Rarely does a game compel me to paint images to go with an article. These are my paintings; this is the game.
It was shown to me as I sat in an airport food court, cradling a paper bowl full of tomato bisque. The game was still just a test build — there was no title screen, no tutorial, no achievements, and not all the alien freaks had been implemented. The developer of this game positioned his iPhone 4 right in front of my face. A little person in the game stood on top of a ziggurat that towered above the clouds. His gun changed directions based on the way the developer swiped, green bullets would charge up when his finger touched the screen, and they would fire off into the distance the moment he released.
“The character — he’s cute,” I said as the little man in a magenta jumpsuit and blonde mop of a wig fired bullets out of his gun.
“Who said it’s a he?”
I looked closely at the character — it was definitely a human-like person, but the developer was right — there were no signs indicating gender. Men can be blonde and grow long hair (just ask Final Fantasy), magenta isn’t necessarily a female colour (and if it is, so what?), and you do not need even a handful of breast to be a woman.
“Oh,” I said, slightly embarrassed that I had so quickly concluded that a character without ample bosom and was also holding a gun would naturally be male. In a more dramatic world, my face would have reflected the colour of the soup I was cradling.
I took the iPhone and began tapping away, watching the little green bullets dribble from the mouth of my gun. The first of the alien freaks bounced towards me and in my panic I tapped frantically, creating the most pathetic of bullet dribbles. They rolled down the side of the ziggurat, claiming a few alien lives, but mostly being ineffective. An alien jumped on me, the screen went red, and a message appeared:
“Before dying, I managed to kill fifteen of the alien freaks who killed everyone else.”
“I’ll send you a build of the game,” he said, taking back his iPhone.
He began playing his own game. I couldn’t see his score — it does not display on the play screen because the number doesn’t matter when you are in the middle of the game. I could already tell that he was doing better than me because he hadn’t died within two minutes. I felt embarrassed.
“Do you want some of my soup?”
“No thanks,” he said as he continued to slide his finger from side to side. He showed me his phone again.
“Before dying, I managed to kill one hundred twenty of the alien friends who killed everyone else.”
“Oh. Oh... OK.”
I’m back in Australia with a test build of ZiGGURAT on my iPod touch. Remembering my failure at the airport, I don’t particularly want to play the game again. I certainly don’t have to. And while a repeat of my bullet dribbling is the last thing I want to do, I can’t help but be intrigued by how the developer managed to kill 120 of the alien freaks when I only managed 15. So here I am, grudgingly swiping my finger along the bottom of the screen. Re-familiarising myself with the controls, I find myself freaking out when a horde of aliens emerge, sweating like a champagne ham when I come close to death, and thinking with each kill that there is no way I could do as poorly as I did the first time.
“Before dying I managed to kill 27 of the alien freaks who killed everyone else.”
It’s stressful and I’m not sure if I’m enjoying myself, but it’s a marked improvement! It is still no 120 kills, though. I decide to give it another go, and then another and then another, each time aiming to beat my previous score. After five attempts I find myself capped at 35 kills.
“That’ll do,” I think to myself. “That will be enough training for one day.”
You are the last surviving human on the planet. You are a woman, although it doesn’t really matter what gender you think you are. Maybe you are transgendered. Who cares? You are armed with nothing but a gun that fires green bullets. You stand at the top of a ziggurat. How did you get there? Why don’t you move? Why are you just standing in the one spot as the alien onslaught begins? — the details don’t really matter because you’re just in this to survive. Ultimately, you won’t survive. The alien hordes are relentless. There are infinitely more of them than there are of you. You begin the game with the sun up and by the time the sun sets only more aliens have appeared. Eventually the sky goes dark, the music stops, you’re at the end of the world, still clinging onto hope.
How did I get here? Why am I OK with standing on top of this ziggurat? Why am I even playing this game? If there is no hope, no positive end in sight and no reward beyond a score, why I am here? Do I hope that maybe, somewhere deep inside the game, there is a happy ending? No. Do I think that if I go for long enough then I will receive gifts? I’m... pretty sure not. I do not cling to hope. I play and continue to push myself because it’s viscerally satisfying, because I am a body builder, and because the reward is my own self improvement. I am not levelling a character up — I am levelling myself up.
The initial satisfaction came from the game being well-designed and feeling good to play. When I got over the tiny mountain that was my inability to fire a bullet properly, I was able to measure and time when to fire and at what angle, force and speed. When a bullet hits an alien it’s like stomping on the Rice Bubbles mascots and discovering why they were named Snap, Crackle and Pop. I don’t need a score tracker on the screen to tell me how I’m performing — I can judge my success by the sounds, the size, intensity and frequency of the explosions, my own sense of calm and panic, the level of adrenaline in my bloodstream, and whether or not the in-game sun has set.
The greater sense of satisfaction comes from the fact that I consider myself a kind of body builder. Anything I do and care about doing is done in the name of self-improvement. Playing ZiGGURAT helped me identify the precise reason I am drawn to certain games and why I am dissatisfied with others. ZiGGURAT is about the player. There is no character to level-up but yourself. My little woman on top of the ziggurat is no better than your little woman on top of the ziggurat... but one of us, as individuals in the real world, is going to be better at ZiGGURAT than the other based on our experience.
I began identifying this in games that I have played obsessively for years: Lumines, Age of Empires, Theme Hospital... there is always a way to do something better; to obtain a higher score, to conquer sooner or build a Wonder faster. The amount of satisfaction achieved in those games is determined by me — there is no narrative or puzzle to get to the end of and no developer or system to tell me if I have done well enough by their standards. I am the one to set the goals and I ultimately decide if I have done well enough. As a body builder, I always decide that I haven’t done well enough, which encourages me to continue playing, to continue to push myself, and to climb the figurative steps of the ziggurat.
“Before dying, I managed to kill 88 of the alien freaks who killed everyone else.”
It has been three months since I was first introduced to ZiGGURAT in that airport. I had been convinced of two things at the time: 1) I would probably get food poisoning from that tomato bisque and 2) I would never play ZiGGURAT again. I was wrong on both accounts.
Just this morning I played ZiGGURAT on the train to work.
“Before dying, I managed to kill one hundred twenty-five of the alien freaks that killed everyone else.”
— ZiGGURAT does not have a release date, although it is meant to be out in the next few weeks for iOS. For more information, visit www.ZGGRT.com
Disclaimer: ZiGGURAT is developed by Action Button Entertainment, a studio run by Kotaku US contributor, Tim Rogers. Kotaku AU was not asked/told/paid to write this. The writer also bought her own tomato bisque (it was nasty (her only other choice was airport sushi)).]
All art used in this article (excluding the Japanese ZiGGURAT poster) was painted by Tracey Lien.