Time-wasting games

Helen Lewis reaches gaming nirvana – as Sally in a virtual spa.

Contre Jour/Sally's Spa
Available on iPhone and iPad

I should have spotted earlier the glaringly obvious problem with writing a review of time-wasting games. First, I had to play some. Second, I had to stop playing them. Realising that you're pathetically pleading with a blob of goo on a screen long past midnight on a Sunday night does make you question your life choices.

Since the blockbuster success of Angry Birds (downloaded more than 600 million times), there's no argument in the industry that "casual" gamers should be taken seriously. What's more, the low cost of producing iPhone, iPad or Facebook games means that there's just as much, if not more, innovation happening there as in Hollywood-style "triple A" behemoths.

Look at the numbers: Angry Birds cost an estimated $140,000 to develop (and has made $100m in revenues) while the launch budget for a typical Call of Duty game is around $200m, including development and publicity.

The only trouble is that the relative ease of publishing a touchscreen game means that there are hundreds to wade through in the App Store. No one has that much time, or that many 69ps, to spare. So I selflessly downloaded half a dozen to try out on your behalf.

My new favourite is Contre Jour, an elegant puzzler from Chillingo, purveyors of the straightforwardly titled Cut the Rope. Its monochrome visuals reminded me pleasantly of the Xbox Live Arcade breakout hit Limbo, and it has a mournful score by David Ari Leon. The game-play is simple: manoeuvre a blob, which winks at you occasionally and balefully, into a vortex, using pulleys, gravity and momentum. Don't get stuck on the spiky bits on the way. Simple and beautiful.

OK, OK, that's not my real new favourite. My real favourite is the kind of game no self-respecting gamer would admit playing, yet gets metric shitloads of downloads at £1.99 a pop. It's the Mail Online of gaming. It is Sally's Spa.

I'm not going to pretend there's anything highbrow happening here: you're Sally. You want to expand a chain of spas across the world. To do so, you must move your customers round the treatment areas, ensuring you don't get a backlog at the facials, or leave people for too long in the jacuzzi, or they lose their "patience hearts" and pay you less money when you cash them out. It's utterly mindless, its location is totally arbitrary (there are exercise studio and hairdressing salon versions), its characters are non-existent . . . but I love it.

What both these games have right is the control scheme: the responsiveness of the iPhone and iPad screens means you feel truly in control, albeit always at the limit of your abilities. It's the state that psychologists call "flow" and it reminds me of how the producers of ER used to describe their operation scenes: high-speed ballet. All at your fingertips.

To suggest more games for Helen to review, contact her on Twitter: @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?