Idle games keep getting better as our pandemic brains get worse

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cookie clicker
Screenshot: Platysaurus

Every Friday, audiovisual club staff members kick off our weekly open thread for discussion of game plans and recent gaming glories, but of course the real action is in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What are you playing this weekend?


I have a theory: We all have a hobby that makes us a hidden Redditor, in spirit if not in fact. It’s this topic that each of us is so specifically, obsessively corny about, that we’re going to run into all sorts of people and things that make a site like Reddit a general drag to spend time on, in order to find a handful of people who match our personal level of weirdness about that one thing. Maybe it’s post pictures of birds with human arms; perhaps this is express your hatred of grandpa joe’s Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory; maybe it’s exchanging pictures of famous women’s feet. (This is Reddit we’re talking about, after all.)

For me, these are idle games.

In the past, I’ve written about the phenomenon of idle play – sometimes called clicker play, or “incremental” play, or a whole bunch of other terms that usually mean “numbers go up”. I’ve tried to explain to other, more ordinary human beings why the dopamine-starved parts of my brain light up in response to a game where I spend a lot of time growing a percentage of a number in order to get something that brings in more of that number growing. Unfortunately, I wrote my column “Confessions of an Inactive Player” since spring 2019, and two things have happened since: incremental games have caught on, path more interesting, and I, personally, got path hungrier for all sorts of good-natured neurotransmitters cavorting in my brain, as the pandemic happily rumbled its way with Katamari.

Where once clicking a single cookie could drive away any intrusive thoughts for hours at a time, I now find myself running multiple games in series just to get through the day, with new acquisitions aided by the lovely name of Reddit”Broken mouse convention”, the subreddit for people enjoying my particular affliction. I am, in case my tone doesn’t convey it correctly, not the biggest fan of Reddit as a whole. But if it can give me a fresh line on the latest innovation in baking brownies or casting spells or any other random theme that was slapped atop the holy numbers this week, whatever the latest hot incremental game was , I will be happy to bear the cost .

Because looking for the last idlers is not just about giving your free time and clicking your fingers on Brownie Clicker or Weed Clicker or whatever is big right now; there’s some really interesting work being done in this space, often by teams of one or two people constantly iterating on each other’s work. Take in the surrounding culture The Prestige Tree, originally released by Jacorb 90 in 2020. The name of the game is a riff on common “prestige” mechanics in increments, which allow players to reset some or all of their progress in exchange for a resource that makes their future considerably more powerful. (The psychological effect is to allow the player, on said second pass, to skim through content that once served as a major stopping point; the neurochemical benefits of this sudden change in fortune are hopefully self-explanatory.)

Prestige Tree makes prestige all the point: each level in the ‘tree’ is a new set of mechanics that can only be accessed by going far enough on the previous one and then hitting the big, attractive ‘reset’ buttons and reaping the rewards. This initial hook is made all the more enticing by the fact that the game came with a definite endpoint – a rarity for a genre where numbers frequently morph into increasingly absurd convolutions of scientific notation, until the developer is bored of being hounded by dopamine addicts and simply walks away from it all. Unlike many of its ilk, you can actually L’Arbre Prestige finish.

At this point, you can switch to one of the dozens of mods that have emerged over the next year and a half, mimicking the look and structure of the game. (including one rewritten and massively extended, version of Jacorb 90 themselves.) There are variants of “The ____ Tree” which take as subject matters that run the gamut from game development, to money, to the creation of deadly viruses that kill the planet, even creating mods for The Prestige Tree himself. The vast majority work as a series of nested optimization problems: what allocation of what resources allows me to push my point production to the next level of prestige? Some are better tuned or smarter than others. But they’re all in conversation with each other in a way that’s as dynamic and compelling as any other indie gaming scene.

And this is just a strange little tributary of this vast and ostensibly lazy river – there is a whole other set of “idle” games (increlution, Odyssey loop, Inactive loops, etc.) who are currently iterating wildly on the idea of ​​being trapped in a time loop, trying to make the most of a limited set of resources before being forced into a reset by the ticking of the clock. Or pseudo-RPGs like NGU inactive and Idle wizards and minions, which are actually mechanically a bit more robust than many big-budget RPG titles, despite the fact that their minimalistic combat resolves itself automatically.

It’s to say nothing of the really stuff out there – titles like musical wheat harvest simulator Peter Talisman: Harvest Lord or my latest obsession, bitburner, a cyberpunk story where you learn how to automate resources by literally learning to code commands in JavaScript. And I’ve probably already dated myself here again by failing to note any new idea that’s about to come out of an ambitious developer’s GitHub.

Incremental games are easy to dismiss: they tend to be ugly, a bit amateurish, and, at least on the surface, lacking in interaction. (However, take as a counterpoint the recent Creation Orb, a reminder that there’s no reason an idle game can’t look and sound completely gorgeous.) These same factors also make them deeply accessible, however, for both player and creator. All you really need to create one is a bit of coding experience, a good understanding of math, and a jpeg of a cookie. All you need to play them is, well, I was going to say “an insatiable need to exert the smallest possible control over your own life, and a schedule that accommodates sleep deprivation. “. But let’s say “a fascination with systems and how they can iterate”. (Also: They’ll run over pretty much anything.)

I play progressive games (too many progressive games; I haven’t even mentioned my love affair of over several months with Synergism) because, yes, they scratch an itch. But I also play them because I like to see new ideas arise. There’s nothing quite like the chuckle you get when you see how someone has taken the bones of this supposedly simplest kind and turned them into something fascinating and new. The numbers keep growing; games follow a similar trend.


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