It’s an awkward moment. We have friends around for dinner, and as we relax in our chairs with brandy and cigars, Sarah (my long-suffering better half) decides to show off her animals. “That’s my Lickatoad, who I’ve called Jeremy,” Sarah explained as she scrolled around her virtual garden in Viva Pinata. “And this is Hillary, my Chippopotamus. I’ve already got an achievement for romancing geese, and once I’ve romanced my salamanders I’ll be a level 52 gardener.”
To our friends, who are dyed-in-the-wool FPS fanatics, this is mystifying, horrifying stuff. They stare at the television with incredulous eyes. One of them looks as though he has a headache. Rare’s pastel-hued animal management game is not going down well at all.
“It’s good!” Sarah insists, to a wall of utter silence. Someone coughs. Far away, a church bell issues a muffled clang.
“Perhaps we should play something else?” I suggest, quietly removing the 360 controller from Sarah’s grasp. “A shooter?” one of our friends asks, suddenly perking up.
“Gerbil Physics!” Sarah blurts, taking the controller back again. “It’s brilliant!”
Our friends settle further down into the sofa, their faces clouding with gloomy resignation. Things are looking bad. If they don’t like whimsical management games full of animals, I think, they’re not going to be thrilled at the sight of a puzzler full of rodents either.
But I’m forgetting the fact that Gerbil Physics is one of the most accessible, gleefully fun puzzle games ever made. The aim is simple: to use your limited supply of bombs to knock down a stack of blocks (which, by-the-by, are full of gerbils) so they fall below the lower quarter of the screen – kind of like Jenga in reverse.
Within seconds, the atmosphere of the room has changed from apathy to a strange kind of sugar-rush glee; we’re shouting advice at whoever happens to be playing, laughing as another gerbil is sent flying off the screen with a squeak, or jeering as a tower refuses to collapse. It may only possess a single player mode, but this is party gaming at its purest and most simple. Everybody has an opinion about where the next bomb should be placed or which block should be blown up first, and everybody wants to have the next go.
Gerbil Physics‘ destructive gameplay taps into a universal desire to blow down a house of cards or kick over a sand castle, and its cutesy presentation is brilliantly at odds with its explosive concept. Its gentle soundtrack is constantly punctuated by the crockery-rattling din of another explosion. The gerbils themselves are full of cheeky personality, screwing up their eyes when a bomb is placed next to them, or muttering “abject fail!” when a level goes awry.
Given that it’s the product of a tiny developer called Pencel Games, and that it costs a piffling 80p on XBox Live, it’s unsurprising that Gerbil Physics ends all-too-quickly – we finished the 24th and final level after around ninety minutes of shouting, swearing and cheering – but it’s a proof-of-concept for a potentially incredible commercial release in the future.
With Gerbil Physics completed, we began a Halo 3 deathmatch. Curiously, the mood began to drop again. Our friends, too used to their PS3, began to moan about the 360’s controller. They grumbled about the positioning of the analogue sticks, and tutted at their apparent unresponsiveness. After less than half an hour of running and shooting, these self-confessed FPS junkies wanted to go back to playing Gerbil Physics. And that, surely, is the sign of a truly great puzzle game.
Originally published over at Den of Geek