I’m going to tell you about the best game feature I saw at this year’s E3. It wasn’t a new weapon in one of the countless brown-tinted shooters and realistic war simulators at the show, and it wasn’t a spell-casting wheel in an epic, sweeping RPG fantasy. Those games were nice, and innovative and complex and graphically impressive and all those other game-writing clichés, but the feature that impressed me most at the entire show was in an unassuming Wii title from Majesco.
A Boy and His Blob is a re-tooling of the classic NES game of the same title, and the feature I’m talking about is a designated hug button. You hit the arrow key on the Wiimote and Boy hugs Blob. That’s it. But that simple gesture between two characters was the most emotionally affecting thing I’ve seen in a game in a long, long time.
The game, developed by Way Forward, is a 2D platformer rendered in hand-painted animation style in which a little boy teams up with an amorphous blob from outer space in order to help the blob save his home planet of Blobolonia from an evil emperor.
If you played the original game, the mechanics will be familiar: Through constant cooperation between the boy and the AI blob, the pair travel through colorful levels and collect treasures. The blob loves jellybeans, and each bean the boy throws turns Blob into a different item to help the pair solve puzzles and progress through the world. Throw the right color jellybean, and Blob will turn into a trampoline to propel the boy to a higher level of the map. Throw a different colored jellybean and the blob becomes a hole in the ground, or a ladder or a parachute--one of 15 incarnations. Unlike the NES game, the Wii version is low-stress. You don't run out of jellybeans, and I'm told the game never gets frustratingly difficult like the original did.
So on the surface, the game is about solving puzzles and traversing platforms. I played a swamp level, and while the puzzles were interesting and the level well-designed, the evocative visuals, gentle music, and simple design led me to consider the relationship between the two main characters instead of the more mundane aspects of 2D platform gameplay.
The boy is weak and vulnerable without the blob – he can’t do much more than jump a little. The blob is useless without the boy as well--he can’t get anywhere without the boy’s guidance and jellybeans. The Blob is easily frightened. Even butterflies make him nervous until he's reassured with a gentle hug. By working together, the two become greater than the sum of their parts, and overcome huge obstacles in a heroic quest.
Underneath the familiar traversal of levels, A Boy and His Blob is a story about cooperation, and our need to rely on on another. The affection between the titular characters is so pure, effortless and natural, I defy anyone to play this game and not be moved. At the risk of sounding cheesy, A Boy and His Blob is really a game about the impossibility of progress without relying on and trusting the ones we care about. It’s a game about Love.
As technology allows game makers to realize more complicated visions, games too often seem to be reaching for emotional responses based on adolescent bombast and extremism: gallons of blood and viscera are mistaken for gritty realism. We’re presented with countless brooding anti-heroes with chain guns and troubled pasts and are expected to think they’re complex and deep because they brood and squint. But, for me at least, this simple platformer that tells a simple story about friendship and cooperation is more emotionally powerful than a thousand over-written, cliché-ridden “mature” games, and the hug mechanic is more affecting by far than the over-powered weaponry and childish angst found in many games.
I have no idea whether the game’s puzzle solving platforming will hold up for the 80 levels contained on the game disc, but when this game comes out in the Fall, I’m going to find out. I really want to watch Boy and Blob interact, and help the Blob get back home.