I like to think I am strong. I am not strong. I am weak.
I have fallen for another idle, aka clicker game. I thought I had fallen through the black hole that was infinite money generation game AdVenture Capitalist and come out the other side wiser, armoured and immune against such manipulation of my lizard brain. Then, while researching games for this week’s Unknown Pleasures, I came across Realm Grinder. Yeah, yeah, clue’s in the name.
It fuses that same, insidiously compulsive concept – make numbers get bigger, for ever and ever, in part by furiously clicking on the screen and in the main by automatic accumulation over time – with trace elements of a town management game and a fantasy RPG skin. It has me. Pray for me.
Underneath its pretty, faux hand-drawn, cod-RTS skin, there is perhaps little to meaningfully separate Realm Grinder from AdVenture Capitalist and other idle games like it. It’s about clicking to earn money, clicking on other buttons to unlock multipliers that earn even more money, and most of all feeling zero sense of achievement when you hit some milestone because you immediately become fixated on attaining the next one. But! It takes skill and even artistry to make this stuff work – to create the constant tug of compulsion, and not something dry and drab that you can see right through immediately.
Realm Grinder’s hook is that you’re trying to wring endless cash out of a fantasy kingdom, as opposed to a more nebulous business enterprise or even a biscuit empire. That the centre of the screen is taken up by a broadly static isometric image of your kingdom lends Real Grinder a facsimile of Real Game. This is key to why it has made its way past my defences.
The scene barely changes – and though a dozen or so new buildings appear in the earliest hour of the game, from a visual point of view, having 300 Evil Fortresses is barely different to having one. It looks less like a kingdom and more like a half-built Lord of the Rings theme park. No residents, no animations, almost no change, no sense of life. It shouldn’t work at all.
But it does. That ever-unchanging scenes provides the simplest thematic structure that eggs me on to keep playing. Is it just the Skinner box at work, or is it also tapping into memories of strategy and management games passed, piggy-backing onto old reflexes to expand, expand, expand or I will be invaded/incapable of invading? A deadly combination.
A choice early in a new game has you decide first whether your alignment is good or evil, which provides a one-off switch in the image you see (either magical idyll or scorched hellscape), and then after that which specific faction – goblin, demon, fairy, dwarf and so forth – you will represent. Small changes in description and art make this seem transiently meaningful – Realm Grider’s masterstroke. I feel I am playing as someone, and not just as the unblinking, click-click-clicking junkie that is me.
The faction choices in turn open up different upgrades and spells. Upgrades and spells are only numerical boosts to the constant flow of cash – Middle-Earthland never changes – but there is a slight strategy to them – the fairy spells make cheaper buildings earn more, for instance, while Elven ones massively boost how much you earn from clicking rather than waiting, and as a result the theme abides.
I feel as though I am at war with unseen enemies, lurking just off the screen, threatening to seize everything unless I can become rich and powerful enough. The truth is that I am only at war with my own willpower.
This is an evil game, as are all its ilk – cold-blooded timesinks designed to take advantage of our shallowest impulses. But what a well-done evil game it is, pairing that undying compulsion for more, that errant belief that the next milestone or unlock will mean epiphany, with a restrained theme that hoodwinks me into perceiving Real Gaminess.
I would like it to do more with that. I want animations, I want buildings and upgrades to spread across the land, a visual sense that my absurd revenues have had an effect. I’d feel so much better if it seemed as though I was actually building something, no matter how superficial.
Most of all, I would like an absolute objective. Not an achievement. Some grand pay-off for my time, some justification for the fact that I think about how much Realm Grinder might have earned while I am in the shower or waiting for the kettle to boil. That, of course, is impossible.
Don’t be like me.