Right on time for Easter, a hefty dose of festive advertising arrived via email from Popcap, a casual games company you may have heard of whose development skills and prodigious output are matched only by their high-voltage marketing. This particular message featured two gigantic, glaringly colorful eggs, a distinctly Jar Jar Binks-looking rabbit in a foppish top hat and promises of an Easter Egg Surprise only a single click away. (Not much of a surprise at all, it turned out, just a repeat of what I’d already been told in the email: super-crazy holiday deals on select PopCap releases! Zowie!)
PopCap, for the hypothetical few of you who don’t know, is the behemoth of the casual games industry, founded in 2000 and currently employing over 180 people, with over one billion game downloads to their credit. They develop and publish the most insidious games imaginable, employing sales techniques directly inspired, appropriately enough, by drug dealers: They make the first one free and then wait for you to beg them to take your money.
Before I continue, let me take a moment to clarify my own particular camping spot on the gamer spectrum: I am hardcore. Gaming paraphernalia adorns my walls and shelves. I have a lit-up, pimped-out, overclocked rig that’s worth more and goes faster than my car. I am disgusted by the weakness of people who complain that standard PC keyboards are unintuitive as game controllers. I beat games like I beat children and small animals: enthusiastically and often.
And I’m looking at the PopCap website.
To be clear about it, it’s not as though I’m desperate for something to play. I’m just getting into the meat of BioShock after finally installing a video card that will run the thing. (Thanks for nothing, ATI.) I’m midway through Titan Quest, originally purchased as a pre-BioShock time filler that turned out to be a far better game than I expected, and I’ve got both Crysis and Call of Duty 4 waiting in the wings. I’ve also recently developed a burning itch to finally wrap up Icewind Dale 2, which has been hanging over my RPG bones like a hand-painted, isometric Sword of Damocles. I am, to put it mildly, hip-deep in sugary gaming goodness.
So why am I trying to remember where my wife stashed her credit card?
My mom loves games like these, as many moms do these days, which is in itself an indictment of my shamefully softening sensibilities. One commonality shared by all entertainment media is that if Mom likes it, it’s not cool. But moms aren’t expected to appreciate the aesthetic of gunning down hordes of deformed mutants in the bombed-out, burning ruins of an alien metropolis, and even if they did, it’s not likely they’d trade in their colorful cubes and countless surprise power-ups for a plasma rifle and a license to kick ass. Yet I seem to be at a growing risk of doing precisely the opposite.
I remember vividly my first experience with casual games. Tycho at Penny Arcade was spouting off about something called Bejeweled; the specifics of his effusive praise escape me, but I recall him implying it would have a crack-like impact upon the lives of anyone who dared sample its fruit. Curious as to what could inspire such heated verbosity in the normally taciturn Mr. Brahe, I nipped on over to see what these PopCap folks had on offer.
He turned out to be right in a pretty big way. As a life experience, it was like nothing so much as my discovery of pornography years earlier, which is to say it was profoundly altering and not necessarily in a good way. I won’t say I became an instant adherent to the casual-gaming lifestyle – as I pointed out earlier, I am not a sissy – but I will admit that in the days and weeks that followed, there was bejeweling. Much bejeweling.
And now the credit card is in my hand.
Several hours later, I find myself staring at the monitor, my eyes bleary, my mouse hand cramped, my finger twitching involuntarily. I have a hazy memory of buying Dynomite. Bioshock lies forgotten. I begin to realize that I desperately need to go to the bathroom. I glance at the clock; I have to be up for work in four hours.
I’d love to know who decided this was “casual.” Nothing about this is casual in any sense of the word. I can deathmatch all day long with a smile on my face, but 20 minutes of “all-ages fun” has me flying into rages that would be the envy of Homeric gods. I scream at the game with language that would make old women cry. If these God-damned dinosaurs were real animals I’d be arrested for nailing their bloody hides to the trees outside my house as an example to any other smart-ass videogame anthropomorphs who might think to ridicule my inability to line up three red balls before the timer hits zero.
I haven’t seen this kind of life-leeching, costumed malevolence since Brewmeister Smith stood ready to unleash Elsinore Beer on the unsuspecting hosers of the world. It’s not even fun; it’s just an obsessive-compulsive reaction to a bunch of exploding, colored shit flying around a screen populated by stupid dinosaurs who yell at me incoherently every time something big blows up – which, I will note, happens a lot – or I somehow earn one of the game’s bonuses which are so myriad that it’s impossible to remember them all, much less comprehend how or why they’re awarded.
I am no longer worried about my hardcore gamer cred. Instead, my concern has turned to my long-term sanity. I destroyed Myst in a single 24-hour period. Eye of the Beholder 2 fell to me long before GameFAQs was even conceived. The Master Levels for Doom were too easy, and Baldur’s Gate 2 was too short. I possess not just the skillz, but a deeply held moral imperative to defeat, firmly and decisively, every game I play. Yet here I am, taken to the limits of my endurance by this herd of idiot dinosaurs and their garish eggs.
I hate the dinosaurs. I can’t leave them alone.
I need help.