Viva Piñata Analysis and Game Design for Children
February 9, 2017
Developed by Rare and published in 2006 by Microsoft Game Studios, Viva Piñata is a life simulation game in which the fantasy offers players the opportunity to garden and develop a plot of land in order to attract wildlife modeled after piñatas. The game, favorably rated by such sites as Metacritic.com, is lauded for its art and ingenuity. However this game, if analyzed using the rubric created in Greg Costikyan’s work “I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games”, fails as a successful and enjoyable game. In this text, I analyze Viva Piñata through a Costikyan lens in order to pinpoint which elements it is lacking from his perspective.
Costikyan and Viva Piñata...
Costikyan offers a reflection on a game similar to Viva Piñata, the game SimCity designed by Will Wright. Much like SimCity, Viva Piñata is a life simulator game, although its approach to simulation is somewhat abstracted and smaller-scale. In the game, you are a farmer who has to tend to a garden and draw piñatas to your lot. In this, Viva Piñata and SimCity differ at a crucial juncture. While SimCity “supports a wide choice in goals”, Viva Piñata offers and supports only one overarching goal: to make a better garden. With this reality, Viva Piñata fails a portion of Costikyan’s rubric as it is limited in its flexibility and ability for players to make the game their own. The customization of the game is limited by the structure of the game. The player cannot explore past their garden, and the choices are limited. However, because there is a player goal, the game can still essentially be considered a game.
While more successful in certain categories, the game has a little bit of each element Costikyan proposes as foundational elements in a successful game. To begin, while it seems counter-intuitive to associate adorable, brightly colored animals with a sense of struggle, there is such an element in the game. Costikyan reflects on the notion of “struggle” by closely associating it with “competition”. Games often create struggle by offering a “you vs. them” gameplay mechanic. More nuanced variations, however, can be found in games such as Don’t Starve Together. In this game, struggle is taken to a more visceral, primal, yet cooperative realm as you must band together with your friends in order to survive in a hostile environment. Costikyan barely addresses this nuanced approach to the concept of struggle that computer games offer. Computer games have been able to offer a new approach to the enemy or competitive force in a game. While before the enemy was always physical (by either being yourself or your play partner), computer games offer an abstract enemy: the machine. In Viva Piñata, the enemy as the machine is found as the game turns nightmarish, and evil piñatas spread chaos in your haven.
The art in the game is detailed, with a combination of realism and abstraction. While the lighting, textures, and human character proportions do offer a more realistic representation, the game uses an abstract approach to model the way the world works, from territory to societal change. Maneuvering through the world is mechanical, as players achieve growth but are also limited by tiles. An example of such a relationship between growth and limitations is the component of per-tile growth in a city. The mechanism is an abstraction of real decisions and consequences national and municipal leaders must deal with. However, in the game, it is represented as a rate at which your territory will expand to a new tile. Playing the game is an exercise in absorbing vibrant, detailed art that represents abstracted ideas and systems.
Based on Scott McCloud’s analysis of human representation in entertainment, in particular comics, Endless Legend’s art, which trends more towards realism, would serve to alienate players as the characters become more objectified. While there are realistic components in the game that pose a risk of alienating players, I believe that two abstractions balance the realism of the game: the first being a certain level of abstraction in the art itself (monsters, creatures, fantastical terrain) and the second being the abstraction in how the game presents the world. The world mechanics are an abstraction of our own world order. Just as an illustration can provide a symbolic representation of a human figure, so does Endless Legend provide symbolism that reflects our own global and national economic systems.
Despite that the game has monsters and new creatures, the world does reflect our own well. There are both natural and societal obstacles to overcome. The representation of the game reflects and uses a more realistic representation. Most of the faction characters are humans (or humanoid) and the modelling of the game does not have a high level of abstraction to it. As such, Endless Legend shows the power of game mechanics and how the relationship between players and games through them shatters the boundaries that other genres experience. In Endless Legend, the game mechanics create a sense of ownership and empathy within the players. More precisely, the game mechanics built as abstractions of world systems players are already familiar with provide a deeper connection between players and the world of Endless Legend.
However, Endless Legend takes a step further than other society building games in that it has strong characters and backstory for each faction. As you progress through the game, you are given quests that are intended to create an understanding of the history and conditions of the player’s faction. Endless Legend demonstrates that the rules laid out by Scott McCloud cannot be fully transferred to a medium in a purely visual sense, as you might expect to see in comics or animation. However, the game also posits that world building cannot exist apart from character development, as argued by Henry Jenkins. While the game is still relatively new and niche and so has yet to see a transmedia awakening, I predict that both the characters and the world will have equal footing in transmedia manifestations as they are intimately linked to one another.
 Metacritic. N.p., 09 Nov. 2006. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.
Costikyan, Greg. “I have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games.” 12. Print.
 Costikyan, Greg. “I have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games.” 7. Print.
 Costikyan, Greg. “I have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games.” 11. Print.