The annual Spike TV Video Game Awards are still a long way from mattering as a pop-culture phenomenon -- just slightly less far away as Ben Stiller is from winning an Oscar for any of his work on the Fockers trilogy -- but there's one thing about this year's production that put a huge smile on my face.
No, it wasn't that Red Dead Redemption took home the top prize. It certainly wasn't any of host Neil Patrick Harris's game and vaguely amusing attempts to lampoon the Oscars and the Tonys. It wasn't even the huge pile of technical gaffes, so ironic for a show supposedly devoted to the celebration of cutting-edge pixelated technology -- well, that and trailers of Every Big Game Coming Out Next Year.
No, my smile was due to something very much smaller: a little game called Costume Quest won as the best downloadable game of the year, beating out three other more hardcore game offerings.
For those who missed it, Costume Quest is a lite-RPG that follows a group of kids on Halloween night, as they mix in trick-or-treating with trying to save their suburban neighborhood from a candy-swiping set of monsters from another dimension. It's powered by quirky humor, absolutely hilarious dialogue and an amazing sense of design: The kids collect random objects to form costumes (robot, ninja, vampire and unicorn) that sport superpowers when it's time to throw down with the bad guys.
Watching that sort of creative approach get some well-deserved recognition was satisfying, in part because it meant that the game's underrated developer, Double Fine, was finally getting some props, after watching most of their excellent game library (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend) fall short at the cash register.
But there was also some personal satisfaction, because of the effect Costume Quest had on my 10-year-old son.
He didn't just play and enjoy the game -- twice. He used it as a jumping-off point for his own forms of creativity. He came up with new costumes the game hadn't used (at least not yet), and drew countless pictures of them, outlining the powers each would have and the pieces you'd need to connect to acquire them. He even created a stuffed-animal size french-fry costume out of cardboard that's a dead ringer for the one used by the kids in the game to lure trick-or-treaters to a fry vendor.
In other words, Costume Quest inspired him.
This is the kind of phenomenon noted by James Gee, the former UW-Madison education sciences professor who shifted his research focus to videogames after watching his son play a computer game. (Gee wrote Why Videogames Matter, an essential read for anyone who takes this topic seriously.) It's the kind of phenomenon in which a game leads to other forms of expression, connection and opportunity learning. The game becomes so much more than a diversion or simple form of entertainment.
Haters -- and there were certainly plenty -- derided Costume Quest's simplistic combat, the repetitive match-the-timing sequences that never quite evolved into anything deeper. Perhaps they even had a point. But in rushing to make it, they missed a much bigger one: Costume Quest wasn't about combat and action. It was about creating an interesting and familiar Halloween world and then giving us some fun things to do in it.
Spike TV's awards panel got that, and so did the audience: A few weeks ago, a sequel called Grubbins on Ice was released, a new mission that finds the kids traveling to the monsters' alternate dimension, trying to spark a revolution while picking up parts for a yeti, eyeball and pirate costume.
The end of Grubbins on Ice suggests that Double Fine isn't yet done with the Costume Quest universe, and that's one of the several things I'm thankful for as we stare down 2011. It gives me hope that next year, there'll be some low-budget inspirational creativity lurking among the big-budget threequels. That's a piece of Halloween candy that'll taste good all year round.