a review of Electroplankton
a videogame developed by (or, not-videogame developed by) Toshio Iwai
and published by Nintendo
for the nintendo DS
text by Thom Moyles
Electroplankton is definitely my favorite piece of software for the DS, probably one of the best portable pieces of software I own and one of the most pleasing pieces of electronic entertainment that I’ve devoted my time towards. It’s a ballsy experiment that wants to be loved, a joyful piece of work that’s happy without making you want to throw up in your mouth (Mario (since the N64), I’m looking at you). Yet, I’m giving it zero stars (out of four). I’m doing this because Electroplankton isn’t a game. And heck, this is a site for game reviews.
Now, this is a little unfair. After all, I’m not going to follow this up with successive zero-star reviews of kanji dicitionaries or any of the other assorted titles for the DS that are clearly not games. That would be a pretty jerky move and would be like if we suddenly started giving zero-star reviews to motorcycles because hey, those aren’t games either. No, Electroplankton is a pretty unique case, in that while it’s not a game, it’s not clearly something else, since generally those other DS titles have a purpose, like trying to teach you Japanese characters or simulating a guitar. Electroplankton, in comparison, is enough like a game to confuse people. After all, there aren’t any explicit goals, which both eliminates it from being a purposeful piece of software like a kanji dictionary and hilariously enough, also from what we typically think of as a game.
Electroplankton‘s modules are based on the theory of “found music” or musique concrÃ¨te, which basically boils down to “music can be what you find, rather than what you create”. These modules are set up so that a series of small interactions on the part of the user act as triggers for generating musical sequences. The interactions are simple enough that the user can figure out how to manipulate each module in a short period of time and vague enough that the user is never really composing in the traditional sense. They’re hitting things to see what happens and most of the time, you’ll eventually get something you like. The key to the success of Electroplankton in this area is that the modules are mostly very well-designed, allowing the user to generate a wide variety of pleasing tones without sounding like a 5-year-old smashing their hands on a piano.
A major part of musique concrÃ¨te is the concept of play, which is why Electroplankton is such a confusing piece of software. The best way to put it seems to be that you don’t play Electroplankton, you play with it. The semantic assumption of the latter is that the act of playing is teleological, or to be less of a dick about it, that there’s an end to the means. The way that we understand how to play a game is to progress. It’s this lack of progression that separates Electroplankton from something like SimCity. Electroplankton is a pure sandbox in the sense that the entirety of the experience is to create something temporary, an aural equivalent of the Zen Sand Tray that’s supposed to help executives relax their balls. These things are commonly referred to as ‘toys’ and that’s a good enough term for what Electroplankton does, with the caveat that the usual reaction to ‘toy’ is to assume a lack of significance, which is indicative of a disturbing lack of imagination.
When Electroplankton was shown to a dementedly grinning E3 audience, it was presented by a DJ with a full set of rack-mounted equipment and accompanied on the big screen with quick cuts of gnarly graphics and effects, all while Reggie Fils-Aime gyrated and gurned on-stage. This was, of course, viciously &^#$#ed. If you’re going to make techno music, get a sampler and a synthesizer. Hell, the way things are going now, you’d probably just need the sampler. Using Electroplankton as part of your compositions would be a gimmick, a chiptune-esque trope that says “the most important thing about my music is not my music”. While the actual presentation was astonishingly dumb, I can’t really blame Nintendo for taking the easy way out. Wheeling out somebody on a bed who’s using a nice set of headphones, who just noodles around for 10 minutes before finding something that they find particularly pleasing and then maybe stretches their head back with their eyes closed, while this is nice, while this is a great example of how Electroplankton is the most worthwhile piece of software that you could put in your DS, this is not exactly something that’s going to set Reggie’s loins on fire. Better have Shiggy come out with a sword and shield then.
There is some pandering taking place. The plankton that are basically a collection of samples from Mario Bros. are a one-trick pony wearing a garish red cap and vomiting liquid cotton candy all over your Legend of Zelda bedsheets. In other words, it’s horribly boring and a little repugnant after you get over the novelty of it all. The 4-track recording plankton is also more of a grudging acknowledgement of the DS’s microphone than a good foundation for musical creation. In either of these cases, you’d be much better off getting an actual 4-track or making actual chiptunes than playing around with something that can’t give you the complete functionality of what it’s emulating without offering you anything special on its own.
This is not to say that there’s anything especially profound about Electroplankton. It’s an honest little piece of code that lets you make fun noises through tactile interactions. It succeeds at what it does because it was made by somebody who has a good idea of what sounds good and how people might want to generate sounds, not to mention an interface and graphical style that’s charming without being twee. It’s a success that’s blemished by the wondering and waffling over whether it’s a game or not. This is similar to the too-common message-board argument of whether games are “art” or what “art” is. Ultimately, it’s a waste of everybody’s time and it was with that in mind that a precedent had to be set, that a flag had to be stuck in the ground..