Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I have a theory: We all have a hobby that makes us a closet Redditor, in spirit if not fact. It’s that one topic that each of us is so specifically, obsessively nerdy about that we’ll weather all the sorts of people and things that make a site like Reddit a general drag to spend any time on, in order to find a handful of people who match our personal level of weirdness about this one thing. Maybe it’s posting pictures of birds with human arms; maybe it’s expressing your hatred of Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory; maybe it’s exchanging pictures of famous women’s feet. (This is Reddit we’re talking about, after all.)
For me, it’s idle games.
In the past, I’ve written about the phenomenon of the idle game—sometimes referred to as a clicker game, or “incremental” game, or a whole bunch of other terms that generally mean “the numbers go up.” I’ve tried to explain to other, more regular human beings why the dopamine-starved portions of my brain light up in response to a game where I spend a long time farming a percentage of a number in order to get a thing that makes more of that number grow. Unfortunately, though, I wrote my column “Confessions Of An Idle Gamer” all the way back in the spring of 2019, and two things have happened since then: Incremental games have gotten way, way more interesting, and I, personally, have gotten way more starved of any sort of good-feeling neurotransmitters kicking around in my brain, as the pandemic has Katamari’d its way merrily along.
Where once the clicking of a single cookie could keep any intrusive thoughts away for hours at a time, I now find myself running multiple games in serial, just to get through the day—with new acquisitions aided by Reddit’s charmingly named “Broken Mouse Convention,” the subreddit for people enjoying my particular affliction. I am, in case my tone didn’t convey it properly, not the biggest fan of Reddit as a whole. But if it can get me a new line on the latest innovation in baking brownies or casting spells or whatever other random theme has been slapped atop the Holy Numbers this week, through whatever the latest hot incremental game is, I’ll happily stomach the cost.
Because seeking out the latest idlers isn’t just about giving your free time and clicking fingers to Brownie Clicker or Weed Clicker or whatever’s big at the moment; there’s genuinely interesting work being done in this space, often by one- or two-person teams constantly iterating on each other’s work. Take the culture surrounding The Prestige Tree, initially released by Jacorb 90 in 2020. The game’s name is a riff on “prestige” mechanics common in incrementals, which allow players to reset a portion or all of their progress in exchange for a resource that makes their future runs considerably more powerful. (The psychological effect is to allow the player, on said second pass, to breeze through content that once served as a major stopping point; the neurochemical benefits of this sudden shift in fortunes are hopefully self-explanatory.)
Prestige Tree makes prestiging the whole point: Each tier of the “tree” is a new set of mechanics that can only be accessed by getting far enough on the previous one, then hitting the big, appealing “Reset” buttons and reaping the rewards. That initial hook is made even more appealing by the fact that the game came with a set end point—a rarity for a genre where the numbers frequently spiral up into increasingly absurd convolutions of scientific notation, until the developer gets bored of being hounded by dopamine addicts and just walks away from the whole thing. Unlike many of its ilk, you can actually finish The Prestige Tree.
At which point, you can move on to one of dozens of mods that have emerged in the year and a half since, aping the game’s look and structure. (Including a rewritten, and massively expanded, version from Jacorb 90 themselves.) There are variants of “The ____ Tree” that take as their subject matter topics that run the gamut from game development, to money, to the creation of deadly planet-killing viruses, to even the creation of mods for The Prestige Tree itself. The vast majority operate as a series of nested optimization problems: What allocation of which resources allows me to push my point production to the next tier of prestige? Some are better tuned, or more clever, than others. But they’re all in conversation with each other in a way that’s as vibrant and fascinating as any other indie gaming scene.
And that’s just one strange little tributary of this vast and ostensibly lazy river—there’s a whole other set of “idle” games (Increlution, Loop Odyssey, Idle Loops, etc.) that are currently iterating wildly on the idea of being trapped in a time loop, trying to eke the most out of a limited set of resources before being forced into a reset by the ticking clock. Or pseudo-RPGs like NGU Idle and Wizards And Minions Idle, which are actually mechanically quite a bit more robust than many big-budget role-playing titles, despite the fact that their minimalist combat resolves itself automatically.
Incremental games are easy to dismiss: They tend to be ugly, a little amateurish, and, at least on the surface, lacking in interaction. (Although, take as a counterpoint Marple’s recent Orb Of Creation, a reminder that there’s no reason an idle game can’t look and sound completely gorgeous.) Those same factors also make them deeply accessible, though, for player and creator alike. All you really need to make one is a bit of coding experience, a decent grasp of math, and a jpeg of a cookie. All you need to play them is, well, I was going to say “an insatiable need to exert the tiniest possible control over your own life, and a schedule that accommodates sleep deprivation.” But let’s say “a fascination with systems and the way they can iterate,” instead. (Also: They’ll run on damn near anything.)
I play incremental games (too many incremental games; I didn’t even mention my months-plus love affair with Synergism) because, yes, they scratch an itch. But I also play them because I love seeing new ideas pop up. There’s nothing quite like the little laugh you get when you see how someone’s taken the bones of this supposedly most simple of genres and twisted them into something fascinating and new. The numbers just keep going up; the games are following a similar trend.