In the beginning, everything needs to be learned. Babies don’t even know how to breathe, and subsequent weeks and months are filled with the wonders of life, of encountering everything for the first time. If you’ve ever seen a baby in its crib, staring at its fingers as it clasps the air in front of its face, just beginning to understand that thoughts can move muscles, you might have some renewed sense of romance for learning. Imagine the strangeness of it: you have a thought in your head and miraculously something happens in your hand.
We stop learning in this way as we age. We figure out enough about our bodies to avoid walking into walls and falling out of chairs, and then turn our attention to the vapors of history. We learn to think of “x” as a number, encounter portentous new names like Maximilien de Robespierre. We imprint the geography of the world into our memory, recalling the relative shape and location of Gabon, while at the same time knowing we will never go there, or if we do accepting that it will look nothing like a blob on a map. We learn to separate our rational brains from the physical world, migrating into a theoretical world where the outward distinction between right and wrong is non-existent.
In the Disney tradition, the best Nintendo games connect thought with physical consequence, often with an absurdity that helps breach the learned skepticism of many adult players. Kirby’s Epic Yarn continues that tradition. It is a game clearly intended for children, and yet I found myself—a 33 year-old man—spending a weekend drinking and playing through it. Alcohol is often advertised with the same alacrity with which adults promote candy to children—it’s a treat that makes it bearable to live in a theoretical world, one whose invisible rules grow denser and more perplexing every day. If managing to use one's fingers while at the same time keeping balance with one's legs is a feat, so too is the achievement of filing one’s taxes and parsing the political cryptograms of the day’s news.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a slow-paced game, a toddler’s stroll through a quilted obstacle course. Even its baked underworlds have a wink and a smile for you. When Kirby attacks enemies they unravel in chagrin more than despair, as if they have been bested in a game, not killed by a sociopath with a magic lasso. The soundtrack is beautiful, simple 4/4 melodies on a bed of jazz chords, majors and minors embellished with dissonance, a constant irresolution between melancholy and hopefulness.
It reminds me of the jazz schmaltz of the 1970’s, when Burt Bacharach, Harry Nilson, and Randy Newman composed childishly playful tunes with a ragged tear of adult disillusion. In many cases, there was a direct connection between alcoholism and whimsy. In Arthur, Steve Gordon’s cinematic fable of binge-drinking as a way for the boy to put off the difficulties of becoming a man, Bacharach’s theme song plucked out a wish—a wish no less deluded than Kirby’s happy land of cotton ball fluff—that romantic love is the only thing a person really needs. In discovering it, you can find yourself elevated, between skyline and moonshine, all of the sooty adult details dismissed to the diorama world below.
Arthur’s alcoholism is a marvel, portrayed with a naive tolerance for the phenomenon that’s hard to accept in an era of Celebrity Rehab. In the wistful 70’s it was easily used as an authorial vehicle, a symbol of the man’s refusal to let go of the truths he’d learned as a boy—the ones that can only be true when viewed through the pinhole of adolescence. Do your best, be kind to others, love is all you need, trust yourself, have fun—the little nursery rhymes that our elders leave behind to make the frightful forest of maturity seem less ominous.
In the upcoming remake of Arthur, tiny leading man Dudley Moore has been swapped out for Russell Brand, a former heroin addict whose father paid for him to lose his virginity to a Thai hooker when he was 16 and who once masturbated another man in a bar bathroom for a TV documentary. Ironically, the new version of Arthur will likely paint away the dark tint of booze and leave only the boyish idiosyncrasy in its place—no scenes of Arthur drinking whiskey straight from the bottle as he drives into Long Island to meet his fiancée. It will likely be the kind of movie you’d probably want to be drunk to watch, but which can’t acknowledge that many happy illusions come with dirty and toxic side-effects.
So too it is with Kirby, a game of perfect sweetness and just the smallest hint of darkening dissonance around its edges. It’s the kind of game that obviates the adult want for booze, a substitute high to send one up into the air on a pink plume of candy-colored fabric. Playing it drunk almost reverses the experience. The lessons of delight, the giggly overreactions of enemies, the winking way the game’s secrets are barely concealed, twinkling behind the pastel fabric; they leave me feeling melancholy.
The dull lessons of adolescence—that hands are for holding things, that people squeal when you tug on their hair, that your brain startles to life when things fall off the table and scatter in a hundred pieces on the floor—they shrink into tiny caricatures of the epic revelations they once were.
Kids hardly know anything, and for adults the only things left to learn are the things that exist in the mind, a frighteningly busy place that sometimes needs its lights dimmed to make sense of the surreal bed of baby dreams beneath it.
Michael Thomsen has written about videogames, sex, and animals for ABC World News, Nerve, n+1, IGN, The Faster Times, The Millions, Gamasutra, The Escapist, and Edge. He lives in New York City.