By Virginia Heffernan
Imagine yourself expanding—broadening your horizons, dilating on a subject, swelling with pride. Dwell on that sensation a moment. Feel your neurons inflate. Next imagine navigating a crowd in that expansive state, flinching to keep from touching anyone else.
Then conjure the feeling of trying to get someone alone—away from the throngs, where you can talk to him. Next think about doing all this while trying to avoid the blades of a low ceiling fan.
These cognitive fragments and half-narrative flows and other pieces—far stranger—are activated by "Hundreds," a chic, new iOS puzzle from Semi Secret Software.
I’d say the game is dreamy, if your dreams are immaculately clean, defined by grayscale geometry and ambient techno music. (Mine aren’t.) I will say that, no matter what part of your subconscious this cerebral game caresses, the chill-erotic music of Loscil from Kranky music is one of its loveliest components.
Shifting mental seas define the experience of "Hundreds." The gameplay seems to take place in amniotic fluid. Its palate is neonatal: black, white and red. You make your way through it using limbic cues you might not know you have in your brain. “If they touch when red then you are dead,” flatly states a surreal sign encountered partway through the game’s earliest levels, a couplet Alice might have stumbled on in Wonderland. That’s really the only guideline you get as to how "Hundreds" is played. In the manner of the most sophisticated new mobile games, "Hundreds" doesn’t do demos or, heaven forbid, offer anything so pedestrian as verbal instructions.
Playing "Hundreds" is a wordless experience, anyway. Even that “red/dead” line of poetry is more music than meaning; and nothing so mortal as “death” happens to the fog-colored circles that are the game’s protagonists. These circles mostly start at zero. (Full disclosure: I’ve only made it to level 41 of 100+.) You drive up the value of the circles by touching them and holding them down, aiming each time to make the collective value of the circles total 100.
As you press to elevate the values, the circles turn red and swell until they run the risk of contacting one another or dangerous obstacles, like circle saws. If while you’re raising the number they run into a perilous element, you have to start again. Put another way: “If they touch when red then you are dead.”
Nothing about losing in "Hundreds" feels like dying, though. The music continues; the round can be replayed. No pigs or shirtless terrorists snort or gloat. You start again. Who says losing is not winning and the other way around? In "Hundreds" even gravity is inconstant.
At stratospherically high levels "Hundreds" is said to become so diabolically hard that Olympian gamers have already saluted it as a masterpiece of the puzzle-app form. One of my many “not since 'Tetris'” friends (women, by and large, who have not succumbed to the mesmeric charms of a puzzle game since "Tetris" suffused the Gameboys and PCs of the late 1980s) tells me that "Hundreds" has finally landed her in game-infatuation again. My 7-year-old son says he likes it more than "Angry Birds"; he busted me through level 28, which had become the devil level in my house, so I’m letting him take over when I get stuck.
"Hundreds" is spellbinding, but when I needed to take breaks, I could. And at times I found myself getting organically tired of it—and was pleased that I was able to take breaks. (I’m determined not to relapse to the addled days of my "Scramble" addiction.) Some of the objects and threats in "Hundreds" reminded me too much of "Cut the Rope"—a decently immersive puzzle game of "Angry Birds" vintage that nonetheless gets repetitive and even abrasive—and I worried that "Hundreds" couldn’t offer enough variety in its minimalism to keep me coming back level after level. But somehow it has.
Anagrams and other verbal ciphers appear periodically. Eager to get back to the expanding circles and the strange brain-state in which the game suspends me, I only solved one of those interstitial word games. That might be why I’m not past level 41. Or maybe it’s that I haven’t been surrendering deeply enough to "Hundreds." I know that, for now, it’s a dream I’m not ready to wake up from. I’ll give it another 30 hours.
By Virginia Heffernan