Costume Quest and the Annual Tradition

Every year on February 2nd, my Dad and I watch the movie Groundhog Day as an annual tradition. It’s a wonderful movie and we have an appointment with it every year. Christmas is noted by waking up early on a day off and giving our loved ones gifts; for my friends I try to add a challenge or oddity to the giving of the gift. One year I disguised a PlayStation 2 game as a bottle of rum. The look on his face was priceless.

Holidays are markers in the calendar that mean something to everybody. They are society sanctioned bookmarks for changing up the usual routine and act as a marker for each of our own personal traditions. But through all this, none of my traditions have to do with video game. I watch the movie Groundhog Day every year on Groundhog Day. Christmas as well has its own litany of movies to choose from. And any horror movie will do for the day of ghosts and ghouls. But what about video games?

It being Halloween and all one might be inclined to say that any horror game will do just as any horror movie will, but I’d say that an even better choice would be a game about Halloween itself. Last year Costume Quest was released by Double Fine studios and it’s come back into the gamer consciousness with its recent Steam release. As a game about trick or treating kids saving a sibling from candy stealing goblins by transforming their costumes into giant sized battle machines I think its premise hits all the notes about a game about Halloween. But how does the game work. It’s short, but does it lend itself as an annual tradition.

I can’t say for everyone, but as for myself I don’t think so. You can play it again and again of course. There is nothing stopping you, but the game’s simplistic battle system, while charming at first and nice change of pace from other RPGs becomes somewhat of a bore after a while, in the third act for instance. Health bars don’t transition from one battle to the next meaning that each fight plays out the same. Often the creatures can’t do enough damage or are overwhelming enough that anything other than basic attack isn’t necessary. The special abilities are fun to watch, but they end up being the win more button than anything else.

All the costumes fight pretty much the same, so trying out the different builds isn’t necessary. And if you do want to see how they all work, you can do that pretty much in a single playthrough. You level up the characters instead of the costume, but they just get stronger so there isn’t any min/maxing you can do. The choices are limited with the bonus stamps and improvements, plus can be tried out, again, in a single playthrough.

The story is also very barebones as well. It’s fun to go to the various locations. Trying out the side challenges, finding the hidden costumes and stamps. It’s Halloween night and all the kids are out trick or treating and this is an environment that’s fun, but once you’ve found everything the game doesn’t lend itself to doing it all over again. I’m not expecting a grand epic against the monsters stealing the Halloween candy, but once I’ve seen it to the end, I have no reason to see it again. Any repeat playthroughs wont afford me any further insight.

Groundhog Day, by contrast, is a film I’ve seen well over two dozen times, by this point, and each time I either get something new, remember something or can enjoy the multilayering of the film all over again. There’s a lot to that movie that one could miss on their first viewing. Also, your view of it changes over time as you grow up and mature. That is a movie that lends itself to an annual watching. But then you have many of the Christmas specials that play every year. While It’s a Wonderful Life is certainly a film like Groundhog Day, Frosty the Snowman or Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer aren’t. They are movies that rely on nostalgia for their annual watching, because that’s what you do with them. But nostalgia alone isn’t why they are watching every year. They are mood pieces. They set the tone of the season, they are sing-a-long type movie and doing so incorporated you into the season. That’s why horror movies are popular in October. They don’t have anything to do with Halloween itself (most of the time), but are a part of the mood and tone of the holiday.

Thanks to a random comment on twitter to a new player to the game I was reminded of the Charlie Brown Halloween special. I think that’s a lot more appropriate to the tone of Costume Quest. Costume Quest’s greatest asset is its charm. If there is one thing that Double Fine does better than any other developer it is charm. It’s more than the oversized heads, it’s more than bright primary colors or even the lightheartedness that everything is dealt with. Even the kidnapping of the sibling, while a big deal isn’t the earth shattering tragedy it would be in real life, mostly thanks to the fact it was done by candy stealing goblins that confused him for candy corn. What really sells home to the charm is the feeling of love the developers put into the entire concept. These are people whol love Halloween, you can just tell. They glorify every aspect of the holiday as a child’s playground. In the confines of Halloween, in the imagination of the modern vision the kids can be the heroes. We accept it, because the game is about imagination and children are the masters of it.

But as much as everything in the art, story, tone and general aesthetics of the game support it’s ability to be experience over and over as a mood setter for the positive aspects of Halloween, again the game is let down by the mechanics. Everything I mentioned above that falls short of the game being interesting to replay as a quality experience multiple times, causes it to hinder the experience as a cultural tradition. Or at least for the 5-6 hour it takes to complete it. Even though it’s a short game, it makes for a rather long mood piece. It is still too long to sustain itself for more than a single enjoyable run through.The first area, sure that I could see working as a holiday tradition, but not the whole game.

I think the fact that I found so little to talk about in Costume Quest says it all. I wasn’t able to dig my hooks into anything, but the superficial aspects. I don’t need some great meaning or treatise on life, just something more, something notable that I’d want to see or in this case play over and over. A Night Before Christmas if you will or the aforementioned Peanuts special. But that’s only for me. If any of you out there can play Costume Quest every year and enjoy it, more power to you.

Double Fine at the time clearly wanted this to be The Halloween game. And this downloadable gem was the first time around. It was a nice, simple game, but I fear that it only offers diminishing returns after that. I wanted to see if I could make this an annual Halloween tradition, but I don’t think it has the staying power for another go on the same path.

Ooohh, there’s DLC…