To a lot of people casual games are something to be mocked or a bad use of the medium to appeal to the common denominator; in a lot of cases, that is something that happens in order to lure people into an exploitative system that hooks them on a simple and addictive loop, so that it can leach money from them consistently. But casual games can be so much more than that, and to that point I recently played a few casual games that I want to talk about and hopefully demonstrate how casual games can be meaningful and worthwhile experiences, starting with SFB’s sequel to Detective Grimoire called Tangle Tower and Keita Takahashi’s latest game Wattam. Both of these games are whimsical, quirky, joyful, and relaxing experiences that flow brilliantly and are genuinely absorbing in their portrayal of their worlds and stories, as well as offering interesting mechanics and gorgeous visuals; they may not have the depth and challenge of other games, but arbitrarily confining what video games must be is as dumb and unintuitive as in any other medium for artistic expression.
That’s not to say that casual games are exempt from criticisms regarding mechanical and narrative depth, player progression, or any other metric of a game’s quality; it’s just that those tools are used to create something that’s less demanding and has more flair and fluency. Take Tangle Tower for example, a casual detective game in the Detective Grimoire series. In it you play as Detective Grimoire and his sidekick Sally, who are summoned to the eponymous Tangle Tower to solve the recent murder of Freya Fellow. What ensues is a comical adventure full of memorable characters, witty dialogue, and a complex mystery that hides in plain sight but only makes sense at the very end (mostly makes sense at least). The difference is that while other detective games like Return of the Orba Dinn try to challenge your wits and understanding of the events, Tangle Tower wants to create a more breezy and relaxing experience. I’ll give you an example: In both games, the “detecting” mechanic is virtually identical; you choose a series of clues alongside verbs and connecting phrases to create a sentence that details what has happened. In Obra Dinn this was a challenge; you had to create this sentence picking who killed who, with what, and how, testing your understanding of what you had witnessed, but also this theory would only validate if you have two other sentences completed and correct. Getting the third sentence correct and hearing that sound of validation is still one of the most satisfying and memorable moments I’ve ever experienced, while getting a third sentence correct and not hearing that sound was frustratingly addictive as I would not stop until I had figured out my mistakes. In Tangle Tower, I would know what the correct structure of the sentence was as soon as I was presented with that check, but I would often spent 10 minutes getting it wrong, because the ludicrous assumptions I made this hotshot detective make (and his humorous delivery of those sentences and his after-thoughts) were so irresistibly funny, that I couldn’t help myself. They are both detective games and have both similarly designed mechanics, but their goals are very different and should be judged differently; it’s like judging a Michael Bay movie against The Raid – yes, they are both action movies, but their aspirations for the experience they want to provide are so different, it’s unfair to either to judge them against each other.
Then, you have something like Wattam which cannot work in any other medium and in any other way, other than a quirky, casual experience – a space which Keita Takahashi, designer of Wattam, is second to none with classics like Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy under his belt. In Wattam you play as the mayor, a square figure who is lonely so he starts making friends with a rock and then things escalate quickly from there; it’s a surreal, light-hearted adventure game that’s like non other that I’ve ever played. Its brilliance comes from the pacing that is only achievable in more casual games; no puzzle is close to challenging, because the pace would suffer from you not immediately solving or beginning to solve the puzzle in question, which allows the game to move fast with its story and introduce new characters, designs, and ideas constantly, without them losing their novelty or quirkiness in the downtime so prevalent in other games. Wattam is such a unique experience in how it uses the surreal designs of its characters and the goofiness of its mechanics, without finding reasons to go beyond its 4 hour playthrough that would diminish the impact of those elements, and the fast pace of the experience is another way of keeping the player entertained. I loved Wattam’s world and design, how it allowed me to interact with its characters and the shenanigans I was allowed to get into, as well as its way of communicating important messages and directing an experience that will only last a few hours, did not challenge me at all, but left me relaxed, satisfied, and smiling as I watched the end credits roll.
So, in summary, casual experiences are just like any other in every entertainment medium; they can be wonderful, unique, satisfying, and meaningful if done right, but they can also feel like a cheap, waste of time if done badly. Their casual nature will always be the source of mockery and people will always look down on these games, but just like with any artistic expression, these games are not for everyone and when done right, are a source of unique and worthwhile experiences other genres and mindsets cannot provide.