A lot of something out of nothingFebruary 23, 2009
There has been little or no discussion of Katamari Damacy designer, Keita Takahashi’s PSN game Noby Noby Boy. Of the few articles I’ve found, reviewers have noted its eccentric charm, simplistic design, and lack there of on any sense of traditional conceptions of what makes a game. There is no goal; no objective; no threat. What instead has occurred is that many people have settled on the notion that Noby Noby Boy is basically a toy. Reviewers have either decided that it is a fun little demo that requires a short period of your time to get the gist of what the game is all about and then put it down forever or that the game provokes a sense of play that many gamers had in their childhood when picking up a videogame for the first time.
I have been pretty vocal in my unpopular opinion about last week’s PSN release Flower. That may be a fault of high expectations, over-hype, or my own expectation of the themes and meaning of said game. But Noby Noby Boy did not give me any such grief though it very well should have. While Flower does arguably groundbreaking things for medium in the eyes of many gamers, Noby Noby Boy arguable does the exact opposite. Instead of promoting the opinion of games as a mature art form, Takahashi’s latest release seems to reside in the opinion of many gamers to view this as a toy: childish, inconsequential, and empty. But at the same time, that may be the genius of the game as well.
After Katamari Damacy, Takahashi announced his ambition to move out of videogames and instead begin work on designing playground equipment. Playing Noby Noby Boy it is not difficult to see the evolution of this idea in the gameplay. On the surface this game is basically a sandbox. From the get go the player is informed that there is no goal to the game except to stretch and eat by controlling BOY. Left to your own devices you can play around in the world to your heart’s content. The other interactivity is to report your length to an online hub that shows the collective length players have accumulated via GIRL that is in space stretching to various other planets to unlock levels. It’s an ingenious device to integrate communal play into game progression.
As I write this, GIRL has just reached the Moon. The next objective is to get GIRL to Mars. There is a wonderful encouragement for exploration. The game’s tutorial is a set of question in the form of a quiz using “???” in place of telling the player what button to press to do what. Experimentation is not only required to learn and guess the correct answer to control your BOY but also a means of creating your own fun. For the past few days I have gone in to Noby Noby Boy and discovering new elements every play session whether is the mechanics of the game or the eccentricities of the beings in the world that ride my back, stare bewildered at my antics, or run in fear as I attempt to consume them.It is easy to forget the sense of play that videogame inherently have. We often concern ourselves with profound experience, which is why a game like Flower can have such a strong impression towards us. But Noby Noby Boy is in a way subtler and sneaks up on our childish inhibitions. As I wrote previously, one of the tenants of film to become an art form is its means of expressing the abstract. Flower performs this metaphorically through its visual, mechanical, and arguably immersive design. Noby Noby Boy is visually more literal in its abstract presentation with its flat, grid based map and empty space. But this aesthetic itself is a ruse to provide a jarring sense of detachment and puzzlement.
The game is in fact just as penetrating, unconsciously attracting a different aspect of our psyche: curiosity. Noby Noby Boy may not have the same level of emotional or cerebral affect that many acclaimed games of the past have had towards the gamer; however, it cannot be denied the same level of accolade. Takahashi proves once again that he is not a game designer but an artist. His intentions are just as abstract as his themes attempting to place as much faith on the player and they put onto him as a designer. And similar to last year’s Little Big Planet, a sense of community, collective consciousness, and fun arises. It is a strange evolution from detached perplexity to immersive play, a balancing act that very few designers can achieve.
In the end, what is Noby Noby Boy? Is it a game? Is it a toy? What is it trying to say? Is there even a meaning? To reduce the game to its essentials, Noby Noby Boy isn’t much of anything. It is nothing. Yet it offers a choice to the player to be either compelled or indifferent. At the same time it offers a lot to the player. From its subtle mechanics, soothing guitar serenade, and quirky surrealism it is as fascinating as any other game. As easily disregarded as a toy and just as easily touted to be a work of artistry. Noby Noby Boy becomes the gaming equivalent of Pop Art, ahead of the curve in what is already a post-modern medium.