This week, I questioned reality. Consider for a moment that we are on the cusp of a new console generation. This will be an era of unprecedented graphical fidelity, human-computer interaction innovation, and raw processing power. A conclusion rendered trite through repetition, it stands to reason that we are on the precipice of a new age of things we’d previously not dared dream of. It’s exciting and revelatory and bound to get someone foaming at the mouth.
And yet everyone is playing an ASCII art game about candy.
Candy Box is a puzzle. The game design itself isn’t necessarily about puzzles but the actual game concept is an enigma. The last time I had an experience like this was Frog Fractions, and that made me (and many others) reconsider what it took to be game of the year. Both titles have the amazing ability to make me go “umm, okay…whoa. Whoa. WHOA!” Sure, they are for wildly different reasons, but the end result is the same: a simple, charming, free game that you need to play.
Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra described it as “the Citizen Kane of video games.” Simon Parkin of Eurogamer calls it “the best tab you’ll keep open all day.” And at first, you probably won’t get it. I sure didn’t. The answer is in the FAQ link below, but don’t deprive yourself of the discovery.
Discovery is what Candy Box is all about. Developed by a French developer in the process of learning English (hence some rough translations, though the jokes still manage to land), Candy Box sparse. I don’t know if it’s by necessity seeing as how there’s only one man behind the scenes pulling the strings or by choice, but you start off staring at nothing but a Save button, a counter, and some poor grammar.
You have 0 candies!
And slowly the game begins to reveal itself, like some sort of text-based striptease. You have 1 candies! And a button appears to eat all the candies. You have 10 candies! Why would I want to throw 10 candies on the ground? And then, well, you’ll see.
If you’ve ever played a Zynga game, you’ll find this feeling familiar, this feeling of not knowing and needing—not wanting—to know. It pokes at your deepest insecurities and stokes the fires of your curiosity while rousing you from your triple-A gaming slumber. It’s different, though, because Candy Box isn’t aggressive about it. The addiction that it imbues in you is casual but still startling strong. Plus, no monetization!
As the mystery begins to unravel as to what kind of game this is, Candy Box, much like Frog Fractions, begins to go down a slippery slope of intrigue and non sequitors. It’s not nearly as quick and effortless in its progress (Frog Fractions was very much like a ski ride down a mountain while Candy Box is more like a jog down a hill), but it is just as engaging.
If you’re still not convinced, I’ll go ahead and talk about some SPOILER stuff, but they’re called SPOILERS for a reason; they SPOIL the game. Granted, even by knowing how the game unfolds, Candy Box is still compelling in its own way through its simple, time-based mechanics, but the discovery is still where it’s at, so, you know, SPOILER WARNING.
A candy merchant shows up selling a single lollipop for 60 candies. Sure, why not. I like lollipops (more than generic candies anyway), so I’ll buy one. To what point and purpose, I’m not sure, but who—whoa, what the fuck. You can buy a SWORD. Not only that, but now you can go on quests where you can harvest more candy. And there’s loot! This is basically an RPG!
But other nonsense flows throughout the game, and it’s all very much welcome to this stewing pot of absurdity. There’s a strangely compelling farming thing with planting lollipops and now you can upgrade your gear and there’s some trading system involving the candies and lollipops with people that you meet and there’s a frog that can talk and give you lots of cool things and there’s a cauldron that enables you to craft new potions and items and stuff and—holy crap, there’s a lot of game in this thing.
Candy Box is what most casual, browser-based games with in-app purchases and shady monetization schemes strive to be and it does it almost effortlessly. Aniwey doesn’t seem to have much else on the Internet besides some posts on programmer forums, but someone needs to get him a hammer because he nailed this one. It’s smart and subversive and wholly incredible that one man with a poor grasp on English syntax but an amazing, perhaps innate but definitely spot-on understanding of game mechanics and player psychology has been able to entrance an entire industry. It’s enough to make you question reality, but I’ve got lollipops to plant first.