Kirby’s Epic Palate Cleanser
On a recent lazy Sunday, I stumbled out of the bedroom and into my living room to find my wife watching a TV show. Not a significant event, but when I sat down and rubbed the blur from my eyes, I realized I didn’t recognize the show. Just yesterday she was half-way through Longmire, or was it Fringe? Hell, I thought she was watching the new season of The X-Files, but then I recall something about a women’s prison. I asked her how she can watch so many different shows at once, and keep track of all of them. “The same way you play a lot of video games,” she replied, and then promptly went back to ignoring me for another twelve hours.
Maybe I’m weird about this, but traditionally that is not how I play video games. Typically, I start a new game and play nothing but that until I finish it. Occasionally, I might play a round or two of Halo multiplayer (or these days, a few matches of Rocket League), mostly as an excuse to catch-up with friends, but I only focus on one game at a time. I couldn’t fathom switching between Metroid Prime and Mass Effect – I need to finish one before I start the other, because if I haven’t finished Metroid Prime, it’s all I’m thinking about as I flirt with Garrus in Mass Effect.
This has always been the way I play video games, one at a time. That is, until somewhat recently. Approximately 18 months ago, I started a single-player game, and I am finally at the point where the finish line is in sight. Eighteen months of on again, off again playtime. Yet I’m not talking about some open-world Bethesda Softworks RPG, or a sandbox-type game like Minecraft. The one constant over this last year and a half has been Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Kirby. As in, a simple, fun, 2-D platformer that I could easily work through in an afternoon or two. Yet here I am, 18 months in, with one more world left to clear, and I’m OK with that. I’m OK with taking so long because I’m not playing Kirby’s Epic Yarn the same way I play other games, and the satisfaction I am getting out of taking my time with it shines a light on an issue of modern game design – the need for palate cleansers.
An Epic Yarn For The Ages
Labeling a game as a palate cleanser is sort of a vague definition, especially when the subjective nature of art and entertainment is factored into the equation. Since I mostly listen to Scandinavian Death Metal, I consider something like Run the Jewels to be a nice break from the thrashing and screaming that is the constant soundtrack to my life. But just because I occasionally listen to rap as a break from my main focus doesn’t mean that the entire genre should be reduced to the role of palate cleanser – for many, it is their go-to genre, whereas screaming, chaotic heavy metal is the occasional break from the norm.
But Kirby’s Epic Yarn really does feel like a palate cleanser, and it’s important for this argument to understand what it does specifically to feel like one. To start, the game is absolutely disgusting in how adorable it is – this is a game that can reduce even the most stoic, burly lumberjack to a giant puddle of aww-ing humanity. The hook of Kirby’s Epic Yarn is that Kirby has been transformed into a ball of yarn, which means that he can change into other yarn-based forms, such as a yarn-tank or a yarn-dolphin, and it’s as cute as it sounds. Immediately, the game disarms the player – there is nothing to fear in this world, no real threat, because everything is made out of soft, cuddly yarn.
The goal of Kirby’s Epic Yarn is even more disarming – players must navigate Kirby from one end of the level to the next. That’s it – just move from left to right. There are enemies in the world, but if they hit Kirby he doesn’t lose a life or isn’t teleported to the beginning of the level to start from scratch. He lets out a surprised yelp which, again, is more cute than alarming, and keeps on moving. There are gems to collect, and getting hit by an enemy means the player loses their gems and must pick them all up before they disappear, but beyond that the only impact these items have on the game is to rank the player at the end of the level with a bronze, silver or gold medal. But if the player fails to get enough gems to get a bronze medal then… nothing happens. The player still beats the level and unlocks the next. Eventually the player will encounter a boss fight, but again, the player cannot die or fail, and it’s a matter of learning the simple move set of the boss, who is also made of yarn and comes across as anything but menacing. Eventually, the player will win, and it’s on to the next level or world.
An immediate reaction to this game is that it’s just a simple game for children, which is why the game lacks any real challenge. But Kirby has been a staple of Nintendo’s line-up for more than two decades, and many of the same gamers who grew up playing Kirby games likely continue to do so as adults (just as kids who played Mario games do so now as adults). Nintendo knows this, and developer HAL Laboratory clearly put a level of care into Kirby’s Epic Yarn that suggests this game is just as much for adults as it is for children. It’s amazing how pleasant the game looks (the art design is incredible), especially running on the original Nintendo Wii, which essentially makes it comparable visually to sixth generation games. That’s no small task for a developer, and requires resources that many children’s games are simply not afforded (see – any video game tie-in to any children’s movie). Additionally, what gameplay is there is well executed, and the entire package does not rely on nostalgia to enjoy – it stacks up alongside some of the best 2-D platformers in this regard, something both adults and children can fully appreciate. So how is it engaging for adults? Because the relaxed state of the game, the lack of a threat and the visuals put it directly at odds with the games adults are playing today. Kirby’s Epic Yarn fits perfectly between prolonged bouts of Grand Theft Auto V, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Fallout 4. It allows players to take a breather from constantly struggling to survive or saving the world. It’s sole intent, based on the design choices, is to be a palate cleanser.
Ginger and Sushi
While Kirby’s Epic Yarn works on its own as a palate cleanser, developers can actually benefit by integrating them directly into their own games, a practice that is common in other art forms. There are a number of ways creators in other mediums can offer the viewer a chance to break up the pacing or flow, to keep up engagement and, potentially, offer a viewpoint that would otherwise go unexplored. Film director Brad Bird spent most of his career making animated films for Pixar, and then suddenly broke that pattern by filming a live-action blockbuster – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. By breaking up the flow, Bird was able to bring a new lens to an old action series, and viewers were able to experience something different and unique in a genre that hasn’t seen many advancements in the last decade. The result was a critical and commercial success that also was unique and refreshing.
Video game developers don’t necessarily have the same options that film directors or musicians have, but one advantage is that video games tend to be long, which leaves room for new ideas to be inserted into levels or set pieces, as a way to prevent their 40 hour game from getting boring at the 20 hour mark. But rarely do you see games utilize palate cleansers – an entirely different approach to a level or section that purposefully slows the pacing of the game down, and gives the players a very manageable, small goal to achieve. Some games do try to create quiet moments that give the player a breather – in a recent playthrough of Dead Space 3, I was taken aback at the sudden and unexpected beauty of the space missions in the first act. The player can just float in outer space, occasionally using their thrusters to check out interesting looking debris, hopefully finding a health pack or some ammo. But even in these moments, that sense of calm and quiet was broken up by an enemy that somehow made it into the vacuum of outer space, and somehow found the player and decided to attack them. The palate cleanser was right there, only to be chased away by space zombies.
It seems that developers are terrified of moments where players have nothing to do; they fear players will find the game boring and not finish it, which will eventually lead to less sales and less opportunities to create games. It’s likely this is why developers put mindless collection quests into almost every game – it’s not enough in Alan Wake to just stumble through the forest and take in the sounds of the wind rustling the leaves, or the way the light from the moon is fractured by the trees. We also have to be on the lookout for thermoses of coffee, because the belief is that gamers need something to do at all times. But removing these quiet, relaxed moments leads to burnout – I know plenty of gamers who go through phases of on-again, off-again with the medium. One moment, all they do is play video games, the next moment they’re missing from Xbox Live for over a month, hidden away in a dimly lit room reading books or listening to soothing jazz – whatever it is non-gamers do. That burnout occurs because video games are, mostly, an intense medium, that’s constantly demand the player save the world, survive against all odds and to always work toward a goal. But the existence of Kirby’ Epic Yarn proves that this doesn’t need to be the case, and games could actually be better if they incorporated palate cleansers directly into their design. By doing so, gamers have the opportunity to take a break from the action without actually having to take a break from the game – this can potentially lead to more gamers completing more games, which is an issue in the industry.
The Emotional Highs And Lows
So how do developers incorporate palate cleansers into their games about blowing up alien motherships and saving billions of lives? The answer ties into another problem that video games are still working out – how to adhere to the traditional three-act structure of storytelling.
The problem most games face today is that they either have too many acts (a result of too much filler), or not enough (a result of possibly being rushed through development). If developers can get a better understanding of how to work in the three-act structure (and they’re getting there, as evident by the strides made during the seventh generation), they can also better identify their games emotional high and low points, which is essential when determining where to insert palate cleansers.
This is a difficult ask of developers, but it’s not an impossible one. Despite my seemingly-constant praise for the title, the original Mass Effect is a perfect example of missed opportunity. Mass Effect is a lengthy game, with some very repetitive level design (especially for side-quests), and would greatly benefit from a couple palate cleansers. However, the ending of the first act (where the player acquires a spaceship and can explore the entire galaxy) is too open-ended, making it difficult for developer BioWare to organically guide the player to a mission that might allow them to take a break from mowing down waves of enemies on identical-looking planets. Act one may be filled with excitement and exploration of this new world, but act two is almost nothing but combat. However, that second act ends with the death of a major character, and would be the perfect opportunity to let the player process the tragic events that just unfolded by having them do something low-key, something with a slower pace, because the end result is that the player will become more engaged with the characters and the world. But the beginning of act three picks up the action and barrels ahead to the conclusion, and the player never gets to catch their breath. One could argue that, of course the game doesn’t slow down – the entire universe is at stake. But it is possible to slow down for a moment, even when the stakes are so high.
Compare this scenario to the first act of Mass Effect 2, in which BioWare learned a lesson about palate cleansers. The game opens with the death of the player character, a shocking revelation, only to see that character brought back from the dead through the most advanced scientific program the galaxy has ever seen. It’s a lot to take in, especially at the very beginning of the game, and the player does get a new ship and new planets to explore and characters to meet. But nestled in the middle of that is, personally, one of my favorite missions in any Mass Effect game. Players can locate the wreckage of their first ship, essentially the place where they died, and revisit it, picking up a few dog-tags of fallen soldiers who were not fortunate enough to be the focus of a multi-billion dollar science project, and placing a memorial as a reminder of their sacrifices. There are no enemies in this mission, the tone is quiet and reserved, and it does a wonderful job of demonstrating just how dangerous the world of Mass Effect is, and how important these characters are to the player. There is very little traditional gameplay, but that level stands out as one of the most memorable, because it gave players a break from the explosions and action, and gave them a chance to take in the quiet around them.
Finding An Ideal Game Length
I’ve discussed game length on a few occasions – how developers will artificially inflate the length of their title to justify a $60 price tag, or how developers sometimes have no problems with crafting a game that takes over 20 hours to “understand” before the “real” game begins. I think palate cleansers may be an asset in helping strike that ideal balance between game length and game value. Many gamers justify a $60 entertainment purchase on the amount of entertainment it will provide, and the best way to do that is to measure it in time. But filling a game up with useless collection quests and unnecessary multiplayer does not mean the game will provide more than ten hours of enjoyable entertainment.
Developers should consider abandoning this notion that, if gamers are ever without something to do, that it’s somehow a bad thing, a design flaw. Taking a break from the action, even if just for a few moments, can actually be a great thing, and help rejuvenate the player and motivate them to complete an epic 150 hour quest. If developers can think critically about how to insert more of these moments into their games, it will help ensure that gamers will come back for more. In the meantime, I’ll be spending the next three months finally beating Kirby’s Epic Yarn, before moving onto the next palate cleanser – Yoshi’s Wooly World. Hopefully by then I’ll no longer need to seek these moments out, or that they’ll be a rarity.