Vista Ultimate: Disappearing Plants and the Big Secret
To my surprise, I launched my game of Plants vs. Zombies during my lunch break on Monday, and my save data had disappeared. The title screen stared blankly at me. "Welcome, Ryan! Start Adventure." Where were the keys to Crazy Dave's shop? Where was the Zen Garden with all my plants? Bald patch of grass. My hours spent on the game were gone; my progress had been reset.
Play Peggle on the worst day of your life.
In full-on grieving mode, I wracked my mind for things from the game to miss. I couldn't come up with anything. If you're like me, then Plants vs. Zombies fades the moment you stop playing. Where are the sublime gaming moments -- like when you first emerge from Black Mesa in Half-Life, for example -- that are still a part of you long after you've moved on? Because Plants vs. Zombies never challenges you to the point of frustration, it also doesn't force you to engage with it any more intensely than you would your breakfast, or your day job. It's actually hard to remember anything about this game but its style, which I think is the point. The style is the substance, and there is a lot of it.
PopCap has perfected the art of the casual game. Casual games appeal entirely without effort. Hardcore games assume that you will put effort into them, and reward you afterward. But in Peggle, simply turning on the futuristic pachinko game is rewarding. The sun is rising. You hear lyrical strains of Edvard Grieg. Buttons on the main menu hum agreeably at you. Animals wearing surgically enhanced smiles take you through the game. In playing, you're asked to press one button, over and over, to bring out stars and rainbows to the tune of "Ode to Joy."
It's fairly obvious to any Peggle player that these are exaggerated rewards. The load of positive reinforcement here is shameless. PopCap games wear this artifice on their sleeves. Without recourses to "meaning" -- characters, challenges, sublime moments -- a game is left with exponentially more space for other possibilities. PopCap fills this space with pure sensations. Sounds, smiles and surrealities. Games like Plants vs. Zombies and Peggle are categorically different from the likes of Portal or Grand Theft Auto IV, games that are meant to sink in. Playing them is about indulging in exquisite pleasure, pleasure for its own sake. It's about giving your nerves the stimulation that they want.
This isn't a judgment against casual games; it's more the opposite. PopCap gets that games are virtual -- and so should be your feelings of accomplishment. It's easy for things like skillfully managing resources in a real-time strategy game, capturing the flag in a team-based shooter, or pulling off a difficult raid in World of Warcraft, to feel like achievements. But I'd argue that achievements in a virtual world are still virtual achievements. Or, in other words: They're not actually achievements of any kind. They've never been anything more than gameplay.
Like Peggle, Plants vs. Zombies focuses solely on the moment when it's on and it has your attention, which it pets like a kitten. When it's off, so is your fulfillment. It's a game that doesn't pretend to be anything more than a game, and its foundation of tower defense is just solid enough to support stacks of sublime gratification. The plants dance; the zombies are lovable. Conflict feels good. The intricate network of play becomes apparent the further you play the game: Zombies drop coins that can be used to enhance your conflict-free Zen Garden, a break from the game within the game. Replaying the main game then becomes a way of financing your garden, which has its own surprises and rewards. Then there are the puzzles and mini-game variations, which range from bowling to Bejeweled Twist. It's a staggering amount of invention for the sole purpose of continual, ever-shifting pleasure.
Plants vs. Zombies' virtual goals and outcomes are a great fit for the daily whirl of office work. Working entirely on a computer to generate virtual content, day after day, can also feel a little unreal on days off. When I played Plants vs. Zombies in the Crispy office, the game mixed effortlessly into my other work. It opens by default (at least in the Mac version) in a window. It's therefore easy to multitask. When you alt-tab away from the game, it automatically pauses, with an image of a zombie reading a newspaper. Coming back, the game -- with its discrete lanes of plants and zombies -- looks like nothing so much as a spreadsheet, which you can happily manage as part of your to-do list.
And its audio cues might as well be the sounds of Windows. The sound of pea shooters discharging, perhaps what you hear most in the game, reminds me of the pop-up alert that tells me I have limited or no connectivity. Clicking up sunbeams triggers a harp jingle, like getting an instant message. When your defenses are fully set up, it's immensely satisfying to sit back and watch the battle -- and listen to an urbane symphony of clicks, pops, splats, jingles, and the clink of money.
In celebrating delight over depth, PopCap not only returns gaming to its roots, but fashions a placid, everyday enjoyment from the banality of postindustrial life. It's a style of fun that suits the culture of the Information Age. Rather than a lesser game, call it a "small pleasure" -- like planting a real garden.
Ryan Kuo is the copy editor at Crispy Gamer and is very passionate about his job.