Commentary

Bejeweled Begone

"Dad, watch this guy get wishboned when I catapult him between the water tower and the billboard."

"Hey, how do you know what 'wishbone' means? And does this involve one of your boyfriends, because it sounds like something I would be up for."

"Ok, wait for it....Oh! Got him! That musta hurt. Oh, no! He got hit by the truck too."

In a video game called -- quite aptly -- "Pain," my daughter literally launches a human character from an enormous slingshot and into a cityscape of rooftops, signs, towers and dumpsters. This hapless fellow screams in anticipation, then gasps in surprise and grunts in agony as he careens off of objects and finally settles into the street. You get points for all the objects he hits. It doesn't bother me a bit that she calls this bit of sadism cool fun, because as the dad of a teen girl I prefer to regard it as good dating skills.

When I think about all the trouble mobile gaming has had getting traction with U.S. customers, I wonder why developers aren't trolling the exploding world of online casual games for innovative ideas like this. The last thing we need is another "Bejeweled" variant, or a nondescript 2D side scroller with a movie license slapped on it. There really are some cool ideas out there, but many of them are downloadables and handheld titles for the PSP, Xbox 360 or PS3 or Nintendo DS.

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A round of "Pain" takes about twenty seconds to play and its pleasures are as simple and archly sadistic as they are addictive. It is all in the flight of this yowling, arm-flapping "Jackass" refugee turning into a rag doll as he bounces from marquee to brick wall to lamppost. On a mobile platform one can imagine even a viable connected multi-play model where an anonymous opponent tried to best your score in the same scene. Both turns could occur in under a minute.

Another killer title for the PC is the casual confection "World of Goo." In a setting that looks and feels like Dr. Seuss's Whoville, you erect scaffolds out of oily goo globs in order to get your cute blobs to an exit pipe. But here again, the joy of the game is in the imaginative execution. Your construction obeys a weird physics of its own so the towers and bridges start toppling if not carefully balanced. But it is the lush artwork, personified globs and sheer whimsy of the situations that makes this game so absorbing. A player soon sees that real imaginative intelligence went into the set design, so that each level brings visual surprises and another small bit of wry narration from the world's anonymous builders.

Will Wright's wonderful new evolution sim "Spore" has a similar light heart, but "World of Goo" is just less work and more fun. For one of the emerging touchscreen phones, the drag and drop mechanics of "World of Goo" are a natural, but I am sure the interface could be re-fitted for most smart phones. Alas, the developers tell me a mobile version is not in the works -- though it looks as if a Wii version is in their sights.

I look forward to the day when mobile game publishers look to casual designers for more imaginative inspiration, but I also hope that at some point all game designers will ask themselves early in the process how their title might go mobile as well.

And finally classic games company Midway last week launched a DS title that also breaks away from the tedium of color-match puzzlers. Actually "MechanicMaster" is a throwback to the brilliant "Incredible Machine" series from Sierra in the 1990s. You have a task -- launch a rocket, squash a blob, etc. -- and you drag and drop objects into a Rube Goldberg contraption that solves the problem. The settings and design sense are not up the caliber of "Pain" or "Goo," to be sure, but the gameplay is funny at the same time it is challenging.

And therein we find why these particular casual titles stand out as real entertainments and not just games, and why few mobile games even come close. These designs are absorbing and fun at all times. An imaginative energy is present and reinforced both by the play mechanics and the sensibility. So many casual games feel like the same basic challenge with a different skin. The premise is so shallow and disposable it has no hope of being part of the experience after the third level. But in the better games, the basic conceit is either played out in painful, humorous detail ("Pain") or it establishes an environment that the gameplay itself enhances. These are the qualities designers of mobile games should be targeting, because they remind the user that somewhere buried in the deck, eight clicks deep, is an experience, not just a time-killer.

But being a certifiable "psycho Dad," I am more interested in true-to-life simulations that let me launch incoming boyfriends back over the rooftops. Put one of those "Pain" slingshots on my front lawn and I would carve notches in its side for every hormone-addled Jonas Brother wannabe I sent back where he came from.

"So, young lady, shall we aim poor Ben towards the construction site this time?"

She snaps me out of my fatherly fantasy. "He's a game character, Dad. He is not named Ben. And you know very well that Ben is my boyfriend's name."

"Really? Oh, right. I knew that. Let's aim him for the burning tenement to the left."

"DAD!"

"Ok! OK. Just joking. What was your last boyfriend's name again? Dan? How about dropping Dan down the iron mill smokestack."

"Which smokestack, left or right?

Common ground, fellow parents. You have to find that common ground.

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