Getting Into Gaming: Plants Vs. Zombies
I, like many people, was eased into gaming through casual games. While my boyfriend was playing BioShock and Counter-Strike, I was trawling the internet for sites like this where I would play through game after game. So I feel it is necessary to pay some kind of tribute to the genre and not get too high and mighty about becoming a gamer. For a long while I had an entire folder of PopCap games on my laptop and these were what I spent most of my free time engaged in. Zuma and Bookworm Adventures were particular favourites of mine, although Zuma was frequently the cause of spontaneous onset Tourette’s syndrome… I refused to accept being beaten by a stone frog! PopCap has been running for almost 13 years now, with Bejeweled (their flagship game) having sold over 50 million units and something like 50 other games to their name! But when someone mentions PopCap, I’m sure the first thing most people think of is Plants vs. Zombies. It’s a fun concept which is friendly to young and old gamers (I mean, it’s not like the zombies are exactly scary) and it allows you to derp your way through the levels figuring it out as you go, with no real sense of urgency.
But if you think about it, PvZ is really an anomaly, a bridge between casual gaming and ‘hardcore’ gaming (or proper gaming, as I like to call it). It’s almost a genre entirely of its own. The levels are all the same, getting increasingly harder as you go, the levels are short with a definite start and end point and a story line is almost entirely absent. All this should make PvZ a straightforward casual game. But then again…
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I’ve played through the adventure mode twice and a bit more times on my laptop, trying to collect plants for my Zen garden, and coins to buy all the twiddydinkies in Crazy Dave’s car boot sale! My completionist nature makes it almost impossible for me to be satisfied with only half a collection. Then PopCap released a version for iPad. And with the new version came new content, namely achievements!
But these aren’t the ordinary achievements you’d expect a casual game to include, there’s no award for planting your first sunflower or for playing the game for 4 consecutive hours. Yes, some of the achievements can be unlocked by collecting 30 coins in a level, but many actually presented me with genuine challenges, forcing me to completely abandon the strategies I’d perfected and grown comfortable with. Suddenly I’m trying to complete a day level using only night time plants, using plants I’ve never used before and not using plants that had originally been stock favourites!
So this then made me think that maybe there is more to PvZ than most gamers are willing to admit. I mean, sure, it is fundamentally a casual game, but it offers so much more than others in its field. First of all, there are the mini-games and puzzle modes. I’ve played a lot of casual games and I have yet to find another with a collection of side games to rival those you get with PvZ! This is something more common to games like Mario Party and Ratchet and Clank. Then there’s unlockable content. As I played, the game became more complex, introducing new mini-games and puzzles and new plants I can use in the levels, so that the game isn’t just the same thing over and over again. And finally there’s the Endless mode of play… something I’ve never managed to do! Why? Because the level of strategic capability and ability to adapt and adjust accordingly to the ever changing situation on screen is ridiculous! It really isn’t a case of just putting down some plants and hoping for the best, it has to be a highly thought out process. I consider myself to be satisfactorily good at the game, and I avoid endless modes like the plague!
I know of hardcore gamers who scoff heartily at casual games, in that “I was never a child” kind of way. To them, casual games are a weak excuse for gaming and don’t actually teach you anything useful about the gaming world. This is true. It’s not like clicking your mouse or tapping a screen repeatedly is teaching you any sort of gaming skill or finesse, but a game like Plants vs. Zombies can still teach you how to think like a gamer! It taught me how to weigh up options and prioritise actions rather than trying to do everything at once. It’s also helping me deal with my compulsive need to restart a game every time it doesn’t go my way, because after a while I started to get very tired of doing the same 2 minutes of a level 3 times over! And with the introduction of the achievements, the game is also teaching me a lot of new ways to think about old problems.
I have found that the learning curve from casual to hardcore games is a pretty big one and it can get very disheartening and stressful at times! So, while shooting zombies with peas and cabbages doesn’t sound all that impressive, it could actually be more valuable than most people (including me) initially gave it credit for.