One of my favorite video game genres is the "tiny town you build in your phone" genre. I got hooked on it thanks to The Simpsons: Tapped Out, which is not a great game but is a soothing one. I like to check in every so often and tap on things, to hear the distinctive Simpsons voices and just generally look around the virtual Springfield I've built. It helps me fall asleep.
So stemming out from that, I downloaded a bunch of other similar games, finding that the two that hung with me were, weirdly, a game about the Archie characters called Riverdale Rescue and a game about the Peanuts characters called Snoopy's Street Fair. (Okay, maybe this latter one isn't so weird, given my long-standing love of Peanuts.) I'd check in a few times per day, when I had some time to kill, and make sure things were in good shape.
And then both of these games were shut down by their creators within a couple of months of each other.
Don't get me wrong: Both of these games still work. They're still in my phone, burbling along. But there's no guarantee they will work forever, and the central server they connected to has been shut down. They're each little communities drifting along after an apocalypse that will soon wipe them out, but nobody involved knows it. When I turn either game on, the characters are still there, going about their business, not knowing that they are about to go dark, to be consumed by the datapocalypse.
And even if that somehow doesn't happen (as I suspect will be the case with Street Fair, which has lasted well past the time it stopped existing now), I'll reach a point where the games are maxed out and I can't progress any further. The whole point will be to accumulate in-game cash, and that quickly runs out of intrigue.
Tapped Out continues to run along unabated, but it definitely seems like fewer and fewer people are playing it regularly in recent months, and more of the in-game offers seem dedicated toward getting long-time players to spend money on various microtransactions, dangling the promise of unseen prizes in front of us. This game, too, won't last forever, because eventually, everything has to have an ending. (Even The Simpsons.)
I sometimes think about these games in terms of being zombies, staggering long after the world has ended, with nobody in them quite realizing that fact yet. Reportedly, the Japanese version of Snoopy's Street Fair continues to do quite well, and it's a little fun to imagine the characters in my game being vaguely aware of this promised land that's so close yet so far away, a safe zone that they're blocked from reaching by the simple logistics of the internet they were born into.
This, of course, is over-dramatizing everything. These are not characters or even the most basic forms of digital life. They're bits and pieces of programming who go about their day because that's what they've been programmed to do. They do not realize the existential threat they face every time I turn on their game, the way that they will eventually evaporate out of existence without even realizing it.
And yet there is probably, at some point, going to be some form of digital life that lives on a server somewhere. Perhaps we, ourselves, exist inside a giant computer in some other universe, a simulation within a simulation within a simulation. (There's some argument to be made the vast majority of all universes in existence are such simulations.) On the one hand, I know Charlie Brown and Archie aren't aware of their impending demise, or the point where I just lose interest in them, but on the other, I suspect they're dimly aware all the same, that there's a growing sense in them that the darkness is coming.
And that's a weird thing to think about when you're just trying to kill some time between other tasks! But, then, these games ask us to create homes for these characters, to build villages where they will be comfortable and happy, and then ask us to stomp on our ant farms, regardless of how we might feel about that. The world's end doesn't have to be a massive pandemic or a nuclear war. It can be as simple as a few pieces of code ceasing to work, and something that was once vital going dark.
Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.
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