Everybody has a terrible gaming secret, and here is mine: for the past few days I have left Clicker Heroes running on my work PC overnight. Setting aside the environmental guilt I feel for this, which is considerable, this is also something of a very mild existential crisis to take into account. Clicker Heroes is one of the most openly inane games I have ever played. It is if a rent had opened up in the planet, connecting us with our collective gaming id, and a torrent of gold, of DPS, of levelling stats has spewed forth. Clicker Heroes is a game reduced to very little but its reward system. I should know. During the time I have been typing this paragraph, I have made over a billion gold coins.
Clicker Heroes is one of those Cow Clicker, Candy Box type games where you sit and watch as the numbers go up, occasionally leaning over to the keyboard and mouse to nudge the numbers up even faster. We're in action RPG territory here, at least we would be if there were any real territory to consider. Cartoonish monsters appear on your screen, one at a time, and you despatch them by clicking away at them. They drop coins, and you can spend the coins on buying new heroes who will join you, adding to your attack power. That's it, more or less. The monsters repeat and new strains are added over time. You get a boss every five zones. There is an achievement for reaching zone 3,000.
Here is the thing, though: look beneath the surface and everything starts to get weird. Take the second word in the game's title: do you really feel very heroic doing all this? It took me a while to realise that, while my enemies had a health bar that was whittled away with each swipe, I did not: nothing in this game can fight back; the most it can do is present a health bar so long that you can't hack through it in a set amount of time - and it's only the bosses who even get a timer anyway.
Even weirder, take the first word in the game's title. After a minute or two of playing, you'll buy a hero who gives you DPS, and that means you don't really have to even click the monsters you're faced with in order to injure them anymore. It all just happens automatically. A few minutes later, you'll realise you don't even have to scoop up the coins they drop. You don't even have to be looking at the screen. I went home last night with no money in the bank and returned at seven this morning to discover that I had made upwards of 200 billion coins. All of that, without so much as touching a mouse. I felt bad, of course, in the same way you feel bad when you sit at home eating Crunchie Bars all day. But I also felt kind of good. In the same way, you know, sat at home with those Crunchie Bars.
It's pretty interesting to look at the things you ultimately do have to click on if you want to play Clicker Heroes. You have to click on new units to buy them and add them to your team, you have to click on them to level them, and you have to click on new zones to advance you through the campaign and bring the bigger rewards into range. I should say swifter rewards rather than bigger rewards, of course, because you can grind the first zone forever if you fancy, and simply work your way to infinity 2 gold coins at a time. Or you can end up, like me, bored and strung out on Zone 34, where each enemy gets me just over 3m. It reminds me a little of Hilbert's Hotel, the mind-boggling way of getting to grips with the human mind's total inadequacy when it comes to getting to grips with infinity. Hilbert's Hotel has infinite rooms and infinite guests, so all the rooms are full. Then a new guest turns up. Where does he go? Simple: he goes in the first room, and all the other guests get shunted one room to the left. Now the hotel has infinite rooms and infinite guests. So all the rooms are full.
Clicker Heroes offers a glimpse of infinity, I think: infinite greed, infinite victories, infinite hollowness. It's a lovely piece of work in many ways - the animations are simple but evocative, and each whack, before you give up on whacking for good, delivers a real sense of impact. I like how it exploits the sense of restlessness people feel - or rather the sense that the current situation is inadequate. It's one of those games where every new thing you unlock makes all the other things you've unlock naff and worthless - trajectory games always do this - but while you're sighing over all the useless crap you just bought, you know that a few more minutes will bring new not-yet-useless crap within reach, and you will be able to buy that too and, eventually, be disappointed afresh. It is not surprising that Clicker Heroes is so wildly popular in the age of austerity, or that its popularity has bubbled up now that it's found its way to Steam.
It's dark, though. It's a little frightening: a tunnel of numbers leading into the void, and you're shuffled along, sweaty compulsion pushing at your back. Numbers in games are great - we all like to see the graphs go up - but without a force pushing the other way, games become a little bit gross. Maybe the best games are the games that fight back. Clicker Heroes absolutely refuses to - and that's how it lays on its real damage.