Thursday, November 15, 2007

What I'm Playing: Zack & Wiki

I recently started playing a new game for the Wii called Zack & Wiki: Quest for Bardaros' Treasure. It is a puzzle game, built around a crazy story about rabbit pirates, what looks like a flying monkey, and collecting the parts of a pirate's skeleton while searching for the legendary pirate ship. I'm having a great time playing it, my family enjoys watching the game, and I'd recommend it to almost anyone.

Funny thing is, I can't figure out why.

Yes, Zack & Wiki is a lot of fun. Its charming, witty, cute (without being overpowering), as well as challenging. But it also has a host of video game no-no's, each of which would be sufficient to kill any other game. But for some reason, they just don't detract from this one.
  • The game is cute. Undeniably cute. From its stubby young hero Zack to its teddy bear/stuffed lion villains. Even death is cute in this game. (Be prepared to die... a lot!) They show you a baseball card-like profile each time a new character is introduced. Their profile even lists a favorite food for each. This is meaningless fun. But, quite frankly, it is fun. Even for adults. (Perhaps especially for adults.)
  • The plot is pablum and the opening sequence is far, far too long. For the first 10 minutes there is nothing for the player to do but endlessly press A to scroll the text while the characters make various incoherent squeaks and squawks. This alone could kill a game. But, even so, the plot is just crazy enough, and the dialog sarcastic enough to keep you going.
  • Your sidekick, Wiki, is a golden monkey who flies using his helicopter tail, constantly says "Ding!" to get your attention, and changes into a bell when you shake the Wii remote. Say what?!?
  • For the first few stages, there is far too much hand holding. Wiki is constantly interrupting the game to explain the obvious, giving the impression that this is a game just for kids. However, it doesn't take long -- a couple of stages later -- to find that you need to know this stuff to solve the later puzzles. I wish I had paid a little more attention rather than pooh-poohing the helpful advice.
  • The puzzles take the form of a sort of interactive Rube Goldberg device where you have to string a series of tangentially related objects and events together to reach your goal. There are many ways to get the objects and events in the wrong order (this is where death comes in). Some key relationships are arbitrary (or even counter intuitive to trap you), which in other games would be infuriating. But in Zack & Wiki, you need to apply enough real-world logic to work out the puzzles and turn failures into success that it gives a real sense of achievement for each stage completed.

So, why does it work, where so many other erstwhile games would have been felled in their tracks?

... (silence) ...

If you are waiting for me to answer the question, you will be disappointed. Because I really don't know. But I suspect it has something to do with vision and quality.

All of these "flaws" are used consistently within the game. The opening story line is totally in keeping with the graphic design and mechanics of the game play. Similarly the humor is ever present, from the opening sequence, through the tutorial, and into the missions. (Zack's favorite food is candy bars. So whenever you pause or start a new mission, you find him munching on a candy bar. Again, meaningless, but keeping you inside the story.)

There is no manual or step-by-step guide you can follow to achieve this sort of fluidity and seamlessness to a game. It requires someone having a clear vision of what the game is about and helping the development team share that vision and bring it to life. We've seen it before in other games: Mario, Zelda, Katamari, Shadow of the Colossus... Even for games I don't necessarily enjoy playing myself, I can appreciate the intense focus on a vision; games like Gran Turismo or Final Fantasy.

In some cases this sense of clarity evolves over time, iteratively, as with Madden Football or Tony Hawk. With other games it emerges full-blown like a new planet suddenly appearing in the universe, as with Katamari and -- now -- Zack & Wiki.

It is as inexplicable. Or rather, it is undefinable. Like art. Because it is art. I am not trying to get into the debate about whether video games themselves can be art (that is a separate discussion) but there is an art to creating exquisite video games just as there can be art in any activity: baking a cake, building a wall, writing a letter... There is art that is the object and there is art that is the intensity, clarity, and pure focus in the doing of something, in the creation. Video games like Zack & Wiki come from the intensity of the doing. And although we may not be able to name or describe how it is done, we can admire it and be grateful for the gifts that it generates for us as gamers.

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