Sunday, February 20, 2011

Popular Mechanics: The Catharsis Button

Like many avid male gamers with significant female counterparts, I want my fiance to be a gamer herself. I spend no small amount of effort, sometimes to her chagrin, on the task. While I realize that it may be dangerously close to "wanting to change" someone, I don't feel it's the same. I enjoy getting into her interests and, like those, I see it as something we can do together. Some of my best bonding moments with friends have been over video games. Furthermore, I just don't get how someone could NOT be into video games. It's like someone saying they don't like music. I can believe that they don't like what they've heard and know of, but that there is no music in the world for them seems absolutely impossible and incredibly sad.
Ladies, just think of it as a picnic with space marines.
In my attempts at winning her over, I have had many setbacks, but also a few wonderful, if small, victories. I can count the number of games she really enjoys and will pick up at her own volition on one hand, but she also eats those things up. Amongst the titles that she's grown enamored with is A Boy and His Blob. She expressed interest when I bought a copy for my little sister, so I had to immediately go out and pick up a copy for our own home.

So, all of this has beating around the bush finally leads to the actual topic of this post, a feature of A Boy and His Blob I like to refer to as the "catharsis button."

Pressing up on the Wiimote's D-Pad causes "the boy" to hug Blob. This serves no practical purpose. There is no secret way it kills the final boss, no gameplay trick, they just share a hug - accompanied by an impossibly cute little noise she says should be spelled "nnnnnnnnnnnnnn."
"And the Grinch's heart grew three times that day."
So, why, as a designer, do I think that's in there? Well, the entire game is built around the relationship between "the boy" and Blob - so of course there's that aspect. In that sense it's a far more effective version of Lionhead's attempt at integrating touch as a mechanic in Fable 3. On occasion, I've noticed her hugging Blob expressly because of how many times she's had to manipulate him over the course of a level, or due to some frightening fall. He's her partner, and she feels the need to show her appreciation for him. It's beautiful really. That is, however, a purely affective use. Though that holds equal weight, I do believe the action serves an objective function. Catharsis.

As my fiance plays through the game, she will occasionally come upon situations that result in repeated failures. After such incidents she will, inevitably and without prompting, hug Blob. Watching over her shoulder, it's obvious what effect this has on her. She's releasing the pent up frustration she's developed with the game. In many places where, in other games, she would have gotten annoyed and walked away from the title forever, she has simply hugged Blob a couple of times, relaxed and pressed on anew.

This is, of course, a familiar course of action to many gamers. Many a time have I either intentionally thrown a protagonist into certain death for this purpose. When life gets me down, few things pick me up better than a good old fashioned GTA murder spree. In no other game, however, have I ever seen this effect either so serenely or concisely captured.
I have such fond, sociopathic memories of this parking garage.

This, combined with the games very calm soundtrack, leads the platforming puzzler to be one of the least frustrating experiences I've played, despite the fact that it presents no lack of challenge.

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