A beautiful little doomsday simulator that fits in your pocket.
And the only instance in which I will say “iPhone” on this website.
★★★★ (out of four)
I have wanted Tim Rogers to be my best friend for probably four years now. We would be best friends, I wager, if I lived in Oakland, California. We would be, as he puts it, “spirit bros”. I’m moving to California at some point. It’s the next place I’ll go. Maybe then we’ll be best friends. I can hardly wait.
The last time I saw Tim was in August 2011. I was in California on business (I was sad). My long-term girlfriend had left me, and Baltimore was worse than ever, and I didn’t have any food in my apartment. I was participating in medical experiments to pay my rent. It was time to go to somewhere else. Somewhere else ended up being California.
I touched down at SFO and immediately called Tim. He explained where his house was, and how it wasn’t that hard to get to, but that it would seem like a lot of walking from the train station, even though it really wasn’t that far away. I said, “OK.” I got on the train. I rode it all the way out to Oakland. Tim’s apartment was the only place I really wanted to be.
One of the first things he did was hand me a white iPhone. The screen was black, but lit up, and was quickly filled with little white numbers. Something was loading. I looked up at Tim, who was grinning like a shark.
Then there was a little blond-haired man standing atop a truncated pyramid. Wind was blowing at the surface of the pyramid. The sun was high in the sky. Everything was beautifully pixelated. The little blond man was huffing and puffing and holding up a silver space-gun. A blue alien with an enormous cyclopian eye began moon-jumping up the left side of the screen. I put my finger over him. A pathetic slime-green orb dribbled out of my space-gun, and rolled down the side of the pyramid. I tapped again with the same result. There he was, jumping up and down, getting closer and closer. I swiped my finger across the screen and a bigger orb flung out of the gun and hit the target, which exploded into a ball of fire. I had been trying to make the character run, not shoot. I had no idea how to play the game.
“How do you run?” I said.
“You don’t. Everyone asks that question.”
“Is this blond guy you?”
“Everyone asks that, too. And no.”
And then I thought: Of course you can’t run. You’re at the top of a God damn ziggurat. It’s the end of the God damn world. Run? Run where? This was it. You were going to die no matter what. All you could do was charge your gun and shoot at fast-approaching aliens and try to make the most out of the situation. It was a very “If I’m on my way to hell, then I’m taking you with me” kind of feeling. It was exhilarating.
I played a few more games of what I knew was an early prototype of ZiGGURAT before giving Tim his phone back. I didn’t really think that I would ever be able to play it on my own phone. I just thought it was a neat little toy that he’d made.
And that was that.
• • •
Time flew the hell by. I forgot about ZiGGURAT for a long time. Occasionally Tim would mention it in an article, or he’d send me some pixel art or something, and I would nod and think, “OK, well, I guess he’s still working on it.” But it never surfaced as a playable thing I could intangibly own.
Then, in February 2012, it miraculously appeared on the App Store. It had a pinkish-red icon with a ziggurat in the background—and an enormous golden “Z” slapped in the center. I was giddy as hell. I downloaded it immediately.
I started it up. “Acition Button Entertainment” appeared on the screen in big orange letters. I was proud of my friend. By God, he’d made a videogame.
After a succinct and tasteful tutorial, in which the thumb-sliding, gun-charging controls were explained, I was back where I was six months before: I was back at the top of the ziggurat, and the whole world was ending.
I played a few games just before I went to sleep that night. I was better than I had been when I played the prototype, but still pretty bad. I thought about it a lot before I finally drifted off. I thought, hey, this is a swell thing to own. I felt I liked owning ZiGGURAT. It was a nice way to spend five minutes here and there. It didn’t catch me, though. It was a small diversion, and maybe that’s all it was ever intended to be. I went to sleep.
• • •
Next day it was all I could think about. I’d start it up and play ten games in a row, trying to hit that one hundred mark. I’d read somewhere, I can’t remember where, that if you weren’t killing at least one hundred alien freaks each time, you were probably playing it wrong. Tim had said it. I was using two thumbs to slide across the base of the ziggurat, and it wasn’t working as well as I wanted it to. I was a crack shot if the alien freaks were coming from the right—my right thumb never missed. But the controls were flipped for the left side, and down became up and up became down. I kept dying from the left.
So I switched to one thumb. I began alternating which side I used my right hand, and soon I was an unstoppable maybe-robotic one-eyed claw-footed alien-killing machine.
And really, I had only bought the damn thing because I was going to buy it no matter what. I bought it because I wanted my friend to be able to afford to go to a doctor’s office.
But it quickly became The New Thing To Do (When There’s Nothing Else To Do). I had been attempting to reread The Sun Also Rises, and it was going swimmingly until ZiGGURAT stole my heart. So I would read a chapter or two, and then reward myself with an equal number of ZiGGURAT plays. I quickly finished the book.
There you have it: “ZiGGURAT is marginally better than The Sun Also Rises.”
• • •
See, it’s just so clever and good. I’m not even embarrassed to play it in the presence of a woman.
And I’ve started telling everyone about it. Someone will whip out an iPhone, and I’ll say, you know, my friend made this game, and you should get it. “Oh?” they say. “That’s so interesting—I’ll check it out.” Maybe a few of them even have.
When they ask me what it’s about, I say, “The joy of shooting a gun that doesn’t exist.”
This is how I would explain it to someone who actually cared what I was saying: ZiGGURAT is a glimpse at the apocalypse according to Tim Rogers. It’s a game you can play on your phone. It’s all you need. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, which is to say it’s perfect.
Listen: You’re a little space dude. You are The Only One Left—and you’re exhausted and there’s nothing you can do but stand at the top of a ziggurat and deal with the onslaught of adorable one-eyed aliened invaders who want to jump on you and shoot you and make you die. You hold down your thumb for a few seconds to let your gun charge—about four seconds and it will be as big as it will ever get. Hold it too long and it shrinks back down and becomes less powerful. Aim for the eyes. If you hit the eyes, you’ll get bigger explosions. You can chain them together to clear the whole screen at once. The blue guys have pulsating, ballooning eyes that grow bigger and then smaller—and then bigger again. Shoot them when they’re big. There are big blue guys, too. They take three charged shots to dispatch. They explode and kill everything around them. Watch out for the yellow guys; they sneak up on you. And for God’s sake, listen in for the orange guys—they’re nasty as hell. They float around in little impenetrable bubbles and then make a little chime when they’re about to make a dash for you. When the alien mothership flies overhead, shoot it. If you keep shooting it, it will malfunction and lightning will strike below and kill a lot of the aliens around you. By this point you’ll need it.
If you stop shooting, you die. If anything touches you, you die. You’re going to die. But you might not, either—if you’re really good.
• • •
The first time I killed over two hundred alien freaks, I felt pretty darn good about myself. I thought, even, that this little game had the unique ability to make sadness go away for a little while. It’s better than antidepressants. See, there’s no dry-mouth or insomnia or loss of appetite. It’s a hell of a thing.
You play for a little while, and then you feel OK about everything. You grab your guitar and strum a few chords, or you get down on your knuckles and do a few push-ups. You pick up Ernest Hemingway’s first novel and read a few chapters. When you want to play ZiGGURAT again, all you do is hold your phone sideways and tap the “Z” icon, which launches the game. There it is. There you are.
• • •
I’m proud of you, Tim. Let’s be best friends someday.