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One thing I always like to see is when developers get a bit experimental.
Idea Factory and Compile Heart have always been good at this, and their numerous experiments over the last ten years or so have really allowed them to hone their craft, showing marked improvements from their earlier PS3 titles up until today. And when you partner up with an ensemble like Shade, who, as we’ve already seen, are certainly not averse to doing things a bit differently from the norm, the results can be very interesting indeed.
One such result is Gun Gun Pixies. So let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with this unusual game.
Before we kick off here, it’s probably worth acknowledging a bit of context with regard to the broader landscape of Japanese gaming — particularly those segments that are focused on catering to a more specific, niche audience.
One thing I’ve always found interesting about smaller-scale and/or lower-budget games from Japan — particularly those with a narrative focus — is that they often aren’t designed with what I’d regard as a traditional balance between “gameplay” and “story”. We’ve seen a few examples of this previously on MoeGamer, including Aselia the Eternal breaking up its in-depth, challenging and immensely satisfying strategy RPG battles with lengthy visual novel sequences, and titles such as Nocturnal Illusion, Root Letter and Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of Fujisawa disguising their core nature as visual novels with adventure game and puzzle mechanics.
This makes for a bit of a dilemma, as you might expect. Does the fact that these games deliberately eschew a mechanical focus in favour of emphasising their narrative component above all else make them “bad games” from a design perspective? Your response to that primarily comes down to where your own personal priorities lie: ask yourself why you’re playing the game in question. Are you mainly playing to have your mental and/or physical faculties challenged? Or are you mostly interested in the narrative, themes and characterisation?
The reason I bring this up is that it’s extremely relevant to Gun Gun Pixies. While primarily marketed as a third-person shooter, this is not a game you should go into expecting a Splatoon or a Gears of War. Instead, this is a game that uses some of the presentational and mechanical conventions of third-person shooters as a means to an end: the delivery of its story and the crafting of the narrative universe within which that story unfolds.
What I mean by this is that the game isn’t here to be an especially challenging experience or gate you off from experiencing its whole story with difficulty spikes, but rather, the more you engage with its mechanical aspects, the more opportunity you have to learn things about the game world, the protagonists, the secondary characters and the context in which everything is unfolding.
To explain further, let’s look more broadly at what Gun Gun Pixies is all about.
In Gun Gun Pixies, you take control of Pixie Team, a two-person unit of commandos from the planet Pandemo, consisting of Privates Kameriel (aka Kame-pon) and Usamael (aka Bee-tan). The pair was specifically chosen for a special assignment to visit Earth, because Pandemo is facing a crisis: societal developments on the planet have caused the population to shy away from direct interpersonal relationships with one another.
This is starting to cause a variety of difficulties for Pandemonian culture: not only are people forgetting how to cooperate and work together for a common good, making for a society primarily built on self-interest and self-gratification, but perhaps more significantly, the fact people are not interested in pursuing relationships with one another has caused the birth rate to decline.
This setup for Gun Gun Pixies’ narrative feels deliberately relevant to our modern world: the rise of social media’s inherently self-absorbed nature has led many commentators and philosophers to note a sharp increase in narcissism as compassion and empathy appear to decline, and the specific case of a rapidly falling birth rate has been a particular issue for Japan for quite some time now.
With this in mind, it’s quite interesting that Kame-pon and Bee-tan are sent to observe Earth, of all places, as an example of how to do things better. But it’s worth noting that for all our faults as Earthlings today, we are, on the whole, as a population, still capable of caring for our fellow man, and we do still have empathy and compassion for those who need it. Pandemo’s situation can thus be seen as a warning of what might happen if we don’t pay attention to certain societal trends until it’s too late.
Kame-pon and Bee-tan were chosen for the mission for a specific reason, too. While they were both considered to be “failures” at the military academy they attended, the fact that they were some of the only modern Pandemonians to actually form an honest, genuine bond of friendship with one another made them ideally suited for a mission that primarily involves observing interpersonal interactions between others. Not only will the nature of their relationship allow them to recognise the different ways in which their targets are interacting with one another, but the way they simply work together as a team will, in its own way, provide helpful information for the Pandemonians to consider.
Kame-pon and Bee-tan’s target is an all-girls dormitory named Lilypad. In the context of the game world, modern Japan has implemented an age-enforced independence policy, where young people in their late adolescence and early adulthood are required to move out of their parents’ house and develop their own life skills. With this in mind, numerous dormitories have been set up to allow a more gradual transition from the support of one’s childhood home to the harsh realities of solo living as an adult, and Lilypad is one such place.
As the story begins, three young women call Lilypad home. There’s Amayo, a university student; and sisters Kira and Misa, who are in high school. As the narrative progresses, several other characters are introduced, too, including the rather chuunibyou Minami, and Kira and Misa’s younger sister Eri. For one chapter, Neptune and Noire from Compile Heart’s Neptunia series also show up posing as “exchange students”, apparently attempting to carry out a similar mission to Bee-tan and Kame-pon, albeit without any awareness of the tiny soldiers.
Oh yes, although otherwise resembling humans, Pandemonians are miniscule when compared to Earthlings, which presents both pros and cons for our brave protagonists. On the positive side, their diminutive stature makes it relatively easy for them to conceal themselves and their spaceship from the targets of their observation — they successfully keep their ride home disguised as a cardboard box on top of the dormitory’s fridge for a good six months over the course of the game as a whole — but on the other hand, this makes getting around the dormitory and simply keeping themselves safe somewhat more of an effort than it might otherwise be.
This brings us on to what I was talking about earlier: how the mechanical aspects allow us to explore the world in which the game unfolds, and find out more about the cast as a whole.
Gun Gun Pixies is split into eight missions, each of which are divided into three “Orders”. In each Order, you’ll have the opportunity to visit one or more of the three bedrooms in the Lilypad dormitory, and while in there, you’ll have various tasks to accomplish, usually while attempting to avoid the eyes and ears of whoever occupies the room at the time.
Naturally, with Bee-tan and Kame-pon being tiny, the dorm inhabitants appear gigantic in comparison, and the game does a great job of providing a convincing sense of scale as our heroines hop around in pursuit of their objectives. Those who… have a thing for bare feet will also be in a happy place, since no-one (except Bee-tan and Kame-pon) wears any shoes indoors; we are in Japan, after all. And, of course, if you’re a tiny little pixie, you can get right up on those plates o’ meat for a good ol’ look.
But, uh, I digress.
Usually, the tasks that Pixie Team are tasked with carrying out are extremely straightforward if you know what you’re doing — one of the Orders can literally be completed in six seconds by simply turning around and leaving both rooms you find yourself in after the story scenes — but the experience is much more rewarding if you take the time to explore a bit.
In each new Order, a number of Picoins are scattered around the various rooms you are able to visit, with a roughly equal number and value in each. Alongside this, there are ten pieces of “Information” that you are able to seek out and investigate. The former provides you with currency that you can use to upgrade Bee-tan and Kame-pon’s weaponry and ammo capacity (as well as purchasing new sets of lingerie and, after a first playthrough, costumes for the dorm inhabitants) while the latter is purely for flavour, albeit with a few Orders specifically requiring you to find certain pieces of Information.
The Information is hidden to the naked eye, but making use of Pixie Team’s zoomable scopes reveals it as a sparkling area in the room that can be searched by standing near it and tapping the action button. Doing this will cause Bee-tan and Kame-pon to have a conversation about what they’ve discovered. Sometimes this will be a helpful observation that they decide to put in their reports; at others, it will be Bee-tan either lusting after the dorm students (and their respective underwear drawers) or displaying a remarkably strong attachment to the tall indoor plant in Kira and Misa’s room, whom she dubs “Green” and enthusiastically follows the development of over the course of their six-month mission.
These scenes are consistently, utterly charming, and worth seeking out for no other reason than the fact it’s a pleasure to witness yet another interaction between Kame-pon and Bee-tan. Which is good, because you get no other rewards whatsoever for them; they’re present for nothing more than flavour. (That said, there are a few lingerie sets you can unlock for our heroines by spotting an occasional pair of discarded panties on the floor and allowing Bee-tan to take a little too much glee in scanning them for future reference.)
With all this in mind, you can quite easily romp through the whole game in a couple of hours — something that those interested in pursuing all six of the available endings will be pleased to hear — but on your first runthrough at least, it really adds a lot to the experience to discover this additional context.
The Picoins fit into this, too, although less explicitly. While some of them will be on the floor of the rooms, the majority of them will be scattered around the various items of furniture and shelving. This requires you to figure out exactly how to get around the room when you’re a tiny person, and in doing so you may well find yourself stumbling across some interesting details that you might not have otherwise noticed.
Pursuing both the Picoins and the Information also draws your attention to the fact that the rooms aren’t completely static, either; over the course of the various missions, subtle things change about their layout each time, allowing you to draw certain conclusions about what might have happened “off-camera” since your last visit. These are all rather mundane things — a character might have clearly spent some time watching their favourite DVDs, for example, causing them to end up somewhere else in the room from the last time you saw them — but they play a part in bringing the world to life and making it feel like you really are seeing how the lives of these young women are developing over time.
Which brings up an interesting point about the overall narrative structure: despite Bee-tan and Kame-pon being the playable protagonists of the game, the story isn’t about them at all. Rather, they act as something of a modern take on the “Greek chorus” format by observing the action from “outside” (kind of) and commenting on it as it progresses. Of course, it doesn’t take long for them (well, Bee-tan, whom Kame-pon finds it difficult to say “no” to, it seems, despite her protestations) to decide that they want to try and help out these girls with their various struggles, and their armament of euphoria-inducing “Happy Bullets” appears to make them ideally suited to this role.
The stories that involve the girls in the dorm begin in a fairly mundane but nonetheless poignant fashion. In the first mission, for example, the girls are concerned about a strange smell in the dormitory, which it turns out stems from a “diet gum” that Amayo is abusing in an attempt to lose weight.
Rather than seeking properly balanced nutrition, Amayo is relying exclusively on the gum and is making herself sick with both worry and a lack of good food. Evidently feeling somewhat ashamed of this — as people with eating disorders often do — she has been hiding this fact from her dormmates, but Bee-tan and Kame-pon are in the unique position of having found out her secret without her knowledge. This, in turn, allows them to reveal it to Kira and Misa while making it look like an accident, thereby helping to resolve the situation without directly interfering.
This is how the majority of the missions unfold; despite the fact that Kame-pon and Bee-tan are armed with literal examples of the “magic bullet” trope, they never directly solve the girls’ problems for them. Rather, the most they do is help them clear their head a little bit — typically by releasing nervous tension through an explosion of endorphins — which then enables their target of the hour to look at things a little more rationally and address the situation accordingly.
These aren’t always problems with easy solutions, either. When Minami shows up in the dormitory, her story revolves around her having rediscovered an old friend, but almost immediately feeling like she’s lost her forever by not being recognised. Already in something of a fragile mental state — her chuunibyou fantasies are clearly a coping mechanism that allows her to “check out” of reality at will whenever things get a bit much for her — this understandably causes her to go into a deep depression.
By extension, this makes her unwilling — or unable — to talk about it to any of her dormmates, despite them having already shown early in their relationship that they are all kind, supportive people in their own way. As with many mental health issues, this is something that only Minami can solve herself — though Bee-tan and Kame-pon can perhaps give a few subtle nudges in what they believe to be a helpful direction.
Likewise, the arrival of Eri at the dorm highlights the fact that there has apparently always been something of a strained relationship between the three sisters. Eri, it seems, is enormously talented, leaving Misa and Kira feeling somewhat inferior and unsure how best to approach her. When Misa — who is an aspiring eroge developer — attempts to recruit Eri into helping with her latest creation, the result is… suboptimal for everyone involved, and Kira is quite simply at a loss as to how to handle it all.
While Bee-tan and Kame-pon do their best to once again subtly contribute to the resolution of this issue as best they can, it’s clear that there’s something deeper going on here — and indeed, exactly what that “something” is makes up the remainder of the story as it escalates towards its unusual and surprising climax.
The situation with Eri does highlight something else very important, though: since, by this point in the narrative, both Amayo and Minami have been through their own internal struggles over their respective issues, they know how important it is for someone who is suffering to feel compassion and empathy from those close to them, and as such they do their best to offer their own words of support. They’re not able to solve Kira, Misa and Eri’s problems for them — once again, since this is all about mental health and interpersonal relationships, it’s something that only the people directly involved can truly resolve for themselves — but they can simply “be there” and make the sisters feel less alone.
The overall major conflict of the story revolves around this, too. Without giving away the specifics, it concerns how someone who is lonely and vulnerable can be coerced into doing things they don’t necessarily want to do by someone who sees an opportunity to take advantage of them. It also highlights the fact that even people who seem to have it together or who might appear to lead something of a charmed life can be just as vulnerable as those in more obviously “less fortunate” situations.
To put it another way: we should never make assumptions about an individual’s circumstances based on the superficial things we can observe from an outsider’s perspective, because human beings (and Pandemonians) are complex beings whose pain is often hidden away on the inside, typically behind several layers of coping mechanisms that can vary enormously from person to person.
On paper, Gun Gun Pixies might appear to be rather limited in terms of content, particularly with just three rooms to explore. But as noted above, this is one of those games where you need to throw out the conventions under which you might normally assess a video game, because being a “normal video game” is absolutely not this title’s intention.
In practice, Gun Gun Pixies’ deliberately limited scale and scope works well for its narrative in much the same way as theatrical productions with small casts or static sets do: it allows the audience to focus on the characterisation and narrative without being distracted by external stimuli. It also allows the story the flexibility for things to happen “off-camera” or “off-stage” and for us to witness — and interact with — the aftermath of those situations.
While this sort of design absolutely isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, it’s admirable that Compile Heart and Shade had a clear vision for what they wanted to achieve with Gun Gun Pixies — and that they successfully pursued this vision without getting hung up on whether or not it followed the rather limited definition of what makes a “good video game”.
It’s a bold, experimental work that does a good job of tackling some weighty issues that are extremely relevant to modern life — and it does so without falling into the trap of getting overly bleak and hopeless about things. If there’s one thing everyone should be able to take away from Gun Gun Pixies, it’s that however tough things get, there’s always a light in the darkness. Sometimes it takes a bit of work — or a gentle nudge — for you to find it, but it’s there.
We may not have our own personal Bee-tans and Kame-pons to support us in our times of need — more’s the pity — but we do have friends, family and even professionals that we can reach out to for help and support.
It’s easy to forget that, sometimes. But enjoying a wholesome story like that found in Gun Gun Pixies can serve as a helpful reminder. And that alone gives this game a great deal of value and meaning.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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