Game Recommendation: 4 The Words

So, here on, this week is going to be Games Week, as I write two reviews/recommendations for computer games you should be spending small amounts of money on.

Now, some might say that I am literally the worst person in the world to be recommending computer games, what with me knowing literally nothing of the medium. Others might point out the fact that other than a brief period of playing Fallen London a year or so ago I haven’t seriously played a computer game since the era where you had to type the games in yourself in BASIC from a listing in a magazine. And that those weren’t even on a good home microcomputer but on an Acorn Electron. There would be some who would say that such a complete lack of knowledge of even the most basic facts of what makes a computer game worth playing might in some way put me at a disadvantage when talking about them.

I disagree. I think it actually gives me a big advantage.

The main reason I don’t play many computer games (other than solitaire, 2048, and Kakuro puzzles) is because the majority of them that I’ve seen have, since at least the end of Infocom’s dominance of the market in about 1987, relied on visual processing. You have to be able to take in graphical information and perform tasks of hand-eye coordination. As someone who didn’t learn to tie his shoelaces until he was eleven (and who hasn’t bought a pair of laced shoes since he gained control over his own footwear choices, thus avoiding all that complicated business altogether) this makes it just not a medium which I can engage with in any real way.

That means that if I *can* engage with a game, it has to be pretty special in one way or another.

But the game I’m going to recommend today, 4 The Words, is one of the new breed of browser-based games which have come to prominence since the rise of Facebook. It has most of the standard features of those kind of grinding games — you have to collect items, which you can use to perform more tasks, which raise your level, which in turn means that you can collect more items. You buy or sell the items in a store, and you can level up and unlock more areas of the game.

Fallen London, which I’ve mentioned above, is my only experience of this kind of game, and that game mostly held me because of its aesthetic rather than anything else, but I’m aware of this kind of game dominating among casual gamers — it’s basically a dopamine-release system, and strongly addictive, and so I disapprove (and I note Charles Stross yesterday on Twitter pointing to a new technology that makes these things more addictive as being something that should be banned in case it actually turns us all into wireheads — this stuff is dangerous in the wrong hands).

And 4 The Words doesn’t have Fallen London‘s distinctive aesthetic. I’ve only played it for two days, but it seems to be utterly generic epic fantasy of the kind I stopped finding interesting by the time I was about twelve — sub-sub-sub-Tolkien fantasy worldbuilding quests. I am currently, as I write this, in the middle of battling an “Aracni” — a spider monster — after having found Tesven’s amulet in the Forest of Luciola.

Screenshot of part of the dashboard from 4 The Words, showing fairly generic fantasy-game stats

But that’s the interesting thing, and the thing that makes this game different from the others — I am literally battling the monster as I write this. Every word I write is draining the monster’s life force.

Because the main mechanic of the game is that you battle monsters by writing. Every monster you meet in the game has a number of words you must write in a given time, and you win the battles by actually typing the words. In a very tiny way, what this site is doing is a miniature version of the MMORPG in Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, which gamifies business logic. This one is a wonderful way to get past writer’s block. If you have to write two hundred words in thirty minutes in order to defeat an evil monster, you do it, in a way that you wouldn’t if you just had to write it for, you know, money to pay for food or the mortgage or other boring, non-monster-fighting reasons for writing.

Now, there are disadvantages to this, of course — the game requires you to type in their editor (which is roughly similar to the WordPress rich text editor — usable enough, but not ideal, especially when your fingers are attuned to the shortcut keys for a different editor, as mine are) and has no way to track words you entered in another program. This is particularly annoying if you want to get words done on a project you’re already working on (though there are ways to get around the problem of your old word count adding to the monster-battling count). But the upsides more than make up for this.

Allowing for words I’ve pasted in from other sources (which I’ve not counted towards my monster-killing but which do count towards my total word count — I’ve subtracted them as best I can) I’ve managed to write somewhere in the region of 5000 words in the last twenty-four hours by using this tool. Now, I’m a fast writer anyway, but I normally aim for 1,000 words as a reasonable number for a day on average, just because the activation energy it takes for me to actually get my fingers on the keyboard typing is so high. I’ve produced more (like the time I wrote a ten-thousand-word short book on Multiversity more or less by accident in a few hours on the last day of an election campaign) but that’s usually been a result of being in an extremely pressured mental state. This has just been “Oh, if I kill five of those Reenu things I’ll level up, let’s do that”.

4 The Words is definitely not a game for everyone, but if you have difficulty persuading yourself to actually get to the keyboard and write, and you want to get into the habit of writing every day, then it’s definitely worth trying out. It costs $4 per month, but you can try it for thirty days for free, so you won’t lose anything by trying it.

(One possible issue a friend brought up isn’t — I was asked if it deletes your words if you don’t go fast enough. No, it doesn’t, and it isn’t a speed-typing contest either. It tends to assume a typing speed of about ten words per minute, at least with the low-level monsters I’ve encountered.)

As of last night, they also introduced a “friends” page, so if anyone else wants to add me on there, add stealthmunchkin to your friends.

Tomorrow, I talk about Yorkshire Gubbins, the game for which I actually installed Steam!

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