(See conflict of interest disclaimer.)

We launched Tiki Resort last month, and it took me a few days to come to grips with it. I was dutifully doing what the game told me to—placing buildings, gathering coins, clicking on messes to clean them up, feeding my tourists—and leveling up apace. But I was starting to get a little bored—just why am I doing this again?

And then I upgraded one of my existing buildings (I can’t quite remember what, maybe turning the Art Stand into the Island Art Emporium), and I thought, “you know, that upgraded building looks kind of neat!” And then I upgraded another, and thought, “this one looks pretty neat, too!” By the time I’d upgraded my Mini Golf into a Putt Hut I was really quite curious about further upgrades to that building would look like; and now, when I look at the level 1 Waterslides and Carnival buildings, I don’t say “that’s a meh waterslide”, I say, “wow, I bet my resort is going to look awesome once those are at level 3!”

Though, even after that, my brain wasn’t quite at ease—these upgrades are just eye candy, right, their effect on gameplay is ultimately pretty minimal? At which point I had flashbacks to my experiences playing Burnout Paradise and reading other people fail to appreciate the game because of the direction in which they approached it. Yes, if you see Burnout Paradise as a race game, then billboards and smash gates seem like “the the obligatory inclusion of hidden collectables [that] make no sense in the context of Burnout [because they] reward stopping”. But when I stopped coming at Burnout Paradise from a race game perspective (and I’d never played the previous games, so I didn’t have the series’s legacy weighing on me), that completely stopped mattering—finding stuff to smash is cool, and the strategic planning required for billboards is a plus instead of a minus! And it’s the same for me with Tiki Resort—the traditional counters of levels, money, etc. are all well and good, but ultimately the reason why I’m enjoying the game is because I want to see what the buildings look like, and what the island as a whole will look like with all the buildings working together.

So this game turns out to be an ode to tech trees. And not tech trees in some sort of utilitarian sense of tools to develop your character to overcome external challenges: just tech trees that are neat to explore, where the branches and leaves are pleasant objects in their own right. In fact, playing Tiki Resort at the same time as I was playing Mass Effect 2 got me wondering: the latter game is also full of tech trees, in the form of your characters’ skills and the weapon/ship/armor/etc. upgrades that you can research. And yes, I dutifully researched those, but now I’m wondering: how much of my desire to do so had to do with the rest of the game play, and how much had to do with my just feeling compelled to follow tech trees? I liked the idea of upgrading my powers, but the truth is that I generally used the same power over and over again (Incinerate!), and upgrading those powers didn’t reveal any significant new aspects to them, they were just the same basic idea with slightly higher stats. (With a slight exception for their fourth levels.)

I blogged about combat fatigue recently, and I’ve also started to feel a sense of narrative fatigue. Not that I think that either combat or narrative are bad things: in particular, I have quite a bit of respect for games that are really focused on combat, and I’m happy to be swept along by a game that is more interactive cinema than anything else. But there are too many games that don’t know the virtues of restraint, that throw in gameplay devices because they are expected rather than because those devices strengthen the impact that the game is making. So it’s refreshing to see games that take a step back from such trappings, that take less prominent aspects of video games and focus on strengthening those. With the result that you end up with a game that just worries about using tech trees to build up a neat space (Tiki Resort; for a more extreme focus on cool tech trees, see GROW ver. 1), or a game that focuses on the joys of mapping (Small Worlds; it’s not a coincidence that I gave up on Etrian Odyssey as it was insisting on rubbing JRPG conventions into my face).

So hey, focus, let’s go with that as a virtue. Another thing to keep my eyes open for as I try to spend more time playing and talking about short games.

A couple of points that didn’t really fit into the flow above, but that I won’t find time to expand on elsewhere:

  • The idea of having animals that ask you to pet them on quite frequent intervals (once a minute?) turns out to be a very effective mechanic to get you (or at least me) to not just leave a game open in a separate window to accumulate money but to return to it constantly. (And hence, presumably, get more and more invested into it; which petting virtual animals also fosters directly, of course.)
  • For another example of a game with stuff that just looks cool, check out Social City. We only launched it yesterday, but I’m totally in love with all the animations.

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