Curiosity Isn’t So Curious

There have been great experiments in modern gaming. MAG, for instance, is one I would consider a great experiment. It ultimately failed to fulfill on its original promise (still a pretty good game, though), but it was a great learning experience. Zipper Interactive made its hypothesis, created its tests, and ran them. The results were interesting and showed promise on paper, but by either flawed pseudo-scientific process or broken execution or what-have-you, MAG failed. But what an experiment.

Heavy Rain. Spec Ops: The Line. One Chance. All great experiments. The quality of the games may vary, but they are all undoubtedly products that stretch conventions to the breaking point, just to see what happens when they snap. They have that quality that all great experiments have: retrospect provides a veritable treasure trove of insight and revelations, perhaps overshadowing their worth as individual games. They find value as great experiments in gaming.

Here is what I would call a failed experiment: Curiosity, the first release from legendary game designer Peter Molyneux’s brand new studio 22Cans. To make sure we’re all on the same page, Curiosity is a game where the entire world is presented with a cube. At the center of the cube is—in Molyneux’s words—a “life-changingly important” secret. The entire cube is made up of thousands/millions/billions/who-knows-how-many of even smaller cubes that form onion-like layers around the center. Everyone around the world pokes at the tiny cubes to destroy them, working together in a Noby Noby Boy-esque fashion to uncover the secret. The catch is that only one person gets to see the video that lies within.

Molyneux, as most fans know, has a tendency to over-promise, his reach far exceeding his grasp. The string of false hopes surrounding the Fable series is probably the freshest in everyone’s mind, but you don’t even really have to look any further than the fake Peter Molydeux Twitter account to see that his ability to overreach is known far and wide. While you have to admire his ambition and drive, you’d like to see him finally hit his grand slam. Maybe Project Milo was it. We’ll never know. What we do know, though, is Curiosity is not so curious.

Right from the get-go, though, we encounter problems. Namely, server problems. Since the night of its stealth/early launch, I’ve only been able to connect intermittently and even then, spending coins has been kind of troublesome. A million or so simultaneous network connections basically turned 22Cans’ servers into metal and plastic goo. An experiment isn’t worth much if you can’t, you know, experiment with it.

That’s a fairly superficial and ultimately trifling complaint, though. My problems with it go much deeper down to a fundamental level.

The premise of Curiosity is really incredibly interesting and hopes to answer a potent and mostly vague question: something something curiosity? My interpretation is how do curiosity and competition work in concert when people must cooperate on a massive, worldwide scale to uncover a hidden treasure? I think that question, regardless of whether that is the one Molyneux intended to answer or not, is super fascinating.

Unfortunately, Curiosity distills the notion of actual curiosity too far. The mechanic of tapping on cubes is made slightly more complex with the coin economy but to what effect? In short, you gain coins for destroying blocks, but you can gain bonus coins for tapping intact cubes back-to-back and for clearing screens, both of which operate as incentives to not haphazardly slap around every available digit on your touchscreen device and to not draw dicks. You can then spend these coins on consumable powerups that help break cubes faster (most of which only cost in-game coins but one does cost $50,000 of real money).

It doesn’t mask, however, the fact that Molyneux has set a goal at the end of a stretch of road, and to reach the finish line, we collectively must click a certain number of times. Once a layer is revealed, you can mathematically derive (or just estimate) the least amount of taps that would most efficiently destroy it given bonuses that feed into coins that garner you powerups. It is so bare that the illusion of doing anything more than tapping away at a cubic monolith is completely shattered. I’m not sure it’s so much a question of curiosity but endurance and the ability to ignore the psychological pain of repeating such a mindless task.

But then not knowing just how deep the layers go simply compounds the problem. You then go from knowing how long this particular task will take (read: a long fucking time) to not knowing how many times you must repeat your Sisyphean role. To quote a moderately okay movie, you have to ask yourself if the juice worth the squeeze.

Molyneux is great at grand schemes. He can craft concepts so well and so easily that @PeterMolydeux and Molyjam are both more tribute that parody, honoring the fact that ideas simply flow from the man as naturally as water from a mountaintop, rhymes from Tupac, regret from mac and cheese bars. Molyneux is an idea man and Curiosity is a great idea. But an experiment? Something we’ll value long after someone unlocks the secret and immediately posts it to YouTube? A defense that the man can create as well as he can conceive? Not so much.

But then again, no one except Molyneux has seen what is at the center of the cube, so I could be totally wrong.

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