When I first fired up 3D Labyrinth (3D迷宫), a free iPhone game from Chinese developer Yang Jianhong, I thought I must have made a mistake. This game, after all, is one of the most popular iPhone games in China right now; it’s burning up App Annie’s charts, and has been top 10 in the Puzzle, Strategy, Games, and Overall sections for most of the past week. And China’s mobile gamers are not fools; when a game reaches the top of China’s charts, that usually means it’s good.
So what was this wet-looking plumber doing standing in the middle of a 3D level that looks like something copied out of the original Doom: two walls, three textures, and a skybox? I swiped up, and the plumber began to walk forward; I swiped again and he ran. Straight ahead of me, there was a rotating cylinder that read “end point”. I reached it within a few seconds, and the level ended.
So I pressed on, and on and on, but that’s really all that 3D Labyrinth is. You’ve got this plumber, and you swipe in any of the four directions to move him around increasingly complex mazes looking for the end point as quickly as possible. I’m sure it sounds like I am leaving something out, but I promise that I’m not. I have, in that single sentence, described every single aspect of the gameplay in its entirety. In fact, it’s possible I’ve even overstated things by implying that you’re trying to get to the end point quickly. There’s actually no reason to do that; the game does time you but as far as I can tell there’re no speed records to break and no way to actually share your scores.
Seriously, here’s a video of one level. See if you can watch the full thing without falling asleep:
This is all made even worse by the fact that the gameplay is accompanied by a soundtrack of repetitive, lurching carnival music. This gets old about two seconds into the first level; by the tenth, you will be clawing your ears out. I had to put the game on mute pretty quickly to preserve my own sanity.
On its face, 3D Labyrith is one of the worst mobile games I’ve ever played. It’s extremely simple but not even remotely fun, it’s almost criminally short, and it looks and sounds awful. But is there something deeper going on here? What is the true meaning of 3D Labyrith?
At first, I thought the game might have been intended as commentary on Nintendo’s Mario games. Those games, after all, also star a plumber who sports overalls in blue and red. Is the pointless toil of 3D Labyrinth’s silent hero meant to represent the Mario and the fact that its titular character is fated to do the same thing over and over again with only slight changes in the process and little difference or meaning to be found in the outcome?
Perhaps, but I think the true answer lies deeper still. 3D Labyrinth is a statement about all mobile games, and perhaos about us as a species. After all, it says right there in the title exactly what the game is: it’s a 3D labyrinth. There’s really nothing fun about a labyrinth, so why would you voluntarily download such a game? And why would you, like I did, play level after level for literally nothing in return?
In some small way, perhaps we play because we are that wet-looking plumber, sprinting clumsily down a series of increasingly labyrinthine hallways, looking for something new but seeing over and over again that eventually, some twist or turn will lead us to the end point. In the game, when you reach the end point, an unseen audience cheers just as the plumber disappears. Then it’s all over, until the next level when an identical plumber will do it all over again. In some small way, isn’t 3D Labyritnth a metaphor for the futility of human life and the inevitability of death?
But then again, if death is inevitable and life is repetitive, why spend any of your precious time on earth playing a game that slaps you in the face with your own mortality, especially when the game is soundtracked with psycho clown music? I have no idea. I played 3D Labyrinth and I am left spent, empty. I have no answers, only questions.
3D Labyrinth is available free on iOS.