Life Is Like A Box Of Candies

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Life is like a box of candies, you never know what you’re going to get.

What might seem like a trite pop culture reference is the heart of Candy box!, a recently released online game that features only a slowly increasing counter and one button: eat all the candies. If you’ve been anywhere near the internet in the last few weeks, you’ve probably heard various luminaries in the video game field raving about it, bemoaning the countless hours lost to its seemingly simple charms.

When I finally caved and loaded it up, I was confused. This was it? I mean, I know we’re talking about deconstructing games to their basic forms, but are you shitting me? You can argue about whether or not games are art, but this isn’t a game, this is a counter and a button that says “eat all the candies.” It’s a fat guy holding a ticker in one hand with a bag of fun-size Kit-Kat bars in the other.

But then a second button appeared: Throw 10 candies on the ground. With each piece carelessly tossed away, an ASCII emoticon shaped like a frown appeared, growing more and more exasperated as if to ask me what the hell I was doing wasting all this delicious candy. The candy is important, don’t you get that?

Well fuck me, Candy box!, I’ll play your game. I tabbed over to something else for a while, and the candies kept slowly building up in the background. When I came back, everything had changed. The candy merchant, a fashionable fellow who looks a little like an ASCII rendition of old school Doctor Who, had shown up, offering a lollipops in exchange for my sweet treats.

It wasn’t until the sword appeared that things started to get weird. New tasks and challenges appeared with furious speed, demanding a level of attention that went far beyond casually tabbing over from Excel every ten minutes or so.

If you haven’t played it yet, stop here, load it up, and let the saccharine goodness wash over you for a few hours, and then come back.

For me, that was a few days ago. Since then I’ve heroically dipped a sword in molten chocolate, puzzled over riddles delivered by a frog, bartered with a twisted hag, and even summoned an imp to slaughter an undead army. I’ve enlisted the help of friends, laughed, and raised my fists both in anger and victory.

Launching the game for the first time I never would’ve imagined being where I am right now, staring at a pile of candy that would make Tony Montana jealous.

Candy box! is a bit like life in that way, what seems like a pretty simple pursuit ends up taking you on a quest both sudden and confusing, leaving you in a place far, far away from where you started.

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It’s a game about slaying dragons, solving puzzles, mixing potions, and feeding one man’s endless appetite for sweets, but it’s also about something far more elusive. Just as you begin to think it’s one thing, a new button appears and the entire focus of the game shifts. It’s not a resource game, nor is it a strategy game. I wouldn’t even call it a role-playing game. It’s a game about change, about learning to deal with unforeseen circumstances. It’s about making apple juice with little more than a basket of oranges and a god damn dream.

Taken alone, the gradual build in difficulty and expectation doesn’t seem exceptional. Video games have been layering mechanics and demanding more of the player since their inception. Did a tooltip just pop up teaching you how to crouch? You can bet your ass there are going to be some waist high pipes coming up. It’s a feature of the medium, one born more of necessity than anything else.

Thing is, that’s not the way life works. Challenges don’t layer themselves in easily approached rankings, building on your previous experiences in a seemingly organic manner. Real life plays out a lot more like Candy box!, a series of  unrelated demands cropping up just when you think you’ve got a handle on things.

My life started out not unlike Candy box!. If you ask my parents about what I was like as a child, they’d probably boil my existence down to the same two options the game gives you: put it in my mouth or throw it on the ground, both of which I did with gusto. Much like in Candy box!, it was only with time that I realized that doing neither was in my best interest, that things had a purpose beyond satisfying my primal desire for destruction or consumption. It took time though–time that felt like an eternity when it was passing.

Eventually though, the hazy visage of my parents began to take shape, the candy merchant offering me lollipops in exchange for my patience. You’re not throwing everything on the ground? Very good! Here’s a lollipop for being a good little kid.

My first lesson: good things come to those who wait. The second? Nothing is what it seems.

It’s at my parents’ side that I first see the larger world around me, their encouraging words guiding my unsteady steps into it. Confidence builds. Sixty seconds equals one lollipop. Okay, I get it, simple enough. I am the master of my milieu, the champion of candy collection.

Then they went and fucked it up by handing me a sword, opening the door, and letting me go. First day of school.

The first few years were a Peaceful Forest of passive opposition and social promotion.

You’ve come this far, here’s your candy. Gold star, scratch and sniff, story time followed by a nap. Like so many mice, I learned how to push the button, receive my reward, and go about my business. Even the ugliness of middle school, aptly named Mount Goblin in the game, couldn’t slow down my progress.

It wasn’t until I hit the whale in the Underwater Cave that I tasted the bitter fruit of failure for the first time. As a teenager I struggled against a machine much larger than myself, leaning heavily on my parents for whatever support they could give, be it a shoulder to cry on or a healing potion chugged at just the right time. Without them, I would’ve wandered away, my quest abandoned for something more comfortable. I pushed on through, past my whale, and into the much larger world of real life.

Nothing would ever be as simple as it was in that forest again, simply marching forward as the game tossed successes at me. From now on, I was going to have to earn it.

I looked back at the candy merchant for advice, but his mute stare was that of a million parents watching their children wander blinking into the harsh light of adulthood. “I don’t know,” he seemed to say, “you’re a grown-up now, make the choice on your own.”

candybox-necromancerLife became a rushing river of choices. Do I upgrade my sword or craft some potions? Should I save my lollipops for the brass ring of a level seven sword, or go for the immediate gratification of a pile of candy? Do I buy a new computer or save my money for a down payment on a house? Is that vacation to Disneyland really worth it? Each one flashed by like a road sign I couldn’t quite make out in a town I wasn’t familiar with.

I couldn’t stop the car though.

I slipped into the mid-game without realizing it, suddenly finding myself standing before the doors to the interior of a castle. I had stormed the gates, answered the frog’s riddles, even begun to master the bizarre mechanics of the cauldron, a tool that allowed me to brew potions much stronger than those provided by the candy merchant. Without being told, I had puzzled out how to make a whole slew of different concoctions, some whose usefulness would only become apparent to me later.

Wait, wasn’t this just a game about eating candy?

Wasn’t I going to grow up and become a video game programmer? How did I become an English teacher? When did I forsake programming languages for metaphors and rhyme schemes?

When did everything change so much?

Then the dragon appeared and everything changed. Again.

Back on the road; can’t stop the car.

 

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I couldn’t brute force the dragon like everything else in the game. At first it seemed impossible, an existential conundrum that I slammed into with the momentum of a life lived. I looked for advice online among the many others who were stuck there as well, all of us crowded around, aimlessly debating what to do.

It’s a different moment for different people, a time when the odds seem stacked against you in the most unreasonable way possible, when you stand alone at the precipice of a major change and have to shout against the heavens and beat your fist on your chest in defiance.

There’s a way to kill the dragon though. With a little lateral thinking and a whole lot of hard work, I could manipulate the game in just the right way to overcome his fearsome ASCII breath and move forward. But at this point, failure is no longer just a momentary pause before rushing back in, it’s the pain of lost resources and more importantly, lost time.

My first try ended in failure, more of a scouting run than anything else. I didn’t have the confidence going in, everything required for success seeming so alien and bizarre. But I could see that, no matter how weird it looked, it could work.

So I tried again.  

I hear it gets even more bizarre after the dragon, becoming even more allegorical as you fight against an army of demons and then finally yourself. It makes sense when you put it in the context of the life journey, the final battle being against your life lived as you lie on your deathbed, coming to terms with your choices. There might be more to it, but I wouldn’t know just yet.

I haven’t killed my dragon yet. He still stands there, a terrible sentinel between me and whatever joyous rapture lay beyond. I can just barely make out the world behind him, one filled with happiness and excitement, the place I see for a brief wonderful second when somebody asks how my writing is going.

But I’m not there yet, and the dragon still stands. So for now, I prepare. Every pitch I send is another potion brewed, every idea I put to paper an upgrade secured. I slowly watch the candies tick up, waiting for my time to strike, worried that I’ve already waited too long, but confident that there’s something there worth fighting for.

Because like a game of Candy box!, I don’t know what’s coming next, but I know it’ll be good. I hear there’s a cow level.