[6 June 2014]
All games want to be beaten, even the hardest ones. All games are made with the idea that a player will eventually see its end. If not, the game would just be a single level. The danger of this desire is that a game that wants too badly to be beaten can become too easy. Without challenge (and a good story, but that’s besides the point of this post), there’s only boredom, but luck can make a lack of challenge exciting. Luck may be looked down upon in most mechanics-driven games, but it’s an important factor in creating tension. The tricky thing about luck is that it is, by its very definition, inconsistent, which makes it all the more impressive that Badland, an iOS puzzler, can evoke the feeling with easy regularity.
Badland is not a hard game, it clearly wants you to progress through it at a steady and relaxed pace. There are hard parts, sure. The puzzles get more inventive and tricky as you get further into it, but for most of the early levels, it’s the kind of game that you know that you will be able to reliably finish a couple levels during a short bus ride. It’s a game that wants to be played, and it wants to be beaten. However, it doesn’t want the player to get complacent. It wants to be simple and thrilling at the same time.
Badland is a side-scrolling iOS puzzle game that can be effectively described as a cross between Flappy Bird and Limbo. The vibrantly colorful but weirdly alien background casts the entire foreground as a silhouette. Within those shadows, you control a round and fuzzy little creature with wings, touching the screen to fly up and lifting your finger to drop down while the screen automatically scrolls past. You’ll be faced with many cleverly designed obstacles. Some are more puzzle-like. Some are more platformer-like. But the most exciting obstacles in the game are easily the gauntlets, a series of crushing machines, spinning razor blades, dead ends, explosive mines, spiked plants, and more. They’re nearly impossible to survive on your own, but throw enough clones into that chaos and one is bound to get though intact.
There are many power-ups that you can collect to pass certain obstacles, but the most iconic one is the one that turns your little flying fuzzball into a flock of flying fuzzballs. Most of them will die once you enter a gauntlet, but that’s the point. You’re not meant to save them all—or even most of them. They’re just meant to increase the chances that you’ll be able to continue. They’re a literal stat boost. On the surface, this seems to indicate that Badland is unbalanced. You don’t survive with skill because the only way to pass this obstacle is to artificially inflate your statistical chances for survival. But this is actually what makes the game so much fun because this constant explosion of life and death generates a consistent sense of luck.
When you look closely at the design of these gauntlets, you’ll realize that it’s impossible to survive them with more than one or two clones at most. When you hit the clone power-up, your copies grow out of you in all directions. They don’t take up the same pixel space. It’s natural then that some will hit the ceiling or floor, slowing down and spreading the group thin. Once you actually enter a gauntlet, half your group will be decimated by the first spinning blade. Those deaths are important because they establish a baseline of danger. When you lose half of all your “lives” immediately, you feel all the luckier that you’re still alive. This feeling compounds with every other death until you reach the end of the gauntlet.
In retrospect, my survival was probably guaranteed. Sure, I had to tap the screen at least once to avoid a saw blade. I couldn’t just sit back and watch a little critter survive. I had to take some kind of action, but it’s such a minor and automatic action that I don’t remember doing it. Not every time at least. My continued survival seems, both in the moment and in retrospect, more a matter of luck than skill. In truth, it’s neither. It’s good design that keeps me alive, and that’s great for a mobile game like Badland. It means that I can reliably count on it to deliver 30 seconds of excitement every time I pick it up.
Badland creates an illusion of luck that’s so effective that I still feel lucky while playing it even after writing this post. The emotional illusions of games are powerful things.