Watch me ollie!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

This game has been driving me nuts. I've been playing it more than anything else for a few weeks at least now, and I'm not even sure if I enjoy it.

Geometry Wars first turned up as a neat Easter Egg in Bizarre's magnificent Project Gotham Racing 2. It's a bit like the genuine classic Robotron 2084 (which is still enormously playable today), except that you can shoot and move in every direction rather than just 8, thanks to the advent of the analog stick, and it doesn't have distinct levels or little human people wandering around that you can rescue.

When I first discovered it, I thought "blimey, what an awesome little extra", played it for maybe half an hour, enjoyed it, but never went back.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved is pretty much the same thing except with a tiny bit of scrolling and extra sparkly bits.

So why am I playing it obsessively this time around? There's a global online leaderboard. That's it. I'm not very competitive by nature, and I officially don't care about high scores. But I'll be damned if I'm not obsessed with beating the other bastards on my "friends" list at this stupid little game.

So it is that I'm sitting in front of a $650 console, with several $100+ games laying idle on the shelf, wirelessly and expensively hooked up to a broadband connection, on a high definition LCD TV - playing a slighty questionable "homage" to Robotron that I payed something like $5 for, and can fit on a memory card.

Geometry Wars is pretty and colourful, and seems to hark back to a simpler time, when games were all about "gameplay", without all the tacked-on rubbish that we have to deal with these days. There's not even a sentence of text to place the action in any sort of context - even R-Type told me that I was out to defeat the evil Bydo Empire or some such nonsense. There's no-one to rescue, there are no levels to complete, and there are no changes in scenario or setting. You never get anywhere.

You're a little shape, in a flat plane. You can never leave that plane, despite the fact there's a detailed, 3D scrolling starfield beneath you, taunting you with a false promise of space and freedom. You're placed in this tiny, constrained rectangle until you die. There is no end, no possibility for success - you will die. All you have for company and for comfort is a number in the corner of the screen that goes up a bit for every other little shape you manage to destroy before it's all over for you. The larger that number is before you lose your last "life", the better. That's it.

It's bleak and depressing stuff - a sort of interactive existentialism. There's nothing but suffering and an inevitable, violent death at the end of it. The best you can hope for is to stave it off for as long as possible and take as many other bastards down with you as you can while you're there. There's no upside, and there's no end. It's both pointless and futile.

At least Robotron gave you little people to save, and a sense of progress. In Geometry Wars, you get three different types of pats on the back:

1. As your score goes up, you get an extra life or an extra bomb at certain intervals.
2. If you manage to reach (or survive) a certain number of points or collect a certain number of lives or bombs, you get an "achievement".
3. You also get a special "achievement" if you manage to survive for 60 seconds without shooting anything.

1 and 2 are basically the same thing. Survive as long as you can, don't use bombs any more than you have to and don't die. 3 is mildly interesting, but is really a simple one-off task that isn't really compatible with the rest of the game.

So it's clearly the high-score table, filtered to show those on my "friends" list, that's the real drug at work here. I'm not here for the gameplay, and I'm certainly not here for the game design. I'm here to perform a repetitive, frustrating and time-consuming task slightly better than others. I want to see their names below mine, not above. Whenever I turn on the 360, even if it's to play something else, I'll just check to see that nobody's posted a new score that betters mine. And I've got that one guy in front of me - I need to make sure he's not pulling further ahead, as I steadily close the gap between us.

There's something compelling here, and it's something to which I thought I was immune. I still don't understand it, and I'm not even sure I like it. But I'll be damned if I'm quitting before I'm at the top of that list.