It finally happened.
Video games have become too cute for my brain to process.
It’s been tough for me to determine whether parenthood and age have softened me up or if games have really ratcheted up the squeal-with-glee factor in the last few years, but I’m seeing growing evidence that it’s the latter.
Once upon a time, most video games were ugly. They were blocky and crude, blinky and angular;, they gave you a headache if you stared at them, slack-jawed, for too long. With better technology came curves and softer edges, sounds that were more human–like, and a raft of anthropomorphic shapes (“Pac-Man”) and pint-sized pixel heroes (“Donkey Kong” plumber Mario).
For the last few decades, as the audience for video games has expanded into the mainstream and players have grown up and had their own kids, the market for family-friendly titles has boomed, and familiar licensed faces pop up in digital entertainment all the time. One of the best Xbox Kinect games from a few years back was a “Sesame Street” game, and video game store shelves are stuffed with games based on “Dora the Explorer,” LEGO’s take on movie series or comics and pretty much any popular toy franchise.
But I’m not talking about kids’ games necessarily. I’m talking about the kinds of games Nintendo in particular has perfected that are sophisticated in their approach to cuteness. There may be a totally challenging, engaging game in there, but charming adorableness, the kind that makes grown-ups feel a tingling enchantment (at least before it sours into sugar overload), is their own thing.
I call this genre of games “adorbcore,” and it feels like their numbers are growing as more adult gamers are either playing with their kids or capturing a little bit of childish glee for themselves. There is a growing number of collectible-toy games, such as “Disney Infinity,” which this year added lovely little figurines based on “Star Wars” and Pixar’s “Inside Out” characters.
LEGO recently released “Dimensions,” a pricey ($100 gets you in the door) playset for video game consoles that brings together worlds such as “The Simpsons,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Back to the Future” and “The LEGO Movie.” Of course, the Mminifigures for characters such as Wyldstyle and Gandalf are spectacularly cute. They’d better be for the hit your wallet will take. Want a much less expensive digital LEGO set? Try “Minecraft,” the hit with kids that has made blocky pixels an enduring design aesthetic.
Sony’s “LittleBigPlanet” series has been a success largely for its handcrafted aesthetic and its stuffed “Sackboy” characterizations. That game series is like playing inside the hyperactive brain of a precociously artistic and imaginative child. The studio behind those games, Media Molecule, went on to make the equally brilliant “Tearaway,” which makes gorgeous visual hay out of papercraft.
But nobody’s gotten the formula of near-perfect adorbcore down as much as Nintendo lately, which inflicted on society the benign sweetness that is “Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer,” in which you decorate rooms for little animal villagers. The Nintendo 3DS game is so twee you want to punch it in the face (figuratively speaking, of course), but you’re too busy moving bookshelves and hanging posters to do that.
Nintendo has long flown the flag for video games based on “Pokémon,” reminding us that a lot of the company’s honed cuteness is imported from Japan.
“Kirby and the Rainbow Curse” and the newly released “Yoshi’s Woolly World” continue Nintendo’s quest to make Wii U games that look and feel like tactile, hand–made experiences. “Rainbow Curse” convincingly brings to life a digital clay world while “Woolly World” is all about yarn. A companion “Amiibo” figure for that game is a tiny Yoshi dinosaur made of pink, yellow or green yarn. If you have an allergy to extreme cuteness, this is the point where you’d break out in hives and seek medical attention.
The thing about cute games is that their cuddly, warm worlds don’t necessarily mean they’re easy games, dumbed down for novice players or very young children. “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” from a few years back was magic mushroom-munching adorbcore, but it was also a game so diabolically difficult it reminded me that my twitch reflexes were no longer what they were when I played games like it as a kid.
That’s right. This was a game that made me think about my own mortality. There’s nothing cute about a game that reminds you of the inevitable march toward death.
Some games have used cuteness ironically, such as the legendary “Conker’s Bad Fur Day,” a 2001 Nintendo 64 game that used rude humor, bad language and extreme weaponry to puncture the then-stale state of action platform games.
And I’ve wondered recently if adorbcore is the domain of big-budget, mainstream games. But in truth, many low-budget indie games often rely on adorable, if low-fi, graphics and simplified gameplay. The puzzle game “Fez” was an unexpected, adorbcore hit. And before it was turned into a giant franchise by Electronic Arts, “Plants vs. Zombies” turned garden warfare into an addiction for many. It also managed to make cuddly cartoon zombies a thing.
Yes, even the bloody undead are no match for the power of adorbcore. In an era when most hit games are about shooting things with guns or competing in rough-and-tumble sports, it’s nice to see. In the hands of skilled video –game creators, almost anything can be turned into a candy-sweet delight.