It is getting to a point where I am beginning to wonder if Double Fine can do any “wrong”. Let me be honest, I am not one of those “original loyalists” back from the days of the point and click adventures; I am also not a huge fan of Psychonauts (though I did find it moderately entertaining). It is only recently that I have started to fall under the spell of Double Fine’s charm and it may be Double Fine’s Happy Action Theater (DFHAT) that has pulled me under their veil completely.
In order to appreciate DFHAT, you have to understand what is is, or more specifically, what it isn’t. This isn’t really a game but rather a glorified tech demo. The idea is that while Kinect is meant to be accessible to gamers of all ages, many times its implementation is too complicated for those who aren’t mainstream gamers. Double Fine aims to rectify that situation with DFHAT. In this title, there are no instructions or tutorials. There is nothing specific for you to do. You are simply placed in a variety of situations and given an interactive environment to play around in.
There are 18 different activities presented in the experience. You can approach them in a couple of different manners. The first manner, and the default setting that you will experience the first time that you fire up the game, is called the looping director mode. This mode will run you through all of the activities sequentially, giving you a about 5 minutes or so to experience each. Once you have run through them all, you can choose from 2 other modes which each allow you to pick and choose which ones you want to play with no time limits, but running through the looping director is a good starting point because it introduces you to the concepts of each scenario.
Once are you in a given activity, regardless of which mode you are in, what you do within the confines of that activity is purely up to you. For example, the first activity involves filling your playing area with a bunch of virtual balloons; they just start raining from the top of the screen and you can bat them around or simply begin busting them. As you bust more and more balloons, you will be given special prizes which really serve no meaning aside from entertaining you. Some of the rewards include various fruit and trophies; the longer that you play, the stranger the rewards get. That is it; it is that simple.
Other activities include things like playing around in pools of lava as if they were puddles after a rain storm, feeding an endless flock of pigeons, dancing around in a disco party with famous Double Fine characters, and even becoming the butterfly-like space ships in a modified version of Space Invaders. They are all nothing more than interactive environments; they are also nearly all perfect implementations of the Kinect technology.
I have yet to see a game that shows off just what the Kinect system is capable of in the manner that DFHAT does. Out of the 18 included activities, I would argue that 14-15 of them are perfect implementations of the Kinect vision we were promised when the technology was revealed. These are exactly the types of things that I expected to see on thee Kinect Labs application on the Marketplace. These are ideas and concepts that gamers should be praying are implemented in future games because they work like a charm.
Some of the games, like the augmented reality games such as the pigeon level and the snow / ice level, make great use of the objects in and around your gameplay environment. In my living room, the pigeons and snow build up on the and coffee table and my daughter’s dollhouse, showing impressive recognition by the software. DFHAT truly reads your environment and makes good use out of not only the people in front of the camera, but the various objects in and around you.
The first time that I played the game, by myself, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I got the idea of what they wanted to do, but it just didn’t click with me; then my 4-year old daughter came home and showed me what the game is all about. These are virtual playgrounds. Each situation is intended to let your mind run free and make your own fun given the templates that Double Fine has provided to you. Virtual snowball fights will break out just as easily as impromptu dance competitions. The game promotes an atmosphere of pure fun both on the screen and in the area around you.
One of the other things that DFHAT does very well is allow players to come and go as they please without any delay at all. The game will recognize up to 6 different players and there is absolutely no loading required for a participant to enter or exit the scene. This just adds to the simplicity of the experience and keeps things flowing during gameplay sessions.
Double Fine has done a good job at implementing a variety of easter eggs within each of the games as well for those gamers who are willing to look for them. Many of these include nods to other Double Fine titles such as cameo appearances as well as hidden abilities for those willing to experiment within the given scenarios. For example, the next time that you play the lava level, trying laying down on your floor and submerging yourself completely in the molten liquid; then stand of and do a couple of throwing motions. You will notice that you will have the ability to throw fireballs for a small amount of time. Do yourself a favor and hit one of the other players with your virtual fireball too for a good laugh. Also, try the same thing on the snow level. These are the sorts of things that promote experimentation and spur your imagination. It is only when you begin to dabble into the realms of both of these that the charm of the game will come to light.
On the other hand, the simplicity and freedom that I praise DFHAT for is also its biggest downfall in terms of it being an actual game. If you are looking at the title to deliver the traditional gaming experience, consisting of a beginning, middle and an end as well as having a distinct purpose, you are going to be sadly disappointed. That isn’t the goal of DFHAT and thankfully it doesn’t try to hide that fact at any point in the experience. From the outset, you are left on your own to simply play, and hopefully it won’t take gamers of all ages long to recognize it and do just that. The sooner that you can let go and just “have fun” the better.
If you are looking for the perfect way to introduce that young child or that adult who has never picked up a controller to the world of games, DFHAT is definitely a good choice. It’s simple, intuitive, and most importantly, a whole lot of fun. Double Fine has done an awesome job of taking advantage of everything that the Kinect technology has to offer and wrapping it up into a single package; I just hope that they find a way to implement those same things into actual games at some point. In the end, although happy Action Theater ends up being a less than stellar game, it still ranks as the number one reason to fire up your Kinect.