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Angry Birds: The Illusion of Ease

December 23, 2010

Last week, I finally did something I wasn’t sure I’d ever do: I paid for a game on my iPhone.

Okay, so sure, it was Angry Birds, perhaps the definition of the modern mobile casual app. And yes, it was the “holiday”-themed edition, which happily meant that I got bonus Halloween levels to go along with my surprisingly challenging Christmas levels. And yes, it was 99 cents. I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of it, honestly, except that I knew I had enjoyed the “Lite” (read: free demo) version of Angry Birds proper, and the idea of getting more levels with a kid-friendly Christmas backdrop was awfully appealing.

And yet still, it’s surprising just how difficult this little game is to put down.

For a casual game, the challenge of Angry Birds is breathtakingly steep. This is mostly due to an approach to puzzle gaming very similar to the one that Super Meat Boy took to platforming to much acclaim earlier this year: bite-size levels and near-infinite motivation to keep playing.

The small levels are actually a necessity resulting from the game design — if you’ve never played it, the entirety of the game is spent flinging different types of birds at the “houses” of angry looking piggies. The piggies are protected by ice, wood, stone, and even the odd pumpkin/christmas gift, depending on which flavor you’re playing. Since the birds (oddly) don’t really fly, they just kind of get flung out of a slingshot, their range is limited. Their limited range limits just how sprawling the piggy habitats can be; these piggies aren’t so cruel (or so smart), after all, as to construct a house that simply goes beyond the range of a single slingshot stuck in the ground. These are small structures regardless of their relative strength; the thought of having to spend more than five birds knocking one of these things down is almost inconceivable.

This little piggy's house was made of stone.

This is also, however, where the difficulty comes in. For whatever reason, the number of birds is limited for each habitat, and the player is forced to use a specific set of bird types for every level. On one hand, this actually limits the difficulty of the game, as the problem solving process that the player must go through is simplified greatly by the inability to choose, say, the bird that splits into three little birds as opposed to the bird that lays a high-velocity egg. This is also the source of much of the difficulty as well, though — the player is limited to three birds in cases where three birds don’t seem nearly enough. It interestingly forces creativity on the part of the player by removing some of the player’s freedom to choose.

Also similar to Super Meat Boy is the near-infinite replayability that the difficult-but-tiny approach affords Angry Birds. There is a star system implemented that grants one through three stars for each level based on the player’s score — this offers incentive to play once all the levels have been passed. There are leaderboards that track the player’s progress against that of friends and, of course, the rest of the world — this offers incentive to play even once three stars have been achieved on each level.

And then there’s the one thing that Angry Birds has that Super Meat Boy can’t hope to offer: the illusion of ease.

angrier birds.

In a way, this is related to the illusion of difficulty I previously discussed in relation to Peggle — that is, while Peggle certainly benefits from the employing of certain strategies, levels that look easy and levels that look hard all mostly come down to luck because of the human mind’s inability to see beyond two or three bounces. The illusion of ease in Angry Birds is something like the inverse of that concept — given the limitations inherent in the game design, the player is tricked into thinking that even the hardest levels can be beaten. Super Meat Boy‘s hardest levels look hard, and the player feels like something has truly been accomplished when one is beaten; only the flow and memorization that comes with an absurd amount of practice can get a player through the most difficult levels in Super Meat Boy. Angry Birds doesn’t have that. There is always the sense that a level can be passed in the first try; failure is almost always narrow, as often as it happens, leading to the conclusion that success is just beyond the player’s grasp. “Next time I’ll get those piggies,” you might say, “and I’m bringing down every single brick of their house with them.”

This is what makes Angry Birds essentially the perfect iPhone game; if you have two minutes to spare, you feel as though you can pull it out and “progress” somehow. Even if you don’t get past a new level, you can at least improve your score on an old one; even if you’ve passed them all, there’s always that pesky leaderboard taunting you with its higher scores.

It all seems so easy. In many ways, it is.

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