I’ve recently made some changes in the way I play computer games, to try to balance that aspect of my life a bit better against all the others.1 In particular, I’ve gone cold turkey on a whole lot of games that I played on the iPad, which so far seems to have been an entirely positive decision.
Games I’ve stopped playing (all iPad)
Kingdom Rush is by far the best tower-defence game I’ve ever played (I played it on the iPad; there is a browser-based version too). I’ve completed the level sequence twice now, but haven’t managed to clean up all the challenges yet. I will occasionally dip back into this one for nostalgia’s sake, but I restrict myself to playing just one level just one time.
Weird Worlds is a fantastic game hiding under a slightly clumsy iPad port. You play a starship captain exploring a randomised galaxy, with alien races to trade with and fight against, and a library of quirky objects, weapons, and lifeforms that you discover on your travels and can make use of in various ways. A single round is over very quickly (maybe ten minutes on a small map), but since a huge amount of the gameplay is randomised, there is a classic gambler’s temptation: after a bad round you want to make a better try, and after a good one you want to keep going. I’ve played this long enough to be fairly sure I’ve discovered all the large-scale exciting randomised events (there are entire mini-games that you won’t see unless you happen to hit a particular random object-drop), and what eventually made me glad to give it up is that there is no possibility of progression: you play a round, then you take your score for that round and if you play again you begin with nothing. It’s this pattern (gambler’s temptation and no progression) that I’m trying to cut out entirely.
Ascension is a simple deck-building game. The app is extremely slick, with features like warning you when you are about to end your turn while there is some action you could still take, highlighting the possible targets of an action when you begin it, and so on. The gameplay is very simple after a couple of play-throughs; winning or losing comes very clearly down to the random factor of the order of cards you and the computer opponent draw. (In the real-world equivalent, games such as Magic: The Gathering, actually choosing the cards that make up the deck you will play with is an essential part of the experience and is a large part of what decides who wins or loses a bout.) So this one has the same dangerous combination of gambler’s temptation and absolutely no progression; thankfully it’s also simplistic enough that it just wasn’t exciting to play through more than once or twice in a row, so giving it up was no great hardship. Students of app design should check it out for its excellent interactions, though perhaps not for its visual design aesthetic.
Aliens versus Humans is not, as you might think, a rip-off of Plants versus Zombies. (Which I also played, but managed to avoid getting addicted to, by the way.) Instead it’s basically an iPad version of an old game from the ’90s (X-COM: UFO Defense, which I never played). I’m a sucker for turn-based tactical games (turn-based because I suck at quick twitch-reactions and fast decision-making), and this is definitely a good one. But it’s pretty difficult and I got quickly disillusioned after opening the app and finding none of my progress had been saved. (Probably this was avoidable, but that was around the time I started anyway pruning my game habit, so starting again was not really an option.)
Games I’m still playing
I am still massively, gloriously and enthusiastically hooked on Fallen London. This is a browser-based game nicely designed so that the kind of compulsive play I’m trying to avoid simply isn’t possible.2 It’s also a spectacularly large and detailed fictional world, described in snippets of text accompanied by small, iconic illustrations. While there’s a lot of grinding involved, there is also enormous scope for progression: besides the huge numbers of short cycles of just a few “storylets” there are plotlines that run to fifty or more distinct steps, each of which likely involves many more actions before unlocking the next. There are whole areas of the map that I can’t explore yet because my character is too wimpy, and the creators are still adding more content to the system. (They also run the StoryNexus engine, which lets anyone create games that work in a similar way to Fallen London.) You can see how much I’ve achieved so far (in the universal currencies of Numbers Describing My Character and Stuff I’ve Acquired) on the profile page of my Neathy alter ego, Sponson Pilosus.3
The only downside to Fallen London is that you can’t buy it. Instead, it’s free to play, and you can optionally pay to get access to more (to storylines that are only available to paying customers, and to increase the maximum action points cap to 20, among other things). This amounts to something like a subscription service only with subscription rates that vary unexpectedly, and it’s surprising how much you can spend there without realising it. (To be clear: it is awesome that you don’t have to pay anything to play this incredible game. But on the downside, this model means that the creators have to be a bit more aggressive about encouraging you, non-bindingly, to feel like paying them. I think I would be happier with a pure subscription model, where I had a clear up-front view of exactly how much I would need to pay per month to get access to everything.)
The only other game I’m playing at the moment is Counterfeit Monkey, an interactive fiction by Emily Short. (She turns up elsewhere in these very pages, as it happens.) I’m not very good at puzzley IF, so this is stretching my brain most wonderfully. (If it weren’t an Emily Short piece I might have already given up, but her descriptions are so lively and carefully detailed that even being stuck on her puzzles is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two.) If you’re a word person (other than the word person who recommended it to me), I recommend it.
Oh, and one other game deserves a quick mention. Andrew Plotkin’s Shade, an interactive fiction that was already so wonderful that I put it on my “list of interactive fiction you should play if you want to like the same kind of interactive fiction I like”, is now even more wonderful: he’s made it an iOS app with a very cute feelie of the todo list, which changes in progressively more unexpected ways as the game progresses. Highly recommended if you’re already an IF person, although perhaps a bit too outlandish for an introduction if you’re not.
- As those who have seen me in the past two months can attest, I deal rather badly with the Dutch winter. Among other things this has led to me spending ever-increasing amounts of time playing games, without any related increase in the enjoyment I take from them, but with a strongly related increase in the irritation levels of my beloved. [↪]
- Taking actions in the game burns action points, and these regenerate at about one every ten minutes. You can’t have more than ten action points, though, so no matter how long you leave them to regenerate, you’ll never be able to take more than ten actions in a burst before having to take a break. [↪]
- To those who know the origin of the name: I’m really not sure how I came to omit the T. [↪]