When we play video games, the rules are set. Updates can change how games work, but typically these alterations happen after some time and deliberation by the developers. But what if you could challenge a video game’s mechanics in real time?
Maybe this sounds far-fetched, but it’s already a reality in Spelltower+, a beefed-up 2020 re-release of the classic word game. Like the original mobile game, you spell out words by dragging your finger across letters; the longer the word, the higher your score. Multipliers can enlarge your scores, but you have to be careful — stringing together words can sometimes cause the “tower” of letters holding everything together to fall apart, leaving you with fewer building blocks.
The thing about word games is that you are at the mercy of the built-in dictionary, which may not include the word you’re thinking of. Worse, because language is so fluid, we constantly use words in our day-to-day lives which may not yet be recognized by “official” entities, like Merriam-Webster. The words we conjure aren’t any less real, of course.
When you construct a word that Spelltower+ does not recognize, the game automatically asks if you want to submit a Challenge, which will prompt a review of your submission in real time. If you’re successful, the word gets added to your wordlist and will be available for play. You only get three Challenges, but the number doesn’t go down if your request is successful.
Challenging in and of itself could even be considered a game, because the more you file, the better you place on the Challenge leaderboard. As of this writing, the top Challenger is a user with the name uncurtaining, who has managed to get 40 words into the system.
While Spelltower+’s living dictionary is extremely flexible, developer Zach Gage told Polygon over Twitter that he still has some ground rules. You can’t submit names, places, or abbreviations, for example. You can submit slang, as long as it’s not vulgar. And things like constellations and species are definitely welcome within the compendium, Gage says.
“I tried to be as inclusive as I could be without dipping into any ‘infinite’ categories where I would have to make a personal judgement call,” he said.
It’s a process that has given him a different outlook on existing word games, which are sometimes infamously rigid. Who hasn’t gotten over an argument over what words we can play in Scrabble?
“I feel like Scrabble decided ‘no proper nouns’ because it was a clean rule, not because it was a good rule,” he mused. “Obviously lots of proper nouns are absolutely real words, and I feel like the whole idea of word-search games is to be able to find words you know.”
Scrabble may be the most influential player in the word game space, but that may not be for the better, Gage argues.
“Why does everyone who plays a word game have to acquiesce to a rule designed for hyper-competitive Scrabble players?” Gage asked. “Not every word game is about cut-throat competition. SpellTower is about finding words you know, and so it should allow things that are words, even if they’re proper nouns, when it’s reasonable. It feels good and weirdly radical to be making an attempt to up-end this stupid inherited system.”
When we spoke last month, Gage said that 17,000 words had been denied, while 1,600 had been accepted to the system. Out of these, Gage had manually reviewed about 3,000 submissions, the rest are handled by an automated system.
“I can do about 800 [word reviews] an hour, but it is exhausting,” he says. But, he adds, manually going through Challenges helps him develop better ways to improve his automated system, which in the long run will decrease the amount of time he has to spend deliberating over new words.
“I still have gotten a few angry people writing in with words that they’ve spelled incorrectly,” Gage recalls. “It is pretty awkward to tell someone who has written you angrily about how stupid you are that they are objectively wrong and don’t know how to spell the word they submitted.”
So far, Gage notes that he’s gotten an unexpected influx of words related to weaving baskets.
“It’s pretty intimate in a very boring way I think,” Gage reflects. “It feels like I’m seeing glimpses of the tough rare words people know about, what they’re thinking about as they’re playing. What they see when they look at a jumble of words. But then also it’s just like, ‘cronk,’ ‘logout,’ or ‘contrarianism.’”
Whatever players might submit, and even if their challenge isn’t successful, Gage can see that he’s provided a release valve for players who are used to being ignored.
“I think this system ended up giving a lot of people a pretty big outlet to finally get some closure and feel like they’re in the right sometimes on a word,” he said.