Let's say you're wandering in the desert. You're walking a trail, and fog has set in. Thick fog on both sides of you, obscuring all of the landscape that lies beyond the trail. But, occasionally, the fog clears for a second, and it reveals that the trail runs along the ridge of a mountain, which means that the ground drops away on either side, and you are teetering, forever teetering, on the brink of oblivion.
This is Forager. It's a decidedly cute game in which you control a funny sort of marshmallow person stuck at the centre of a brightly coloured world. The grass is very green here, the water very blue. Off to the north is a fountain where a fairy likes to hang out, and over to the east is a temple, emerging from the sands. The top-down perspective and the lovely, rounded trees, along with the punchy, screen-shaky combat against blobs of green slime and funny pig things, suggests that we're in Zelda territory. But the pickaxe you carry with you, the rocks and trees you can hit with it and the ore and lumber you can gather, suggests Minecraft. Then there are the furnaces and anvils and sewing tables you can make in order to turn materials into other materials. Maybe this is Stardew territory, or Terraria? I pondered all of this until I read the tooltip for the Treasuries entry on the skills screen. "Banks generate coins 50% faster," it told me. "When adjacent to other banks."
That's the moment the fog lifted, just for a second. The path I was walking was suddenly so high, the air so thin, and the ground dropped away on either side.
Forager is a bit like Zelda, and it is a bit like Minecraft and Stardew Valley and dozens of other games. But beneath all that it's a clicker, a truly ingenious spin on the idle-game, that uncanny strain of entertainments where the numbers go up whether you tend to them or not, but where, if you do tend to them, you can make the numbers go up much faster.
Where do the numbers end? They don't end anywhere, that's the whole deal with numbers. And this is why clicker games have always struck me as being the real survival horrors of the video game world. You will never survive - the numbers will always outlast you. And the realisation of that, the point your mind pulls back and you see yourself, tiny and frail, climbing a ladder that seems to branch into a tree that in turn holds the whole of creation in its endless forking boughs, that's the moment that horror strikes. Real horror. Endless clicking toil, each click so nearly completely satisfying, because it brings nearby rewards a little closer. But those rewards hint at other rewards, a little further out, and beyond those...?
I think this is where Forager leads anyway. I sense, in moments, that the numbers are waiting to stack and spiral. But I'm still early on, which means I'm still happy and playing a jolly game of acquisition. You start Forager on a very small island. You whack trees and rocks and gather materials, you build your first few crafting stations, and you discover that the trees and rocks you've whacked will regenerate over time. Soon you're making gold bars, and then you're making coins out of gold bars. Everything you make leads to something else you can make. You level up to gain the ability to make new things in new ways, and you buy new land around you, one square at a time, which brings new stuff to make, new stuff to aim for. Ice realms. A dark realm. Pumpkins and chili pepper fields.
It is not very idle yet. It's distinctly hands on, in fact. But in its chug - wandering with the pickaxe, balancing health and stamina - it is pleasantly mindless in that idle way. Almost everything is worth hitting, and almost everything you hit leads to something good. The game is a succession of good things happening to you: new materials to craft with, new items to craft to enlarge your inventory, new skills to unlock, new areas to explore, onwards and outwards and spiralling.
Earlier this morning I gave a fairy some money and she gave me something that regenerates my health. Meanwhile, something else I found means I regenerate stamina by whacking enemies. Meanwhile, a new bit of land I bought had an actual dungeon on it, and I went inside and found myself in proper Zelda territory, with puzzles and electrical enemies, and also new crops to harvest and new things to whack. There's a museum to fill up and simple collection quests to complete, so there's a bit of Animal Crossing in the mix along with everything else. Automation creeps in slowly. I have a bank, which generates coins all the time, but now I know I need more banks, perhaps an entire island of them, all buffing each other as the coins spiral and spiral. I left Forager running overnight and I made just over seven grand by morning.
Does this end? I don't know. I don't know how far Forager is willing to take things. But for now I am happy to whack away and enjoy the endless parade of good fortune that is bound together with the gristy toil. I am happy to walk the trail, even when the fog briefly clears and the ground disappears entirely.