In the past twelve months, since I started writing about video game culture for a living, I have played games that have produced in me a remarkable range of effects. I have played games that made me laugh. I have played games that unintentionally made me laugh. I have played games that made me angry, games that made me forget my problems, games that made me feel stoned. I have played games that made me sad at America, games that made me sad at Japan, games that just made me sad. I even played a game that nearly made me, a coal-hearted and media-saturated writer, cry.
And yet, among all of the sensations and emotions that the dozens of games I’ve played in the last year added to my life, not one game has managed that rarest and, maybe, purest game pleasure: pulling the player’s—my—face into an involuntary, sustained, quarter-crazy, grin, the one that makes him or her look like a dog with its head stuck out the window of a moving car.
Well, until this week.
For the past few days, playing Ubisoft’s new platformer Rayman Legends, I have had the repeated experience of finishing a level and realizing that, without knowing it, I was smiling. Anyone who has played games for awhile will know what I’m talking about. It’s not the “big moment”: Stepping out of the Vault in Fallout 3, or discovering Rapture in Bioshock. No, it’s not wonder, or a sense of the sublime. It’s the total and pleasurable involvement in the repeated performance of an action that has the potential to fail. I think it’s related to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of “flow” (a state of pure work in which a thing is done for the sake of doing it, and outside pressures are forgotten), and of course, that concept has been studied vis a vis gaming, but what I’m talking about feels more overtly joyful than that.
Joy, that’s the key to the experience. Every area of this game, which I realize I have barely described, feels created with a spirit of joy. The art, which radiates that classic Franco-Belgian comic charm, is, cliche and all, a joy to behold. The game looks like what would happen if Disney in 1990 decided to make a hand-drawn version of The Adventures of Asterix. Of course the game takes place in a giant art gallery.
The paintings in the gallery divide the game into dozens of little levels. Each one has its own logic: You might be running up the inside of a collapsing desert tree, or riding gusts of wind through a marsh, or fleeing a burning castle in jumping rhythm to the soundtrack. In theory it sounds disjointed. In execution it feels generous, inclusive, joyous, like Michel Ancel’s team at Ubisoft kept having new ideas that they wanted to share. And If you’ve played Super Mario, you’re capable of enjoying all of them.
So yes, Rayman Legends makes me happier than any game I’ve played in the past year. I should add it did produce one other notable effect on me: It made me sad. It made me sad that I’m not a kid anymore, because I’ll never be able to see this wonderful, joyful, classic game through a child’s eyes.