In Praise of Doodle God

Back when I played WoW, I used to ease my commute by listening to WoW Radio (which seems to have imploded since then), and in particular Octale and Hordak Versus the World. I don’t really know why, as in large part my response was screaming wildly at my steering wheel in violent dissent. (Passersby, I assume, thought I was singing in my car and heavy into death metal.) When I was a regular listener, the show seemed to be a paean to difficulty for the sake of difficulty, and Octale exploded more or less every week about the idea that games might be “fun.” I’m no stranger to the idea that games can be no fun, but it always seemed to me like Octale and Hordak’s purpose was a sort of social stratification. There is a formula for establishing a person’s value, and its scale is DPS.

Usually, I love difficulty—I love being furious at a game, being frustrated, challenged, taunted by a tough game. But not the difficulties that are meant to please “hardcore” gamers. There’s no thrill in memorizing encounters, optimizing macros, rehearsing the Heigan Dance. I am not a fan of bullet hell shooters (or anything else that uses hellishness as an identifying characteristic). I was never meaningfully good at Pac Man or King Kong, as success in both of those games is a function of memorizing and executing patterns. Don’t get me wrong; I acknowledge that a huge amount of skill is involved in doing so, and success at those games (as with high-end raiding in WoW) is an impressive achievement. But that kind of difficulty makes games less meaningful for me, not more.

Last month I suffered the indignity of playing Demons’ Souls, about which wiser men have said enough. The game is brutally unforgiving, especially for a perfectionist, and playing it made me want to peel off my own toenails. Probably the best praise I can offer is that it helped me realize my TV is shot. It’s a celebration of memory, which as an essayist I suppose I should value. With each death, you must remember how you survived before, and try to add to and extend that already inadequate survivability. I played through the first several encounters a number of time—my perfectionism requiring me to start a completely new game every time an NPC got himself killed—and I gained nothing from it but fury. What the game eschews is the difficulty I value—the kind that rewards engagement, thinking, reflection, self-examination.

I have been ensconced at my mother-in-law’s house for the last week or so, and so have been away from any console more serious than the Wii. (I worry about Tali’Zorah vas Neema, stranded there on Haestrom with nobody but Adam Baldwin to keep her company.) I have my iPhone, though, and have been considerably relieved by Doodle God, a silly little iPhone game meant for “casuals,” the sort of game Octale and Hordak wouldn’t bother to sneer at. I’m grinding through Mass Effect 2 on Insanity this time around, and have already pushed past many of the harder encounters in the game. ME2 on Insanity definitely requires more skill than Doodle God, but in smaller, subtler ways, the latter is ferociously difficult.

Doodle God has one possible interaction: you can combine elements to make new ones. A game of inimitable simplicity. But it is, I think, more intellectually demanding than Mass Effect 2, or Demons’ Souls, or listening to Octale and Hordak grouse about casuals. A simple system to act within, where clever, complex thinking yields unexpected results—and thought is rewarded.

In Doodle God, it’s little things. I made humans. Hoping (as always) to find myself God of the Man-Raptors, I combined human and dinosaur. Result: Dinosaur and blood. Ha. Hmm: Blood + Human? Vampire. Ha again. Hmm again: Vampire + Human: Vampire + Vampire. The game rewards intuition and exploration, often hilariously. Its hint function, too, invites you to intuit. (“What if I create Mushroom?” the game is asking me, at present.) I know what the action will be: I will combine two elements. But I’m challenged to figure out which.

The games I learned on were simple. Tetris. Mario. Arkanoid. Games in which reflexes certainly played a role, but games in which the trick was to operate a simple system to complex results. Demons’ Souls didn’t provide that intellectual challenge. Thinking wasn’t much of a part of things. Ditto with WoW, at the end of things—it was more about knowing, remembering, and doing. There was no figuring things out—there was just execution.

I don’t know. Maybe I just like thinking.