[BulletMagnet talks about Soul Bubbles and how it made him remember his childhood. -- CTZ]
A little while back, I wrote a piece about my experience with the then-recently-released LocoRoco 2, and how it made me feel like the world’s biggest jerk.
You probably didn’t read it, so in a nutshell, while I bought both the game and its predecessor based almost exclusively on my well-documented affinity for so-called “quirky” titles, a second helping of the series’ formula made me realize, to my horror, not only just how little I actually enjoyed it, but how easily I’d duped myself into thinking that I was having fun the first time around, simply because a Gamer Like Me was supposed to click with a Game Like That.
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.
Funny how the universe is rarely content to leave even the little things hanging.
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.
If you hadn’t noticed, I stated in the afore-linked Tribune article that I was considering writing up a segment Soul Bubbles – at first, I figured it would probably be a relatively traditional review (as Mr. Leray has noted, an article featuring the game, sadly, has yet to appear anyplace on the site). Even within such a relatively cut-and-dry format, after all, I would still have plenty to blab about, even if I focused almost exclusively on why I ended up liking this game so much more than LocoRoco – just off the top of my head, the detailed spritework came to life far more effectively than the flat, pack-of-Starbursts pastel puffery of its PSP counterpart, the addition of a map and some ability to backtrack made exploring levels enjoyable and effortless instead of frustrating bouts of trial and error, and while control of the central object was still “indirect” and somewhat imperfect, the overall tightness and pacing of getting your bubble around struck me far more favorably than its clumsy cousin, a slick, shiny ball of mercury compared to LocoRoco’s homely lump of molasses. A few additional irritating quirks also manifested themselves, most notably a low challenge level, but on the whole the game was a very pleasant surprise – The End. Take the previous items, toss in a dollop of my usual hyper-verbosity, and boom, there’s your article. Or so I thought.
As I rather casually wended my way through Soul Bubbles, something began to bother me. It wasn’t anything to do with the game itself, as my overall thoughts on its technical merits (as described above) were clear in my mind pretty quickly – something else entirely was making its presence known to me as I played, and while I had trouble putting my finger on it, the inner sensation it inspired was profoundly familiar, if long absent. It’s a very difficult feeling for me to put into words, but the best I can come up with to describe it is a cloudy mixture of wonder, anticipation and awe, coupled closely with comfort, softness and warmth, infused against its will with a small, but entirely irrepressible, pulsing core of foreboding, maybe even fear. Whatever it was, it originated in the depths of my gut and slowly spread upward and outward from there, fading in intensity only to a point when the game was temporarily put aside – the sudden, forceful awakening of this dormant sensation from within caught me very much off guard, but what surprised me most about it was that I didn’t find its reappearance entirely unpleasant. If anything, it made me feel above all else oddly, giddily nostalgic.
And just like that, it hit me.
As this realization took on a definite shape in my mind, I was, at once, at least a decade and a half younger, probably more – in addition, I was instantly surrounded by countless, long-forgotten friends and acquaintances from ages past. A bear cub astride a unicycle. The mathematician Pythagoras. A seemingly sentient tornado. Dancing playing cards casting striking shadows. A forest full of trees brandishing menacing stares and grasping branches. Foliage, raindrops, sunsets, all of whose edges I could almost outline with my finger with my eyes closed - all of it accompanied by a lively, albeit invisible, orchestra. Oh, and tons upon tons of old VHS boxes.
I was a youngster again, up in my parents’ room, in front of the family VCR, whiling away my copious spare time with my eyes glued to old, and I mean OLD, Disney cartoons.
… whoa, no, wait, hang on! Don’t close the tab yet, this IS going somewhere! I can explain, honest!
Admittedly, this juxtaposition might sound pretty daft at first – seriously, what, exactly, does a game like Soul Bubbles have to do not only with Walt Disney, but specifically his company’s productions from more than a half-century ago (I’m talking Sleeping Beauty and earlier here)? Not only are we dealing with two very different entertainment mediums, originating from disparate places (the game’s developer, Mekensleep, is French, while Walt’s empire remains a defining symbol of Americana) as well as eras, but one is a varied body of work whose cultural significance, salability, and innate appeal has lasted generations, while the other is a one-off small-scale production whose limited success is due largely to word of mouth, and whose lasting charm and/or influence, if any, remains to be seen. Can any non-superficial comparison truly be drawn between the two? It’s a head-scratcher of a proposition for sure, but one thing, for whatever it’s worth, is beyond question – when I played Soul Bubbles, I felt exactly the same way I did as a child, watching those old cartoons. No other game, even titles that I definitely admire more from a technical perspective and/or list as personal favorites, has ever evoked those long-absent feelings in me – not Super Mario World, not DoDonPachi, not Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, not any other videogame. Nothing else that I’ve ever played, even if I found it memorable for other reasons, affected me in the same manner. Not even close.
So now what?
Once this thoroughly puzzling state of affairs had finally settled itself down, once and for all, within the most thickly-cobwebbed sectors of my psyche, I sat and thought for a good while about how and why this largely-discarded part of my life could be suddenly front and center all over again; how such a simple, innocuous little video game game could so forcefully bring so much of my childhood, and the mess of emotions that helped to define it, flying back to me, before I could even perceive what was happening. I mulled the situation over for a while; when I was finished, I immediately did three things.
I stood up,
I dusted myself off,
And I once and for all cracked open and cast away all of the self-imposed restraints that had been shackling me since my personal LocoRoco fiasco.
It was just that simple - from this moment hence, no longer would I define myself as a gamer, and to some small extent a person, via a single, albeit humbling, lapse in judgment – it had become profoundly clear to me that there are much bigger things at work here than that incident. Truth be told, my attitudes and decisions from back then look even more ridiculous and embarrassing when I recall them now, but my eyes are no longer permanently fixed on that unfortunate spot – my past, misguided as it could sometimes be, now serves not as an impediment to my ongoing (if likely futile) search for understanding as to how my tastes in entertainment, and my mind as a whole, work, but an indispensable guide. Soul Bubbles, as it turned out, was the late-discovered bridge which could span the chasm separating it from me. Or, at least, it certainly looks that way, in retrospect.
Granted, I’m far from convinced that I’ll ever know for certain (or at least be able to adequately explain to anyone else) exactly what set off this puzzling and rather uncomfortable sequence of events, but below are my best efforts at reconciling the cartoons of my youth with one particular game of my present, and my continuing efforts, through playing, observing and writing, to come to grips with my constantly-meandering inner self. As always when it comes to my ramblings, proceed past this point with caution.
First and foremost, Soul Bubbles presents itself as quite the rare specimen among its fellow games of the modern era – namely, it’s content to be what it is. Outside of the so-called “casual” set (and even there, things are changing quickly), how many video games do you see out nowadays which are truly comfortable with the simple label of “video game,” as opposed to “groundbreaking audio-visual experience,” “tale of unparalleled depth,” “genre-busting revelation,” “life-altering journey unlike any other,” or the perennial favorite, “long-awaited foray into The Realm of Art” (cue tinny trumpet fanfare)? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for titles that strive to reach beyond the “traditional” boundaries of the medium, but at the same time I can’t help but yearn a bit for the days when a video game could still be content to be “something you play for entertainment.” In like manner, I fondly recall the Disney productions of yore that were not required to serve, without exception, as squeaky-clean, formulaic morality plays, imparting Uplifting Messages and Valuable Life Lessons, and above all else depict (and re-depict, and re-depict) the Misunderstood Outcast Who Eventually Finds Acceptance By Being True To Himself (seriously, if that stale, rank nugget was even remotely true I’d have been declared king of the world by now, as opposed to wallowing in prolonged unemployment with nothing but a seldom-read blog to show for it…but I digress). I’m sure that some out there with a more comprehensive knowledge of film history would have a bone or two to pick with me on this front, but hopefully I’m not too far off the mark in asserting that, in the beginning, this trend was nowhere near as prevalent (let alone iconic) as it is by now.
To cite one particularly salient example, have a quick look at composer Deems Taylor’s spoken introduction (starting about two minutes in) to 1940’s Fantasia, which was, in many ways, a genuinely groundbreaking animated work (a label which, frankly, does not apply to many more recent productions who make a much bigger deal of it). So how hard did the host hype things up? Well, he does label the film a “new form of entertainment,” but quickly clarifies exactly what the audience is, and is not, getting – namely, music, and some of the images that it inspired. No more, no less. These days, such a simple, direct offering would almost certainly be derided by the majority, even within the industry, as “aimless,” “lacking direction,” “without focus” (truth be told, even back then audience reaction was chilly) – as the stereotypical lament goes, what’s the motivation at work here? As Taylor goes on to explain, while some music exists to tell some sort of story, much is brought into the world simply for its own sake. The same went for the film. The following segment (later edited out of Fantasia and instead included in the 1946 “package film” Make Mine Music) illustrates this philosophy (or lack thereof) perfectly –
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.
Enter Soul Bubbles. While the game does have a plot of sorts (your job is to transport departed spirits, via protective bubbles, to their eternal rest), it’s kept very much in the background, where it belongs (if, indeed, it really belongs anywhere at all) – the focus is squarely on the journey the game takes you on, as opposed to any tarted-up “reason” it might have to do so. Moreover, your androgynous (and vaguely simian) avatar is never given any real backstory, or even much personality to speak of, as it only exists to serve as a visible link between your stylus and the onscreen goings-on. In a nutshell, as you play this game, you will never find yourself thinking about anything except what’s in front of you at that specific moment in time, and as far as Soul Bubbles is concerned, that’s more than enough. The title doesn’t bother to explain itself to the player, because it doesn’t have to – once you make a few taps past the title screen and get going, your time with the game can speak on its own. There’s absolutely no tangible “incentive” (or, more accurately, a pretense of one) for you to spend valuable time in your day to move that bubble around on that tiny screen. Except, of course, for that simplest, seldom-cited bit of reasoning – you just want to. If you must continue to ask why one might feel this way, hopefully things will become more clear as we proceed to the next segment.
Another aspect of Soul Bubbles that reminds me of the Disney cartoons I loved so much as a child is not only how effectively it creates an immersive atmosphere, but how gracefully and effortlessly it does so. This is certainly not to say that the developers didn’t put their best effort forward here – on the contrary, nearly every single element herein, from the superficial presentation to the core engine, positively reeks of blood, sweat, and tears (in a far more positive manner than that sounds). That being what it is, the game deserves additional accolade, and my eternal gratitude, for resisting the urge to rub my face in it, rather than letting me discover its unique essence for myself, at my own pace - a subtle display of self-control that’s all too rare in the gaming world (and, some might suggest, the world in general) today.
Perhaps second only to the aforementioned Fantasia, the movie that (to me) best evidences the mindset at work in the game is 1942’s Bambi – while best known for its abundance of cute animals and a particular scene which scarred countless children for life (and spawned a hilarious “Slappy and Skippy” segment on Animaniacs, which I could only find online in Hungarian), what struck me most about it, even as a youngster, was the setting, and how utterly lost I’d always find myself in it (and how, for some reason, the similar locales found in later offerings, such as The Jungle Book and The Fox and the Hound, never enchanted me nearly as effectively). As much as I loved roaming around the patch of woods in my backyard, it couldn’t begin to impress like the untamed, boundless wilds of the film – historically, Bambi’s more realistically evocative art style was something new for the studio, and as a result production took far longer (and cost much more) to produce than any previous Disney venture. Walt himself, however, would later cite Bambi as his personal favorite full-length animated production, and those who came after him, almost without exception, could not find it in themselves to question his choice.