‘Doki-Doki Universe’: Video games make a play for emotions in 2013

Dec. 19, 2013 | 2:19 p.m.
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"Gone Home" (PC, Mac): The family is away, but their secrets are hidden throughout the home. A reminder that everyday drama makes the best fiction. (Full Bright Co.)

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"Papers, Please" (PC, Mac) : Overworked, stressed-out, underpaid, disrespected. The grind? Familiar. The Eastern Bloc immigration setting? Gripping. (Lucas Pope)

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"Super Mario 3D World" (Wii U): Mario, only weirder. Here, sport a cat suit to claw, meow and pounce through a crazy, colorful world. Cats! (Nintendo)

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"The Stanley Parable" (PC, Mac): An ordinary cubicle life is thrown upside down. Imagine if our lives were narrated and directed by Spike Jonze. (Galactic Cafe)

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"'Fire Emblem: Awakening" (3DS): Dragons, swordsmen, wizards. All that fantasy stuff is here. Yet this is a game about falling in love. Honest. (Nintendo)

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"'The Last of Us" (PS3): Forget zombie-genre cliches, as the nail-biter here is a relationship between a man and the daughter he never had. (Naughty Dog / SCEA)

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"The Cave" (PC, Mac, Xbox, PS3, Wii U): Our greed, our gluttony, our tendency to fall for someone out of our league — all revealed via a talking, sarcastic cavern. (Double Fine Productions / Sega)

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"Tearaway" (Vita): A fragile paperlike world that unfolds before the player like a modern folk tale, one that responds to our every touch. (Media Molecule / Sony)

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"Device 6" (iOS): The mood and music is of an old spy film, but Anna's tale is a page-scrolling mystery where every word and sound is a clue. (Simogo)

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"Gunpoint" (PC): A svelte whodunit whose star is part P.I., part electrician. Guns are banned, flying pants are not and smarts are required. (Gunpoint)

“Doki-Doki Universe” begins with heartbreak. A robot is left alone on an asteroid, dumped there by his human family. The robot has only a sentimental, hug-happy balloon as a companion for the next 32 years. Then things get abstract.

The game, released this month across numerous Sony platforms by the Bay Area’s HumaNature Studios, has one main objective — to make players feel as much as to challenge them. Like many of the most intriguing of 2013 games, the bright, colored-crayon-like world of “Doki-Doki Universe” wows not by being a technological showcase. Instead, in a year that brought us fancy next-gen game consoles from Sony and Microsoft, “Doki-Doki” impresses by illustrating how a still-growing medium can provide a moving, affecting experience via simplicity.

(Check out our picks for the top 10 games of 2013 in the gallery above.)

“Specifically,” said “Doki-Doki” creator and the Los Angeles-born Greg Johnson, “we wanted to touch on some sweeter emotions, the kind that make you tear up and smile at the same time. It’s not what you usually find in the game biz.”

At least not yet. The 53-year-old Johnson, a 30-plus year veteran of the entertainment industry whose credits include Sega‘s buddy comedy “Toejam & Earl” and the Disney Channel‘s “Choo Choo Soul,” is traversing the more emotive terrain that games are just starting to explore with regularity.

A scene from the video game "Doki-Doki Universe." (Human Nature Studios / Sony)

A scene from “Doki-Doki Universe.” (Human Nature Studios / Sony)

This year alone saw the release of “Gone Home,” “Papers, Please,” “The Stanley Parable,” “The Last of Us” and “The Cave” — titles that, to name just a few, alternately touched on fear of abandonment and sexual confusion (“Gone Home”), the absurdity of predictable, daily workday routines (“The Stanley Parable”) and sarcastically probed the depths of greed (“The Cave”).

With the exception of Naughty Dog’s blockbuster “The Last of Us,” many of these games were from smaller, more modest-sized studios. “Doki-Doki” was largely made with a core staff that at its height was 14 people, says Johnson, and built for a budget of “several million-plus.” It sells as a $14.99 download.

“Doki-Doki” may just be the most accessible of the lot, as its style is that of a children’s coloring book. Its main character is playful and idealistic, and the game ultimately plays out like an elaborate personality test. With nods to heartening, family friendly tales of space exploration such as “The Little Prince” and “Wall-E,” “Doki-Doki Universe” has players guiding a robot, QT3, through more than 25 planets as the sensitive, arm-waving machine tries to understand humanity.

GRAPHIC: Best of 2013 | Entertainment and culture

“Your goal,” a not-so-nice alien tells QT3, “is to learn about yourself.” So much for saving princesses and blowing things up.

Along the way QT3 will be sent letters — “Are you still thinking about me?” asks the lonely red balloon — and will visit a therapist to receive psych analyses. There’s a bunny who wants to rid himself of his cuteness, a depressed ghost who’s heartsick because the woman he loves can no longer see him, and a man who’s been turned into a toilet right where others are in desperate need of one.

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QT3, right, the main character in ‘Doki-Doki Universe.’ (Human Nature Studios / Sony)

QT3 mediates misunderstandings, blows kisses to a lion and like a hopeless romantic, wants to reconnect with the family who left its metal behind for the scrap heap.

At times it’s absurd, but often it’s revealing. QT3 will meet characters overridden with jealousy, creatures who can’t help but bully others and inhabitants who are living in fear of change. QT3 will also visit asteroids and complete personality quizzes. Answering these questions may divulge more about the player than the robot, but for those willing to suspend some disbelief it can ultimately bring more personality to the digital character.

“You’re unsure of your future and feel stress about what is to come,” one of the game’s quizzes perceptively informed me. Well, yes, but I couldn’t help but wish I was instilling some more confidence in poor little QT3.

The quizzes in “Doki-Doki” are cartoonish, asking players, for instance, to choose a caption for an image of a monster standing before a flower-bearing little girl (“I wonder how many calories there are in a little girl,” I selected). At home, Johnson says, he spends his spare time creating card games for friends and guests, designed simply “to get people talking.”

And that ultimately is what “Doki-Doki” is about: communication. QT3 must learn to talk to those who populate different planets, discovering through conversation what they like and don’t like and how their desires can be exploited to solve disputes.

All that clutters most games — combat, stealth maneuvers or running and jumping through a crazed terrain — is absent, but there’s conflict here. It’s the same conflict found in our daily lives, as “Doki-Doki” asks if it’s possible to love, respect and connect with the misfits who surround us.

It’s a game, Johnson admits, that will likely be appreciated most by nongamers.

“Gamers sit down and want to solve the problem. ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’ They’re clicking buttons and solving the goals. They click right through text. People who are not in the gamer mode will read, watch it.”

And if you do that?

“Life happens,” Johnson says. “Stories play out. You get to know the characters.”

Now that would truly be next-gen.

– Todd Martens

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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