Saturday, 14 June 2014

What I'm Playing: THREES

I've been moaning since 2010 that I don't have enough time to play games anymore. With an hour-and-a-half of dead time to fill each commuting day, mobile games should be the perfect solution, but I've struggled to find anything I really loved. 

This is the first of four posts going up over the next month or so, looking at the mobile games that have been dominating my tube journeys of late, and trying to work out if there is anything that can change my mind. Threes Logo

Even as I'm playing Threes, I don't really understand why I'm doing it.

Threes is a puzzle game where you move around tiles with multiples of three on them. If you can get two matching numbers next to each another, they can be combined into a single double-value tile. Two 3s become a 6, freeing up more space and, once the game is over and points are being counted, exponentially growing your score.

The exception being 1 and 2 tiles. Firstly because, as the more eagled-eye of you may have noticed, they aren't multiples of three. And secondly because they can't be combined with themselves, only with the other corresponding number. Two adjacent 1s other aren't any use to you, but a 1 and 2 can be squashed together into a 3.

Threes 1

This is a game of mathematical speed dating, and to matchmake these tiles you have to move the whole board. Each turn you have four choices: move all free tiles up, down, left or right. Trace Three's family tree back a few generations, and you'll see that it's a direct digital descendant of those plastic sliding block puzzles found in Christmas crackers and at the bottom of 99p lucky bags.

The key difference is that, being a virtual game rather than a disappointing toy, Threes is able to introduce more tiles with each turn. Move everything to the right, and a new tile will pop up on the left. This also introduces a fail state: let the screen fill up and you're out of moves. Game over.

Sat at the top of the other major branch of that family tree is Tetris, and like that mighty Russian patriarch, Threes presents you with a preview of the next tile, so you can control roughly where it will land, and make space for it to get intimate with a compatible number. In theory, you can predict what comes next, what you need to do, what the smart move is. In theory.

Threes 2

In practice, that doesn't happen, at least not for me.

Threes should be one big balancing act. I should be massaging my chin, muttering to myself: 'Right, if I move this, then this will squidge into this, but this will block this'. But for a puzzle game, I rarely feel like I'm solving anything.

That preview of what's coming next doesn't make me more strategic, it just makes me reactionary. The sky is constantly falling, and I'm thoughtlessly swiping to avoid any chunks landing on me. I look for easy matches, never thinking more than one move ahead and worse, it doesn't feel like I really need to. Once, out of curiosity, I tried to force a game over, sliding my finger around randomly, and was disheartened to find the game lasted another couple of dozen turns – probably longer than if I'd actually been trying.

You might have noticed we've switched here from the second person 'you' to the first person 'I'. I can't escape the feeling that the fault is with me. Honestly, I can't quite work out why I don't like Threes more.

The game removes any complexity of controls, which so often trip up mobile games, in favour of a single motion. The focus is put firmly on challenging the player's mind rather than their aching thumb joints. Each game is randomised, meaning it's endlessly playable. And most of all, the presentation is gorgeous. Everything has its corners rounded off like a safety-tested child's toy – all the way down to the fonts and icons and the pastel colour scheme. Every tile has its own little face, more detailed and filled with personality for each increasing number.


Threes 3

Here's the thing: I've played a hell of a lot of Threes. But I still find it very difficult to recommend. There's no elation when I beat my previous high score, no real feeling of defeat when that last immovable tile fills up the screen. 

Around the time I started playing Threes, a lot of my life was waiting for stuff to happen, stuff that was out of my control, and that's how the game feels to me, a process of swiping and watching things fail and then press restart until the allotted time is over. The fancy big-money word that cropped to mind, then and now, is 'anhedonia'.

In my Hearthstone blog, I said that game might have been better off with its fantasy trappings removed. Playing Threes suggests I was wrong. For all its visual charm, the game lacks any real theme or flavour. It's too abstract to give you the pleasure of filling a character's shoes and playing out their role, or just moving around in their world.

I was about to say that I can't work out why I've spent so much time playing Threes – but that's not quite true.

It's the ne plus ultra of a certain aspect of mobile games Threes is a precision-crafted time killer. A few rounds tesselate perfectly into a tube journey, or a waiting room, or an early morning trip to the loo. It's a process for gobbling up dead time. And it's great at making that time disappear, but it entirely fails to do anything more with it.

Of course, that might just be a problem with me. I'm the guy who doesn't like Angry Birds or Bejeweled or Tetris.

Threes 4

Other games what I've been playing:

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.