Every Friday, several 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 confession, friends: I have clicked the cookie.
Does that sentence carry any meaning for you? Does it evoke memories, possibly long-buried, of spending long hours watching an arbitrary number steadily go up? Clicking frenetically to make it rise faster? Buying upgrades, spending currencies, translating time into a vague sense of having both accomplished something, but also, somehow, less than nothing?
Then you may be an idle gamer, friend. Just like me.
My relationship with what’s sometimes known as incremental gaming—presumably because it highlights that some of these games require a ton of busywork that’s not exactly “idle,” and also to make the whole thing sound a little less pathetic—stretches behind me like an addict’s litany of vices. For years, I’ve fallen into emotional pits where these games—distinguished mostly by the cycle between watching a resource increase, then spending it to make it increase even faster, repeated in an endless, dopamine-pinging loop—can come to dominate my waking and sleeping thoughts.
I have ground the realms, I have gleamed the cube of adventurous capitalism. I opened the candy box, I unleashed the hypnodrones, I idled my way through factories, painting galleries, and dungeons galore. Like some sort of bleary-eyed, carpal-tunneled foster father, I have raised trimps, kittens, penguins, alien bugs, and dozens of other adorable stand-ins for the hard reality of filling bars and steadily rising sums. In my darkest moments, I’ve even spent hours of my ostensibly precious life on games that don’t even bother to cloak their mechanisms behind some kind of cutesy conceit, serving as little more than a series of bars that steadily, inexorably go up. Very little of it has been fun in any traditional sense, and much of it has arrived with a grim sense of confinement and compulsion. But I’ve done it.
There’s something extra humiliating about being addicted to a genre of games that literally started as a joke about the depths to which players might sink; the earliest examples of the genre were stuff like Progress Quest and Cow Clicker, which were meant to satirize “progress” in video games by breaking it down to its simplest mechanism: Number goes up, brain feels good. But Cow Clicker inevitably begat Cookie Clicker, which—while still a comedy game, what with its Lovecraftian horde of baking-obsessed grandmas—steered further into the compulsive cycle. And from there, a million repetitive, sleep-destroying ships were launched.
Looking at it now—and yes, obviously, I have an instance of Cookie Clicker running in the background as I write this because my brain is sick—that ur-game feels strangely generous: The loop of upgrades is too forgiving, the ability to progress too fast—especially in comparison to the mercilessly tuned creations it spawned. (No other genre roots its design in manipulating the psychology of its players, because honestly, that’s all it’s got.) It also has almost no “game” elements to it, beyond the click-upgrade-idle loop. Compare that with, say, the officially licensed Dungeons & Dragons game, Idle Champions Of The Forgotten Realms, which adds in inventory systems, formation bonuses, and all sorts of other extra mechanics to distract you from the pointlessness of what you’re doing. That one almost feels like a “real” game at this point, though my fixation on these idle pursuits has blurred the line of what that particular term might mean. (See also entries with set endpoints and varying mechanics, like Candy Box, A Dark Room, and Universal Paperclips, which are really just simulation games with intentionally long, boring middle parts.)
Maybe that’s why I return to Cookie Clicker every few years. It’s pure, in a way that its descendants rarely are. Numbers go up, brain feels good. I’ve got just enough self-awareness to know that my dalliances with this genre operates on the same cycle as my various struggles with depression and anxiety. Sometimes, when you’re down in the depths, you just need a win, even if that win is the feeling of satisfaction that comes when you have enough cookies to buy the next big upgrade, setting yourself on the “easy” side of the game’s “difficulty” curve for a bit. Or of managing to get to bed when your brain has been screaming at you to just leave it alone for the last two hours, too scared of the silence and the darkness to tear yourself away from the simple, mechanical satisfaction. Or maybe it’s the moment when you can finally bring yourself to wipe your save file, freeing yourself from a series of self-imposed fantastical chores that are still chores all the same, and can start to feel like a prison as the hours tick away.
I know I’ll be back. I’m a cookie clicker, deep at heart. But it’s good to pretend for a minute that I’m free.