[16 December 2007]
A follow-up to one of the first games on Xbox 360 targeted towards family gamers, Viva Piñata, Viva Piñata: Party Animals presents a wholly different type of game for younger players. Instead of directly following the path of last year’s rich and engaging gardening and piñata breeding sim by well-regarded developer Rare, Krome Studios offers a Mario Party-like game seasoned with a competition driven by piñata racing and a host of minigames. Players take on the roles of one of four types of piñatas (each having a male and female version) and enter a competition in which four piñatas battle it out for the honor of being launched via cannon to a children’s birthday party where they will be beaten with sticks until out burst their candy-infused guts.
Brutal, perhaps, but true.
Before launching into a tirade considering the level of violence inherent in any Viva Piñata installment, it occurs to me that, perhaps, I should pause for a moment for a reality check.
Clearly, most PopMatters readers realize that this site is not merely interested in reviewing music, film, television, books, comic books, and video games in the traditional sense. Our reviews follow a more critical tradition of not merely evaluating such media but in also analyzing it, especially in how media relates to (or “matters”) to the culture at large. In other words, an awful lot of us write in the tradition of cultural criticism, which might mean that we are easily lead into curious tirades about the symbolic value of papier-mâché animals subject to violence at the hands of children. However, this may not be a dominant concern of the typical player of a kid’s party game.
Indeed, often our reviews can tend towards some rather highbrow and esoteric readings of media, regardless of their intended audience.
That being said, I recently read a review of Viva Piñata: Party Animals on IGN by Patrick Kolan that concluded: “To be bluntly honest, we think that today’s discerning and informed child is going to be able to tell the difference between a quick cash-in game like this and a quality release like the original product—but will the parents?”
Given my role as a reviewer of Viva Piñata: Party Animals, and despite my own desire to write a highbrow, esoteric review of the game, it occurred to me that Kolan’s theory might be best put to the test by enlisting the aid of two cultural critics that more closely fall into the age group that Viva Piñata: Party Animals is intended for. So, I asked two of my daughters, Verity (age eight) and Grace (age five), who had been helping me “research” my review copy of the game, to comment in a highbrow and esoteric way from the perspective of an eight and five-year-old respectively especially regarding the game’s symbolic role as “cash-in” within a capitalistic culture predicated on encouraging habits of consumption among younger players.
What follows is our discussion, and given the level of intellectualism the two girls brought to bear on the game, I thought it best to translate some of their more obscure observations into the kind of cultural criticism that our own readers are more accustomed to.
PopMatters: Did you like Viva Piñata: Party Animals? Why?
Grace: I like it. Cuz it’s fun to play and you have tons of Viva Piñata characters. Tons of ‘em!
Verity: Yes, because the games and characters are really fun.
There is no need for much translation this early in our discussion. Both girls felt that we should merely get the evaluative business of the review over with to move on to more substantive observations.
PM: What are your favorite parts of the game?
G: The races cuz they’re so fun and so long. You get candy [which serve as power ups during the race] and get to use them on people and one makes you go really fast. Well, two of them.
V: The races. But, sometimes I like the minigames. I especially like Drink, Shake, and Burp. I only like the ones where you burp in them. BUUUUUURRRRP! Everybody’s like brrrp, burrrrp, BUUUUUURRRRP!
While Grace clearly sees the game as one in which players are given the opportunity to experience transformation through transgressive behaviors—ergo, stuffing yourself with candy is a vehicle to making “more” of yourself in a culture of consumption—Verity’s comments even moreso typify the game’s embrace of transgressive behavior through the violation of contemporary social taboos. Ergo, burping is funny.
PM: Okay, Grace, what are your least favorite parts of the game?
G: The minigame where it flashes every color [Stay in the Light], and you have to follow it [the light] to get candy. It’s so hoooooorrrrrible cuz you get shoved [by the other piñatas attempting to get into the light]! Every single time you get shoved!
PM: Do you think that it is wrong to be shoved?
G: Yes, cuz it’s so very rude. It’s rude, rude, rude, rude, rude.
Despite Grace’s earlier positive view of the daringly transgressive nature of the game, perhaps, akin to the freedom of transgression offered by games like Grand Theft Auto in which you can both hire and then assault hookers to get your money back, even she was clearly surprised at the level of transgressiveness Viva Piñata: Party Animals is willing to portray. Shoving is, after all, quite rude.
PM: Verity, what are your least favorite parts of the game?
V: When people [the other AI controlled characters] use candy on you then it’s harder to win races. And, when you blow up in minigames.
PM: But, don’t you think that the games need to be hard in some way?
V: Well, sometimes. If they’re too easy then they need to be harder. It’s not fair sometimes because the computer knows where everyone is. So, it’s hard for the person [the player].
Verity, too, has some sense that the transgressive nature of the game may go beyond acceptable norms, so much so, perhaps, that such violations even manifest in the gameplay itself. It is almost as if she asks, does the artificial intelligence itself transgress fairness?
PM: Do you know what happens to the piñatas when they win the game?
V: They get shot out of this weird cannon if they get first place. But, two animals don’t want to: Paulie Pretztail and Fergy Fudgehog. They’re both boys. I don’t know why they couldn’t come up with good names. I don’t know why they don’t want to get launched.
G: And, when you’re first place, you get a trophy filled with candy.
PM: They are shot out of the cannon to become the center of entertainment at a birthday party. Kids will beat them with sticks until candy comes out of them
V: That’s why those two don’t want to go in [the cannon]? Horstachio always gets launched, but he always comes back [in the next round of games]. He gets rebuilt.
Piñatas…hitting piñatas…(head explodes)
Both of our critics were initially a bit baffled by the intended message of the game’s conclusion. Verity at first seemed to suggest that the game wished to transgress even gender roles with its gender-bending naming of its characters. However, despite the game’s seemingly Marxist critique of the inherent violence represented by consumer culture (our characters stuff themselves with candy in order to merely become literally consumed by party-going capitalists at First World Birthday parties), nevertheless, Verity was finally struck by the resurrection motif that seemed evident in resetting the game. The ability to restart the game, perhaps, suggests that such economic evils might be eventually healed. Or, looked at another way, it may suggest something less optimistic: such “rebuilding” of characters from game session to game session might, instead, lead us to reason that this recursiveness is intended to represent how the same atrocities may continue to be repeated over and over again within such a culture of consumption…
PM: Do you think that that is a good prize for winning?
V: Well, if I was one [a piñata], it wouldn’t be..
G: If I was one, I wouldn’t want to be either.
V: But, if it were my party that would be good. I’d get lots and lots of candy.
Indeed, Verity has tapped into the inherent selfishness of the capitalist model that may be at the heart of the game’s message. Her own experience of the game seems to have led her to recognize the inequity of such systems by recognizing that what is good for her (as capitalist consumer) may be all that matters in the end.
PM: Does the game remind you of Mario Party?
G: Yes, cuz it’s fun like Mario.
G: You get to play minigames.
PM: Is this game as good as Mario Party?
G: Yeah, but it’s kinda fun like Mario, too.
V: Well, it’s kinda the same cuz at the end they both get to stand in first place [on a dais like at the Olympics] and get a weird star [in Mario Party] and not get shot out at the end. Mario is more fun because they have more interesting games to do.
Returning in part to some evaluative criticism, both critics sum up some basic differences between this game and one of its predecessors. Interestingly, though, Verity recognizes the inherent worth of a game that values more abstract goals for its players like “weird stars” then the violence of losing the self to a capitalist mechanism like a piñata shooting cannon.
PM: Who are your favorite characters in the game?
G: I like being Hailey Horstachio because Hailey is kinda like me. Cuz she does the same things that I do. She is loud. (thinks for a moment) I don’t know if she’s actually loud.
V: Florence Fizzlybear (but also Petunia Pretztail) because she is big and round and she’s really cute because she has her cute, little bow.
PM: So, is it about the way that they look?
V: Yes, it’s about the way they look. I also like Petunia Pretztail because I love her hair.
Additionally, both reviewers recognized differing values in the immersive representationalism afforded them by taking on the role or avatar of one of the characters in a video game. Grace was struck both by how good characterization in a game allows for relatable experiences for the player while still experiencing some a new identity through such role playing. Indeed, she seems to have become so immersed in the role of Hailey Horstachio that she can no longer easily differentiate her true self from this avatar.
On the other hand, Verity recognized the iconic value of appearances in the game (perhaps, another extension of its capitalist critique), her avatars having allowed her to become both what she values and hopes to be via the vehicle of self presentation and fashion that such artificial selves afford.
PM: What score would you give this game on a scale of one to ten?
V: I’d have to give it… ummm… ten.
G: Well, ten is Hailey Horstachio and one is Paulie Pretztail.
V: No, the game, Grace [not the characters].
G: Well, I don’t have much to say.
Grace’s final acknowledgment of the silence of absence produced by experiencing a game this culturally relevant, indeed, leaves a final numeric evaluation difficult to make.
That being said, I personally thought it was just fine. For kids, enjoyable, however, perhaps, though not as much as other family games like Mario Party. It’s not great, not terrible. I’m gonna give it a five (for Florence Fizzlybear?).