In my bag I have two books and an academic paper. They are research material for the book I am working on. I also have the instructions for Occult Chronicles (Cryptic Comet, 2013) that I’ve been intending to read for months. On my smartphone, I have the Instapaper app installed in which there are 134 unread pages. My RSS aggregator, Press, keeps 43 links warm for me.
On my daily commute, I am not working through any of this backlog.
I am playing Threes (Sirvo, 2014). And this is totally Chris Lepine’s fault.
Why did I buy a smartphone? The original reason was to keep on top of my reading. I had all this empty time during my commute and it made sense to utilise that time more productively. The company Blackberry blocked most gaming sites so, if I wanted to work through my Instapaper queue, I had to fund another option.
I made the early decision not to use the smartphone for games and there were two reasons, both extremely practical and not, in any way, a judgement on the merits of mobile games.
First, if I started playing games on my phone in front of the children, it wouldn’t be long before they would ask to play here, there and everywhere on Daddy’s phone. I didn’t want the phone to be this omnipresent distraction that, given half a minute of free time, someone would ask for a quick session of Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures.
Second, Electron Dance is a site about PC games. If I strayed into playing mobile games, I wouldn’t end up writing about them. Sure, I break this rule all the time, but I couldn’t afford to spend hours on mobile games when I have plenty of PC games to get through. Not a week goes by without another humiliating “haven’t you played this yet” recommendation going on the list.
And the secret unlockable bonus reason: I can get a tad fucking obsessive with casual games if they are always accessible. You might remember a tale of Klondike woe I wrote a couple of years ago in a post titled Submergence which compared the obsession to a sickness.
I broke the no-gaming rule a couple of times for the purpose of research. One was Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Tiger Style, 2009), which I installed to see how its environmental narrative worked. I never finished the game because, frankly, I eventually tired of flicking the spider around to catch bugs. However, I did end up referencing the game in The Beautiful Dead.
The other game I installed was Luxuria Superbia (Tale of Tales, 2013). Despite announcing I would write a piece featuring Superbia last November I still haven’t done it. I promise to make amends soon. All I’ll say about the game for now is that I liked it but eventually had to put it down.
Now, this doesn’t mean I do not want to play mobile games, but rules are rules. No games. Certainly not for fun. Then one day Chris “The Artful Gamer” Lepine retweeted a link to a 2048 variant on the web called 2048: Academia Edition (Ana Salter, 2014).
This piqued my interest because I’d been reading a lot about the mobile game Threes. Threes is one of those “casual” puzzle games that people get addicted to and want to inflict on all their friends. Soon after it was released to iPhone and iPad, a free-to-play clone was released called 1024 (veewo studio, 2014) which copies not just the gameplay but also the graphical style. Then 1024 was cloned as a free browser game called 2048 (Gabriele Cirulli, 2014) over a weekend. It was this iteration that went viral.
2048 is now so well-known that many believe Threes to be the clone. Even 1024, the original clone, has renamed itself “1024: The Original of 2048”. Threes was developed over fourteen months and the developers, Greg Wohlwend and Asher Vollmer, have found the dominating success of a clone that turned up just two months after the release of their original to be galling.
Considering its viral success, you might expect 2048 to be the superior game. However, it was sold for zero pence and ran in a browser thus was carried on a wave of free across all platforms; nonetheless the developers of Threes insist theirs is the better game. To demonstrate the work that went into refining the mechanics of the game, they published an incredibly detailed article which summarised the fourteen months of discussions and changes that went into Threes’ development.
When Lepine tweeted the link to the 2048 variant, I clicked. I wanted to know what this game was all about. My phone hung for a moment and I thought, shit, maybe it’s downloading megabytes and burning up my data allowance. I tried to quit the page but it was… too late.
The game was okay. It ate up the remainder of my commute, around twenty-five minutes. I was angry for being so unproductive. If this was a taste of Threes, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get 2048, the biggest viral hit since Flappy Bird took over game journalism. There was only one way to find out whether Threes was actually any good or not.
The next day, weary and tired, I headed into the Google Play store and looked up Threes. Now I needed to be absolutely sure I was getting the real deal because, you know, with all the talk of cloning I didn’t want to end up with something called “Threes” which had the same gameplay and theming yet not the original, because such a thing exists. There’s also Fives, Threes! Doodle, Eights!, a Threes by “Candy Game Studio”, Threes Saga, Threes Free, Threes! Free, Simply Threes, Threes Classic, Threes Game!, Threes Two, Number Three, Threes (Can Not Stop) and… yeah. It goes on.
So I gave Threes a go and that was the end of productive commuting.
So, thank you, Chris Lepine, because most of my commutes since the purchase of Threes have become Threemutes. What was originally a casual interest in the latest cloning scandal has morphed into addiction. Now there are only the numbers. The numbers 1 and 2.
Then the number 3.
Then the numbers 6, 12, 24, 48, 96, 192, 384–
But no more! Surviving to see the next number 768 seems beyond me. I know it is there. It must be possible to reach it. I will keep trying until I achieve it. I must keep trying. If I reach 768, I tell myself, perhaps I will lose interest. 384 is so dull and common, now. 384 is nothing. 384 is for chumps.
So, yeah, I can report that Threes is the better game, except the game has taken over my daily commute. Work on breaking down my Instapaper queue has stopped, even though I keep throwing more links from Twitter onto the pile.
But maybe Lepine did the right thing. Do I want to spend every commute doing Electron Dance research? What happened to just having fun? Why can’t a guy who writes about games actually enjoy some games? Aren’t games meant to help reset the mind? ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY? Does every game I play have to turn into an Electron Dance post? (Well, duh, you’re reading the answer to that question.)
I sometimes wonder if my obsession of wringing progress out of every scrap of spare time is a problem. I look around at people on my commute and see people watching television, playing games and reading fiction. Productivity isn’t the be-all and end-all and I wish I could engage the little joys in life without feeling constantly guilty that it doesn’t contribute to something larger. Maybe this is a cathartic addiction, something I’ve been longing for.
Yet, at the same time, it’s a warning. I’ll be much more wary next time I decided to install a game on the phone. Maybe Threes is the only escape I’ll ever commit to.
Threes has me in its thrall… for a little while. This intense romance won’t last forever. I think, probably, it’s fine. My interest is already starting to wane. So, Chris, it’s okay, don’t fret.
But to the rest of you, don’t come moaning to me when the Electron Dance book is a year late. Because you know exactly who to blame.