THE CASUAL MENACE
While bumbling around Steam, I was struck by a sudden whim of poor judgment, and decided to take the Steam reviewers at their word. I purchased a small game ported from mobile called Hero of the Kingdom. It’s a simple game with overhead graphics similar to an RTS from the early 2000s, but essentially no animation to speak of. The player embarks on an extraordinary journey from peasant to hero, simply by clicking on icons on screen, and all challenges are merely a matter of accumulating and then spending resources. Within seconds of playing the game, I realized this was not what I wanted, and that it was ultimately little better than Farmville. That being said, I’m dangerously insane, and played it through despite hating it. Ultimately, it wasn’t bad. Neither was it stimulating, challenging, or memorable—yet despite its best intentions and child’s-book storyline, I found it thought provoking.
This was a casual game. One that was impossible to lose, one whose primary challenges were comparable to I Spy books. One devoid of intellectual stimulation. And yet, at points, I found myself entertained. Thinking on the nature of the casual game, I recalled that years ago my MySpace had an eminently successful Mafia Wars account. There are plenty of games I have played and would play that fall dangerously close to “casual”: Many adventure games that I have enjoyed are “walking simulators,” a term which was initially sarcastic and cynical, but is now often used as a category by proponents of the genre; certainly there is little gameplay challenge in those. Nor have I ever stopped perusing flash games, in the hopes of finding another Gemcraft.
A casual game is truly very easy to write off; to see as a shallow abuser of human nature and neurochemistry. Click and watch something happen. Click and grow stronger, be better. Farm without having to swing a hoe. Be productive without doing anything. Make the bird flap, you won’t believe how satisfying it is for being so difficult. These seem like weaknesses to tear the game up for, but they’re just mechanics. And the manipulative feedback of those mechanics are no different in their more sophisticated forms. The core character progression in Morrowind plays on the same desire for improvement and actualization that building a new barn in Farmville does. The satisfaction of organizing a guild raid in World of Warcraft is not dissimilar to rallying teammates in Clash of Clans. The triumph of having a high score in Flappy Bird is comparable to the rush of being MVP in a tough match of CS:GO.
A successful casual game is only a more boiled down version of the same ideas that make up more complicated, precise games. They’re simply more transparent; less of an overall spectacle. There’s a lot to learn from casual games, and some small developers have moved up from mobile releases into more difficult territory. The dedicated gamer can take many issues with the casual game and the casual gamer, but they should tread carefully when they ridicule them. The Game is a treacherously simple thing.