For everyone outside of Valve Software, Half-Life 2: Episode 3 remains an enigma. We don’t know if we’ll guide Gordon Freeman through a derelict space station crawling with zombies, a windswept and dusty post-apocalyptic desert inhabited by zombies, or an Eastern European city torn apart by opposing armies (and zombies). Episode 3 could conceivably include any of these stock gaming locations. Blasted cityscapes and zombies wouldn’t even be a new direction for the franchise. One thing that’s virtually guaranteed about Episode 3, however, is that you won’t find yourself in a sprawling candy factory dodging frosted donuts the size of cars.
That might seem like a non sequitur but isn’t. That candy factory actually exists in another game. It also floats in the clouds and parts of it are built out of sweets; there are buildings made from layered cake and towers capped by giant ice cream cones. It’s crisscrossed by broad highways and looping candy cane rails – all the better for running around on. It’s Sweet Mountain from Sonic Colors, and what’s remarkable isn’t that it’s so deliriously constructed but that by the standards of children’s games, that kind of environment is fairly normal.
A funny picture from a recent article on Cracked.com compared screenshots from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Killzone 3, and the revamped Medal of Honor. The joke was that you couldn’t tell them apart. It’s an easy laugh that isn’t entirely fair, but it’s a reflection of perennial complaints about the lack of variety in videogame environments. Until the phenomenal success of the first Modern Warfare, seemingly every military shooter was set in the ruined cities and villages of World War II Germany; after Modern Warfare, they’ve been collectively reimagined into the Middle East and the post-Soviet Russian countryside. Fantasy-themed games aren’t much better. They all tend to look like minor variations on Tolkien’s Middle-earth by way of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. And seriously, has there been an M-rated game released this past year that hasn’t included some variety of zombie?
Games made for kids – or games made for those Wii-owning, Kinect-buying “general audiences” – provide a delightful relief from the shopworn environments and enemies of games made for adults. Unfettered by the hardcore market’s dictate for realism, children’s games have been able to create surreal worlds populated by strange creatures wholly unlike those found in most titles aimed at older audiences.
The Super Mario Galaxy games alone are packed to the brim with colorful, creative landscapes. As with Sonic‘s Sweet Mountain, the levels in the Mario Galaxy games often zero in on the potential of everyday objects and transform them into architecture. One memorable level in Super Mario Galaxy 2 folds and collapses like a pop-up storybook to raise a castle from the flat ground and then lower it again. At other times, the games leave behind the logic of our real world entirely and use the galactic setting as a conceit for fantasias of improbably-shaped planetoids and otherworldly creatures like giant hippos made of lava and chomping ghost heads that trail negative space behind them.
Even when children’s games tack more toward reality, they do so in unexpected ways. LittleBigPlanet offers players a homemade world where boots are boots instead of buildings, but they’ve been rigged up with yarn and crayon-covered cardboard so that they swing and stomp like standard platforming hazards. Enemies are made from feathers and buttons and other craft store parts. “We all have a soft spot for that look because it reminds us of our childhood,” says Khareem Ettouney, the game’s art director. “It’s like when you are in school and you’ve got a school play. You don’t have a multimillion budget to do your production, so you just go in the garage and see what you have. It’s very practical.”
Environments and props that are common in adult games are different when designed for a kids’ game. 2009’s overlooked gem A Boy and His Blob wanders through forests and caves as many adult games do, but its lovely hand-painted artwork shows you those places how you saw them as a child – the way they were mysterious and dark without being threatening. How you longed to explore deeper into them because they were vast, almost endless, and there absolutely had to be an adventure in there.
Mixing a few children’s games into a stream of adult games can break the monotony of warzones and space stations and can even make some of those places feel fresh again. Unfortunately, adults have a tendency to turn their heads at the prospect of playing games made for younger players.
Some of the most memorable, imaginative places in popular culture have come from works intended for children: the bathhouse from Spirited Away, Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts Castle, and the grandfather of them all, the great Emerald City of Oz. But while it’s acceptable for adults to anticipate the next book by J.K. Rowling or to go out to see the latest Pixar release, there seems to be a stigma in the gaming community against children’s games. A select few franchises are spared from this (mainline Mario and Zelda games get a pass) but at times, kids’ games feel like the best kept secret of gaming.
Children’s games aren’t categorically less difficult or less sophisticated, mechanically and emotionally, than adult games. There are surely people who will say, for example, that the high-level zones in Rune Factory Frontier weren’t hard for them, but most players will find those areas to be challenging. Likewise, that game’s relationship and crafting systems are as intricate as any found in role-playing games aimed at older audiences.
And while kids’ games aren’t as violent or profane as their grown-up counterparts, they’re not all sunshine and rainbows, either. “I don’t think it’s too hard trying to make a visually dark theme that’s fun and not too mature,” says Marc Gomez, art director for A Boy and His Blob. “The hard part I think is trying to work a design that stays away from certain themes that publishers want you to avoid because it clashes with their license. This happens on occasion, but it’s just a matter of finding alternatives that don’t modify gameplay too much.” A Boy and His Blob certainly has its share of darkness. The game’s enemies are creepy, Miyazaki-like blobs with glowing yellow eyes. The evil Emperor’s castle is decorated with grim skull motifs, and the enslaved inhabitants of Blobolonia hang in its hallways in cages.
The worlds created in children’s games are as rich as those in adult games, but adult players don’t always see that richness. The truth about these games is that they might suffer for being played by adults not because of anything lacking in them but because of our expectations. The ways in which people approach the games they play are critical in shaping their experiences with them. If they expect that a game will be simplified or dumbed-down, then they will inevitably notice the ways in which it could have been more robust. Adults who play kids’ games expecting an experience that’s inherently inferior to what they’d get from a more mature title will more than likely receive exactly that.
This isn’t to say that adults should check any and all criticism at the door. A game that isn’t fun is just that: not fun, and it’s not necessarily going to become more fun if you just try harder to like it. Rather, this means that to fully embrace the unique worlds kids’ games have to offer, adults should bring to them the same openness that kids themselves bring. Warren Spector, director of Disney’s Epic Mickey, said, “The amazing thing about kids is how accepting they are, how open-minded, how playful. We’ve watched children and adults play [our game] now and kids just ‘get’ it. They instinctively experiment and explore and play without fear of looking silly, without fear of failure, without expectations about how the world should look and feel. Adults overthink things, try to avoid embarrassment or failure and, yes, I think they expect things, graphically, that have nothing to do with gameplay or fun.”
It can be entertaining to kvetch about the sameness of videogames, but that sells the medium short. There are more experiences to be had than that of a jarhead with an M40 or a bald space marine in yet another space station. You don’t need to surrender your copies of Dragon Age or Dead Space, but if you’re feeling like you’ve already seen everything on offer, consider a game for a different audience.
And with Plants vs. Zombies, you wouldn’t even have to give up the zombies.
Adam Greenbrier has only animated movies and The Wire in his Netflix queue. You can read more of his thoughts at his newly minted blog, The Clockwork House.