The Discipline of Self-Restraint in Tumbleseed

Tumbleseed hands you a predictably difficult situation and trains you to embrace your own limitations.

Written by Richard Clark / Published on May 12, 2017

Videogames have become masters of instant gratification, slavishly chasing the spectre of “fun” or “satisfying gameplay.” But maybe something else is better for us.

"The skills you’re learning aren’t agility or hand-eye coordination. They’re skills of the soul: humility, patience, and self-restraint."
Tumbleseed may not have been created with the common good in mind, but there must have been a moment when its developers, realized that the central mechanic would be a hard sell. The player does not directly control the protagonist—a striving seed that seeks to make it to the top of a mountain. Instead, the player controls the platform on which the seed rolls, helping him primarily with the challenge of avoidance. The seed rarely kills or even defends itself. Instead, it runs away.

Tumbleseed is a brutally difficult, but progressively (and exponentially) rewarding exercise in personal restraint. There are virtually no circumstances in which the impulse decisions or twitch reactions of the player are rewarded. Instead, the player is punished for being too reactionary. The seed gains momentum quickly, through no intention of the player.

But it’s important to be clear: when the seed inevitably hits a monster or falls into a hole, it is the fault of the player, whether she or he intended to get carried away or not. The player may not intend for the disaster to happen, but the player caused it. That’s the way momentum works, after all.

I’ve been playing the game every day for several weeks now. It’s become a regular discipline for me. I’ll admit that I’m not sure if they’re related, but I’ve also found myself taking my phone out to check twitter, unlocking to the home screen, and after a short pause, putting it back into my pocket. I’ve found myself reading large sections of a book with my phone in another room. For me, this is not the status quo.

And I’m getting better at Tumbleseed. I’m learning the satisfaction of watching, for what seems like almost a minute but is actually just a few seconds, as the ball rolls ever so slowly from one side of the screen to the other. I’ve sighed with great relief when I was able to stop the ball just short of a trap, not because of split second reflexes, but because I was careful not to get carried away in the initial tilt.

In Tumbleseed, you can create your own checkpoints, but they come at a cost. In fact, everything does, to the point that the game is as much about deciding what to spend precious crystals on as much as carefully moving your seed through the level. The combination of constantly weighing risk and reward, skillfully and patiently guiding your seed upward results in a game that’s main feeling is one of precariousness. One wrong move or miscalculation could result in your seed plummeting down the mountain, or worse, returning to the earth from whence it came.

The responsibility, then, is placed firmly in the hands of the player. There is no Peggle-like reliance on luck or second chances. The rules are locked in place, and the only luck involved has to do with the consistent unpredictability of the reconfigured mountain slope.

Ultimately, Tumbleseed hands you a predictably difficult situation and trains you to embrace your own limitations. The skills you’re learning aren’t agility or hand-eye coordination. They’re skills of the soul: humility, patience, and self-restraint.

To some, that’s not fun. But given some time, mastering these skills are their own reward. After all, in a world that seems to be tilting on its axis, the only way to make things right is to acknowledge our part in the initial momentum.

About the Author:

Richard Clark is director of editorial development for CT Pastors and Preaching Today, a co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture, and has written for Unwinnable and Kill Screen. He can be followed on twitter @TheRichardClark.