Roger Ebert's movingly ambivalent reevaluation of the video game medium was not the only earth-crackingly significant thing to lately stir the committed gamer. On June 29, the video game Naughty Bear was released into the world. This is a game in which you assume control of a distinctly mischievous ursine avatar and run around tormenting and, finally, murdering your fellow bears. Softening the nightmarish aspects of this scenario, I guess, is the fact that the game's bears are stuffed toys rather than actual bears. (Vegan friendly!) The game is thus intended to come across as something like "Jason Vorhees Invades the Island of Misfit Toys," except Jason is a bear.
In my household, there has been a lot of anticipation to play Naughty Bear. The person with whom I share my household, the ethereally lovely Trisha, shared with me these sage words as to why she was so looking forward to the game: "If I'm going to be violent, I'd much rather do it as a teddy bear than some stupid military person." I'm on the record (and then some) for loving and appreciating many violent games, but the "stupid military person" violence-delivery-system embedded within the average shooter does indeed feel increasingly empty, tired, stale, boring, and done. Hacking a stuffed bear to death is, if nothing else, a novel approach to game mayhem. And there is much to be said for novel approaches to game mayhem. I'm a huge fan of the downloadable title Pain, for instance, which consists of catapulting celebrities into walls, roller coasters, explosive barrels, billboards, and restaurant patios. If that doesn't sound like fun, think again. Bring on some goddamned teddy bears.
So, the game's been out for a week now, and we still haven't picked it up. The reason for this is the critical reaction. Mein Kampf was more warmly received than this game. "No game about a psychopathic teddybear should be this boring," says Destructoid. "Watching a psychologically tortured teddy bear blow his brains out is somewhat less hilarious than Naughty Bear seems to think," says the Onion's AV Club. This piece, from gamrReview, contains a sentence that manages to embody everything I both love and hate about the world of video games: "I can't really say that Naughty Bear has any redeeming features. The only thing that comes to mind is the ability to beat other bears to death, and as I've mentioned, this gets monotonous."The moment Naughty Bear appeared, it was summarily tranquilized.
The hell of it is, everyone who's responded negatively to the game starts out by saying that they wanted to love it — that the game, as advertised, seemed to be marketed directly to them. Trisha is not alone! It turns out we're all sick of "stupid military people" and in search of something different — all definitive evidence to the contrary. And when it comes to homicide + bears, tell me, what is there not to love? Everything, it looks like. As a wise man once said, "There's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
By now Trisha's read all the reviews (I keep helpfully posting them on her Facebook page), and she's still determined to play it. Soon enough, then, we'll get some bear-on-bear action going here, fully aware that we're probably going to feel terrible about ourselves, the world, and video games in general. Naughty Bear is still a bellwether title to me, though, in that it speaks so clearly to many gamers' longing to find something out there offbeat, funny, and odd. "I want to be a naughty bear!" Trisha says. Don't we all?
÷ ÷ ÷
Tom Bissell (Xbox Live gamertag: T C Bissell; PlayStation Network gamertag: TCBissell) is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, and The Father of All Things. A recipient of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Bay de Noc Community College Alumnus of the Year Award, he teaches fiction writing at Portland State University and lives in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Tom Bissell is the author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter