Sunday, June 26, 2011

Soma Drop: Wonder Project J

Title:  Wonder Project J
Developer: Enix (designed by Takashi Yoneda)
Release: December 1994
Platform: Super Nintendo Entertainment System

The point at which the phrase “video games are like my children” stops being a hyperbole


sentimentality not included

Most parents will tell you that raising children is a job. Not one of those “man I have the best job in the world” jobs, but more like one of those “oh god, why doesn’t anyone flush the toilets in this place and why does everything smell like warm BO all the time??” kinds. The worst part is that you’re the boss, you only have one employee who you can’t fire, and he spends all day sitting around in a diaper pooping himself. So why do people love games that are essentially parenting simulators?

Because they’re fun.
Um...I think I know where the inspiration for this game is from.
easy-bake ovens make oven-baking…easy

Wonder Project J is a very specific exercise in parenting: teaching behaviors. Like every simple idea, it has a million interpretations, ideations, and possible manifestations. Wonder Project J covers 95% of them.

You’ve probably never wondered much at a ball. A ball is a ball. And a ball can only be a ball as long as we only think of it as a ball. Wonder Project J knows better. Wonder Project J knows that the word “ball” is only a word, and that the idea “ball” is only a learned definition. There is no inherent “ball-ness” in the ball, nor is there are prescribed action for the ball (or is there?). Wonder Project J knows that things have no meaning until we give them meaning. Wonder Project J knows that context gives rise to content, and not the other way around. Wonder Project J knows why you think the way you do. And Wonder Project J wants you to prove it, by teaching Pino exactly how to get there.
Gosh. What a complex machine! It's like a person
twins are lucky because they don’t need mirrors

So few games have caused me such intense introspection that I honestly begin to question my humanity. Wonder Project J gets so close to what raising a child and being a parent is like (in a rather essentialist, not literal way), that I’d say that anyone who plays this game and doesn’t feel at least the tiniest bit unsettled probably has had children and is extremely jaded by life or is perhaps a robot. A reverse Turing test, in short. The quality of emotion that this game forces one to confront is facilitated not only by its mechanics, but by its cuteness and charm. The innocence of the robot-boy, the quotidian outlook of the world’s inhabitants, the bigoted human antagonists and their fear-propelled anti-robot agenda; a setting so easily entered and so wonderfully realized that it seems almost cruel not to invest in, not that the investment one eventually does make is obligatory.  It welcomes you. It doesn’t test you; it begs you, pleads with you to use your wisdom and your power to make this world a better place.
He was born with cape. He was born for greatness!
And you know, you just can’t say no. And besides, you’re awesome.

the guiding hand

The best part about this game is that the surprises don’t only come from the story, the personality, or the art. It comes from the scenarios you inadvertently allow, and subsequently suppress or promote. I never know what Pino will do with a new object (unless of course, it looks like something he’s read or played with before). The times when I do know, I still enjoy his boyish fascination with my praise, the naïve joy he receives at learning something new, and his ridiculous conclusions about the quality of “being alive” or “being nice.” But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. The game challenges, frustrates, and pushes your wits and dexterity as much as it tugs on your heartstrings and probes your philosophies. Beating the game even unlocks a mode where you’re given severe time constraints to complete each chapter in the story (as opposed to an unlimited time the first go-round).
Man, if only raising kids were this easy.
It’s unfortunate that games that really question the definitions of perception, learning, and knowledge are now sequestered to low-budget, independently developed studios. Wonder Project J, though, is a great example of what real, thoughtful games can look like.