Hall of Fame: Chibi-Robo!

Every week we want to showcase a game that we're playing, that you should or that you should not play. Last week we talk about a game your SHOULD NOT PLAY. But this week, things take a turn for the brighter as we debut another feature series with Hall of Fame.  Hall of Fame is, you guessed it, where we talk about some of our all time favorite games, such as Chibi-Robo!

It’s because of Chibi-Robo! that I have the attitude about games that I do.

Back when I was younger, I was a lot more of, I guess you’d call it, a bro-gamer. I was into action games that had lots of violence, and fascinated by advances in technology. I’d watch every E3 conference waiting for those obvious “wow” moments, when a head would pop with more fidelity than ever before, or something would shine in a more realistic way than I’d ever seen. In my mind, the advancement of games as entertainment was directly linked to their ability to become more technologically advanced.

I would sneer and tell people that the things they liked weren't really games. If there wasn't a story and action and that gee-whiz to it, if there wasn’t a score being kept like an arcade game, then I didn’t want to hear about it. And you better believe I was trolling all over forums and telling people who liked things I didn't how wrong they were about it.

But as I was reading Nintendo Power, I came upon a review that surprised me. I’d seen things that I hadn’t agreed with, but I’d usually kind of understand it. This Chibi-Robo! game was something else, though. Its graphical engine was laughable. It was described as a game where you were a small robot in charge of cleaning things in the house of an eccentric family. The whole pitch sounded like a Dreamcast game that never actually came out for the system it belonged on.

And yet they were talking about how the gameplay drew you in to a story and a family with surprising depth and drama. How, starting out with nothing but a toothbrush, you used to clean stains and the goal of making people happy grew bigger as the house opened up to you. But it looked so bad! Everyone spoke in especially annoying “GRABL GROWW” type voice samples! You’re using a toothbrush to clean stains up for a family of layabouts, for goodness sake!

The idea that it was any good fascinated me. A trip to GameStop later, and I had my hands on a copy and was tearing in and I was immediately hooked.

Chibi-Robo is given to Jenny Sanderson, the daughter, as a birthday gift from her unemployed, layabout father as her worried, more responsible mother looks on disapprovingly. You present them with a gift, you clean up some crumbs, you get happiness points, and the first day with them ends. Your task, as presented to you by your helper Tely-Vision, is to make people happy, happy, happy, and it seems like you’ve got your work cut out for you as you watch their light bickering and consider exactly why the daughter is dressed like a frog and only speaks in ribbits.

As you explore around at night, though, you find that the toys come to life. Rooster-themed space hero Drake Redcrest patrols for evil, while the dog’s chew toy, Sophie, watches and records her love for him in her diary. Egg-themed soldier toys patrol the living room, launching projectiles at you when you enter. It’s all pretty weird.

Playing as Chibi-Robo had its own weird quirks. He was battery powered, and as that ran down, you’d have to run back to an outlet to charge yourself back up, or you’d collapse. And, of course, you’re cleaning. Stains. Crumbs. Wrappers. You’re throwing things in the garbage.

Happy points, though, aren’t just for collecting. They’re also currency, and you use them you buy upgrades for yourself, allowing you to explore more stuff. And as the home opens up more, more mysteries and a deeper story are revealed. But on top of that, it revealed a cache of broken characters who all needed you to help them out with their various personal problems. Beneath the cartoony exterior were several human-like characters, some surprisingly relatable issues, and some incredibly effective moments of self-sacrifice and loss.

I mean, one of the characters (yes, one of the toys) has several children he refuses to take responsibility for, and then he dies. Things like that don’t happen in games. You don’t see anything like that happen in even the most mature of game stories.

The game also deals with the slow devolution of a marriage due to differences and the stress of unemployment. Mr. Sanderson keeps spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need, and Mrs. Sanderson, poring over the bills, stressing over how to keep her family together, eventually starts to voice her thoughts to you, until it gets to be too much and she locks herself in her bedroom. The family uses Chibi-Robo, small enough to fit through the vents and walk in between rooms, as a messenger. Mr. Sanderson takes to camping outside the bedroom in a show of devotion to her, and one day she gives you a letter for him. He calls his daughter over, thinking it’s a love letter, that she’ll take him back. He begins to read it out loud. It’s a divorce letter. And it may be one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen a game pull off, but Chibi-Robo! has only just started to break your heart.

It’s actually a little shocking to think about what this game was able to pull off, but it does it so well. It plays both humor in some of the character’s stories (Telly, for example, wants to be a singer, but whenever he launches into a round of his song Teriyaki Blues, something cuts him off. You’ll be cleaning his tears very often) and even just deals with small, yet relatable, problems. Is Sophie’s quest to win Drake Redcrest’s heart as powerful as the teddy bear who’s addicted to nectar and flies into a rage when he goes through withdrawal? No. But it’s fun to watch all the same, and we all have our memories of that person we had a crush on who didn’t even know we existed.

What’s most wonderful about Chibi-Robo! is the way it brings into stark contrast the way so many games call themselves mature but aren’t able to deal with subject matter even half as adult as this, or confuse the fact that they have an M rating with actually being mature in some way. It may not be trying to make a grand statement about humanity so much as it is character studies of multiple broken souls, but it’s an achievement in that few games since have manage. We see even today, with so much more processing power and greater leaps in storytelling, characters that are wooden and flat. Bald space marines interchangeable with each other, angry, grunting men who yell at each other, a list of archetypes we constantly go back to. The small scope and the realness of the characters is an important part of what gave Chibi-Robo! so much charm. If it had been a more popular game, I’d like to suggest it helped pave the way for a game like Gone Home, a game that similarly uses a small scope and familiar environment to help tell a story that’s more touching than epic. A story that realizes that in the heart of everyday life, there can still exist powerful stories that anyone can relate to.

And it’s because of Chibi-Robo! that I will gladly defend the existence of games like Gone Home or Dear Esther, games that don’t traditionally fit within the usual “video game” umbrella. Just because it’s not something within the realms of what you’ve previously enjoyed doesn’t mean there isn’t merit to it. And I’m now much more willing to give these games a try instead of just looking down my nose at them.

Well, that does it for this week's Hall of Fame entry. Check back next week as we look a games that are available to purchase but not necessarily ready for review. Until then, tell us what you think of Chibi-Robo!