At the beginning of the game we are introduced to Ash, an artistic kid who loves drawing fanciful-looking creatures with horns and plumage in his notebook. Ignoring his mom’s wishes, Ash elects to while away a day in Denska, a young ghost town. The small island’s economy collapsed after a tanker spill polluted its coastal waters. Exacerbating the once-thriving fishing town’s woes are gnarled vines that have infested the area, blanketing walls and clogging up machinery. This mysterious substance, which is colloquially referred to as the “darkness” is a byproduct of negative mental energy. Admittedly, at no point did I become interested in the story.
Ash’s day is upset after a group of unruly kids snatch his notebook and scatter its pages. The kids then push Ash onto a tram that goes to a tiny island guarded by a purportedly spooky lighthouse. Ash doesn’t let the kids’ warnings get to him. Without much ado he sets about exploring. Inside the lighthouse Ash discovers one of the pages of his notebook on the floor. Dejected, he hangs his head in despair when Luna, the creature from his notebook, miraculously comes to life on the wall. Projecting her power from the wall, Luna mends Ash’s torn notebook and gives him a magic brush.
Luna signals that she’d like Ash to paint a few specific designs from his notebook on the wall. Pressing the right trigger will cause Ash to take out his brush and open his notebook. Using the control pad, you can select a design from the notebook and paint it on a wall by pressing the right trigger and guiding Ash’s brush using the DualShock’s motion-control sensors. You can quickly and easily make fetching murals by mixing different designs. In turn, these murals can activate darkened strings of lightbulbs hanging overhead, which causes the surrounding area to light up. By the time Luna’s tutorial is complete it’s clear that she would like for you to revive Denska by painting throughout it.
Ash is helped with his task by different genies, like Luna, who have special abilities. Fire genies, electric genies and the like can move across Ash’s artwork and burn away obstacles or power up junction boxes. Genies, however, recoil at the darkness. To clear away those tangly tendrils of solid mental anguish, Ash must use super paint. Super paint can be acquired by fulfilling a genie’s request for a particular mural design. You spend much of the game painting the walls of the town, lighting up all the bulbs in each area and using super paint to remove the darkness. (Toward the end, Ash’s brush can be used as a projectile weapon to hurl elemental attacks at nefarious genies.)
As Ash goes about his task, he must avoid the bullies who roam around the area to avoid being thrown into a dumpster. “Concrete Genie” excels at capturing the feeling of what it’s like to be a kid happily engaged in his own thing and the annoyance that comes from being interrupted by those with nothing better to do. Over the course of the game Ash comes to understand that his tormentors all suffer from their own inner conflicts which lead them to lash out. The plotline unambiguously sides with a nurture, as opposed to nature, reading of human failings.
Because of its unusual mechanics, I don’t think “Concrete Genie” is a game that one can easily get a feel for from watching a trailer. I never would have guessed that I’d in any way enjoy creating murals and watching funny-looking creatures scamper about them, but I did because I found it all mostly relaxing. Though a VR mode is available that allows you to paint different designs using the PlayStation Move controllers and to watch one of Ash’s genies to delight in them, it’s a bite-sized offering that makes for little more than a pleasant, if not particularly memorable, diversion.
“Concrete Genie’s” wide-eyed appreciation for creativity and offbeat gameplay make it easy to recommend to parents looking for something for elementary or middle school kids. Though it lacks three-dimensional characters, it doesn’t lack for joie de vivre.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.