It’s a common question. What game do you go back to, over and over again? I always thought I didn’t have an answer to that as I’m always looking for new things to play, but some time ago I realized I do, actually. My comfort game is Defense Grid (PC).
Defense Grid was the first game I installed on my new home desktop PC and my new work laptop. Doing this, I had to acknowledge that the game holds a special place in my library. I’ve been playing it since December 2008 and it’s now held its status in my gaming life for over four years. I am in no way less enthralled by it now than I ever was.
I have over 200 hours clocked with Defense Grid on Steam. I know I’ve played close to a hundred more, lost in a Steam offline sync. It’s the game I have by far the most hours in, surpassing titles like Skyrim or Oblivion, perhaps only approached by my first addiction with Tetris back on the Commodore 64 or the only game I ever played in a clan, the first Ghost Recon on the PC.
Defense Grid is a tower defence game. I’m not very familiar with the genre – the iOS title Radiant TD is great and I did play all the way through Plants vs Zombies a couple of times – but it’s not something that innately pulls me. But there’s something about Defense Grid that I not only can’t resist, but find comforting. It’s like a friend that lives in Steam on all of my computers.
One part is just the design, which borders on genius. I have replayed completed levels dozens of times in hunt of higher awards. There are levels of understanding you go through, as in any genuinely good game – first you learn how to survive through the levels, then you make sure you don’t lose any of the shiny power cores the alien hordes are after. This only gets you a silver medal. To get gold, you start working on your highscores, trying to get by with just what’s absolutely required.
For a long time that’s enough, but then you start falling short. The game is over, you’re confident you did supremely well¦ and you’re presented with a silver medal. In disbelief you check the gold requirements and see that you’re short by a thousand, or often just hundreds, from a total of 60 000 – 100 000. And you start thinking how you could be a tiny bit more economical still. Maybe you could postpone building that missile tower? Or gather a little bit more resources by allowing the spawner alien to get further in, releasing more troops? The way the game loves to tell me how I’m still only good enough for a silver, even after hundreds of hours of experimentation, just eggs me on. It’s like I’m completely in synch with the designers. (When you finally manage it, you take it up a notch with the challenge mode, which is the same scenario, except with tougher aliens, requiring you to further fine-tune your solution, with much smaller margins for error.)
It feels like a dialogue, especially after all the expansions. The game has been supported by ongoing expansions over the years to keep it fresh. In addition to new levels, the expansions have also added new challenges to old levels, giving you an excuse to return to old haunting grounds, more than doubling the playtime you’re getting out of the existing content. Interestingly, there are no new aliens or weapons, just new ways of looking at the same play set. They have seen that for a long time you could solve most of your problems with maxed out cannon type towers… So they made a whole series of challenges with no kinetic power weapons. Or the mode where the power cores don’t float back to their housing after the alien carrying them has been killed. Or the one where there’s only one core, but it kills all aliens on touch when it’s free floating, and you don’t get any resources for the aliens killed that way.
But maybe it’s actually the story that it comes back to, in the end. It’s endearing. There’s the faceless, voiceless commander (that’s you), and the chatty, charming AI that’s helping you. It’s not the actual story anybody cares about, it’s the AI character. The AI makes the game feel warm. Human. I like hanging out with him. Every time I eat raspberries in real life, I think about this guy (he has a thing with raspberries.)
Defense Grid is comfort gaming. I don’t have to think, yet I’m completely engrossed. I feel good about myself, yet challenged to my limits. I’m glad I don’t know of other games quite like it, because I would not play any new games.