Why Desktop Tower Defense Is My Game of the Year

Chris, N’Gai, and Seth,

I have a question for you, Chris: If you consider BioShock to be the best game you’ve ever played, does that mean you think it’s better than Tetris?

Everyone reading this—gamers or not—knows Tetris. They’ve all played it. And you’ve now told them there’s a better game. I can’t get on your side in this one. Sorry.

This is a relevant argument because I’ve been getting grief for selecting a game from the Tetris spectrum of the medium as my 2007 Game of the Year. I picked Desktop Tower Defense, a free strategy game you can play in any major Internet browser. Since I published that selection and the rest of my 2007 Top 10 on last week, I’ve been told that DTD is “an awesome game, but GOTY worthy? Hardly.” I’ve also heard that “It’s a good timewaster whenever you’re bored at work or such, and very little else.”

Some people have agreed with me that Desktop Tower Defense is wonderful, intoxicating, and addictive in its gameplay. But many have been flummoxed because I did not pick as my GOTY a truly grand, big-budget game. Lots of people seem to think that year-end lists should be reserved for epics like Halo or Grand Theft Auto. But that’s not what “Game of the Year” means to me. Video games are not a genre; they’re a medium. Picking a Game of the Year is like picking the best thing that Time Warner Cable made viewable on my TV this year. It could be The Daily Show; it could be Battlestar Galactica; it could be the Mayweather-Hatton fight. Which of those was the best to watch? I don’t know. But what was the best video game to play? For me, that’s easy: Desktop Tower Defense.

The triumph of Desktop Tower Defense—and the workplace productivity tragedy—is that anyone who is reading my words right now could start playing the game in less than a minute. Just follow this URL, and be sure to submit your scores to the leaderboard called GOTY so you can compare your performance to mine.

DTD is a simple game: Waves of little enemy “creeps” crawl from left to right and from top to bottom across a photo of a desktop. If 20 of them complete their journey, the game is over. The player has a single defense: placing different types of towers that can block, freeze, and, naturally, blast the creeps. Shooting creeps earns the player more gold, which can be spent on more towers or on increasing the potency of the towers in the field.

What makes this game so extraordinary is the pure pleasure of its gameplay and the impossibility of quitting. I’ve sent the game’s URL to friends who IM me later in the day demanding a cure for their new fix. The game’s appeal lies in its balance of tower-types and creep-forms, and in its ability to challenge both my reflexes and my brain to allow me to feel that I’ve succeeded or failed because of my gaming skills rather than some programming quirk. This game asks me to be a battlefield general, and then—after I inevitably fail at topping a high score—it compels me to try and try again. I can’t help but do so. I keep believing that self-improvement—greater success through better thinking and fiercer labor—is just another 15-minute session away.

My critics would be right to point out that there isn’t much of a story in Desktop Tower Defense. There is no grandeur. And there is no apparent philosophical critique. Desktop Tower Defense does nothing to propel the medium toward a video game Citizen Kane. It simply presents sport. Let’s find room to praise games like that. Has the medium produced a Citizen Kane or a Schindler’s List or even a Jaws? Maybe not. Maybe never. But it sure has created its own basketballs, footballs, and baseballs.

Just to be clear, I don’t hate the big games. If you look at my Top 10, you’ll see epics like Chris’s fave BioShock, Super Mario Galaxy, and Halo 3. If 2006’s games had been eligible, a 15-hour PlayStation 2 brawling game called God Hand that I first played in 2007 may have topped my list. Had I been able to pick God Hand, I would have been talking about how its slapstick action-adventure makes it the Charlie Chaplin to BioShock’s Welles. Thanks to God Hand, I have at last played a game in which my character could learn to buckle his male enemies with a bell-sounding kick to the groin and submit his female foes to an interactive speed-spanking. BioShock may be a commentary on what game designers have been doing to gamers for decades. But it is God Hand that lampoons the contract for lowbrow content that manly gamers and manly game-makers have been tacitly agreeing to for years.

Chris, I want to thank you for bringing Jonathan Blow into this conversation. I hope he can serve as one guiding light for this exchange. I interviewed him in August and found the experience head-spinning. In particular, I was inspired by his comments about the design of his upcoming Xbox Live Arcade game Braid.

Blow told me:

I feel like unearned rewards are false and meaningless, yet so many people spend their lives chasing easy/unearned rewards. So there is a very conscious decision that you only get collectibles in Braid when you solve a puzzle, and you only get one per puzzle. Some of the puzzles are easy, some are hard; but you did something very explicit to get the reward. It’s not like Mario and every other game since then, when there are gold coins sprinkled everywhere, and you get them just by walking along a path or jumping up to some blocks, and that satisfies your reward-seeking reflex for now and pacifies you into continuing to play the game. I actually think that Skinnerian reward scheduling in general … is unethical and games should not do it.

His words have encouraged me to be newly skeptical of whether I’m giving my time to a game freely or whether I’ve fallen for a psychological trick.

I keep looking for games where gameplay is pure and it is king. And yet, I still seek games that put me on grand adventures. Such games are still quite flawed. So, I look back at 2007 and realize that those that struck me best were those in which gameplay came first, and in some cases gameplay was just about all there was.

N’Gai and Seth, where do you guys stand? What was best this year, and why?