I was impressed enough by Randy Smith’s GDC 2009 talk “Helping Your Players Feel Smart: Puzzles as User Interface” that I’ve made a point to go to his talks the last two years as well; and I quite liked his 2010 talk “Increasing Our Reach: Designing to Grab and Retain Players” as well. Because of that, I’d always planned to get around to playing Spider, but it never quite bubbled up to the top of my stack.
Part of that was because I was dubious about playing it on the iPhone; the iPad is a much more pleasant gaming platform however, and fortunately his studio released an iPad version of the game. But I was too busy playing Minecraft until recently to dive into other games (at least most other games, I somehow found time to play a fair amount of Flight Control HD), but now that that addiction has abated, I’ve been finding more time for smaller games. (It didn’t hurt that my dog has been waking me up in the middle of the night recently, leaving me with some chunks of time that are well suited for non-narrative games on handheld devices.)
And I was optimistic that Spider might fit in with some of my current theoretical concerns. Playing lots of Minecraft, Rock Band 3, and board games over the last year has gotten me away from thinking of video games as narrative devices by default, and given me a lot more respect for focusing on a small set of mechanics. (Which can, of course, lead to quite a rich narrative in its own way!) I love Flight Control HD, and a big part of that is how well the mechanics work on the device; drawing spiderwebs sounds like it has the potential for the same sort of mechanical goodness. And if you combine that with rather lovely artwork and hints of a story to puzzle out, what’s not to like?
But I just couldn’t get into it. The web-drawing mechanic is okay, but not something I enjoyed enough to want to focus on mastering it; also, there’s just enough distance between you and the controls for it not to feel seamless the way Flight Control HD does. I like the game’s artwork, but when I was going through it the first time, I was focused on making it through the levels instead of taking the time to try to figure out what was going on, and I’m not motivated enough to go through the levels a second time with story in mind. Smith likes achievements as a vehicle to promote depth on demand, and the achievements did get me to try some goals and play styles that I might not have otherwise attempted; I enjoyed that, but not enough to keep on trying different techniques once I’d gone through the levels once. I dipped briefly into the other game modes, but my heart just wasn’t in it, so I put them aside quite quickly.
Which all left me a bit sad: I wanted to like the game more than I did, and the mechanics and story are good enough that I can imagine willing myself into liking them. (The art I don’t have to will myself into liking, it is quite nice.) At first I thought I might not have given it a fair shake by playing much of it while sleep-deprived at night; for the last couple of nights, though, I’ve been playing Puzzle Quest 2, and I’ve been loving that. And that’s another game focused on mechanics with a thinner (though more explicit) narrative veneer available; the difference, though, is that I’m really enjoying the mechanics, figuring out how to mix the details of gem combat with spell usage. And I’ve been playing a good amount of Ascension as well; no narrative there, but I’m enjoying the mechanics.
Still, I’m happy to have played Spider, and I’m happy to be quickly going through a game instead of being mired in the same games for month. On to something else now, though, a bit earlier than I expected!
This post has not been revised since publication.