Tchia and the Tonal Shift
I spent a few afternoons last week playing through Tchia, a wonderful exploration game based on the history and folklore of New Caledonia. This game is beautiful. Beautiful visually, beautiful emotionally, beautiful musically. The 10-15 hours I spent with it felt like a much needed escape from the stressors of the real world, a vacation to a place where my mind could idle and I could just take in the sights. This experience was not completely stress free, however. There were a few times where the tone shifted so abruptly that I was quite literally left with my mouth open wondering if I had seen what I just saw. These tonal shifts only lasted a few minutes, in one case less than 10 seconds, but they really impacted my lingering impressions of the game.
Spoiler warning for Tchia. I’m going to get into it.
Like many games that resonate with me emotionally, one of the central themes of Tchia is loss. In the opening hours of the game, Tchia’s father is ripped away from her and taken Meavora, the malevolent deity who is ruling over the island nation. Your primary mission in this game is to rescue your father and to gain understanding of the powers that are slowly awakening within you. You bop around islands to complete quests, take in the gorgeous sights, possess the bodies of animals to explore, etc. The map is littered with icons, reminiscent of the maps of Assassin’s Creed games, but somehow never feeling oppressive. Exploring these islands is a joy, your reward often being simple; a musical number or a minigame nestled away on a mountaintop waiting to be discovered. Or not. Do with your time what you want, there are no stressors.
The chill and cozy vibes of this game are real, offering something unique in the open world adventure space. There are systems to engage with, should you choose, and the combat is indirect. You are very rarely put in the position where you need attack or come into conflict with anything. The exploratory moments occupy 90-95% of the time spent with Tchia and I relished them. It is a game I have already re-visited just to hang out in the world. It always feels worth it to go back. The problem I have is with the smaller percentage of time that rips me out of these moments.
When you complete your first set of real quests, you meet Meavora for the first time. Meavora is a worm-human hybrid who has a very disturbing design but doesn’t register instantly as threatening because of the tone of everything you’ve seen so far. Meavora has fangs, moves with a silky and sinister set of animations, somehow seeming both comical and cunning. Then, in a flash, Meavora uses its powers to rip a newborn baby out of its weeping mother’s arms and swallows it whole.
This happens in an instant and it completely floored me. It didn’t register at first, like I was somehow trying to trick my brain into thinking it didn’t happen, but it did. Whether intentional or not, the game screeched the brakes and pivoted from a cozy exploration experience to infanticide, and the change was striking. I suddenly went from feeling like I was engaging with a positive and warm game to feeling like this game had betrayed my trust. I’m not being melodramatic when I say this and I’m not trying to be incendiary, but it felt like a moment that was both shocking and simultaneously un-earned. It caused me to look up the ESRB rating for the game immediately because everything I had seen in the game up to this point had screamed “E for Everybody” and my search results returned a “T for Teen” rating.
I’m not saying that I am against more mature themes. Some of my favorite games of all time are meant for adults and have horrifying subject matter. The difference here is that this game did nothing to tell me that this was a tone that it was intending to set. I am not against the creators telling the story that they wish to tell. If anything, I am overly supportive of that. I want game developers to make the games that they want because games made by passionate people tend to yield passionate results. The legend of Meavora and the consumption of children was important to this story. It was a core theme that needed to be shown and experienced in order to convey the message that the developers wanted to deliver.
These are not “No Russian” moments. This game doesn’t need a disclaimer at the beginning letting me know that there will be subject matter that is problematic or shocking. The difference is in the sales pitch. Games with mature themes tend to present themselves in trailers as such. No one goes into The Last of Us thinking, "well this will be a fun lark!" You know ahead of time that the Last of Us is going to be intense because you have been told that via all sorts of marketing. Due to pre-release trailers, and maybe it is a consequence of it being an indie title and having less exposure, my only thoughts going into Tchia were that it was going to be a lighthearted affair.
And it wasn't. And that's cool! I just wasn't expecting it. I wasn't prepared for a child being eaten or for a machete wielding para-militant killing children. What I was prepared for was soaring over a luscious landscape while controlling a parrot or diving to the bottom of a grotto while possessing a dolphin. What delighted me were heartfelt moments of song and dance that made me feel like I was being given a glance into a culture that I longed to know more about. I just wish that I had a little prior knowledge that Tchia contained the previously mentioned intense moments. Tchia is a wonderful experience that I almost wholly recommend. Almost.