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Signs of Maturity in ‘Splatoon’

Splatoon is a game that treats you like a grownup without taking itself too seriously.

I wasn’t expecting it, but Splatoon often feels like a game targeted at adults. Perhaps this is a shooter for someone like me; that is to say, a working stiff without the time or reflexes it takes to compete with the sharpshooter kids who weren’t alive when Quake came out.

Simplifications and small improvements to the standard multiplayer shooter conventions make Splatoon feel very modern. There are some exceptions that make Splatoon feel like it’s trying to catch up to its more militant big brothers, but the end result is something that feels strangely mature.

In a weird way, neon-colored squid children that look like they escaped from a ’90s Saturday morning cartoon feel more grown up than Call of Duty. The Call of Duty and Battlefield paradigm has taken the self-serious military aesthetic to fetishistic place. Even my beloved Titanfall couldn’t get out the door without military jargon, bounding bass lines, and gritty military scenery. The slavish dedication to making things feel “real” and “dramatic” can quickly slide the realm of power fantasies. Put it this way: if I had to play a game in front of other people, I’d be more self-conscious about one where I was trying “stay frosty” and “neutralize tangos” in a faux-military environment than I would be in something that is clearly embracing its own irreverence. All competitive shooters are pretty goofy when you strip away their artifice (I don’t think the teach bunny hopping and no-scoping at West Point), so the fact that Splatoon is unabashedly raucous is refreshing.

Strategically, I’ve never been better at shooters. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to get my fingers up to speed with what my brain wants them to do. Splatoon helps balance out the focus on twitch-based skills with a focus on strategy. In the primary mode, four players on each side work to cover as much of the stage as possible with their team’s paint. This means shooting your enemies is a tactic rather than a win condition unto itself. Good reflexes help, but being able to read the map and pay attention to the flow of the match are the real skills required.

Splatoon is a modern shooter, so there’s no escaping things like map packs, level progression, and unlockable items. However, Splatoon flattens these things out so that recreational players can focus on the game rather than the options surrounding it. Maps are chosen randomly and rotate every four hours. There are different types of guns, but their differences are obvious. Unlocking them isn’t a linear progression but rather a choice: if you like paint rollers, you can spend your money on them as soon as they’re available, rather than having to grind to level 35 to get your preferred shotgun.

On the social side, there is some developer-enforced maturity through the omission of voice chat. It’s a wonder how much more sophisticated everyone sounds when they can’t talk. The vibrant characters and catchy music maintain the game’s aesthetic no matter who is playing. It’s sad how relieving it feels to play an online game without racist tweens shouting at new players.

Despite all the streamlining and time-saving, there are some blemishes that make the game feel a bit amateur. While I am happy that strangers are mute, the omission of a same team or party chat option is very strange in the context of a strategy-focused game. Even more annoying is the inability to change your loadout once you start playing. Jump into a match and notice that everyone is using the same gun? Tough luck, since there is no way to switch weapons during games or between rounds. In the time it takes to leave your party, sift through your weapons, and watch a few loading screens, you could have played a whole match.

Nintendo seems to be have a fairly aggressive patch and update plan for Splatoon, so these things may very well be addressed in the coming months. Even so, it’s been a long time since I’ve played a game that recognized my lack of time and investment without trying to monetize those qualities. Stripping away relatively small decisions, rewarding strategy in addition to reflexes, and creating a non-toxic multiplayer environment are mature design goals aimed at people who would rather think of themselves as mature instead of old.

Wrap all this up in a lighthearted, squid-shaped package and you have a game that treats you like a grownup without taking itself too seriously.