[BulletMagnet talks about Soul Bubbles and how it made him remember his childhood. -- CTZ]
It dawned on me, like a waking nightmare, that not only had I wasted forty bucks and a fair amount of hours, but my predominant (and rather pompous) self-image as a gamer of “discriminating” tastes was suddenly all but completely null and void. Without mincing words, I’d been haplessly taken in by a subpar “niche” title simply because it bore that label, no different from the proverbial and much-maligned ten-year-old who begs his mother for a copy of a God-awful licensed game solely based on the “way cool” cover art.
I was embarrassed. I was a bit depressed. I was also convinced that there was little else to the story, let alone anything worth blogging about all over again. I thought that was the end of it.
In a recent issue of my recurring offbeat gaming news recap, The Obscurer Tribune, I mentioned in passing that I’d finally gotten around to trying out DS action-puzzler Soul Bubbles. If you haven’t played it yourself, it’s similar in basic concept to LocoRoco, insofar as the overarching goal is to get a blobby thing from one end of each stage to the other. that factoid alone was enough to make me wary of the title for quite some time, though the off-putting box art and the fact that it was released as a Toys ‘R’ Us exclusive (if there’s any better way to scream “cheap casual shovelware” I haven’t found it) didn’t make me any more curious. Finally, though, after gradually perceiving drips and drabs of praise around the internet and eventually encountering this article on the front page, I finally decided to swallow hard and see for myself what the bugger had to offer – ten measly bucks later (for a brand new store-bought copy, mind you) the game was in my DS, and as of this writing has not yet left it.
And just like that, it hit me.
Any grasping, pretentious “interpretations” aside it’s nothing more than a pair of herons and a backdrop, but the painstakingly earnest execution of such a pure, unprocessed scene is enough, all by itself, to transfix near any audience whose definition of something worth watching is able to occasionally transcend loud explosions and/or arrays of miscellaneous airborne bodily fluids.
Back to the game. While the aforementioned rather painful cover art is more a case of misguided marketing than artistic restraint, the game itself, once you see it with your own eyes, doesn’t need much in the way of manufactured hoopla to state its case – it’s not so much a matter of a particularly distinctive “style” at work, but rather the indispensable attention that has gone even into the little things. Though you might not even notice them at first, keep an eye out, for flower petals scattering to the tune of faint, twinkling bells; the glowing imprint of a hand suddenly appearing on a breakable boulder as you approach it; the occasional jittery lizard skittering across a hot rock; the frost that forms on the surface of your bubble in chilly areas. Every separate piece fits together to form something more captivating than any individual part could hope to be on its own.
Then there are the sounds – while the end result is quite different from Disney’s signature song and dance, there is a similar “touch” to both. Sticking with Bambi for the time being, observe (and listen to) the tune “Little April Shower” from early in the film – ostensibly it’s what you’d expect from a Disney musical number, but an additional listen or two reveals a deeper layer of craftsmanship. For one thing, notice that, once the song begins, very few sound effects are used to evoke the aural sensation of the rainstorm – nearly all of it is done via the music. Gentle drops are tinkling bells, a solo clarinet, and soft, breathy lyrics, which begin to overlap and play off each other, and a slowly-intensifying string section, as the rainfall grows heavier; once the downpour is fully unleashed, cymbals crash as lightning illuminates the drenched landscape, forced into constant, unwilling motion by the howling winds, themselves given life by a lilting, unrelenting fortissimo chorus and blasting horns.
Soul Bubbles, for its part, takes a much more minimalist approach to its soundtrack, but the same care is evident herein – when a stage begins you might hear nothing more than the chirps of crickets or birds in the forest, but as you progress to a spot where a few abandoned teepees are scattered about a lone wooden flute begins to play, and an invisible vocalist pipes in a few simple lyrics at intervals. Move on into a more perilous area, such as a cave lined with menacing thorns, and suddenly a steady, serious beat of drums and rattles takes its place, supported by a heavy, deep-voiced chant to add weight to the trials ahead – every few screens of progression is hand-sculpted, you could say, into its own memorable sequence of both sight and sound, in similar fashion to a skillful director’s hand guiding an audience’s experience within the enveloping darkness of the theater.
Believe it or not, even the somewhat throwaway “guide to the afterlife” storyline is put to work as a functioning part of Soul Bubbles’ overall design aesthetic; while each group of stages (except the very last batch) is inspired by a different set of tribal beliefs (Druidism, the Aboriginal Dreamtime, North American Shamanism, etc.), the lot of them share a common artistic sensibility and atmospheric priority. All consist, on a very basic level, of a series of winding, narrow passageways containing interspersed breaks of sky and open space – while there are always a few threats to navigate around (and occasionally deal with directly), the road to the infinite beyond is largely how most of us would hope to experience it. At once still, peaceful and bursting with life, as your bubble is wafted along it will pass through natural vistas ranging from overgrown jungles to luminescent opal mines, rendered in loving, pixel-by-pixel detail. Moreover, amidst the bevy of lush, omnipresent plant and animal life you’ll encounter scattered remains of the mortal existence the souls in your care have left behind: totem carvings in an over-arching tree branch. Long-abandoned but still-smoldering campfires. Simple, time-worn stone machinery in the form of a forgotten Mayan deity. Loosely-hanging, brightly-colored oriental fabrics among eroded mountain boulders. Familiar silhouettes frozen in the Arctic ice. At once separate from and an integral part of this world’s natural surroundings, in a way it never could be in reality, Soul Bubbles’ concept, realized largely via its striking locales, results in as evocative a vision of the so-called Elysian Fields as I can recall witnessing in any medium – as you progress toward your little spirits’ awaited destination it’s hard not to feel a twinge of awe, a pinch of longing for simpler times long past, and above all a profound sense of peace. Once again, if the afterlife turns out to be anything close to this, I’ll be more than content to sit back and enjoy the scenery during that final trip.
I suppose you could say that if Soul Bubbles evokes the Disney of old, LocoRoco, by contrast, calls to mind any number of recent flash-in-the-pan Cartoon Network efforts, whose pseudo-abstract stamps of garish color atop ever-more-hackneyed settings and characters stink of focus-grouped desperation (none can hold a candle, in my opinion, to, say, The Three Caballeros or Alice in Wonderland): Look at me! Look at me right NOW! they seem to scream, inches away from your unfortunate ears. I’m geometric! I’m artsy! My theme song has an electric guitar in it! I make forced pop culture references! I’m NEW!!!! Of course, in this day and age it’s hardly alone in that department (ironically enough, a fair amount of Disney’s recent output all too eagerly treads the same path), but Soul Bubbles, for its part, stands largely alone, and moreover waits patiently for you, the player, to come to it, rather than roughly dragging you over by force, or trying to. Its world, small, but breathtaking in its own way, crammed into a humble plastic cartridge, has seemingly been built upon the practical, low-key creed of the Tao Te Ching – “Do your work, then step back…Express yourself completely, then keep quiet.” The finished product, and the end experience it gradually builds within the player’s mind, are all the better for it – that’s not to say that I don’t wish that the game was a bit better-marketed, but that’s another article altogether.
Finally, the trickiest piece of the puzzle to pin down, but perhaps the most important in the end, namely the inherent power of the creators’ energy made manifest – in simpler terms, a work’s ability to make its viewers/listeners/consumers/etc. acutely aware of the unique human personality and vitality behind it. Some of you might still be wondering why I listed “foreboding” and “fear” among the emotions evoked within me by those old Disney cartoons – that was no mistake on my part. To be clear, the movies didn’t “scare” me in the sense that I’d be forced to scream and cover my eyes, or be plagued by nightmares afterwards – on the contrary, this was a sense of apprehension that, rather than inspiring revulsion, made it impossible for me to look away. If we return to Bambi for a moment, while the aforementioned “death scene” is the film’s most controversial segment, for my money the most emotionally taxing outbursts of action come later, after Bambi has grown up. Take in, if you will, the following sequence of events –
To my young eyes, the sudden, albeit bloodless, violence that erupts between Bambi and his silent, out-of-nowhere rival, accentuated by outlandish splashes of color and shadow, not to mention a pounding aural accompaniment, ensured that I didn’t blink for the course of the entire scene. It turned out, of course, especially after I’d been put temporarily at ease by the following few minutes of serenity between Bambi and Faline, that I was still nowhere near prepared for the imminent return of the unseen hunters, some of the most terrifying villains to never appear onscreen. No visual evidence of their presence is ever given, save for the terrified reactions of the forest’s denizens and the swath of floral destruction and faunal corpses left in their wake, and no sound, not even footsteps, is used to signal their approach – save for cutting, soulless gunshots. Of course, the earlier winter scene had already given me a taste of that much – but then the baying, fang-bearing hounds, terrifying in their relentless pursuit of a grim, senseless endgame, come flooding over the hillside. And even after this newest foe has been outmatched, the movie is still not done with you – the last few moments of the embedded clip give a pretty clear picture concerning what Bambi, and the viewer, are fated to encounter next, and it’s just as crowning a visual terror, if not more, than what’s preceded it. If you’re up for an additional example or two of this same power to instill such abject feelings of apprehension, off the top of my head may I suggest the nightmarish adolescent dystopia of Pleasure Island and the conflict in the middle of an empty, angry ocean with the leviathan Monstro from Pinocchio – if you’re familiar with Disney’s catalog, I’m sure you can come up with a substantial amount of others.
Now, how the heck is he going to tie the likes of Soul Bubbles into this, you might be wondering? Well, suffice it to say, terror, even the rather tame variety detailed above, is not a state of mind frequently, if ever, brought to bear by the game’s serene settings and generally smooth, largely effortless sense of progression. However, if you’ve read the previous paragraph carefully, you already have its subtext embedded in mind – namely, in those startling scenes, it wasn’t just the subject matter itself that made such an impression on me, but what was happening beyond them. To whit, a large part of what made the hunters in Bambi so effectively frightening is the fact that they’re left invisible – this is no accident, obviously, but a conscious decision by the film’s creators. The same applies to the art direction, overall character design, musical compositions, and everything else – of course, you might argue, this principle is effective as regards any entertainment venture by anybody, so what’s the big deal? For whatever it’s worth, in my mind, even if nowhere else, those old movies (and a handful of others, the non-Disney An American Tail among them), and Soul Bubbles in turn, somehow manage to go the extra mile in this area, almost to the point where one can see the creators’ fingerprints on the work, feel their eyes watching eagerly as you experience the fruit of their labors, nodding in satisfied anticipation to each other as the viewer reaches one of their personal favorite parts. This is that uneasy but thrilling feeling that wells up from the pit of my stomach – the sense that the creators have imbued their work with so much of themselves that it takes on a life of its own. The feeling that you are never quite alone when experiencing it.
Obviously this sort of gist is very personal and very subjective, but I’ve never housed the slightest shadow of a doubt that certain works, including these, are of a special breed, able to offer a rarely-seen window into the mentalities and spirits behind the final product. It’s very, very difficult for me to decide with any sense of certainty precisely what it is about any of them that gives me this vague yet unmistakable impression; moreover, it’s quite easy to compile myriad ways in which I might very well be tilting at windmills. Particularly in the case of the cartoons, my judgment could be somewhat clouded by the more corporate, mechanical direction that most such works have taken in recent years, and as a result the 100 percent hand-crafted masterpieces of ages past perhaps fill me with even more awe than they reasonably ought to. As far as Soul Bubbles is concerned, I may well be taking to the developers’ more direct efforts to reach out to the player (most memorably the cheeky opening “disclaimer” – This game does not depict the following: licensed racing cars, post-apocalyptic soldiers, elfs, orcs, magicians, or gang fights – please do not panic) a bit too eagerly. At the same time, however, even as I write this article, please don’t doubt me when I claim to hope that you are able to catch at least a little bit of an impression of me, not just as a writer or gamer, but my unique inner self, as you read even this middling blog entry, even if you’re not sure exactly where that impression comes from – that said, if a hack like myself can somehow end up musing along those lines (to what end is anyone’s guess), it must be possible for much greater thinkers and creators to envision and realize such a goal to far greater effect. I could still be completely off base, of course, but I hope I’m not.
Before I sign off here, please allow me to make a few points explicitly clear – no, Soul Bubbles is not the greatest game ever made (nor is LocoRoco the worst). No, not everybody ought to see these games and old cartoons as I’ve seen them, nor be as intimately affected by them as I’ve been (especially considering how they’re only viewable here as compressed YouTube clips, which doesn’t even begin to do them proper justice). For the record, had I ended up reviewing Soul Bubbles in a more “traditional” or “professional” manner, most or all of what you’ve just read (or, more likely, skimmed over) would have even merited a mention; as such, in case it isn’t obvious enough, none of what I’ve been yammering about here should be viewed as anything remotely resembling a “definitive” statement. As you’ve read, even I have plenty of doubts about how well this whole mess might hold up in the end – after all, it’s just a bit of thinking out loud on my part, as per usual around here.
Truth be told, the only real goal I ever had for this entry, when you get down to it, is the hope that, as one reads this, they might recall something, anything, that has stuck with them through the years as surely as this stuff has with me, and moreover stop and think to themselves, if only for a moment, as to just why those specific memories are so vivid, so fond, so undying, while so much else, frequently including even things of much greater importance, has been so frequently and effortlessly forgotten. If you’re anything like me, it’s a bit more of an undertaking than it sounds at first – but, at the end of the day, it’s one more little piece of yourself that you might become a bit more familiar with. It’s not Enlightenment with a capital E, but it’s still worth taking a little time to seek out, at least once in a blue moon.
If you’ll allow me one last piece of childish reminiscence, I can best think to liken this sort of experience, unnerving and comforting all at once, to that of the children’s gruff but long-suffering father during the finale of Peter Pan, after he comes home to find them just back from Never-land. Dismissive of Wendy’s eager retellings of her adventures there, he nonetheless cannot escape the nursery without catching an unwilling glimpse of Captain Hook’s ship through the window, unmistakably silhouetted against the full moon in the sky – temperamental and cynical though he may be, as he helplessly stares his mouth, framed by his trademark moustache, slowly curls into a gentle, tentative smile. He takes an unsteady few steps towards the strange scene outside, and without missing a beat utters a line that still sends chills down my spine, to this very day, every single time I hear it:
You know, I have the strangest feeling that I’ve seen that ship before.
A long time ago. When I was very young.