On April 20, Sony Interactive Entertainment will release “God of War,” the latest in a string of mythological action-adventures starring Kratos, the titular god who strikes down a gauntlet of creatures, titans, and monsters with impunity. There will be blood. And chaos. And, new to this sequel, a young charge in need of chaperoning through this violent journey; Kratos has a son now, and your quest will find you teaching your son the ways of being a man.
On that same day, Nintendo takes a very different path toward a similar goal. They, too, want to give parents a way to help their spawn learn about the world. But instead of scavenging and marauding through a brutal virtual landscape, Nintendo tasks you with discovering the wonder of… cardboard.
“Nintendo Labo” is a new initiative for their modular Switch console that combines D.I.Y. crafting with traditional video games. Each of two kits comes with actual physical cardboard to pop out, fold, and build into various objects: a small piano, a motorcycle handlebar, even a wearable robot-suit. The included software delivers interactive instructions and games to play using these objects, which all connect to the Switch console and its Joy-con controllers in various ways. You can even “code” your own simple games using a built-in programming mode.
Nintendo’s clever counter-programming will be familiar to Hollywood execs who decide to launch their romantic comedy up against the latest action-packed blockbuster. The gaming space is so often dominated by the loud and the bombastic that we forget there’s a large population of players not swayed by the latest advancement in blood-spatter technology. Nintendo, time and again, has offered a yang to the rest of the industry’s constant drumbeat of yin.
The Kyoto-based company has often been punished for not ceding to the whims of their myopic peers. The strange are met with suspicion; the odd most always loses out to the common. But whatever social capital they’ve lost by being seen as a “family-friendly company” — as if this was a pejorative, that procreation and child-rearing are a sin to be scolded – or an insular group that fails to keep up with industry standards, the strategy has worked commercially and creatively. “Labo” is their latest, and perhaps riskiest, venture yet.
The latest swerve has come at the perfect time to combat major assaults, both commercially and personally: Sony is serving up what may be the biggest game of the year to a rabid fanbase on PlayStation 4; and in my house, a small creature grows, scrambling around on all fours and pointing to things with a magician’s knack for distraction. He’s not in school yet. But his learning is constant and all-consuming. And it’s Nintendo’s advancements – not in narrative-rich worlds that sheen with a million polygons but in using limitations to spawn imaginative play – that give me hope for the industry’s future: That when my son is old enough, there will be something here worth showing him.
I’ve played games all my life. I’ve slain a thousand monsters. But I’ve never built a working machine out of corrugated paper and seen it come to life.
“Nintendo Labo,” as a product, almost exists on a parallel path to a blockbuster like “God of War;” the releases are both technically video games, and each embody similar goals, but the mechanism by which these values are brought to life are so disparate that to call the release proximity “counter-programming” may well be inaccurate: think “philosophical disagreement.”
Each is self-referential to company history. Each hopes to engage players in a serious conversation about what’s important. Even promotional material for each show a father and a son bonding. In a video showcasing “Labo,” we see a boy and his dad both try to reel in a shark, depicted on the Switch screen, by rotating a cardboard fishing reel they made by hand. The dad is laughing; the son looks pretty serious. In a trailer for “God of War,” we see Kratos’s son, Atreus, also serious, watch as Kratos severs a mutant soldier from clavicle to belly-button; later, the son stabs a demon through its frontal lobe.
I do not doubt “God of War” is “stirring and memorable.” Or “nothing short of a masterpiece.” Or that it’s “the first time the series has felt vibrant and important in a decade.” As a franchise where your main character has been known to slice off a god’s legs in order to steal his boots, the source material could only become more muted or risk self-parody. When you turn a murderous rageaholic into a murderous rageaholic father, the evolution feels drastic and forward-thinking out of necessity.
“Labo’s” evolution goes backwards in time; that is to say, Nintendo asks us not to imagine the future of gaming but remember its past. And not in the way they often do, via nostalgic trips to well-worn vistas or winking nods to yesteryear’s heroes. “Labo” harkens to their past as toy-makers, long before Mario ever jumped.
In 1966, Nintendo released their first commercial toy product: the “Ultra Hand,” an extendable arm built using criss-crossing plastic, some handles, and simple but clever engineering. They sold a million of the things; then-President Hiroshi Yamauchi ordered the designer, a young Gunpei Yokoi (who would go on to help invent the Game Boy), to think up something new. The result was the “Ultra Machine,” an automated pitching device. They sold over a million of those, too. Nintendo was officially in the toy business.
And though they’ve focused their business on video games since the late 1970s, they still think like a toymaker, tinkering in their workroom, thinking of new ways to generate old feelings. When video games were first being introduced, this was perhaps easier to do. Just as early film could present the mundane and still shock and thrill, early games didn’t need much: Everything was new by default. Just “being a video game” was fresh and exciting.
Now, forty years into the modern industry, the format has been sufficiently codified; it’s tough to surprise us. Once written, rules are followed. Genres calcify. What a commercially viable video game can be narrows. Even with the breakneck pace of technological advancement, progress slows. Like coagulating blood.
“It’s not like you put in the game and then you sit down,” says one young boy who attended a public demo of “Labo” hosted by Nintendo. “You actually have to build [the game].” The comment recalls another counter-programming move by Nintendo over a decade ago. The Wii famously got players moving around, active in performing tasks otherwise related to a button press. When they launched this under-powered console in 2006, Sony released the PlayStation 3, the most powerful home system yet devised at that point. Both succeeded in the end: Nintendo sold over 100 million Wii systems on the back of phenomenons like “Wii Sports” and “Wii Fit;” Sony sold nearly 85 million PS3s with a strong catalog of exclusive titles, many of which, like “Uncharted” and “God of War,” were born on PS2.
And both will likely succeed on April 20th. The new “God of War” reviews are in and are stellar; with a 95 Metacritic score, it sits as the highest-rated PlayStation 4 game of the generation. “Labo” is the less obvious win. But that’s why it’s more interesting, and a way to strengthen an industry whose player population can do two things: expand and remain vibrant, or dilate into ever-shrinking silos.
On July 18 2008, both “The Dark Knight” and “Mamma Mia!” opened at the box office. Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie would go on to gross over a billion dollars worldwide. The ABBA musical adaptation? It fared pretty well, too, grossing over $600 million worldwide. The point of counter-programming isn’t to squash the competition; it’s to grow the entire audience. That audience now includes my tiny kin, the guy whose nose looks like mine but whose lips are his mom’s. And I want him to learn about the world by building it, piece by piece. Not by watching others tear it limb from limb.