Artificial life is a weird business. You fling millions of dollars at a game, craft character models composed of several thousand polygons each, throw in motion-capture, cloth physics, and vocal performances from, y'know, proper Hollywood actors, and all that stands out are the things that aren't quite right. The eyes that are too vacant. The lower lip that just looks weird. The fact that everybody sounds like Nolan North.
Then, you get a game like One-Dot Enemies, whose cast, as the name suggests, are each a single pixel high. They skitter around randomly - no polygons, no motion-capture, no Nolan North - and they're entirely convincing. I'm not sure what they're meant to be exactly, but I know I believe in them all the same. I believe in them, and now all I want to do is squash them.
One-Dot Enemies, an odd little timewaster from Kenji Eno, came out in early 2009 and was the first game - I appreciate that this is weird and stupid - to persuade me that the iPhone might be a decent handheld console. Before then, I hadn't really been that interested in iOS gaming, because iOS gaming seemed to be chasing after traditional genres for which it clearly had no obvious aptitude. There was the occasional acceptable puzzler, but everything else seemed to be a rotten 3D kart racer, or a maze game built around horrible tilt controls. Everywhere you looked there were awful virtual thumbsticks and idiotically complex gesture inputs. After all of that, One-Dot Enemies seemed strangely assured. In fact, it felt uncommonly at home on this weird new platform - and it still does.
The game itself couldn't be much simpler: the screen is pure, blinding white and, if you look closely, you can see a series of tiny dots racing back and forth over its surface. I can't be sure, but I seem to remember that you're never explicitly told that it's your job to squash them. That doesn't matter, however: you instinctively understand that your job is to squash them the moment you first see them.
So you squash them, jabbing away and watching in delight as they burst under your finger. Each squished enemy leaves behind the brief after-image of a skull, and there are combos - combos of a very odd, minimalist nature - to be uncovered if you try to squash more than one of them at once, or chain them together without missing any. On top of that, some of them will occasionally split open to reveal dozens of other identical dots inside them - even in the absence of graphics, it's a powerfully disgusting moment. That (along with a few weird Easter eggs that nobody should spoil for you) is about it for variety.
Actually, I lied. It's not quite it. Once you're done for the time being, a brisk shake of your iPhone will take you to a debriefing screen, where you can flush all of your kills down the toilet. Then you'll see something genuinely terrifying: the number of One-Dot Enemies you've squashed in this sitting, and the accumulated number of One-Dot Enemies squashed so far around the globe.
It's a dizzyingly large number. Monstrously large, perhaps. And it's only going to get larger. If you're feeling gloomy about the human race, you can see this number as an indicator of our wastefulness: of our endless capacity to fritter away the limited time we each have on Earth. Or, you could just take it as another sign of our limitless desire to play - and of the strange shapes our playfulness assumes as technology works games deeper and deeper into the fabric of our lives.
App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.