What’s in the Candy Box?

This might be the most unassuming, strangely delightful role-playing game ever.

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A tab that sits open in my browser all day is usually one of the more mundane aspects of my life. If it’s not Gmail or Twitter, it’s something for work. But one fine day in early May, one tab at the top of my Chrome window held nothing but excitement. It was the day the internet discovered Candy Box.

At first, it seemed like an odd joke. All I saw was a plain text page that told me how many candies I had. The number ticked up slowly. There was a button to throw them on the ground, which I did. Nothing happened. Haha, good one Twitter, you weirdo, I thought. But purely by chance, I didn’t close the tab. I did some other stuff for a while. Eventually, I noticed that Candy Box was still open, and clicked back over.

A man had appeared — an ASCII man. He was a merchant, and I’d accumulated enough candies to buy his sword. From there, the game exploded into a full-fledged, browser-based, ASCII-art role-playing game. I went on adventures, I upgraded my sword, I unlocked new levels, and I planted lollipops on a farm. As I returned to it again and again, I realized I was hooked on the game’s deviously simple resource accumulation system. I could never stay away for too long because I knew that when I came back, I’d have more candies and lollipops to spend on fun things. Which I did, all day.

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What I really loved about Candy Box, though, was how its stripped-down style let the personality of its developer, “Aniwey,” show through so clearly. It reminded me of a lo-fi indie rock record, where the singer can’t sing and the instruments all sound like dissonant buzzing, yet somehow the music is amazing. For example, the game features a frog that asks riddles. One of them is something along the lines of, “What is something everyone wants to be?” I thought about it for a little while until I finally came to the only logical conclusion: “a frog.” Figuring that out was such a perfect moment. It showed a kind of playfulness that’s somehow hard to come by in a medium called “games.”

Near the end of Candy Box, I unlocked a book that let me craft potions and scrolls. The items themselves were ridiculous — they turned me into a turtle, or let me clone myself, or gave me a Superman cape that didn’t do anything. Stranger still, the book was over 50 “pages” long, all filled with instructions on how to craft using the game’s arcane interface. This wasn’t standard crafting either; it was stuff like, “Put 100 lollipops into your cauldron. Begin mixing forcefully. While you’re mixing, add 100 candies into the cauldron. Stop mixing after 20 seconds.” Granted, each page was only a couple sentences, but that’s still a lot of unnecessary text. I read every page of it though, and not because I needed to brew turtle potions. Candy Box makes art out of the unnecessary, and that’s a rare and precious thing. I didn’t want to miss a word.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.