Saving the Family

Chibi Robo and its blueprint for new emotional experiences through gaming



This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #190

We’ve saved the world from dragons, terrorists, and evil overlords more times than we can recall, but we’d never saved a family from divorce until we played Chibi Robo. In this GameCube game, you’re a tiny robot purchased by a father for his daughter’s birthday, an event that throws this financially struggling family into chaos. As the father is thrown out of the bedroom and onto the couch, you’re tossed into this epic struggle for domestic bliss. Your performance of household chores—and assorted quests—may help save this family.
This may seem like an odd idea for a game. But, as we argued in “A Game That Will Make You Cry,” games should begin addressing such topics in order to become a more mature medium and gain broader acceptance. We identified several key melodramatic features, many of which Chibi Robo employs to great effect. Scrutinizing this game, with its wonderful mix of cartoon, parody, comedy, and serious emotional matter, one finds the blueprint for new emotional experiences through gaming.
The most obvious innovation is subject matter. The overarching narrative arcs—redeeming the father, justifying one’s existence, communicating with the daughter, cracking the icy exterior of the mother, and finally bringing them all together while fighting off an external enemy—could have been lifted from any “chick flick.” This dramatic arc is driven by classic adventure game mechanics, but it’s wrapped in an open-ended cleaning game, of all things. In fact, the game initially presents itself as a free-form exploration in which you pick up trash and wash stains from carpets in order to make the family happy.
Going deeper, the game deploys stock melodramatic devices to add emotional depth. One simple device is using reactive third parties, characters that bear witness to and are affected by events. In Chibi Robo, the daughter Jenny reacts to fights between the parents. Her inability to speak (she’s been cursed by a frog) represents feelings of hopelessness, and, in between events, she draws pictures of her experiences and how she’s feeling. Her drawings add emotional layers (a child’s fears) to relatively straightforward events, like two spouses quarrelling. This simple device requires no AI, but it does get players to consider the affective weight of the events. Similarly, a scrapbook records your heroics, bearing witness to your accomplishments, encouraging you to read the episodes through a narrative frame.
In “A Game That Will Make You Cry,” we also argued for the importance of emotional crisis points, downtime, and rhythms and cycles of action. Chibi Robo uses a day/night cycle that allows for carefully timed emotional crisis points via triggered events, like a fight between the parents. But it also gives a natural rhythm to the day’s preparation, activities, and wrap-up (now save). This structure also allows the designer to set up interactions with reactive third parties on days and nights after key events. The point here is not just that designers need to give rhythms to gameplay—which they do—but that they need to map out the emotional trajectory of that gameplay as carefully as they map out its rewards.
Evocative music is a final characteristic of melodrama. While we most often think of this in terms of sweeping orchestral scores, the soundtrack often functions more simply—say, through the emotional quality of a voice or the slamming of a door. Chibi Robo uses music to communicate the characters’ feelings rather than simply to give feedback on the players’ actions. Chibi’s feet running across the carpet don’t create metallic or even crunching sounds, but the light plucking of piano strings. Chibi’s diligent scrubbing of the floor with the toothbrush is accompanied by the melodic strains of Spanish guitar. Such devices shape the player’s emotions rather than offering a faithful representation of reality.
Given how much innovation Chibi Robo packs into one little robot cleaning game, it’s been surprising to see the press’s reactions to it. Most are giving it “above average” scores, but, scanning the reviews, one may be surprised at their failure to mention any of these features. Some even knock the game for the very elements mentioned here. The game reviewers’ inability to pick up on what Chibi Robo is trying to accomplish points to a deeper structural problem in the games industry.
As genres and patterns become more established, game producers, fans, and even critics seem less open to pushing the medium’s boundaries. Regardless of whether critics find a game to be perfectly executed, they need to focus attention on games that are actually trying to expand the medium’s vocabulary. If we don’t begin supporting these experiments, we’ll be saddled with nothing but a depressing line-up of sequels, rehashes, and knock-offs. And we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #190