Clicker games, or Incremental games to the initiated, are bits of software where you click on a screen and things happen. Popularised by the big daddy of them all Cookie Clicker, they appear to be going through a renaissance of sorts at the moment. As Nathan Grayson off of Kotaku told me this week, an Incremental called Clicker Heroes is super popular on the PC. Almost as popular as Grand Theft Auto V, which I gather is somewhat surprising. Or is it?
Austin Walker probably hits it straight on the head in his review of The Crew (emphasis my own):
“The Crew is a prime example of the new power fantasy. If, as Rowan Kaiser has argued, the old fantasy was about having power, the new fantasy is about accumulating power. The old power fantasy was invincibility codes and infinite ammo. The new power fantasy is the feeling that you’ve earned your success by your hard work alone. This is the fantasy behind the guitar-riff that signifies that you’ve leveled up in Call of Duty multiplayer. It’s the fireworks and orchestral bombast of Peggle. It’s the steady return on investment in Fantasy Life. It is a power fantasy that reflects our time. We want to be reassured that our effort will pay off in the end, that progress is guaranteed, and that our achievements are fully our own.”
The Incremental is the embodiment of this concept. Its gameplay offering is entirely flat, in that the first thing you do - clicking - is the only thing you do. Despite this, the Incremental keeps you playing by gently upping nonexistent stakes, making you feel increasingly powerful whilst you actually accomplish nothing. You click on things to allow yourself to click more - and faster. That is all you do.
You commonly begin with clicking for yourself in real time: once or twice a second. You then invest the currency you accrue through these clicks - gold, cookies, gems, whatever - into upgrades geared towards accumulating more currency more quickly. You are normally given two revenue streams: your own physical player-clicks and another set, this one generated for you by the game itself every second. This then spirals into absurd exponentiality, with you generating one, then a hundred, then a thousand, then a million, then a billion bits of currency every click/second. The quantities of booty one receives may indeed increase, but so too do the outlays necessary to maintain this growth. Things develop in a heavily regimented way. At the very beginning, when you’re earning one gold a click, an upgrade might cost you a thousand gold. It’s a thousand clicks. Ten hours later you’re up to a million gold a click. But your upgrades now cost a billion gold. It’s a thousand clicks. What you aspire to is exactly what you began with, just with more zeroes added onto the end.
The illusion of hard-won progress in games is pernicious. It gives us a sense of accomplishment where there shouldn’t be one. That we are leading some noble charge, when we are really just following orders. It makes us feel as though we’re investing our time in something worthwhile. As if we’re getting better at something tangible and transferable. Something we can proudly put on our C.V.s and show off to the world. We are having fun. We may be learning about people, places, subjects, experiences and stories. We might be developing better hand-eye coordination, but we might just as easily be developing carpal tunnel syndrome. What we aren't doing though, is ever, ever - ever getting better at anything beyond a game's specific and delineated series of challenges. We just aren't.
RPG Clicker is a curious Incremental, in that it demands you play it more than most do. You have the common duo of player-clicks and automatically generated ones, but these auto-clicks don’t actually happen, well, wholly automatically. It is an Incremental, yes, but it is one dressed up as a fantasy role-playing game. Both types of clicks are used to hurt the enemies from whom, upon their deaths, you receive gold and experience points. Gold is used to increase the damage you deal per click (the more amorphous clicks per second of other Incrementals) by upgrading your sword - player clicks - and magic - auto-clicks. All very recognisable. However, your magic attacks are not constantly active, as is the case in most other games of the genre. Instead they are governed by a mana meter, and so wholly stop once it is depleted. Your mana pool and the rate at which it recharges can be upgraded with experience points as you level up, but at some point you’re going to run out of auto-clicks. This mightn’t sound Earth-shattering, but for a game of this type it is.
At some point in the lifecycle of playing an Incremental you reach a stage where you can just leave it be and let the numbers keep getting bigger. You might check in every few hours to spend clicks on generating more clicks, but you’re done with the actual player-clicking part. Because you have a finite supply of auto-clicks in RPG Clicker, you can’t actually get to this wonderful place. You have to be constantly aware of it, managing your mana supplies, switching between player/auto/dual click methods and regularly opening the loot chests that pop up and halt this furious progress altogether. It isn’t just a simple The Number Automatically Gets Bigger game. It’s a stripped back take on the recognisable RPG formula.
I stopped playing Dragon Age: Inquisition because I found it crushingly boring. Loads of it is combat based, and I just didn’t like the fighting. It’s all very removed and distant; not at all engaging. You hold down a button and your character attacks with a basic strike. If you press a different button they’ll do a special one, but this can only be performed once every, I dunno, twenty seconds. Another special can be used more frequently, say every ten, but it deals out less damage. What you’re left with - at least I was - is you holding down your basic attack button at all times to mete out tiny bits of aggression, while cycling through your specials, as and when they become available, to perform more damage. Or, to put it another way, you’re clicking on your phone screen at all times to mete out tiny bits of aggression, while using your magic auto-clicks, as and when they become available, to perform more damage.
Strip away the pretty graphics, voice acting, stories, characters and vast worlds and what you’re left with is often an Incremental. We’re not really getting better at lots of the games we play. We’re following a strictly predetermined path through a carefully-constructed ascendant bunch of challenges. If shooting that man in the head feels easier than it did a dozen hours ago it’s because Far Cry 4 wants it to feel easier. It’s because when you get about halfway through Far Cry 4 you’ll suddenly come across enemies wearing much sturdier armour. Enemies that most certainly aren’t easy to shoot in the head because it takes three bullets to get through their helmets. Far Cry 4 does this because you still, despite spending twenty-odd hours on it already, have ages left until it ends. It needs to make you want to continue. So it makes you stronger. But it also makes everything harder. Stronger. Harder. Stronger. Harder. Stronger. Harder. Until the very end. The net outcome is the same at all times: a perfectly manageable level of difficulty. As your challenges become more complex you are able to surmount them with newfound skills. Skills you earnt. But also skills that were given right to you. You may have spent experience points to unlock them, but they were there all the time. Something to aim towards. Something to aspire to. Something to keep you doing the same tired old stuff you’ve been doing for years.
I’d hazard that this mistaken sense of legitimate mastery is partially to blame for the rampant aggression inherent in some of the discourse surrounding games. It creates a sense of superiority, where skillful play loses all context and begins to represent us in, but also out of games. This in turn allows the purely mechanical competition of playing, whether that be against others directly or a single player campaign, to manifest itself in the world outside of the game. We become better people because we are better at games, better than those other people. This can’t possibly be the case.
The one thing that is often forgotten about games is that they are made in the first place. We talk about their design all the time, but regularly forget that a large part of that design is expressly there to make us invested in playing to begin with. In tackling their challenges we are adhering to the rules created for us. We are not, and never are, doing anything on our own terms. As the Incremental shows us, we are often simply following a structured progression created to funnel us ever onwards, to ensure we keep playing. We are not the masters of destiny; we are being led by the hand, nudged forwards and coerced with baubles at every step. In this way, no true empowerment can come from games. Not in isolation, anyway. Which is why division, aggression and segregation make us all weaker, regardless of whether we maxed out that skill tree or not.
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