'Hundreds' Is the Haute Couture of Video Games
A new multi-touch puzzle game for the iPad and iPhone is about form, not function—and it's about to become a status symbol.
Some media exists for you to "consume": to read, to watch, to play. Even though a book, television show, or video game isn't destroyed by this encounter like a cheesesteak or a firework might be, the creative work is meant to be made a part of ourselves. To transform us in some way.
But other forms of media don't aspire to become incorporated. They skate along the surfaces of our lives rather than penetrating them. Fashion is a literal example, covering our skin rather than our centers. Much of today's modern fine arts are this way too; the gallery and the museum are places to be a certain kind of person, to perform an identity, much like certain clubs or restaurants are places to be seen. And some media work both on the surface and when incorporated. Carrying a copy of Mark Z. Danielewski's experimental novel House of Leaves has for one crowd much the same effect as wearing Christian Louboutin shoes for another, but the novel can be read for its content in addition to being displayed for its cultural cachet.
Design is one overly simplified name for the surfaces of media. Despite the legacy of the Bauhaus in today's Apple electronics and their knock-offs, and even despite the oppressive functionalism of fields like interaction design, design really embodies what we don't use, what doesn't get transferred from an object to its reader, viewer, player, or user. This is also why design is the register on which things become cool. Coolness isn't consumable. Cool isn't what something is about, but just what it is, all at once.
Hundreds, a new, well-reviewed, physics-based puzzle game for iPhones and iPads, is cool. Like all cool things, it makes you cool by being near it, by operating it. It's a game for men with blonde stubble and square chins and herringbone trousers. It's a game for women with perfect skin and long, thin fingers.
If that's not you, Hundreds is for you, too, in the same way a boutique hotel lobby peppered with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe leather lounge chairs is for you. Part of what makes a thing cool is having you near them taking note of it.
For a video game, this is nearly unprecedented—and a more complex accomplishment than it seems. Hundreds creators Adam Saltsman and Greg Wohlwend have made popular web- and iOS titles before, including having established the now-ubiquitous "jump and run" genre with Canabalt and Solipskier. Wohlwend has a penchant for baroque genre mash-ups like Gasketball (H.O.R.S.E meets The Incredible Machine) and Puzzlejuice (Tetris meets Boggle). And recently, Saltsman has experimented with sponsored projects, including the refreshingly modest film tie-in The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire and the surreal Old Spice deodorant advergame Dikembe Mutombo's 4 1/2 Weeks to Save the World. While their previous, individual work is dorky and wacky and charming and fun, Hundreds is something else entirely.
The game itself is simple. Black and grey circles appear on a white screen. Touching one or more causes them to grow, their sizes measured numerically within each circle. When any circle is touched and therefore inflating, it turns red. Red circles must not make contact with another circle, or the game ends. To complete a puzzle, the circles' total must reach 100 (thus the game's title). There are 100 levels, and each is more challenging than the last, featuring new kinds of interaction and obstacles: poppable bubbles get in the way, movable bumpers deflect other circles, spinning gears deflate circles they contact, ice discs freeze circles they touch, circles shrink over time, growth totals cease to be displayed, and so forth.
It sounds like just another physics puzzler, good for wasting time in a waiting room or on a conference call. But unlike Angry Birds or Cut the Rope, Hundreds can't really be played insouciantly. It requires full attention, often two hands, and sometimes a table or a lap.
In part, this is because many of Hundreds' puzzles recommend or require multi-touch interaction for completion—a rare feature for iOS games, despite the fact that the device itself built its reputation on multi-touch actions and gestures. Fruit Ninja may seem like it's best played with several fingers, but such tactics are excessive in practice; just scrub oafishly with an index finger and avoid the bombs. What a mess.
By contrast, Hundreds levels feel like real-world puzzles rather than virtual ones. Take level 89, for example, which scatters five stationary, shrinking circles on the screen. Completing this puzzle required carefully orienting my iPad while applying rehearsed pressures with multiple fingers on both hands. It's multi-touch ballet.
So it's not accurate to call Hundreds a casual game. It demands deep attention and almost perverse devotion to play well let alone to complete (I'll admit, I still have yet to best level 100). Luckily, completion isn't really the point. It may not even be desirable.
Saltsman and Wohlwend market Hundreds as "a puzzle game about space, the space between you and the serene." But as with most puzzle games, there's nothing serene about playing Hundreds. It's infuriating, punctuated by small moments of pride that are quickly deflated upon realizing that they lead only to yet another screen of grey circles.
If there is serenity to be found in Hundreds, it lives less in the game's depths than at its surface, in its design. I don't mean its game design (the way its elements behave and respond), nor its visual design (the simple geometry and colors that form its appearance), nor its interaction design (the use of one type of touch as a way of playing). True, all three embody an elegant minimalism reminiscent of the Bauhaus aesthetic that Apple itself has popularized for contemporary computing culture. But those flavors of design are too ordinary and too antiseptic to capture the game's manner.
Rather, I mean the status of the entire game as a whole, as one complete surface over and above its parts. And as a design object, Hundreds operates far more like Prada than it does like Angry Birds.
Like all cool things, Hundreds isn't really that compelling for what it attempts to deliver, for the "content" of its puzzles, whatever that might mean. Ray-Ban Wayfarers and art-deco leather club chairs don't have any meaning to relay in the first place, save the history of their own use. Even the iPhone doesn't "mean" anything other than the fact of its existence, even if it can display and distribute media that can be consumed. The iPhone is about having an iPhone, about holding it and touching it and putting it down on the table nonchalantly.
With Hundreds, the iPhone or iPad finally has its proverbial pair of sunglasses. It's a game that allows an iDevice to function as an active rather than a passive design object. Hundreds is perhaps the only game you might look good playing perched on the leather hassock of a chichi bar that advertises mixologists instead of bartenders, you expanding circles while waiting for your friends to arrive. In fact, Hundreds feels more like the lobby bar itself than it does like a video game. The game's music was created by Loscil, a Canadian artist whose electronic ambient sound is chill-lounge friendly. It's a video game that you can imagine James Bond playing.
Unlike most games, Hundreds will make you want to be cooler in order to do its presence justice. Halfway through, making progress on the iPhone becomes difficult. Switching to your iPad might make things easier (you do have an iPad, don't you?). But then again, the iPad is an embarrassing accessory to carry in public. Given that Hundreds is a game you might like to be seen playing, it's better to break down and buy an iPad Mini. Large enough to facilitate better play, but small enough to slip into the pocket of your jacket when the cocktails arrive.
Design is no stranger to the tension between form and function. The Bauhaus style purports to privilege the latter, removing anything unnecessary to the operation of a lamp, radio, or, eventually, a mobile phone. But inevitably, "form following function" became its own form. The Herman Miller Aeron chair may have promised ergonomic efficiency, but don't we really love it for its surfaces, for its design instead? The same is true of the iPhone, whose one-button interface hardly makes the most functional mobile device. But who cares when it feels so good to hold, to touch, and to display?
I'm not sure even Saltsman and Wohlwend have grasped the implications of their creation, despite knowing full well that the game exudes more design than it does game design. Still, the game's website seems to mistake the title for a Bejeweled-style zen time-waster. "You have millions of things on your mind," reads the page, surrounded by the game's circles filled with icons representing life's demands. "Just take it 100 at a time," it continues as you scroll down through trailers and accolades before concluding, "Let Hundreds unwind your mind."
But this is like mistaking Hermès for Land's End, or Philippe Starck for Cuisinart. Hundreds is not a time-waster for the unwashed masses, not a refreshing distraction to quell the stress of overdue bills or unexpected veterinary visits. It is not a game for the supermarket or DMV. It is not a game that distracts from boredom, because players of Hundreds are above ennui, just like Aeron-cradled authors are above writer's block. The iPhone might be a device one can use on the toilet, but Hundreds certainly isn't a game one would play there. Do players of Hundreds even need to use the toilet?
Hidden within Hundreds we find the surest clue that it is a design object and not a consumable media experience. Occasionally, completing a level unlocks a cipher, a secret message encoded in letters or in symbols. Each uses a different type of encryption, and when decoded they collectively unlock a special power within the game.
Some games get used up because we grow bored of them. Others can be completed or "won." Hundreds may seem like a candidate for both boredom and resolution, but really it's neither, so long as you use it right.
A web search will reveal that, yes, there are some players who have gone to the trouble of identifying each cipher encryption method and then decoded each cipher by means of a laborious data-entry interface the game provides. But no true player of Hundreds would bother. This busywork is beneath them. Yet without it, there would be nothing to disdain, no dumb misuse for the rabble to mistake for depth, for a consumable experience. For despite its claims to inclusiveness, modern design works best when it's exclusionary and pretentious, when it speaks without saying anything but just by being there. Realizing such a feat for video games, a medium so much more popular than it is cool, is an accomplishment. That the creators of Hundreds may not know they did it is a secret that you and I can smirk about silently while we play it.