Child of Eden
Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s 2001 rail shooter Rez was a curious confluence between established gameplay mechanics and interactive artistic expression. Successful as both a reasonably solid shooter and a stylistic experiment in videogame-induced synesthaesia, Rez hinted at a different, more subtle kind of interactive experience. Here we are a decade later, in a time when Facebook and the first-person shooter rule supreme, and a successor to Rez has emerged in the form of Child of Eden, a game which attempts to take advantage of new technology to recapture Rez’s unique magic. But in a time when stylistic and thematic conservatism is all too prevalent, is there room for a bit of style over substance?
Sales figures for Child of Eden would suggest not. But in some ways it’s easy to see why people are hesitant to pay for what seems quite an intangible experience. At first glance Child of Eden is an assault on the senses; an overwhelming trip through surreal dreamscapes in which enemies – if you could even call them that – do not take the form of gruff marines or zombies, but flower petals and jellyfish. Similarly its design ethic is one which many gamers might scorn; the exaltation of stylistic representation and brevity over mechanical sophistication and value for money. Sandwiched between action games whose clarity of purpose is more readily definable, or, even worse, between other Kinect games, Child of Eden feels out of its depth. Or, perhaps more accurately, in a league of its own.
Taken as a series of bullet points Child of Eden will never impress, but enjoyed as an overall experience it constitutes one of the most unique games out there. Like Rez before it, Mizuguchi’s second foray into the world of artistic games (for lack of a better word) engages you on more than a purely mechanical level. This can primarily be seen in the fact that its gameplay is largely unchanged from Rez, although the experience is of course enhanced when using the (optional) Kinect sensor. By extending your right hand you gain control of the game’s lock-on reticle, moving it around the screen at will and targeting up to eight enemies at a time. Firing at enemies – achieved by pushing your hand forwards - will create sounds and melodies, adding them to the ever-present soundtrack, while a machine gun-like “tracer” weapon can be activated by using your left hand, used to remove projectiles and defeat pink-coloured enemies. Over the game’s five levels this is all the core gameplay really amounts to. Apart from some interesting scoring mechanics (such as keeping your lock-on in time with the musical beat) and the obligatory screen-clearing bomb ability (activated by throwing your hands in the air) Child of Eden thrives on its simplicity.
Better With Kinect?
Unfortunately Kinect has established itself as a rather ungainly piece of technology. Some nifty non-gaming applications aside, the sensor is plagued by laggy input, often unintuitive menus and, most damning of all, a severe lack of good games. You would be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want to own one at this stage, but with Child of Eden you finally have a reason. The game certainly provides a more involving experience when using the sensor, but one gets the impression that Child of Eden is compensating for the Kinect’s shortfalls, rather than tapping into some hidden potential. Put simply; if it’s high scores you’re after you’ll want to abandon Microsoft’s expensive flight of fancy in favour of a traditional controller.
The most striking difference between Child of Eden and its predecessor is in its thematic and aesthetic style. While Rez was situated inside a visual representation of a computer system reminiscent of William Gibson’s internet-esque matrix in his novel Neuromancer, Child of Eden takes a different approach. The angular lines and polygonal shapes of Rez’s environments have been replaced by something altogether more organic. Enemies are more likely to resemble flora and fauna than robots and spaceships, while the electronic soundtrack pulses with life thanks to the heavy use of vocals. The narrative itself, while subtle, is now focused more on life and human history than the cold cyberpunk tone of Rez, with a few sparse textual references to Lumi - the first girl born in space -serving as its only blatant exposition. This shift from mechanical to organic also reflects the more physical interaction that Kinect permits with the game itself as Child of Eden’s thematic content finds further expression through basic player interaction.
That Child of Eden prompts such readings in the first place is a testament to its unusual narrative subtlety, and it is largely from its thematic obfuscation that the game derives much of its appeal. While the narrative themes found in your average first-person shooter, if they exist at all, are generally distinctive only in their explicitness, Child of Eden thrives on the fact that it provides an experience very much open to interpretation. After finishing the game there’s a nagging urge to go back to its vibrant and abstract world and add further clarity to its multi-faceted subject matter. Whether you succeed is, of course, down to a mixture of how open minded and, perhaps, how pretentious you are, but it is a commendable feat that the game so easily demands such depth of study.
Yet there’s a sense that, for all of Child of Eden’s merits, it struggles to fully escape the expectations of a traditional gaming experience. That the depth of physical interaction between the player and their environment always amounts to shooting is not only a blow against Child of Eden, but also presents a damning prospect for the fundamental values of games as a whole. Shooting is always shooting, regardless of how Miziguchi packages it, and whether or not future attempts at expressive games can rise above this fairly lifeless form of interaction will undoubtedly be instrumental in establishing their success.
Nonetheless, Child of Eden is without equal in how effectively it exploits the senses. From the steady musical crescendos that build throughout each level, to the mesmerising use of bright colours and particle effects, once you become accustomed to its vibrancy and intensity it provides an experience like no other. Although some might bemoan its mechanical simplicity, and others might not approve of its brevity, Child of Eden conclusively proves that, sometimes, style wins out over substance.
Eight out of ten