Version tested: PlayStation 3
When artistically-inclined creators set out to do something different in the videogame "space" - like thatgamecompany's Flower, to take a recent and excellent example - they often start with the subject matter, the atmosphere, the style. They might create something that has the bones of a game, but the looks of a painting and the heart of a song - something that creates a different mood in the player.
Noby Noby Boy, released today for PS3 on the PlayStation Network, isn't like those other experiments. It's deeper, wilder, more unhinged, more radical - and more brilliant. It disposes with even the bones of gaming, reducing it down to its very core - the simple notion of play - and then elevating that to an art form. It doesn't just change your mood; it changes your whole frame of mind.
Noby Noby, or nobinobi, is a Japanese term meaning to stretch, to relax, to be yourself, to take your time, to be late. In Noby Noby Boy, you control BOY, a cheerful little quadruped whose body can stretch to almost infinite length. You control his front and rear end independently, one with each analogue stick. Pull them away from each other and he stretches like rubber, straining for a second, before popping out into a rainbow-striped, floppy snake. Keep pulling and he keeps stretching, and growing, and stretching, and growing. And growing. And growing some more.
Like the snowballing Katamari Damacy - the previous product of designer and artist Keita Takahashi's playful mind - Noby Noby Boy is an exercise in exploring a tactile twin-stick control scheme. Like Katamari, its wild and inertia-heavy physics often get the better of you. The longer BOY grows, the more unpredictable and unmanageable are his tottering, skidding, twisting, flopping and flapping.
He's even capable of flight - tapping a trigger makes that end jump and do a sort of low-gravity glide, while repeatedly tapping them sends him pinwheeling into the sky. Ripples and switchbacks travel along his body, jerking the ambulatory ends to and fro. Bringing his entire length under harmonious control will be a mighty, long-term challenge - but in the short term, you can just choose to surrender to and enjoy the chaotic slapstick. In any event, there are factors other than BOY at play, factors that really are beyond your control.
Noby Noby Boy is played on "maps", little square chunks of land floating in space (well, not quite in space - more on that later). These are randomly generated by the game, and populated with some combination of animals, humans, surreal bipedal humanoids that defy explanation, simple toybox architecture, cars and fork-lifts scooting about, giant mechanical sculptures, goalposts, hoops, elasticated trees, flying saucers with hook attachments, clouds shaped like donuts, and more.
(Some examples of the environments Noby Noby Boy conjured up in our half-day playtest, direct from our notes: "world of the frog kings"; "forest of the walking moons"; "city of sea lions, mariachis and centurions"; "ballerina plain".)
All of these things are there to be interacted with. BOY can wind himself around posts, thread himself through hoops and windows, herd animals within the living fence of his body, topple piles of cardboard boxes. People and animals might choose to take a ride on BOY's back, gather in a crowd to see what he's up to, or flee from his antics in terror. Sports cars can have their passengers twanged out of their seats by his body - or they can slice him in two, in which case he'll have to eat his own rear to reconstitute himself.
Holding down the left trigger makes the BOY eat stuff with his front end, gulping down the bulge like a boa; holding down the right makes him, um, propel the same stuff out of his rear with violent force (try this in mid-air to discover the power of poo propulsion). You can also shrink him from either end by clicking down on the sticks, although doing this with more force from one end than the other might leave you with lopsided results.
All of this serves the ultimate and noble purpose of... absolutely nothing at all. Noby Noby Boy is the purest form of gaming sandbox. It has no goals, no structure. You don't need to reach a certain length, fetch and carry anything, defeat any monsters, or overcome any obstacles. There is no work. There is only play.
You might think that, without objectives or rewards and with no sense of progress, time spent with Noby Noby Boy would soon become aimless and boring. You would - wonderfully, surprisingly - be wrong. By giving you such limitless possibilities, such an improbable plaything and such an anarchistic playground, Noby Noby Boy inspires creativity, curiosity and simple, careless glee.
Playing, I found myself content to noodle around with the game for hours, deep in its ridiculous world. I made my own games, set my own challenges. How many things can I eat relative to how long I am? How many people can I persuade to ride my back? Can I topple that superstructure? Can I turn myself and a couple of trees into a catapult? Can I thread myself through every hole in that giant frame? Can I string myself around skyscrapers like a washing line? Can I lasso the clouds?
And in any case, it's wrong to say that there are no rewards, because Noby Noby Boy is not as simple as it appears, even if it is every bit as mad. It is riddled with secrets and mysteries and unexpected cause-and-effect consequences in the behaviour of BOY and the world around him that you will feel compelled to seek out, and limits you can't help but try to push. The scientific joy in discovering something new about this insane pocket universe is reward aplenty.
It's also unfair to say there are no objectives - although they are hidden ones. Noby Noby Boy offers 13 Trophies, all of them question-mark-obscured mysteries. We won't spoil them here; you can probably guess a couple, although not necessarily the extent of them. Combined with the random mapping, hunting some down will be a voyage of discovery that could last weeks, or months.
It's not the only journey to be had in Noby Noby Boy, either, despite its lack of shape or story, and its tiny, randomised maps. Pull the camera back - and back, and back, and back - and you see the whole map at once; and then it starts to dwindle, and you see that it's actually inside the Earth; and above it is the Sun, who is actually a cartoon lion, looking down through a hole in the top of the world. And then, even bigger, you see the GIRL, a giant, cosmos-spanning, pink-bows-and-love-hearts version of BOY, winding off into space.
Using the Sun as an intermediary, you can report the total number of metres you've stretched BOY to GIRL, who will grow by the same amount. It won't get her far - but everyone else playing the game is doing so too, and it's the cumulative amount of stretching done in Noby Noby Boy by PS3 users across the world that drives GIRL's voyage into the stars.
Eventually - Takahashi reckons it will take players a couple of weeks - she'll link Earth to the Moon, and then Mars. (Who knows if more planets in the solar system could be added at a later date?) Once she's got that far, these celestial bodies can be visited, bringing new sets of maps with even crazier toys and even stranger inhabitants. GIRL also serves as a global high-score table, ranking every player by the amount they've contributed to her solar-system-spanning stretch. Every ranked player gets their own procedurally-generated, yet unmistakably Takahashi-designed, avatar perched on GIRL's back, and there's a plethora of stats and records to browse. You can take video footage and upload it directly to YouTube, too.
Noby Noby Boy is much, much more than the simple, silly, pointless diversion it unassumingly presents itself as. It's actually an incredibly forward-thinking and progressive piece of game design, incorporating community metagame, achievement-driven treasure hunt, emergent play and some remarkable feats of simulation programming (the physics engine and crowd AI is worked so hard by the game's free-form anarchy at times that it suffers slowdown). Takahashi might have his head in the (donut) clouds, but he's got his finger on the pulse too, you can be sure of that.
It's not perfect - of course it isn't. The bloody-minded insistence that BOY should be fully controllable at all times has led to some fantastically awkward (if full-featured) camera controls that involve holding down various combinations of buttons while tilting the controller. It's frustrating mastering these, especially with BOY frequently getting far too long to fit comfortably on the screen. The inhabitant and physics behaviour can be shaky at times, too.
As you'd expect from the creator of Katamari Damacy, there are a hundred whimsical touches to make up for occasional clumsiness: the wistful acoustic soundtrack, the 2D "cursor BOY" who scatters the letters of the in-game manual (while the game ambles on uninterrupted in the background), the wobbling "BOY House" and its chimney-smoke menu, the eternally disappointed Fairy and the clip-art parrot who, for no good reason, indicated the state of your PSN connection.
But you don't even need to succumb to Noby Noby Boy's many surface charms to appreciate its genius. By some combination of cunning and magic, it makes you a child again. It helps you rediscover the bottomless fascination and joy you had in discovering the properties of string, or sand, or animals, or Newtonian physics for the very first time. It makes you free to play, and happy to make your own entertainment, for hours on end.
And in case you're still unsure if it's for you - in case you were thinking of denying yourself a chance to feel like that again - let me say one more thing: it costs less than lunch.
9 / 10
Noby Noby Boy is out today, 19th February, for PSN. It costs GBP 3.19 / EUR 3.99.