Disney started it. It murdered Bambi’s mother (spoilers, sorry), locked Dumbo’s mom in a cage (oops, that’s another one), and chucked Simba’s father off a cliff (I’m not apologizing for this one, Disney owes me an apology). The message behind every Disney movie was clear. There’s a price for watching our beautiful cartoons, kids: your heart is going to be ripped out at some point.
Then Pixar came along and took the agony to new levels, only aimed at adults. “Oh, you wanna watch this silly CGI movie with talking dogs and a flying balloon house?” said Pixar. “Well, you’re not gonna do it without sobbing in grief. And this other movie about cute toys coming to life is actually about your children growing up and not needing you anymore! Ha ha! Why do we do this, you ask? Because we can. Now cry for me, bitch. Cry.”
The same way Monstropolis in Monsters Inc. is powered by children’s screams, I think Pixar is powered by adult tears.
I don’t know why funny cartoons so often feel a need to stick a knife in your heart—I suspect it’s so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will take them seriously and give them awards. I also don’t know why people seem to love sobbing at cartoons so much. Ask anyone for their favorite Futurama episode and they’re bound to tell you it’s the one about Fry’s dog. That baffles me. You can watch the fun one where Fry goes into the past and bangs his own grandmother, but you’d rather cry over a dog? Do you not already have enough actual pain in your life?
I’ve played a bunch of adorable indie games over the years and I’m starting to feel like Pixar has had a major influence on developers, because in the midst of the bright colors and cute characters and enjoyable premises, many of them will abruptly try to jab searing pain into my heart and wring tears from my eyes. It seems like a requirement these days. “Can I pet the dog?” is no longer the question I want answered before playing a game, but “Will it try to make me feel things?”
Take Haven Park, a cozy and peaceful island management game about a cute little bird who runs around doing chores to make it a nice camping spot for visitors. It’s bright and cheery and completely wholesome, and it’s also only a few hours long. A delightful, bite-sized game. But wait, what’s this? The cute little bird you control has a grandmother, the former caretaker of the island, and once you’ve fixed up the island you have to say goodbye to grandma. Forever. You know why.
Dammit! I was having a grand time setting up barbeques and playing hide-and-seek, and then you had to go and drop the death of a sweet old grandmother bird on me? I trusted you, Haven Park.
On to Moonglow Bay, an open world fishing game where you fix up another charming little island. Collect trash, repair buildings, and restore the promise of a bustling fishing industry. And what would you like to go fishing for today? A sugar cube guppy? A sock eel? A tube fish? How about some OVERWHELMING GRIEF. Yes, you’re not just fishing in Moonglow Bay, you’re mourning your wife who was lost at sea, and it’s not just the town that needs repairing, it’s your own shattered psyche. Enjoy.
I played another adorable indie game recently (I won’t name it since it’s not out yet), and once again it was bright, cheerful, peaceful, and utterly charming. But as I dashed around helping out cute NPCs with their silly little problems, I was treated to the backstory of the cute little character I was controlling. It was deftly handled as a series of single still images that appeared during loading screens, but those beautifully drawn pictures added up to one thing: gut-wrenching sadness. You know I’m playing these cute games to escape the nightmares of reality, right?
(Come to think of it, all these games took place on an island. Maybe the islands are the problem. That’s it, I’m never playing an indie game set on an island ever again. Islands are cursed.)
I’m not opposed to exploring grief and loss in games. I actually think it’s important for games to examine emotional topics, and all the games I mentioned did it pretty effectively. It just seems like there are more and more games that appear outwardly cute and then abruptly deliver a hadouken of sorrow into your face. “Welcome to a bright and colorful world. Don’t forget your backpack, your fishing pole, and a giant box of tissues for the haunting grief you’re about to experience. And here’s a cute sun hat.”
If it seems like I have a heart of stone, I really don’t. I cried at Up, too! But not at the first ten minutes. The intro of Up is pure manipulation by Pixar designed to make you cry without first earning that right, and I refused to give in to it. It’s the part near the end, where Carl discovers Ellie filled her journal with memories of their life together. That’s the part where you should be crying! Because Carl was her adventure! He just never realized it while she was alive!
Dammit, now I’m sad again. I’m gonna go play a cute indie game to cheer myself up. Just not one set on an island.