Recently in my Games Studies class, we were required to read excerpts from Johan Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens.” Huizinga explores the existence of the “play spirit” that presents itself across history regardless of culture. The play spirit essentially represents the notion that play is simultaneously illogical and indescribable. With this in mind, playing a game comes down to having fun for its own sake. During class, the professor raised the question as to whether or not the play spirit still exists in modern society. After all, we now live in a media culture that increasingly blurs the line between artistry and activism. This is by no means a bad thing; art is entirely necessary in communicating ideas in ways that direct words cannot adequately capture. In regards to games, the industry has seen unprecedented advancements in relation to the subject matter that the medium is willing to approach. Some of the most popular games of the last five years have revealed that a game can deliver on complex themes without being heavy-handed or preachy. Regardless, the question still remained in my mind as to whether or not a modern game can exist that is fun for its own sake. After carefully considering the notion, I came to the conclusion that the Kirby series (specifically “Kirby’s Return to Dream Land”) is exemplary of the strictly fun game.
I must immediately admit that I am completely biased in singing my praises for “Kirby’s Return to Dream Land.” The Kirby series has always been my undisputed favorite Nintendo franchise, and playing “Dream Land” with my brother is to this day one of my favorite childhood memories. I use the phrase “childhood memories” loosely, seeing as we only finished completing the game around two years ago. Nevertheless, “Dream Land” captures the fundamental essences of fun through ways that I hope to see more games adopt in the future. The beginning few stages of the game are noticeably easy — almost laughably so. It is rather tutorial-intensive, with nearly impossible-to-fail platforming and combat segments.
However, despite its simplicity the first few levels perfectly dictate the tone and overall game feel for the next several hours of play time. The player has access to several jumps, a hallmark of traditional Kirby games. The access to multiple jumps accomplishes multiple things simultaneously. First, it renders the need for precision based jumps seen in most platformers completely obsolete. Initially, this change in form is used to ease the player into the game space, indirectly reminding them that their success is almost a guarantee. Later on, this mentality shifts and the level design is used to complement the mechanics. Timing the number of jumps used soon becomes a necessity for progress. Most games have ramping difficulty curves, but the ease of access in “Dream Land” never becomes unmanageable. Health can be physically shared between cooperative players and almost every copy ability that Kirby learns has some functional purpose to the player. In short, one never feels at a loss when playing “Dream Land.” It is meticulously designed to be an enjoyable experience, as if the designers were attempting to scientifically deduce the origins of fun.
Another aspect of “Dream Land’s” design that makes it so enjoyable is that the game is cute, though just say the game is cute is an immediate understatement. This game is obscenely cute, at its very core. It makes you feel genuinely warm and at peace in every moment of its gameplay. The evidence lies in every facet of every formal choice of the game, and the only way to describe them is simply by gushing about them. For example: when you’re playing with someone else you can just hop on top of them and literally piggy-back through the entire level: it’s adorable! Or when Kirby and friends find themselves in water, they put on tiny life-preservers! And almost every world is named after a type of food, take Raisin Ruins for instance! Almost every insignificant detail in the design of the game is just that: insignificant.
That’s what makes “Dream Land” so impactful for me in understanding play spirit. Everything about it exists for its own sake. It defies logic and reason that someone took time and effort into ensuring that whenever Kirby moves with the Ice copy ability, he gracefully skates across the level. Stylistic touches like these reveal that the play spirit is very much alive in modern gaming culture. This is not to say that this franchise is the only exemplification of the play spirit, but rather one that resonates strongly with me. There is a sort of profound beauty in that, however. This game represents an experience so meaningful to me that it excludes itself from the need of definition or rationality. Games are so often labeled as a frivolous and nonsensical medium, as if it were an insult. After all, the merits of uninterrupted enjoyment are not bound by the rules of sense and rationality.
Michael Dellapi is a staff columnist for the Highlighter.