Search for the word “happy” in the gaming section of any online retailer and you’ll find some creepy attempts at helping us get our happy on. On the cover of Hello Kitty: Happy Party Pals, the titular kitty giggles like she’s just spiked the frosting of her unwitting guests’ cupcakes in some bizarre riff on the Jonestown massacre. The cover of Playmobil: Laura’s Happy Adventure shows the game’s diamond-clutching heroine wearing an admittedly happy grin, but since it’s the same grin she’d have if she was being gnawed on by a pack of hyenas, she’s disqualified from the happy race. In fact, the harder you look for happiness in games, the weirder things get.
The fact is, since the early days of the industry happiness hasn’t been that high on game developers’ agendas. Sure, zapping wave after wave of space invading aliens is pleasurable, but you’d never stop to imagine that the pilot of your tiny pixelated ship is smiling. Q*Bert isn’t known for yelps of joy when he turned a tile the correct color: He’s known for swearing when things don’t go his way, like any good hero would.
Give us a life simulator where we can guide our little virtual selves through a wholesome childhood, a trouble-free adolescence and, ultimately, a calming game of rock-paper-scissors with the Grim Reaper and we’ll speed up the arrival of Mr. Death by dropping our on-screen puppets into a pool with no ladder or a room with no doors. Next to an open fireplace. And a malfunctioning oven. Then get their neighbor to paint a picture of them as they burn to death. While soaked in urine.
We’ll all pretend to be stadium-straddling monsters in Guitar Hero or Rock Band while our on-screen personas celebrate like it’s 1999 all over again, but there’s going to be that Naked Lunch moment when you realize exactly what’s on the end of your fork. No, you’re not a rock god. No, there isn’t a tour van outside, full of champagne-fuelled groupies. You’re standing, probably in your underwear, with a glorified, micro-sized “my first guitar” slung over your shoulder, looking like an idiot in front of an audience that consists only of your cats. Or perhaps that’s just how I play it.
You shouldn’t have a rock hero or guitar band release without at least one mini-game where you end up choking on your own vomit. Or in expert mode, maybe someone else’s vomit. Without that, it’s just Samba De Amigo with Red Hot Chilli Peppers tunes. And if that image doesn’t haunt you for the next few days, you’re a stronger gamer than I.
That’s why when game developers do try to peddle happiness to us, the effect is more repellent than endearing. And one developer dominates the darkest depths of happytown: Nintendo.
In their quirky god game Doshin the Giant, the orange behemoth seems perpetually happy as he wanders around the land, absorbing the love of local villagers. His smile would surely slip, however, if he realized that if he manages to complete his quest and build enough monuments to satisfy the gods, the island he’s been toiling on would be destroyed and slip forever under the sea.
Think about the poor islanders for a bit. If they overlook the fact that there’s a giant novelty creature that wouldn’t look out of place in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade constantly restructuring and reshaping their landscape, accept that they need to build bizarre tributes to the creature (because after all, what else would you do for a jaundiced version of the Incredible Hulk?), and raise their children to worship the freakish thing, too, it’ll all be for nothing because they’re going to get wiped out in the end. We’re talking Shakespearian levels of tragedy here, perhaps bordering on biblical. Even when Doshin morphs into his evil alter-ego, his fixed grin remains. And don’t even get me started on the “love makes me bigger, but then in the morning I’m normal sized” thing again.
Viva Piñata is sold as a garden simulator, but my garden has never been used to explain in quick succession sex, birth and death to small children. Well, hardly ever. There’s a genuine feeling of joy the first time you attract some worms (sorry, “whirlms”) into your garden. They’re adventurers. Innovative, brave little things that are willing to explore new ground even though you’re probably spending most of your time whacking it with a spade. When you first get them to do their romance dance, you feel like a god among men.
Yet before too long, these romantic, brave creatures that were bold enough to be the first ones to venture onto your patch of earth become food for bigger, better piñata. They’re not ambassadors anymore: They’re snacks. It’s like Christopher Columbus reporting back from his voyage to an uninhabited (OK, almost uninhabited) new world, and being turned into hamburger for his trouble. Don’t worry about Manhunt making kids go nuts. Wait 15 years and see what the Viva Piñata generation thinks is normal in relationships. Things will get messy.
It’s Mario that typifies the darkest kind of happiness, however. Really, how happy can he be each time he finally rescues the Princess when part of his brain knows that it’s just a matter of time before the careless matriarch will be snapped up again by Bowser? It must be tempting to pack it all in and go back to a career as a plumber. And you know that your current vocation must be bad if wading through sewage seems like a more tempting alternative. The start of Mario Kart should, by rights, look very different. If the Princess felt one iota of gratitude, the second the race started she’d career around the track knocking every other driver out of the way to let Mario scream past. But she doesn’t. Suddenly, cross-fecal contamination doesn’t seem that bad a career hazard.
Yet it’s a slightly younger hero – and one that has an even harder time of it than Mario – who sums up all things bad about happiness in gaming. Although I’ve never been to a Coulrophobic’s Anonymous meeting, even I’ll admit clowns are scary, and Circus Charlie is no exception. This 1984 platform game from Konami saw players struggle to get Charlie the Clown through a series of performances to please the immobile, faceless audience. An audience who apparently are used to gladiatorial style displays of death, because Charlie doesn’t just have to tame lions – he has to ride them. Through rings of fire. And while I’ve never reached Steve Irwin levels of animal mastery, I’m pretty sure that while regular lions are quite dangerous, lions that are on fire are, even if just for a short time, considerably more so.
Even the act of walking a tightrope takes on a sadistic tone – he has to walk it while stepping over monkeys. Monkeys that are trained to knock him off the aforementioned tightrope. As for the trapeze, you’d struggle to find a circus performer who could pull off tricks like Charlie’s while dodging knives thrown by his colleagues. And through it all, Charlie’s grin never slips. Even if his lion’s mane has just caught on fire.
I owe Circus Charlie a debt of gratitude. Not a huge one, which settles the score after Pennywise from Stephen King’s It haunted my dreams during my formative years, but a debt of gratitude nonetheless, because while trying to get our hero through another flaming ring of fire, a realization hit me: Games, like clowns, fake happiness.
All this time, I’ve been misplacing my fear. Like the clown, games slap a veneer of smileyness over an intrinsically dark storyline and ask us to accept it. From Mario and Doshin to Circus Charlie and Hello Kitty, it’s a bitter recipe – worse than anything from Cooking Mama. We shouldn’t embrace this culture of happiness in games. We should snub it. The message to game developers is crystal clear: What you think pleases us frankly doesn’t.
Give us high death counts. Give us 200-year-old radio messages pleading for us to help sick children, and punch us in the stomach when we find their skeletal remains. Give us wave after wave of alien, determined to chainsaw us in half. Above all, remember: To keep players happy, you have to make them miserable.
Dean Reilly is happier than you might think teaching game development to students in the U.K. You can find out more at www.sutcol.ac.uk.