Child of Eden

Child of Eden, the latest from former Sega developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Lumines), can be most superficially described as a rail shooter in which music and color play a central role. There is a vague storyline about rescuing a damsel in distress, but relegating Lumi to the mere role of a damsel seems to write off the bulk of what the game is doing here, as she is more the embodiment of an idea — or even a god in the machine — rather than a MacGuffin on which the plot turns. Put simply, what storyline presents itself through scatterings of text about the resurrection of Lumi from within Eden’s corrupted archives is secondary to the grander narrative that Child of Eden tells about the ascendency of life itself.

I have written effusively — in not one but two articles thus far — about the tremendous aesthetic experience that Child of Eden is. But it bears repeating. Child of Eden is the sort of sublime, spiritually uplifting experience that we are lucky to get once in a generation. It’s a post-Singularity fairy tale. A digital poem.

To crib a line from Brendan Keogh, this game, like its predecessor, has no business being good. And yet good it is. Fantastic, in fact. Despite being a shooter on rails, a floridly cryptic mish-mash of pop idols and religious allegory, and at times infuriatingly twitchy (with an absence of checkpoints, to boot!), there is a quality to its contained narrative and the role of the player as enactor thereof which is deeply moving, as in being witness to the birth and exaltation of mankind. This is a game in which human history from microorganism to vast neural networks spanning time and space takes shape.

And yet — and here is the important bit — you are not simply along for the ride. Linear though it may be, your participation is not optional in watching this opera of metaphysics unfold. For this reason, I felt fortunate to have first completed the game with the controller and only then gone back to revisit the archives on Kinect using the “Feel Eden” mode. This feature, like a similar mode in Rez, allows you to enjoy the stages without taking damage from enemies. This is important for the Kinect because, while I have no doubt a person could eventually master the slightly counter-intuitive motion controls, you don’t want to have to fret over it. Child of Eden on Kinect, I’ve learned, is much more about flourish than challenge.

I lifted my right hand to begin. And then I was suddenly falling upward through a liquid field of stars. I don’t really know how else to describe it. It was exhilarating, because for the first time in a very long time I felt again that excitement of experiencing something utterly new and strange and beautiful. I started dancing subtly to the beat as I played without even really realizing it. (Jane Pinckard, “I Waited a Decade for a Game that Moved Me Like Rez, Kotaku, 29 June 2011)

Comparisons to Rez are of course ubiquitous and well deserved, even the cynical ones. I, however, would like to draw upon another game to serve as analogy: the Saturn game NiGHTS into dreams…, which was recently saddled with an unworthy Wii sequel the world is better off forgetting. The original, which like Child of Eden kept the player on rails, was ultimately about striking a balance between efficiency and art. With points awarded for acrobatic stunts, NiGHTS became a game about how much grace you could infuse your character’s movements with over the course of a level. The most successful runs were thus frequently also the most balletic, demonstrating a finesse which translated into economic as well as aesthetic elegance.

As the story goes, NiGHTS designer Yuji Naka conceived of the idea of the flight-on-rails game while experiencing take-off on a plane. Similarly, since becoming enamored with NiGHTS as an adolescent, I’ve found a small childlike part of my mind longing tirelessly for a game that could perfect that feeling. Both flOw and Flower from thatgamecompany come close to it through the use of the PS3’s Six-Axis, but “Feel Eden” on Kinect is many stages beyond even them. It is the closest approximation to flight that I’ve yet experienced in any game that I have set hands on. Unlike Kinect’s existing dance games or flight simulators, which require mimicry and a high level of pantomime, Child of Eden is absolutely freeform, and as a result, it’s far easier to feel embodied with the Kinect’s movements, as the merest gesture with which you eliminate swarms of targets is entirely your own.

Certainly there are ways to modify your gestures to be faster, more methodical, as with the controller (but using the controller is, predictably, mechanical, and simply not what the Kinect brings to this style of play at all). The parts that I enjoyed best with the Kinect were the moments that I stopped caring for precision at all and simply went with the music. The artistic simplicity of sweeping an arm in a slow arc and witnessing a long string of enemies vanish in the blink of an eye seems to me the very thing that I have wanted out of a game since learning what they were. Eden on Kinect is like painting with a vast, moving canvas.

…just for a second, right there in my living room, I teared up. Maybe it was emotion of the moment, maybe it the depressing realization that all the flailing had actually left me pretty winded. Either way, it happened.

Next, I tried the controller. It was fun.

As several more hours of testing would prove, my scores were fairly even between the two control methods, but my experiences could not have been more disparate. With Kinect, this is synthetic tourism, a 10-minute trip into a gorgeous, abstract world where you’re the most powerful being in existence.

With a controller, Child of Eden is a video game. (Justin McElroy, “Sob story: Why I’ll be playing Child of Eden with Kinect”, Joystiq, 6 May 2011)

I’m sure that I don’t need to insert the “just” there in McElroy’s last sentence. While Child of Eden is pleasurable as a controller game, it hardly compares with what it becomes through use of the Kinect.

For the value of its ideas and these precious experiences alone, Child of Eden is a game I would strongly recommend to any player. But that comes with caveats. This, like Dragon Age II, is a game utterly failed by both scoring systems or indeed any sort of consumerist sensibility. If you measure the commercial worth of a game in terms of the amount of play time that you will receive, this is probably not the game for you. On the other hand, if you measure a game’s worth in the quality of time spent, I could think of few better investments for the summer, the year, or the Xbox 360 in general.

RATING 7 / 10