Touchscreen Troubles

Imagine having a little community of eenie weenie bunker-dwellers living in your smartphone.

No, seriously, imagine it. Imagine tapping on a tiny little man wearing a tiny little radiation suit, living in a water purification plant the size of a Tic Tac, in order to drag him into a cafeteria that’s also the size of a Tic Tac. That’s pretty much how Fallout Shelter plays out.

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Fallout Shelter is apparently a tie-in to some new community building/managing elements in Fallout 4, but I’ve never really looked into that side of things because a) I don’t have Fallout 4 and b) Fallout Shelter holds up very nicely as a game in its own right. You build up your underground vault, you send adventurers out into the wasteland above, and you complete fun little objectives along the way. You can pretty much just load it up once in a while and check how all your little guys are doing: it’s not a game that will soak up hours at a time. Occasionally a crisis will crop up, but when it does you’re free to shuffle your dwellers around wherever they’re needed: when the all-clear sounds, they’ll automatically return to whatever they were doing before.

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The thing is, although the big picture game–developing your vault and levelling up its inhabitants–feels just about flawless, the way in which you actually interact with the game frequently feels very, very clumsy. In order to reliably pick up a dweller (especially when one is standing behind another), you have to be zoomed in far enough that it feels like a long way to drag them to another room. In order to see a wide range of rooms at once, you have to be zoomed out far enough that it’s hard to interact with any of them. Attempting to select the radio room is just as likely to select Jordan inside the radio room, and vice versa.

As long as you’re just calmly managing your vault’s inhabitants, this is easy enough to ignore. However, in a situation where mole rats are chewing through your vault’s electrical cables, it can become incredibly frustrating. Being able to get a dweller into the right room at the right time can be the difference between putting out a fire in that room and putting out a fire in all the rooms. The game even seems to acknowledge how difficult it can be to spot the person you’re looking for by periodically introducing a “Mysterious Stranger” who (if found and tapped in time) will give you a reward.

The problem here essentially boils down to two things. One: Fallout Shelter is a game about a big building full of tiny people, and neither of those things can easily be changed. Two: the only way you can interact with the game is by tapping and dragging; tapping and dragging to move dwellers, and tapping and dragging to move your view. Because it’s fiddly to do whichever thing you want to, you’ll often end up doing the other thing by accident. Fallout Shelter‘s flaws feel forgiveable because there doesn’t seem to be any easy way around them.

So I was surprised recently when I came across another game that uses almost exactly the same style of interaction, but doesn’t suffer for it.

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Prune is another neat little game in which you trim branches off a tree to encourage it towards the light and around various obstacles. With sufficient light, the tree will blossom. You start the tree from a seed, choosing where it will sprout and which way (if any) it will curve towards, so although you’re limited to trimming branches the tree decides to grow, you’ve also got a good degree of control from the very start. The branches seem to grow in response to being cut, rather than being totally random, so there’s room for trial and error.

In terms of how you interact with the game, it’s extremely similar to Fallout Shelter. You can tap and drag with two fingers to zoom in or out and to pan your view around the game area. You can tap and drag with one finger to slice branches off the tree. It’s handy that this feels responsive and intuitive, because it’s entirely possible to cut through the main trunk of your tree, or to snip off all the growing points, forcing you to start again.

This is part of the reason I was so surprised that Prune seemed to handle better than Fallout Shelter. You have to decide which branches to trim, and then make the cuts while the tree is growing (sometimes quite quickly). It’s prone to exactly the same problems in terms of doing one thing when you meant to do another, but this time it’s less a matter of dropping Jordan in the storeroom when you meant to put him in the power plant, and more a matter of accidentally lopping Jordan’s head off with your index finger of death. And yet overall it’s nowhere near as frustrating.

Partly I think this is because the levels play out so quickly, rather than despite that. When each attempt takes less than a minute, it doesn’t matter too much that every so often you’re going to cut the wrong thing. Prune allows you to start over, where Fallout Shelter obliges you to go back and fix your mistakes. It also helps that Prune gives you a great deal of empty space to plant your fingers when panning/zooming. When you’re zoomed in far enough to actually interact with Fallout Shelter, your vault takes up the whole screen and then some, so there’s always the risk of accidentally hitting the wrong thing. Finally, since Prune is a game that specifically demands dexterity, any fumbles feel like a failure on your part rather than on the part of the developer.

Despite demanding virtually the exact same style of interaction, these are very different games and what works for one isn’t necessarily going to be an option for another. Even having seen Prune do this so well, I’m not certain how I’d change Fallout Shelter to do it any better. Still, it’s interesting to see how the two hold up side by side.

At the time of writing, Prune is in the Humble Mobile Bundle, so if you want to try it then that’s by far your best option (though if you want it for iPhone you’ll have to buy it separately). Fallout Shelter is free with in-app purchases that you can happily ignore.

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