Grow Home: From Birth to Puberty

by Jim Bevan

Grow Home from Ubisoft Reflections is deceptively simple. You control a Botanic Utility Droid (B.U.D.) that must cultivate an alien flower, known as a Star Plant, so that its seeds can be brought to a spaceship for further analysis. The story echoes Jack and the Beanstalk along with Wall-E (see the robot’s janky motions and ability to “speak” through electronic sound effects). But I interpreted B.U.D.’s journey as more than a massive gardening mission. Grow Home is a compelling depiction of the growth from childhood to adolescence.

B.U.D. is very much like a child at the start of the game. Aside from the double meaning of his floral acronym, consider how his adventure begins. Like a newborn baby, he’s launched out of the ship that carried him for more than three years. After landing on the surface, his first movements are unstable and awkward, making it difficult for you to maneuver him. It’s incredibly easy to fall, and the robot often must hold onto surfaces to stay balanced. Aside from providing some challenge, B.U.D.’s loose control hints at damage caused from the massive fall and parallels the struggle of learning to walk.

Grow Home

B.U.D.’s mission is dangerous as he learns about the perils of the world for the first time. Various things seem innocuous until you engage with them. Giant flytraps lay buried under the ground, ready to snap B.U.D. up if he walks over their leaves. Several climbable surfaces have loose rocks that will fall if grabbed, sending the robot hurtling back to the earth. Even spending a small amount of time in the water will short B.U.D. out and cause him to collapse. In a clever stroke that suggests childhood learning, some energy crystals needed to improve B.U.D.’s performance are located near these traps, leaving you to evaluate whether or not the reward is worth the risk, or if there’s another way to obtain the crystal that is safer than the first obvious solution.

The most compelling evidence of Grow Home’s metaphor for personal growth comes from the only dialogue in the game, provided by a computer intelligence referred to as MOM. MOM supervises B.U.D. on his mission, offering advice on how to proceed, providing insight on the parts of the world he discovers, and urging him to “play nice” with the creatures he encounters. It’s a not-so-subtle mother/child relationship, but initially I did have trouble understanding why MOM would say B.U.D. is “doing very good” after he’d been destroyed by falling or drowning. These comments can come off like a sarcastic jab, but they also reflect the parental urge to encourage children when they fail or suffer setbacks.

Grow Home

Some critics, such as Jim Sterling, have suggested that Grow Home contains sexual undertones, particularly in regard to the phallic imagery of the Star Plant’s growths. At first I dismissed these claims as easy jokes, but I can’t deny the connotations. After seeing B.U.D. guide a giant vine straddled between his legs, like Major Kong in the climax of Dr. Strangelove, as well as the pulsations of the growths when they make contact with an energy rock, it’s difficult to say there isn’t some suggestive imagery. But these visuals are an illustration of growth and maturing of the body rather than an immature innuendo.

The growths that B.U.D. activates aren’t the easiest to control. It’s fairly common for the camera angle to become inverted and throw you off as the growths desperately try to find the location of an energy rock and get back on track as quickly as possible. There’s always a risk of crashing the vine into another part of the landscape or of the vine’s growth to stop before reaching the glowing stones. If the growths are genitalia, their unpredictability represents the struggles of puberty, the recklessness associated with raging hormones.

The finale of the game cements the significance of B.U.D.’s journey, both mechanically and metaphorically. Standing atop the now blooming Star Plant, players can look down from their mile-high perch and observe how far they’ve come. Every mistake, every pile of remains from a previous robot that was destroyed, every alteration made to the landscape, all preserved in a persistent state to offer a tangible sense of progress. Yet the task isn’t over. Transporting a seed to the ship is more difficult than it might appear; it’s easy to misjudge the jumping angle or the necessary thrust of a jet pack before you successfully make the leap. The final transition in Grow Home suggests maturation is stressful and satisfying.

Female Protagonists: How An Indie Revolution May Never Happen

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: “AAA” is in quotation marks throughout this piece because of its presumption of high quality.

I have no great expectations for Ubisoft — or any other “AAA” company, for that matter. Don’t get me wrong: I want big-budget games to be good, especially the ones that I spend money on. But I have zero faith that a “AAA” game will inspire a revolution in regard to any worthwhile or interesting idea.

Anyone who keeps up with game writing knows that “AAA” female protagonists is a highly discussed topic. This discussion often comes in three forms:

1. Some people say a “AAA” game should have a female protagonist for purposes of representation and/or a new approach to a series. In response, some people say the company/developers/artists should have the freedom to do what they want with protagonists, while others dismiss the concern about female protagonists as something not worth thinking about, sometimes via insults and generally immature attitudes. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which was announced by Ubisoft at E3 (which has gone from a necessary informative event that excited me as a youngster to the most annoying game-related thing of the year that clogs up my Twitter feed, generally rendering any attempt to talk about games outside of a marketing context as futile, unwanted, and irrelevant). Even Time featured an article about the lack of playable female characters in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

2. Some people say a “AAA” game needs to handle its female protagonist in a different way. In response, some people do the exact same thing I described above. Others argue that perhaps the female protagonist in question is a good thing. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Rise of the Tomb Raider — another E3 announcement. Leigh Alexander wrote the most interesting piece on this subject.

3. Some people point out a “AAA” game will or might feature a female protagonist. This discussion doesn’t typically result in as much heated debate. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is the Zelda Wii U game announced by Nintendo at E3.

At this point in the year, it’s fairly obvious that if you’re talking about female protagonists, you’re talking about “AAA” female protagonists. While I don’t begrudge people for having these discussions … OK, that’s dishonest. Frankly, the “AAA” focus is a disservice to any current discussion about female protagonists. At the same time, it’s not impossible to understand why these discussions occur. Ubisoft is the reigning king of moronic PR. Male protagonists do tend to dominate “AAA” games. Leigh Alexander makes several fair points about how male and female “AAA” heroes are treated. And even I, the guy who hates E3, am intrigued by the idea that the new Zelda could star, well, Zelda.

Meanwhile, I highly doubt an indie revolution in regard to female protagonists can occur if the misleading “AAA” bias continues. When the most reassuring article about female protagonists focuses on “AAA” games featured at E3, we have a problem. In a world where we can read about indie games more than ever, it seems counterintuitive to say indies don’t receive the credit they deserve, but it’s true. Braid, Journey, and company have accomplished virtually nothing for indie games from a critical standpoint. Sure, people write and read about indies a lot. Yet discussions overwhelmingly lean toward what’s happening in the “AAA” sphere. The discussion about female protagonists is prime evidence of this trend.

Nevermind the question of whether it’s even a good idea for an immoral game series like Grand Theft Auto to include female protagonists. How about the fact that indies are doing things with female protagonists that critics rarely reference? When Rise of the Tomb Raider comes out, many will discuss Lara Croft’s therapy sessions for post-traumatic stress disorder, but will many bother to mention that The Cat Lady featured a female protagonist talking about her life and depression in therapy sessions? What if the new Zelda stars Zelda? Will anyone mention Shipwreck, the Zelda-inspired indie game starring a female protagonist? Indies even have trouble getting attention for doing completely different things with female protagonists. Last year, writers were happy to talk about Choice: Texas, a then-unreleased indie game about abortion featuring multiple female protagonists, when they could deem it a potentially controversial game. However, since going live on May 14, Choice: Texas can’t seem to get much attention from anyone. So much for controversy in regard to indie female protagonists, right?

Indeed, going by the current dialogue, readers will be lucky if they learn anything other than what big game companies announce, or fail to announce, at E3 in regard to female protagonists. The impression I get from many commentaries is that “AAA” games must function, at all costs, as the vanguard for female protagonists in gaming. Sounds like a nice prophecy to me: if “AAA” games do somehow spark a fantastic new trend in female protagonists, many can be happy that they, in a small way, contributed to the cause. An indie revolution is truly impossible when people look to the big studios for every answer to their critical concerns about female characters.

Child of Light: A False Prophet RPG

by Jed Pressgrove

As its rapturous title suggests, Child of Light is a cunning product for a gaming mainstream in need of hope. The game panders to the nth degree by throwing together a collection of enticing parts: the poetry, the “check me out” visuals, the Disney/Miyazaki allusions, the turn-based combat with “a real-time twist,” the crafting, the skill tree, the female protagonist, the puzzles. These trendy components help explain the cynical thesis of Arthur Gies’ review: “Child of Light is exactly the kind of game I never expected to play.” This remarkable level of cynicism implies that game things are only notable when they come from “AAA” companies with a bow on top.

I would like to agree with Jim Bevan’s in-depth, enthusiastic breakdown of Child of Light, but not even a connection to Joseph Campbell can convince me that I should ignore the shallowness of the game. Child of Light isn’t an inspiring hero’s journey so much as a lollypop coated in blissful immaturity. The game finds the blandest way to start a fairy tale in 2014, channeling the stylish prologue of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and landing in the death-centric fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth. After Child of Light’s seen-it-all-before opening, you’re plopped into a dark forest that, despite the great technical development on display, showcases as much original thought as a new flavor of bubble gum.

The game’s ballyhooed visuals are there to impress, not elate. Child of Light is a visual downer compared to recent Rayman games, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Mario Galaxy. Even if Child of Light’s world is theoretically beautiful, the mishmash of styles doesn’t make sense. The watercolors might be pretty, but the background art’s more traditional style and stillness make the modern polygonal creations look like litter on a painting.  The game’s inconsistent beauty comes to a head when you see rising lava that looks more like a solid floor than a depiction of nature that fits the framing of the world. This inconsistency isn’t much of a factor during the turn-based battles, but the magic attacks lack the visual charm of SNES-era spells. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that protagonist Aurora is dull once you get past her flowing red hair; as a visual personality, Aurora has nothing on the child protagonist of Lilly Looking Through.

The visuals are masterful compared to the writing. Instead of sharing poetry from the heart, Ubisoft uses poetry as a device to convince audiences that the game is cultured, funny, and epic. Child of Light wants you subscribe to the idea that as long as the words rhyme, the poetry is fine, even if it completely ignores the importance of rhythm. One might claim that Child of Light deserves credit for taking a risk with poetry, but this defense becomes ridiculous once you read the crap:

A lady waits,

Hair long as a forest stream,

With skin like moths and gleaming eyes.

A seer, she’ll know the way out of this dream.

Whether you read that quietly or aloud, the passage doesn’t flow. And this isn’t an isolated case. There is example after example of this “style”:

And zounds! The Dark Queen cursed ma kin to birds.

The Water of Lethe would cure ’em an’

I have to make the journey down.

But fear has — Poor man.

The “Poor man” comes out of nowhere for three reasons. First, it’s an interjection from another character. Second, it’s a sorry rhyme. Third, the stanza has no rhythm. But that’s not even the worst stanza:

Pleased to meet you, Sir.

Like weeds it is.

I am lucky to be alive. When at ma house,

Besides the bloomin’ apple tree in the forest I arrived, this whiz

Not even a highly skilled rapper could make those lines flow. You’re better off zipping through the poetry because the writing also fails to create meaningful relationships. The game tries to build camaraderie between the characters with silly rhymes and puns, but the writing is so god-awful that these “human” moments translate as nothing more than interruptions in the gameplay. The flimsy characterizations fall right in line with the death-centric premise of the game; a lot of the cast would be better off working in a funeral home than going on an adventure.

The gameplay mainly tells a so-so story. The game graciously allows the main character to fly, a major improvement over the lame platforming. Even with flight, the game still makes you solve puzzles that are puzzles in name only. Letting you control Igniculus is the game’s claim to fame and shame. As a souped-up version of Mario Galaxy’s cursor, Igniculus can blind enemies and heal you. The more you use Igniculus, the more you might recognize the poor design of the game. For example, Child of Light works like Earthbound in that you have to run into enemies to enter turn-based combat. If you run into enemies from behind, you get a surprise attack. However, given that Igniculus can blind enemies, surprise attacks outrageously become a norm.

Igniculus winds up being the real-time glue that holds the bastardized combat system together. The main concern of the combat is based on an uncommon but unoriginal idea: interruption of attacks. Igniculus slows enemies down when he blinds them, allowing the player to manipulate who gets to perform commands first and thus potentially interrupt enemies. However, if you see that an enemy will be able to attack before your character can perform a command, it’s best to defend, which allows your character to move faster in the next round. The real-time element and interruptions might trick you into thinking the battles are complex, but you’re better off playing Penny Arcade 3, another 10-hour RPG with an interruption system that offers far more attacks and possibilities than the insultingly paltry selection in Child of Light.

If it weren’t for the sound design and Cœur de Pirate’s soundtrack, Child of Light’s banality would be fully exposed. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the sonic brilliance of the game will keep me playing. I’m six hours into Child of Light, and there is nothing to suggest I will be saved from the tedious arrogance of the game. Child of Light thinks it’s the Jesus Christ of video games, but saviors don’t give you substandard versions of things you’ve seen before.

Note: Special thanks to Ray Valgar for sending me this game as a gift on Steam.

Criticism vs. Marketing: A Response to Colin Moriarty’s ‘Evil is Good’

by Jed Pressgrove

Months ago, I provided my definition of criticism: “[C]riticism is sharing reactions to something without sounding like a commercial.” In a response to criticism of Far Cry 4 box art, IGN writer Colin Moriarty sounds like a commercial. We should examine the marketing implications of what Moriarty and other game critics have said about Far Cry 4.

First, none of us are innocent when it comes to giving Far Cry 4 attention and, thus, potential for more sales. The box art debate is exactly what Ubisoft wanted. With the Far Cry 4 box art, Ubisoft knowingly used the tact of an immature schoolboy to get people curious about the game. This consumer curiosity might take the form of “How will Far Cry 4 the game actually handle its themes?” or “I can’t wait to shoot some bad guys in Far Cry 4.” There’s nothing wrong with these curiosities, but I believe that Ubisoft used racially and religiously charged imagery — a clear play on post-9/11 anxieties — to get us talking. In this respect, Moriarty’s talking is no guiltier than any other critic’s talking.

The problem is that Moriarty takes word-of-mouth marketing to a more troubling level. I immediately disliked the “Evil is Good” headline because it sounds like a phrase from a dumb movie trailer. Unsurprisingly, the phrase ties into Moriarty’s assertion that a “potentially controversial bad guy” is something powerful that can challenge us. To support this conclusion, Moriarty makes several banal, obvious comments about the importance of bad guys in art. Once you get past all of this philosophical posturing, you get to what Moriarty’s article actually says: “Buy Far Cry 4.”

The evidence is especially clear in the third paragraph:

When I first saw this artwork, I had a few thoughts. My first thought was, “man, I can’t wait to play Far Cry 4.” I absolutely adored Far Cry 3. It was an exceptional game, one awash with a host of non-linear, explorative qualities, solid gunplay, and a surprisingly engaging story. It deserved every one of its 9 million sales, and I was so pleased to see that Ubisoft would follow it up so quickly (Far Cry 4 is slated to come out this November).

I’m sure Ubisoft executives love this passage, which doesn’t represent a critical reaction so much as evidence that Ubisoft has a loyal ally. While I can’t call the passage’s honesty into question, Moriarty gives Ubisoft exaggerated praise when he brings up the sales figure. The idea that a game “deserves” all of its sales shows a flagrantly uncritical mindset. It doesn’t consider that some bought Far Cry 3 and thought it was garbage. It doesn’t consider whether sales provide insight into game quality in the first place. Indeed, such considerations are unimportant when the critic becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece for a game company.

Moriarty enthusiastically supports Ubisoft’s marketing purposes with the Far Cry 4 box art. From a sales perspective, the fact that the box art contains racially and religiously charged imagery is irrelevant. The most important point is that the image looks edgy and violent. Greg Magee’s line about the box art’s “gun porn all over the place” provides insight into Moriarty’s approach, which is revealed in the second paragraph of “Evil is Good”:

In the artwork — seen below — a person in a fine pink suit is leaning on the head of a subjugated man cradling an M67 grenade. An AK-47 rests to the left, an RPG-7 to the right, and some ammo is strewn about.

From a technical standpoint, Moriarty’s specificity about the weapons is impressive. It also raises a question: does it really matter what kind of grenade the darker-skinned guy is holding? Moriarty’s fixation on weapons plays into Ubisoft’s strategy of appealing to the classic shooter theme of power through weaponry. The racial and religious imagery is only icing on the cake and therefore easily dismissed by Moriarty as window dressing for a “good, believable antagonist.” Of course, given that he has yet to play Far Cry 4, Moriarty has no critical reason to suggest that the antagonist is “good” or “believable.” The effect of Moriarty’s article appears to be selling a game for Ubisoft under the guise of engaging in a critical discussion.

Moriarty also markets the edginess that Ubisoft was going for with the following proclamation:

Far Cry 4 isn’t an innocuous, inclusive children’s book or an afternoon Nick Jr. cartoon. It’s an M-rated video game, made for adults, and it may just deal with some brutal realities of the world. What if this blond man is, in fact, a shameless, violent, narcissistic racist? Doesn’t that give you a strong reason to dislike him, and a powerful motive to chase him through Far Cry 4’s campaign? Isn’t that more compelling than some vanilla, sanitized antagonist with no noticeable personality flaws or nefarious motives? Racism is, unfortunately, a very real force in contemporary culture, so why should gaming ignore it? I love that Far Cry 4’s writers are treading down the same path the previous games did, making for an experience that may just be, at times, totally uncomfortable. Maybe Far Cry 4 will give you pause and make you question your own motives in the process. Isn’t that a positive in a landscape flooded with the same old thing?

Notice that Moriarty begins by casting aside the nonexistent argument that Far Cry 4 is a children’s book or Nick Jr. cartoon — hey people, this game is “M-rated.” Such language reminds me of my childhood in the early 1990s when games like Mortal Kombat made me feel like I was playing something mature and original. Looking back, my feeling as a kid was legitimate: as a fighting game, Mortal Kombat had a unique approach to violence. In contrast, Moriarty’s words should be interpreted as marketing, not a legitimate feeling, because nothing he predicts about Far Cry 4 is a unique idea. Far Cry 4’s blonde man will not be the first violent, narcissistic racist in video games. He will not be the first game villain I’ve strongly disliked during a chase. He will not be the first villain with personality flaws or nefarious motives. And Moriarty knows this. He admits Far Cry 4 is “treading down the same path.” Then he turns around and gives us that now-classic slogan about questioning “your own motives.” If it weren’t clear that Moriarty is marketing Far Cry 4 rather than engaging in criticism, I would wonder whether Moriarty has played any of the numerous popular or underground games — everything from Fallout to Traitor — that encourage players to question their own motives.

On a broader level, Moriarty makes a mistake that game critics should try to avoid: suggesting conclusions about a game that nobody has played. Regardless of our reaction to the Far Cry 4 box art, we don’t know what the game will do. But there’s a deeper problem with Moriarty’s approach. In instructing people to be excited about Far Cry 4 rather than skeptical of its conniving marketing, Moriarty betrays the purpose of criticism and journalism. With the Far Cry 4 box art and the discussion it continues to inspire, Ubisoft doesn’t need any help from Moriarty.