One of the most talked about projects unveiled during E3 2009 was a game for the Kinect called Milo and Kate; the at the time latest and greatest brainchild from the mind of Peter Molyneux. What was shown at E3 that year was a tech demo at best, enhanced to a supposedly significant degree by smoke and mirrors programming, but it was nonetheless something that everyone following the show had on their minds. It was ambitious, and as per usual with Molyneux's often exorbitant proclamations, was claimed to offer a deep, moving experience in the way that the player could interact with Milo, the young boy at the center of the game.
Then the game vanished from public eye, showed up here and there while Molyneux claimed that it was still in heavy development, and was finally cancelled sometime in 2010. While this likely disappointed some (mostly, I'm assuming, Kinect advocates and Molyneux devotees), its fate didn't prove particularly surprising to me. Perhaps the tech just wasn't up to the task of achieving Molyneux's all-too-often unachievable vision, or perhaps a satisfactory market for the game could never be determined. The exact reasons probably won't ever be known, but it wasn't until today that I really gave serious thought to another, probably more obvious reason that Milo and Kate was destined for failure.
Last night, I was reminded of a game I had read about in an old issue of Nintendo Power ages ago called Wonder Project J2; a Nintendo 64 title in which the player must teach an android named Josette how to live among humans. The game has an element of fantasy to it that is heavily inspired by Pinocchio, from its basic themes to the names of specific characters. (The protagonist of the original Wonder Project J is a robot boy named Pino, and Pino and Josette's creator is an old man named Gepetto.)
In the opening minutes of Wonder Project J2, Gepetto, on his deathbed informs Josette that he's leaving her in the player's care. Josette herself is completely naive to the ways of the world and the nature of emotion. Her level of naive innocence is such that, when her creator dies, she doesn't understand that Gepetto has left her life forever. It is up to the player to teach her how to care for herself, interact with others, and nurture her emotional understanding. By teaching her effectively, the game's plot moves forward as Josette uses her new-found understanding to cultivate friendships and resolve conflicts on her own.
By contrast, what is, or was, Milo and Kate? Milo was an average boy already of an age where he could think and reason. The Milo and Kate wiki page suggests that the plot revolved around his envy of a schoolmate's bike, and so the player would have to help him complete tasks to earn the money to buy a new one of his own. As plot concepts go, there are none that are quite as mundane as this, and it's more or less the exact sort of challenge any parent of a similarly aged boy will likely face; encouraging their child to do their chores in exchange for an allowance. The simulation's apparent path and end goal is of the sort that no child would particularly find interest in, and no adult with children of their own would need a game to experience.
So if all of this was indeed true, then Milo and Kate was, in effect, too boring and unappealing. There's no sense of nurturing innocence, as there is in Wonder Project J, no pull of a child's imagination as there is in Hey You, Pikachu!, nor any of the complete madness of Seaman. As life simulation games go, Milo and Kate was done in by a lack of the one thing that I thought Molyneux could never run out of; that creative spark of imagination that allows such games to succeed in finding an audience.
In trying to make a game about real life, Molyneux forgot that without that personal connection, real life is often banal. Parents find joy in interacting with their children because they're their children; not simulations attempting to behave like real children. The difference between Milo and Josette is that Josette has her own story and exists within a world that is much, much different from our own. Milo, on the other hand, could very well be replaced by your own son, or nephew, or grandchild. There is little point in helping Milo purchase a bike when you can encourage your own flesh and blood to do the same. And when you see the smile on your own child's face as he climbs on his new bike for the first time, the reward is far greater than any Xbox achievement could ever provide.