Reduction Critique

Typical shmups ask a player to (albeit in simplified form) pilot an aircraft. They present wars of impossible odds, in which a skilled individual defends, well, something. This kind of really obvious framing is something I might take for granted, though because it’s a strong tradition, it has an especially clear expressive goal. I hesitate to call it a power fantasy because most shmups really do have impossible odds. This framing may be alarmist and reactionary, but they are, at least, coherent within their expressed intent, by expressing near impossibility with extreme difficulty.

rRootage doesn’t have any sort of straightforward thematic framing device while remaining clear and communicative. You pilot a pixel surrounded by wireframes that fires a giant laser at a shape-like assemblence that emits a collage of shapes. It’s quite beautiful actually, makes me want to be writing about that instead (maybe in the coming weeks…). Without representative graphics drawing connections to real life counterparts, I feel a hyperfocus on the play loop. I think about what the gliding movement feels like to me, I think about the lines I have access to, I’m focused on the peaks & valleys of stress and emotion a shmup incites in me.

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I played an abstract version of an idle game, Shape Tycoon. I was surprised that a nonliteral approach was taken with a genre in which its fantasy feels important and self-evident. When I think of the typical autoclicker game, I think of something like Adventure Capitalist, where they hyperfocus on the money making aesthetic. Typical, literalist game design, that cuts straight to the point of an assumed fantasy. Checkbox game design, in other words. The modern videogame landscape usually starts with, “what does our audience want?” instead of “what kind of game do we want to make?”

Idle games accelerate the dripfeed of the common energy-strategy game into a always running constant torrent of sentient numbers. I played Cookie Clicker when it was viral just to get the damn numbers up, just to see them accelerate, balloon into incomprehensible hugeness. I’d leave the game on when I’d go to school and come back to click on a bunch of things like a clicker pinata. There’s a toy-like satisfaction in how the systems come together in a syncopated way to, well, generate huge amounts of capital. The game’s cartoonish absurdity points to a self-awareness that changes into a giant non-sequitur once eldritch grandmas or whatever come into play, which cuts down on the inherent dissonance of exploiting others for gain. But generating capital is the intrinsic motivator. I think part of the trick is being staggered by a speed and amount of increasing numbers that isn’t conceivably possible and is therefore useless, however, my desire for those useless number stays relatively constant.

Shape Tycoon is to idle games like rRootage is to shooters. Stripping representative graphics in a game style, minimizing being into shapes and their shapes only, is a basic conception of minimalist game design. It allows a player to mediate on what exactly they do draw out of the game’s core. Simplification cuts down on the noise, it cuts down on direct connections. This is sort of like artistic minimalism, functioning in mostly the same way. Looking at this Ellsworth is a raw arrestment with colors that fill, but through it, one also reexamines their relationship to direct and core things. I think about what that shade of green feels like, I think about what it means to me, I think about what I’m going to be because of it.

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Nothing in Shape Tycoon resembles life. I can pick three simple shapes to display and upgrade them in unclear ways. These shapes bounce around and attract straw-like beings to bob about. The more straws show up, the more money is earned, which can only be funneled back into upgrades. This is a strange ambiguity, though. No correlation seems stable. The bite of capital is removed, turned painless, even into a joke. I’m earning useless money to continue to do some kind of thing that entertains denizens I don’t recognize.

It’s also boring. A minimalist idle game hyperfocuses on the simplicity of numbers increasing for the sake of it. Since Shape Tycoon requires the player to shift between their shapes, each with their own upgrades, it can’t be totally left alone. It barely exists on its own, needing to be poked and prodded every minute, and there’s no reasoning for it. I don’t know why the shapes drain out their energy. There being no motivation, no framing, no reward for my actions is borderline irritating.

The slight blue matting a pitch black, soothing, smooth wireframe designs. Shape Tycoon’s aesthetic can’t actively piss a person off. It reminds me of those visualizer applications that matched your music, the kind that used to be the most exciting part of music software. As more and more straw people come in, the screen gets more zoomed out, and they just pile one on top of eachother. They start to come together, making bending, moving, waving rainbow-like shape, maybe representing a change into collective rather than a collection of individuals.

Maybe this kind of minimalist game design, the kind that cuts through the violent power fantasies, that turns away from pedestaling things I feel like I need in life, is strong satire. The capitalistic violence and systematic obfuscation innate to an idle game becomes inert. Robbed of both power and desire, I instead think about my relationship to this strange little thing I have to poke and prod to keep alive. And it is like keeping a thing alive, because it decays, it can’t have too many objects on screen. At a certain point, when there’s a mass of people, when they’re united in making a new kind of whole, the game stops working. Even if unintentionally so, I think it’s the only idle game that ends. Almost like it’s saying this behavior is not sustainable.    

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shape tycoon can be played online

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