Grinding… and Crushed

Your Humble Narrator looking mildly pleased over a small pile of gift wrapped packages

I won’t lie, the prezzies help, but so far turning 48 is just kinda meh…

Okay, it’s been a while since I posted something new/original. Not to make excuses, but the holidays and the onset of winter are not a particularly joyful time for me. Maybe it would have been more joyful with Jell-O, I don’t know.

In addition to the usual winter blues, in mid-December I managed to strain a hamstring while doing sumo-style deadlifts. That, in combination with a fairly disruptive major renovation of my gym, has pretty thoroughly derailed my lifting program, so for about a month I’ve been foundering on the fitness front. Hence, fewer endorphins and significantly less joy than usual. In theory, I could have been spending time writing while waiting for my hamstring to heal. In theory.

Soda Saga play screen

If you must watch television in real time, here’s a way to ignore the commercial breaks.

So what have I been doing instead? Alas, I’ve been playing Candy Crush Soda Saga on my iPad. That might seem like a logical move for someone who has a blog about making Jell-O, but, contrary to what some readers might imagine, I’m not really the house-wifey type. I seldom wear cardigans. I think crafting is lame. As far as video games go, while puzzles are fine for passing time, the ones I’ve most thoroughly enjoyed have been horror-themed shooters (American McGee’s Alice, Undying, and, more recently, the BioShock series).

I started playing the original Candy Crush because a friend was playing, and I got mildly (and pointlessly, considering she had a head start) competitive with her for a while. Also, I wanted to see how far I could get in the game without making in-game purchases after learning that some large percentage of players made it through the 500+ levels without paying for anything. (Yes, I’m a cheapskate.) Eventually I got bored with the game, and annoyed by things like the way it told me I “failed” when I didn’t clear a level, and certain levels that made chocolate an enemy of sorts. I love chocolate and didn’t like the feeling of dreading it. I gave up at level 140 and moved on to other things.

Recently, King.com has been making a big advertising push on TV, and it is with deep shame that I admit that I allowed myself to be tempted to download Soda Saga. To be fair, there are improvements over the original game – the player gets to “eat the chocolate”, and if you don’t clear a level, it says, “You’ll get it next time!” It expands on the original, adding new pieces, new level styles, and new challenges.

Soda Crush guy says "Tasty!"

The deep male voice is clearly geared towards keeping women in the game – and annoying the crap out of their husbands,

As I play, I’m aware of being manipulated. I know that the bright colors and softly rounded shapes were designed to look irresistibly and addictively appealing. The cheerful explosions, often accompanied by little major-key musical trills, go straight through my ears to the pleasure centers of my brain. Then there’s the deep, seductive male voice offering occasional praise, declaring the game to be “sweet”, “juicy”, or “tasty”. When I finish a level and he declares “Soda Crush!” there’s an undertone of “You’re getting something good, sexy lady…” (Bryan finds the voice “creepy”.) How else to explain my willingness to compulsively play through as many times as I can (for free)? I can easily resist buying extra lives, special pieces and so forth, but I can see how the game was designed to keep people (okay, women) on the hook.

Hard-core gamers engage in a process they call “grinding”, which is simply performing some repetitive task (a puzzle, say, or fighting a horde of enemies) in order to accomplish an objective or to “level up”. Such gamers dismiss players of games like Candy Crush as “casual gamers”, but I’m realizing that repeating a level of Soda Saga is as much grinding as is fighting through a crowd of Splicers in BioShock.

Soda Crush screen showing that I've run out of turns

I was on this level for a few days, getting “so close” a number of times. Of course, a little dinero would have enabled me to play on…

In fact, Soda Saga is almost all grinding. Too much of the game involves luck, so I end up doing a lot of the touch-screen equivalent of button-mashing. Without paying for special pieces or extra moves, getting the needed explodey things (in the right order, yet) is largely the luck of the draw and out of my control. On some levels, I get to a point where I’m about ready to give up, and then the game seems to sense this and I’m finally able to complete the level. The game rewards me with colorful explosions and seductive-sounding praise and happy little cartoon characters and suddenly I have the will to move on to the next level. Even so, the grinding is, well, a grind. My favorite part of the game is that every once in a while there’s a level where, when you’ve completed it, you can’t play again for three days. (As Bryan pointed out, there are easier ways to manage that, but I say that would be cheating.)

In the dead of winter, it’s easy to see life that way – lots of time spent grinding, some respites here and there, and then, at last, the happy explodey bits that give one the will to go on. January is just not explodey enough.

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