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The Games Of Christmas: December 22nd

There seems little doubt that gardening is the new videogames. Even videogames have accepted this truth, as evidenced by the entry in the latest window of our seasonally festive advent-o-calendar. That said, no one is going to make the disembodied hand of the one true leader of the Autobots do any pruning, at least not at this time of year...

Plants Versus Zombies!

Jim: I feel like this is one of the outer markers of the casual region of gaming. It, along with a bunch of other notables, represent a point at which the idea of making simple, low budget games start to come back into the arena of significant gaming experiences. We've always had those games, of course, but the success of this was down, I think, to the build quality of it. All Popcap's game tend to have a robust plastic toy solidity to them, and that was really obvious here. Plants Vs Zombies was one of those games that felt complete and whole. It was immediately comprehensible and extremely knowable. While there were stacks of extensions in additional game modes, the story was extremely digestible, and not too much to get through in a couple of sessions. Also - arguably - it was fairly funny.

Celebrating the so-called "casual" games seems to have become routine for lists like this, and I suspect that's because gamers and developers are starting to realise that games from all tiers of technology and budgetary ambition are actually valuable to the larger scheme of being a gamer. After all, something like PvZ would have been a mainstream monster just a few years earlier in my life, and now it sits at the sort of mid tier: not exactly aspirational, but still something we're happy to pay money for.

Watching the Lady Rossignol sit and finish this in a single sitting - demanding that I bring her caffeine and sustenance to sustain the planting - was one of the most warming sights of the year. It's unusual for us to agree on games, especially PC games, but it's happened twice this year. Once with The Sims 3, and once with Plants Vs Zombies. That alone makes me salute it, and carry on planting.

Kieron: I'd argue Plants Vs Zombies is PopCap's most - for want of better terminology - hardcore-aimed game ever. Well - except the Half-Life Peggle, of course. Zombies and Tower Defence, with a few Portal-esque tricks - the theme song, for example. This was a game which can most easily be judged just as we'd any normal game. I think the key thing for me was the mass of challenge modes and alternate plays. Frankly, a lot of these challenge games would be enough for the lower-level of webgame content. This was less a game, than a compendium. It offered a lot of - to go back of the box for a second - gameplay.

I loved it, but haven't gone back to it. Not because I walked away from the game, but because - somewhat oddly - it walked away from me. Playing on the press copy, working my way through the challenges, I found one morning that all the challenges has been completed, presumably unlocked. Problem with that, it suddenly seemed entirely pointless to play and beat them considering I had the badges already. It was like going bird-spotting with a filled in I-Spy book. So I went back to play the real copy... and then I had to go through the whole game unlocking everything to get to the challenges. And this is where it fails as a hardcore crossover game - to get to the most interesting content I had to go through the six-hours of the basic campaign. I tried it a little, but never found the will to go all the way through again. Which is annoying, when you know there's interesting experiences there you can't reach. It's like hearing my friends talk about their WoW raids now. Great stuff. I'd like a crack. But - y'know - how many hours to level a character to play with them? If the journey there isn't interesting, I'm never getting to that destination.

Which leaves me a little sad when I think of PvZ. But then I recall the dancing Zombie Michael Jackson, and smile again. It was 2009 at its best.

Alec: I'm finding this incredibly hard to write about now. When PvZ came out, it was a moment in gaming-time: Popcap being Valve, masters of marketing, silliness and songs. Now they’re kind of back to being the Bejeweled guys again: but I’m sure they’ll win me back. Because that’s PvZ’s most timeless triumph: proof that this is a truly mighty, progressive developer, and the only reason they’re not consistently this good is because they choose not to be. They’ve got their guaranteed money-spinners, but once in a while they’ll do a Peggle or a PvZ and prove they’re absolutely the masters of the (for lack of a better term) casual art.

I don’t think I could play PvZ again now – the need to begin over, in those now-tedious early levels, due to reinstalls and – but in May it was pretty much all I could think about. The majesty of Tall-Nut (whose baleful glare is still my Twitter icon), everyone sharing their zombified avatars, cheery discussion of the best plant combos and how to beat the climatic challenges, and the prevalence of That Song. A moment in time. Not many games achieve so grand a takeover. Popcap can be so good that they actively frighten me.

John: I find my brain does not differentiate between "casual" and "mainstream" games. It thinks in terms of "good" or "bad" games. Plants Vs. Zombies is a good game.

I've never clicked with the Tower Defence genre. But PvZ did straight away. Certainly because it was far simpler, but also because it was more immediately about enjoying myself. My big criticism of the game remains that it was too easy, that it never escalated its difficulty to the point where I faced any serious challenge, and that's still true. But despite this I was always enjoying myself. Sometimes it's a pleasure to play a game that's quite easy, so long as it's consistently interesting, and here this was definitely the case.

Jim alludes to this, but I think there's something disingenuous about filing a game like Plants Vs. Zombies in the high-walled segment of the Great Gaming Venn Diagram marked "Casual". If this were released in 1993 it would have been called a "Puzzle game" or similar. And it absolutely could have been released in 1993, albeit less pretty. The concept behind it is so very basic, but compellingly fun. Hmm, well, I say "compellingly", but I've not gone back to it. And I think, like Kieron, this is in a large part because I don't fancy playing through the first half of the game a second time. (I too played it on review code that expired once it was out.) That's problematic, I suppose. But then that first play through brought me much happiness.

I love that PopCap were willing to make a game like this. The temptation must be there to just churn out more Bejeweleds and Chuzzles. Well, the temptation is there to do that, and they do, a lot. And presumably these are downloaded millions more times as a result. But there's also room for a Bookworm Adventures and a Plants Vs. Zombies. I'm sure they're still highly profitable, but I'm convinced they're not nearly as monstrously popular as the straight lunchtime puzzle games. And I love that the extra mile is gone. The song, the animation for the song, the ludicrous notes from the zombies, the vast number of minigames and extras. So once more, the song:

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