iPad game Drei forces you to collaborate with a stranger

[Anonymous social presence? This is from Wired, where the story includes a photo gallery and a 1:15 minute video]

Drei screenshot

[Image: A clever pop-up control panel in Drei’s physics-based IPad puzzler lets you communicate with your partner via instantly translated words and phrases. Image: Drei.]

Brilliant iPad Game Forces You to Collaborate With a Stranger

By Kyle VanHemert

To say that Drei restored my faith in humanity would be overdoing it, but I will say that it’s the only iPad game to ever make me consider my relationship with humanity, and that must be some sort of accomplishment.

For the first 19 or so levels it’s a straightforward physics-based puzzler. You dance around the screen as a strange little spirit, pulling blocks into place like an ethereal tugboat. Then, all of a sudden, you come across a level that’s impossible to complete—at which point the app pairs you up with some other player, somewhere in the world, who happens to be stuck on that same puzzle. Then, more or less wordlessly, completely anonymous to one another, you both poke at your screens until you figure the thing out together.

The game’s journey started back in 2006, when Christian Etter became a little bit obsessed with climate change. The scientific predictions were scary, but even scarier was the response he got when he talked about it with his friends. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s crazy,’” Etter remembers, but then they’d still go and fly to Brazil for their honeymoon the next week. So Etter decided that he’d build some sort of game that would drive home, however subconsciously, the idea that on this rock, we’re all interconnected.

He wanted it to be something everyone could play, so he needed to find a language that would function across different continents and cultures. “I realized that the most universal language is the language of physics,” he says. “We all learned the effects of gravity as babies. There is no need to explain anything.”

All these years later, thanks to the advent of touchscreen computing and the help of Swiss game designer Mario von Rickenbach, we have Drei. The gameplay, just like Etter figured, is totally intuitive. You drag and stack blocks to make towers of a certain height. It’s all very nicely done.

The best part, though, is how seamlessly it incorporates that sudden multiplayer element. You don’t get to pick who you get paired up with. You don’t know their name, where they’re from or what they look like. You just get to a certain point in the game and see a new spirit—their spirit—bobbing alongside yours on the screen. It creates an immediate, serendipitous bond between you and your mystery partner: Less like you got picked for the same softball team, more like you both just got stuck in an elevator together.

As I said, the relationship isn’t completely wordless. The game has a brilliant component for letting you communicate with your partner–a control panel of stock phrases that are automatically translated for the language of your interlocutor. Some of the words are useful for working things out in the moment: You can encourage your buddy to “drop” a block or urge them to go “slow.” The ones I found myself using the most were more social. “Blimey!” became my catchall option anytime we did something good or bad.

“We’re super proud of this concept,” Etter says, and they should be. For some reason, knowing that these canned expressions were being translated instantly for my partner, someone whose identity remained a mystery throughout, was a surprisingly powerful reminder of the web’s fundamental power to connect any two people across oceans and cultures and time zones. In that way, it had some of the same anonymous, early-web excitement of those old AOL chat rooms.

Of course, every time you play, that “we” ends up meaning something slightly different. The first time I played I got paired with some lovely random soul. We worked beautifully together, our multicolored ghosts completing levels in an effortless pas de deux.

For some reason, I left the app to do something else for a little while, leaving my partner along with it. When I came back, I got paired up with some bonehead who was very nearly proof that we all didn’t learn basic physics as babies. We had zero chemistry. That’s the other side of the serendipitous coin: Getting trapped in an elevator with someone you can’t stand.

For the whole thing to work, you do need people to pair up, and there were times that I was stuck on an impossible level without anyone around to save me. Etter says his team is working on updates to ensure better matching in these cases. But the times it did work were novel enough to excuse these sorts of hiccups. It made me wonder why more games weren’t based around random collaboration, as opposed to random competition.

As for Etter, he’s got nothing against good old head-to-head gaming. “It’s nice to compete,” he says. “But sometimes it’s nice to build something together. Somehow it feels more profound.”


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