Child of Light Preview: Dream Within a Dream

As I sit down to play Child of Light, Ubisoft’s upcoming downloadable side-scroller that’s inspired by fairy tales and the Japanese RPGs that shaped me in my youth, I can’t help but think about Far Cry 3.

That’s the game that the team behind Child of Light made before this title, and they couldn’t be more different — or so it first appears. Far Cry 3 was an excessively masculine power fantasy of a first-person shooter that attempted to get at deeper themes, posing the question of why many of us play what we play. But at its heart, it was still an FPS about killing pirates, fighting drug runners, blowing stuff up, and stalking a tiger through the woods with only your wits and a big-ass knife. For all its intellectualism, it was easy to play it and never notice that it wanted to be smart, too.

Then there’s Child of Light. It’s a gorgeous game that’s been made with the UbiArt Framework engine previously seen on titles such as Rayman Legends and Rayman Origins. The focus here is on a young female protagonist (as opposed to a somewhat older male one) lost in a dreamworld and who must fight monsters and meet allies who can help her find her way home. Where Far Cry 3 is often hyper-masculine in many respects, the goals of Child of Light have been reported to be to create something more poetic and feminine. In many ways, it couldn’t be further from Ubisoft Montreal’s shooter.

In other ways, it’s like looking at the same material from another angle. The goals of Far Cry 3 were to do a game about a character who moves through a strange sort of dreamland, and whose violent fantasy of becoming an unstoppable magical hero is pushed to its limits. The story of Child of Light’s Aurora features many of the same themes — it’s a coming-of-age tale as well, about someone who grows through the course of her dream, and who can’t quite seem to escape it.

And at least in the portion I played, there might be a part of Aurora who doesn’t not want to escape, at least not right away. The fairy tale-inspired story finds Aurora’s father, a duke in late 19th Century Austria, having recently remarried after the death of Aurora’s mother. One night, Aurora falls ill and can’t wake up; the narrative tells us she might as well be dead to the world, but she’s really just in some kind of coma. I didn’t see any details about what was afflicting Aurora, but there’s definitely a visual implication that the stepmother might fall under the “evil” classification (she is, after all, depicted in menacingly dark shades of purple and blue).

With that, Aurora finds herself in Lumeria, a dream world filled with strange creatures. Before long, she discovers a sword, and an imprisoned forest queen reminiscent of Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and hears about an evil queen who has stolen the sun, moon and stars. Aurora, of course, is dispatched to return them and, in so doing, return light to Lumeria and herself to Austria.

The fairy tale inspirations for Child of Light are on its sleeve, but even more interesting are the implications of the unreality of the dream Aurora inhabits. For instance, Aurora’s long red hair floats around her head as if suspended in water, never to fall. After making it through the first boss battle, Aurora gains fairy wings and the unlimited power of flight (buffeted only by those screen edges that don’t lead anywhere). And even the game’s dialogue suggests a place where the rules of regular life have shifted, as the entire 200-page script created by Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem is delivered in rhyme. All of it seems begs the question of just what the fluid unreal-ness will mean, and what effect it will have, on Aurora’s development as a character.

Though female protagonists are a rarity in video games, they’re much more common in the literature, Yohalem aid this week at a Child of Light preview event in San Francisco. Works such as His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland and Oz all center around young women. The focus instead is on making Aurora a well-rounded, interesting protagonist in general.

“She is not perfect in any way,” Yohalem said. “In fact, in the beginning, she is a little bit of a brat. She’s also very adventurous and pushy, and she knows what she wants and she’s going for it. She’s precocious. As you play through the game, she evolves, because she ages and her experiences that you participate in change her. And so I hope that I created a protagonist that is unique. The goal would never ever be to create a stereotypical protagonist, or a shallow protagonist, because then you end up with a bad game.”

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