Pleasure in Pointlessness
I'm having a little trouble writing this review. I need to go back and look at Bejeweled 2 to double-check a couple of details: terminology, credits, that sort of thing. The problem is, I'm afraid to open it up. Every time I do, hours disappear from my day, all my errands and chores are forgotten, and that's no good, because I'm on a deadline here. When you're afraid to play a game because it's too enjoyable, it's doing something very right.
Like most puzzle games, the mechanics of Bejeweled 2 are so simple that they're hardly worth describing. You're faced with a grid full of colored gems. Selecting two adjacent gems causes them to switch places. If you line up three or more gems of the same color in a row, they disappear, and the stones above them fall into their place. The resulting gap at the top of the board is filled in with new gems. That's it, really: just keep switching gems around to line them up, watch them go poof, lather, rinse, repeat.
A few years ago, the original Bejeweled introduced audiences to this particular variation on the action-puzzle formula. Like Tetris in the late 1980s, Bejeweled was a game that appealed to people who don't play games. Games like these are best served by making play as effortless as possible: if you have some sort of computer and can manage pointing and clicking, you can play Bejeweled. It's one of the best illustrations of what is (or should be) one of the cardinal rules of gaming: it shouldn't be hard to start playing; it should be hard to stop.
When you line up three gems, they disappear; it's a pleasing sight. When the gems above them fall into place, it will often set up another row of three, which will also disappear, pleasing you even more. Playing Bejeweled boils down to a continual search for these pleasing chain reactions in a dense and confusing field. As the game progresses and the field becomes more and more scrambled, it becomes harder to find these happiness-inducing combinations. What makes the game addictive is the tension between the feeling of pleasure that comes from seeing rows of gems disappear, the desire to keep seeing these disappearances, and the frustration that comes from knowing that you can never really achieve the perfect combination. This constant tension is what draws you in and doesn't let you go.
Bejeweled 2 makes only a few tweaks to its predecessor's formula, but they're all designed to pull you even further into its abstract little world. The most substantive changes are the addition of two special types of gems: Power Gems and Hyper Cubes. A Power Gem is created by lining up four gems of the same color instead of the usual three; when used in a subsequent combination, it explodes, blowing up all the gems around it. A Hyper Cube is created from a row of five gems, and acts as a wild card: when switched with a gem of any color, it will eliminate all gems of that color from the board. In addition to the opportunities for bigger chain reactions, the explosive, disruptive effect of these gems makes the game even more pleasurably chaotic.
In addition to the new gems, there are some new modes of play as well. As in the first Bejeweled, there are Classic and Action modes. In Classic mode, you simply clear lines until there are no more valid moves to be made. Since the distribution of gems is completely random, however, a game in this mode can go on for what seems like forever, or be abruptly cut off after a just couple of minutes. In Action mode, the distribution of colors is managed to guarantee that there will always be a valid move to be made somewhere on the board. In this mode, tension is provided by a timer running across the bottom of the screen like a fuse. As you make lines and chains, time is added on; as you hesitate, the timer ticks down.
The downloadable Deluxe version of Bejeweled 2 includes two more modes: Endless and Puzzle. Endless mode, like Action, guarantees that there will always be a valid move available, but like Classic, forgoes the timer in favor of a more relaxed pace. In the absence of any real challenge, however, this mode tends to get boring pretty quickly, unless you're really in the mood to just switch your brain off. More successful is the new Puzzle mode, a series of "handcrafted" layouts in which the goal is to clear all the gems from the board. While the online version of the game contains seven simple puzzles that act more as a tutorial for the game, the Deluxe version contains 80 puzzles, ranging from the mindlessly easy to the maddeningly difficult.
A common mistake when considering a simple, abstract game like this is to think that the quality of its graphics and sound are somehow less important than in a blockbuster title like, say, Half-Life 2. Bejeweled 2, however, is full of audio-visual elements that bring delight in little ways. The brightly colored gems shimmer as they wait for you to click on them, and shatter with a satisfying crashing noise when they're eliminated. The chime that accompanies the removal of a row heightens in pitch and volume during a chain reaction; a particularly long combo can change the feeling of the sound from simple acknowledgment to ecstatic celebration. A synthesized voice shouts "Excellent!" or "Incredible!" at high-scoring plays. When a level is cleared, the entire screen explodes as you're "warped" to the next board. All of these features serve not as mere window dressing, but as positive reinforcement, subtle rewards for playing and doing well.
Like pop songs and sitcoms, a game of Bejeweled 2 is short and kind of pointless. But with all the best forms of ephemeral entertainment, the goal isn't fulfillment or enlightenment; the goal is simply to keep you coming back for more. Bejeweled 2's genius isn't in its depth or sophistication, but in the way it creates such an intense desire in you for something as trivial as watching pictures of gems disappear from a screen, and sustains that desire to make you feel that if you could play just a little longer, you could achieve some sort of final, comprehensive mastery over the game. You never can, of course, but once you start playing, you'll probably forget that and try anyway. And try again.
15 December 2004