A major part of the experience of playing video games is, as anyone with an older sibling can tell you, watching someone else play video games.
And maybe that's why Dreeps, the new iOS game that plays itself, feels not all that weird. The game's creators call it an "alarm playing game," because setting an alarm is the only thing you actually ever do in the game. Other than that, Dreeps is about watching action unfold. The game tells the story of a little robot boy making his way through a variety of landscapes and vanquishing enemies. The game continues whether or not you're paying attention to it. Most of the time, the little robot boy is calmly walking across the screen.
But open the app at the right moment and you'll catch him fighting off a bad guy.
Or getting healing power from a nice elf type.
"In dreeps, you will just have to set the alarm, that’s all," wrote the game's designers on the Dreeps website. "You can have a look at the adventure on the phone put on your desk while working, during snack time, just enjoy the game at your pace... You might be missing some events, but don’t mind about it. There’s almost no text in the game. You can imagine your own version of the story with the hints hidden in visuals and sound." The game costs $2.99 to download.
The action is fairly limited, but Dreeps is charming—and actually kind of compelling in its own way. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise. Plenty of designers have gamified the passage of time itself. Adult Swim's Hemp Tycoon, a quasi Sim Cityesque game about harvesting marijuana, requires players to tend to their crops—but it's mostly about waiting around for the plants to grow. And the real-time gameplay in The Sims was part of what made it so popular (and so addicting) when it came out in 2000. Watching a robot do what it was programmed to do may not be the traditional way we think about games, but, as the video game designer Jesse Schell told me a few years ago, "algorithms are part of what make games what they are."