What I Learnt From A Stone Frog Spitting Coloured Marbles

February 12th, 2009

In the month before I left for China (last August) I found myself obsessed with one of the greatest games in the world; Zuma (watch the video, it articulates the game better than I ever could). My brother had bought this off Steam previously and I was keen to give it a go before even daring to attempt playing some of the more “macho” PC titles on offer. “Give it a go” soon turned into an all-day-everyday marathon during the days before I left. Unfortunately, my save data was lost in the transition across and I couldn’t take the game with me overseas. Just the other day though I happily began replaying my beloved Zuma and was already up the final series of levels on my first play.

Having beaten most of the game in a single sitting, I returned later to finish it off, continuing at the punishingly difficult final chapter of the game. Three hours went by with little progress except two slight observations that had formed in my subconscious while spitting coloured marbles. The first was that the more I played Zuma, the more bitter it tasted. The game had me caught in a routine of continual failure and was lavishing in the moment.


The second observation is a little more fleshed out. Each time the train of marbles had crept dangerously close to the hole at the end of the trail I immediately felt reluctant to continue adding to chain in fear that I would push it too far forwards and have to painfully restart. I guess this is a natural hesitation. As I soon realized though, you effectively have no choice. The only way in which you can shorten and eventually remove the chain is to continually add to it as quickly as possible. The more marbles you match, the more disappear, the shorter the chain. The dreaded squeeze near the end, accompanied by the you-are-about-to-die music is inevitable in these later levels, so you either learn to fire faster or simply lose. And you add in order to take from start to end, even when the stream slows, you still need to remove any remaining marbles before momentum sends them on their roll to the centre hole. Having become reacquainted with this methodology another two ideas sprouted out from my original observation.

The first being how the mechanics of Zuma are actually metaphoric of the expression “you’ve got to spend money to make money”. As Zuma would have it, a failure to spend money, a failure to fire marbles will result in no success. On the otherhand, firing more marbles results in completion.

The other idea that came to mind is like many games with hardened difficulty levels, at such an intensity Zuma begins to re-structuralize the way it teaches you. The difficulty forces you to re-analyze and reconsider your previous way of playing the game. There is a eureka moment where after multiple failed attempts and slight re-evaluations each time, you click and suddenly see the game in another light, putting new techniques into play.

As Iroquois Pliskin points out in his blog post How it is that Games Teach you Things “most games face the task of making their underlying logics apparent to the player.”. This example can be broken down metaphorically into primary and high school education (combined) and tertiary education. Primary and high school education are presented to the player in Zuma’s introduction screen. By increasing the difficulty, sub-techniques – ie. coming to the conclusion that the more marbles you fire the better – are slowly realized, drawing the player closer to the rules of the gameworld. The various sub-techniques are not so much taught but researched and extracted likening itself to tertiary education.