Sunday, 20 November 2011

most addictive use of a physics engine ever

I've been holding out, but yesterday I finally installed Angry Birds on my Android phone.  Four hours and two levels (of 21 stages each, for the remaining person on the planet who hasn't yet installed it) later, I decided it was a keeper.

An early, but difficult, level

And again, for that one remaining person, the concept is simple, but addictive.  You "fire" birds from a catapult (these birds don't fly, they fall with style) to knock over and blow up structures, in order to explode the pigs.  (What do you mean, "why"?)

The physics engine means that if you hit things just right, they fall in glorious cascades, squashing everything in sight.  If you don't, they fall in the wrong place, or wobble, or tilt, and you have to try again. And again.  And again.  Hence the four hours.

Different kinds of birds have different capabilities, and you get only a limited number, so you have to plan carefully.  And then you have to execute the plan, which involves a combination of skill and luck (that's the way the castle crumbles).

It took me back a couple of decades, to Lemmings, which absorbed a lot of life back then (I really should know better by now).

more screenshots available
What impressed me those years ago about Lemmings was the implicit training programme.  At the computer show (remember them?) where I tried it, and bought it, there were three demo levels: v triv, triv, and impossible.  After having played it for several months a completely non-significant part of my life, I realised I had just sailed through the "impossible" demo level, having been thoroughly and efficiently trained in exploiting Lemming capabilities to solve fiendish mining problems. Angry Birds (and, I assume, all its ilk) has the same approach, introducing the new capabilities one by one, having specially designed levels that you use these capabilities to solve, and slowly increasing difficulty, to keep you engaged.  In addition to being a brilliant teacher, it's a brilliant implementation of what Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow".

Time has moved on since the relatively simple graphics and trivial dynamics of Lemmings.  Angry Birds has that physics engine which gives a whole new level of realism (although I do think the friction model is a bit too sticky). But Lemmings had its own great feature: insanely compelling use of background music. To this day, whenever I hear a certain piece of Mozart, I flash back to images of hordes of grimly marching lemmings.

Now, have I got time for just one more go before lunch? 

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