January 26, 2013 6:00 PM | Staff
Universal iOS app Hundreds has a certain opaque mystique -- it looks minimalist and inviting, even trendy, but it's hard to tell from a superficial glance exactly what it's about.
Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing on the crowded App Store is an interesting discussion point: Indie game fans would probably buy the game on the names of Saltsman and Wohlwend alone, but is the average player invited by stand-out style and mystery, or do they avoid it in favor of a sure bet?
You'd probably have to look at the sales numbers to know the answer to that, but loads of my friends and colleagues in the game industry and in the press alike are wild about Hundreds. In an interview with Gamasutra Wohlwend recently said they never meant to be "overly mysterious and weird." It's just that the game is hard to explain -- or, more accurately, it's hard to explain why it's as captivating as it is.
Spend a few minutes with it, though, and the brilliance of its design-- particularly the careful marriage of its visual style to the zen-like, minimalist core of its appeal -- becomes immediately evident. In case you haven't tried it, it's deceptively simple: Each level presents a set of gray bubbles, each of which sports a number. Hold your finger on a bubble and the number rises -- and the bubble grows. While it's growing it's red and cannot touch another bubble or any obstacle; let go and it's safe again. Reach one hundred to pass a level.
The stages get ever more complex, with bubbles in physics-driven motion, or situations where you have to hold two linked bubbles at once to get them to count up. Later on, sawblades even threaten to cleave numbers back down. Ultimately it's a meditative effort that requires patience, discipline and a steady hand.
Here's what makes Hundreds so hooky.
It's perfect for its platform. At the start of the iPhone boom, the most important lesson developers had to learn -- and quick -- was that shoehorning familiar control schemes and inputs onto a touch-screen was absolutely not going to work. The touch screen presented the opportunity for unprecedented audience reach, but also required designers to rethink everything they knew about design in the search for innovative and tactile games that could be played with one fingertip.
Hundreds goes well beyond this, though. Its restrained but impactful use of multitouch, or the way its nature -- swollen, touchable circles moving compellingly around a bright, white screen -- plays off the urge people have to touch, push and drag when confronted with that luminous rectangle.
Its fluid iPhone to iPad universality works as it should, and the uncluttered, glitch-free experience makes it feel admirably innate. Clean and tactile, it seems to dovetail fluidly with the broader high concept of the Apple device itself. Hundreds couldn't work on any other platform, and as such is an admirable argument both for the strength of its host and for the idea that design and hardware must be inextricably linked.
It's visually-expressive. Hundreds involves a lot of considered visual choices: Its color palette relies on how alarmist red stands out against black, white and shades of gray, and the graceful use of spare text recalls the same kind of lust for minimalism that cool-kid clothing brand American Apparel aims for in its simple design and Helvetica-rich, color-cautious advertisements.
It's the first time I can think of that a video game's been able to tap a design trend that's been popular outside of video games, versus aesthetic trends most often being forged within and largely remaining relevant only to video games -- the outside world has just figured out pixel art and early-gen soundchips are 'retro chic', but it's significant in the context of broader appeal for a game to display a visual trend that's already relatable to everyone.
It's purposeful. It's not just the aesthetics -- on its official website, Hundreds references how you, the average player, have "millions of things on your mind," and characterizes its game about pressure, ever-advancing numbers and creative use of empty space as referencing "the space between you and the serene."
It sounds abstract at first, but when you actually get your hands on Hundreds and get to explore the state of intent, clear-headed concentration, and physical relaxation you need to occupy to be good at it, it makes an odd sort of sense. Our mobile devices bombard us with hovering red numbers that tell us how many unread messages, how many Facebook notifications and unfulfilled tasks are waiting at our fingertips at all times. Some of us have increasing trouble sitting through a film, a dinner, without reaching to check those hovering red notifications bouncing merrily over our Twitter or Gmail apps.
Yet in Hundreds' stripped-down universe, sometimes you just have to watch and wait for a bubble to enter an optimal orbit. Sometimes you need to practice restraint, to simply focus calmly on that serene white space. Anxiety and impatience will lose you the stage. It seems to be a soothing and clever subversion of our often-stressful relationships with our portable devices.
It can be collaborative. Because it's visually striking, playing it around others will attract their attention -- and letting other players join you on the same device creates an entirely new experience. Given that Hundreds often features related bubbles that need to be held down at the same time, and that it can respond to two inputs at once in general, getting a "friend" to help you across the breakfast table or when hanging out at a low-key gathering can be simple, fun and social -- ranging from dutiful collaboration to impulsive pal-trolling and everything in between.
In terms of accessibility this isn't a quality that can be overrated; it's impressive and interesting that Hundreds doesn't need a "two-player mode" in order to evolve a completely different kind of experience and language just because there's someone else touching the screen with you. Next time you're at lunch or coffee and everyone takes that conversation lull to quietly check their phones, try putting Hundreds on the table.
Anyone can learn it. Also simple and obvious, but important: Hundreds' appeal may not be imminently easy to grasp just by looking or even by explaining verbally, but place it in front of nearly anyone and they'll figure it out just by touching it within just a few minutes. When intellectually-engaging and challenging games are so simple to enter, it becomes a fascinating statement on the power of truly good design as communication.
[Leigh Alexander wrote this piece originally on sister site Gamasutra.]