I wrote last week that puzzles can be scary, whether they be mechanics-driven puzzles or narrative puzzles. Knock Knock is a game that fails because it approaches an effort to balance tone and mechanics from the wrong direction: It establishes a good, creepy mood, then asks you to puzzle around in it. This diminishes the horror in the game because the puzzle mechanics distance you from the gameplay, asking you to experience the game intellectually rather than emotionally (“Puzzles Aren’t Scary: Intellectualizing Fear in Knock-Knock”, PopMatters, 31 January 2014).
The iOS game Plague Inc. takes the opposite approach and succeeds. It presents you with a puzzle to solve, encouraging you to view the game as analytically and unemotionally as possible and only when you win does it allow you time to sit back and absorb the horrifying implications of what victory really means.
Your goal in Plague Inc. is to wipe out the human race with a single deadly disease. It advertises this from the start, so you know exactly what you’re getting into when you start a new game. Unlike Brenda Romero’s Train—a similarly structured game that uses the mechanics of puzzles to distance us from an atrocity—Plague Inc. doesn’t try to hide its disturbing premise, and that’s one of the reasons that it works so well. I know that my end goal is something terrible, but I quickly forget about those human costs as I play.
It helps that Plague Inc. is very much a numbers game. The act of playing it is really is a matter of just watching numbers and stats go up or down, then altering your strategies to make the good numbers go up and the bad numbers go down. You start each game by selecting what kind of disease you want to be, bacteria, virus, parasite, etc. Then you choose a country in which to start the infection. From there, Plague Inc. plays like a real-time, though slow-paced, strategy game.
As more people get infected, you earn DNA points, which you can spend to evolve your disease. You can make it easier to spread across land, sea, or air, make it more resistant to drugs, heat, or cold, or develop symptoms like sneezing, paranoia, cysts, and insomnia, which affect your “infectivity” and “lethality.” The trick to Plague Inc. is that you don’t want to make your disease too lethal too quickly or all your hosts will die before they can spread it across the world. Yet, if you’re not lethal enough, the world will band together to find a cure and destroy you.
It’s important to note that Plague Inc. is a notoriously difficult game, and that intense difficulty encourages an animosity between you and world. I despise Greenland. In the game, Greenland is the hardest country to infect and even harder to destroy. The cold temperature and its lack of airports means it’s always the last place to get infected. Fuck Greenland. And Canada’s a close second. That damn cold north.
This is the beauty of the puzzle/strategy gameplay. It distances us from our actions because the puzzle is inherently intellectual while horror is emotional. Plague Inc. is disturbing because it’s so damn fun, and it knows it’s so damn fun. It knows that once you start playing, you’ll prioritize victory over ethics, and it practically dares us to care. It knows that we’ll willingly silence our conscience if we’re given the proper mechanics to do so. Plague Inc. doesn’t trick us into doing anything, it simply allows us to trick ourselves.
You’ll win a game long before the game itself actually ends. When every person on earth is infected and you ramp up your lethality, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop you. At that point you can pretty much stop playing and just watch: The progress towards a cure starts to slow, the death counter starts increasing, and short notifications start flooding the ticker at the top of the screen, informing you that governments have fallen, that nations have descended into anarchy, that they’ve removed drug experimentation safeguards, approved human testing, or are using mass graves to bury their dead. The messages are brief, but they’re descriptive enough to disturb you with their larger implications.
Those messages just make the bloody context obvious, but it’s there throughout the rest of the game as well. The most recent game that I played was tough. I had infected most of the world, destroyed all of Europe and Asia, but Canada was the lone holdout. They were racing towards a cure. For a brief few seconds, there was nothing I could do. I didn’t want to increase my plague’s lethality because not everyone in Canada was infected yet; I still needed time to spread. So I watched. I watched the cure percentage go up, I watched the death counter go up, I watched my infected counter go up, and I wondered what life must be like in this world, the utter terror and desperation of those last thousand Canadians. Then, as the cure ticked past 95%, I imagined how excited they must have felt, how hopeful. Then I evolved “Total Organ Failure” and the death counter skyrocketed, the progress of developing a cure stopped, and there were too many infected people to stop the spread. I wondered about the last person to be infected after putting up such a fight—maybe a lone scientist in a lab, his family, friends, and neighbors all dead, shooting himself up with a strain of the plague because, well, fuck it.
None of this was shown of course. It was all in my head. Plague Inc. is just a numbers game, but those numbers mean something. The puzzle/strategy of Plague Inc. is scary because the game gives us time to reflect on that meaning both during the game and after the game, and it never tries to hide its horror behind its puzzles. Instead, we hide its horror behind its puzzles because its puzzles are genuinely fun.
Puzzles can be scary when they allow us to excuse extinction and mass murder, when they expose that intellectualized maniac inside us all, and when they show us genocide is nothing but a numbers game.