Search for the word "happy" in the gaming section of any online retailer and you'll find some creepy attempts at helping us get our happy on. On the cover of Hello Kitty: Happy Party Pals, the titular kitty giggles like she's just spiked the frosting of her unwitting guests' cupcakes in some bizarre riff on the Jonestown massacre. The cover of Playmobil: Laura's Happy Adventure shows the game's diamond-clutching heroine wearing an admittedly happy grin, but since it's the same grin she'd have if she was being gnawed on by a pack of hyenas, she's disqualified from the happy race. In fact, the harder you look for happiness in games, the weirder things get.
The fact is, since the early days of the industry happiness hasn't been that high on game developers' agendas. Sure, zapping wave after wave of space invading aliens is pleasurable, but you'd never stop to imagine that the pilot of your tiny pixelated ship is smiling. Q*Bert isn't known for yelps of joy when he turned a tile the correct color: He's known for swearing when things don't go his way, like any good hero would.
Give us a life simulator where we can guide our little virtual selves through a wholesome childhood, a trouble-free adolescence and, ultimately, a calming game of rock-paper-scissors with the Grim Reaper and we'll speed up the arrival of Mr. Death by dropping our on-screen puppets into a pool with no ladder or a room with no doors. Next to an open fireplace. And a malfunctioning oven. Then get their neighbor to paint a picture of them as they burn to death. While soaked in urine.
We'll all pretend to be stadium-straddling monsters in Guitar Hero or Rock Band while our on-screen personas celebrate like it's 1999 all over again, but there's going to be that Naked Lunch moment when you realize exactly what's on the end of your fork. No, you're not a rock god. No, there isn't a tour van outside, full of champagne-fuelled groupies. You're standing, probably in your underwear, with a glorified, micro-sized "my first guitar" slung over your shoulder, looking like an idiot in front of an audience that consists only of your cats. Or perhaps that's just how I play it.
You shouldn't have a rock hero or guitar band release without at least one mini-game where you end up choking on your own vomit. Or in expert mode, maybe someone else's vomit. Without that, it's just Samba De Amigo with Red Hot Chilli Peppers tunes. And if that image doesn't haunt you for the next few days, you're a stronger gamer than I.
That's why when game developers do try to peddle happiness to us, the effect is more repellent than endearing. And one developer dominates the darkest depths of happytown: Nintendo.