I haven’t written about a game in quite a while. My younger sister suggested Child of Light, so here I am.
This is not a review. As I said in the past, I have no intentions of writing game reviews on my blog; there are plenty of great, existing sites that provide such content. Instead this article is an examination of Child of Light from the perspective of a game designer and developer. I will focus, in particular, on what lessons we can take away from this game in order to improve our own craft.
Note: This article contains no spoilers. I do discuss the opening cut-scene, but come on….
Great video games quickly establish their tone. Child of Light immediately thrusts you into a fairy tale atmosphere with its storybook artwork and motherly narration. You’re told the premise as if you were a child in bed, ready to go to sleep. This is paramount to establishing the tonal foundation of the entire game. But the art and sound and presentation of the introduction serve another important purpose: that help cushion the fact that Child of Light has a pretty damned depressing opening.
The game begins […] in 1895 Austria, ruled by the Duke. He had a mysterious wife who died and a daughter by the name of Aurora. After the passing of his wife, he married a second time. When Aurora went to sleep on a Friday night, before Easter 1895, her skin became cold as ice. Everybody thinks she is dead. With Aurora dead, the Duke is bedridden.
You play as Aurora, who wakes up on an altar in some mysterious land called ‘Lemuria’. Its dream-like beauty is a vital connection between the narrative and the aesthetics. Child of Light is able to be blunt with subjects like death because it approaches them in a time-honored fashion. But instead of simply being written like a fairy tale, the game embraces the structure completely, reflected in everything from the plot, the characters, the artwork, and most importantly, the gameplay.
Cherry-Picking From Different Genres
The first thing you do in Child of Light, once you have control of Aurora, is explore the 2D platformer dream-world of Lemuria. But there are no enemies, the focus being purely on exploration. This is somewhat an act of misdirection. It’s easy to believe that Child of Light is going to play like any number of other modern platformers. That is, until a few minutes later when Aurora literally pulls a sword out of stone and you face combat for the first time.
Surprise—it’s an RPG!
I was caught off guard by this change of genres the first time I played Child of Light, and friends I’ve watched play the game have had similar reactions. You quickly adjust and accept that it bounces between being a platformer and an RPG, and that would be fine enough on its own. But Child of Light goes one step farther by interlinking these disparate genres: the firefly Igniculus.
Igniculus is the side-kick on Child of Light. He flies around the platformer parts of the world—either under your control or via a second player—collecting ‘wishes’, helping replenish the HP and MP of the party, blinding enemies so you can get sneak attacks, glowing to expend his own power to heal Aurora, and activating a myriad of switches throughout the world. The brilliance in Igniculus’ design is that he also functions the same way during the RPG-style combat. For example, during a fight you can fly him around to collect MP-replenishing wishes, help heal characters, or blind enemies by glowing in front of them, which gradually drains Igniculus’ “wish power” (or whatever it’s called) but also slows down that enemy’s rate of attack.
There’s a crucially beautiful design concept behind all of this: Child of Light bridges a gap between two genres through a vital character whose purpose, game mechanics, and controls are consistent at all times. This creates necessary cohesion. Without such an element Child of Light would be more likely to feel like two different games smashed together by coincidence. Instead it’s a game which smooths over the transition between two unrelated genres by overlapping game mechanics.
The take-away from this rambling of mine is that well-designed games ease the player into their world, whether its by dressing up a story about a dead girl in the garb of a children’s fairy tale (and maximizing that at every level of presentation), or by harmonizing a mix-up of genres through the use of consistent and complementary game mechanics. Child of Light has a level of coherence between its gameplay elements that others should strive for. The quality of its design is reflected in how comfortable it feels to alternative between being a 2D puzzle-platformer and a turn-based RPG.
Also, if you’re going to punch me in the gut right away with a story about a dead girl and her dead mom, at least give me a cute and witty firefly side-kick. Thanks, Ubisoft.