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When I was writing last week’s newsletter, I felt like I could still legitimately recommend Wordle as game of the week, because plenty of people still hadn’t heard of it. At the time it had 300,000 players. Now, though, it has millions, and has become ubiquitous; the most viral game since … Pokémon Go?
The last week has seen a whole cycle of news purely about this appealing daily word game. Its creator Josh Wardle – who famously has no interest in monetising his creation, made as a gift for his partner – told the Guardian he was totally overwhelmed by its success. Amusing tributes popped up, from the evil Absurdle, which actively pulls the answer further and further away from you with every attempt, to the absurdist nightmare Letterle (the clue is in the name).
Attack of the clones
Then, some opportunistic baddies cloned the game and released it on app stores for profit – one of them even bragged about it on Twitter, and seemed surprised when thousands of people, including some quite famous game developers, called them out. Thankfully, what could have been a “this is why we can’t have nice things” moment was salvaged when the clones were removed from the App Store last week. The Twitter bragger even apologised, to their credit.
More clones keep popping up, but it seems that at least someone at Apple has an interest in keeping lovely things pure and untainted. Wordle’s uncomplicated innocence is part of what makes it so damn appealing: in an age where literally everything seems to be trying to collect our data and monetise our attention, from our phones to sodding smart fridges, it’s no wonder that the world has responded so positively to something that’s simple, fun and free.
One of the first times I experienced a game going properly viral was back in 2014, when my then-young stepson introduced me to Five Night’s at Freddy’s, a shonky horror game about a haunted pizzeria stalked by horrible Chuck E Cheese-style animal mascot automatons. I have no idea how the kid heard about the game. Could have been YouTube, could have been playground chat. But before long practically every child I knew had, somehow, played it. Parents were asking me about it. It’s a pretty scary game, and a lot of younger kids were pretty upset by it – it was its generation’s equivalent of the nightmare-inducing snatches of horror movies that I glimpsed through the slightly-open door of the living room when I was supposed to be in bed, as a child.
Five Nights at Freddy’s had had no hype, no coverage on the gaming websites or social media accounts that I followed, no traditional path to popularity. It just arrived, out of nowhere, at a time when YouTubers were constantly looking for horror games to performatively scream at, and became inordinately successful. I was baffled and intrigued. Pokémon Go in 2016 is probably the biggest viral game of all time – there was a point where you couldn’t go outside without seeing people drifting around, convening at random phone boxes or shops or one of the game’s other arbitrary landmarks, staring at their phones, looking for a Psyduck or a fabled Snorlax. That summer I was in my home town of Edinburgh and ended up directing a whole group of wandering Pokémon hunters down an obscure close, where I’d just found a Haunter after 20 minutes of searching.
Pokémon Go was laser-targeted at my generation of grown-up Pokémon kids, but it really felt like everyone was playing it at one point, right across age groups and in every country. It was a truly shared experience, and that’s always the crux of a viral game: they connect us to each other, somehow. And as proven by Pokémon Go developer Niantic’s subsequent games, most of which have been at best mildly popular despite sharing near-identical design, there’s no planning for a game’s viral success. There’s no recipe for them. Who on earth would have picked Wordle out of a crowd? Or Flappy Bird, the brief mobile gaming sensation that nearly broke its poor creator, Dong Nguyen?
It’s not usually the ‘best’ games that blow up in this way. Flappy Bird wasn’t exactly wonderful to play – and Fortnite is far from the best multiplayer shooter around (don’t @ me). This is the interesting thing about virality, really; you can’t account for what resonates. In retrospect it’s easy to draw connections between, for instance, Among Us’ rise to fame and the isolation and paranoia of lockdown, but it’s not like the game was designed with that in mind. It just kinda happened. Isn’t that the beauty of it?
For some reason I only seem to be playing games that aren’t quite games recently (but not for much longer, I guess – Rainbow Six Extraction and Elden Ring will soon kick off a ludicrously busy year for video games). For now though, I’m going to recommend Radiohead and Epic Games’ KID A MNESIA EXHIBITION.
It’s an interactive walkthrough of the seminal 21-year-old album(s), with absorbing visualisations, scrawled words and lyrics, black-and-white forests, wandering lost-looking stick-men with looming, grinning faces, and much else. Here’s why you should play it: I don’t mean this unkindly, but a lot of games don’t engage all that much with the rest of culture, and it shows. KID A MNESIA is what happens when someone from outside the game world designs a gamelike experience, which is to say, it’s like nothing you will have played before, and it will feed your brain.
Appropriately, I felt an encroaching sense of ennui and alienation exploring this trippy and emotionally charged place. My partner, the biggest Radiohead nerd I know, describes it as “pleasantly disconcerting, which is Radiohead in a nutshell really”. Interestingly, it was originally going to be a physical exhibition, but Covid stomped on that idea, and the band and their collaborators started to explore the idea of a virtual thing instead – which means this is one of the few good things to have resulted from the pandemic.
Available on: PC, Mac, PS5
Approximate playtime: 1-2 hours
Today’s question comes from reader Dominik Kurseja: What are the games that you wish you’d had more time to play? And if/when you revisited them, were they as good as you remembered? I asked Julia Hardy, presenter of the Top Gear Gaming Show (among much else), for her answer.
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