I didn’t expect to have quite as much fun as I’m having with Crossing Souls. It’s a pixel art action/adventure game with a little bit of 2D Zelda DNA, a touch of platforming, and RPG-style wandering, all done in a very deliberate 80s cartoon throwback style.
Frankly, I thought I was going to get sick of all the Goonies/Gremlins/Ghostbusters/other 80s movies references, jokes, and ripoffs, but the pastiche actually works pretty well (with a major exception that I’ll get into later on). It’s much more playful and weirder than a cheap nostalgia-fest like Ready Player One, and has a lot more heart than some of the movies it’s borrowing from. The game feels like a grand adventure, complete with monsters to fight, a giant world to explore, supernatural wackiness, and a sense of colorful, tacky, capital-F fun that I found infectious.
You play as a band of kids headed by Chris, a blue-haired all-American boy with a killer baseball swing, his nerdy science genius buddy Matt, his friend Joe, his baby brother Kevin, and Charlie, an ass-kicking girl who hails more from the tradition of 90s girl power types than the 80s archetypes the rest of the group draws on. There’s a big storm, Kevin finds something nasty by the river, and the kids go on a big, long, wacky adventure full of hijinks, pathos, and light environmental puzzles.
Each kid has a set of abilities that you swap among to traverse the world, and you’ll switch from kid to kid in each area. Chris can climb branches, Matt can use his hover jetpack to make long jumps (and hit things with a laser gun), Joe can move certain objects, and Charlie can slingshot herself across chasms. Likewise, each kid has their strengths and weaknesses in combat: Chris has a bat that’s great for crowd control, Joe punches hardest and has the most health, Charlie is as quick as the whip she carries, and Matt can… also shoot his laser gun.
It’s all presented in gorgeous 2D pixel art that looks and feels like a much more defined 8-or-16 bit game from the era. Its small California town and its genre-appropriate wild surrounding areas are stocked with enemies to fight, secrets to sniff out, and NPCs to chat with, all of whom are basically extras in a mid-80s horror-comedy.
I loved bouncing around town talking to everyone, from the cool teens listening to music at the edge of the woods to the bored suburbanites jogging around the block. There is so much character to this world that it was fun to kick around and check out every detail (even if some of the references are groan-worthy obvious.)
But here’s the biggest goan-worthy element: along with all that 80s nostalgia is an unfortunate helping of stereotypes that seem like they're more about people than the tropes of retro pop-culture. The main black character, who is the brawler of the group, gets treated like he’s gross because he’s fat. Or there's Quincy Queen, a mashup of Michael Jackson and the swishy gay stereotype that was already tired in 1986. An Asian character speaks like… an 80s stereotype of an elderly mystic.
Above: the Quincy Queen character
I can already hear the cries of “this is all satire!” and “it’s an 80s homage, so the stereotypes are appropriate!” and other usual replies from the other side of my keyboard. Those might be valid points to make, if, perhaps they existed within the text as recognizable satire. But from where I am, about four hours into the game, they seem like uncritical, even loving homages.
And it’s exhausting.
So here we are. Again, within the span of a couple of months, I’m looking at a game I really like, but it does something that bothers me on a fundamental level. As a critic, it’s my job to be honest about my reactions to a game, about a work’s strengths and weaknesses and how it fits into the wider context of the world we live in. That’s how I serve my audience.
But, I’m hyper-aware right now of the tenuous situation that exists when we critique a smaller developer’s work. I can give an honest, considered (and maybe even nuanced!) critique, putting that out in a world where said small dev gets approximately sixteen seconds of exposure for their game. The gaming internet tends to reduce complicated positions and feelings to extremes: "it's great!" versus "it's garbage!" Headlines and social media posts, including our own, tend to describe maximal positions, things you can love to read or love to hate. A conflicted critical opinion turns into a line in the sand, and everyone involved ends up having a bad week or month.
This is certainly a discourse in 2018 problem, and a discoverability for smaller projects problem, and also, on a very real level, a general internet toxicity problem. But here, it’s bumping right into a “how do I best do my job” problem, and I honestly don’t know what the best path forward is.
So what do we do?
I can do the usual, where I show my math and make platitudes about punching up rather than punching down. I can say “Look, friends, you can do edgy humor if you are actually saying something with it.” I can say that devs can totally use stereotypes in their game, but ask them to please do so with some thought or care or a goddamned point. Because, otherwise, you take me and a massive percentage of your audience completely out of the fun, and remind them they’re not in on the joke, they are the joke.
I suppose I just did.
Look, I don’t have an all-encompassing answer. Maybe I don’t even have a satisfying answer. I’m going to go back to the one core fact that it’s my job to be honest, and to be clear. This is a game that does a lot of cool things, and it also does things that bothered me. It falls between “it’s great!” and “it’s garbage!” or, maybe it’s better to say that it incorporates both great things and garbage things.
No one should get a pass for putting this kind of material in a work uncritically, whatever their intent. Nor do I think this team should be sent to reform school for fucking up. But they deserve to have their work criticized, and their meaning interrogated. Because however much internet discourse can flatten a conversation, it's still worth having.