"Child of Eden’s" Identity Crisis

Child of Eden couldn’t be more confused with itself; it’s a game that demands to be watched rather than played.

Child of Eden is a conflicted game. Stuck in a No Man’s Land between “shooter” and “spectacle,” it can’t decide which one it wants to be. The shooting distracts from the spectacle and the spectacle distracts from the shooting, making for a very schizophrenic experience. Granted, I’ve only played with a controller, and based on the writings of others, it seems like I’d get a very different experience playing with a Kinect. But the one thing that I can’t parse from all the praise is what difficulty people played on. It’s hard to believe that people had the wonderful experiences that they write about while playing on the Normal difficulty. The only other mode is the Feel Eden difficulty, which is essentially “god mode.” It makes sense that Child of Eden would be more fun with “god mode” but that also speaks to its most serious flaw: it’s a game best played when you can ignore everything that makes it a game.

Visually, Child of Eden is magnificent. Even I can admit that. In her review for PopMatters, Kris Ligman described it as “a digital poem,” and while she was talking about the experience as a whole, I think that’s a perfect description of the game’s visual aesthetics ("Child of Eden", PopMatters, 18 July 2011). Each archive tells a story through abstract symbolism, and like a good poem, it’s less about creating a coherent narrative than it is about creating something that’s just pleasant to hear/see. It plays with colors and shapes the same way that a poem plays with words. This is the best part of Child of Eden, so one has to wonder why the game constantly tries to distract players, preventing us from appreciating the one thing that it does right.

Make no mistake, Child of Eden is a shooter. A very skill-based shooter, and it is not unlike a bullet-hell shooter. Enemies shoot purple bullets in predictable patterns that you then must shoot down before they hit you. The inherent problem here is that these purple bullets are hard to notice; I failed the first archive multiple times because I didn’t see them coming, I thought the flashy colors in front of me were just part of the show and the beeping noise that were meant to warn me was just part of the electronica soundtrack. The things that can kill you and the things meant to warn you about the things that can kill you blend so well into the experience that you’re forced to pay close attention to the projectiles if you want to survive. And that means paying less attention to the visual poetry on screen. Child of Eden is unique in that playing the game actually hurts the overall experience.

Of course, if I were to play the game in Feel Eden mode, this wouldn’t be a problem because I’d be invincible, but the game discourages one from playing this mode -- at least initially -- because you can’t make progress by playing in Feel Eden. To unlock the next archive, you must have a certain amount of stars, and you get stars from completing previous archives but only on Normal difficulty. So unless you’re content to play only the first archive ad infinitum, you have to play on Normal, which means you better watch those bullets and not the poetry behind them.

This forced repetition is also a surefire way to make what was once wonderful boring. For example, I had a lot of trouble with archive four, Passion, so I was forced to play through it a half dozen times before I survived and the game let me continue on to something new. My first time through, I liked its focus on technology over organic organisms. It made for a nice change from the previous archives. My second time through, I was better able to piece together the story being told, the evolution of technology, and I liked it more. My third time, I knew what was coming but was still impressed. By the fourth, I was no longer enthralled by the visuals, by the fifth, I was bored, and by the sixth, I was angry. When I finished the archive I stopped playing for the evening. I had to force myself to play the fifth archive the next day. And since that was the final archive, since I didn’t have to earn anymore stars, I immediately switched to Feel Eden mode. I have not played the fifth archive on Normal.

Because there are so few archives (only 5), it seems to be a game designed to be played over and over again. A play style that’s also encouraged by its focus on high scores, item collection, and percent of infection destroyed. But as an awe-inspiring experience, there’s a diminishing level of awe with each subsequent playthrough. Since you have to work so hard to unlock the next archive, by the time you can play an archive on the supposedly relaxing Feel Eden mode, you’ve played it enough times on Normal that the novelty of the visuals have worn off. It’s no longer stunning; it’s just the same as it was every previous time you played. The more that you play Child of Eden, the more rote the visuals become until they’re just as boring as enemy formations and bullet patterns -- just another thing to memorize for that really high score.

If Child of Eden is fun in Feel Eden mode, it’s because you’re not really playing the game as it wants you to play it. You’ve made yourself an exception to its rules, and there’s something fundamentally broken about a game that’s best played by cheating its rules. If the game is actually meant to be played in Feel Eden mode, then it still suffers an identity crisis in that all its metagame mechanics drive you towards Normal mode instead. The game can’t decide if it wants to be an intense shooter or a relaxing experience and so fails to be either.

Child of Eden also doesn’t know what story it wants to tell. Now, obviously the narrative takes a back seat to the gameplay, but I bring this up because Child of Eden does have a story. It wants to have some kind of narrative; it doesn’t just want to be a series of pretty visual poems. And the story it sets up is easily the most ambitious, philosophically intriguing set up of any game in the past decade. Lumi was the first human born in space, now long dead, and the world works to resurrect her consciousness using a vast digital repository of knowledge, i.e. the Internet, now called Eden. A virus attacks, and you have to go into Eden to save Lumi’s digital consciousness.

With this set up, the game could potentially explore concepts like what it means to be human or what it means to be alive. Whereas I initially thought renaming the Internet Eden was stupid, dismissing it with a laugh, Brendan Keogh’s piece on Child of Eden at Critical Damage made an interesting point that forced me to rethink my dismissal. In comparing Rez to Child of Eden, he writes, “Both games explore (in their own very abstract ways) the relationship between humans and technology, between consciousness and artificial intelligence, between the 'real' world and the virtual world” ("Child of Rez", Critical Damage, 27 June 2011). This gives the set up even more potential: to explore the idea of technology as God, a digital Eden for a digital human. But what does that make her creators? These questions are fascinating, but sadly Child of Eden throws it all away as soon as you “dive in” to an archive.

The visual poem of each archive seems to tell a story of evolution. Evolution of animals, of plants, of technology, but it never goes any deeper than that. The poems are just tours through time, which are visually stunning and quite interesting in and of themselves -- don’t get me wrong -- but they also ignore everything from the set up that could have made them brilliant.

Going even further, Child of Eden fails to follow through on even its most basic and repeated plot element: Save Lumi. You’re told that over and over again, but then the game sends you into a digital archive that has nothing to do with Lumi. She appears in each archive during boss fights but only when you damage the boss in a significant way. She’s used as nothing more than a thumbs up for a good job, the same way that Devil May Cry tells you that you’re “awesome” if you perform a long combo.

Granted, one could argue that criticizing the story (or lack thereof) of Child of Eden is missing the point, but the game desperately wants its story to mean something. The back story, the opening cut scene of Lumi in the garden, her repeated appearance throughout the archives, that oft-repeated two-word command, the game obviously wants to set your actions within the context of something greater. It just doesn’t try all that hard. Child of Eden is a book of disconnected short stories, all wonderfully written but still separate, independent, unrelated. This wouldn’t be as frustrating if the set up wasn’t as genuinely intriguing as it is.

At its core, Child of Eden is no different than the latest Call of Duty. Both are shooters that get by on spectacle alone. One goes for realism, the other for abstraction; one goes for explosions and gun fights, the other goes for a synesthesia light show. They may exist on opposite ends of the graphical spectrum, but in both cases, we’re just here for the show and nothing more. However, at least Call of Duty knows what it wants to be. Child of Eden couldn’t be more confused with itself. It tells you to “Save Lumi!” then throws you into archives that have nothing to do with her, it puts on a colorful show of shapes and sounds then distracts you by trying to kill you, and it's so frustratingly hard that it demands to be watched rather than played.

Playing Child of Eden is like going to an art museum in which every time that you stop to look at a painting the staff starts throwing neon colored golf balls at you. Sure the art may be wonderful, but it’s hard to care when I’m being pelted in the face by purple projectiles.


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