Each week in Play in Process, Richard Clark shares what he’s been playing and why it matters.
Last week, the free-to-download Curiosity debuted on the Apple app store, instantly becoming so popular that it starting falling apart. So many people were attempting to log in and play the game that it became nearly impossible to access the game at all, and if one did, the game wasn’t working correctly. It took Peter Molyneux and his team a few days to catch up with demand, and even now there is room for improvement.
Still, the basic fundamentals are there: players work together to tap on a cube made up of smaller squares, though each player is essentially unaware of the others. As they tap on squares, they fall away, eventually revealing a new layer of the cube. There are a LOT of squares and a lot of layers, and underneath all of them lies a secret. According to Molyneaux, what’s in the middle of the cube is “amazing by any scale,” and whoever finds it, “that person’s life will change forever.” Yeah, you read that right; only one person will be able to find the secret. Ever.
Curiosity is not a remotely engaging game on its own. In fact, it is downright lazily designed. The act of tapping squares is simple and rote, and the only thing that gives the game any sense of resonance is the aesthetic flourishes that take effect while tapping. The squares shatter instantly and as the player keeps tapping, an angelic tone climbs a musical scale. The clink of money signifies the “coins” that players earn for tapping, and a multiplier increases as players tap for prolonged periods, encouraging players to click obsessively and without ceasing. You can use these coins to buy tools that enables you to, you guessed it, clear more squares.
The scheme isn’t far from a lot of free-to-play iPhone games these days, except for one exception: the core mechanic is shallow at best and nonexistent at worst. The experience thrives off of our desire for accomplishment without offering the satisfaction of having earned it, or even attempted to earn it. The squares don’t move around or dodge our fingers. This labor is more than menial, it is meaningless: acknowledging the presence of a the squares on the screen with one’s finger so that they can finally, mercifully, vanish.
It’s an empty experience that players are goaded into with esoteric sounds and symbols, as well as the promise of some mysterious reward in the future. It’s not merely a cruel and mocking simulacra of videogames themselves, but a kind of false religion. Led by a man who has for years been videogames’ most cult-leader like figure, a believer in his own numerous false promises, Curiosity invites the user to merely dabble and explore its mysteries. The susceptible players find themselves locked in, having invested a certain amount of interest and time, and feel obligated to continue, growing increasingly convinced that the payoff in the end would make it worth their while. The most fanatical players arrange their lives around the act, tapping squares while standing in lines and sitting at stop-lights. They wait until that fateful day, when the middle of the cube is reached and opened. They wonder if they will be the chosen one. They wonder what they’ll receive. In general, they hope; but they do not know exactly why.
Unlike Christianity, whose claims are both clear and substantial, Curiosity (and the kinds of false religions it models) has mystery at its core rather than at its edges and seams. Yes, mystery is healthy; the human experience is partially about accepting things we cannot possibly know or understand. But consistent works ought to have some known purpose and meaning; moments of blind commitment to a work ought to be the exception. Curiosity reverses this formula in a cynical attempt to see what will happen. It’s an experiment carried out on those privileged enough to have access to the game. It’s not exactly dangerous, but its symbolic of, and symbiotic with, something dangerous within ourselves.