Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Chibi-Robo and the House of Troubles

The house is a mess. Muddy trudge-tracks around all the doors, junk-food wrappers and empty cans kicked into corners and under tables, back patio covered with dog doo, flies circling the fruit bowl, filth on the countertops, oily stains on the walls. Dad’s an unemployed – and probably unemployable – man-child obsessed with junk-culture superheroes, kicked out of the conjugal bed as punishment for blowing the family’s meagre budget on electronic toys and action figures. Mom’s locked herself in her bedroom, depressed and despairing, her last communication with her family a simple note that ended with the word “divorce.” Little Jenny has serious emotional and developmental problems, communicating only in gibberish “frog language,” responding to her crumbling home life by retreating into fantasy. And late at night, while this unhappy family drowses, deranged toys dance in the dark…

Damn, Chibi-Robo is bleak! What a bait-and-switch. On the surface, everything looks stereotypically Gamecube: adorable characters, bright n’ shiny cartoon design, lots of exclaimation marks, etc... and gameplay that’s based on collecting Happy Points. Ten minutes in, that veneer begins to peel away. With each stain you scrub, each load of trash you toss into the wastebasket, this portrait of a family in crisis becomes a little clearer, a little sadder. Once the limited charms of the game itself have expired and the critic in you is screaming “You’re playing a crappy game!”, you’ll hang on through the repetition and frustration, grit your teeth against the squirrelly controls and bull your way through the boredom just to see what’s next for these poor folks. Twenty hours I sunk into this madness the other week; twenty solid, potentially productive, daylight hours of “Fuck!” “Shit-ass-shit!” and “God-fucking-damnit-fuck!”, all to catch the next twist of the knife.

And then there’s the nighttime soap opera, which is another thing entirely. A landlocked wooden pirate, a relentlessly bombastic action figure, a porcelain guru, a phobic princess, an army of eggs, a lovestruck chew toy, a depressed mummy, a bipolar junky teddy bear… the world of Chibi-Robo is populated with desperate, broken souls in need of a tiny little silver robot to fix their problems and release their inner Happy Points. The puzzles aren’t very puzzling – most of the challenge is cheap – but as with the travails of Mom, Dad and Sis you’ll keep running around fetching stuff for these losers, captivated by the emotional trainwreck of Toy Society.

It sucks that such captivation – and in this hack industry, anything that takes the tiniest step beyond clich├ę can captivate – nestles in the heart of a game that’s such a total pain in the ass to actually play, that’s encrusted with so many unnecessarily unpleasant aesthetic elements. I’m a sucker for games set at tabletop scale – Mister Mosquito, Toy Commander and Katamari Damacy are in my top-twenty, top-ten and top-five, respectively – and in my heart I hoped Chibi-Robo would give me what I wanted: a domestic Legend of Zelda with bookshelves as mountains, parquet flooring as trackless desert, cupboards as castles, dungeons down in the ducts. What I got was visuals that evoke Dreamcast feelings but suffer in comparison, controls that even after half a workweek of play still feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and music that…

…oh, the music. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Katamari; maybe my standards have been set too high now that I know it’s even possible for a game to feature pop music you don’t want to turn off after five minutes. But, man, Chibi-Robo’s tunes get on your nerves... and you can’t shut them off. Neither can you shut off – or skip – the ear-jangling sampled babble that accompanies the characters’ long speeches. The soundscape becomes so unbearable, you end up muting the audio entirely… which is kind of a shame because the action sounds of Chibi himself are excellent, music in their own right.

There’s lots of beard-stroking talk – some of it mine – about the nature of games as art, and because comparison to film is usually made the discussion tends to centre around narrative, around writing: whether or not storytelling in games can match cinema storytelling. Chibi-Robo is a reminder that while the writing can be a central part of the work – in this case, the iconoclastic ideas and cracked-mirror characters were all that kept me coming past ten minutes – games must succeed or fail first and foremost as games. Twenty/thirty hours of relentless anti-fun to get at a TV episode’s worth of narrative, no matter how interesting, is a really shitty deal.

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