“Things that I grew up with stay with me,” said Tim Burton, whose spiny surreal imagery in movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands warped an entire generation of goth kids. “You start a certain way, and then you spend your whole life trying to find a certain simplicity that you had. It’s less about staying in childhood than keeping a certain spirit of seeing things in a different way.”
Director Massimo Guarini seems to share both Burton’s creative philosophy and signature grotesque, circuitous art style in Ovosonico’s new game Murasaki Baby. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Burton’s The Melancholy Death Of Oyster Boy, Murasaki Baby follows a mildly terrifying little girl as she searches in all the wrong places for her mother. Her journey regularly taps into the deep well of joy, anxiety, fear, and ecstasy of that simple, childish outlook Burton describes. The game’s episodic structure, however, keeps it from fullness, never capturing that definitive air that makes an early life experience foundational.
Murasaki Baby certainly gives you the power to have that sort of definitive, parental impact on Baby herself. Rather than directly controlling her, you play as Baby’s unseen guardian as she hunts for her mother and wanders four disturbing and silly landscapes. Baby is as initially hard to love as her surroundings. Sunken yet somehow still bulging eyes bug out of her dome, where a gap-toothed mouth opens like a mollusk across her forehead. Everywhere she goes is equally ghastly upon first sight, with fields of cracked blister-red eggs and waving green tentacles. As repulsive as it all is, Ovosonico does elicit that childlike willingness to embrace the alien and ugly free of prejudice. It’s not ugly to Baby; it’s new and scary but not loathsome. The first time she smiled when I took her hand by touching the Vita’s screen, slowly guiding her forward, I was instantly endeared.
All of Murasaki Baby’s controls elicit this unexpected warmth. Designed entirely around the PS Vita’s gluttonous array of inputs, Ovosonico’s game should be an awkward disaster. Baby’s guided by touching the screen and holding her hand, but you often have to manipulate the heart-shaped balloon she’s carrying as well. If the balloon pops, you have to restart a given puzzle or obstacle course, so you often have two fingers on the screen, one leading her and one pulling the balloon away from spikes or flying safety pins. Meanwhile, you’re constantly touching the rear touchscreen to swap between three different backgrounds, each with its own unique effect. For example, in the third chapter you swipe two fingers on the rear to transform it into a gray winter landscape, then tap the rear to turn Baby’s balloon to stone.
None of this should work. Even the daintiest hands will obscure most of the screen when you’re touching it in multiple places. Add to that the awkwardness of claw-gripping the Vita to fiddle with the back screen while trying to remember what background does what, and the whole thing should be an infuriating mess. Instead, Ovosonico has strung together a series of puzzles custom-fitted to this unusual interface. Even in the game’s fourth and final chapter, where you’ll find yourself manipulating gravity by literally turning the Vita upside down in addition to everything else, the game always works and feels like it’s under your control. What’s more, the controls reinforce your emotional role in Baby’s life. No matter what, a parent can’t always see and protect their child from everything. Obscuring the player’s vision for the sake of idiosyncratic controls should be a cardinal sin of game design, but here, all it does is make you feel closer to Baby and the lost souls she meets on her search.
Separated into four chapters spread across multiple smaller chunks, Baby meets four broken people she’s alternately haunted by and compelled to help, like the woman who is a slave to her mammoth curling hairdo or the disco dude obsessed with a television show about a ghoulish rabbit. Each lives in a distinctly hellish countryside, and they regularly appear before Baby with their own heart-shaped balloons.
At its thematic best, Murasaki Baby demonstrates its teachable lessons to Baby through spectacularly discomfiting images. In the hair-obsessed lady’s realm, you have to switch between backgrounds that turn Baby’s heart to stone so she isn’t carried away by the wind, another that freezes everything around her, and another that’s just a giant eyeball that makes her small and light enough for the balloon to carry away. These create interesting navigational puzzles—how do I get Baby over to that cliff when it’s high and surrounded by stabby spiders?—but they also reflect, in this case, the dangers of vanity. With the heart of stone, the cold world, and the all-swallowing eye making you feel tiny, the chapter takes on the shape of the hairdo woman and demonstrates to Baby precisely how not to live as an adult. In its closing moment, it’s remarkably cathartic to use all these skills to free the woman from her obsession.
Unfortunately, Murasaki Baby doesn’t always feel so consistent. The final chapter presents some intriguing puzzles, but the backgrounds and skills you’re using don’t feel as thematically tied to the plight of the chapter’s tortured masters. By the time it ends, and the game along with it after just a couple of hours, there’s no connective tissue between the chapters themselves. Baby seems to have learned lessons, and her world is larger, but they haven’t built to a cumulative whole. The chapters are excellent on their own, but Murasaki Baby loses its potential impact by not letting you explore Baby’s world just a little bit further. While that means the game may not stick like the most potent of childhood memories, it still ignites the spirit capable of seeing the world in different ways.
Platform: PlayStation Vita