Looking at the most popular trends in conventional game design, what stands out is how optimistic the assumptions underlying those trends are. Much of that comes down to how video game are conceptualized. Assuming that video games are primarily composed of actions (they aren’t) implies a host of other things about them: an agent who performs the action, a reason for performing the action at all, and a tangible effect on the world through which we can verify the action’s existence. Despite the wide range of responses to this situation, many can be boiled down to the following formula: a player commits these actions to solve problems in the game world, and in doing so, they make the world a noticeably better (or at least different) place than it was before.
At first glance, this formula looks like another formulation of the typical video game power fantasy. While true to a certain extent, the unwavering optimism at the heart of this set-up proves to be more significant. Not only does the formula propose that things can get better; not only does it present human action as the primary means by which that happens; but it also spells out in very certain terms how that happens at all. (Whether or not the proposed solution would actually work is another story.) We only see this as a power fantasy because the player is:
- made necessary to the world’s betterment.
- made necessary to the game in general.
- explicitly rewarded for their efforts, adding an element of quid pro quo.
However, the point remains that the player is made central to these processes. According to our previous definition, all a game explicitly requires is that actions be carried out. In other words, the optimism we’ve been discussing could still exist in the absence of any player, although few games fully consider this point.
Noobow provides us a sketch of what that kind of optimism might look like in practice. The play premise to this adventure/puzzle game is simple: the eponymous hero wanders through the world solving people’s problems; usually by picking up an items and either bringing it to the person who needs it or by using that item where it needs to be used the most. A shovel lets Noobow dig through dirt to create a new path, a battery and a propeller go to a bird looking to repair their jetpack/helicopter, etc. There is a larger narrative linking these moments together – one of Noobow leaving his island home in search of the family he never had – but the structure that narrative lends the game is very loose. Noobow remains highly episodic in nature.
Despite the safe and marketable veneer it presents to the world, the game is much more peculiar than it lets on. Its saccharine nature, for example, belies the incredibly tight grip that Noobow exerts on play. The game carefully plans out how each scenario should unfold, and to that end, it severely limits the number of options available for the player to pursue at any given time. It takes this to such extremes, in fact, that the solution to any given puzzle feels obvious and inevitable, almost as though its being solved was part of its existence from the beginning.
As intuitive as it may be to play through Noobow, I have difficulty putting that play experience into words. It feels like play without agency; as though the game is playing itself. Or maybe it would be more accurate to describe Noobow’s play style as the study of natural forces and the phenomena they set into motion. I personally feel more inclined toward the latter reading, given how strongly the main character reinforces it. Here I should mention how vital Noobow is to his own game’s structure. Noobow is nothing if not a series of vignettes centered around its protagonist’s life, each moment contributing more to our understanding of this character.
The irony (and second peculiarity), of course, is that Noobow has no character to be studied; no personality, no personal history, no sense of a consciousness interacting with the world. He exists not as a living being, but as a symbolic representation of human kindness. Completely lacking in self-interest, Noobow pursues generosity for its own sake. His is a happiness that needs no justification beyond itself, yet isn’t content confining itself to a single existence. It naturally radiates outward, affecting all that it touches and making the world a better place by its presence alone.
In other words, Noobow is an idealistic fantasy about basic human goodness, one that we enjoy vicariously by enacting that kindness through Noobow. For as saccharine a view as this may be (or for as generous an interpretation of the game as I’ve rendered), I have difficulty denying its obvious appeal. Even if its world only exists in fantasy, knowing that a world where basic human goodness is such a dominant force that moral evil simply doesn’t exist is even conceivable is still a very comforting thing to know. Likewise, for as many minor frustrations as I encountered during play (most of them coming down to genre: grid-like movement interfering with my ability to solve puzzles, attempting to figure out the designers’ thought processes), Noobow’s lack of interest in making demands of me as a player results in a relaxing, accommodating play experience more than anything else.
However, I’m not as interested in the appeal itself as I am in how Noobow constructs that appeal. On a fundamental level, there is no difference between this game and others. No matter the degree of flexibility an individual game may grant in problem solving, the fact remains that those problems are not only made to be solved, but solved with tools that exist only to solve those problems. Put another way, both the problem and its solution are conceptually impossible to separate. This is especially true for adventure games, which Noobow shares a clear lineage with.Their form of play is a clean procession from even to even, always collecting items with a strictly defined (if at first concealed) purpose. You’d be hard pressed to find a more teleological video game genre.
From a phenomenological perspective, Noobow’s only innovation is that it brings that telos close enough to the surface that we directly perceive it during play. Yet this is no small change. It produces certain qualitative difference in the play experience (the playerless play, the feeling of an already complete world), and it’s these differences that are key to Noobow’s fantasy, and thus its entire project. After all, it’s only through fantasy that the game can access its ideals in a purer form that, at least to us, appears more plausible than if it were to exist in something more substantial. What if Noobow were a person instead of just a presence? We’d doubt his kindness is genuine. We’d spot holes where there may not be any, suspecting some hidden self-interest his actions are working toward. His simplicity, then, lends Noobow’s character the moral purity he needs for his kindness to make sense.
Likewise, if the focus was on us actively finding solutions to the problems we encounter, like it is in many video games, then we’d begin to scrutinize the solutions the game sees fit to include, probably dismissing them as naive. But that’s not how Noobow works. The focus isn’t on our solving the problems, but on the problems being solved at all. Its vision is of a world whose natural order benefits all who inhabit it; a world that privileges no person above anybody else; a world where, even if we don’t know how, everything is going to work out in the end. In this light, Noobow’s design is not only appropriate to that vision, but it puts us in a position where its reassurances can make sense.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any flaws in that vision. I could mention how idealistic it is to assume that kindness requires no effort to enact on Noobow’s part, but I feel circular reasoning would soon follow such a criticism. One could just as easily say that kindness is meaningful because it shouldn’t require effort to enact. A more substantial criticism, though, would look at what the lack of personal consciousness in Noobow’s world means for Noobow. As we’ve already discussed, Noobow is himself more a force of nature than a person, and the same could be said for most of the game’s actors. Most if not all of the problems Noobow encounters come down to the forces of nature acting out of balance: an usually cold winter, a hot muggy summer, etc. According to this worldview, suffering is both arbitrary and easy to overcome specifically because that suffering isn’t willed into existence.
In our own world we know that isn’t the case. Evil is often the result of human actions. Even without malicious intent, we could say that the diversity of conflict perspectives (not to mention varying degrees to which people can enact those perspectives) makes suffering all but inevitable. Noobow cannot reckon with such possibilities. It can only construct its world by denying that diversity, and by denying the human capacity to commit evil. And even if we ignore those problems, I’m left wondering if the game’s version of kindness is conceptually sound. Can generosity in the absence of a self to grant it be properly called generosity? If not, how does that self affect the generosity it grants? Whatever answers these questions may have, Noobow isn’t prepared to find them. It would appear that on purely on theoretical terms, the virtue Noobow imagines is self-defeating.
Returning to our original point, if there’s something inherently optimistic about mainstream video games, then there’s something inherently reassuring about them, too. In rendering for the player a world that has moved past those problems that plague our own, video games also render a world that values that player’s existence in a way their own world may not. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. Problems only start to arise when a given game’s break from our world is incomplete. The game values the player above others. It reproduces capitalist logic by putting that player in unnecessary competition with those others, barring all off from the happiness that would otherwise be within their reach.
Noobow, by contrast, makes a complete break from our reality in establishing its own. For all the flaws this burdens the game with, this is also what gives Noobow its power. Through it, we’re able to find fulfillment without falling victim to competitive individualism. In the end, Noobow’s vision is still a compelling one.