Most of my attempts to create games have been done through other games. I bought a copy of WarioWare DIY on DS to hone my design skills by doing little things. I bought Super Mario Maker 2 and created a level that I haven’t shared with anyone. I played with game creation tools in Warcraft 3 and Gate 2. I spent a lot of time doing little but none of it really lasted. My skills were lost in the changing landscape of games and the frivolity of my own whim.
With this background, Play builder garage immediately caught my curiosity. Nintendo’s latest foray into accessible game creation tools, Play builder garage is divided between a set of interactive tutorials, helping you create things like a basic racing game or a small 3D platformer game, and a free programming mode. You “code” by chaining preprogrammed “nodons”. Attach a nodon press button to a nodon person to pop them. Attach a digital nodon to a car nodon to make the car speed up. These relationships can range from simple to complex. However, the game makes it comfortable. Each nodon has a friendly personality and the game beeps, boeps, and purrs as you don its pieces together.
The intention is explicitly to help older children understand the logic of coding. This means that the logic needed, for example, to create the AI, is not intuitive. Well, at least it’s not intuitive to me. It’s not like Mario Maker, where enemies and characters have a preset selection of behaviors to play, or like DIY Warioware, where the limited scope of the project makes lightweight programming simple. The space for possibility is as wide as your problem-solving skills. This means you need to translate something as simple as making a car drive itself in numbers and bits.
However, this is far from being a weakness; this is actually one of the strengths of the game. Play builder garageS’s duty is to simplify and streamline the messy coding process, it leaves much of the basic fundamentals intact. The tutorial structure reminded me of the dozens of computer science homework I did in college. My favorite part of the game is the confusing “checkpoints”. Between lessons, the game offers little puzzles using what you learned when creating the last game. This requires you to play with tiny variables. It’s always a pleasure to find out that you understand something beyond the walls of step-by-step instruction. Rightly so, a big part of the “game” is experimenting with multiple functions and seeing how they line up, interact, or mess up your intentions. The AND and NOT functions even appear. Although it is clearly not too sturdy, Play builder garage creates a readable way to code a game. It’s easy to see how familiarizing yourself with the toolset here would allow you to do something elsewhere, with different tools.
There, however, is also the problem. Everything you do using the tool is, of course, stuck in Nintendo’s own ecosystem. Play builder garage is yet another example of a sturdy tool that is ultimately selfish. Whatever inventive solutions to the problems I find, whatever ideas I implement, what art I create, I can only carry the spirit of these things to something else. I can’t let someone else play my game unless they also have the tools. When I called the game accessible earlier, I didn’t mean financially accessible or accessible to people with disabilities. There are no settings to adjust the font size or any other similar way to change the presentation of the game. Also, the idea of using it as a learning tool for beginners in a school or in a community framework is absurd. The investment of a Switch plus the game itself is just too high. It’s a little hard to imagine who exactly is the game for. Someone who already owns a Switch, isn’t interested in traditional programming or even more accessible tools, and wants to play with that as well, is something of a tall order.
Whatever attraction remains is just seeing what you can do with this new thing made by Nintendo. The game also shows its limits. All the tutorials the game takes you through – a mystery room, a racing game, a platformer – bear the familiar markers of Nintendo games. The game explicitly invites comparisons to classic Nintendo titles. He’s practically begging you to have recess rather than something really original. The tools themselves may allow for something more flexible, but the aesthetics of the game cannot.
The few things I did in all of the previous games that I mentioned above just disappeared. Generously, they float on a cartridge or a server somewhere. Play builder garage is doomed to the same fate. It is an engaging and inventive novelty, but by nature it is hostile to the active sense. It is normal for things to die, to disappear. However, I want them to end on my terms, not because a company didn’t want it to last. During my time on the internet, I collected a ton of game creation tools. On the list are items for crafting RPGs or visual novels, coding assistants, and storytelling idea generators. I’m sure my little list is remarkably incomplete, but still represents a diverse set of people interested in helping others make art, often for free.
Beneath the undeniably charming exterior of Play builder garage is a conservative institution. Nintendo is interested in doing this so you can’t imagine anything apart from that. All of its tools that democratize creativity reflect its random desire to consume its production. Of course, doing something outside of that takes work. It requires giving up the simple and nifty tutorial of a program for the messy work of mutual teaching. It requires that we seek ourselves out, stumble, experience, fail, and worse yet, show our failure to others. This mess is far more human, far more rewarding than any closed ecosystem could claim to be.
Grace Benfell is an aspiring queer woman, critic and fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the machine and can be found @ grace_machine on Twitter.