Published: July 29, 2011
Spectral whales undulate through ethereal mist, their hides speckled with winking gems that pulsate to a throbbing bass line. Gleaming motes of color spin and coalesce into flowers, layer upon layer of shimmering petals. A girl named Lumi, born in outer space and transported to cyberspace, beckons you to rescue her digital consciousness.
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Sounds pretty trippy, huh?
This is Child of Eden, the luminous new game from the Japanese auteur Tetsuya Mizuguchi and one of the most inspirational exhibits of artistry to be found in interactive entertainment today. The game — available now for the Xbox 360 and scheduled to arrive for the PlayStation 3 in September — was developed by Q Entertainment (of which Mr. Mizuguchi was a founder) and published by Ubisoft.
In the quest for commercial success, so many games (like so much of any medium) end up similar. The formulas are known, the structures accepted. For many top games the question becomes how well they fulfill and execute the basic template of their genre.
Child of Eden is an example of what can happen when creativity is liberated from the bounds of convention. It hews to only the most basic form of an arcade-style shooting game (stuff is whirling around on a screen; shoot it), perhaps in the way that even rebellious painters hew to the convention of stretching canvas across a wooden frame. From there Mr. Mizuguchi goes wild, integrating music, sound and the player’s own physical movement into a full-body experience.
And that is because Child of Eden makes the best use yet of the new Kinect system for the Xbox 360. Kinect, introduced by Microsoft last fall, does away with the video game controller altogether. Using advanced technology and software, the Kinect sensor, which sits under your television, can see your body in three dimensions and recognize your voice. So in all sorts of games, you just lean if you want your character to lean. If you want it to jump, you jump, and so on.
In this game you use your hands to control pointers on the screen to direct your fire. After a few minutes of adjustment it feels completely natural. But the beauty is not merely in the controls; it’s in how those controls draw you into what feels like a transformation. (You can also play with a traditional controller, but that completely misses the point.)
When Kinect was introduced, it was immediately clear that the system could usher in a wave of innovative games accessible to a vast majority of people who can’t deal with a complicated controller covered with buttons, triggers and sticks. With Kinect you don’t hold anything.
But that wave of great Kinect games has not been so immediate. Until now the system has been distinguished by a litany of dance and exercise titles. In most of these the program displays a dance move or exercise pose, then grades how well you perform it. That’s fun as far as it goes, but it isn’t especially interesting or creative, which is why you haven’t been reading about many Kinect games around here.
As a matter of visual and audio design, Child of Eden is an aesthetic triumph. The psychedelic graphics envelop you as you delve into the Internet of the future, where Lumi’s soul dwells. As in Mr. Mizuguchi’s previous games Rez and Lumines, the music is not a soundtrack merely accompanying the action. Rather, the mixture of electronica beats and Japanese pop by the collective Genki Rockets is an integral part of the game play, shifting in time with the player’s action.
What Child of Eden truly elicits is a form of synesthesia, the neurological crossing of the senses to produce a new feeling or effect. Think of “cool jazz” or “warm color” or “pungent image” or “sweet sound.” The genius of Child of Eden is its blending of movement, sound and visuals to create an artistic experience.
That all said, Child of Eden is short. Once you get the hang of it, you can blow through the entire basic game in little more than an hour. (It did, however, take me and some friends around five hours to get through it our first time.)
In the game world something this short is akin to a 15-minute feature film. But what if those were some of the most mind-blowing minutes you had experienced in a theater? What if after 15 minutes you felt as if you wanted to find a quiet place to digest what you had experienced? What if you felt completely sated — that any more right away would be unnecessary overload?
In that case 15 minutes might feel just about perfect, which is not too far from the truth about Child of Eden.