The question “what is your favorite color” is especially difficult in The Last Tinker: City of Colors. You are trying your darndest to reunite the people of Colortown and fight the Bleakness, which is sucking color and joy from their world. The Last Tinker’s gameplay is creative, with puzzle elements and hidden objectives. There are several difficulty levels and customization options, including controller use and an easy mode for kids. The art style and whimsical touches drew me in from the first trailers.
However, I have some pretty big issues with this game. Issues that, frankly, put me in a position to not be able to truly recommend the game as a “must play,” especially for children. I know it’s adorable, and it’s smart and innovative in a space that desperately needs all of these things. I want to love it—but I just can’t.
Who’s Playing This Game?
If The Last Tinker wasn’t directed at least partially at kids, I might have fewer issues with it. It wasn’t necessarily advertised as a children’s game. That being said, the art style is cartoon-like, and the producers advertise having drawn inspiration from Banjo Kazooie, a franchise well-known for popularity with children. One has to wonder if they would have needed to push to appeal to children at all, as the game is one of few that beautifully appeals both to adults and to children of a wide age range. It respects the ability of kids to play challenging and fully fleshed-out games.
In a drought of quality games for kids, Tinker pulls innovative tricks and tools from popular games like Assassin’s Creed to make puzzle-solving and traversing the Colortown world easier and more exciting.
There’s Always a “But”…
Part of my problem with the game was that Colortown didn’t seem to want me, or rather, it didn’t seem to want its protagonist in Koru, the street urchin-turned-hero. Throughout the introductory areas Koru faced bullying, harassment, and threats. Taunts of “Ape Face” followed Koru everywhere. The only way I could stop the district-dwellers from threatening and bullying me was to beat them up, and the game encouraged me to do it, something that left me feeling a little uncomfortable.
After an hour or so it occurred to me how grating—dangerous, even—it could be for a child who may already be dealing with bullying to be exposed to this gameplay.
Out of curiosity I adjusted the game’s difficulty to the easiest/kid-friendly setting to see if the developers had chosen to minimize the insults and threats. Upon realizing that they hadn’t I was unsurprised, but also somewhat disappointed, because why couldn’t they have?
As a victim of childhood and adolescent bullying, I find it scary that bullying is often such a central part of mainstream entertainment. It bothers me that Tinker never really provides hope that the bullying may come to an end with a resolution other than violence. In fact, the game expressly trains the opposite from the beginning. Games excel at letting kids practice a task until they get it right. But Koru learns only one strategy—to fight in response to bullying, a fact that probably should have been considered given the audience. Even when Koru saves the day, they still let him have it, never giving him a break from the taunts and name-calling.
Trying to Understand
I understand that in a game involving hand-to-hand combat against humanoid characters, even as a training mechanic, violence is inherent. I ask, however, as a parent of a child who has already experienced bullying that led to violence, why did the game’s hand-to-hand combat and training have to take place with bullying as the catalyst? Why couldn’t there be a circumstance where, despite their differences, the characters practiced together to protect their shared home world? Why couldn’t they have had strongly held differing opinions about something, and fought about it, and then later in the game learned that was an inappropriate way to handle their differences?
I know I could make up with, and forgive, a respected adversary, even one with whom I was physically fighting. However, do you know who I’m not going to sing “Kumbaya” with? My bully. And I will tell my child to my dying breath that people who treat him as though he is “less than” are not worth his time, and he is better than fighting with that bully. It’s disappointing that the bullying theme is emphasized even when Koru shows up to save the day. I asked the Tinker team why they made the choice to focus on bullying, and they responded by stating that while Koru gets his fair share of negativity from the citizens of Colortown, the discord is a direct result of the game’s subplots and storyline, which ultimately result in the unification of Colortown’s districts despite their previous misgivings about their hero.
While I haven’t had time to finish the full game yet (I’m about 40% through), I have heard from fellow reviewers and from reading other critiques that the bullying theme gets some resolution. I want to see that come into play, and I’m trying to keep an open mind. I hope I will be able to change my opinion overall. That being said, I doubt playing through the game will override my belief that the focus on bullying is a little much for a game that so clearly has an audience in young children. Children for whom the game may become a trigger, or in some cases a catalyst.
A Bigger Issue
As significant an issue as bullying is, The Last Tinker hit another nerve when it introduced an NPC (non-player character) known as “Biggs.” Biggs is a large mushroom-type character with humanoid features. He is partner to another NPC known as “Muddy,” a mushroom farmer (and also a mushroom-type character). To earn crystals (currency) in order to compete in the big race, Koru and Tap must help Muddy by activating some mushroom beds, with the help of Biggs.
Biggs appears to be completely withdrawn when not engaging with anyone, and he hunches in on himself while looking at the ground when he isn’t needed. He never interacts with you directly until you need him, nor do you share any conversation with him.
By comparison, when you first interact with Muddy the farmer, he greets you and discusses your need for money for the big race, telling you what work he has available.
Muddy teaches you that to activate some pressure/weight based switches, you can whistle for Biggs and he will follow you. If you get too far away he can’t hear you, but if you hold down the whistle control action while nearby, he will follow you blindly and come to a stop whenever you do.
While following you, Biggs will wave his arms, break into a large, lopsided grin, and emit low-pitched giggles to punctuate his excitement. It hit me at once that someone in the studio had decided to portray Biggs as a clichéd, negative stereotype of a person with special needs. This realization is the ultimate reason why bringing myself back to Colortown is painful, and it’s why I’ve not returned to finish an otherwise great game. In a game with humanoid characters, it is irrelevant that Biggs is actually a mushroom. He has a face, he understands, he communicates in his own way, and he is deserving of the same respect as the other in-game characters.
Taking a Step Back
I tried to do some “research” into why I felt so strongly about Biggs’s situation. Was I overly sensitive due to a close friend’s child having Down’s syndrome? Due to my own child’s developmental delays and special needs? After discussing my feelings with some friends and colleagues, and after asking Tinker’s development team about the inspiration behind Biggs, I realized that maybe the issue was that other people aren’t as sensitive as they should be—that maybe this is a face of ableism that isn’t getting the exposure it needs.
For those who may not think that this is a problem, I challenge you to watch some Let’s Play videos of The Last Tinker, specifically the ones that reference Biggs. Keep track of how many times he is referred to as “retarded,” “dumb,” etc. Let’s Players laughed at his low-pitched giggle and exclaimed in frustration at his stupidity and inability to hear you when you whistle from afar.
After the third time this happened, I felt that I wasn’t the only one seeing Biggs’s plight. However, I was one of the few who wasn’t consuming it as it was designed: as entertainment.
I am not asking that you boycott The Last Tinker. In fact, I strongly urge you to play it. I urge you to start a discussion about Tinker’s use of bullying with your children. Use it as a gateway to discuss whether or not they are experiencing anything like that in their social circles. Remind them not to bully or make fun of people who are different. And, most importantly, remind them that learning how to fight is not the best option available when facing bullies.
If you are a developer, I urge you to consider your audience when you make a game that may have bullying or harassment. Consider whether it will enhance or detract from a child or adolescent’s play experience. If you feel that bullying is inherent to your game’s plot or story, then consider modifying your easiest difficulty level, or creating a kid-safe difficulty to exclude or change some dialogue that might trigger children experiencing bullying in their real life. They may be using games as an escape from that trauma, as many of us now grown once did.
If you do agree that Mimimi’s choices in designing Biggs are both offensive and detrimental to special-needs individuals as well as the gaming community as a whole, I ask that you please start the discussion. Talk about Tinker and the decisions that were made, and the fact that the gaming industry has been looking the other way for far too long and for far too many other games when it comes to decisions like this.
Ask why, in such a beautiful world, in a story focused on celebrating differences and fighting adversity, would a character like Biggs be treated as less than human? Ask why Koru couldn’t have called him by name, thanked him, high-fived him. If this was too much to expect, then ask why Biggs had to be humanoid at all? Ask why Koru couldn’t have had his good buddy Tap the talking sheep be the one to activate the mushroom pods? Or a rock? Or an inanimate giant mushroom with a rope on it that could be dragged around? After all, don’t all of those things accomplish the same goal that was set forth when Biggs was created in the image of negative special-needs stereotypes?
I love the world of Colortown. As a parent and gamer I’m grateful for the fantastic gameplay that the development team created. I am hopeful that the messages of inclusion they aimed at their audience will be understood. I love Biggs too, and I wish he had been animated with respect and care. Ultimately, the fact that he wasn’t is a huge part of what has kept me from continuing to play The Last Tinker.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent Pixelkin as an organization.