“You cannot get any simpler than by saying, ‘What’s in the box?’,” asked Peter Molyneux at Rezzed earlier this month. “Is that a sufficient [question] to ask people to spend money on?”
Curiosity is the first project from 22Cans, the studio Peter Molyneux started after quitting Microsoft in March of this year. The premise is fairly simple: when the game is released on August 22, players all over the world will chip away at an enormous box through their iPhones, Android phones, and PCs. Pickaxes can be purchased by players to aid in the wearing away of the box, ranging from 50 cents to $50,000 in quality. When the box is completely destroyed, however, only one player—the player among the presumptive thousands who has just landed the final blow—will be able to see what lies inside.
Initially, Curiosity has the ring of a scam. Surely, the box will be opened by the person misguided enough to spend $50,000 on the powerful diamond pickaxe, and Molyneux and his colleagues at 22Cans will have made a cool profit on something as intangible as a pass-the-parcel MMO.
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In fact, Curiosity immediately drew comparisons with another deliberately depthless clicking game, Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker. Cow Clicker is a parody of Facebook games like Farmville, where the game strongly limits player action (or rather, inaction) in order to manipulate a player’s time, money, and social group. In Cow Clicker, you click on a cow. At the end of a specified time, you may again click on that same cow. Or, you may choose to buy your way out of the specified time delay through Facebook credits or social currency. The similarities are fairly apparent: even Bogost spent the weekend after Molyneux’s initial announcement of Curiosity implementing a version within his game. (Read Molyneux’s own thoughts on the comparison in this interesting interview with MCV Pacific’s Leigh Harris)
But Molyneux is not interested in compulsion or coercive models of play, as Bogost is with Cow Clicker. Instead, with Curiosity he is pointing towards larger questions about videogame play, questions that he has been asking throughout his career as a game designer.
What’s in the box? It hardly matters at all. Or, at least, it only matters in so much as it matters to other people. With Curiosity, Molyneux is creating the means for the unexpected: he hopes, I imagine, that players will act unpredictably when confronted with such a mystery. He hopes that the one player who opens the box will do something unusual with whatever lies inside. This is where he differs dramatically from Bogost: while Bogost looked on with dismay as Cow Clicker eventually gained an unironic and dedicated group of enthusiastic players, Molyneux is doing all he can to make sure those kinds of wrinkles eventuate.
This is why people always laugh and joke about Molyneux’s high rhetoric and unfulfillable promises. They laugh, just as they fail to understand that Molyneux’s approach is never just about his games, but about what happens when people play them, and experience them, and think about them. The Fable series was never just about the world of Albion, for example. It was also about what players would project into the game, what reactions would be caused by such a rendering of life.
It’s possible that whatever is inside Curiosity’s box will have a framing effect on whatever dialogue comes out of the game, but without knowing for sure, it seems like by far the least interesting aspect of what Molyneux is trying to do.
Ultimately, Molyneux doesn’t know what will happen when Curiosity comes out. And that’s the beauty of the thing.