Pete Davison: Glitch in the System

Posted on September 28, 2011 by

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Glitch, brainchild of Flickr cofounder Stewart Butterfield, launched to the public today following an extremely lengthy and well organised testing period. I played the game briefly during testing while writing an article about it and found the experience utterly bewildering. I’ve had another go, and I still find it utterly bewildering.

The thing that is most bewildering is arguably its most defining feature — its non-violent nature. There is no hacking up wolves to collect 300 pelts for someone in the village. There is no dungeon delving to defeat some terrible great evil. There is no “take on this army of identical enemies singlehandedly, unless you’re in a party.” No, there’s just a world, filled with trees, pigs, butterflies and bureaucracy, and it’s pretty much up to you what you choose to do with your time there.

Your pet rock, who introduces the game to you in a tutorial which doesn’t really tell you much beyond the basic controls, offers you a few quests to show you what you can do over the course of your first few hours. But beyond that, it’s up to you what you choose to get on with and what skills you choose to focus on. Are you going to become a miner? A chef? Someone who talks to animals? There’s a wide range of things for you to do — but none of them involve killing things.

The saying goes “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” (or something along those lines) and it’s true — it’s easy to take for granted that the fundamental play mechanic of the vast amount of games out there is killing things, whether it’s dudes, monsters, aliens, zombies or anything else threatening the status quo. As gamers, we’re comfortable with that. It’s been the core mechanic of gaming since many of the earliest titles. Conflict is inherently competitive, and thus lends itself nicely to being a “game”. Non-violence, however, is a more tricky prospect. What’s the point of a game if there’s no world to save, no princess to rescue and no Big Bad to kick the bottom of?

I’m yet to discover exactly what makes Glitch tick, but there’s a lot of people playing who seem to enjoy it, so I’m willing to give it a chance. If nothing else, its non-violent nature should hopefully mean it’s free of the sort of people who use words like “noobfags” and “stfu”. And the whole “freeform” thing has been working pretty well for Minecraft, so why shouldn’t it work for a 2D browser-based MMO platformer where there’s nothing to kill? Granted, Glitch is notquite as freeform as Minecraft, though its RPG-like elements (such as learning skills) are stronger. It’s not really a good comparison at all, thinking about it, save for the fact that both games are fundamentally pointless but compelling wastes of time that are inexplicably popular with hundreds, thousands, millions of people.

I shall be giving Glitch a bit more of a go over the next few days and weeks. I shall be sure to report back if I do happen to find anything interesting.

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Posted in: Pete Davison