Game Over

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  • “The save file has been corrupted.” “The servers are busy at this time. Please try again later (Error 37).” “Click here to buy one 2,500 Coin Pack for $0.99!” There’s no shortage of fun-stunting, game-ending phrases for players to encounter nowadays, but for me, one puzzle game cliché towers above the rest: “NO MORE MOVES.”

    I mean, NO MORE MOVES has to be the worst lose condition of in all of videogames, right? There you are, minding your own business, matching gems or swapping tiles or whatever, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, you’ve lost. I honestly can’t recall a single time I’ve encountered NO MORE MOVES and felt unsurprised, or even at fault. This particular Game Over doesn’t seem to come about because of a mistake you’ve made – it feels like something that happens to you. Ostensibly random failure conditions might’ve been acceptable in the days of quarter-gobbling arcade games, but in 2012, it strikes me as an incredibly antiquated and unmodern thing to keep around. The biggest offender? Bejeweled.

    Before I jump down PopCap’s throat over this, I need to point out that they aren’t the only offender – they’re just the biggest. NO MORE MOVES is a scourge that affects huge swathes of games in the puzzle genre, even ones coming out today. The otherwise brilliant Matching Set, a clever and slick iOS game that just came out last month, usually ends when you run out of time, but it will occasionally sneak up on you and hit you over the head with a NO MORE MATCHES error message. Likewise, the wholly original and IGF-nominated ASYNC Corp. is another great game with the same exact issue.

    Look, losing is fine. It’s when your loss feels like it breaks or changes the rules that failure becomes frustrating. What makes NO MORE MOVES particularly agonizing is the realization that you’ve failed based on a metric you weren’t even aware you were being judged on – that is, your ability to SEE INTO THE GODDAMN FUTURE. Sure, maybe high-level Bejeweled savants develop the necessary skills to set themselves up for an endless chain of subsequent moves, but Bejeweled has the reputation of being the be-all end-all of casual games. As the “#1 puzzle game of all time,” it’s the poster child for lighthearted, populist gaming – PopCap sells a copy of Bejeweled every 4.3 seconds – so it’s hard to believe that the average Bejeweled player is able or willing to pull off the complex moves necessary to ensure they can make infinite moves in the future. The typical Bejeweled player is, in all likelihood, just matching three like the rest of us, and is just as surprised as anyone when they’re suddenly told to stop playing and go away because there aren’t any moves left. “Oh well,” they probably sigh, “I guess that’s the end of that.” NO. WE DESERVE BETTER.

    It probably goes without saying that I wouldn’t be writing this if I wasn’t a massive Bejeweled fan. I have sunk literal jillions of hours into Bejeweled over the course of my short life; Blitz was the first of only a few Facebook games to ever get its hooks into me, and Bejeweled 3 has actually usurped Tetris as my go-to “I need something to occupy my hands while I listen to this podcast” activity. I love PopCap’s stuff to death and will be playing their preposterously addictive and incomparably polished games until the day they stop making them. Which is maybe why I hate NO MORE MOVES so much – it’s an inelegant, obnoxious relic that feels totally at odds with the purity of gameplay PopCap is now famous for.

    Seriously, Bejeweled, judge me by any other metric – how quickly I’m making matches, how much I’m moving my iPhone, whatever – and I guarantee you it’ll be more interesting than NO MORE MOVES. To quote my friend Derrick Sanskrit: “NO MORE MOVES always feel more like the programmers failed more than I did.” Like, it’s not my fault there aren’t any moves left, guys! It’s yours! Stop yelling at me!

    But here’s where it gets really fascinating: PopCap has actually solved this problem already. When they rolled out Bejeweled 2 all the way back in 2004, they added an Endless mode that dropped gems in such a way that made it impossible to get trapped in a NO MORE MOVES instant-fail. Initially, Endless mode was just a meditative, almost pointless diversion, but over the past few years, PopCap has begun incorporating the Endless mechanic into their more serious game modes. The hypercompetitive Facebook game Bejeweled Blitz operates under these rules; in Blitz, your goal is to make as many matches as possible within one minute, without ever having to worry about running out of moves. Likewise, nearly every mode in Bejeweled 3 drops gems specifically so you’ll never run out of matches – Lightning, Butterflies, Diamond Mine, Ice Storm, Time Bomb, Gold Rush, Stratamax, Alchemy, Balance, Buried Treasure, Poker and Zen (the binaural-beat-laden big brother of Endless mode) all function this way. The one mode that doesn’t: Classic mode.

    Which, on one hand, makes sense: In the decade since Bejeweled was originally released (or, if you want to go way back, the 18 years since its ancestor Shariki came out), NO MORE MOVES has been the way Bejeweled games traditionally end. It’s what folks are used to, and maybe Classic mode still exists because PopCap doesn’t want to risk alienating the millions of people comfortable with untimed, arbitrarily-ending vanilla Bejeweled. That’s fine, of course. But the fact that every single Bejeweled variant PopCap has produced since the original game has circumvented the NO MORE MOVES issue seems to tell us one thing: They know it’s dumb. PopCap has come up with tons of other clever loss conditions that are far better at measuring skill than NO MORE MOVES, and contemporary modes like those found in Bejeweled 3 judge you instead on your speed, precision, strategic skill and everything in between.

    I love Bejeweled to death, but it feels weird that, in 2012, the flagship Bejeweled mode is still one with such a dumb, frustrating loss condition. Let’s pray for its quick demise so that future generations won’t be subject to the cruelty that is NO MORE MOVES.

    Commentary, Games