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In my first play journal entry, I made the assertion that Plants vs. Zombies is “definitely a game and it’s actually really fun.” I think maybe I gave off a mistaken impression in that post that I was super surprised that the game could be fun or that I usually avoid games like Plants vs. Zombies, which isn’t really true. What I meant in that post was that I’d never really thought at length about this type of game despite playing them. Animation and webcomics are my primary creative interests so half my playing games consists of playing games that prioritize qualities  like art direction, narrative, and worldbuilding. That half of my gaming history I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about because it shares a lot in common with cartoons and comics. The other half of my game-playing time is spent procrastinating/unwinding/blowing off steam in “casual” games like Bejeweled, Tetris Friends, or Sushi-Go-Round or a lot of really basic flash games. (I get especially into tetris friends because you can send lines that you clear to your opponent and basically annihilate them; I can be kind of a jerk in this. Tetris Friends, more like Tetris Mortal Enemies.)  I didn’t spend much time thinking about these games because I guess you typically don’t want to expend too much thought on something you use to take a really quick break from obligations and then move on. Actually I don’t know, I might play these kinds of games more often than larger games currently because I never feel like I have the time to play a lot of stuff anymore. But yeah, I guess “actually really fun” was more like an assertion that these games are fun and worthwhile and I like them, directed towards a hypothetical audience that perhaps buys into the whole casual vs. hardcore gamer/fake geek vs. real geek mentality. Not that I thought anybody like that would actually see these posts but honestly I couldn’t think of a title so I was like uh, “sup y’all, playin’ some PvsZ and having a blast, if you think that’s weak you can come fight me.”

Anyway, having clarified that, I’m glad I finally have spent some more time thinking about Plants vs. Zombies type games! Like I said, I like Plants vs. Zombies a lot and I think it’s a worthwhile game. I think I’ve already covered some reasons why I find it really fun to play, particularly the way it structures game challenges around playing with its own established rules and premises. I think that’s definitely a main component of the second part of Plants vs. Zombies’ double seduction, the part that gets you to keep playing the game. I’m not sure what the first part of the seduction is since I feel like that could be different for everyone. Maybe the first seduction includes stuff like the game being really whimsical and cute as well as accessible for pretty much anyone to play with little difficulty. Like I said about its voluntary play aspect, it also makes for a really good casual time waster/relaxing activity since you can pause and leave whenever you want with little consequence. I thought maybe I’d try to further characterize the enjoyment you get from Plants vs. Zombies by breaking the play experience down into LeBlanc’s eight kinds of experiential pleasure: sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discovery, expression, and submission.

You can ignore my talking, it’s not actual commentary. I thought this was going to be a test-run so I just talked to myself a bit to test the mic but my computer’s being uncooperative so I’m just gonna…go with this.

As far as sensation and fantasy, I’d say you don’t really get extremely invested in these aspects of enjoying the game. The fantasy aspect of the game is pretty apparent in the fact that the game is nothing like real life. The fact that your life is probably never really involves defending your home from a bunch of zombies by planting weird (sentient??) plants everywhere is, in my opinion, a big part of the game’s appeal.  You don’t really become incredibly engrossed in this illusion and you’re not immersed in some kind of expansive universe but still, that make-believe aspect is present and it’s fun.  The sense-pleasure is mostly just kind of enjoying things like the familiar little sounds of collecting suns, planting plants in dirt, and zombie limbs popping off. The actual actions your taking just involve moving your mouse around and clicking a lot. The more you play the more you fall easily into a kind of rhythm that helps a lot in playing. As you can see in the video, the game tends to require you to pay attention to a lot of things happening at once. You need to keep an eye on  approaching zombies, collect suns and coins before they disappear, make sure your plants aren’t being devoured, and keep track of your different plants’ regeneration rates in a timely manner.  When you get used to the game, you become better at managing and multitasking so that you can probably even monitor stuff like zombie progress just by listening to the sound cues and meanwhile you can be planning all the stuff you have to do.

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On the topic of rules, Plants vs. Zombies offers no shortage of material to talk about. Despite being (as discussed a bit in my previous entry) a pretty accessible game with a low barrier of entry, I could fill up many a blog post were I to cover all the rules involved in playing the game. Plants vs. Zombies is essentially all about rules and forcing you to continually learn new rules and how to best work within them. The game is divided into levels and sublevels with each new level introducing some major change, like a change in the environment. The sublevels increase in difficulty within a level and frequently the player is rewarded a new sublevel/level completion plant they must learn to use to complete the coming levels. This screenshot is recycled from my last post, but early levels of the game look something like this:

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Basic strategy: Sun-producing plants in the back where they’ll be protected, line of defense near the front but if you place them a couple rows back it’ll take longer for zombies to reach them which exposes them to more shots before they reach the nuts, middle ground covered with solid shooters (I have a frozen pea shooter in every row because they further slow down zombies.)

So you start out with some basic operational and constituative rules here. Operational stuff would be like: Before starting the game, select which plants you want to use, filling up as many slots as you have available. (You can purchase additional slots later on.) Use suns dropped from the sky in daytime or given by sun-producing plants to purchase plants (which each have different prices and regeneration rates) during the game. Plant different types of defensive, offensive, sun-producing, and specialty plants on your lawn to guard your house against zombies. I guess constituative rules would be things like: The structure of the game is divided into Adventure mode levels and sublevels, standalone minigames, survival mode, and series of puzzles divided into levels. The game is played on an area 6 by 9 squares. Pretty straightforward. The game walks you through the initial stuff tutorial-style.  Once you acquire a plant/encounter a zombie you can view its entry in your almanac.

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“The dolphin is also a zombie.”

Thing about Plants vs. Zombies though is the game doesn’t want you getting too complacent. It’s constantly introducing you to new stuff each level. These new challenges/changes of interest come in different forms: adding new plants with special abilities to your arsenal, throwing a new kind of zombie your way, or changing something about the playing field/environment. Here’s a shot of a much later level that takes place on your roof. This introduces some interesting obstacles. First of all, in order to plant on your roof, you first have to buy pots to place on the tiles so essentially you have to create your own usable field. Because of the angle of the roof, you’ll also need to use new catapult shooters instead of your typical peashooters.  Finally, you have to watch out for new zombie types like bungee zombies that strike from above and steal an object from your field or ladder zombies that use a ladder to climb over your wall of defensive nuts and leave the ladder behind for other zombies to climb up. Essentially, Plants vs. Zombies just keeps introducing you to variations on that initial basic game you play in the first levels by switching up the original rules.

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My nut wall is off and my catapult ranks are incomplete because at this point I’m still trying to catch up with extending my field by placing pots.

All this analysis of gameplay rules makes me wonder about the planning process of games. Like ok, a lot of how the Plants vs. Zombies experience evolves for the player is pretty logical. We’ve got a game that has zombies you defend against/attack and plants you use to do so. So as the game progresses let’s introduce more plants and more zombie types. Let’s also change up the environment between levels so players have to adapt their strategy and they’ll have to use new plant types. Plants vs. Zombies also has a lot of minigames and puzzles which I enjoy and the neat thing about them is they’re all a fun subversion of the rules you’re accustomed to in normal Adventure mode. Each minigame seems clearly the product of one of the game creators thinking, “Well what if instead of this, ____?” Zombotany answers the question, “What if the zombies had plant heads that gave them the same attack/defense capabilities the player has?” I, Zombie answers, “What if the player played from the perspective of zombies instead?” Slot Machine answers, “What if we restricted the player’s agency by eliminating the ability to select plants or to buy them at will and instead left that all up to the chance of a slot machine?” Anyway I think that’s cool how they incorporated these kind of what-if rule subversion scenarios into the game.

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I decided to play Plants vs. Zombies for my play journal because of all the types of games I’ve played, I think the sort of game Plants vs. Zombies is (going by a vague notion rather than a specific definition) is probably a type of game I have spent little to no time thinking extensively about. Expansive, elaborate games with an interesting plot, an immersive environment, well-developed worldbuilding, solid character dynamics, a unique aesthetic, and engaging gameplay – those types of games I’d say I’ve probably spent a considerable amount of time thinking about. Plants vs. Zombies is not that type of game. There is no plot involved, no immersive environment to explore, no particular characters. The art’s nice and the designs are cute, but not exceptionally stunning. The gameplay’s complexity and difficulty increase as you progress through the Adventure mode’s levels, but on the whole it’s pretty straightforward. However, none of this really detracts from how fun the game is for me. I found myself easily and immediately accepting the game’s invitation of “Next Level?” after each round without growing bored. This led me to think a little about not just what constitutes a game, but what constitutes a good game? How does a comparatively simple game like Plants vs. Zombies compare to much more sophisticated games?Image

As far as what constitutes a game in general, I took a look at how Plants vs. Zombies stacks up compared with the formal elements of play outlined by Huizinga. Plants vs. Zombies is certainly a voluntary activity. It’s even more “voluntary” (in the sense that you can start playing and stop playing whenever you want) than most games I’d usually play. I tend to play a lot of games where you run into points where saving and quitting is impossible or extremely inconvenient, so once I start a dungeon or mission or something I need to at least play through to its conclusion. Since I tend to take my time in playing that could potentially take me a while. Levels in Adventure mode or the Minigames of Plants vs. Zombies are pretty short. You can also pause, restart, or leave a round whenever you want without consequences. You can technically just up and quit any game at any point, shut off the console and leave, but usually you’ll feel a much more significant loss of progress. I found that the way Plants vs. Zombies is set up makes it really convenient as a quick distraction or break from work. When starting out, I would play a couple rounds at a time between doing readings or homework without the game consuming too much of my work time or making me feel pressured to continue playing. On the other hand, when I decided to go ahead and play for a solid hour or more I got easily caught up in how addictive the game can be. Part of why Plants vs. Zombies is fun and can be easy to get caught up in is because of how bizarre it is, how clearly distinct from real ordinary life as Huizinga requires of games.  I mean it’s a game where you defend your house from hordes of various types of zombies using a bunch of smiling plants that pop out miniature suns, shoot projectiles, and explode. It’s pretty silly. It’s fun.

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Regarding limits and order, Plants vs. Zombies definitely involves many sets of rules and maintains an internal and specific sense of order within the game. Like I said, the game has a bizarre premise so playing the game requires you to operate in a world where you understand things like, “I need to collect all these little suns to buy plants”, “walnuts take a long time to regenerate so you should keep track of when you plant them”, and “disco zombies periodically start dancing to summon 4 additional zombies so you should prioritize eliminating them.” More rules are constantly added to your understanding of the game as you progress and unlock more items, terrains, and zombies. It all progresses in a pretty intuitive way though. I suppose I’ll talk more about the gameplay next post probably. The only element of Huzinga’s definition of play I thought did not match up with Plants vs. Zombies much at all was the concept of the game building a specific gamer culture around itself that stressed differentiation between “us” and “others.” I know people talk about the game and share different strategies for it in some places online but I have yet to encounter any exclusive culture for it. I mean, Plants vs. Zombies, like Angry Birds, or Tetris, or Bejeweled is extremely accessible. Anybody can play it. Once I saw a 3 or 4 year old play it on an ipad on a plane. I find that kind of nice though. I think the accessibility of it adds to my enjoyment of this particular game.

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