Before the game proper even begins, Splatoon greets you with an image of a young person’s room. The small details adoring this room – part trendy, part comfortable, but mostly mundane – should be familiar to many of the game’s young players: a squid-themed iPhone; a desk with a laptop on it, maybe with a can of soda off to the side; posters and stickers from popular music or fashion brands adorning the walls; shelves with various books and collectibles populating their surfaces.
Then your eyes spot the details that don’t quite belong: the sniper rifle propped against the far shelf and the gas mask sitting on the near one. Both items disrupt the carefree atmosphere Splatoon had previously cultivated and hint toward a more serious set of circumstances. It’s like the characters are preparing for some inevitable conflict that’s looming over the horizon. Beyond this, the image is incapable of elaborating. The introductory level that follows clears up that image just a little bit. Watching your Inkling break out into the city to cover it with fluorescent ink, you see acted out before you a youth counterculture that’s breaking free of material comforts and taking to the streets to make their voices heard, no matter what.
It’s sad that the game to follow is nowhere near interested in committing to these ideas. What it offers instead is Inkopolis, the small city space inspired by Shibuya and your average college campus early in the year. In theory, the impression you’re meant to take away from this is that it’s a space for the youth and by the youth. It’s a world where they can do anything they want: join their friends in battle, buy the hottest fashion items, and enjoy the antics of Inkopolis newscasters Callie and Marie. However, the illusion breaks down very quickly. For one, the freedom Inkopolis offers is incredibly limited, given that most of the activities are essentially buying something. And as vital as the young people populating the plaza are to the city, none of them were responsible for its construction. In fact, they don’t even have the power to modify this space in the slightest.
Who’s given that power? Judging by the statues that loom over you and the ads pulling your attention in a thousand different directions at once, the most immediate answer is that corporate powers have it. And without any information about who’s running Inkopolis, Splatoon effectively imagines a world in which those corporate powers are given free rein to construct public spaces to their liking. The result is a capitalist dystopia. The world you navigate is flipped on its head: the open plaza that once felt so free reveals itself as the Panopticon from which there’s no escape. In fact, freedom is nothing more than an idea you’re sold because that makes it easier to control how you use that freedom. People are reduced to customers, businesses have unfettered power over those customers, and regular sports events have quieted any potential for political dissent.
As dystopian as this sounds, Splatoon doesn’t recognize this as such. In fact, Splatoon lacks any interest in critiquing the state of affairs it portrays. Its depiction of Inkopolis lacks the cynical self awareness of The World Ends with You, wherein the main cast transcends the city’s materialist trappings so they can realize what they value most in life. And despite all its pretenses, that depiction also lacks the genuine celebratory spirit of Jet Set Radio, where the protagonists use graffiti and parkour to actively resist both Tokyo-to’s police and the corporate powers of the Rokkaku Group. If Splatoon is defined by anything, it’s its unwillingness to engage in any form of politics. By representing concepts as divorced from whatever reality one might associate with them, the game is able to reduce those concepts to aesthetics one can consume or participate in.
It’s a pattern that echoes throughout Splatoon. Poverty exists in the world as an aesthetic flourish to lend that world authenticity. Invocations of youth counterculture feel like insincere brand building specifically because we have no knowledge of the culture; its relationship with the world and what its adherents hope to accomplish. Multiplayer matches are similarly lacking in context, since I have no relationship with either the other players or the space I inhabit. This wouldn’t make much sense if I were actually participating in a real movement,, but the spaces drop several hints that this was never the case. The smooth concrete surfaces, the plastic tarps draped over certain surfaces, the layouts’ perfect symmetry – they all make areas feel more like skate parks or theme parks than anything else. Put another way, these are spaces in which one’s activities are presented as a game divorced of real world context, a game which gives one the thrilling illusion of participating in guerrilla street warfare without having to commit to anything beyond that.
One might also consider the music, which is best described as a pale simulacrum of youth. Individual tracks can certainly capture that youth’s energy (or at least something like it), but by crafting the soundtrack for a larger audience, Splatoon strips that energy of whatever bite it might have. What we get instead are soulless renditions of pop music genres and celebrations without anything to celebrate.
However, no aspect of Splatoon demonstrates the game’s aversion to politics more than fashion. Both the idea of fashion and the consumer culture it’s tied to make certain assumptions about who can participate in the society the game imagines. To be a citizen of Inkopolis is to have the free time to battle, the economic stability to ensure one has that free time, and enough discretionary income to buy the latest goods one needs to participate in these activities. Any social divisions these premises allude to are further reflected and codified in play. Each article of clothing confers between one and four special attributes to the wearer, depending on how expensive the article in question is. One effect lowers respawn times, another allows you to swim more quickly through ink, etc. Because other players will inevitably equip themselves with top of the line gear, ignoring this feature yourself will only prevent you from participating in multiplayer matches to the extent that you could.
We should keep in mind how important multiplayer is to the Inkopolis ethos. It’s not just one activity among many the game offers, but the center of every activity it offers. Semi-hourly newscasts frame stage lineups as the most important information the city’s people need to know. Although players can briefly speak with one another in the plaza, the only real means of interacting with them face to face is through multiplayer matches. In short, multiplayer for Splatoon is the means by which one practices their citizenship in Inkopolis.
But then what does one make of money granting some players an inherent advantage over others? Or shopkeepers who are free to refuse service to anybody they deem “not fresh” (IE any player below a certain level)? They’re problems that Splatoon, at least the way it is now, is incapable of fixing, but also problems it shows no interest in fixing. They speak to a society riddled with unnecessary social inequality, one where corporate powers have prioritized their own brands over allowing people even the most basic participation in the society they’ve been cast into.
Of course, it’s expected that Splatoon, rather than question this, will defend this arbitrary system and motivate players to engage in it further. But what’s interesting is the way it goes about doing this. To provide a brief explanation, players aren’t allowed to buy anything from any of the shops until they reach level 4. Players start at level 1 and gain more levels by playing in (and maybe winning) multiplayer matches.
It’s the classic meritocracy myth. Nobody is truly excluded from Inkopolis because anybody can work their way up to a level where they can enjoy all the perks of being a proper citizen. Presumably, those who still haven’t moved past the first three levels choose not to do so by not playing the game. Not only does this arrangement neatly stifle criticisms of Inkopolis’ social order, but it elaborates on that order by establishing a basic game flow: play in battles to earn cash to buy more gear and keep up with the trends so you can play in more battles etc. (Spyke’s artificial scarcity adds more fuel to the fire.)
In other words, the game traps players in a cycle of endless labor whose rewards can only be directed toward buying the latest consumer goods. For as much as this benefits the powers that produce and sell those goods, it’s difficult to see what role self motivation is supposed to play. After all, one doesn’t buy clothes to express something about themselves through fashion. Any possible attempt at expressing one’s individuality has been co-opted by a system that, in reducing individuality to a set of statistics one must adhere to during play, makes it worthless. In the end, whatever countercultural ambitions Splatoon might have had deconstruct themselves and inevitably collapse back into the status quo they ostensibly fight against.
Yet for all the problems I have with Splatoon’s multiplayer, part of me remains intrigued by the single player mode. This isn’t to say that mode completely avoids the problems I’ve already discussed. Taken on its own terms, I imagine the game is supposed to be the same innocent/for-its-own-sake fun that Nintendo aims for in many of their other games. There may also be something about losing one’s self in the rhythm and celebrating life and youthful energy, but outside the dull procession of actions in a given part of any level, I have trouble seeing these forces represented anywhere in the game. Instead, Splatoon’s the type of game that’s so polished and so utterly refined that any identity it could have had has long since been scraped away; the kind of wasted potential that spends so much time wondering about the possibilities its mechanics open up that it becomes a game about those mechanics.
At the same time, the single player offers a much richer experience than its multiplayer counterpart, albeit by accident. Even if neither single nor multiplayer put that much thought into what they’re saying, the spotlight pointed on the former forces it to say something, and what it has to say is significantly more reflective of the two. Compared to the multiplayer’s uncritical celebration of the hyper-capitalist nightmare that is Inkopolis, the player’s journeys through Octo Valley explore the eventual decline and ruin of urban spaces. None of the stages have even the slightest desire to simulate reality. In fact, the majority of them feel dreamlike: roads that go nowhere; buildings built on nothing and relating to nothing; muddy designs that never quite fit together like they should; level progression that feels just as haphazard as the composition would suggest.
Out of all the stages, my personal favorite would have to be Inkvisible Avenues. The premise is simple – most of the platforms are invisible and the only way to make them visible is by inking them – but the effects are distinctive and immediate. My relationship with this space has been rendered alien, so movement through that space feels precarious, like I can never trust what the level shows me. Of course, this is a theme the game plays with in other areas – the bosses more often feel like menacing pieces of geometry than they do the alien beings you’re told they are – but it’s at its most transparent in this part of the game.
Returning to the stage composition as a whole, an optimistic interpretation would see these areas as ruins from a corrupted history we’ve lost all connection to. A less charitable view would say these spaces can only exist in simulation; like their one chance at existing as reality has long since faded away. Judging by both the histories infused in these spaces and the presentation suggesting a studio performance (stage lighting, painted sky backgrounds), it’s safe to say the game is aware of both interpretations. Unfortunately, it’s unable to find solace in either. All it can find is sorrow and a longing for something that no longer is.
What’s caused the world to fall into such ruin? Over the course of the game, you can find Sunken Scrolls that answer this very question. The explanations are numerous, including:
- A series of wars between the two major groups in the world (Inklings and Octarians)
- The destructive weapons used to fight those wars
- Resource scarcity due to a dwindling number of Zapfish
- Deteriorating underground domes (the primary mode of living for many)
- Politicians ignoring rising sea levels
- Something to do with an alien Other; possibly related to nuclear power
The parallels between Splatoon’s lore and contemporary issues should be obvious. Perhaps a bit less obvious is the consistent theme that emerges from these explanations: neglect spanning multiple generations that has scarred the world beyond repair. The past generations who committed those mistakes are left destitute and psychologically damaged (if Cap’n Cuttlefish is anything to go by), and the new generation are left nothing for themselves.
Or rather, the only thing that generation does have are rituals divorced of meaning. They can recreate the Turf Wars of old as they explore the Valley, but the causes they could be fighting for have already been lost. They can assert themselves through a rebellious counterculture, but without a clear authority to rebel against (save the vast network of powers without a central figurehead), there’s nothing against which the Inklings can rally and thus realize their common identity. Finally, they can spray the walls with ink, but given how that ink behaves, using it like graffiti as an act of self expression isn’t an option. Instead, it’s more like a desperate survival tactic. The world is already beyond saving; all you can do is carve a path through the debris.