetically sealed bubble of justice. Within this bubble, players are closet deists. And their gods are always fair.

So when a game like Candy Crush comes along, resisting assumed gamer values, reveling in chance and contingency, what else do many traditional gamers do but ignore it? A game where you can make the best moves and lose, where you can accidentally win? It might sound like a bad game to some, but it sounds like life to me. I suspect that many of the so-called “casual” gamers who play Candy Crush might know what I mean. At this point, I’m much more interested in what they have to say anyway. Video games would do well to listen, really listen, to the seniors and single working parents and all those players who don’t have undisturbed chunks of time to devote to gaming as a hobby, something separate from life. It doesn’t only have to skew older, either. I know I’d rather listen to a 5-year-old talk about games than to most 25-year-olds.

I see some hope in the ongoing rise of roguelike games and the enthusiasm for procedurally generated titles like the upcoming No Man’s Sky. Three of the best games of this generation — Minecraft, The Binding of Isaac, and Spelunky — succeeded because they combined strong design with chance in their worlds, in their layouts, even in their items and power-ups. Even Candy Crush level designers do not get nearly enough credit for consistently taking both their structural and random elements and recombining them to spatially interesting and logically devious ends. Don’t get me wrong, Candy Crush’s use of chance has one primary purpose and that is to get your money, to make you spend in order to make the game less unfair. You essentially have to play it wrong and alter your expectations to really feel out its world of contingency and not be constantly distracted by freemium paranoia. King brought this on itself, and its legacy will sadly be its insidious success with micro-transactions rather than its bold and welcome use of chance.

But if I’ve learned anything this year about gaming, it’s that playing games wrong is often the only way to go. Playing by the rules of most games is depressing, if not just plain boring, especially when its values are so consistently lame, so childishly fair. Video games cannot remain only a refuge from the world, not if they want to mean anything to the world, not if they aspire to being more than fantasies of power and control and fairness. There is a growing taste for life in gaming, and when I look back on 2013, I will remember Candy Crush Saga as the unlikely game that embraced the absolute logic of chance and gave me that taste, every day, for better and worse.

Here are four more mobile superlatives for 2013:

Deep Dives of the Year

Three of the very best mobile and handheld games this year point in one direction: down. Spelunky on the PlayStation Vita, SteamWorld Dig on the Nintendo 3DS, and Ridiculous Fishing on mobile devices plumb the depths and achieve a rare grace in their design. They ignore the horizontal plains that we usually expect of a world and create pocket universes out of descent.

Ridiculous Fishing divides its verticality into three stages (avoidance, attachment, annihilation), but it’s the first of these, the drop into the ocean depths, that captures the imagination and defines the other two. SteamWorld Dig gives you a trusty pickax and then tricks you into essentially digging out your own levels, and your only complaint is that there is a bottom to it all, that it has to end. Spelunky makes the cave-diving harder but the systems deeper, and it rewards the mindful player with one of the most exquisite balances of randomness and fairness in all of gaming. As the most spectacular failure of the year shoots squarely for the skies, you have to wonder if there is some secret games are slowly learning about the deep, the dirty, the earthbound.

Dead Ends of the Year

Simogo’s two beloved mobile titles of 2013, Year Walk and Device 6, take gorgeously grim landscapes and playful multimedia textscapes and put them at the service of … single-solution puzzles. It’s a cruel, and fatal, blow to two otherwise unique, compelling mobile experiences.

Single-solution puzzles are a dead end for video games. They put the player into a problem-solving mode that may feel worthwhile at the time but also invokes a teleology antithetical to art. How tedious and disappointing to scour a landscape or reread a twisty little passage not for details, not for meaning, not even for pleasure, but to suss out the logic of some single-minded god. There are exceptions, like Portal, that succeed by subverting their own didacticism and introducing mechanics that are profoundly evocative on their own (there is no single solution to the puzzle of space). But these are very rare. Single-solution puzzles more often cut against any ambiguity and threaten to outright short-circuit video games as art. Yet they remain the easy fallback content for so many games. It’s as if designers still don’t know what else to have us do.

2012 Holdover of the Year

The most striking thing about playing Super Hexagon this year is how persistent my skills seem to be. Months can pass, and yet when I return, my times are remarkably close to what they were before. The game lodges itself deep in your nervous system, so that while progress is difficult, it sticks. Playing a slavish imitation like this year’s Pivvot only reinforces how singular and essential Super Hexagon truly is, and how difficult it must be to design a game so perfectly simple and pure.

Super Hexagon is many things: an endlessly collapsing space, a virtual Charybdis, a hard place. It’s a simple study in perception, reaction, pattern recognition. It’s a hypnosis device, with you caught in permanent orbit around its beating polygonal heart. But what I come back to it for more than anything else these days is the altered sense of time it provides. A Super Hexagon minute is no normal minute, and every time I hear Jenn Frank (the most human voice in gaming) repeat that gaming mantra “Game Over. Begin,” I prepare myself to explore again the plasticity of a second. It elongates at first and then contracts, while the tiny gap between thought and action collapses and then expands. As I improve, I can actually feel my hesitation, my mistake, before it registers onscreen. And it is this heightened sense, this new awareness of my will, thin-sliced by the microsecond, that I keep trying to take with me. Though the gap always closes and I’m returned to real time once the game ends.

The Sublime Object of Every Year

I played no game more profoundly meditative or paradoxical about its virtual existence this year than Zen Bound 2. If Super Hexagon collapses space and recalibrates small increments of time, Zen Bound 2 goes the other way, effectively eliminating time and getting intimate with small spaces. It may have come out a few years ago, but its stillness and abiding interest in the objects that constitute our world is certainly welcome in this Year of the Crush.

The phones and tablets that fill our lives light up at our touch. They are there for us, always, ready to meet our attention with more candy than we can possibly digest. So it is with some small relief that when I bring up the objects of Zen Bound 2, they just mutely stare back at me. They couldn’t care less. You can wrap your string around each object, snare it completely with your subjectivity, but there’s no single solution to get you there. And besides, you haven’t really solved it. How could you solve an object anyway? Zen Bound 2 remains obtuse and instead offers another way for the virtual to take us back into the everyday physical world. Where, despite our best efforts, we still live.

Tevis Thompson (@tevisthompson) writes video-game essays and fiction. You can read more of his work here.

Filed Under: Gambling