Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity: Tedium Cubed

Curiosity killed the cat, or at the very least distracted it, and like that proverbial animal, I've been pawing at something frivolous, something you might say was as pointless as playing the lottery: poking a giant cube.

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Curiosity killed the cat, or at the very least distracted it, and like that proverbial animal, I’ve been pawing at something frivolous, something you might say was as pointless as playing the lottery: poking a giant cube (or a really tiny pocket-sized one, depending on your perspective).

Instead of spending cash, I’ve spent time, which to me is worth more than money, so that’s saying something. Minutes. Hours. Days and weeks, if I soldier on. I could be reading a book, or watching TV, or going for a run, or, you know, taking an arrow to the knee in Skyrim. Instead, I’m chipping away at a virtual cube on my iPhone’s screen, tapping strange patterns on Gorilla Glass, my finger like a chisel or the pointy end of a pick.

Thank (or blame) Peter Molyneux, the 53-year-old game designer (and Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) who brought us stuff like Populous, Black & White and Fable, a.k.a. the guy who also spawned an entire conversational sub-genre wherein gamers poke fun at luminaries who sometimes confuse enthusiastically chatting about big ideas with actually pulling them off.

Which brings us to Curiosity — What’s Inside the Cube?, Molyneux’s first project since exiting Lionhead and founding startup 22Cans last March. It’s either a game, a waste of time, a social experiment or all of the above, depending who you talk to. It’s also completely free, and the only ads you’ll endure are the ones that occasionally grace the sides of the cube itself.

“Is the power of curiosity enough to unite the world in solving one mystery?” teases the app description (as if we didn’t already know the answer — hello still-confused-about-Lost!). “Join thousands of people worldwide to simultaneously chip away at a giant Cube to discover the life-changing secret buried inside.”

That’s the goal, then: to get to the final layer and be the last person to tap the very last piece of a cube made up of billions. Whoever does so wins…well, something. 22Cans and Molyneux won’t say what that something is, just that “what is inside the cube is life-changingly amazing by any definition.”

Load the app on an iOS or Android phone or tablet and you’ll find yourself face to face with a cube that slowly rotates as ambient electronica grooves in the background. There’s a kind of synth-chorus in play that’s almost overweening — a choir of digital angels singing the cube’s mysterious hosannas.

It’s hard to come up with interesting things to say about a box suspended in midair inside a blank white room without sounding pedantic. It’s cubical! You can rotate it using one finger and zoom in or out with two. Layers are composed of millions of cubelets — tiny little boxes that shatter when tapped. Each layer forms a picture: a piece of art, a pattern, stained glass, a photo of a telephone booth, a photo of an eye, snippets of poetry or prose, photos of food, even an ad for 22Cans’ new Kickstarter Populous reboot, “Project GODUS.” Translucent text floats along the cube’s sides periodically, usually describing something related to the picture or something self-referential, like the Twitter hashtag for the app itself.

Obliterating layers isn’t a solo gig, and each dissolves one cubelet at a time as players around the world tap in tandem. Think of it like massively multiplayer, legitimized art defacement. Some players have taken the time to scrawl messages or carve their initials on the cube like ephemeral graffiti. Some have even tried to tease meaning from the cube’s shifting skin, approaching the layers or their sequencing as metaphors or philosophical commentary. I’m sure 22Cans finds it all amusing.

But as they say, there can be only one: one winner, one finale, one person in the right place tapping at precisely the right moment to vaporize that single, terminal cubelet. There’s no dependable strategy for ensuring you’ll be that one in a zillion player. Game it any way you like, conspire with friends, enlist others and form collaborative gangs, you’re just wasting your time.

The best you can do is come up with strategies to tap more effectively, and there are a few things you can do to better your removal rate. For instance, using one finger generally lets you tap more accurately (and thus faster) than with two. Zooming out and tapping randomly yields the worst results, turning neat rows into a scattershot landscape and complicating the board (I suppose it counts as a strategy to frustrate others, if you’re into that). Zooming in and tapping sequentially, on the other hand, yields the best results, allowing you to fill your view with cubelets and clear them quickly without having to leap around haphazardly.

The game offers coins as rewards for removing cubelets, and ups the payout if you perform little feats, like clearing all the cubes from your current view (thus the incentive to drag the view around until you’ve filled your screen before tap-clearing), or clearing cubes combo-style, creating an unbroken sequence and avoiding tapping on empty spaces or lingering too long between taps. Build up a reserve of coins and you can buy better digging tools that’ll wipe away scads of cubelets with a single touch. The catch: Each tool has a time limit — once activated, you have until the clock runs out.

Did I say there was no dependable strategy to win? There might be one. For an unfathomable three billion coins, you can unlock something 22Cans calls a Diamond Chisel. No one knows how many cubelets it’ll decimate with a single blow, but the next most powerful tool, the Steel Chisel, can take out 25 per touch and it only costs one million coins. I suspect whoever gets the Diamond Chisel — if they do, before the game’s up — can basically sit back, wait until the cube’s down to the final layers, then pounce. (All bets are off if more than one person plays long enough to buy the Diamond Chisel.)

But what a grueling job that’d be. It took me a couple hours of uninterrupted tapping to rack up enough coins to buy the Steel Chisel for a million. At that rate, I’d need to play for something like 6,000 hours to hit three billion coins. That’s 250 days of consecutive play (and lethal doses of NoDoz). Let’s say the best players could do it in half that time. You’re still talking 125 days, or back to at least 250 if you’re sleeping and eating like a normal human being (even then, we’re assuming you have no job, no life, etc. — you’re either a lonely kid or a graduate student with this as your thesis, in other words).

There’s also a design glitch in the way the game syncs with 22Cans’ servers and propagates that information to your device. You’re playing with others around the world, so what they’re doing impacts what you’re doing and vice versa. But you can’t see what anyone else is doing in realtime — instead of watching individual cubes disappear as someone else taps them, the game simply wipes away huge swathes of a layer periodically. There’s no warning, it just happens, potentially screwing up your consecutive tap score if a space you were about to tap on suddenly disappears.

I’m assuming 22Cans designed the game this way to make server synchronization less of a gamble. Instead of having to synchronize hundreds of thousands of player clicks and display that in real time, somehow, the server deploys a snapshot update — a “this is where the board is right now based on the best info we have” — periodically. It’s probably the better way to handle synchronization, to be fair, I just wish there were some way to game it short of tapping tentatively, or counting “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand,” etc. to estimate the time between wipes.

Then again, I’m not sure how much I care about progressing after hitting a paltry million coins. I bought an Iron Chisel when I first hit 300,000, but knocking out multiple cubes at once actually complicates accuracy, so you’ll arguably make money faster if you just stick with the one-tap-per-cubelet/screen-clear-bonus route. Besides, the prize could be a fortune cookiep, for all we know. In fact there’s something a little faux-existential about the whole concept — like Ian Bogost’s perfectly self-aware Cow Clicker, only not a joke.

Or maybe it is and the punchline’s coming. Who knows. Maybe the winner gets a job working for Molyneux. Maybe it’s Stephen Hawkings’ latest take on the Unified Theory of Everything (that’d be kind of cool, actually). Maybe it’s a Cracker Jack prize — life-changing in the sense that you’d never trust someone promising a “life-changing” objective again.

Whatever the case, the app’s free, so if you’re stoked about bulldozing countless swathes of cubelets with your fingers, harboring hope, ridiculously, that you might be the one in a zillion who’ll be last to tap, you only have yourself to blame.