Child of Eden
Developer: Q Entertainment
Release Date: 06/14/11
Conceptually, I am a fan of Rez. I like the game enough that I included it in my Adieu, PS2 piece a few months back, and I like the game enough that I began paying a distinct amount of attention to project lead Tetsuya Mizuguchi, following his later work on Lumines and Ninety Nine Nights, and his associated works like Meteos and Gunpey. Hell, I even listened to Genkei Rockets just because it was something he had a part in and it seemed like a weird (but interesting) concept. Now, to be fair, some of those aforementioned projects were better and/or more interesting than others, but there was never a point where I was expecting some kind of great masterpiece in every release. Rather, I was expecting that, at some point, Mizuguchi would attempt another weird and experimental game, if not mechanically, then conceptually, and I wanted to play it if and when it came out. Well, Child of Eden essentially seemed like that game; billed as the spiritual successor to Rez, it continued Mizuguchi’s attempt to simulate synesthesia in digital form by way of an on-rails shooter with weird musical assembly and artistically interesting visuals. The difference this time, however, was the level of tech involved; while Rez was a Dreamcast title ported to the PS2, Child of Eden was developed with the PS3 and 360 in mind, and as such, has a great deal more processing power to work with. This translates to the game potentially having a great deal more options, visually speaking, for expressing its artistic message, and hopefully, a more involved gaming experience as well.
Let’s dive in and find out.
Right off the bat, qualifying the game by more conventional standards is a bit more complex than one would think, largely because the story isn’t told so much as it is experienced, and there aren’t “game modes” in the strictest sense as much as there is one game mode with some options to play around with inside of it. What little story there actually is revolves around Lumi, the fictional singer of Genki Rockets… or, more specifically, her data. Okay, this is going to require some explaining, so bear with me. The concept of Genki Rockets is that, on September 11th, 2019, a young Asian girl named Lumi is born in space, and having no way of doing so, dreams of someday coming to Earth and seeing it with her own eyes. Thus, in the year 2037, Lumi, now eighteen years old, writes songs based around the idea of seeing Earth, metaphorically, using analogies based around freedom, flight, and so on to convey this message by way of cute, inoffensive pop music. Got it? Okay, well Child of Eden takes place some three hundred years after the fact, and while it’s stated up front that Lumi has long since died (and implied that she never did see Earth, so, hey, that’s… great), her mind lives on in the internet, which is now called Eden (for all you Rez fans out there). The intent has been to replicate a human mind in Eden, and Lumi has been chosen to be the subject of this concept, so as the game begins, her consciousness is being brought to life in Eden… and slowly getting infected. Corruption of some sort has entered Lumi, destroying her data from within, and it’s up to you, as the nameless protagonist, to purify the data, and by doing so, save Lumi.
Got all that? Okay.
The storytelling in Child of Eden is unconventional, to say the least. You’re given a brief bit of text that explains about half of what I just went into to start things off, and then you’re sent off to cleanse the various segments of her data. Lumi herself rarely appears and never speaks; aside from her ethereal appearance in the main world hub from which you launch into her data, she only pops up occasionally in the data segments, usually at the beginning and end, often as you cleanse the segments you’re cruising through. However, Lumi’s influence is felt through each area of the game; her songs play in fragments throughout the stages, assembling more and more as you progress, until you cleanse the heart of a segment, where the song often comes to life in all its glory and Lumi herself comes alive in the background, singing to you, in essence. That this is meant as a sort of acknowledgement of success and gesture of thanks is obvious, but what is less so is that this simple gesture is moving; the simple act of Lumi projecting herself into this world to complete the performance of her song, especially once you’ve completed the game, is astonishingly powerful and conveys more than any amount of spoken or written dialogue could otherwise. That’s interesting, actually, when you realize that this is a very “less is more” philosophy; Shadow of the Colossus is another such game where little dialogue was provided and the game’s plot was sold in the actions performed and the world itself, but aside from the introductory dialogue, Child of Eden offers up nothing, and conveys a great deal.
Normally, this is the point where I’d talk about the visual and audio elements of a game, but I want to put that aside for later and get down to the gameplay elements. Child of Eden is, in the simplest terms possible, Panzer Dragoon, meaning it’s an on-rails shooter where you can lock onto enemies with homing missiles, in this case, either with the controller or your Kinect. You control a cursor on the screen that you can move over targets, and either lock onto them with homing shots (up to eight at one time, dubbed an Octalock here), or fire purple lasers at them for less damage but faster hits. Most enemies will fall faster to homing shots than the lasers, but some enemies only respond to laser fire, and enemy bullets can only be shot down with lasers, so you’ll find yourself alternating quite a bit. You’ll see a life bar in the bottom right of the screen that displays how many hits you can take (up to five) before you expire, though you can increase this (in half-hit increments) by shooting blue circular power-ups that appear after defeating some enemies. You’ll also be able to pick up purple power-ups dubbed “Euphoria”, which act as a full-screen super bomb that wipes out most normal enemies immediately, clears out bullets, and hits bosses for some damage, allowing you to clear out some tricky enemies or screens full of purple death in seconds. In short, this is how you play the game; the path from beginning to end is linear and your objective is to purify everything along said path, whether said things want this or not (hint: not).
The mechanics of how the shooting works, however, aren’t so simple as “here’s some doods, shoot them”. You’ll often encounter groups of enemies to lock onto, or larger enemies with exposed weakpoints to target, and the game expects that you’ll make good use of these to get Octalocks, obviously, but the point isn’t just to lock on and fire. See, if you can time your release of the homing shot with the beat of the music, you’ll get modifiers that, in turn, increase your score, which is how you’ll nail down some of the best scores in Child of Eden. You’re also offered big points for not burning all, or any, of your Euphoria, and the game also ranks your purification of the infected enemies in the various levels. The better you do, the more stars you get, and the better your scores are that you upload to the leaderboards. You can also, upon completion of each section, unlock new decorations for Lumi’s garden (the main hub) from each stage, up to a total of four per difficulty level, of which there are three; the standard Normal difficulty, the Hard difficulty that unlocks upon clearing Normal, and the casual Free difficulty that removes the challenge and lets you goof around. Clearing stages will also unlock new artwork and such for you to view in the gallery, so you can admire this at your leisure. There are five normal sections to clear out, as well as a sixth, Hope, that is more of a test of your patience than anything else, and you can attempt each on every difficulty. The game is, as noted, compatible with both the normal controller and the Kinect, and each has its differences, but of the two, Kinect play has some technical oddities to it, such as odd response times and complaints of mechanical issues when the game is installed to the hard drive, that make for some disappointment. Both methods are ultimately viable, however, with some learning devoted to the experience.
The thing about Child of Eden is that all of these components, modes and options are generally fairly standard for games of this sort, in some respect or another, but what makes the game interesting is not its mechanics, but its presentation. Now, on the technical side of things, the visuals are designed in a way that attempts to create a world that exists in a data-based system that’s attempting to emulate a “real” world, so you’ll essentially see digital forests, cities, solar systems and other such things, but as you see these locales in the game world, you’ll also see them crack apart to show the data grids and such they’re composed of at points. The existing world, as such, makes it obvious that it’s a digital representation (albeit a convincing one) of a “real” world and universe, and the effect is very well designed and implemented. The music in the game is composed entirely of ambient music and remixed Genki Rockets tracks that skip around and slowly reassemble into real music as you play, similar to how Rez would start with elementary beats and fill in the music as you moved forward. The weapons can also fill in beats into the music, as can the destruction of the enemies you purify, which also allows for some interesting depth to the game audio that you likely wouldn’t see in most games.
However, the technical merits of the game aren’t really the important aspect of the presentation; the artistic merits are. It’s no big secret that Mizuguchi has been experimenting with the idea of simulating synesthesia, a sensory disorder that essentially ties sensory responses together in a way that allows those who experience it to, say, experience numbers as having a specific color to them, or, more relevant to the experience, experience musical tones as having specific colors and visual patterns. The point, then, is to create an experience where interacting with the world in some capacity changes the visual and aural patterns of the world around you, which is why the purification of the elements around you generates such subtle but noticeable changes to the music and visuals in the different nodes you enter. The artistic effect isn’t obvious, but it’s an incredibly powerful one if you’re open to it, as you slowly become invested in the act and concept of what it is that you’re accomplishing through the game on a level you don’t consciously realize.
To express this another way, while doing normal research on the game, I browsed through various discussion threads about the game and, aside from coming across the normal expressions of confusion and declarations made by those who intended to experience the game in a chemically altered state, I noticed a fair amount of people expressing that the game had affected them on some level. The act of playing through the game to its completion had, for reasons they couldn’t really express or explain, brought them to some sort of emotional climax that they simply couldn’t define or express, and I found that interesting, if perhaps a bit over-exaggerated. Playing through the game proper, while I found myself enjoying the experience significantly, I didn’t think anything of how I might be perceiving the experience until completing the fifth node in the game, Journey. The stage itself is fairly challenging, culminating in a multi-stage battle against what can be assumed to be the core of Lumi’s program, and purifying the core requires multiple sequences of clearing infected elements, first in the form of strange looking fish (or so it seems), and then in the form of data blocks melded together into serpentine shapes. Should you fail to clear the defenders of each section, the core essentially lines up enough bullets in a circle around it that Euphoria is the only way to avoid taking a hit, so time is of the essence here. As such, it’s an intensely frustrating experience the first time you get to it if you’re not used to such things; there are no bullets to shoot down, time is of the essence, and there’s little room for failure. Further, failing at that segment offers no option to continue; if you fail, you start over, and that’s that. The point being, after several attempts at the stage, having finally grasped what was happening and how to work with it, I finally finished off the sequence, paving the way to what can be described as the most obvious and simple ending that could exist for such a game.
Sitting there, watching the final event, as simple as it might have been, play out upon the screen, I understood. Child of Eden is, put simply, an affecting experience for those who can appreciate it. Something so utterly simple, so incredibly obvious and elementary, carries with it such an inexplicable amount of weight after fully grasping the enormity of the task across the five nodes that, for reasons I couldn’t fully comprehend and still don’t now, I began to tear up. Something within that sequence of events, culminating in a final battle that I can only describe as annoying, resonated within me on such a level that I felt a profound elation wash over me and, for a moment, actually comprehended what the purpose of this was. In the combination style guide and memoir On Writing, Steven King describes the effect of telling and reading a story as communication between the author and the reader, a sort of conversation the two are having across time and space, where neither is directly communicating and both are likely imagining completely different things, but through the text provided, the two are having a sort of telepathic conversation as the ideas are conveyed from writer to reader. In this sense, Child of Eden is much the same way; the idea of what Mizuguchi, by way of his creation Lumi, is attempting to convey, this sort of spiritual connection and simulation of sensory unification, comes across in that moment in a way that is wholly affecting, and in that moment, I felt… connected to… Lumi, the creator, those who had and will play the game, I don’t know. Something profound.
So it bears noting here that, while I have no real creative capabilities beyond what little capability I possess in manipulating the written word, I am very much an artistically connected person, and while I have no interest in art house nonsense created by someone with more interest in self aggrandizing than actual purpose, I am also deeply stirred by truly beautiful things. It also bears noting that I have a large fascination with the solar system and that which lies beyond, and while I’m not a scientific person, I find a deep love for the beauty in space and all that lies beyond our universe. I express this, not as an explanation of what I enjoy, but rather as an explanation that what I experienced while playing through Child of Eden is hardly a typical result. I don’t care what Penny Arcade tells you about the game here; your ability to appreciate what the experience is trying to do is going to be directly influenced by your artistic interest and how you define “beauty” and its effects upon you.
In other words, if you’re not in any way the sort of person who is visually or aurally stimulated on the sort of artistic level the game demands, you will find Child of Eden to be a short on-rails shooter, albeit a very pretty one.
Now, here’s the thing. Conceptually, the idea of people as a whole being connected on some level is something that many people have espoused for generations, through religion, spirituality, philosophy, and even science. It’s not a new concept in the least; you can find someone with dreadlocks and a crystal pendant around their neck in most cities who will be happy to explain this to you, and even Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have expressed similar ideas in their own research of the cosmos. Hey, this isn’t even a new idea in video games; 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors was built around this entire concept, and that game isn’t even a year old in the US. Having said that, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that you might be the sort of person who doesn’t care about that; you might look at science, religion and spirituality with disdain as you contemplate when the government is going to stop futzing around with funding the arts and figure out how to fix the economy or whatever. In your case, then, Child of Eden will be little more than a pretty shooter that you can plow through in a couple of hours that leaves you with higher scores to attain and things to unlock, and that’s it. This, then, is the problem: if you’re the sort of person who finds the concept affecting, or the sort of person who wants to improve your scores and top leaderboards, you’ll find something to enjoy here, but if you’re looking for more obvious, less subtle depth, Child of Eden is going to be a game that will leave you wondering what the heck is wrong with everyone reviewing the game. The game is, simply, not for everyone, and that’s okay! You’re entitled to find the experience mystifying and wholly alien, and there’s nothing wrong with being more rooted in the actual over the psychological or the spiritual. But this game is going to do nothing for you if you’re that sort of person, and you need to be aware of this, as you can see everything you need to see within the game in about a day’s worth of play.
So, this, then, is the final observation of Child of Eden: it is an incredibly beautiful, incredibly affecting experience for the sort of person who is open to the experience when taken as a whole, and a short, limited Panzer Dragoon clone for the sort of person who is not. This isn’t a bad thing to say, mind you; the game is absolutely amazing in thought and deed, and the fact that the experience isn’t for everyone is by no means meant as a condemnation of the product in any sense. Art is a multifaceted thing, inclusive of all sorts of styles and concepts, and on some level, we all appreciate its fruits, though some are more easily appreciated than others, and while the debate may rage on for a number of years about whether video games are even art at all, regardless of your perspective, Child of Eden is certainly as close to achieving the elusive “High Art” concept that’s been bandied about as any game has ever been. But art is subjective, and so too is the game, as if you’re not receptive to the artistic elements of the experience, you’ll see it as short shooter that offers challenge through repetition and unlockables that don’t mean a lot to you in the end. Child of Eden is the sort of experience that will appeal to those who are inherently open to the idea of spirituality or indirect connection to others, or to those who like the concept of powering through a shooter multiple times to achieve the best possible scores and rankings online, and everyone else will find it a confusing and limited experience.
Which you are is for you to decide.
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Child of Eden is the sort of gaming experience that is going to be divisive, simply because it’s more an artistic expression piece attached to a shooter than a fully realized game, and as such, the journey is more important than the destination. The game plays perfectly fine for the most part, though there are some issues with Kinect play, and anyone who is a fan of Panzer Dragoon or Rez will be immediately at home with the mechanics. There are also plenty of aesthetically pleasant novelties to unlock, such as decorations for the game hub and videos and artwork, as well as leaderboards to upload your scores to and higher score ranks to break if you’re looking for the best score possible. The aesthetics of the game are the major selling point, however, as the game is an experience in visual and aural beauty that, for the right person, can be genuinely affecting and emotionally resonant. However, if you’re not interested in the artistic merits of the experience and not a big fan of going back and increasing your high scores, well then, the game is going to be one that you won’t find much appreciation for; you can clear out the five main nodes in about two hours, and while there is the sixth node, Hope, as well as the other difficulties to plow through, this doesn’t add anything dramatic to the experience beyond what you’ll see in those first couple hours. It’s not that Child of Eden is a bad game in the least so much as it isn’t “deep” in the sense we often use to describe games, as its depth comes more from its presentation and style than its mechanical aspects. Child of Eden is a game that’s going to resonate with the more artistically or spiritually minded player, and those who are less receptive to these concepts, while they will have fun with the game, won’t take away from the game the same experience. Which sort of player you are will be the deciding factor, but needless to say, it’s not for everyone.