Clicker games - those games about clicking away for hours on end while the stats go up and up and up - are probably the weirdest, the most uncanny of all video game species. On a fundamental level, they're absolutely mindless, your interaction with them reduced to the most basic of activities, while the rewards you reap quickly scale to a point far beyond parody. But is that really the fundamental level here? Because sometimes you can go much deeper, and you'll find that the very best clicker games eventually take you to some very strange places indeed. I can barely describe this place, sadly. I know nothing at all about maths, nothing at all about numbers and even less about infinity and the infinity of sizes that infinity comes in. And yet, with a good clicker game, as I steer woozily into the tenth, twentieth, hundredth hour of tapping away, I occasionally get a weird sense of the innate rhythms of numbers, the way the upgrades start to create neat rows in my mind, the way that the quantities of units I've bought and developed start to form curves. In the midst of the click-click-clicking, it sometimes feels like you get a sense of the texture of maths. In the act of click-click-clicking, you get to run your thumb over the bumpy surface of the realm of numbers.
I may have gone a bit far with that one. Anyway: I like clicker games far more than I should, and I find them interesting in ways that, transparently, I cannot adequately describe. Here's something else I like: twin-stick shooters. They're almost the antithesis of clickers, right? In clicker games, you pick an objective in the distant future and park your imagination there for a while as your hands click-click-click towards it. Twin-stick shooters, however, are all about skill and twitch and a focus on what is happening right now, in the instant that is playing out all around you as baddies flock and swarm and kite across the screen. So what happens if you combine the immediacy of twin-sticks with the glimpse of the infinite that the clicker can afford?
You get Vostok Inc. And Vostok Inc is a marvel.
God, it's all so simple. In Vostok Inc you play a little spaceship scudding over the 2D surface of a solar system, rushing around the sun and following the curving orbital paths of colourful little planets as they complete their mindless circuits. You have lasers, so why not blast away at the asteroids that cluster around you, and why not blow any passing alien craft to pieces while you're at it? And with the golden popcorn that emerges from everything you shoot - golden popcorn that clearly counts as money in these parts - why not land on the planets you're passing over and start to build things?
That's it, really: a twitch shooter in which you blast things to smithereens to earn the cash that you then use to play a clicker game on the surface of planets. Buy a mine and the planet will start to produce revenue. So build another mine and another and watch the revenue go up faster. Why stop at a mine? Why not build a farm, or a shopping mall, or any number of industrial, commercial and governmental buildings, all of which bring in money at increased rates, for increased costs. Why not build upgrades to these buildings that allow you to rake in even more cash? And while you're at it, why not buy a satellite that allows you to collect all this money even when you're off visiting another planet and doing the exact same thing? Chain planets together in filaments of virtual money. The universe reveals itself as a web of transactions, everything drawn towards the point where your wallet resides: the great attractor.
These are the basics of the game, sure, but it doesn't explain why my steam account tells me that I have three figures on the clock for play time already. Everything in Vostok Inc just telescopes madly, and the game keeps track of it all as it goes. It is intoxicating: blast back into space from the surface of yet another planet where you're doing very nicely, thanks, and you discover that can spend your money on upgrades for your ship that allow you to extend your health bar, to see your shield - which doubles as your boost - recharge more quickly. You can spend your money on upgrades to your radar that alert you to other money-making avenues out there, such as middle-managers, found floating in space, who will give you a productivity burst if you get to them before their oxygen runs out. You can upgrade your weapons so you can chew through baddies quicker. You can buy entirely new weapons. You can buy a gadget that allows you to slow down time so you can aim a little more precisely when things get hectic.
And eventually, of course, if you earn enough money, what with all that building unfolding on all those planets orbiting the sun, you'll unlock the boss of the solar system, and if you kill them you can discover that this solar system is just one of many, all with their own planets to introduce to the pleasures of capitalism, all with their own flavours of enemies, their own bosses.
It's dizzying, really. But clickers always are, right? What marks Vostok Inc out is that it isn't just dizzying. It isn't just mindless tapping away at the controls as you spend money to make money faster, it isn't just empty-headed glory as the numbers get bigger and bigger. It's also thrilling and terrifying as you zip around laser fire and blast away at the locals, each incremental boosting of the numbers that lie behind every explosion meaning that it's never worth ditching either the clicker element down on the planets or the combat out there in space, because they're both essential components to what you're up to.
What a thing. What a treat. And what it reminds me of most often isn't a clicker game and isn't a twin-stick. Vostok Inc ultimately reminds of Spelunky, or rather of Derek Yu's decision to combine the opposing strengths and weaknesses of roguelikes and platformers to create a hybrid whose potency was unrivalled. Vostok Inc isn't quite in the realm of Spelunky, but it's a testament to the same brilliant idea: take two game types that are so different you can't imagine them fitting together, and then meld them so elegantly that you suddenly can't imagine ever wanting to pull them apart again.