One of the themes with my writing has been to unearth the ideas that games express in their design without realizing. I approach this task on a game by game basis because by limiting ourselves to this scale, we can show how a given video game responds to the trends of its day and illustrate what those trends are/were capable of. That being said, it can also be helpful to apply this to the wider world of video games. Looking at the games that are the most readily commercially available, one finds that they tend to speak a common language: one focused on heavily structured behavior, absolute control (whether bodily or mental; often both), exhibition of skill, and promises of personal empowerment to make the rest enticing.
I should note that this style (which we will call commercial game design) is more flexible than it may initially appear. As much of my writing has illustrated, that style can be made to fit a wide variety of ideas if approached with care. However, just as much of my writing has demonstrated the hard ceiling inherent in this approach to design. In any case, the ideas commercial game design can express are largely irrelevant to its ubiquity. The form takes precedence above all else. Games adhere to commercial game design not because the form is conducive to their own project, but because this is what we expect video games to look and feel like. A given game may modify the style here and there to accommodate its own project, but to reject the form outright is out of the question. Needless to say, these stern requirements can impair a game’s ability to express itself at best, and at worst, force it to express a set of deeply worrying ideas that contradict its original intentions.
We could apply these thoughts to a wide array of games. For example, I suspect this might be the case with Celeste. However, I know through direct experience that this is the case with Yoshi’s Woolly World, and the multitude of connections between this and other games makes it an interesting case study. It’s hardly the first game of its kind. As I discussed regarding Captain Toad, Nintendo’s approach to video game design usually concentrates on an enjoyment structured only by the player’s exploration of the game’s novelty. It’s an approach the company has employed for years; most notably (for our purposes) with Kirby’s Epic Yarn, a game that not only relies heavily on materiality to create its effect, but adapts the platformer genre away from commercial game design (albeit not completely) to achieve that effect.
Yoshi’s Woolly World, by contrast, fails to capture the unrestricted joy of its peers. It is the antithesis of Captain Toad and misunderstands the ideas that Epic Yarn grasps. Its own materiality is less clearly defined, but more importantly, it makes a pretense toward not being steeped in commercial game design assumptions that it has no intention of backing. Instead, it gleefully embraces those assumptions and develops them further, questionable implications and all. What we are left with is a creatively empty, deeply cynical game that instrumentalizes play for decidedly unplayful purposes.
This may be surprising to some, since what we’ve said is only immediately noticeable during play, and despite its importance, play isn’t the first thing many are likely to notice about the game. That honor falls on the visual style. As the title implies, everything in Woolly World is made from materials one would find in a knitting basket: yarn, cloth, beads, buttons, zippers, knitting needles, etc. Like Paper Mario: Color Splash, Woolly World’s art style is very rooted in the materiality of the substance it works with, yet it doesn’t see that substance as an end in itself. What the game finds so interesting about its fabrics is the expressive power they hold. One could even describe Woolly World as an attempt on the artists’ part to discern the extent of that expressive power. Limited only to these materials, they can use their texture, color, shape/form (or in many cases, the idea of their shape/form) to represent a wide variety of different objects and locales. Sometimes they will even have the same object represent several different things at once simply by changing the context in which it appears.
Given the general play motif and the game’s color palettes – its bright primaries, its soft, warm pastels – the reasons behind this aesthetic choice are abundantly clear. Conceptually, however, Woolly World walks a very tight balance. To function as a celebration of and nostalgia for the wonders of early childhood, the game’s aesthetic must reify the imagination it sees at the heart of that wonder. But at the heart of that imagination, the game must suggest only as much as is necessary to convey a given idea. In theory, by leaving the player with an incomplete representation (E.G. of a section of cloth as grass), Woolly World requires the player complete the connection between signifier and signified through their imagination, making it a central and active part of their play experience.
What makes this balance so delicate is the one constant throughout the world: the material that world is made from. The cloth never quite leaves our perception. It will always leave an imprint upon our experiences, no matter how faint. Should the game fail to maintain this balance, it risks letting the cloth dominate and turning the game into an empty literalist commentary on the level of detail with which it depicts its own world. To its credit, Woolly World successfully maintains the balance in several places. In fact, some of its most rewarding aspects are built around actively engaging with cloth’s malleability. Most notable are the transformations, which weave Yoshi’s woollen body into fantastic new forms and open up new play opportunities through them.
Yet the technological power of the Wii U tips the scales too heavily. Unlike Yoshi’s Story, a predecessor with a similar toy aesthetic but whose technological limits force it to marry that aesthetic with the artifice, Woolly World’s level of detail effaces any artifice that the game might pass itself off as real. Thus, for every moment in which Woolly World directly engages with the expressive power of cloth and yarn, another moment will see it prioritize the material over what it represents without any clear understanding as to the consequences. The results are predictably inconsistent. Ghosts are made of yarn instead of cloth. The player can pass through some cloth and not others with no clear logic to communicate which is which. Some fabrics behave like liquid (objects can move through them) because the game can’t trust its players to pretend that they are liquid like the visual style suggests.
Even if Woolly World had perfectly maintained its balance, there remains yet another problem prior to this one. It’s the same confusing oversight that plagues Color Splash. For as playful as the game’s aesthetic may be – for as theatrical and expressive as the characters within this world are with their movements – by allowing that playful quality to manifest only within that aesthetic, Wooly World constructs play such that only the game can indulge in it. Should the player find themselves not content idly watching the game revel in its own fun, they will soon learn that they can only enter that play on very limited terms. They are terms that neither feel as playful as the activities Woolly World grants itself nor stand up to further scrutiny.
To provide a very basic summary of those terms, Yoshi’s Woolly World is a platformer firmly entrenched in the Mario school of platformer design. One pilots their yarn Yoshi through various obstacle courses, jumping over hurdles and tossing yarn balls at anything between them and the final long jump. We’ll consider the finer details later.
For now, I want to bring attention to how one is expected to play the game. Before players are even allowed the opportunity to pilot a Yoshi, they are greeted with a screen explaining the game’s controls. It’s an intimidating, surprisingly complex introduction on the game’s part; one cluttered with annotations to read and options to check off before you understand what they might mean within the game itself. Beyond that, little about this screen indicates play. In fact, it can’t. Unlike Captain Toad, which sets a playful tone by having the player explore the play object as their first interaction with the game, Woolly World, by beginning with this description, allows it to supersede the object it’s meant to describe. Instead of a playful Yoshi, our instrumentalized perspective shows us a machine-like Yoshi made to perform various functions. Flip this switch to change his throw mode. Press this button to ready his yarn ball.
The actual game isn’t much better. If anything, it only codifies these attitudes. For any given action, one will find nothing beyond the function it serves within the world. No novelty; no physical characteristic; nothing one might consider even remotely playful. Even when Woolly World approaches play, the game, in its quest to make everything in the world serve a purpose, can only subordinate it to “playful” violence. Most telling of all is the Game Pad: unlike Captain Toad, the Game Pad here is just a Game Pad.
Needless to say, the Woolly World play experience is barren of the imaginative power its visual style otherwise suggests. The game in practice speaks a different language altogether: one of goals, accomplishments, external motivation, and mastery over mind and body toward those ends. In short, what holds importance for Yoshi’s Woolly World isn’t the play with materials and symbols that we see at the surface, but the commercial game design whose language the game is steeped in.
One might counter that the latter needn’t consign the game to oblivion. They might point to all the features that make the game less difficult – Mellow Mode to remove the need for precise navigation, badges to make items easier to find or enemies easier to handle – and argue that Woolly World successfully reconciles its two aesthetics. Yet to say the game has reconciled anything is either to miss the point or to act in bad faith. No matter how much of an effort it makes to entice players from outside enthusiast circles, the fact remains that Woolly World offers those players a form of play that originates from within those circles. This places a very severe limit on how much the game can accommodate non-enthusiast players. It also raises some important questions concerning what purpose (if any) this kind of design serves the game. For example, why does Woolly World allow players to skip stages rather than design itself in such a way that they don’t feel the need to skip stages, or such that “skipping a stage” doesn’t apply to the game in the first place?
I remain doubtful about any potential answers to these questions. The logic employed here intersects with indie platformers, and both trace their roots back to enthusiast reactions to the Wii. Non-enthusiast players are accepted not for their own sake, but only insofar as they can eventually become enthusiasts themselves. The hardcore gamer becomes the standard by which we measure video games: both the default audience for whom video games must exist and the aspirational ideal toward which all other audiences are expected to strive. Even ignoring the cultural issues informing Woolly World’s design, by offering players tools to circumvent given features, the game admits those features contributes little if anything to its larger project. Yet their continued presence within the game means those tools can only do so much. By only changing how the design is presented to us, we ignore the possibility that the core design itself could be the root of the game’s problems.
My own experiences with the game bore this possibility out. Far from feeling the liberating effects of play, the game’s stern expectations (combined with its refusal to acknowledge them) made my play experience a deeply anxious one. In these levels, I am never just running straight to the end. Woolly World also expects me to collect various objects hidden throughout that level: beads, stamps, flowers, yarn bundles. I’d collect these items, but not because I enjoyed the activity itself. In fact, I would ignore all but the yarn bundles wherever possible. What made them the exception was the narrative premise: Kamek invades Yoshi’s village, reduces his friends to yarn, and scatters the bundles across the land. This sliver of personal nuance was enough to compel me to ensure the safety of every Yoshi that Kamek had affected.
That my first reaction to play was one of duty suggests that my enjoyment is not among the game’s goals. The actual act of collecting confirms this sentiment while explaining the anxiety I felt within the game. The crux here is that many of these items are hidden; often in plain sight. One item may ask you to push cloth aside to reveal a hidden alcove. Another might be hidden behind the scenery itself. Yet another may be hidden within a cloud that only becomes visible after interacting with the space around it. In theory, the effect complements the incomplete nature of the visual style we’d discussed earlier. The game encourages play by highlight ways to act on the world that we otherwise wouldn’t consider.
In practice, however, linking those actions to goals I am expected to accomplish all but ensures play cannot exist. Levels are no longer the site of play, but treacherous locations hiding the Yoshi anywhere within their effectively infinite space. As I explore them, I am constantly worried that, in my carelessness, I will miss not only the yarn bundles I am searching for, but any opportunity to rectify my mistakes. The drawn out length of those levels only exacerbates the issue, as do the non-linear levels. With their sprawling labyrinths, these levels introduce (force upon me) choice, and with it, the possibility of locking myself out of the very thing I am searching for. It’s a possibility that Woolly World never acknowledges.
This raises a very important question: if Yoshi’s Woolly World is not designed with play in mind, then what goal does the game actually work toward? Our previous findings can provide a few hints. If, as we’ve argued, Woolly World does not invoke play, then we could construe our activities within the game as work. The analogy certainly holds. Like work, playing this game involves performing activities that the game has quantified; that are monotonous at best and stressful at worst; and that we perform for outside reward or out of perceived necessity rather than desire. Still, this just raises the question of what exactly we are working for.
Although there are multiple answers to this latter question, only one is relevant to Woolly World as a whole. If the narrative suggests we collect yarn bundles to reconstruct and better our community, then the beads (by far the most common object in this woolly world) speak to wealth and individual profit; maybe at the expense of others. Unlike Captain Toad, whose coins are treated only as objects for the player to collect at their leisure, or Jumpin’ Kid, where we interact not so much with wealth but with the idea of wealth, Woolly World treats its beads as actual currency and grants them significant power over the game. In fact, when we discount Mellow Mode, we find the only way for the player to modify the game’s difficulty is to buy badges to that effect.
At the surface, there are some obvious and concerning messages embedded in this arrangement. Wealth extends one’s own being, not only through the material one has accrued, but through the wider number of privileges that material makes available, and the acquisition of wealth is based on personal skill. This last proposition is especially strange, given the game’s ostensible desire to court players with no interest in skill or being judged. In reality, that proposition exists to moralize wealth in favor of those who already possess it. If we assume, as Woolly World does, that skill is necessary to possess wealth, then simply possessing wealth is sufficient proof of your skill and thus your moral right to possess as much money as you do. Hence the understanding that one can buy their way to success (in the game’s parlance).
Finally, underpinning both these assumptions is the suggestion that wealth only exists insofar as it can be spent. Whether in the references to a mainstream video game culture that has always been rooted in pop media consumption, the fact that one can only collect every Yoshi in the game by buying various Amiibo (framed both within the game and outside it as adding more toys to your collection), or the salesman-esque language that forces itself upon you every few levels or so, all roads end with the player enhancing their enjoyment of the game by buying the goods the game has made available to them. Woolly World argues that we are measured largely through the material wealth we possess and the labor used to accrue it. It can think of nothing better than to continue performing that labor so that one can buy more possessions as evidence of that wealth.
Stripped of its idealistic facade, the game approaches the world through the eyes not of a child, but of the adult who imposes their own worldview upon that child. The real world seeps in through the gaps which the game has left open for this express purpose. Or perhaps Woolly World’s removal from the real entails an acceptance of it. “So long as I have my toys”, the game appears to reason, “the outside world can burn to cinders for all I care.” In any case, the choice of a childlike aesthetic is a cynical one made in bad faith. Having no interest in play, the game chooses that aesthetic to make its own meaning easier to digest and less available to critique. It claims to embody the essence of the very thing it refutes from the start. This, I feel, is the root of my frustration with Woolly World.
As we have seen, the prevalence of commercial game design tenets isn’t necessarily connected to their utility. It’s important to question why players expect their games to conform to those tenets, and what games stand to gain by challenging them. They could pursue goals like childish fun without obstruction, or explore forces more substantial than the player’s immediate gratification. This isn’t hypothetical, nor is it a recent trend, for we’ve countless games across decades to demonstrate these exact points. The only retort that comes to mind is with commercial game design as the absolute standard, any appeal games outside that design can garner would be limited at best. But that is a matter for another time.