Games as symbols: Child of Eden
Child of Eden, the Kinect’s “killer app” for hardcore gamers, was a bomb. A big, fat bomb. The spiritual sequel to Q Games’ classic rhythm/rail shooter Rez, this was supposed to be a slam dunk. A bit of The Same Game Again, but with amazing graphics and the ability to fly with your body, not a controller. Slam dunk.
Then the game sold 34K copies in its release quarter. The money spent on it in large part caused Ubisoft’s sales to decline 36% from the previous quarter. Despite its near all-consuming praise, nobody played it.
I picked it up recently for super cheap from Gamefly, expecting it to be a modern forgotten classic, a beautiful game that nobody played because it was too weird, too Japanese, too obscure. What I found was a heavy handed work with none of the lightness of Rez. I found a work drenched in unearned symbolism trying desperately to attach deeper meaning to a synaesthetic rail shooter.
Child of Eden is a high school literature student trying to make art. It is the shared experience of (American) literature students to read The Great Gatsby and be lectured ad nauseum about “the green light”. For the uninitiated, this is an image in the book: Nick Carraway, protagonist, staring across a lake on Long Island at the house of the object of his affections, Daisy, a green light shining from the pier. And if you’ve been a high school literature student, you’ve probably written a paper about the green light.
Child of Eden is a game entirely made up of green lights. Its symbolism is opaque, heavy handed, like it was obviously placed there to be discussed. In Gatsby the first mention of the green light is subtle, not so much an obvious image but something that pops up and is quickly forgotten; it is only in the end where Fitzgerald gives it weight.
In the 1960′s, famed science fiction author (at the time a high school student) Bruce McAllister, probably flustered by the green light, decided to ask pretty much every famous author whether or not they consciously used symbolism. Many authors replied back, and the general consensus was that no, they didn’t write for symbolism. It just happened, and they ran with it, trying not to be too heavy handed or sentimental. Child of Eden does the opposite: it’s a game where I imagine the developer’s first image was a young female AI, floating in space, distressed by a virus attack. The levels would be filled with images girls obviously like: marine biology (whales, manta rays), beautiful flowers. The AI would flash on the screen whenever you were winning a boss fight, a fleeting image designed to demonstrate her ethereal qualities.
In short, we have the Limbo problem all over again. In place of an interesting story, in place of anything with substance for us to sink our teeth into, we have a game that throws symbolism at you and hopes your brain will make the proper connections. For someone like myself, warped by years of playing expressionless JRPGs and reading affectless Raymond Carver short stories, my brain no longer cares for symbolism. I found the whole of Child of Eden empty and depressing, similar to how I felt replaying Limbo: it’s a game with absolutely no meat on its bones. There’s hand waving, implications of a plot, but never anything substantial to grab hold of.
Child of Eden is still enjoyable. I would never begrudge it that: not every game has to tell a story. In actuality it tells about as much of a tale as Super Mario Brothers, and like that classic Child of Eden succeeds in being a game where there is joy to every basic action. Like Limbo’s first two thirds, it succeeds because it’s a game whose physical stuff may be appreciated. If all it offered was shooting down enemies, like its predecessor Rez did outside of its final level, it would have been a much better, much more complete, much more compelling game.
The problem, though, is that Child of Eden is the final level of Rez writ large across the screen. It is too much of a good thing. The final level of Rez turns the game’s minimalist computer hacking aesthetics into beautiful graphics, a simple symbolic narrative of the creation and destruction of the world, and it works because it’s built up to that point. The computer was all we knew, and provided a bigger world we were desperate to explore. Child of Eden starts us in the wider world and says, “Okay, go nuts!” and we don’t really want to because nothing has any meaning. Everything is symbols designed to appeal to parts of our brain not yet primed for them.
So, in the end, Child of Eden is a failure. It’s an enjoyable title, but its stab at narrative legitimacy renders it a distracted game, a enjoyable simple concept wrecked by delusions of grandeur.