Finally, a Corporation Worth Playing For

Async Corp is a silly, catchy game about work that requires the labor of both of your thumbs. You play it on the iPhone. Your pay is high scores.

Your left thumb boxes and ships units on the left of an iPhone's touchscreen; the right does that work on the right.

Your thumbs must work in tandem. They are digital employees, coordinating their work under the supervision of a mind (yours) that was already trained to eliminate Tetris blocks and color-matching Bejeweled gems.

Async Corp is the competitor to the more famous block-eliminating puzzle games. In Async, units (blocks) are only shipped (eliminated) when they are arranged into monochrome rectangles of 2x2 or bigger. You must swap units from one side of the other side to build those color blocks up and ship them away. A unit that you press with your left thumb will trade places with a unit under your right thumb, but that will only happen if one of those units, by trading places, will complete or increase the size of a shippable block. Another thumb-tap ships those blocks away.

The game is both an infinite Tetris-like puzzle game and a workplace comedy. It doesn't earn the latter categorization because it includes incompetent bosses and awkward office romances (it doesn't; though it has idiotic, banal e-mails from middle-management superiors). It earns the workplace-comedy tag, because, like the stellar downloadable Nintendo DS game Art Style: Box Life it acknowledges that that manual labor and much of what you can do in video games are indistinguishable jokes. So much of life and labor under real corporations and under the fictional Async Corp is repetitive assembly-line staccato. At the car plant, the post office and perhaps behind an Xbox 360 controller or World of Warcraft mouse, you are but an employee tasked with tedious labor. You do work that is beneath your education and you are cheerfully expected to be happy with your meager, numerical rewards. When you do well in this game, the eponymous Async. Corp rewards you with ... a new color scheme.

Happily, the labor in this game is pleasant. The core gameplay routine of tapping thumbs to mix and eliminate blocks is physically pleasant. Absent is the finger-dragging that can spoil an iPhone game on a sweaty summer commute, when fingers catch on glass. You peck at this work, and you are allowed to enjoy some variety. Async's modes re-orient the game to encourage a rush to ship units fast, a rush to keep up with a speedy assembly line or to include a slower challenge to ship the largest collection of units possible in any one delivery. They're all fun to play, though the ability to skip to harder levels, sooner, would have been nice.

Async Corp.'s other joke is a more bleak twist of fate. The developers of this work comedy were laid off shortly before their new game hit the iTunes store. The studio that employed them, Powerhead Games, does survive, though without its game creators. Such is the challenge of an indie game development studio based in New York City, perhaps. Before Async, Powerhead made another delightful block-eliminating puzzle game called Glow Artisan. That one fancied that the small box-arranging labors we do were the individual paint dabs that, zoomed out, become the creation of art. This new game recognizes all of the box-arranging s work. In combination these games make their own argument. Whether we are tasked to make art or do work—imperceptibly different as the tasks behind them may be—play that makes it worth doing, one tap of the thumb at a time.

Finally, a Corporation Worth Playing For

ASYNC Corp. for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad ($1) [iTunes]