I admit it: I like sums. My desk is covered in bits of paper covered in scrawled estimates of tick rates, mana effiencies and crit stats. Actual maths has always daunted me, but sums? Sums are comfort food for your brain. Soothing, repetitive, reassuring – it’s really just a different kind of doodling, except when someone walks in on you, they apologise anxiously and walk away impressed with your industry. My doodles have never impressed anyone.
So what could be better than sums? Sums in games, of course. You may have spent your summer enslaved to Plupon, or already be wrestling with Add ‘Em Up, in which case you don’t need me to tell you how hypnotic adding up can be. But if you’re yet to fall under their sway, or are looking for a new numerological overlord, then may I point you to Chain Factor? What at first sight is yet another block-dropper is actually a rather subtle puzzler, asking you to match the digits on each disc with the number of discs in each row or column. All your usual strategies are completely irrelevant here, so switch off your Tetris/Puzzle Fighter/Baku Baku instincts and prepare to feel the blood flowing to entirely new bits of your brain. The only tactic I’ve definitely sussed so far is to use the ’1′ discs to hammer away at exposed grays at the tops of towers. For some reason this reminds me very strongly of smashing eggs on the tops of bald people’s heads.
It’s rare to find a free Flash game this good, this fresh, and this polished – please do have the sound on when you play. And that seems to be due in no small part to the vehement passion of its developers, as revealed in the game’s FAQ:
The games industry is poised on the brink of a profound transformation. Games have the potential to be the most powerful artform ever invented, an unparalleled medium for the exploration of dynamic interactive systems and the expression of complex emotional, social, and political ideas.
But the creative power of games is being held hostage by the conservative forces of the marketplace. For years, the mainstream games industry has fed us a steady stream of lowest-common-denominator drivel: brightly colored mascots scampering around childish fantasy lands; hyper-violent, testosterone-soaked war simulators; vacuous, marketing-driven movie spin-offs; and the endless grind of mindless, massively-multiplayer treadmills.
Chain Factor offers an alternative: an independent game designed outside the traditional channels of development and distribution and driven by a singular vision: put the power back into the hands of the players and let them create the game they want to play.
Stirring stuff. But, turns out after some proxy Googling (thanks, B!) that this post should really be called Playing by the Numb3rs, because Chain Factor is actually part of an ARG spawned from CBS’s maths-detectives show of the same name. A recent episode, Primacy, centered on a fictional ARG, and a range of tip-offs and related adverts have followed in its wake. Play long enough, and anomalous things start happening. I won’t spoil it, just in case you want to follow the experience for yourself, but there seems to be a wiki growing up here, if you enjoy the meta-game of watching everyone else play more than playing yourself.
It’s almost a disappointment to discover that it’s corporate-fueled, rather than the work of plucky indies, but then you realise that the developer’s call to arms, rather than being empty invective (or deliberately tongue-in-ARG play-acting), it’s probably a very fair point. Under normal circumstances, Chain Factor would be an unusually good, unusually polished Flash freebie, struggling to get noticed and barely making money. As it is, it’s unusually good, unusually polished, finding a wide audience and paid cash-on-the-barrelhead by CBS. It may not be quite the process you imagined when you read ‘an independent game designed outside the traditional channels of development and distribution and driven by a singular vision’, but you have to admit it qualifies on all fronts. I look forward to some interesting developer interviews once all the alternate reality cats are out of the game bag.