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.