Sometimes I have to remind myself that you and I exist in a void. Given that I write for a somewhat small website that specializes in podcasts and you are reading my words on a somewhat small website that specializes in podcasts, we consume highly pointed, singularly minded content. We spend a lot of our time like many other people out there, which is to say when we’re not playing video games, we’re thinking about them. The difference is that we also read about them.
This often leads us to unearthing strange little oddities. The people we follow on Twitter are tied so deeply and thoroughly to the source of games, theories, experiments, and innovation, so we find ourselves messing around with projects that few other people know about. That’s how we end up playing and writing about Candy Box and the game it inspired, A Dark Room. (Candy Box has a sequel incoming, too!)
Both of those are largely ASCII-based experiments in maximizing resource collecting. It’s a lot like the early stages of any given real time strategy game like StarCraft or Warcraft where you start out collecting easy-to-get material—slowly but surely—to open up new ways to speed up your accrual. In Candy Box, you unlock a farm to harvest lollipops. In A Dark Room, you manage workers in a village to smoke meat, build huts, and whatnot.
However, they eventually unfold into bigger, stranger things that you never expected. They remind me of Frog Fractions in that way; just as that game explodes into a menagerie of simultaneous nonsense and brilliance, Candy Box evolves into a straight-up (occasionally action) role-playing game with decision branches and A Dark Room‘s twisted story gradually emerges from, well, a dark room.
They are things that mostly only we would appreciate because we understand the purpose of them. It’s kind of the same reason only comedians find something as absurdist as increasingly salacious variations of The Aristocrats joke even close to funny instead of disturbing. But we’re also the only people that even encounter them because we surround ourselves with people that similarly find them (how they find them becomes something of a chick-egg situation).
So it became somewhat of a surprise when people that I follow on Twitter that are completely detached from our little ring of merry critical gamers were tweeting about Orteil’s Cookie Clicker. It is basically a much more graphically appealing version of Candy Box and A Dark Room in that it actually has graphics. (Or at least it does now. Having gone through Google Chrome-esque levels of rapid updates, it used to look much drabber.) It also came out somewhere around August 8th of this year. Two whole months ago, the Internet equivalent of forever.
Soon it will include dungeons, but at this point, the big driving force for people to play is achievements (added in late August). But once that’s done with, what’s the impetus? How has Cookie Clicker managed to stick around for two months and looks to only keep going?
Cookie Clicker is all about clicking. You click a cookie to earn more cookies. And then you can buy a cursor that automatically clicks that cookie so you can increase your maximum cookies per second (CPS) output. And then you buy grandmas to bake you cookies and you send rockets to collect cookies from space and and and…
There is no evolution that shows its face late into the game. It doesn’t turn into an RPG and it doesn’t tell some sort of strange, dark tale through a city simulation reduction. There’s a very mild meta story surrounding the grandmas, but it just hints at something interesting but never gets there. Cookie Clicker is entirely about clicking and cookies, hence the name, I guess.
When people talk about it, the first thing I hear every time is a CPS comparison. Oh, you crank out just a few million? I’m at over 50 billion. Throw in my own clicking and I’m clearing a trillion. It is an absurdist discussion, even more so than normal video game discourse that involves space marines and Keith David playing Keith David.
It’s most similar to Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker from 2010. The crucial difference, however, is that Cow Clicker makes you feel like you’re playing a critical piece on the Zynga-Facebook games trend. Cookie Clicker, on the other hand, is uproariously upbeat (once you get past the opening bits anyways). Every action you take is met with encouragement. It throws your ambition into a fortified bastion and builds it up into a monolith of can-do spirit.
In an interview with Brian Crecente for Polygon, Bogost makes the salient point that Cookie Clicker (and all such clicking games) has a lineage of providing agency to people in a system that’s made for computers; Cookie Clicker is a game made for the browser, not the user. But the ability for the player to offer oversight on the entire production process where it’s just the computer doing rapid calculations compels humans to compare their ability to manage.
But for a guy like me (and, potentially, you as well), the trophy hunt and the competition of being the best at cranking up my CPS isn’t the appeal. And there’s no surrounding push to keep going like in Candy Box and A Dark Room. I think, however, I know why Cookie Clicker is so compelling, and I’ve already brought it up.
It’s the encouragement. Cookie Clicker is ridiculously simple mechanically and in terms resource systems (determining what to invest cookies in next with the least diminishing returns is simple math/estimation), but it’s bright and colorful. It’s visually busy and makes you feel like you’re watching cookie fireworks.
And all the feedback for your CPS increases makes you feel uplifted. Cookie Clicker is a thoroughly positive game. Or non-game. Whatever. It makes you feel good for clicking, for waiting, for having a thousand grandmas baking your cookies, for doing just about anything.
That’s a hard thing to find nowadays. Cynicism is rampant; it is the fuel that powers the undying fire of Internet rage as well as the entire framework of almost every forum thread. Games attempt to make parodic statements on other pop facets of the industry and, for the most part, fail to hit the satiric mark and come off as nothing more than mean-spirited jabs. To engage in something so purely personally reinforcing is something special.
That, perhaps, is why Cookie Clicker has stuck around. Absurdism is a flavor that takes a seasoned palette to appreciate, so Candy Box and Frog Fractions are just little treats for you and me. A Dark Room is a thinker and requires you to clear hurdles to find something to appreciate. But feeding you with an endless smorgasbord of enthusiasm and excitement is what keeps Cookie Clicker up on the forefront. And I, for one, appreciate it.