9 MIN READ
Tearaway is the weirdest 'hardware showcase' piece ever
Leigh Alexander gets her fingers into Tearaway -- as Media Molecule tries to show off what the Vita can do with its touchpads and cameras, the result is unexpectedly (and brilliantly) unsettling.
Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander peels back the layers of Media Molecule's PS Vita showcase, Tearaway. I almost wasn't going to play Tearaway, but I'm so happy I did. It's not that it didn't 'look good'; simply that a lot of things 'look good' within the modern cutting-edge hardware environment. It's in the interest of the publishers to make sure everything looks good, so that you develop the idea that the future is on Brand X and you should really investigate the power of Brand X to showcase the future. Tearaway, clasped hand-in-hand with Sony, has been marketed and launched with the clear intention of demonstrating what the PlayStation Vita can do. It's a good pitch, the sort you'd expect: A papercraft world, ready to be cut and folded and adored, ready for the touchscreen universe. And it's from Media Molecule, the house that brought you LittleBigPlanet. At the time LittleBigPlanet launched, Sony was all-cylinders behind the vision of a shared, user-generated content-driven world -- Only On PlayStation could you Build, Create, Share. At the time, user-generated content was a buzz-phrase, the cornerstone of a trendy, utopic vision, and Media Molecule was just the sort of whimsy-infused, maker culture-ready studio Sony ought to have chosen to try to sell its participation in that vision. With Tearaway, the studio's clearly been summoned again to try to showcase the ultimate ideal of the PlayStation Vita, the supposed smartphone-on-steroids -- front and back touch, front and back camera, browser, streaming services, social media integration, all the bells and whistles of a system that wanted to conquer the portable gaming market with the promise it could do everything your mobile does and play some of your console games, too. The thing about Tearaway is that it doesn't seem to come along quietly. Like I said, I wasn't going to play it: You can guess at the narrative around it. You've heard it; I get it, it's touchable and charming, it's twee papercrafty pure-happiness. It's probably not for me, I thought, but I'll tell all my friends who have kids and tweens that it's up their alley. I imagined myself citing it in the kind of articles I write for mainstream magazines about how there's more than just bleak teen-boy violence in games, there's participatory culture and art and artistry, there really is, I promise.There's a conversation I have often with people who aren't familiar with video games, when they ask what I do and their inevitable misconceptions surface. They think all games are fantasy orcs marching endlessly through achievement-scapes, flaming sword in hand. Or they think all games are the one where you punch a woman and steal her car, or the one where you're pretending to be in a war, following arrows and yelling into some microphone. Usually I go, "so you know Michael Bay movies? Imagine if someone thought all movies were Michael Bay movies, and they didn't know about indie movies, or Pixar." I mean, this analogy has made me do a lot of probably not that constructive conversations with myself about who is the so-and-so of this-and that, but people get it when I put it to them that way. It helps. Tearaway, I'm thinking, is, like LittleBigPlanet, Pixar. I saw the trailer and I heard from a lot of friends who were playing it and I thought about how this would probably be a game I could tell them was "like Pixar," good for kids but you might like it too, if you are into "childlike wonder" and that kind of thing. I mean, I also heard a lot of dissection of Tearaway as a "game," like, how sophisticated its "platforming" is or isn't, and how "linear" its experience was or was not. I overheard a lot of friends on the internet calling it a "cute toy," a strange and briny compliment that suggests a backhand, as if to say this thing is nice and also probably for other people but not for me. But, y'know, sometimes even though I've heard a lot of consensus about something, I like to see it for myself, just in case. Tearaway is sort of a special just-in-case. Yes, it's a showcase game -- it wants to prove The Future Of PlayStation Vita, the way that all these touch pads and cameras can defy our expectations of whatever. It has a lot of touch here and hold the camera here and decorate this and that, a lot of customize and share-type stuff. You can, if you want, imagine a studio hand-in-hand with Sony, asked to get creative with the technology, given the exciting mandate of making up some game designs that prove what it can do. Sometimes this approach produces work you'd call "gimmicky." Showcasing the hardware is a conflicting mandate: On one hand, you're on the cutting edge of experimentation. If you're assigned to showcase the hardware, you probably have the opportunity to learn it better than other studios. You have the opportunity to create interaction types that no one has quite created before. You have the opportunity to have been there first. But you are also the first line in a new wave; you are experimenting in public, possibly failing in public, and in the worst-case scenario you're the lone match-striker for a fire that never spreads. It seems tough. Yet Tearaway makes the vulnerable and visible best of that circumstance. It's a team of artists, paper-crafters, musicians and aesthetes flinging themselves full-bore into the development of a "cute toy" with total and unapologetic sincerity. They fulfill the mandate I assume they were given: Make a game that uses the cameras, the front-and-back touch, that takes advantage of the augmented reality game revolution, that breaks the fourth wall, that shows what the PSVita can do. The result, though, is impossible to explain. Early on, it asks me about my skin tone. Only a little later I'll learn that this is so the game can determine the likely color of my fingers. This is so that when my fingers erupt into the game world from the back pad, weird, disconnected plump digits, I will sort of believe they're mine, capped in surreal white-tipped nails. Like a lot of modern family-friendly games, it wants me to hold the camera to my own face. I hate how I look on the Vita's camera: Pale, grainy, blanched -- ready for relaxing playtime, not for prime-time, I'm makeupless and awkward, wincing into the lens that is pointing unflatteringly just under my chin, my face foreshortened and gray and wearing the expression of someone trying to be a good sport. But I participate, gamely, thinking there'll be an out. I can take a picture of someone, something else, and use that, right? But there is no out. No: It has to be me, at all times, so that Tearaway can broadcast my face looming in the center of the sun whenever it is called for, and it's called for often. They call me -- or anyone who faces the Vita and decides to play Tearaway -- "the You." I, not "I the player", but real-world I, am cast as a bizarre overlord who is allowed to literally tear away this game world, shove my fingers in it and manipulate it. The character I control is a humanoid whose head is fashioned out of a message envelope, given a little curly paper-strip body. Her name is "atoi," an uncapitalized name, while I, the present "You," am always capitalized, like a deity. I control atoi as she journeys toward the sun, and the sun is always my greyed and looming and unpleasant Vita-cam face. "It's so cute and happy," said everyone I know who played Tearaway before me. I'm sorry, but this is weird: It's not Pixar-happy, it's acid-happy. Atoi needs to navigate traditional platforming spaces that only behave when I touch them. Atoi meets a paper man with no eyes, and I need to spend confetti to buy eyes for him. Atoi rides a pig on which I've drawn a mustache. Atoi is asked to make the pig cute, but first I have to peel its eyes off before I can put on new ones. Atoi picks up evil paper bags and flings them off of paper flowers into nothingness. When Atoi herself falls, her body folds into a heart-stamped missive that flies away until Atoi is born again. I feel like when you're asked to Showcase the Hardware, you're given rules to follow. Your job is to promise what kinds of transporting experiences these touchable, camera-ready, social media-sharey platforms are capable of. Tearaway is a subtle rebellion. I'm reminded of it every time my weird, unwanted face juts in over the papercraft landscape, every time I'm supposed to believe the fingers breaking into the game world sort of belong to me. "I don't want my face to be in the sun," I find myself murmuring aloud to Tearaway, this lovely modern horror. Every time my face or fingers intrude I have an interesting revelation: This fourth wall-breaking, this AR future, isn't inherently wonderful. I wonder if Media Molecule immediately noticed this, upon being tasked with Showcasing the Hardware, and began to play with it -- knew, as if by private joke or internal secret, that they were making a game where the goal of Putting "You" In It wasn't Pixar, but David Lynch. Surreal. Absurd. A little creepy. They knew, maybe, what Sony did not, that at the first sign of their own face looming in a sun, their own finger slicing through a designated spot in the game patterned with PlayStation symbols, players might be provoked or uneasy more than "delighted." And that this bizarre provocation might be possessed entirely of its own artistic merit: the kind you can't bookend in simplistic conversation about where in the market things go. I thought touchable games on Vita had a lot of potential to be "cute and happy." I didn't really realize how unsettling and weird and cool they could be. Thanks to Tearaway, I know, and I'm glad I know. I have been gawping at my fake virtual fingers and my own paper-haloed face for hours and hours. I don't just want to show this to my friends who have kids. I want to show this to everyone. Fling yourself into showcasing the hardware. Get weird with it.