Monday, 30 March 2009

The Scariest Game I Have Ever Played

I am here to talk to you today about 2008’s finest Apocalypse Simulator. One that didn’t get much mention in the Best Of lists, one that eclipses the most impressively real panic attack-inducing situation Left 4 Dead can throw at you. I am talking, of course, about Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise.

On the surface, it seemed simple enough: a cuddly, family-friendly kind of game, where you run a garden of sweet animals with pun-heavy names. A lovely present from a caring girlfriend. Imagine my horror to find that this was, in fact, all a façade for the true nature of the game.

It’s a prep-kit designed to teach you how to deal with the death of everything you ever loved.

My time with the game had been happy enough: a proud roster of beloved pets with in-jokey names, a tidy if unremarkable little patch of land to call my own. Then I hit Level 21. Amidst a flurry of upgrades and rewards, a modest cutscene introduces me to my nemesis, Professor Pester. He seems harmless enough, bumbling around, until I realise he is invulnerable to smacks from my trusty spade, and he’s out to kill every last one of my beloved Piñatas.

Meanwhile, the garden is invaded by his minions, the Sours- evil versions of the Piñatas. Until now, they’d hardly been a problem: coming into my garden unbidden, eating the odd flower, causing general mischief. Distracted by the misdeeds of the Professor, I spade one to death- just two quick taps. I move on to some other task.

Out of sight, the Sour splits open and spills two red seeds out onto the green papery grass. Seeds that will grow, quickly and inevitably, into weeds.

A burst of noises, and suddenly I look up from micromanagement of my vegetable patch.

It’s an outbreak. Nearly a quarter of my garden is engulfed in chaos: red ugly plants climb up, choking and trapping my Piñatas. They spit fire and poisonous gas. And, most deadly of all: sweets. Bunnycombs flee, their papery fur burning. Lickitoads and Sweetles collapse, green, onto their backs. My beloved Zorro-esque Pretztail, El Foxxo, munches down on a poisoned candy.

Before I can do a thing, half my Piñatas are dying and as I summon the Doctor to save them, yet more fall ill to the growing forest of red. Gardening Sim becomes Survival Horror as I try to quell two epidemics at once, illness and weeds, and fight with the controls, which suddenly seem purposefully slow and clumsy. So slow.

Eventually, the Piñatas themselves become your enemies. Their bodies choke paths for the Doctor and block your attack on the weeds. The panic of the situation has turned a few of them animalistic, and I find pairs of Piñatas locked in mortal combat, tearing each other limb-from-sweet-little-limb. You’re cursing the stupidity that means they’re eating the same sweets that made them sick twice already. But there’s no way you’re going to let one die.

And then one does. Dastardos, the game’s Death figure, appears. He is endlessly creepy, floating just above the ground, all twisted anatomy and red Picasso fixed-express mask. To give you an idea of just how scary he is, here is a description from the Viva Piñata wiki, pinataisland.info.

“Dastardos … puts sick piñatas out of their misery with a big stick. When things go badly for an animal, they get sick. Dastardos has invented a cheerful song to help him through the day and make piñatas calm while he 'fixes' them.”

So sure enough, Dastardos goes about ‘fixing’ a sick Piñata, then another, and another, drifting between the fallen animals, singing his song. These Piñatas are mine- were mine- and they’re never coming back, not the same as they were. In terms of gameplay, it’s just the simple loss of a name and any clothing you might have bought that Piñata (you see the cracked-open body fly into the sky and plant neatly down, fixed again, outside of your garden) but, effectively, it’s the loss of a personality. It hurts more than any fallen comrade-in-arms, the cutscene death of a key character. It hurts more, even, than a corrupted save game or a dead, scratched disc; hours of precious playtime gone.

Tired from the endless death and futility, a solution occurs- just kill the 360. I can always fire it up again with an older save. So I shut it down.

No luck. Still knee-deep in the apocalypse, just a little earlier, and soon too many animals have fallen. This time it seems worse: the bottom of my screen won’t stay still, new alerts of sickness and death popping up every second.

I turn off the 360 again, and take some deep breaths. I call Rare and Professor Pester some very unsavoury things to my girlfriend, who bought me this game as a release from all that muddy grey violence. I scour the internet for help, of which I find little, and fire up the game again, now resigned to my fate.

I quarantine the area, excavating the biggest pool I can manage. No seed will take root in the water. I hire two weeders, dispatch them to battle the growing tide of choking plants… Not quick enough. Death comes still. 360 goes off, I catch my breath.

Eventually, three tries later, I manage it, but at a cost. I watch death take a Lickitoad, a Piñata I was never too close to, and take toll of the other casualties. My beloved Bunnycomb population is wiped out, but for one survivor.

I take a breath and marvel at my garden that was, for a terrifying half-hour, a battleground. I mourn the Piñatas I lost, and start to rebuild. The survivors gobble up the sweets spilt from broken-open Piñata, and life goes on. In a bittersweet twist, the fire had evolved one of my Tafflies into a hidden form, a Reddhott, and I go about exploring this new discovery, recreating and breeding my new colourful friends. But I take my attention away from a corner of the garden and Dastardos is back amongst them, breaking open two fragile bodies. I can never rest. These Piñatas are my responsibility.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.