I look up from my laptop. This video game was supposed to give me a precious 15 minute respite from the endless drudgery of parenthood. What the hell’s gone wrong now?
“DADDY WHAT I DO?
“WHAT I DOOOOOO?”
It must be really hard to make a good video game for kids.
I know this because to date, I have only played one good console game made for kids.
That game is Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U.
Super Mario 3D World. I’ll never forget introducing it to my 3-year-old. In the beginning it was frustrating as hell. He couldn’t do anything, kept throwing himself off the edge, shrieking like a deranged hyena. I walked away then. It hurt to watch. I made myself a nice cup of tea.
A couple of weeks later, sipping a different cup of tea, my son had mastered the game with literally zero input from me, his father who writes about video games for a living. I still have no idea how he did it.
Actually that’s an exaggeration. I have a rough idea how he did it. He did it because Super Mario 3D World might be the only perfect console video game made for pre-school children.
This, my friends, is hyperbole. An exaggeration used to make a very specific point, which is: Jesus Christ game developers don’t know how to make video games for children. They don’t know how to teach them, they don’t know what they’re capable of, and they don’t know how to engage them beyond… well, this video game has characters children might like, so I guess it’s a game for children.
It’s utterly infuriating.
Last month I downloaded LittleBigPlanet 3 because it was free on PlayStation Plus and I absolutely loved the original game.
“Perfect,” I thought to myself. “A game to deliver me from endless replays of Super Mario 3D World.”
It made sense. A co-op platformer. A simple video game. We could play together for a bit, get the basics down and voila – he’d be good to go it alone and play by himself while I abandon all parental responsibility for a precious 15 minutes or so.
It wasn’t to be. Unlike Mario, which allows for control complexity but never demands of it the player, LittleBigPlanet 3 forces its players to master a weapon wheel and within the opening tutorial levels.
“DADDY WHAT I DO?
“WHAT I DOOOOOOOOO?”
With LittleBigPlanet 3 an incredible amount of control complexity is demanded almost instantly, as is an implicit understanding of the ‘pop-it’, an insanely complex menu system that I – as an adult – frequently have difficulties managing.
Incredibly, progress is halted if you can’t manage these complex systems.
At one point I left my son alone with the game for a while.
“DADDY WHAT I DO? WHAT I DOOOOOO?”
I honestly had no idea.
My son was on a ship that refused to move. Progress was impossible. A character repeated lines about using an “Organisertron” in the quaint English way LittleBigPlanet asks you to do anything and everything. I was dumb-founded. I pushed every button on the controller. I eventually had to restart the entire level to understand precisely what I was supposed to be doing.
I quickly worked it out. My son was being asked to hold down the Triangle button on the PlayStation 4 controller to open a bloody quest organiser -- an RPG style quest organiser -- and highlight a mission before he could actually continue playing that mission.
I could not believe what I was seeing.
LittleBigPlanet 3 is a platform game. A platform game. Correct me if I’m wrong – I’m an adult, I played a lot of the original LittleBigPlanet – but LittleBigPlanet 3 is a platform game targeted (at least in part) towards children.
This is a game that – within 30 minutes of starting the game – demands children…
-- Master a weapons wheel
-- Use dual analogue stick controls to aim and shoot a gun
-- Manage a bloody quest organiser
I just don’t understand. I literally do not understand.
Crucially, the instructions provided are so incredibly and self-indulgently wordy, taking the form of ‘quirky’ pre-created videos, with sardonic Stephen Fry voiceovers that fly so high over children’s heads they might as well be in orbit. Then there’s the written text. Are developers completely oblivious that most children under 5 have literally just started learning to read?
Sometimes I find myself wondering: do game developers have children? Do they play games with their children? Do they understand how children actually work? My son struggles with Simon Says, you think he’s gonna get it right first time when Stephen Fry extols the virtues of the ORGANISERTRON one single time in a cut-scene?
Seriously, does anyone besides Nintendo know how to make a console game for children? Please let me know, because my son and I have defaulted to Spelunky: a video game with features ghosts, giant spiders and spikes that impale its players in a slow, gruesome bloody death.
I’m not prepared for the inevitable nightmares that come with that.
But it’s infinitely better than that endless refrain – the one that haunts my nightmares:
“Daddy what I do?
“DADDY WHAT I DOOOO…”
This story originally appeared on Kotaku.