A now commonly discussed concept with regards to videogames is the idea of “flow,” conceived of and defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment.” This concept, intended to further and more concretely define the concept of human happiness, has come instead to be associated with the kinds of videogames one might call “addictive” or “immersive.”
Nintendo has never been interested in this kind of exploitation. After all, many Nintendo games actively encourage players to take a break. Even Mario, one of the best examples of the qualities of “flow,” does almost nothing to capitalize off of it.
In fact, Nintendo’s best games are arguments for the value of flow, especially in our restless distracted age. What could be better, in the year 2017, but to meditate on something engaging but ultimately low-stakes. There are enough high-stakes in the real world.
Nonetheless, Nintendo’s first big multiplayer shooter is a rebellion against the concept of flow, accomplished in ways that are truly surprising. After all, it does maintain a lot of the same flow-related concepts that other multiplayer shooters have perfected: leveling up, persistent lobbies, upgradeable gear, and so on.
But some of the most apparently absurd design choices of Splatoon 2 also serve to actively disrupt a player’s flow. Certain design choices, like the inability to change one’s loadout without exiting the multiplayer lobby, act as a funnel that forces players in and out of whatever they’re currently focused on. Splatoon 2 presents itself not as a multiplayer shooter, but as a closed community, complete with stores, a social media network, a rotating schedule of various offerings, and various modes that seem almost completely distinct from the core game itself.
Of course, there is no real “core” to Splatoon 2. Each mode, from the multiplayer Turf War, to the horde-like Salmon Run, to the clothing shops, to the food truck are essentially given equal weight. This, coupled with a constantly changing schedule of content for each of these modes results in a play experience that feels uniquely disjointed.
This is the ultimate genius and folly of Splatoon 2. It is a game for the distracted era. In the face of a world that seems to be spinning off its axis, Splatoon 2 offers digital reprieve: a world with all of the distraction-heavy forms but without all of the darkness. Complete with its own take on election season in the form of Splatfest (and we’ll never forget the historic expectation-defying win of mayo over ketchup, a moment that bore a disturbing similarity to the 2016 election), the game is essentially a squid-based simulacrum of life in the postmodern world.
We are even forced to see everything through a partisan and divided media, in the form of “Off the Hook.” Pearl and Marina, who act an awful lot like pundits, talk at one another, not with one another. The player is left simply to decide which side we agree with. Without the luxury of the skip button, we’re forced to consume their hot-takes on each and every cultural shift within the world.
There’s a new level! Pearl favorite strategy is to go around the sides! Marina likes to go straight down the middle!
There’s a new gun! It’s good! No, It’s fine!
After sitting through these conversations we are dumped into a visual form of Twitter, a place to huddle virtually together and provide mutual meta-commentary on this crazy world we exist in together.
Splatoon 2 is not a break from the world’s most whiplash inducing qualities. It’s main purpose does not seem to be relaxation, but catharsis. Ironically, by abandoning the concept of flow completely, Splatoon 2 creates a different kind of flow altogether: it draws us into its world by littering it with the constant distractions we crave in our own world. The only difference is one of import: In Splatoon 2, the most important issues are still trivial, as weightless and banal as mayo versus ketchup.
If that famous cartoon dog were here, surrounded by paint rather than flames, he would look around and dispatch that very same dystopic catch-phrase of his: “This is fine.”
And this time, he would be right.