Gaming

Spirits of Spring: Can a game strike back against bullying?

Commentary: Spirits of Spring misses the mark when it comes to dealing with the complex emotional issues surrounding bullying.

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Minority Media

Richard Y sprayed oven cleaner in my face.

Sean H tried to set my hair on fire.

Someone pushed me out of a moving train. I didn't actually see who.

Ask anyone bullied as a kid, and it'll be a similar litany. Ask them, and they'll tell you that the frustrating platitudes ("Ignore them and they'll stop", "They're just jealous") are nothing but empty words offered by people who really have no idea how to make it stop, either. Ask them, and they'll tell you that it doesn't stop, that the only way to make it stop is to leave that environment and go somewhere new. An impractical solution.

Which is why Minority Media's Spirits of Spring for iPad is so disappointing. The developer specialises in crafting games -- such as Papo & Yo -- with messages about abuse and inner strength, starring minority characters. In Spirits of Spring, that character is Chiwatin, a Native American boy of an unspecified tribe.

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Minority Media

He spends his days hanging out with his friends, Bear and Rabbit, and maintaining a constant springtime by using the spirits of the trees. The game starts when something has started to go awry -- three nasty, bullying crow-people have swooped in and stolen the springtime away, leaving the land in endless winter. Of course, it is up to Chiwatin to save spring and his friends -- by finding the Spirits of Spring and directing them into the spirit trees, replenishing them and restoring them, and by extension the land, to springtime and to health.

It is clear that a lot of care went into the actual craft of the game. The environments are based on northern Canada, and they're a pleasure to roam; indeed, some of the stages get quite tricky to puzzle out, requiring a variety of tactics to complete and move on to the next.

The gameplay itself uses no combat whatsoever; instead, it's exploration-based, with Chiwatin able to create bridges using the spirits. He can also use the spirits to borrow the bodies of Bear and Rabbit to get to difficult-to-reach locations and retrieve spirits there. Later on, he is offered a more brutal power by the mischievous Fox, and here is where the game starts to disappoint.

The implication offered by the game's description is that the story could go either way: "Will he use brute strength? Or will he choose a different way?"

The problem is that you have no choice but to accept the Fox's offer of a darker power. You have no choice but to turn on your friends, Bear and Rabbit. The game missed a giant opportunity to offer the player that choice: to see Chiwatin choose the path of the bully and become a bully himself, as sometimes happens, or to see him reject the actions of his tormentors. Instead, it takes the story on rails; a narrative decision that ultimately feels lacking in nuance and alienates the player from the character.

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Minority Media

You want to explore the possible emotions Chiwatin could have. You want to feel that Chiwatin can make the decisions that you yourself might make. Chiwatin takes the Fox power, and goes to confront the crows. There is no option not to take the power; no option to turn to Bear and Rabbit for comfort instead of against them in misplaced anger. And against the crows, the power fails anyway -- it feels very much as though the gameplay has been stripped and compromised in order to make the story work.

The climax of the game is where it all comes together. Chiwatin finds Bear and Rabbit and makes amends. Then the crows turn up, and just decide to stop bullying Chiwatin and his friends for no real reason that the game makes clear. The description calls it "A tale about finding inner strength", so one can maybe assume that being true to himself and nice to his friends has caused Chiwatin's bullies to realise the error of their ways -- if not for the fact that the game started with Chiwatin being true to himself and nice to his friends.

Ultimately, it's a resolution that feels every bit as hollow as "Ignore them and they'll stop". The message, perhaps, isn't a bad one, but bullied kids already have inner strength. They need it. They're already true to themselves. More importantly, those qualities will not make bullies just up and leave in shame.

It is unclear, then, what the game is ultimately about. It fails if it's supposed to be about the emotions you feel and the choices you make when you are the victim of bullying, since the game has a very scripted set of emotions and choices for Chiwatin to make, with no possible deviation or exploration on the part of the player. It also fails if it is trying to teach something, since the ultimate message is unclear.

It's a pity, because Spirits of Spring is a beautifully crafted game on many levels. However, the shoehorned narrative just leaves the feeling that it could have explored the issues around bullying in much greater depth. As it stands, it only scratches the surface, sacrificing gameplay along the way, resulting in a game that feels as though it didn't quite succeed at either.