The Friday Game: One-Dot Enemies
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As of the time this is being written, the most frightening number in existence is 14,856,596. It’s also one of the hardest to explain away, and few people, if anyone, will truly recognise its significance. It’s not a body count or a toxin measurement, and it doesn’t contain any deep universal secrets, describing why molecules stick together or how circles work. Instead, it’s the current tally of enemies defeated globally in one of the most unashamedly mindless games yet created, a kind of 2.0-era dipstick for gauging planet-wide listlessness, invoking an entire world of slacking, misdirected effort and lost productivity in just eight digits. The most frightening thing of all? That number’s steadily going up.
No theory of human nature will be entirely complete until it’s managed to account for the hypnotising properties of One-Dot Enemies, a free iPhone App from designer Kenji Eno and Studio-Kura, a software team whose previous work includes such modern essentials as a clock that tells the time through birdsong. Low cost games are often a chance to see developers going against the grain, striving for brilliant simplicity while big budget titles wade towards ever-increasing opulence. At the outermost edge of this trend, Studio-Kura’s title is so dazzlingly anaemic that it’s going to take some beating, ditching graphics, fail states and any kind of backstory or wider context. What’s surprising, then, is that the game itself is not just stylish but mysteriously gripping. ODE may be a time waster, but it’s capable of holding your attention long after you’ve worked out what you should really be doing with your day.
ODE’s a game about squashing things, working on a simple tension between its sterile visuals and the oddly visceral splatter at its heart. “Enemies”, a single pixel in size, scurry across the sheer white screen while players attempt to prod them out of existence before they escape. It’s an appealingly under-imagined premise, and simply trying to decide what these creatures are and why they’re categorised as enemies in the first place is a big part of the appeal. Are they bugs? Bacteria? Arctic zombies viewed from a great height? Whatever you decide, there’s a palpable taint of infection to proceedings, making Studio-Kura’s title an ideal morale booster in the event of a global pandemic, and it exists, alongside Manhunt and Boogerman as one of the few videogames that makes you want to wash your hands after playing.
Squashing a string of enemies with no misses is the unspoken challenge, and while there’s no penalty for making mistakes and little reward for a kill-chain outside of a momentary splash of colour and sound, it’s hard not to take ODE’s nebulous agenda seriously. Indeed, most sessions end with the player hunched over the screen, desperately trying to distinguish grubby fingerprints from their real target. Eventually, when it all gets a bit much, a shake of the iPhone summons up a futuristic toilet-meets-airlock to suck any defeated foes into oblivion, upon which you’re presented with the terrifyingly gigantic global score, tempting you once more with the unanswerable question: why?
Whatever your own personal reason for playing – obsessive cleanliness, Easter egg hunting (the game has more than a few hidden surprises) or simply train delays – ODE provides a singularly pure expression of one of videogaming’s oldest pieces of shorthand: linking killing time with killing pixels. And having pared its mechanics down so single-mindedly to focus on one solitary action, Studio-Kura manages to reveal some of the best and worst aspects of gaming at the same time, showcasing the attention-holding power of a simple interaction delivered in just the right way while simultaneously painting a troubling portrait of the inherent mindlessness of it. And, true to the wry humour this wordless game somehow manages to exude, both sides of the equation use the same basic tools: repetition and scoreboards.
And so, with its handful of tiny pieces in place, ODE sucks you in once more, its bottomless inanity knotted tightly to its brutal addictiveness.