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September 11, 2012

“This is a Kid’s Game, Right?”


I’m resigned to being late to the party.  By the time I get into something big -- new cell phones, Facebook, using email in general -- people have already moved on to something bigger and newer.  You’d think that a guy who plays video games like a Cocoa Puffs addict would be well-off in that department, but that’s not the case. 

A few months ago I played a Ratchet and Clank game for the first time.  It’s not like I never heard of the series, but when it started out I didn’t have a PS2 (and the same problem would repeat itself thanks to the leap from PS2 to PS3).  Still, I’d heard some good things about the series.  As far as I know, the games have gotten consistently good reviews -- there may be, what, one or two that’s gotten below a 9?  There’s been a lot of praise for the franchise assorted weapons over the years.  And the fact that the duo will -- in the worst case scenario -- be referenced in Playstation All-Stars means that Sony wants to give one of their major players a bit of recognition.  A part of me still can’t divorce the gun-toting Ratchet from, say, the gun-toting Jak, but I know there are plenty of differences.

Chief among them, a distinct lack of weasels.  Or weasel aliens.  I don't know, I only played Jak 3.

Anyway, back to that certain Sunday.  My brother downloaded the game in good faith, hoping for a new multiplayer game to play with our buddy (if only to escape another round of Super Smash Bros. Brawl with said buddy).  “Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One finished downloading,” he said to me before playing some Virtua Fighter.  “That’s a good game, right?”  Why he was asking me about a game he’d not only downloaded blindly, but also finished downloading, is beyond me.  But I gave him and the game my blessing -- mostly because I’d forgotten what reviews had said.


And you know what?  All three of us not only had our expectations met, but exceeded.  It was a simple, satisfying experience, but offered its fair share of challenge.  It not only tested our trigger fingers, but our ability to work together…except when it came to collecting bolts, in which case we very nearly came to blows.  And the whole game had a charm and character to it that I can’t help but appreciate -- cartoonish yet stylish visuals, some surprisingly cool backgrounds, and something that I never thought I’d see in a game again: COLORS!  There’s no doubt in my mind that the three of us will give the game another whirl when we get together again (assuming the Playstation Plus bonus it’s linked to doesn’t fizzle out before then).  But still, there’s a question that my brother asked while we were playing that stuck with me.

“This is a kid’s game, right?”

Not knowing the canon, I couldn’t give him a straight answer.  I mean, I know minor details -- Ratchet’s a Lombax and the last of his kind, Qwark is a superhero who’s content with stealing the credit of the real heroes, Clank is…a robot -- but the tone and themes of the narrative are lost on me.  Yeah, I could check a wiki or something for more plot details, but there’s a difference between what happens online and experiencing all the nuances yourself.  In spite of that, I’ve read that the series enters some deep territory in one way or another…and the GUNS GUNS GUNS aspect is not 100% child-friendly.  But that aside, I have to wonder:

Even if it IS a kid’s game, does it really matter?


Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One is fun.  Simple as that.  Fun little story, fun characters, fun gameplay, fun world.  If other games in the franchise have a similar or superior style, then I can see why it’s been so successful (and want to kick myself in the bolts for going so long without playing any of the games).  Is it cartoony?  Well, yeah, but I think that’s the point.  Making your game realistic offers new opportunities, but limits plenty of others; you put a vise on what you can do with suspension of disbelief, tone, and of course style.  Ratchet wouldn’t work anywhere else.  Well, except for Playstation All-Stars.  Or Jak and Daxter.  Or Sly Cooper.  Or Playstation Heroes.  Or -- look, my point is that there are things Ratchet and Clank can do with its Saturday-morning presentation that others can’t (or won’t) do.  It leads me to believe that just because something looks or even IS childish doesn’t mean that it’s to its detriment.

Need more proof?  How about LittleBigPlanet 2?

I LOVE that game -- and its predecessor as well.  I love the charm.  I love the style.  I love how it’s so chill and laid-back.  I love the comical-yet-pleasant story.  I love how the music is often so catchy, and often so whimsical (Get it Together! is pure happiness contained in three minutes’ time).  I love the simple but satisfying gameplay.  I love Sackpeople, especially my hobo-looking Sackboy with beady eyes, no shirt, and a Nordic beanie.  I love seeing what other people created.  I love that I can try -- maybe not succeed, but try -- to make my own functional mech with rocket-punch action.  I love how, at any time, you can stop what you’re doing, stand in place, take control of your Sackperson’s arms, and play air guitar with wild windmills and your tongue hanging out.


A lot of people (including me) have raised a stink about all the violence and stylistic homogenization of video games, especially in light of this year’s E3.  That’s certainly an issue, and by the looks of things not a problem we’re going to move past anytime soon.  But as the Eternal Optimist, even when things are looking their grayest and shootiest, I can feel all my fears and worries melting away every time I think about LittleBigPlanet.  Is that a kid’s game, too?  Ostensibly.  The cute and cuddly critters and world certainly make a strong argument.  And it certainly feels like lighter and softer than its current-gen contemporaries.  Doubtless it wouldn’t take much work to turn it into a storybook or a Saturday morning cartoon. 

I think that Ratchet and Clank and LittleBigPlanet are kid-friendly, but -- again -- that’s to neither franchise’s detriment.  In fact, I have to applaud them for it based on two points.  One: with all the ultra-violence peddled by games these days, it’s refreshing for the kids to have something not so murder-happy to play (and by extension, it offers a bit of relief for older players).  Two: just because something is childish on the outside doesn’t mean it has to be shallow and useless.  Considering that this is one of the most popular things on the internet…


…yet features scenes like this -- and all the interpretations therein -- then clearly you shouldn’t underestimate a product because of its style.  Or its percentage concentration of ponies.

It’s reached a point where I wonder just what it means to be a “kid’s game.”  From the perspective of children of the eighties and nineties, it’s easy to look down on games like the above two (and countless others, I suppose).  But really, are we ones to judge?  What makes the lot of us so mature that our own games aren’t just “kid’s games” to another, older audience?  Are games like Uncharted so deep that they demand an analysis from the most learned among us, and impenetrable for the kiddies?  Are games like Darksiders so artistically dense that their nuances are lost on children?  Are games like Gears of War so mature that they tackle important issues and AREN’T just machismo-laden fantasies?  We could sit down and debate the merits of every game in the past thirty years, but at least one thing is certain: no matter how much you love and will defend Super Cool Game 2: Championship Edition, there will always be someone who’ll look down on it as unrefined schlock, fair judgment or not.


Pretty much game has merit in one form or another.  Every game at least tries to offer you something to latch onto, in terms of style, story, or good old gameplay.  And even if a game has a kiddie veneer, I’d say that as long as they’re good, it doesn’t matter.  In fact, I’d even argue it’s time for them to have a resurgence, and earn the respect they deserve.

Or to put it another way…with all the talk and posturing about making games more cinematic, why the hell have so few tried to make their games like a Pixar movie?

Toy Story -- the third one in particular -- is a shining example.   It’s about toys, the hallmark of childhood.  It’s got imagination in spades, from the life of a toy (for better or worse) to the people that interact with them (again, for better or worse).  There are bright colors and visuals for the kiddies, but there’s also a fair amount of depth, in terms of ideas and emotion, that even a seven-year old can appreciate.  (Incidentally, the Pixar movies as a whole revel in the very true idea that children aren’t as stupid as people make them out to be.)  Beyond that, there’s plenty for older audiences to digest -- and at the same time, the childish nature of it brings them back to a simpler age, forcing them to think about ideas presented on multiple levels.  To say nothing of the utter emotional wreckage one of the movies can do to you; I am legitimately afraid to watch Toy Story 3 again because I don’t think my heart can handle the incinerator scene again.  And I don’t think I need to say a word about its ability to reduce men -- myself included -- to tears.


In spite of that -- in spite of spending no more than two and a half hours at a time with any given Pixar movie -- I have fond memories of them.  I can probably remember scenes and even lines from A Bug’s Life more easily than I can moments from Gears of War 3 (and when I do, it’s never anything flattering).  Pixar movies are simultaneously mature and immature, branching out to adults and children alike -- and more importantly, forming a connection between the movie and the viewer.  If games took their lessons to heart -- if games focused less on being summer-blockbuster thrill-rides and more on other genres -- then maybe we’d all be better off.

Games are a platform for artistic expression, but it seems like a lot of people these days are forgetting that.  I know we’ve still got games like Fez and Journey, but it’s disheartening to think that major developers would rather throw their money behind a Call of Duty clone -- or barring that, just making their franchise more like Call of Duty.  Why?  Would it really be so hard to make a game that’s got more style?  Wouldn’t it raise more eyebrows and draw more interest to have a game that looks and feels and connects like a Pixar movie, rather than just give gamers the same old, same old?  Wouldn’t it be better to create a game that appeals to inlaid childish sensibilities to draw a response out of them, rather than just making bigger and grittier set-pieces?

Maybe that’s why I think Nintendo “won” E3.  They may not have had an amazing showing, but you know what?  I think that they succeeded merely by virtue of Pikmin 3.  Nintendo gets games.  They’ll screw up as well, no question, but Skyward Sword has some genuinely emotional moments that I -- young, present-day, or future me -- can’t ignore, and wouldn’t be out of place in a Pixar movie.  I’ve yet to forget the charm and whimsy and imagination present in Super Mario Galaxy.  And clearly, their pals at Retro Studios can pick up the slack, at least if Donkey Kong Country Returns is anything to go by.  I think that if there’s any company that can crack the Pixar Code (if they haven’t already), it’s Nintendo.     


I play games to have fun.  Don’t we all?  In that sense, gamers -- regardless of age -- aren’t all that different from children.  Our tastes aren’t one hundred percent dissimilar; at our basest, we want something that wows us, entertains us, and leaves us with a smile on our faces.  Being a “kid’s game” is just one way to accomplish that.  But it doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be considered a weakness or an unflattering label.  It can be a game’s strength.  It can let developers tap into their imaginations, and stimulate us no matter how old we are.

So to answer my brother: yes.  Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One may very well be a kid’s game.  And that’s all I could ever ask for.

6 comments:

  1. Brad @ Cheap Boss AttackSeptember 12, 2012 at 1:15 AM

    Maybe "kid's game" is just code for "fun game" or something, I don't know. I'm always on the lookout for couch co-op games and the Playstation Store had All 4 One free for PSN Plus subscribers (which I am), but my download failed at 30-ish% and I never started it over before they removed it. Honestly, I've never actually played a Ratchet & Clank game and I've had a PS2 since launch day.. soooo yeah, that part. It was the same with Jak & Daxter. I never played a single one until I bought the HD Collection.

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  2. Couch co-op games...come to think of it, not very many come to mind, at least in my experience. We usually just end up playing games where we can kill each other.


    But I guess there are games out there worth checking out. Little Big Planet and Trine are cool, and of course there's always Castle Crashers. Also, Trauma Team has co-op (though I may just be mentioning that one because I'll take any chance I can to promote it).


    But to slide back on-topic (so to speak)...


    "Maybe 'kid's game' is just code for 'fun game' or something, I don't know."


    That's actually an interesting idea. I mean, games by nature are supposed to be fun or rewarding in some capacity, but I wonder if that's necessarily the case. I find Gears of War fun in the rewarding sense -- though not at all in the intellectual sense, obviously -- but in terms of aesthetic, or even spiritual fun...I don't know. That's one of the codifiers of the "real is brown" movement, I think, and it puts a smile on my face for a markedly different reason that LBP does. I'd argue that "kid's game" and "fun game" don't have to be mutually exclusive...but, that's neither here nor there.


    Anyway, thanks for checking out another of my world-famous rants.

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  3. I almost wish I knew some of these games so that i can support or disagree...but I don't. Nevertheless I do have an idea about kids games these days and some of them are perplexing. I was visiting a friends who has a small child and who was watching her favorite cartoon...some metal monsters clubbing each other and then carrying the head of the defeated...too extreme if you ask me.

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  4. "...
    some metal monsters clubbing each other and then carrying the head of the defeated..."


    Seems par for the course. I happened to watch Mulan the other day, and it was heavily implied that a soldier was decapitated and his head was scooped out of his helmet, no doubt for bragging rights by the Huns. Disney: baring its fangs since 1998. (And well before that, given The Lion King, Aladdin, The Great Mouse Detective, Bambi, and depending on one's perspective Alice in Wonderland.)


    I'll concede that video games -- and lots of other media aimed at children -- can get pretty violent, bloodless or not. Still, I can understand why (especially considering video games): conflict and combat are important parts of the package, and help define both the product and its character. They're a necessary evil...well, necessary in the sense that it's easier to rely on "conflict made cool" to sell your product.


    I still wouldn't mind seeing a cartoon based on inter-dimensional diplomacy, though. Imagine the lessons it could teach!

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  5. Damn, really late to the party. Life kicked my ass this past week, and I have found a short reprieve before it resumes its ass-kicking tomorrow, so I may as well pitch into the conversation while I still can.

    I've never gotten into the Ratchet & Clank series, since I don't own any Sony game systems, but it seems like good-natured fun. Too bad I'm a broke-ass college student who can't seem to get the money for anything except food and tuition. And Nintendo games, apparently. (I might need to rethink my priorities...)

    I am definitely in agreement with the gist of this article, that a game, tv show, whatever, doesn't have to be strictly defined by "kiddie", "casual", "hardcore", or any other terms of the day.

    Adventure Time, like MLP:FIM is a very well-written show that belies a lot of stuff under the surface: I wasn't even aware of the fact that it's set in a post-apocalyptic Earth until someone else pointed it out to me some months ago, and now I can't stop seeing it. And while I haven't actually watched an episode of MLP (I don't know why, somehow I feel insecure about watching a show about ponies aimed at little girls) it still intrigues me that so many older people find things to like in it.

    In many of these "hardcore" games where it's supposed to be all doom and gloom and super serious, I am always distracted by the stupidest stuff and spend hours goofing off. Even though I'm supposed to be making a mad dash to stop the Covenant from firing the Ark and destroying life in the galaxy in Halo 3, I'm screwing around in a Hornet and blasting bodies off cliffs because isn't that fun?!

    Conversely, I have found some extremely emotionally moving or truly horrifying parts in otherwise fun-filled happy games. Like with SS (which is my favorite Zelda game for screwing around in), the stuff that happens to the main characters are on par with Pixar movies in terms of how they make me cry like a little girl. (I'll never forget that prologue in Up or that incinerator scene!) Or in Ocarina of Time, whereas the vast majority of it is a fun epic quest, the Shadow Temple has a very thick horror vibe to it, and the Dead Hand still scares the evel-loving shit out of me. (I just went back to that part yesterday after not playing OoT in several years, thinking that, with all the time since then, I'd be desensitized to it. NOPE! He's even more horrifying than I remembered!)

    Getting back to point, though: I have a hard time getting into games that work too hard to adhere to a strict sense of "casual" or "hardcore". Why would I want to get into Gears of War? It's just machismo brown-shooters of the highest caliber, and that totally turns me off. Or Call of Duty? I have no wish to be a U.S. soldier, why would I want to play a game where all you do is run around and shoot the heads off Russians or brown people? That's so racist I don't even know where to start. And Wii Fit just bores me, and it seems like a waste of money to me.

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  6. ADVENTURE TIME. YES. I admit that I haven't seen a lot of episodes, but every time I do, I'm thoroughly entranced. At the very least, thanks to shows like that (and My Little Pony, by extension), no one can say cartoons today suck compared to the 80s and 90s.


    Back on-topic. To be honest, there's nothing inherently wrong with "doom and gloom games." The problem -- as I've probably stated/implied elsewhere, and am probably sounding like a broken record because of it -- is that there's TOO MUCH doom and gloom in games right now. Destructoid's Jim Sterling discussed it not too long ago; there are lots of games with doom and gloom (and guns), but more importantly there's nothing to offset it. Skyward Sword and Little Big Planet are godsends, but even they can't hold their own against the brown and gray tsunami that's gripped the industry.


    Sigh...well, at least there are still downloadable titles that "get it." Which reminds me, I need to get around to playing more Cave Story.


    At any rate, hang in there Quaffler. Life may kick your ass sometimes, but once you take your beating you can kick back twice as hard. With iron boots. Or something. Maybe...maybe, like, put some spikes on your shoe. And some rockets. And flame decals. This is a really weird train of thought, so I'll just say good luck on your end and leave it at that.

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