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I Am Quite OK With Video Games That Play Themselves

<i>Dreeps</i> is a new iOS game that plays itself, which leads one to think: wouldn't it be wonderful if other, grind-heavy games could do this, too?

A screenshot from 'Dreeps', a new iOS game that plays itself

I was in Paris, but I was sad. In the back of a cab with two other games journalists, on the way back from the Eiffel Tower to our hotel, I was sad. Not because their company was at all wanting – though it may come as a shock to those who consider all games writers to be just awful conspiratorial sorts, most are Just Like You (except you who actually hold that opinion, obviously), and really quite pleasant to be around – but because their conversation was exposing a painful truth.

These two writers – we'll say they were representing The Sun and Shortlist, because they were (hi, guys) – were discussing the then-recently-released Destiny, Bungie's mega-budget sci-fi shooter that I'd had since release but hadn't committed anywhere near enough time to. These journalists – these gamers, Just Like You – were at levels I could only dream of, 26 and upwards, and were exchanging tips regarding "loot caves" and embarking on special raids that my pitifully underpowered Awoken was woefully ill-prepared for. I silently wondered how they'd advanced their games so far beyond mine. And then it clicked. It's less about time than effort, ambition and ability. I just don't play video games as well as other people.

To be honest, I should have accepted this years ago. I loved Renegade for the ZX Spectrum, the first computer I ever had to call "my own" (as much as one can with three younger siblings), but I was utterly cack at it. Any progress I made was ultimately negligible as I was soon enough dumped back to the start, wrestling both my Kempston joystick and the look-alike grunts that wanted to turn my little fly-kicking dude's teeth inside out.

As technology advanced, I didn't get all that much better. Silk Worm was one of the first Amiga games I had, but I soon enough became used to the sight of my helicopter crashing, and burning, and the screen resetting to the title menu, reaching Wave Six representing my "greatest" achievement. Nowadays, I never bother "100%-ing" games, because I know I'll fall short in some regard every time. I get through the story, when it's interesting enough. And that'll do.

But back to Destiny: it struck me, in the back of that Parisian taxi, that I'd probably never be able to join in a fire-fight with these guys and their respective avatars. Mine would always be a runt beside their brave warriors, because who's got the hours, really, to grind through the levels on games like Destiny, upgrading their character's attributes, with so much Real Life standing in the way of entire-day sessions? And now the game's been out a while, there are other, newer priorities to see to. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the game could just play itself, and I could come back to it around, say, level 30?

'Dreeps', release trailer

Seems like someone else was thinking the same thing. (Or, y'know, coincidence.) Dreeps is a new role-playing game for iOS devices that asks the "player" to do next to nothing. You simply set an alarm on your phone, to start the game, and at that time a little robot boy will awaken and get on with a whole day of adventuring. You can look in on how he's doing at any point – perhaps he'll be digging into a boss battle, or liaising with some mysterious NPCs about some magical mischief or other. If he's looking a little sad, just give him a tap and he'll pep right up again. One day he'll make friends, the next, maybe not, as it's not up to you. You're not playing this role at all – your iPhone is. It's at the vanguard of a whole new genre, the "Alarm-Playing Game", apparently.

Writes developer Prosthetic Knowledge of Dreeps: "(This) is a new type of game where you just have to set an alarm to enjoy an RPG adventure. Before going to bed, just set the alarm in Dreeps, and the robot boy will sleep like you. When you wake up with that alarm, the robot boy will go on an adventure through fields, valleys or peninsulas where bosses are waiting for him in dungeons. A new day is starting for you and the robot boy!"

There's hardly any text in Dreeps – characters have speech balloons, but they're wordless. If the boy's health drops, he'll need a prod back into action, but otherwise it seems like Dreeps just plays itself – until bedtime, anyway, when the robot boy switches himself off and, presumably, dreams of electric sheep. You might well ask what the point of the game actually is – or if it's a game at all. And you'd be right to do so.

'Gone Home', console announcement trailer

We're at an important stage of video gaming's cultural evolution right now, where the traditional model of what is and isn't a game is being challenged repeatedly, from Gone Home to The Sailor's Dream to The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo (seriously, "play" it) to Dreeps. But there's a proven audience of people who just like watching video games – the continuing rise of eSports represents the iceberg's tip of this, the explosion of YouTube "Let's Play" videos a considerable chunk of what's below the water's surface – and video games have long been designed to meet the needs of these less-interactively-inclined participants.

I was never the best at (now-)retro role-playing games. I adored Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger, and I tried my hand at the Super Nintendo's Final Fantasy games during turns-taking afternoons at a schoolfriend's place, but I always needed help getting to the end(s). I've still got three active games going on Link's Awakening, none of which I will ever complete. I finished Story of Thor on the Mega Drive, but that was more of a top-down action game than an RPG proper. Final Fantasy VII I obviously saw the conclusion of – if you were a games-playing teenager in the late 1990s, it was impossible to avoid – but I benefitted from sharing the workload with my two brothers (it was their PlayStation, anyway). But come the Xbox 360 I finished a few so-called "epics" on my own. All three Mass Effect games. Fable II, the very best of that franchise's original trilogy. And Final Fantasy XIII, the first instalment in the long-running series to be draped in gorgeous HD from head to toe.

But Final Fantasy XIII was heavily criticised for its simplicity – which is almost certainly why a lightweight adventurer like me managed to see the game out to its crystalline conclusion. The common complaint was that, despite the sizeable suite of combat options available, for the most part you could get past even the most considerably proportioned foes by Just Pressing X. "Press X to win" is practically its own meme, but for FFXIII it was palpably realised with the kind of relish that had players wondering: is Square Enix deliberately taking the piss here? Suppose it could have been worse – at least Final Fantasy's never quite had its own "Press X to Jason" moment, yet.

'Final Fantasy XIII', E3 2009 trailer (Japanese)

Final Fantasy XIII was easy, then. And it's far from alone in holding the player's hand across its tens of hours: modern blockbusters are made to be completed rather than genuinely challenge, a few exceptions aside, whether that's through short solo campaigns, offering generous regenerating health, activating invincibility modes after so many failures at a level, or any combination of pain-easing factors. Sometimes this is because the story needs to be seen to its bitter end – Spec Ops: The Line wouldn't be half as affecting if it posed steep difficultly spikes skewering progression through its black-hearted narrative, likewise Naughty Dog's disquieting modern classic The Last of Us (although that underpass section seemed hard as hockey balls the first time I tried it) – and sometimes just because it's The Done Thing.

There are story first, everything else second titles quite specifically tailored for players who'd rather their machines did most of the work for them. I know, because these are the games I play with my wife: Telltale releases like The Wolf Among Us, which we're currently working through, as well as (slightly) more hands-on affairs like the 1940s detective game L.A. Noire and the bittersweet puzzler To The Moon. Then there are amorphous adventures that lack a distinct narrative spine, like the goal-free Proteus and fractured exploration of Dear Esther. You might compile a story from the scraps found scattered around the island setting of the latter, but that's part of its appeal: you only might.

Destiny has no solid story to speak of – Peter Dinklage blathers on about "The Traveller" and a whole bunch of intergalactic nastiness, but really: it's a classic Gun Murder Simulator, just with way more money thrown at it than most. Which is why it looks so pretty, its soundtrack is so good (I can just leave the main menu music on, not even play the game, and be happy with that), and why so many people are driven to push themselves through hours of repetitive but excellently engineered gunplay for a go at some secret-mega-boss-bastard or whatever it is I'll never see.

Unless, of course, some bright spark comes up with a way for my PS4 to just get on with it while I'm writing about how it's not doing just that. Because while Paris is long behind me, I'm still a bit sad that Destiny – this behemoth of modern shooting, this high watermark of hard cash speaking louder than innovative mechanics and enveloping storytelling – and I can't get along. I want to be harder, better, faster and stronger; I want Dinklebot to cower in my presence rather than charging me with defending the perimeter while he fucks about with whatever archaic technology he can only crack once I've slaughtered a hundred Fallen. I wanted to smash the Vault of Glass, but that'll forever be a dream until I can mix a little Dreeps into my Destiny DNA.

Or, maybe I should just get better at video games.

@mikediver

Previously:

The Video Games That Want You Dead

They're Spreading Dangerously, but Zombie Video Games are Still Pretty Cool

'The Order: 1886' Stands to Dramatically Divide the PlayStation Audience