Unfinished Business is NME’s weekly column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access games. This week, Rick Lane spins right round, baby, right round, in Fidget Spinner RPG.
It’s easy to mock a game like Fidget Spinner RPG, the entire point of which is to be entirely pointless. Not only does it belong to the genre of ‘clicker’ games, designed to perpetuate with a minimum level of interaction, but it frames its ‘action’ around an equally pointless toy that was briefly popular about five years ago. It’s a game that takes uselessness to the next level. Oscar Wilde would be proud.
Yet beneath Fidget Spinner RPG‘s pretence of not caring, there’s something about it that intrigues. I’m not going to say it’s a great game, because my brain parasite hasn’t wormed its way that far in. But whether intentionally or accidentally, Fidget Spinner RPG offers a disconcerting insight into some of the more malignant aspects of modern game design.
The goal of Fidget Spinner RPG is to make a fidget spinner spin as fast as possible. You approach this monumental task by clicking the ‘spin’ ability at the bottom of the screen. Each time you click, the RPM of the fidget spinner increases. Once the RPM hits a specific milestone, you’ll unlock abilities that let you spin it even faster. And so on and so on until your spinner is rotating so fast that it catches fire.
Bolted onto this basic core is a bamboozling array of RPG mechanics. There’s an elaborate crafting system where you need to mine minerals, smith them into useable resources and then craft various pieces of armour. The skill tree seems to have more branches than Barclays, with each upgrade leading to new abilities or items to craft. There’s even a trading system that lets you buy and sell items to unseen NPC merchants.
It quickly becomes apparent that, while the theme of Fidget Spinner RPG is a toy for the chronically distracted, the point of the game is unlocking stuff. And Fidget Spinner RPG is good at feeding you stuff to unlock, providing the exact same hit of dopamine you’d see in any number of RPGs or open-world games. Click click click ding! You’ve unlocked Blacksmithing. Click click click ding! You’ve unlocked the ability to mine copper.
This got me thinking: how many other games are just a chain of cleverly meted-out unlocks wrapped in some fantasy or sci-fi nonsense? What would Destiny 2 be like if you pulled out all the loot and skills? Or World Of Warcraft? Or Lost Ark? I’m not saying these games deliberately subscribe to cynical Skinner-Box design. Or that games in general shouldn’t reward you for the time you spend playing them. But I found myself wondering how often games keep you playing for transactional rather than experiential reasons, and how easily one can slip into the other without you really noticing. Heck, Fidget Spinner RPG is completely open about the nature of its design, and yet I’m still thinking about what lies beneath all those remaining padlock icons.
This also leaves me in something of a critical bind. If I was going to highlight any problems with Fidget Spinner RPG, I’d say that the gulf between its halves is too wide. It’s literally a fidget-spinning minigame stapled to the skeleton of a traditional fantasy RPG, and there’s no real attempt to connect the two. Received wisdom dictates that a game’s unlocks should fit thematically with its systems. But here, the gap between what you’re doing and what’s keeping you doing it only heightens the frivolity, so the critique hinges on whether or not that gap is deliberate.
A more concrete problem is that the flow of upgrades slows to a trickle after about half an hour, and the scenery isn’t interesting enough to distract you from the grind that lies ahead. Some of the unlocks require you to craft ‘high-quality’ armour, which occurs entirely by chance every time you make something. One could argue that this slot-machine element fits perfectly with the superfluous upgrade system. But if Fidget Spinner RPG wants to keep players clicking, the flow of upgrades needs to be almost constant, and this chance-based mechanic works against that.
It may seem silly to treat a fidget spinner game that costs £1.69 with this degree of seriousness, especially when I could’ve crammed this column with jokes and snark that probably would have got it shared more. But as I said back when I played New York Rat Simulator, any game can be interesting if the idea is treated right. I wouldn’t recommend playing Fidget Spinner RPG, but I would recommend checking out its hobbyist developer, Bryce Summer. Summer regularly puts out small, cheap, experimental games, and some of them, like the rhythm game Roundabout and the Tetris-inspired Planaris 2, look genuinely worthy of your time.
Fidget Spinner RPG is currently available on PC via Steam.