Tower defense games make me anxious. The combination of Tetris-like time limits and impending doom brings out feelings of childhood inadequacy, and the multitasking becomes overwhelming. As soon as I opened “Ivory Tower Defenders,” however, I laughed at the start menu’s satirization of academia. The levity of the game’s premise – college staff blockading the entrances of campus buildings against hordes of students – eased my fears. Seven hours later, I was one point from beating the game.
The design and setup of “Ivory Tower Defenders” is saturated with insider knowledge only a graduate student would know. Indeed, this is the case because game co-designer Dorothy Finnigan was enrolled in a graduate program before she left the academy. Finnigan and her partner Django Zeaman went on to found an independent game company, Slow Life Games. “Ivory Tower Defenders” is their first release and available for download on iPhones and iPads, as well as Android devices.
Gameplay is straightforward. Five caricatures of students enter a campus building and walk through corridors in which players place defender characters: teaching assistants, dissertators, assistant professors, tenured professors and deans. Each university staff member uses a unique weapon to knock out students before they sit down in chairs scattered throughout the room.
Cleverly, the designers provide a rationale for the cost and weapon choice of staff. Because TAs are “fast, cheap and plentiful,” they are the beginner’s weapon and easiest to upgrade. In contrast, the full professor is expensive to purchase because tenure does not come easily. Thankfully, his crankiness – a result of excessive research – translates into his throwing massive books at students, causing great damage. Likewise, the dissertator’s tome is heavy, but he takes considerably longer than the professor to throw it.
While university staff are appropriately fitted with weapons, the enemy students’ abilities (namely speed and stamina) are not as rationally chosen. For example, art students inexplicably “travel in groups.”
The designers also claim players must vary their strategies to knock out the different kinds of students. While this sounds good in theory, it does not translate into gameplay. Given the small lengths of corridors, strategy often boils down to placing the most powerful staff in a long row near the entrance: basically blast the students with the biggest guns you can afford as soon as possible. Nearly all of them succumb in the same length of time once the most powerful staff are deployed. Given the relative straightforwardness of this strategy, gameplay loses its novelty quickly. Players may tire of the repetition, magnified by the game’s inclusion of only four levels. However, for real-life graduate students, this tedium may be abated by the opportunity to digitally live out their discussion section fantasies of throwing blue books at frustrating students.
On the other hand, as chairs fill, students alter their paths. The unpredictability of this feature adds suspense, often pleasantly helping players win. Another source of variety are the shapes of the corridors themselves. Students enter from multiple doorways. Paths split. As such, staff must be placed in multiple rows, sometimes semi-circles.
The graphics of “Ivory Tower Defenders” are basic, sometimes pixelated, as characters move. Nonetheless, the game maintains its visual appeal for two reasons. While some objects are not drawn in fine detail, the arrangement of objects is intricate and thoughtful. In the seminar classroom, students scoot their chairs to face one another as they sit. In the library (which has an uncanny resemblance to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s reading room), students push lamp switches, casting a glow underneath the emerald glass lampshades. The colors are vivid and engaging.
Ultimately, the game’s leniency in scoring was the biggest factor in curbing my trepidation. As long as all but one of the incoming students are stopped, players advance to the next level. Given two levels contain 40 seats, it is safe to say players of all skill levels will manage to succeed. However, try as I might, a brainiac student always fills that final seat on the last level. Damn, another excuse to keep playing and risk actual academic failure.
Further information about “Ivory Tower Defenders” is located at slowlifegames.com. The game is available for download in the iTunes Store and Google Play for $0.99.
4 out of 5 stars