Klondike Icon

On the train, tired. Don’t want to get a book out, so I fumble for the Blackberry. I’ve already checked today’s news and Google Reader. There’s nowhere else to go and it’s not much fun seeking out new destinations with a wireless syrupband connection.

I look at the games included in the company Blackberry build. I am as underwhelmed as I was the last time I gazed into this small puddle of choices. I break out Klondike. It’ll pass the time. I was fascinated with Patience when I was younger even though it is virtually a game of following instructions that emerge from the cards; more tarot than tarot. Jonathan Blow could probably dedicate a whole seminar to the evils of the game.

I just want to get to the end of this journey.

But another begins.

*          *          *

The train is a permanent feature of my working day. It’s not something I can do without and I wish I was a little more productive during the commute. But a week after playing around with Klondike, I am still playing around with Klondike. It has elbowed its way into being a new permanent feature of my working day.

I lose more often than I win. I wish this was Braid-Klondike and I could rewind the cards back into position. I sometimes throw them away without thinking. I sense the game is lost in these careless moments.

But I continue to chase the brief bursts of euphoria when I manage to break into a stack of hidden cards that have been locked away for too long. This is what Lara Croft feels when descending into an old, dank tomb: turning those final cards reveal all the treasures I need.

Sometimes I continue to fiddle with a game on the walk home. If I finish it, before I pocket the Blackberry I ask Klondike to deal out a new game. Saves time next time I play.

*          *          *

Klondike follows me everywhere. To the toilet cubicle. When I’m running the children’s bath. Sometimes as I’m settling down for sleep. Occasionally while I eat the Blackberry is fondled beneath the table, an illicit relationship that is all about empty, pointless self-gratification and nothing to do with other people.

I am off-piste. I am in the deep end. I want to put Klondike away. But trying to go cold turkey only lasts so long. It is now habitual; there isn’t even any joy in it any more, it is just something I do. I pore over half-baked theories about the safest Klondike method, the one where the probabilities shine on me. But it feels no better than betting on horses based on their names.

Klondike screenshot, distorted, close up

When I’m busy I have no need of it, but when there’s a lull in the day and the Blackberry is near, the device clambers into my hand. This little monkey dancing a jig on my back. It lives in my neurons like Tetris or Klax, imposing its own order onto everyday things. I perceive the ghosts of columns that need to be demolished and cleaned away.

It feels unhealthy but I can’t seem to shake it off. How can I rid myself of this curse?

*          *          *

The illness comes on suddenly.

I felt a bit strange the night before but ignored it, as you do. While I shower and dress, my stomach quivers; it is not happy. Probably just a lack of sleep. It’ll be gone by the time I get to work. Failing that, lunchtime. Yeah.

On the train, the quiver transforms to nausea. Intensifies. I hold on. Make it all the way to Waterloo East. Where I’m meant to switch from train to tube. Clammy, almost shivering, I cannot go on. Phone in sick, turning back, sorry. Sit on the platform, sit down, sit down.

It subsides and I feel stupid. Should I have gone to work anyway? I hop on a returning train like I said I would. The train is empty. No one leaves London at this time of the morning.

The juddering and rocking of the train brings the sickness back again. I push against the seat in front, trying to wedge myself in. I want to feel still and not like a jug of water sloshing about.

Walk from station to home, subsides again. Sit at the table, have a hot drink. The nausea is gone but I do not feel right. I talk with Mrs. HM. I’m not sure what to do but I guess I feel tired. I should go to bed.

I sleep for twelve hours, alternating between hot cold and cold hot. I am summer and winter, the sun and the snow. This is not some simple quarrel with delinquent food, I am fighting something within me, something that wants to thrive.

In the evening, I get up for a couple of hours but I have little appetite and, exhausted, return to bed for a full night’s sleep.

It takes another day of random sleeping before I begin to feel human again. The illness passes.

I never discover what it was that I purged from my system. But I never play Klondike again.

Download my FREE eBook on the collapse of indie game prices an accessible and comprehensive explanation of what has happened to the market.

Sign up for the monthly Electron Dance Newsletter and follow on Twitter!

12 thoughts on “Submergence

  1. It’s (probably) just like Pavlov’s dog. Or the mice that refused the sugar-water (because they thought it made them sick) until they died. On a related note, I can’t eat meatballs anymore. It’s sad, since I love spaghetti.

    Never could get into solitaire. There’s no real tension, and only a mild relation between thought and success. It’s a game that perpetually punishes you for doing things right.

    I suck too, but that has nothing to do with it.

  2. This happened around autumn last year. The illness destroyed my ability to concentrate or do anything for a good couple of days. I made a point not to open Klondike again after being given a couple of days “off” the game. In fact, I was a little nervous taking the screenshots for this piece; it was like crossing a line you’d promised not to cross.

    @Nicolau- interested to hear what your thoughts might be. You comment on Facebook was quite glowing, so thank you for that!

    @Alex- I can effortlessly procrastinate. Games like Klondike are a nightmare for me. This is probably a good argument against getting my own smartphone.

    @mwm- I really did develop some little strategies all about reducing the probability of failure, postponing disaster. As time went on, I definitely did a better job at winning. But runs of Klondike fails used to piss me off. “AAAARGH! START AGAIN!!!!” But there’s obviously no perfect strategy because solitaire has unwinnable setups (unless you’re playing a version which only deals winnable hands).

  3. I’m so fond of this post, but I really couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say as a comment. It’s mysterious and more serious than it seems – there’s a larger truth lurking beneath the waves. It seems like only very capable writers can remark this way on a subject in which they’re armed with numerous insights – are games worthwhile? Maybe their uniting characteristic is exploitation? Or novelty? To submerge and purge is part of good health. Everybody raise your robitussin cups and we’ll drink a cheer to rare truths that reside beyond delirious fever.

  4. The problem with working out strategies for solitaire is that, after a certain point, players will tend to simply carry out the formula. There’s little fun to be had in being an automaton.

  5. Yeah, Richard, I don’t think this post lends itself to comments so much. I think I wanted to acknowledge that gaming addiction is “a thing”. One defence for “exploitative” Facebook games goes along the lines of: people enjoy playing these games and one person’s exploitation is another person’s fun. But we’re all at risk of becoming slaves to stupid Skinner boxing game mechanics now and then; plus when they involve cash, then it’s the slot machine mentality. Perhaps it’s why I like a lot of games that don’t require replays.

    @mwm- I think it’s more like that in the beginning rather than the end. There aren’t any strategies and so you’re going through some sort of simple algorithm. Look! Card can go here! Place it here! I found that I was thinking increasingly about improving my strategies the more I played. But in the end, there’s the point: Where is the fun in solitaire? If you’re not trying to improve your game, what exactly is fun about it? And if you have found a strategy that “works”, what exactly is fun about a steady-state game where you’re just following instructions? Why are we, as a species, playing a dead-end game like solitaire?

  6. I figured Solitaire was more of something to do with cards when you were by yourself for amusement; it’s a game like arranging DVDs based on varying criteria in a single sitting is a game.

  7. I’ve had to delete many similar games from my iPhone after realizing that I wasn’t enjoying playing them anymore. Solitaire, Tempe Run – it wasn’t that hard until Trainyard, which is a really good game, but the user levels are just so much repetitive crap that people put out to get an achievement (I fucking hate achievements like “make 5 custom levels!”). I kept justifying it to myself by reminding myself how much I liked the actual game, or by trying to “clear” the Unsolved list of crap puzzles so that you could actually see the interesting ones, but it got to the point that I wasn’t even trying the interesting ones anymore, just clearing out the ones I hated. Someone actually made a level named after whatever anonymous number the game gave me, saying “Thanks for playing,” and all I could do was think to myself, “How can I tell you to make better levels?”

    So I kind of strayed from the original topic there, but if you have an iPhone to play Trainyard on, you should use it for a piece about user level design (some of the puzzles I played were absolutely brilliant – one had a solution that relied on what is arguably a bug in the color mechanic when three trains collide all at once), or about forcing people to do things they wouldn’t normally do (i.e. the achievement for making 5 levels causing people to literally make 5 levels of obnoxiously simple puzzles named “1”, “2”, “3”, “4” and “5”). I’m justifying being seriously off topic by saying that yes, I related to being addicted to the mind-numbing enjoyment of repetitive games.

  8. Awesome, I can connect to the internet from this plane.

    @BeamSplashX: Yes, but why is it amusing? And worse: how the hell can it become addictive?

    @cheepguava: Howdy! Great comment. I don’t have a smartphone apart from my work Blackberry and so haven’t indulged properly in any mobile gaming. I think it’s not a great idea for me as I intimated in an earlier comment; I’m easily distracted and, er, obsessive. I had no idea there were games out there which had an achievement like “make custom levels”. Electron Dance is a paid-up member of the Achievement Cynics Society.

  9. @BeamSplashX: Sorting things into alphabetical order can be very therapeutic, if not precisely fun. Sorting little piles of comics into order was something I used a few years back when my doctor suggested I try distraction techniques.

    @cheepguava: Out of interest, that puzzle involving an arguable bug – did you manage to work it out, or look up/brute force a solution?

  10. @HM: It’s not. There are some genuinely good and interesting phone games, but there’s a lot more time wasters, and it’s too easy to get sucked in. (Also, where do I pay money to become a member of this Achievement Cynics Society?)

    @Phlebas: Yeah. I say it’s a “bug” because I don’t know of any other instance where three trains collide simultaneously in Trainyard. (In case you’ve never played it, the game works by having colored trains, and if a red and a blue train collide or combine, they turn purple. If incompatible colors combine, the result is brown.) The solution to the puzzle involved two trains combining and simultaneously colliding with a third train, and due to what could possibly be a quirk of the collision physics, the two colliding trains (red and yellow) turned each other orange BEFORE the two combining trains combined, so the result of throwing 2 red trains and 1 yellow train into a pot was 1 orange and 1 brown train, which was exactly what was needed. There was a lot more stuff going on in the level to limit the space avaliable to make this collision happen, with the end result of blowing my mind and making me remember the difference between actually enjoying the puzzles and just wasting time.

Comments are closed.