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  • Crime of a Mâché Nation: The Condescension of Viva Piñata

    - Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
  •  Viva Piñata was supposed to be Microsoft's mainstream breakthrough and Rare's return to form after years of... well, Star Fox Adventures. More than that, it was supposed to be the game that showed why Microsoft paid so much money for Rare, almost five years ago now. The problem is, the game wasn't really meant to carry all this weight. At its core, this is a modest, intimate, and difficult game - difficult in the sense that, despite its charm, it's more exclusive than it is inclusive.

    Somewhere along the way, someone important missed the point and decided to lump an impossible burden of responsibility onto the game, little of which really gelled with the game's own goals. The result is a neat little creation that can't decide who its audience is supposed to be or how to relate to that audience.

    I have this picture in my head of the game squirming into its early expo showings as a rough concept or technology demo, more to illustrate the variety of ideas that Rare has kicking around than as a real, major project. Then when the press starts taking it seriously, someone with a big desk calls the programmers into a meeting. "Hey guys," he says, "we've got something big here! This is the chance we've been waiting for to put Rare on top again. Not only that, we can expand Microsoft's target demographic. Don't answer me now: what do you say to... an animated series?"

    And so is hell wrought.

    The damnedest thing is that, had this game escaped under the radar - had it just been allowed to do its thing - it could have been a minor gem. Instead... well, I need to work this remark in somehow. Having watched me wile half a day puttering with the game, my partner commented, her voice soggy with disappointment, "It makes me sad that the game keeps forcing me to hate it." The end product is so desperate to please everybody that it keeps getting in everyone else's way.

    Those drawn to the core design will be frustrated by the game's limitations and constant interference. Those drawn in by the cute characters and presentation will be frustrated by the game's relentless pace and conflicting goals. It's a loss of control all around. Worst of all, the game is so paranoid that somebody might not "get" it, because it's supposed to be the kid-friendly "mainstream" game, that it never shuts up and never completely lets go of the player's hand.

    And that's the second most galling thing about Viva Piñata: nobody likes to be patronized, least of all by an entertainment product that she paid good money for, which is asking her to invest further hours of her life. Spinning it as a kids' product just makes the offense all the more damning; children deserve better than adults anyway, and adults have little patience for pap.

    The most galling thing is that Viva Piñata is, at its heart, a good game: a charming, memorable concept, held down by a trunk full of the most inane problems. Result: playing the game, I feel like something innocent has had the life choked out of it. By accident, just because of poor judgment by people who should know better. As she said, it makes me sad.

    Well, let's take a look at how it's put together, shall we.

    What Is It?

    A cynical person might call Viva Piñata Rare's simultaneous answer to Pikmin, Animal Crossing, and Pokémon. That's certainly what Nintendo's George Harrison calls it, and considering whence Rare gets most of its inspiration... well, I'm not going to argue with the expert. In a nutshell, this is a real-time strategy game involving the stewardship of a garden filled with collectible animals. The player is given a whackadoodle story, a small, crusted plot of land, and a shovel, then told to get to work terraforming the place. Soon piñatas arrive, and the game becomes more about rearing them, the actual gardening becoming more a support mechanism than an end in itself.

    The design problem with an open-ended "god game" like this is in establishing a structure: what the player is building toward, and how. Usually the solution is causally-based: the player's actions within the game environment naturally open up new options appropriate to the new context that has been created, until eventually the player is granted complete discretion over the game's resources. Viva Piñata instead chooses the RPG convention of "levels". The game allots the player experience points for various specific accomplishments, and level increases for specific experience tallies. When the player attains certain levels, the game unlocks new material, increasing both the player's control options and the potential for random threats and events.

    The real focus, though, isn't so much on design as on presentation. And there's nothing wrong with that, if the design is elegant enough. Between its lilting music, Pixaresque creature design, wobbly animation, guttural sound effects, and the solid feeling of place to its setting, the game weaves a spell on the senses. It's cute, yet not saccharine. Just going by outward appearances, the game feels warm, gentle, a little weird, a little witty - and, like everything of substance, just a little dark. Like Animal Crossing, it's a place that practically demands the player visit, explore, putter, and maybe develop a sort of second home.

    What's a little more worrisome is a Saturday morning veneer painted over the top of the subtler, more emotionally angular base coat. I had a friend over the first time I booted up the game. Within thirty seconds of its intro - "Viva Piñata / Filled with fun / (Filled with fun!)" - he asked me if there was a tie-in cartoon series. And... actually, yes there is, as ill-advised as it might be. Having never watched the cartoon, it is blatantly obvious what parts of the game have been added in effort to appeal to kids drawn in from the licensing. These elements - which mostly take the form of prerendered movies and voice-overs - tend to be loud, fast-paced, and subtly obnoxious in their effort to convince the player that the game is the hippest, most attitudinal thing in town. Also, the Piñatas all talk and appear to have distinct personalities. Contrast this with the game's dumb, grunting little beasts pitted against each other in a struggle for life and reproduction.

    Though misrepresentational and kind of annoying, this barfy layer isn't too much of a crime. What's worse is that the mindset which ordered this shift in presentation seems to have also had an influence on the underlying design.


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