The very name of the game is like a glove slapped across the face. “Smarter Than You,” released this week for Apple’s mobile devices, is a taunt and a challenge.
Bold words for a game that, on the surface, is essentially a virtual match of rock-paper-scissors.
And yet “Smarter Than You,” a free game with a minimalistic presentation that asks little of its players, manages to carve its way into a rather complex psychological head space. That’s because it’s partly a game about the little ways in which we casually lie — to strangers, friends and loved ones.
So maybe, depending on your level of cynicism, “Smarter Than You” is also a game about the ways in which we communicate. “You don’t have to tell the truth,” the game tells us in its opening tutorial, spelling out what is already tacitly understood in any engagement of one-upmanship.
For what it’s worth, “lie” may be too harsh a word. “Smarter Than You” is a game of bluffing, of tentatively revealing half-truths or nonsense in an effort to stay one step ahead of our sparring partners. Note: The ultra-competitive may need to be warned before playing with friends.
Still, “Smarter Than You” manages to be adversarial in perhaps the nicest way possible, employing a novel monetization system that allows players to “tip” a winning foe (normal folks don’t actually receive the money that is tipped, but London-based indie game creator Luca Redwood does).
The game is dastardly simple, and it’s easy to enter into a battle of wits moments after loading it up. “Smarter Than You” presents players with two cutesy faces — you can customize scowls or smiles — and the game gives players three options: shoot an arrow, attack a challenger with a sword or dodge another’s charge with a blade.
A sword, for instance, will beat someone firing a bow and arrow — one face will rush the other before a shot can be fired. But attempting to dodge someone coming at you with a weapon won’t do any good against someone readying an arrow, hence the rock-paper-scissors nature of the game.
“Smarter Than You” can’t be played alone, and if pals haven’t downloaded the title it will match you up with strangers. The good news is that playing with unknowns can border on silly. Though players will be firing arrows into another’s broadly drawn and perfectly round head, “Smarter Than You” avoids the viciousness often prevalent in competitive video games.
How it does this — and where it innovates — is in how “Smarter Than You” presents choices to the player. “Smarter Than You” allows players to tell foes their moves — or not. Preset text options permit directness or silliness. You can let someone know they’re about receive an arrow to the face in the hopes they will or won’t call your bluff. You can warn someone that they would be wise to dodge your blade.
Depending on what words you choose — and how much the game of telling untruths escalates — certain maneuvers will become riskier and do more damage. Often, only three or four direct hits will bring a match to an end.
But you can also let “Smarter Than You’s” text options lead you on a course of goofiness. “Why don’t we be friends?” Mary from Seattle asked me before coming at me with a sword. “I like pickles,” I told someone before readying my own broadsword.
The game can make a player prone to over-thinking. Spending a few hours with “Smarter Than You” this week brought to mind the poisoned goblet scene in “The Princess Bride,” in which Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini tries to out-duel Cary Elwes’ Westley.
As I stared at the screen and debated between using a sword or an arrow on an enemy — after said foe said I should prep for an incoming sword — I had Shawn’s monologue running through my head: “A clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool.”
The mind games only intensify with each round, as one attempts to recognize — or deviate from — a pattern. It should be noted that the entire time this is happening the game is scored by rather lighthearted, loungey jazz music. Matches also don’t end with a boastful “winner” screen; instead, players are asked if they would like to leave a small dollar or two tip as a sign of respect.
On Thursday, Redwood said that about 200 players had left tips for others, but he’s not expecting to make any money from “Smarter Than You.” The game was developed as a “creative break” from another title he’s developing, and he says his goal with “Smarter Than You” was to create an “off-the-wall experiment kind of game.”
That it revels in the little lies we tell to get ahead was perhaps a happy accident. But lesson learned: Never trust someone who says, “Why don’t we be friends?” if they’re carrying a sword.
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