All the Wrong Places

Fifty-five days, eighteen hours, and twelve minutes.

That’s how long it took me to clear “Silk Road,” the last batch of levels of Best Fiends Forever, an idle game from Seriously Games. That means I reached “Silk Road” back in early February and have been working on it continuously since then. And because “Silk Road” is the 16th set of levels in the game, that means I have been playing the entirety of Best Fiends Forever for… quite a while. Let me also confirm that yes, those are fifty-five actual, real-life days’ worth of playing the game.

The Games You Win by Not Playing

Before you write me off as a complete idiot, let me point out that BFF is an idle game. For the uninitiated, idle games are a subgenre of video game wherein a key gameplay mechanic is the player’s non-involvement. It’s pretty simple: you start playing the game, and then close it when you’re bored. The next time you start playing, the game determines how long you’ve been away and applies progress based on the time difference. The result is that the game world feels alive, and it also means that you can surmount incredible in-game goals with very little direct input. It’s effectively the video game equivalent of growing a plant, except it uses more resources and returns none of its own because hey, it’s a video game. But idle games satisfy that great goal of “getting results without work” even better than other types of video games.

Games can give a player the sense of progression in a number of ways. For many skill-based games like Street Fighter, Dance Dance Revolution, or Tetris, progress is a result of the player: the only way to improve is through practice. Other games lock rewards behind a level system: role-playing games often advise new players to avoid certain areas due to their inexperience. There is progress to be made here, but it’s applied to the player’s avatars rather than to the players themselves. In a contest between two players, the one with a level 99 avatar is almost certainly going to defeat the one whose avatar is at level 2, regardless of their skill levels as players. In order to stand a chance, the lower level avatar must gain experience. That usually means there is a lot of time spent playing the game, typically in repetitive loops of gameplay that we gamers call “grinding.”

The appeal of idle games is that they can perform the grind without the player’s presence: the player makes some decisions that can improve the rate of progress, but the actual heavy lifting is done by an algorithm. A real-world analogy would be the absentee business owner who drops in once a week to make some changes, but otherwise lets their employees run the place. Fittingly, many idle games take a capitalist approach to their gameplay. The more points a player accrues, the easier it becomes to purchase the tools that accelerate the business game. This has been the model for many successful idle games like Cookie Clicker, Idle Heroes, and perhaps least surprisingly, AdVenture Capitalist.

AdVenture Capitalist was my first idle game, which was available on Kongregate long before its shiny update and subsequent successful rerelease on mobile platforms. The game is a fairly pure idle clicker: you start off clicking away at a lemonade stand, each click gathering $1 of pure profit. When you have enough money you can upgrade the stand so each click brings in even more money, say $2 at a time. Then $3, then $4, etc. Eventually you earn enough money to hire an in-game manager, who will take a big chunk of your earnings, but at the same time will do the clicking for you, leaving you—a real-world person with bodily functions and needs—free to do whatever you want. Close down the game, come back in a month; your earnings will be calculated and you’ll be free to buy an in-game movie studio or oil company, both of which will require a few clicks to get started, but will ultimately earn you mind-meltingly stupid amounts of money. (The fanmade wiki pegs the highest possible numbers in the quattuornonagintillion range. That’s 1×10^285, or “1” followed by 285 zeroes. It may take you a while to get there.) But like real-world capitalism, there isn’t any reward for having the most money besides the ability to spend it. Once you buy everything you want, you start doing increasingly weird things like fund flights to the moon, or maybe Mars. I’m not talking about real life; AdCap features entirely new levels set on those heavenly bodies.

Enter Best Fiends Forever. The game follows a similar approach to AdVenture Capitalist, except instead of selling lemonade, you’re clicking to defeat enemies. The more enemies you defeat, the more allies you can liberate from imprisonment. The more allies you liberate, the more enemies you can defeat. You see where this is going. The difference between AdVenture Capitalist and Best Fiends Forever is that BFF eventually the introduced the prospect of reaching an actual ending.

The Beginning of the End

What’s the difference between a ranch-style house and Best Friends Forever? The house has a story.

BFF sees the titular Fiends moving along an island chain to reach some unknown enemy. Besides that, there’s not much of a narrative, aside from some self-deprecating quotes in between islands (for example: one notes that if the Fiends are traveling by boat, then they could just sail straight to the end instead of stopping at every island) and the eventual reveal of the gargantuan Slug King, a single enemy who is literally the three times the height of the tallest mountain in the game.

And that’s it. Not much to go on, but the sight of the Slug King increasing in size and clarity as I slowly advanced was enough for me to play the game. In hindsight, I should have seen the ending coming. With BFF limiting the maximum amount of profits that can be gained idly, it remained in my interest to log in daily and collect my money to save for the big day when I’d reach the end.

See, when it comes to stories and experiences, I’ve discovered I’m not really an “ongoing content” kind of of guy. I like my movies and books to have endings. That’s what a story is: a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s perhaps the greatest thing about stories: unlike life, wherein the players are constantly changing with varied amounts of success in their own personal ending, stories can have a definite end, and the true skill of the creator is being able to craft a satisfying conclusion for their audience. Generally, the more content, the better payoff a good ending provides.

So in hindsight, I should have seen the ending for Best Fiends Forever from miles away.

Maybe the Real Ending was Inside Us All Along?

I hadn’t planned my conclusion of BFF too far in advance. While I was of course aware that I was well into the endgame, I only became truly aware of how close I was when I realized that a mere day’s worth of waiting would set me up for completing the game. So it was an ordinary Sunday afternoon that I decided to forge ahead and eliminate the last boss before facing the Slug King. I used up my in-game supplies doing so, but I beat that last boss. The screen went white, then faded to a menu screen.

“You’ve saved this world. Start again?”

Those weren’t the exact words, but that’s what it amounted to. No ending cinematic, no celebratory image, no battle with the Slug King. Not even a “You Win! Hahaha!” Just a hollow question asking if I’d like to start again.

Of course I didn’t, but like an idiot, I chose “yes.” And, predictably, the game restarted without so much of a wink of acknowledgement that I’d beaten the damn thing. It wasn’t disappointing, shocking, or infuriating. No, this was like turning the last page of a 600-page novel, only to realize at the end that it was a flipbook. You weren’t supposed to sit there and enjoy what was on the page at all–you were supposed to finish it as fast as possible, and the thrill was in trying to finish it faster each time.

This felt like a bad joke; not the realization that I’d spent literal years of my life wondering how this “story” would end, but the fact that by the time I’d finished BFF, I’d long stopped enjoying the game. AdVenture Capitalist was merciful because it never promised anything more than pretend thrills. In fact, it cheekily mocked the fact that capitalism has no actual ending in itself. If you got tired of the game, it was because you actually tired of playing the game. Best Fiends Forever, on the other hand, ends up being a prime example of effective salesmanship: it makes a pretense (however slight) that its story, upgrades, levels, and characters actually mean something, and locks the payoff of an ending behind paywalls and ad revenue. What’s more is that the game isn’t exactly subtle about its nature: as I mentioned before, there is hardly any plot development, and the “time trial” nature of the gameplay is front and center. The real problem was that I was mistaking the “promise of payoff” for enjoyment.

Wasting Time by Pretending Not to Waste Time

There are plenty of things that we do in life that we perform out of necessity: we work to earn money, which we then spend on sustenance and shelter. Once we meet those goals, we are free to enjoy anything we want. However, whether we enjoy material goods or active experiences, the important thing is to recognize the reasons we pursue those goals, and to enjoy the process as much as possible.

What good is it to work at a high-paying job if you can’t even extract a tiny bit of joy from actually performing the work? “Working for the weekend” means sacrificing five days for the sake of two, when you could possibly be enjoying seven instead. I don’t mean that you should quit your job, throw your responsibilities to the wind, and vacation full-time. Rather, it’s an invitation to look at your life a little more intensely and find as much enjoyment as possible, especially when you’re trying to “relax.” After all: when you reach your own “Game Over” screen, there’s no guarantee of a replay.

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