I’m a bit baffled by the popularity of this game. My nephews like it. Kids like it. People like it. And I hate it.
There’s just no way to state it any other than this is a gimmick. There’s no real winners. No real challenge. Just launch a sprite across a level and watch him get manhandled by spikes, canons, and other objects. It’s pure nihilism; a Lynchian version of Jackass; an eternal loop of destruction that brings shrieks of delight from the young ones. As an uncle I try to not to be that guy who says “This is too mature for the kids” but I definitely start to get that vibe from this game.
It’s pure bloodthirst. Imagine if Grand Theft Auto verged on just killing random strangers mode and you start to get the sense of the true anarchy that this game elicits. But even Rockstar’s megahit franchise has some sense of logos in how you must defend your career as a budding criminal. And this game makes the destruction of those games look tame.
Yes, Happy Wheels has no semblance of verisimilitude. It looks like an early episode of South Park, with primary colors and geometrical world building. It’s so much like a cartoon that it might as well be called art in how it eschews realism for impressionism. But that idea is silly in how little care is put into eliciting any real emotion. The truth is I don’t care for these characters and their impending death. I sense no gloom nor premonition. Only glee in seeing a baby get chopped in half or a biker’s leg torn off exposing the pure white ivory of the bone sticking out.
Which is what makes it so popular with the young ones. I’ve never seen a game draw so much excitement and glee. When visiting my father’s house, my nephews circle around the computer monitor and tap away at the keyboard, sending the characters flying into obstacles and destruction. There’s a guy on a Segway! A dude was just impaled! There goes his head!
It’s not the death, by the way, that truly makes me worry for the future of this impressionable young generation. No, it’s the destruction of the abstract. When I see a cop get shot in Grand Theft Auto I understand the impact of the situation, no matter how much I consciously am aware of it. I know this is bad, but I also know why. And as mindless as GTA’s violence is, you’re always aware of your own morality and destruction. There’s pathos in the presentation of the “thug life”.
But Happy Wheels? It’s all senseless in the name of fun. No one is going to be affected by this obviously fake death and destruction. Violence is so easily absorbed by these kids that it becomes second hand nature.
I see it my nephews’ eyes. That hurrah as a fat dude gets the shit knocked out of him. The excitement for more. And I wonder if they’ll ever know why. How this excitement might one day spillover from the abstract into the concrete? Who will be the ones to break up the fight rather than be spectator?
I feel like a sourpuss. And I’m not even sure this game is worth spitting so much venom at. I just don’t find it fun. Is there an actual way to beat a level? Or is it pure nihilism–a mission meant for defeat and punishment?
One level I played referenced the apocalypse. A demon popped out of the ground as I rode my bike through the forest level and tried to stab me. I was fortunate to get past him only to fall to my death in an impossible to jump canyon. What’s the point of trying?
Perhaps the only redeeming feature of this game is the ability to create your own level. This is where true artistry is revealed. I tried it out while my nephew James was over my house. He showed me the ropes and I was off creating my own version of hell. I found it kinda fun. How could I create a truly masterful maze out of spikes and walls and air lifts and cannons and spring boards?
James was a little annoyed. He wanted me to just put spikes everywhere and let dudes get killed. To his credit, he’s only 9 years old. And to mine, I’m only 29. We don’t need to see eye to eye. But is was a little disheartening to see him not even want to create meaning out of the mindless. And frankly, I only spent a half hour on it before I stopped giving a shit either. When I tried out my level the bicycle guy got launched off a springboard in the wrong direction than intended and ended up smashing his brains out against a wall. The little guy cheered. I felt like an engineer whose bridge just collapsed.
For all that I can muster to say about it, Happy Wheels never once pretends to be something grand or meaningful. It’s a free game on the Internet that kids love and that adults like to hate. I never thought I’d fall into the later camp, but I also never thought I’d be the one cheering on two high school students throwing fists over a note given to a girlfriend. I just want better for those who came before me. And I definitely don’t want to play this game again.