Glitch is certainly intriguing. Being made by a spin-off team from the developers of Flickr, and having hired Katamari-creator Keita Takahashi, it proceeded to tell us about its potential for emergent play in a quirky 2D world. It wants to be the cleverest of the "casual" MMOs. But could it live up to such ambitions? Or is that beautiful art and imaginative writing stuck in a quagmire of MMO grind? We sent in Agent Smee to find out.
There's a storyline that takes place in The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman, the third part of the Dark Materials trilogy, where a scientist called Mary Malone finds herself lost in a strange alternate reality Earth inhabited by intelligent elephant-like creatures. They give her a friendly welcome and soon she's happily working alongside them in their tribal community and helping maintain their homes. After seeing that simple crafting jobs like tying a knot in a length of rope take two of the creatures to perform, their delicate trunks working in unison, at first she works independently with her two hands to complete her tasks. Before long however, Mary realises that working on her own is isolating her, as the creatures socialise while they work together, and so she decides to start only using one hand and let her new friends help.
Almost every single interaction with the world you can do in Glitch benefits from having friends around, to the point where working independently creates such a drawback as to not make it practically viable. Mine a rock on your lonesome and you'll get a chunk of ore. Help mine the same rock another player is mining and you will both receive two chunks each. Three players, and you'll get all get three mineral ores each, and maybe a shiny gem. This over-arching community-focused mechanic has an immediate effect: players routinely jump in to help others, small groups naturally forming throughout the beautifully drawn levels. I found myself helping players struggling on their own with numerous tasks that didn't even directly benefit me. I would just be walking through the world to see someone toiling away, and it'd seemed rude if I didn't join them and strike up a conversation.
Glitch is set in the persistent single-instanced land of Ur, which is actually a dream shared by 11 slumbering giants. The players all share the same server, with a broad goal of helping each other to strengthen the dream by maintaining the game world and expand it into new, undreamed territory. On top of that is scope for emergent gameplay, the game designed to allow players to create their own fun. It's a lovely concept, and has a great many lovely ideas. It's a shame, then, that they're hung around one of the worst games I've ever had the misfortune of playing.
Actually, playing is the wrong word. Staring at in blank boredom would be a more apt description of how I spent most of my time. This maintenance, for example. There's a variety of different career paths to pursue, all of which take no more effort than selecting a skill to level up and waiting while it does. I'm currently learning one that'll let me be a better farmer and there's four and a half hours of waiting until I can suddenly herd livestock. I don't need to have even touched a cow before that to learn this skill, nor any of the other myriad cooking, harvesting, mining, transportation or bureaucracy skills I've learned before it this past week. It's a profound sense of separation from my character. Neither me nor the little guy I'm playing have earned our diplomas in Alchemy or Mineral Ore Refining, as all I've done is just turned off my computer and gone to sleep.
When it comes to actually using these skills, all that off-screen book learnin' feels like a complex distance-learning commitment by comparison. That mining I mentioned earlier, for instance. Want to mine some ore in Glitch? Well, for that you'll need to have a pickaxe. Tool in hand, walk along until you find a big hunk of rock. Click on the rock. Wait for a full twenty seconds while you watch your character stand motionless next to the rock, a floating pick axe icon chipping away in the air in front of him, the chipping sound out of synch, a progress bar being filled up. You cannot do any other task while this happens. You can't even sort your inevitably heaving, twisted, nightmare of an inventory, spread hopelessly between bags and containers and pouches and spice racks. Just sit there, mindless, watching the pickaxe go up and down, up and down, up and down. Then, when you're done, do it again. Heck, that rock's got enough ore in it to withstand around a half-dozen 20-second operations, and your mining speed isn't sped up by mining with other players. It's like torture.
So, you've been hard at work in the mines. Looks like you'll need to take a break, have something to eat, as performing actions decreases your Energy level, a numbers that decreases even when you're not doing anything. Let it run out through idleness or exhaustion and you’re stuck in Hell until you mindlessly squish enough grapes to be sent back to the surface, in what has to be some kind of powerfully unfunny joke by the developers.
Food, then. As a quick starter, let's rustle up the first food item the game gives you in the tutorial: a simple hamburger. You'll need a bun, some ham and a frying pan and you can cook that right up (5 seconds and a progress bar). What's that, no ham? Then you'll have to walk around aimlessly until you stumble upon a road that has a pig wandering around. Pet it (5 seconds) and then you can nibble it (another 5 seconds, another progress bar), and you've got some ham. But what's that? No bun? Then go walking around until you find a chicken. Pet it (5 seconds), then squeeze it (5 seconds), and it gives you an ear of corn. Great. Now find four more chickens and do that four more times (10 seconds of waiting each, remember). Take out your chopping board and turn the corn into flour (5 seconds, progress bar). Then go and find a spice tree, though there is actually part of the world where spice trees bloom, so that's thankfully straightforward, as long as you're anywhere near that neighbourhood. Pick some allspice (5 seconds), take out your spice grinder and grind it into salt (5 seconds with a chance to fail). Fry the salt and the flour in your frying pan and you've got a bun, which you can then turn into a hamburger, which gives you enough energy to mine two more times.
Was that worth it? Did that feel satisfying and fun to play? A rewarding gameplay experience? I certainly hope so, because get ready for hours and hours more of the same, whether you're tending crops or scraping barnacles. At least you'll have something to do while you wait for your skills to level up. And you'll be thankful when they do, as higher level skills do in fact allow you to perform these tasks more quickly and reap more resources from a single action. Now it can sometimes be hard to effectively convey sarcasm through text, but I'll just try here: Levelling up makes Glitch more fun to play.
There's a quest early on in the game where you have to go to a bureaucratic office filled with lizards obsessed with paperwork in order to fill out identity papers. To do this, I shit you not, you have to stand in line and wait to be seen. Just stand there, don't press any controls and wait while yet another fucking progress bar fills up before the lizards call you forth. I don't know if the developers think this sort of bullshit is funny, or maybe it’s supposed an ironic commentary on something like the sheer inanity of their game design, but it speaks of a sadistic intent that borders on the perverse.
Alright, I'm actually getting upset. I'll try and calm down. I mentioned good ideas earlier, and it's true: the social aspect is fantastic. It's rewardingly easy to make friends, as starting quests encourage new players to scramble to join social networks straight off the line. You're encouraged to share, play and work together by the use of myriad co-operation bonuses. You can invite friends round to your house to have a party and listen to music while you work together in your garden. There's an actual button to join in a conga line. The economy, like Eve, is player-driven, with an Auction house easily accessible with materials and crafted items always available to buy, which if you have the money, allows you to neatly sidestep the mindless tedium of grinding. That’s a nice touch. Players coming together to save each other from playing the soulless game they're stuck in. That’s an odd sort of community, but it's a community all the same.
There's been talk of the emergent aspects, of players making their own fun. My favourite story is about one player leaving notes around the world, leading others on a treasure hunt. In the Global Chat, there's regular discussion, some quite passionate, about which of the eleven dreaming giants to pray to, with some people's devotion bordering on the religious. That's going to be interesting as it develops - I can see factions of Sauce Chefs as rivals against Cattle Herders. While I was playing, someone seemed to be actively littering, dropping useless paper cups on the forest floor, and players immediately formed an impromptu cleaning service. Building the world is another mechanic that seems marvellous in its conception: hundreds of players all having a massive street party, their activity fuelling the unshaped world around them to come forth and take form. That's something I'd love to see, though unfortunately the Projects, as they're known, won't come online for a few weeks yet.
It's beautiful, too. The art design is gorgeous, with numerous bright and colourful environments available to explore. Unfortunately exploring comes with a frustrating drawback: the movement controls are sticky, jumping is floaty, edge detection is abysmal and there's no escaping the fact that the constant linear 2D movement is simply boring. As wonderful as the game looks, it really just amounts to holding left or right for minutes at a time while the pretty backgrounds scroll past, doing nothing to liven the platforming. There's a handful of optional competitive platforming minigames, but you'd best be off steering clear of them entirely, the controls being the frustrating end of you more than the unfair level design and scatty hit detection for games of Tag on show.
Whether it's pledging high-end crafted items to your favoured giant at its shrine or the feeling of hours and hours of your life draining away all the while, there's plenty of sacrifice required in Glitch. If you really want to get the most out of it, and if you bubble with creative energy, there's a lot of fun to be had with making up games and playing with all the impressively friendly people inhabiting the world. Even this early on in the MMO cycle, it's clear that the strong community mechanics will foster fond relationships.
There are great ideas on how to make a rewarding MMO in here, ideas that should be learned, and I want to get excited and talk about this new piece of hilarious writing that I've read in a quest briefing and see if we can effectively kidnap someone and leave a ransom note or set up a cake shop in front of my house and do all sorts of things with the friends I've made. But then I remember the never-ending grind, the repulsive attitude the game seemed to treat me with, of staring at never-ending progress bar pop-ups, of never having any space in the inventory that’s filled with two dozen tools that don’t stack and all of which I constantly need to carry in order to harvest and craft effectively and I don't think I'll be going back. If I want to spend time playing with my friends, we can go to the park instead. The weather’s been lovely this week. We’ll bring a barbeque, enjoy each other’s company and make burgers while not worrying about Hell.