Squid Pro Quo

I don’t like violence. It nauseates me. This is obviously an issue when it comes to gaming. I’m continually surprised by the sheer volume of titles that are predicated on reducing people to mincemeat. Likewise, I’m astounded by how popular these titles are. I think the last truly ‘violent’ game I played was Resident Evil 4. I found it a harrowing experience – which it’s meant to be, I suppose. While I knew that the people I was shooting to pieces had (spoilers!) wibbly parasites inside them, I still found the fact I spent a large part of the game shooting things that looked like people really disturbing. Oddly enough, when it came to the end of the game when things got really weird and everything had claws and orifices with eyes that pop out of them, I was totally fine.

I dabbled with Halo 3 for a while too. It was really the first online shooter that I ever played. But I still couldn’t get past the fact that I was shooting people. In some ways it’s a shame, because I really, really, like cooperative play. Tabletop games like Pandemic, Zombies, Hero Quest and the 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons board games are some of my favourite experiences. I’m really satisfied by working within a team to survive or solve problems. Of course, when you take the concept of ‘co-operation’ online and into an arena environment things tend to change. Add anonymity and voice chat to the mix and you’ve got something – in my opinion – that’s equivalent to a kind of militarised 4chan. It can create a nasty, hostile environment that’s difficult for me not just in terms of content, but also challenging on an interpersonal level. I was called names at high school, but some of the abuse I’ve been subjected to in Halo 3 – because I wasn’t as good as someone thought I should be – was truly upsetting. It was because of experiences like this that I largely shied away from ‘co-operative’ online play, preferring solo experiences where the only person who could chastise me was myself. But then along came Splatoon.

Splatoon was first announced in July of 2014 and I have to admit I wasn’t particularly interested – I saw people running around a map and shooting things and had a bit of a pavlovian response to it. However, as time went on and more details were released, it really started to pique my interest. Nintendo is generally known for distilling a gameplay concept so well that’s it’s like sipping on a glass of Yamazaki Single Malt, as opposed to a rag soaked in bathtub gin. This is definitely the case with Splatoon. The online component of the game places you in a 4 versus 4 arena, and tasks your team with claiming the most territory by spraying the arena with ink. There’s a marvelous push and pull to the whole affair as areas are inked, re-inked and then inked some more. You can even travel stealthily through – or hide within – your own team’s ink by transforming into a squid, while coming into contact with ink of the opposing team causes your movement to slow down, leaving you vulnerable for an attack. Inked territory is constantly displayed on the Wii U gamepad in real time so you can quickly head to the areas where your team is needed most. The devices used to achieve the actual inking are as bizarre as they are varied, starting with something as simple as an ink-filled Super Soaker, to a giant paintbrush, and a massive paint roller which sacrifices defence in favour of sheer speed of coverage. I favour the ‘all-guns-blazing’ approach and use the Splash-O-Matic, an airbrush looking device, that reaches (for me) the perfect compromise between attack and coverage. There is also a series of sub weapons – such as ink-filled water balloons and ink mines – as well as a range of larger, more powerful devices that have to be charged up by covering territory before you can unleash them. There’s a childish glee to it, like mushing your hands in a chocolate cake, or tipping a box of Lego all over the floor.

The ink guns are just a drop in the bucket in terms of customisation, with a variety of clothes, shoes and hats (all with unique sets of abilities) available to buy from an Akihabara style shopping plaza. There are also two additional game modes: ranked (a kind of Capture the Flag variant) and a single player mode which rewards you with additional weapons for completing each section. I’ve not tried the ranked mode, but I have dabbled briefly with the single player. While it’s fair to say that the game is not short on content, I find myself returning time after time to the turf war mode.

But where Splatoon really shines for me is in terms of the things that have been left out. Firstly, there’s no violence. You can your ‘splat’ opponents and cause them to explode in a comical burst of ink before they return to the spawn point. But there aren’t organs flying everywhere and the walls aren’t left stained with blood. Additionally, there’s no real advantage in ‘splatting’ rivals – you aren’t rewarded for it – at the most it buys you a couple of seconds of time. Points are accumulated by inking territory, not by taking out opponents. This mechanic works really well for me because I even have trouble with ‘splatting’ people; I’m happy to bring up the rear and cover pieces of territory that others have missed. I’ll occasionally head to the front lines if a particular section of the map needs defending. I’m often in the top half of the leaderboard at the end of the round by following this approach.

Splatoon has no functionality for voice chat either. Communication is limited to two options: a rallying call, and a shout of encouragement. While I like the fact that I can’t be abused by a ten year-old with a potty mouth (which is arguably worse than being abused by an adult with a potty mouth), the lack of voice chat is somewhat annoying. Firstly it makes playing with friends a somewhat soulless exercise, and it makes forming a team strategy impossible. Still, I’d rather be a little frustrated than a lot insulted.

I realise that Splatoon might not be everyone’s cup of tea, probably (I assume) because of the chintzy visuals. But I have no desire to experience what it’s like to be dropped into a war zone and mow down groups of bad guys. I know a lot of people are, and that’s cool, it’s just not my thing. I don’t want to be insulted online either, it really ruins the experience of playing with other people, and I like playing games with other people. What Nintendo has managed to do is cut all the toxic elements out of a style of gameplay that I really enjoy. Sure, there are a few things that need to be addressed (like the lack of voice chat). But what’s left is so charming, it’s easy to forgive the flaws and get down to what’s really important; having fun with other people and making a big, big mess in the process.

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