When much-loved game designer Tim Schafer announced a new game coming up from Double Fine Productions, I guessed the hive-mind response was "Is it a super awesome adventure game?" But with games like Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, Costume Quest, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster and Tren -- I mean, Iron Brigade -- under their belt, one never really knows what to expect. And, well, I certainly wasn’t expecting something like this.
The new brainchild of Double Fine is a little something called Happy Action Theater, a riotously fun family game for the Kinect that transforms your living space into an interactive environment onscreen. The overarching theme of this game is a circus funhouse, and the main attraction (or object of ridicule) is naturally, yourself.
Happy Action Theater
Not to worry though, you can also bring friends, family, co-workers, frat brothers and even your dog Sparky into the mix. Unlike Mordor, anyone can simply walk right into Happy Action Theater and take part in a series of activities ranging from deflecting pooping pigeons, sinking in a pool of molten lava or destroying small cities as an angry monster from a Japanese flick.
As a game seemingly aimed at attention-deficit kids and adults, it’s important for the developers that it comes with no controls and no instructions. According to Tim, "We thought it was a great idea to make a game that has no rules, has no failure state. It's a series of activities for either a birthday party for 3-year-olds or a college dorm full of drunk 20-year-olds."
That for me truly captures the spirit of the game. It is up to the players to jump right into it and figure out how can they physically interact with the things they see on screen and with each other -- and that is a fun enough experience by itself. The only walkthrough is within the recesses of your crazy mind -- you are only limited by your imagination, creativity and the ability to make fun of yourself. You can be hyper, childish, perverse, insane or however you like.
There are 18 galleries in total. Some are pretty straightforward -- one is a room full of balloons that you can pop by kicking or jumping on them. Others require a higher degree of creativity. For example, one of the stages mimics the burst mode in a typical camera. This mode takes a continues series of overlapping pictures -- meaning you can potentially do naughty things with you and your friends’ still images that you’ve never thought of doing before.
In the more bizarre category is an 8-bit shoot-em-up mini-game where your avatars suddenly grow a pair of ... butterfly wings. You then have to veer left and right and raise your arms to zap the bugs coming from the sky.
Another hilariously absurd stage would be the disco showdown with some cartoon characters. You don’t even have to dance at this point. The game does the dancing for you by animating your body and making it jump around in a frenzied sort of jig.
I can only imagine how the creators of this game conducted their meetings in order to conceptualize these mini-games. One of the developers explained to me that they wanted to explore the range of what they can do with the Kinect.
Indeed, it is a simple concept that takes advantage of the motion controls and camera features. It is also a tried one, but it makes up for this with its zany atmospherics and popping visuals. It does have its limitations as well, like there is no way to capture memorable moments that happen in-game. Plus, a general problem I’ve had with the Kinect is it’s sometimes difficult to figure out exactly the dimensions of the objects on the screen.
In any case, Happy Action Theater does seem like a party game that both kids and adults can appreciate and play together -- kids would want to hop around like the maniacs that they are, and the adults would discreetly recognize the LSD in-jokes. Both would enjoy the humor of the game in different ways. I genuinely enjoyed Happy Action Theater both as a sort-of adult and a kid at heart. I felt the childlike glee of a second-grader released to the playground, in a world before the word “glee” had any derogatory meanings. And I think this interactive, exploration-driven and magical experience for kids is something the videogame industry needs more.