Basketbelle is being a kid on the playground
I was never very good at basketball. I played on the junior varsity team in middle school, and I scored exactly three points in three years. It’s fair to say I am a terrible basketball player: can’t shoot, can’t pass, can’t run, can’t jump. Can’t play.
I fell into basketball through video games: I played NBA Jam, NBA 2K and its sequels, countless other sports games. I loved two things about sports: the first was the numbers, and the second was the stories. I invested myself in characters from games’ franchise modes, compared them to past greats, and won them titles.
More than that, though: I read commentators on the internet, describing sports scenes as lush, real life stories somewhere between reality television and the narrative extravaganza of a David Foster Wallace novel. Sports became my stories, a medium through which I learned about life.
Basketbelle, by the tastefully named Bean, creator of But That Was [Yesterday], tells this kind of story: a boy, son of a father who seems to be a basketball legend, trying to save his sister, Belle, from evil. It’s a story about family love, a bildungsroman told through basketball games against evil slime monsters in Europe.
It’s that bildungsroman story of growing up, of learning about yourself, of fatherly love that sticks with me the most. Basketbelle is interested in getting you to engage with its characters through being a video game, the way that a lot of us engage with life through the framework of organized athletic activities. Basketball is a metaphor, rather than the heart of the piece. It is a method used to introduce the game’s style, a blend of hip hop and expressionism vaguely reminiscent of Jet Set Radio, to the player, rather than the game itself.
To be blunt, it has nothing to do with basketball. The game hangs onto the sport’s tropes like a loose shirt, placing you in levels where you have to shoot baskets to advance, but the concern is rarely sport: rather, its a framework for puzzles, for dramatic confrontations with demons, inner and outer. Like a large collection of guns or a magical ring that lets you shoot fire, basketball in Basketbelle is merely mechanical, a means to an end.
Basketball creates an interesting set of puzzles which will never challenge too dramatically. Basketbelle flat out ignores how video games are constructed: the game’s most challenging bit is its platforming puzzles in chapter two, its easiest its penultimate tale. It’s not so much a video game as it is a simulation of being a kid on the playground, imagining yourself a basketball hero. Sometimes you’re shooting the ball at the end of platforming puzzles, and sometimes you’re flying ten feet into the air to shoot over a slime monster. Still, none of its mechanics are particularly thrilling: they’re means to an end, like the basketball itself.
That end is the family: your purple-skinned hero, his sister Belle, and his father. The story is simple, but it’s effective, hitting the right beats at the right times with the proper amount of interactivity and with emotional immediacy. This is a narrative game from a narrative designer, a story told by someone quite capable of giving us stories that resonate with our own lives. In its quietest moments Basketbelle touched me with its sincerity and honesty: moments of interacting with your protagonist’s father, of his chase for his sister. These were effective, believable actions, made better by the seamlessness with which the game slipped between interactive and noninteractive segments.
So Basketbelle must come highly recommended, even to those who aren’t in love with basketball. It’s a game telling the kind of story we envision games telling: less fire and explosions, more immediacy and honesty. That it tells this story through basketball is incidental. It’s an amusing reference to video games at large: telling their stories through disconnected scenes of mechanics and narrative. The difference here is that they come together to form a cohesive whole.