Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Videogames are for Sissies (And So Am I)

Have you experienced Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure? The title tells you all you need to know: it is an adventure (game), featuring plucky heroine Sissy, who saves/collects the eponymous creatures (did you see what I did there)—and it is golldanged magical. It is also the badass brainchild of 5 year old Cassie Creighton and her father Ryan, birthed at this year’s Toronto Game Jam.

When I was 5 I drew picture books, as kids do. Mine featured a lot of princesses, many of them pregnant for some reason, (a fascination that has not stayed with me, though my biological clock is supposed to be vomiting cuckoos right about now.) I also poured mostly tortured hours into my cousins’ NES, murdering wildfowl and enduring cruel sniggers from a snarky-ass hound. It would be several years before I discovered the contemplative and sublimely goofy joys of graphic adventure games.

I don’t recall whether I was conscious at that age of gender-cultural boundaries between “princess picture books” and “pixelated devastation,” but never the twain did meet. I’m certain Cassie, with her rainbow-littered videogame ode to magical ponybeasts, isn’t the first/only young girl who doesn’t seem to feel subject to such boundaries at all. But man, does she defy them with confidence, aplomb, and an infectious, wicked glee. I can’t tell to what degree she was led vs. assisted by her supportive pa as far as the gameplay, but her contributions are irrefutably substantial: she wrote and voiced the titles, drew all the pictures, and designed some of the puzzles. I have a hunch she was also responsible for the core concept, and baller ’tude.

I don’t really want to review her game. I know I’m going to feed straight into the societal habit of treating media designed by kids—with parental assistance that ranges from the gentle to the firm to the opportunistic—as mystical objects channeling a purer creativity, hovering above conventional criticism. But when such standards are applied it feels, you know, unsporting.

I am gonna go ahead and be impressed with Cassie’s internalization of and simple fluency in game mechanics, at the same age as I was wrapping my dreamy, fetus-fixated mind around basic narrative. I’m impressed with the clarity of her player objective, which totally carried my interest and commitment to the end of this short game. I’m impressed with her sensitivity to her player’s potential struggles (she planted the coconut clue, just for you.) I am impressed and utterly bewitched by her heroine’s matter-of-fact goodness and sheer spunk, the latter leaning toward and sometimes outright cribbing from classic Bro phrasing. (I must confess her gender-blending endears Sissy to me even more than, say, Scarlett, appealing protagonist of Scarlett & the Spark of Life.) As a voiceover artist, I’m downright inspired by her charisma and absolute ownership of the performance, rare for a kid actor (though not for a kid author.) She’s funny; and while girl may love butterflies and ponycorns, and yelp in fear when approaching danger, I have no doubt that if bitten she will bite you back, fool.

Beyond the game itself and its BroGrrl Power, I’m thrilled by Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure as heartwarming evidence that young kids, especially girls, are ‘thinking with games,’ to paraphrase GLADoS. It makes sense: kids learn through play, their lives are an investigative and exploration-based challenge. Their movement and access to objects are constantly restricted, stoking curiosity, persistence, and resourcefulness—they like, LIVE locked-room scenarios (though hopefully not too literally). I’m thrilled Cassie met this challenge, now an achievement she can and should be proud of forever, not to mention a special, close collaboration with her daddy. I’m thrilled that technology allows her and her dad easy access to some expressive tools for her game ideas, as well as for the easy sharing and admiring of them.

And I find this game a bit thrilling because, in its unconscious, kidly unabashedness, it feels kinda timely.

Journalists such as Leigh Alexander and Kirk Hamilton have put their fingers on a backlash against certain trite notions of artistic maturity in games, notably the pursuit of a dry and charmless literalism and its ironic opposite, a jaded, self-conscious approach to ‘over-the-top’. For some the ascendancy of the West in the game space is implicated in the death of that special brand of untamed whimsy that used to be the hallmark of the medium. As a true games criticism coalesces, it seeks not only to better analyze games, but to acknowledge aesthetic lineages and situate games within them. (I’m so pleased by the general recognition of LA Noire as an adventure game! Games taxonomy at its plainest and most satisfying. I can’t help but wonder what other liberating precedents—beyond my beloved adventure games’ mechanics, and famous wit—await AAA reclamation.)

The mystical quality in kids’ creations, that purity of spirit we wish to recapture, is fearlessness. And this is what strikes me as timely in this girl designer and her Ponycorn Adventure: their innocent, vibrant lack of concern with seeming silly or derivative. Lemon enemies (lemonies?) don’t need to make sense to make satisfyingly sour foes. The Ponycorns are hardly original or even a proper hybrid, per se, but Cassie don’t care. Likewise, ask her if she gives a toot that she heard some of these phrases—“How do you like them apples??”—elsewhere (if she even remembers.) Just try and suggest that such prose stylings belong to popped-collared, thumbs-flashing dudes and not little girls.

Games can get bogged down in external and sometimes even internal logic. Not so SMPA. They can be skittish or slavish in relationship to their influences and ancestors. Cassie unthinkingly invokes their power with a bold voice that makes them all her own. If I have any pet cause in games, as a performer and a consumer, it’s exuberance—and Cassie is my champion. She lights the way.

How do I like them apples? FRIGGIN’ LOVE 'EM, Miss Cassie.
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