By John Walker on November 27th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
I think Barbie Dreamhouse Party might be the most sarcastic, darkly satirical game I’ve ever played. And I’m not even sure if I’m joking at this point. When a game with a name like that pops up on Steam, of course any red-blooded human games journalist is going to take a look, right? I was expecting a garish pink mess of dress-up minigames and saccharine terror, obviously, but Dreamhouse Party seems to take this into a whole other realm of creepy weirdness. This is a game in which a sentient closet-based AI locks four girls in a room (with giant metal barriers) because one of them smudged her make-up, and forces them to repeatedly apply lipstick and eyeliner to freakishly giant doll heads until he is satisfied. That’s not my arch interpretation of events. That’s what actually happens.
Things begin innocently enough. Barbie, controlled in the third person, is prancing around her lavish Dreamhouse entranceway. It’s a clumsy menu screen of sorts, in which options are accessed by going upstairs, and down the corridor on the left. But it also features Barbie’s on-again off-again love interest, Ken, another ladyfriend upstairs, and some dickhole playing a guitar. There’s already access to playing dress-up at this point, but things don’t start to get weird until you speak to someone. Then… then it just seems to get really damned sarcastic. Take a look:
With sugar on top.
Go through the doors downstairs and you’ll enter Barbie’s opulent mansion, built from the tears of the decades of children her organless torso has traumatised. At this point, three screeching idiot friends join her, representing all of humanity: Dangerously thin and brunette, dangerously thin and black, and dangerously thin and a bit rock but not enough to worry anyone. The four of them are pratting about in the living room, playing Barbie’s favourite videogame, when Not-Quite-Rock-Chick gets bored and decides to sabotage the evening. She approach’s Barbie’s massive bleeping, blooping 1960s space station computer that she has, and just starts hitting random buttons to make the stupid game they’re playing stop working. But uh-oh, in doing so she triggers an apparently malevolent AI that Barbie has built into her warehouse-like wardrobe.
I swear I’m not making this up.
The robot, called Closet, and unquestionably inspired by GLaDOS, then brings down massive metal shutters across all the doorways, trapping the doll-things and declaring they will now be forced to complete minigames. These involve trapping the girls in one particular room, and then having them hunt about for four of an object, and place them on pedestals in the “correct” order. At this point the game seems to think it’s intended to be four-player co-op, despite not offering any such thing, as the other three girls start madly hunting around the room too of their own volition. As Barbie you click on whatever’s nearby, and then get told only one of the others can find an MP3 here, through the medium of a circle with their face confusingly appearing. The AI eventually runs over and grabs it. It makes so little sense. That done, you’re then allowed access to challenges that really stretch the “mini” element of “minigame”. For three minutes I was forced to participate in a watered down dance-dance-revolution thing, which saw no variety throughout, beyond almost imperceptibly speeding up. After a minute of this bland nothingness I thought I was doing something wrong, missing the point of how to win, before I realised the clock was counting down, and there was still another two minutes to go. Upon winning, our robot overlord gave us permission to pick another room in the house, and it repeated.
The bathroom’s minigame involved scrubbing horses. Obviously. I didn’t do so well at this one, because I’d been playing with an Xbox controller, since it seemed to prefer that. The other three were merrily washing and blow-drying horses, but I could do nothing at all. I tried hitting the keyboard instead, and still nothing. Checked the options for controls, and there was nothing there. Turned out I was meant to be using the mouse – you know, the mouse that isn’t even implemented to be used with the game’s menus. I was so behind the others for cleaning horses!
The “Make-Up Room”, which is a thing, was where I’d make up for this. Get it? And was where things got properly sinister. I can only share it with you. (I was going to speed the footage up in this, before I realised I didn’t know how, so I recommend skipping after 20 seconds in to about 3 minutes):
I punched the air when I got that last face done before the time ran out.
In Chelsea’s bedroom I was forced to accessorize, matching belts and earrings to the dress Barbie’s wearing. Except it made me put clashing pinks and reds together, which was an affront. In the kitchen I had to throw cupcakes at a table. In the garage I had to drop cogs down a hole.
It’s worth noting that the game’s absolutely fucking terrible. The challenges are facile beyond belief, and it’s fundamentally about the madness of competing against three other AI players who seem about as capable as their plastic real-life equivalents. Even if the enormously sinister themes, and openly sarcastic commentary (the main voice sounds an awful lot like Cookie Masterson from the You Don’t Know Jack games), are all part of an attempt by a development studio to scream out from beneath the horror of the contract they’d acquired, they were still crap at making a game. The entire thing is over in barely a couple of hours, and on this they’ve decided to brave a price of £23!
I’ll give the final word to Creepy Guitar Douche.