The mainstream often overlooks video games as powerful tools for positive change. Luckily, gamers have reached a point where their medium is more widely accepted as an art form. Like books, television, and film, video games serve as an effective vehicle for escapism. Storytelling in games have evolved in way that they provoke emotional responses from gamers. Most gamers would probably be lying if they told you they didn’t cry during key interactions with Clementine in Telltale’s “The Walking Dead,” or if they didn’t feel any sort of loss at the death of Aerith in “Final Fantasy VII.”
But unlike other forms of media, the interactivity of video games allows for responses that are unique to games. Emotion doesn’t have to be solely drawn from the script and voice performances alone. Instead, the world in which you control your character in can achieve the same effect. Friendships, rivalries, and entire communities can be formed from within video games. And most significantly, video games can be a powerful tool in supporting an individual’s mental health. As someone with anxiety, OCD, and depression, “Splatoon” has acted as a crutch.
“Splatoon” is Nintendo’s unique take on the multiplayer shooter genre, releasing in 2015 on the Wii U and followed up with a Nintendo Switch sequel very recently. This 4v4 frenzy substitutes gruff soldiers with squid kids, and bullets with ink. Rather than murdering every person they see, players instead cover the map with ink of their team’s color in the game’s basic mode. The team that covers the most of the map emerges victorious. If it sounds simple enough, well, that’s because it is. But while the gameplay may be simple, the experiences gained are deeper.
Building a Fresh, New World
We’ve come to expect a certain level of color and quirk from Nintendo’s work. However, “Splatoon” takes it to brand new levels. Set in a future where squids and octopi have evolved similarly to humans, the lore and atmosphere of “Splatoon” is based on the concepts of fashion and “freshness.” Players of the first “Splatoon” are greeted in every session by fictional pop stars Callie and Marie. The Squid Sisters act as MCs, announcing and commentating on stages as they rotate. But they also act as idols to the denizens of Inkopolis, embodying the game’s theme of fashion and status.
Anyone familiar with Japan’s Shibuya district can probably surmise its inspiration to “Splatoon,” Shibuya being a hub for fashion, youth, and nightlife. The Inkopolis Square hub looks like to be a cartoonish version of this, populated with young Inklings and shopping centers. Fashion quickly becomes essential to gameplay, as clothing contains your Inkling’s abilities used in battles. At the beginning of the game, storekeepers selling clothes and weapons will turn you away, saying you aren’t “fresh” enough yet to buy their products. The player has to level up to a certain point, making status and experience essential. By combining fashion and function, Nintendo found a way to intertwine gameplay and lore. The style invokes other hip games like “The World Ends With You” and “Jet Set Radio,” while retaining its own Nintendo hallmarks.
That Nintendo created a world and lore through online gameplay alone is a significant accomplishment, despite their lack of online savviness.
Fostering a Community (Albeit with Limitations)
Speaking of Nintendo’s online inaptitude, it’s sort of a miracle that a Splatoon community exists in the first place. Nintendo has never created an adequate online infrastructure, but releasing an online shooter with ridiculous limitations in this day and age is quite silly. Players cannot change their loadout in the lobby, or even back out of the lobby. There is no good way to “party up” with friends, and no option to voice chat within the game. Nintendo recently has baffled the internet by releasing a barebones and ineffective mobile app allowing for voice communication. Still, “Splatoon” players trooped on, and in some ways the limitations forced players to work harder on creating communities.
Nintendo’s Miiverse social network was the blood that gave the first “Splatoon” life. By allowing players to draw pictures, Inkopolis Square was adorned with both amazing feats of art and shitpost memes. It allowed for expression and individuality, which worked with the game thematically. The drawing feature proved so popular that the Miiverse-less Switch sequel added the function within the game itself. Take a stroll around the game’s hub, and you feel that you are amongst friendly faces. And it certainly helps to make playing the game feel like a regular event through something called “Splatfests.” Roughly every couple of weeks, the game asks you to pick a side – cats vs. dogs for instance – and pits the two sides against each other. The hub world and game maps turn to nighttime with neon lights, and event-relevant Miiverse drawings spread all over. In the background, the Squid Sisters perform throughout the night.
It’s both funny and amazing that Nintendo can create a feeling of solidarity between people through something silly like a burgers vs. pizza debate. Now if only they could get their online shit together.
An Unexpected Aid in Mental Health
I don’t consider myself to be an expert on mental health, but as a young adult I have made it a goal to make mindfulness an important aspect of my life. Yoga and exercise are useful activities, but sometimes when anxiety grips me, “Splatoon” is my go-to antidote. It isn’t easy to describe in words the emotions that “Splatoon” invokes in me, but one adjective that comes to mind is satisfying. My loadout usually has the paint roller weapon, and covering the map with ink is a wholesome experience. My obsessive compulsive tendencies have me leave no spot untouched, especially spots that my teammates might have missed. Again, with the lack of voice communication, it is therapeutic acting as a unit with your silent team.
Not to mention that all of the aforementioned artistic elements of the game are enjoyable by themselves. Sometimes when I find myself in depressive slumps, I listen to the game’s excellent soundtrack. I explore fan art from enthusiastic players, and watch amazing feats of maneuvering in GIF form on /r/Splatoon. It’s safe to say that many “Splatoon” fans have fallen head over heels for the character designs, particularly the pop star characters. Take one quick look at the Twitter and Tumblr spheres and you’ll see many fawning over “Splatoon 2” idol Marina. In some of my worst of times, “Splatoon” has provided me with comfort and joy through a variety of ways.
It is worth mentioning that behind the scenes, youth played an important part to development of “Splatoon.” With Nintendo veterans like the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto growing old, the company has to ensure that the company’s distinctiveness lives on in the younger developers. The overwhelming positive responsive to the game indicates that Nintendo’s “Nintendo-ness” still remains. And by tapping into the experiences of their younger developers, Nintendo is able to produce something unlike their older properties.
“Splatoon” beats you over the head with the word “fresh,” but the game truly is just that. It offers a story and world beyond cutscenes. A passionate fanbase has amassed over it. And for individuals like myself, the game’s positivity helps to keep the inner demons at bay. Modern video games can make you sob, or think about larger concepts. But here is a video game that can just make you happy.