A Sum of Parts: From the Beginning of the End to the End of the Beginning
How Ziggurat manages to avoid feeling repetitive by offering a sense of progression.
Videogames are all about repetition. Repetition of action. Repetition of assets. Music loops over and over and over endlessly. We kill the same soldier about a hundred times every hour. We walk down a corridor with pixel- and polygon-perfect duplicates of the same door pasted at even intervals. Good games aren’t less repetitious than bad games; rather, they imbue that repetition with a sense of progression. Like a good pop song, a good videogame feels less repetitious and more rhythmic.
Ziggurat is as fundamentally repetitive as any game—the only thing you do is shoot balls of energy at robots over and over again. Yet, it never feels repetitive to me. Despite being just like every other survive-until-you-die arcade game on the iPhone, I never feel like I am repeating myself in Ziggurat. Instead, every five-minute game feels like a singular, unique, permanent experience. Each of the five hundred something deaths I have experienced in the game have carried with them a taste of the intensity of a perma-death experience like a roguelike or DayZ.
Many players of Ziggurat might be a bit skeptical of this claim. Surely there’s nothing special about Ziggurat. Your character just stands atop the ziggurat, blasting that perpetual and resilient army of alien robots until they eventually and inevitably kill you. Then you click ‘try again’ and do it again. And again. That’s it. It’s the epitome of repetition.
Yet it manages to avoid feeling repetitive.
It’s all in the context and the sense of progression. While most arcade games have some kind of fictional context to frame what happens in the game, Ziggurat plays out an actual story. Or, perhaps more accurately, that story has already played out, and Ziggurat is just the epilogue, the closing credits. That story is simple enough: alien robots arrived on earth and killed everybody else. Your character, standing atop the ziggurat, is the last human alive—at least for a little while longer.
Ziggurat is that point when the sun sets on us as a species. That is core to the game’s progression: the sun literally sets on humanity. The blue sky makes way for orange husk before the moon and the stars come out. Survive even longer and the moon explodes, showering the earth in asteroids that will block your shots. After that… well, I don’t know yet.
Many players won’t notice this progression of time at first as they survive for thirty seconds or so, but constantly the sun progresses down the screen, pixel by pixel. After a few more deaths, you might start to see a slither of orange break on the horizon. Maybe you will even see the moon rise. In this way, one single game of Ziggurat never repeats itself. The game world’s time is constantly progressing.
Tim Rogers has previously said to me there is more content in Ziggurat than any player is ever meant to see. People are not meant to finish the game—the Last Human Alive will die—but neither should the game should feel like time has ever stopped, that the player is just looping an endgame until they die. It is constantly progression towards something. Whereas Barry from Jetpack Joyride could just be running in circles around a donut-shaped laboratory for all I care, in Ziggurat every game is a new take on the story of the end of humanity.
More than the setting sun, the music also constantly progresses with the game’s time, sweeping through stylistically varied movements from day to dusk to night. It starts frantic and fast, reaching a panicked high pitch when the first red enemy leaps onto the screen. Later, as the moon and stars come out, it sounds almost uplifting, as if to say, “You made it. You survived the last day on earth.”
Through the narrative context of the background and the dramatic arc of the music, each game of Ziggurat feels like it is progressing further and further away from a beginning and closer and closer to an inevitably ending. My otherwise predominately mechanical engagement with the game is given a narrative and atmospheric gravity that few score-chasing games cam make claim to. This is the end of humanity; it is my responsibility to put it off for as long as possible. Species don’t like to go extinct. Each second I survive, each pixel lower the sun sets, is another second longer that the entire human race exists. Every second I survive is in itself its own milestone, its own victory.