Rituals and toil are bedrocks of all types of low-level spirituality. There is the idea of the Protestant work ethic. There are Tibetan Buddhist monks who methodically create beautiful sand mandalas over a period of weeks, then destroy them. Tons of people go to Mass every Sunday. The appeal of temporarily losing oneself in ephemeral repetition crops up in the human condition often enough that I’d bet there’s something in our brains hardwired to find meaning in these types of arrangements.
Alpaca Evolution is a free game for iOS and Android and, like an increasing number of casual games, its core mechanics involve ritual and toil more than anything else. It stars a nameless alpaca (henceforth Alpaca Zero, to distinguish him from his herdmates) who is suddenly granted the power to periodically absorb his alpaca pals, stealing their strength and energy in the process. “Why [Alpaca Zero] gained such an ability,” explains the game, “is a mystery.” The player, controlling Alpaca Zero, is able to absorb other alpacas by first knocking them out (tap it once) and then eating them (tap it again). After a small handful of alpacas have been absorbed, Alpaca Zero gains the ability to walk on two legs and smoke a cigarette. He does so, while continuing to disable and devour any alpacas foolish enough to wander by.
As time goes by, Alpaca Zero becomes scarier-looking and his methods of absorbing his brethren become less biologically recognizable. Soon, he no longer resembles an alpaca, but rather a remorseless, insatiable object with some vaguely alpaca-like qualities. The bulk of the game consists of witnessing the bizarre, body horror-inspired forms Alpaca Zero eventually takes, so I’ll avoid spoilers the best I can. Suffice to say: Alpaca Evolution is weird in the way one might expect a free, independently-created Japanese mobile game about an alpaca eating other alpacas to be weird.
As more alpacas are sacrificed, Alpaca Zero’s transformations continue, but that’s it from a mechanical standpoint. That’s the entire game. Tap a llama to knock it out, tap it again to consume it. Once every alpaca on the screen has been absorbed, Alpaca Zero is left alone for awhile. The screen takes a few minutes to fill back up with absorbables, during which time Alpaca Zero moves unsettlingly around the screen, free from player control. It’s only when another hapless alpaca enters the scene that the player is able to regain control and do what must be done.
(Actually, that’s misleading: There is no absorption mandate. A neat quality of Alpaca Evolution is that it’s possible to role-play a round where Alpaca Zero leads a peaceful existence among his herd, alone but confident in his knowledge that, if he wanted to, he could absorb every single one of his friends and become powerful beyond his wildest dreams.)
In any case, the rest periods are the crux of the Alpaca Zero experience. Spending fifteen seconds clearing the screen of innocent, poker-faced alpacas, then doing what you will, then having a lull in whatever you were doing remind you of the existence of the weird Alpaca game in your pocket, then clearing the screen again. If this sounds kind of like a tedious bummer, you’re not entirely far off. Alpaca Evolution ’s gameplay loop is so completely and obviously moronic that, for me, sticking by it required surprisingly close examination of my relationship to my habits, games, my iPhone, crossing the street, riding the train, the movie The Heat, and Lord knows what else.
Having exactly fifteen or so seconds of distraction at your fingertips is a surprisingly rare and interesting proposition. Most things in Alpaca Evolution’s position offer at least half-assed attempts at keeping you around as long as possible. In-app purchases, for example, or some kind of slow-but-steady grind mechanic. With Alpaca Evolution, it’s in and right back out, unless you’re willing to stare at a mutated alpaca mill around while soon-to-be prey trickle back onto the screen.
I do, however, use the term ‘distraction’ loosely: I’m not about to act like the vast majority of Alpaca Evolution isn’t totally boring. It contains the absolute bare minimum of systemic interactivity, narrative and gating to qualify as a “game.” I only look at my phone when I play it when a transformation is due to occur, or so I don’t accidentally tap the advertisement it places at the bottom of the screen. I feel embarrassed when describing it to people. It offers scraps of entertainment.
What I am willing to argue is that Alpaca Evolution’s greatest quality is how plainly it asks the player to endure intentional, carefully measured tedium with the promise of an eventual abstract reward. I think lots of games do this, but few are so bold-faced about it, so take-it-or-leave-it, as Alpaca Evolution. There’s no way I’m going to get out of comparing Alpaca Evolution to religion without looking like an idiot, but apparently five million people downloaded the Japanese version of the game’s release. You don’t get five million people to do anything without capitalizing on some deep-seated aspect of human nature, and Alpaca Evolution capitalizes on the inexplicable satisfaction lots of us get from ritualistic toil.
I grew up Catholic (the divine executioners that appear towards the end of Alpaca Evolution hold their own decapitated heads, just like Saint Denis!), but I haven’t been to a normal Sunday Mass in a long time. I do run on a treadmill a couple of times a week, regularly watch episodes of The Simpsons I’ve already seen dozens of times, and put myself through the hangover ringer often enough that, by this point, I should know better. The line between a senseless habit, a spiritual litany and a comforting routine is as blurry as it ever was, and now, pretty understandably, we’ve got free-to-play game developers trying to cash in on that. The only meaningful difference between the three is probably the end result—how we feel afterwards, or what we have to show for it (tangibly or otherwise). Alpaca Evolution concludes with a really, really mutated alpaca and the option to play a sort of New Game+. Maybe that’s enough for you and maybe it’s not, but playing it relaxed me.
Joe Bernardi is a writer and web developer living in Brooklyn. His words have appeared in Dusted Magazine, the Boston Phoenix and Tiny Mix Tapes, among other places. He’s got both a Twitter and a blog.