When I got the link from a friend on Twitter, I thought Candy Box was some kind of a test or a joke. Candies started accumulating, and the only button I could click was "eat all the candies." Gulp. Glump. OK. If eating sweets was a management sim, this would be the game.
But I left the tab open, and returning about 30 minutes later to clear it out, I saw something a lot more complex. I could buy a lollipop. And a wooden sword. From an ASCII-rendered "candy merchant" who reminded me of Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver. (It's more likely Doctor Who.) I picked up the sword. Now I had an inventory. Now I could go on a quest.
"The aspect, 'Nothing at first, then it grows,' is my favorite part of the game," Candy Box's creator, aniwey, an 18-year-old university student from Caen, France, told me in an email. "So yes, it's absolutely intended."
Released two weeks ago, Candy Box's curious combination of ASCII "graphics," role-playing elements and resource management has caught on with hundreds of thousands. It's something that can be a simple timekiller or a play-it-to-the-end obsession. Whatever time you wish to put into it, Candy Box is there, and if you just want to let it run, fine, when you come back, the lollipop farm will be harvesting a bumper crop, which has its own benefit.
"I think the time element is mainly here so that we can do something else while playing the game," aniwey said. "It makes the game very simple; it doesn't use all the player's attention."
Candy Box is built upon simple discoveries, so any description of its gameplay feels almost like a spoiler. It features all the staples of RPGs—hit points, scrolls, maps and magic items—but discovering how they fit together is the more edifying result of playing the game, rather than the brute force completion of a tough quest with a big sword and a ton of health potions.
Its use of time is not much different from social games such as Farmville, in that you must wait to acquire enough candies (the game's currency), or in between quests after you fail or lose a lot of hit points. The hard-and-fast waiting times are reasonable (about 3 minutes after a failed quest; at maximum lollipop farm production, you can buy a magic sword from the enchantress after an hour.) Nothing forces you to invite friends or wait until tomorrow and, even if you did, you'd return to find a hoard of candies waiting to be spent on gear, or consumed to boost your health.
aniwey says the game isn't any kind of a commentary on or parody of social games or video games, though. He did it as an exercise, following the completion of his last project. "Usually I don't make web applications, more like C/C++ things," he said, "but I wanted a change, and a game is fun to develop." (I asked if the Candy Merchant was a drug dealer, or if the candies were an allegory for drugs, and aniwey said no. "Nah, too sweet to be drugs. What kind of drug dealer would sell lollipops and weapons?")
Originally, the game had just three quests and there were no items usable during them. (Strategic use of health potions, and managing the cool-down, lends a modicum of fast-twitch gameplay to the quest portion.) But as aniwey learned more about the programming language, he added in features to flesh out the experience.
The latest batch of statistics shows nearly 350,000 gamesaves have been created, hinting at a viral hit. (Some of the game's stats, like achievements or trophies, could be considered spoilers.) I lost my gamesave when my browser crashed, but right now I have maxed the farm's lollipop production and fully enchanted my sword for maximum damage, making me this game's version of a tank, I suppose.
A sequel is planned, thanks to popular demand. "I've gotten a lot of responses, a lot of emails," he said. "I don't know if I've made a 'hit game' but I think the kind of game I made has some future."
Candy Box can take from two days to a week to complete, depending on a player's time, patience, and how he plants his lollipops. Every action you take seems to lead to a new discovery, except one.
"Throwing the candies on the ground does nothing," aniwey said, adding a smile.