Tower defense evolved: The White Laboratory

Tower defense has faced every possible slander you can imagine. It’s “casual” strategy, a rich game like Warcraft 3 boiled down into enemies attacking, you defending. The genre as a whole leans on its tropes harder than anything besides perhaps the JRPG: towers must be upgradeable, enemies must be given a clear, snaking path to your base, and, above all else, there has to be a fast forward button.

That said, the genre’s produced some of my favorite games over the years. What Immortal Defense, Defense Grid, and Defender’s Quest lack in overall novelty and imaginative nomenclature, they make up for in being addictive, organized beasts. Tower defense, at heart, has been a genre for those of us who love spreadsheets and the incremental increase in power. On top of those, Plants vs. Zombies showed us that the genre wasn’t a one-trick pony: its stacking mechanics, where you built lines and lines of death dealing towers and defenses in front of your opponents, did tower defense in an entirely different way, and it was a smashing success for that reason. That said, it was still, at heart, a spreadsheet game: your time was spent weighing the best places to put your new towers, how they could synergize, and how to best maximize your damage output.

The White Laboratory, an entry in the Level Up 2011 Game Demo competition, whose winning demo has recently been posted on Steam, breaks every tower defense trope you can imagine. Your towers don’t level up. You can completely block off your enemies. By god, there’s no fast forward.

That’s why it’s so brilliant. At heart, The White Laboratory combines the central tenet of tower defense—encroaching hordes, bases to defend—with exaggerated video game physics. It creates something outside the genre’s general purview: instead of a spreadsheet game, The White Laboratory is positively zany.

Every level will give you a beginning allotment of geometric shapes: structural cubes as well as shooty spheres, among others. You’ll use these components to build physical, teetering towers of cubes accessorized with death dealing sphere cannons to stop an onslaught of similar geometric shapes. When killed, some of these enemy shapes become the raw materials of your defense.

But there’s more to it. You’ll build blockades. You’ll build your towers to the heavens, because the higher they go, the further your spheres can shoot. They’ll teeter. Your enemies will smash your blockades, and you’ll realize the only thing keeping your tower up was the barricade you hastily built to stop some asshole columns from rolling through your defenses. The tower comes down.

Or maybe you’ll end up more like me. You’ll build a tower directly in the creeping shapes path, because then they’re more accurate. You’ll throw in some columns, so the tower spins around. You’ll make a spinning tower of lasers. And then some asshole column will come up and destroy all of your defenses, driving right through the base of your tower, inciting a mad scramble to set up a makeshift defense.

There’s a physicality to The White Laboratory, that moment where your towers come down, that I didn’t know I missed in tower defense games. Contrast this with Defense Grid, a supremely organized title where your basic strategy involves building a snaking path of gun towers, fully upgrading them, and fast forwarding, watching enemy robots explode with suicidal determination. The White Laboratory plays nothing like that: you’re courting disaster at every turn. In Defense Grid, failure is if an enemy comes onto the last segment of the snake. In The White Laboratory, failure means your defenses are falling in terrifying slow motion from the heavens, a half-dozen cubes slamming slow motion thuds through what had been yours. The screen will flicker unsteadily: the cubes are getting in. Then, it will crack, slowly, around the edges. You’ll take what you have and you’ll throw up a hopeful barricade: a couple rows of cubes that used to make up your gun tower, spheres on top.

You hope, and you pray, because they’re coming again. And you begin to realize that everything is fleeting. All it takes to wreck your plans is a single, determined sphere.