Life as a Neolithic farmer couldn’t have been easy. For our early ancestors, clad in fetid animal skins and armed with little more than a horse’s jawbone, existence would have been harsh and brutal; a grinding, unpredictable war against nature, the elements, predators and rival tribes, with no supermarket to provide instant food. It would take a few thousand years of selective breeding and cultivating before we could ride the first horse, milk the first cow, or grow the first crops of wheat.

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Since the industrial revolution took the majority of the human population from the field and into the factory, we have, as a society, gradually lost touch with nature. Our meat comes wrapped in cellophane, our vegetables pre-washed in plastic bags.

In the majority of games, nature is nothing more than verdant wallpaper, a leafy theme for the combat occurring in the foreground. We’re perhaps dimly aware of the parakeets flying overhead as we blast away at khaki-clad goons in the first section of Far Cry, and we may pause occasionally to take note of the shoal of tropical fish swimming in the sea. But such creatures have no life of their own, and are not integral to the game.

For a species once steeped in agriculture, it’s a little surprising that so few games accurately describe humanity’s symbiotic – and often strange – relationship with the natural world; that one of the few titles to do so is a children’s game full of multi-colored paper animals is more surprising still.

UK developer Rare, stealthily bought from Nintendo by Microsoft in 2002, was previously notable for the seminal console shooter Goldeneye 007 and the platforming antics of Banjo Kazooie. Their first game under the patronage of Microsoft, Viva Piñata, was intended to usher in a new era of family-friendly entertainment on the Xbox 360. Created in conjunction with 4Kids Entertainment television, it was intended to be a gardening simulation full of sunshine, seed planting and gentle animal nurturing.

A cursory glance around Viva Piñata‘s sunny world of creatures, flowers and trees tells you little about the darker elements lurking below the surface. Playing the game for the first time, I dismissed it as little more than a child’s toy, a digital play house full of sweet graphics and flower arranging. But under the game’s saccharine shell lurks a very adult center, for Viva Piñata‘s apparently innocent exterior is a thin veil for its hidden themes of sex, death and occasionally startling cruelty. The anthropomorphism of Sonic the Hedgehog, or the distracting, RPG-like human relationships of Harvest Moon is nowhere to be seen. In Viva Piñata, you can batter hedgehogs with shovels, and feed geese to crocodiles.

You start small. Presented with little more than a shovel and a packet of grass seeds, it’s your job to take a tiny patch of scrubland – overgrown, full of stones and bits of old tin – and turn it into lush, thriving garden. From these unusually mundane opening moments (which must rank among the least promising in videogame history), Viva Piñata gradually opens into something far deeper and more engaging. When the soil is prepared and the seeds sown, the first animals begin to visit. Worms arrive first, attracted by your freshly dug pasture.

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You gradually ascend a ladder of increasingly exotic new species, where nurturing the lower orders attracts animals higher up the food chain. Just as worms attract sparrows, growing carrots attracts rabbits which in turn attract foxes, while digging a pond draws in waterfowl and amphibians.

Before long, you’re managing a garden teeming with life and activity, learning which animals can co-exist peacefully without eating or fighting one another, all while keeping a watchful eye on your borders for Sour Piñata, the wild animals that frequently invade your garden and cause mayhem.

Rare may have been cunning enough to sugar-coat its themes of reproduction and death with its whimsical presentation, but their presence is key to Viva Piñata‘s gameplay. Sex is euphemistically termed “romancing,” and each species of animal has its own specific set of requirements which must be fulfilled to encourage them to breed. Sparrows, for example, must be fed two worms and have their own house, while more advanced species, such as elephants or deer, have more obscure requirements which are trickier to attain (bizarrely, pigeons must be purchased a camera accessory before they’ll reproduce).

Perhaps understandably for a game aimed at children, the act of reproduction is one of the few areas where Viva Piñata diverges noticeably from natural reality. Upon the completion of an incongruous Pac-Man influenced mini-game (and an even more curious “romance dance” victory cutscene), newborn piñatas will, regardless of their species, hatch from eggs.

But if the depiction of breeding is less than accurate, the presence of death in Viva Piñata is ever-present and uncompromising, and the game even has its own Grim Reaper in the spectral form of the piñata-killing witch doctor Dastardos, and takes great pleasure in breaking a sick piñata with his stick. The fragility of life, meanwhile, can be seen everywhere: Without water, plants wither and perish, fallen fruit rots, and without a vet, sick animals will die.

In a medium where pet simulation games are often only slightly more convincing than a Tamagotchi, Viva Piñata‘s animals are unique in their personality and behavior, and even the most icy-hearted gamer can become attached to them. The sudden and unexpected death of one of your animals – a crocodile perhaps, who you’ve tamed, named Gucci and lovingly adorned with a gold tooth and eye patch – evokes an outpouring of genuine sadness.

In fact, playing Viva Piñata requires a steely resolve, and a farmer’s lack of sentimentality. As sweet and disarming as the game’s animals are, you’ll inevitably find yourself beating newts to death to prevent them from eating your plants, or feeding an unsuspecting squirrel to a badger to encourage it to breed.

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Because in Viva Piñata, breeding, collecting and cultivation are the only objectives; there’s no plot to follow, and no boss battles or endgame to reach. Its sole challenge is derived from managing the constantly growing plot of land, and attracting and breeding the animals that flock to it in ever increasing numbers.

Like a real garden, Viva Piñata can be approached in any way you like; you can specialize in breeding chickens, selling the resulting offspring for a few chocolate coins to pay for accessories and the inevitable veterinary bills. You can build pens to keep your animals neatly segregated, or you can choose to let them roam free, though this inevitably increases the chance of conflict between incompatible species. Give a copy of Viva Piñata to inquisitive aliens, and it would provide them with all the information they could ever need about the human race’s strange relationship with the animal kingdom. In our society, some animals are revered, others reviled and many subjugated. We humans consume around 50 tons of beef every single year. We keep birds in cages, giraffes in zoos, and tiny dogs in hand bags. The game depicts the mundane brutality of a society that once survived by living off the land, but where now one man’s pet is another man’s dinner.

Viva Piñata is a constant wrestling match between the human desire for order and nature’s descent into chaos. Like Sisyphus eternally pushing his rock up a hill only to see it roll back down again, the life of a Piñata gardener is a thankless toil. The average Piñata garden is always changing, and only constant nurturing will prevent its return to anarchy. But toil and nurture you will, because Viva Piñata taps into some ancient instinct to cultivate – despite the repetitive nature of its menial tasks, there’s a curious pleasure to be had from breeding sheep, building hen houses and planting trees. As naive and innocent as it first appears, Viva Piñata appeals to the forgotten Neolithic farmer that dwells dormant within all of us.

Ryan Lambie hails from the soggy recesses of England. His blog can be found at www.ryanlambie.co.uk.

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