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Splatoon is secretly brilliant.


I wonder how much of Splatoon’s success comes from the proliferation of memes.  I mean, it’s been a top image gallery over on Know Your Meme for months now, and the phrase “you’re a kid now, you’re a squid now” has practically been burned into the DNA of gamers exposed to it.  And then there are the unrelated memes woven into the game thanks to players’ posts; I’ve seen several references to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and I couldn’t help but “Yeah!” one of them because it featured Joseph Joestar.  I’m a sucker for Stands.

But in the end, I have to wonder: years from now, when those memes have fallen out of style, how will Splatoon hold up?  Honestly, I think it’ll do pretty well.  But it’ll be a while before we forget stuff like this:

As a friendly reminder: Splatoon is a 4-on-4 shooter where the object of the game is to cover the map with as much as your team’s ink color as possible -- in a limited time, of course.  Simple enough, but there are plenty of wrinkles; the end goal is always the same, but how you, your team, and your opponents get there can vary both in the short-term and the long-term.

One of the genre’s cornerstones is scoring headshots -- that is, if you can land a good shot there, it’s almost a guarantee that you can get an instant kill.  As I understand it, that’s in stark contrast to reality; I’m not saying that getting shot in the head isn’t lethal, but it’s as if aiming for the center of mass is supposed to be less ideal -- even though it’s a focal point in real-world gunplay, it’s a larger and simpler target to hit, and it contains plenty of vital organs.   

Whatever the case, the goal of most shooters is to kill as efficiently as possible.  There’s variation depending on the game mode -- Capture the Flag and King of the Hill are popular ones -- but for default modes and what I’d assume are the popular choices?  Pretty focused on gunning down your enemies.

In Splatoon, things are different.  That’s not to say that gunning down your enemies isn’t important, because any scenario where you can force enemies to back off for a while is ideal.  But as far as I know, all that matters is that you land the hits.  Saturate an enemy with enough ink, and they’ll explode in a burst of color.  So those people out there who aren’t the best at aiming for specific body parts (like me)?  They’re in luck. 

And they’re in double-luck because, again, the object of the game isn’t to score the most kills.  What matters above all else is spreading your ink and dominating territories; so, if you can hold down a trigger and/or shoot the broad side of a barn, you’re plenty eligible for Splatoon.  I’d imagine that playing the game can give you skills that carry over into other games, though.  Playing Mass Effect temporarily made me better at Call of Duty, so maybe the same thing will happen again.

The thing that gets to me about Splatoon is that, yes, you can count on the Big N to deliver wholesome family fun (well, usually).  So the rightful assumption is that Nintendo opted to defang the genre with its new entry.  A de-emphasis on killing, a cartoony style, lots of colors, goofy music, and so on.  Here’s the thing, though: by making their game less mature, it ends up being more mature -- or to put it a different way, it keeps the game as a game instead of something more.  Basically, Splatoon is a 100% honest shooter.  What do I mean?  Well, let’s think about some of the competition for a minute.

So Call of Duty and Battlefield?  You play as soldiers fighting for…something, I guess.  Halo?  Super-soldiers fighting against other super-soldiers for some reason.  Destiny?  You play as a Guardian brought in to defend the earth from encroaching darkness -- but when you’re off the clock, I guess you have free reign to shoot other Guardians in the face.  Counter-Strike?  You can play as a terrorist, or a counter-terrorist.  Yes, I know that those are skins you use in multiplayer matches in games with a strong emphasis on multiplayer action.  (Plus, Titanfall and Evolve mix in words and bullets, IIRC.)  But even in those instances, it pays to be mindful of context.

Being a soldier in real life is a serious matter.  Being a soldier in a video game is not -- especially because I have my doubts that a real soldier’s life is represented one-to-one in even the most lavish games full of them.  Contextually, you the soldier is no different from you the player; there’s a disparity between the two breeds.  A game of Battlefield comes close to being a well-trained group of military men on a mission, but it’s just as close to paintball without the colors.

And sure, those other shooters (and more) are all a bunch of make-believe.  It’s a harmless fantasy on the surface; the modern-day context and the audience for these games A) wouldn’t dwell on it as obsessively as I do, thank God, and B) probably want what looks like a mature experience.  Those that played Cops and Robbers as little boys can do that quite literally with Battlefield: Hardline without the risk of grass stains or scraped elbows.  But Cops and Robbers was a context-free game then, and Hardline is a context-free game now…at least it should be, but by design it weaves itself into heavy subjects while also paring down those subjects to basic enjoyment.  To nothing but “shoot those guys”. 

There are almost no pretensions in Splatoon.  You’re a squid-person out to play games.  You’re quite literally playing paintball.  The goal is to get turf so you can get money, buy stuff, and prove how cool you are to a host of judgmental shopkeepers.  Your team is called the “good guys” and the enemy team is called the “bad guys”.  The online matches are even justified in-universe; the “Ink Battles” are the hottest new craze that everyone wants to be a part of -- and again, gives them the chance to prove how cool they are, or just feel the thrill of a good win. 

Even if you never even touch the story mode, that’s all the information you really need.  That’s literally all it takes to make a shooter at once more meaningful and less meaningful -- the proper context needed if you’re going to play a game all about making your opponents’ lives miserable.  No need for any of that fancy-schmancy cognitive dissonance.

Chalk it up as one of those intangibles, but it really does matter in the long run.  In Splatoon, you’re playing as an Inkling who wants fame and fortune, and gains that by taking part in competitive matches.  Simple.  In any number of other shooters, you’re playing as a soldier who’s out to accomplish a mission…which can range from “disarm a bomb” to “kill everyone enough times” to “cart a sheet of fabric back home”. 

Taken out of context, it sounds silly -- yet it doesn’t sound much better either in context or with the understanding of what those roles mean, in-universe or out of it.  Is it really okay to pretend you’re fighting in a war when the very concept is both weighty and reviled?  Frankly, I don’t think it’s a lost cause -- in the end, fun is fun -- but it could be if and when it’s so cheapened and simplified.  Those games can take serious concepts and make them out as fun.  Splatoon takes a fun concept and makes it out as fun.  Can you see the difference?

But enough pretending like I’m on the moral high ground.  My theory is that everyone in Splatoon is secretly a cannibal.

Okay, maybe not everyone -- because I have my doubts that shopkeepers like Sheldon and Crusty Sean could even take a good bite out of someone.  But every time the Inklings open their mouths, they show off some seriously sharp chompers.  TV personalities Callie and Marie casually talk about eating seafood, and both of them wear sushi-style hats.  Chalk this up to headcanon, but are we 100% sure that Inklings that lose an Ink Battle aren’t eaten alive as punishment?

Maybe death has no meaning for these people; they reincarnate endlessly during an Ink Battle, after all.  But it may go further than that; lose a battle and go back to the lobby, and you’re a different color than when you started -- so maybe the losing Inkling got devoured, and you start playing as a substitute.  Or if you win and go back to the lobby, you play as an Inkling who dug your original Inkling’s fresh styles, and adopted his/her outfit to pay tribute.  That’s probably not the case, but hey.  It gets the gears going.

In some ways, that might be what makes Splatoon secretly great -- because even in the absence of an hours-long narrative, I can’t help but feel excited by the game’s world.    Learning more about it?  That’d be preeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetty coooooooooooooooooool.

The story of Splatoon is about as straightforward as you’d expect.  Like I said, the land-faring sea creatures of the game’s world only care about Ink Battles and looking cool.  The tradeoff?  That means they’re taking a pretty laissez-faire approach to having their key source of power, the Great Zapfish, stolen from under their squid-noses.  But if you take your Inkling over to a corner of the map, you’ll be able to dive into a sewer grate and pop up in a new area -- and more importantly, receive your mission.

Right off the bat, you meet the seasoned veteran/bulgy-eyed coot Cap’n Cuttlefish, who explains the problem: the Great Zapfish (along with dozens of other Zapfish) has been taken prisoner by the Octolings.  If you want to stop their shenanigans, you’ll have to don special armor and become Agent 3…as an impromptu stand-in for Agents 1 and 2.  And so begins your campaign, as the sole member of a squid platoon.  A “puid”, if you will.

I feel like there’s a better title in there somewhere, but I can’t come up with anything, so let’s move on.

The actual narrative of the game is bare-bones.  The Great Zapfish is missing, so you have to go out and find it.  The Octarians are causing trouble, so you have to sort it out.  Both are more or less done by campaign’s end.  The biggest wrinkle is that Cuttlefish -- who acts as mission control/a source of hints/your Metal Gear character of choice -- gets kidnapped, which leaves a lot of dead air in the moments that follow.  That’s especially the case, since he goes from a handholding parent to an old guardsman who gives the new generation the respect it deserves…and then gets nabbed.

The radio silence doesn’t last for too long, though.  Agents 1 and 2 (who try their hardest to suggest they’re not Callie and Marie) step in to supply the chatter in turn, just in case the player needs a confidence boost.  To be fair, they actually do get in a good moment at the end when they hijack the broadcast, break out a special song, and push Agent 3 to make a final charge against the last boss.  Speaking of, the last boss is actually really cool; it’s one thing to fight with a giant mech, but another thing entirely to do so while posing as a DJ and firing giant missiles wearing shutter shades.

There’s always going to be a part of me that wishes that Splatoon’s campaign was more substantial.  Okay, sure, Nintendo’s not exactly the company you should turn to for overt stories, but if ever there was a time for a departure, this was it.  I want to see more of this world, not just because it’s different, but because it’s new.  I want to learn more, and know more.  If they make a sequel, then I hope they expand upon what’s already here.  At the very least, offer up more than just a great big plaza disguised as a main menu.

Still, it’s not as if there was zero effort put in to flesh out the Splatoon world.  Notably, there are the Sunken Scrolls -- files you can find scattered throughout the levels that, piece by piece, reveal some of the lore that gives the game its foundation.  The unfortunate side effect of that is that it’s very easy to miss the scrolls, so in a lot of ways the game denies the story to all but the greatest treasure hunters (which I am certainly not).  It’s a shame that some people will miss out on what’s being offered -- because even if the scrolls are a reward for a job well done, they didn’t have to be.

I found enough to not only get a basic understanding of the world, but also pique my interest.  I’ve actually thought about going back through the levels to find the other scrolls; then I remembered that wikis and the internet exist, so I could get what I want without that trifling thing called effort.  The gist of Splatoon’s world is that no matter how it looks now, it’s really (at least) ten thousand years in the future -- and more importantly, it’s built on the remains of an apocalypse.  Rising tides led to humanity’s extinction, while the creatures of the sea evolved and took their place. The tradeoff is that these sea-people have zero tolerance for the waters that once birthed them.  Brutal.

Essentially, there’s nothing left of the old world -- our world -- except for Judd, the cat that calls the winner of each Ink Battle.  He was actually frozen and preserved in the off-chance that he could somehow survive the disaster.  Now he spends his days lazing around and playing tiebreaker to species that care more about mutant paintball than the potential end to their entire civilization.  Reality is a harsh mistress, indeed.

So here’s the thing about Splatoon: remember 2000 words ago when I went on a long and largely-unjustified rant about how most online shooters end up hurting their cause thanks to contextualizing themselves as po-faced yet poorly-realized facsimiles of real conflicts?  This is hard to believe, but that’s actually a big part of the game.  It’s a shooter that exposes the hypocrisy of shooters -- but remarkably, avoids being hypocritical itself.  And the saving race is the game’s greatest strength, even in the absence of a gripping, far-reaching story: CONTEXT.

The Ink Battles that everyone’s crazy about are apparently holdovers from the Turf Wars from the days of old (to the point where that’s the name of the default battle type).  The Inklings and Octarians fought for limited resources and territory in a battle with no clear good guy or bad guy, and the Octarians got the short end of the stick.  So while the Inklings’ Inkopolis stretches from horizon to horizon on the surface, the Octarians got forced underground -- into industrial, rickety domes.  You can actually see that in the single-player levels; setting aside the janky environments and equipment, the skyboxes are quite literally that: bunches of panels arranged together to create pseudo-skies.

The reason for that -- for the entire plot, arguably -- is simple.  The Octarians aren’t just stealing Zapfish to be assholes.  They’re doing it to save their homes.

It’s not as if they’re without fault, though.  The Octarians may be in dire straits, but the ends don’t justify the means; if anything, their actions only help to ensure that there’ll be more conflict between the two races.  You don’t just steal a massive power source -- a living monument fixated a city’s cultural hub -- without drawing some negative attention.  And even if the Inklings take it in stride at first, who’s to say how many problems that could cause down the line?  Who’s to say that the Inklings won’t be drafted to fight in a war, or a deadly operation? 

Who’s to say they wouldn’t actively jump at the chance?  What if, in their eyes, the Ink Battles they love so much were secret indoctrinations -- a way to convince the kiddies that being a soldier is totally radical?  Given that Callie and Marie are in the military’s pocket, what if they’re the lynchpins for a cultural zeitgeist that can flip children into commandoes at a moment’s notice?  What if that was a necessary evil precisely because there could be a war between the Inklings and Octarians at any time -- or more appropriately, a time that’s rapidly approaching because an entire civilization’s quality of life is at stake?

It’s funny, because Splatoon by design didn’t need to have anything.  It could have gotten away with being nothing but a shooter; it would’ve been poorer for it, but what’s here only enhances one’s understanding and intrigue of its universe.  But the most important thing that it does -- the very best thing it does -- is reframe the entire metacontext of shooters.  And it does that by making the inherent disconnection and apathy the player feels toward shooters into the inherent disconnection and apathy the better part of a species feels towards shooters -- if not life in general.

Nobody gives a shit about the missing Great Zapfish, which would be the equivalent of people shrugging off a stolen Hoover Dam.  The squid-kids only care about looking cool and having fun, and they do that by taking serious conflicts and turning them into a simplified, weight-free farce.  It’s not about thought, or deliberation, or any understanding of context; it’s about goofing off with games and forgetting -- if not ignoring -- the problems that are more real to them than any Jimmy Xbox playing a round of CoD with his pals.  In essence, Splatoon is a reflection, if not satire, of a huge subsection of gaming culture.

And that’s awesome.

It’s easy for me to read deeply into Splatoon and find a satire of gamers.  But even if that’s my interpretation of it -- or me projecting like crazy -- that’s not the only interpretation.  I’d say there are plenty of ways to find dark and negative implications in what looks like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon; despite that, there are positive things to be found and appreciated.  Yeah, I think Splatoon is making fun of gamers (and the shooter genre even more so, arguably), but it’s worth remembering what the Inklings are so crazy about: their culture.  Their whole world revolves around defanged warfare, which may very well be a coping mechanism.  If and when there’s a major conflict, they might stand a chance of facing it without a total breakdown of peace, order, or mere piece of mind.

But that’s not all there is to their world.  They’re people who care about things -- superficial things, but those are still things that matter to them.  They’re a reflection of their society, after all; clothes and shoes and hats might be material goods, but they can just as easily symbolize something of importance to a huge swath of people, as they do in real life.  They have music to listen to and blast through the streets.  They have public figures to idolize.  Their architecture may be similar to ours, but they’re still an example of the tastes and evolution of a populace that merely happens to have an alternate squid form.

So yes, Splatoon’s single-player is light.  There’s a lot that hasn’t been fleshed out.  But as it so happens, the world of Splatoon might be one of the most fully-realized we’ve seen in years.

I’m not so star-struck that I’ll say Splatoon is now my favorite game ever, or even in my top ten.  But for what it’s worth?  With the industry in the state it is, it’s a miracle that we could ever get something like this.  What we have here is the foundation for something truly spectacular, and something that continues to evolve until it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Nintendo’s biggest names.  That’s a ways away, I know; honestly, it might be impossible until the Inklings hit their thirtieth birthday. But look at what we have now.  It’s more than just something colorful, and even more than just a new IP.  For all its goofiness and absurdity, Splatoon is a game that makes a statement in a couple of strokes.  With so few words spared, it can say so much -- and as a result, have an impact that’s as true as even the lengthiest treatise.  If that’s not worth celebrating, then I don’t know what is.

There.  Now to start seriously getting into JoJo.  I don’t know much about Muhammad Avdol, but my theory is that my life can only be enriched by learning more about him.

He seems like a good role model.


- Thanks for reading! And remember -- if you want to see more content from me, anytime, anywhere, be sure to check out my blog. Give it a read, so we can all become heroes! http://cross-up.blogspot.com/

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About Voltechone of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012

Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.

I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.

You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.

Be a hero. Check 'em out.

Cross-Up -- head here for posts on games, movies, and more
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I Hraet You -- the over-the-top web serial novel...of love, maybe