Friday, January 4, 2013

On Kirby's Epic Yarn: The Invulnerability Problem

Kirby's Epic Yarn might be the most aesthetically pleasing game produced by Nintendo, or maybe anyone. It is visually gorgeous with its mixture of storybook and yarn art that effortlessly engrosses anybody in its world.  When Kirby jumps behind the game's fabric background, a believable, little bump puffs against it where he is.  When Kirby grabs hold of an enemy he can yank them to shreds or knit them into a ball.  It's one of the most reasonable excuses for not putting a game in 3D too.  Everything is made out of fabric, and if you've ever looked at a horrible Christmas sweater, you know that aside from little bumps, the image is two dimensional.

However, Epic Yarn is let down by one significant flaw: invulnerability.  As a whole, the gameplay is both very good and very unique for a Kirby title.  This time round, the player doesn't eat foes to steal their powers and he can't fly.  That adds a new strategy to a familiar franchise.  Now jump distance and combat are limited.  But Kirby still remains an introductory platformer for young gamers.  The developer, Good-Feel, seemed to interpret that as cause for making the game virtually toothless.  There is no death and there is no failure.

I remember playing a level late in the game where I fell down into a pit (sadly, the same pit) two or three times.  Every time, a little, yarn angel would lift me up and guide me back to a safe spot.  During this period, I lost all the gems I had collected throughout the level.  In a game like Sonic the Hedgehog collecting rings is important, because without the rings you die in one hit and the more rings you have, the better a chance there is to pick them up after being struck.  But in Epic Yarn, the gems only allow you access to extras.  The only penalty is to your chance at 100% completion and unnecessary to actually winning.

If that sounds fine for a children's game, then you aren't really giving kids enough credit.  Children don't need instructions on how to walk in a game.  Put a d-pad on a controller and a wall on the left side of the screen and any developmentally healthy kid will know exactly what to do in seconds.  In fact, the game I just compared to Kirby, Sonic the Hedgehog, was designed for children back when home consoles were new.  It didn't start with any tutorial stages, and kids learned how to play fine.

Sonic may have been better at educating children than Epic Yarn could hope to be.  After all, vulnerability in a game teaches.  It teaches important lessons about failure, pattern recognition, and persistence.  The natural first reaction a person has when they fail at something is usually to dust themselves off and try again.  Exceptions only appear when the danger of a second attempt outweighs the reward.  Touching a hot stove in real life is a lesson learned that a child soon won't repeat, because the penalty for failure is far beyond what the reward is worth.  However, failure for running into a spike trap in Sonic and having to restart the level may be met by a second attempt to seek the reward of a new level and the external, schoolyard victory claims.  It also ensures that the child is aware of the spike trap during the second play and the mistake (probably) won't be made again.

Sadly, the "invulnerability problem" with Epic Yarn could have easily been fixed without having the player restart a level every time he ran into the an oncoming, cloth spear.  How?  With gems!  The gems Kirby collects throughout his adventure could have been used as a progress bar.  For example, only by collecting gems throughout previous levels could one progress to the next stage.  This would make the reward for big gems in precarious locations worth the risk to get them.  While that idea is imperfect, it still would add a layer of importance to failure (when you lose gems).

Challenge is part of what keeps people engaged in... anything.  If a viewer is not feeling even slightly challenged by a film then he might start checking his phone or texting his friends.  But by being forced to think with a story, he is more likely to keep eyes on the screen.  And the same applies to video games.  Tetris keeps a player constantly challenged and that game's success practically determined the commercial future of the Game Boy by itself, because people liked the challenge.  Epic Yarn, on the other hand, does little more than provide a pretty coat for an otherwise dull experience.

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