Friday 21 May 2021

An idle mind is the devil's playground

Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms has been out for a few years now but hadn’t been on my radar until a month or so back. PC Gamer on Twitter had put out a link to an old story and my interest was piqued by the mention of Progress Quest (plus a fondness for the Forgotten Realms). Reading the article reminded me of dabbling in previous idle/incremental games: Fallout Shelter, a Westworld game so similar to Fallout Shelter there was a lawsuit, a silly monster-clicker thing Steam put out for the 2015 summer sale, Cookie Clicker, back to one I played years ago but couldn’t remember the name of. Searching the blog it turns out it was CivClicker; in a weirdly ironic meta-twist the reference was in a blog post about searching the blog to remind myself what I thought of previous games. It didn’t spur me to go and get Idle Champions, though, I had no great interest in the game. Until it was the free giveaway on the Epic Store. The base game is free to play, but Epic were handing out some bonus loot; who am I to look some gift loot in the mouth?

I got a bit hooked. I’m a sucker for Making Numbers Go Up, and Idle Champions is pure, concentrated essence of Making Numbers Go Up. Numbers Go Up to such an extent that I was struggling with the notation; million, billion, trillion, not a problem; octillion and nonillion, bit more unusual; Qd… Quattuordecillion? OK, that’s why there’s the option for scientific notation. If nothing else players should end up with a solid understanding of orders of magnitude and such. There’s a bit of a puzzle working out optimal party composition and positioning; one character buffs anyone adjacent to them, another the column in front, another grants different benefits depending on their position in the formation. Once you’ve worked all that out, though, you can pretty much leave them to it. I mean, the clue is in the name. You just need to alt-tab over now and again to level everyone up, perhaps adjust the formation, kick off some special powers if you’re feeling terribly interactive. Perfect for leaving in the background while, say, writing a blog post about it. Eventually you hit a wall where you’re making no impact on the mobs, so you finish that run, then start another one with some bonuses to take you further.

The adventures you embark on in Idle Champions do have a story, but heavily suborned to the mechanics, not something you’re eagerly following for the plot. An RA Salvatore tie-in novel would go something like “Drizzt and his companions set off to find the stolen sceptre but were beset by bandits and had to kill 25 of them, then another 25 of them, then 25 more. In a radical twist then they had to collect 10 McGuffins for Reasons; coincidentally one in every two and a half bandits were carrying them so they ended up killing 25 of them in the process, what are the chances? Then there was a Bandit Boss, and several more waves of 25 bandits. “Phew” said Drizzt after they’d finished off all the bandits “I’m glad this next bit of the forest is bandit-free”. Barely had the words left his mouth when a pack of snarling wolves attacked, and Drizzt and his companions were forced to defend themselves until they had slain 25 of them. Then 25 more. Then 25 bears. And another 25. Then a really big bear. In the process of all that they’d got a bit lost, and found themselves slap bang in the middle of bandit territory again…” As you’re not even watching the screen much of the time it’s a bit of a moot point anyway. It’s the gacha-type progress that’s more of a hook, heroes to unlock, gear of increasing rarity to equip them with, assorted consumables to consume.

Previous idle games have seized that compulsion to Make Numbers Go Up but not lasted terribly long, after a while of Making Numbers Go Up to unlock things to Make Numbers Go Up Some More they get a bit hollow. They can be particularly dangerous for inflicting existential dread over the entire point of games, or at least certain mechanics within games, as demonstrated by Cow Clicker back in the day, especially when combined with monetisation. The “$100 worth” of bonus stuff from the Epic Store consisted of some extra characters and familiars (creatures that automatically click things for you, in case things weren’t idle enough) and a whole bunch of chests. Considering you could buy a whole stack of indie games or a big release or two for that price it seems a bit steep; then again, I guess it would also cover a single spaceship (or part thereof) in Star Citizen. Value is in the wallet of the beholder and all that. Heaven knows we’ve been talking cash shops and loot boxes for 10+ years, it’s not like there’s anything new here, and Idle Champions isn’t particularly obnoxious about it; regular events allow you to unlock characters without paying, there are plenty of codes floating around for a free chest here and there, there don’t seem to be any deliberate irritations to try and get you to part with cash. It just seems a little odd that there are packs of chests costing £40+ in, if you really boil it down, Cookie Clicker with knobs on. Still, no harm in starting off the odd idle adventure before launching into a different game or sitting down to watch some television, is there? It’s not like it’ll kick off some nervous breakdown over the pointlessness of games and thus existence, will it? No, it’s just a silly old bit of clicking fun. Isn’t it? Or is it? Yes, it is. Isn’t it?

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