I had a lot of anxiety growing up. Perhaps it was the side effect of being an overweight, socially awkward kid without any friends, or part of a larger psychological disorder that was never diagnosed, but either way it made day-to-day life immensely stressful and difficult. Emotional meltdowns were common, and anything unexpected usually sent me into a downward spiral that sometimes took days to crawl out of. This of course extended to my creative endeavors, which no matter how much time I poured into them I never felt confident they were good enough, or that I could show anyone else for fear of ridicule.
So when Esteban the bull breaks down in tears because to him his art never feels acceptable, I can relate. He might be a cartoon with a simplified version of anxiety, but his lack of confidence in the things he makes is something myself and almost everyone creative I know suffers from, but is rarely brought up in any sort of media. That alone made his journey in Slow Down, Bull to find the perfect decorations for his art, but more importantly to become empowered by it, something meaningful to me, even more so given its kid friendly aesthetic and accessible design.
Here was a game for kids and adults alike letting us know that it’s OK if something doesn’t turn out perfect, and that the stress you feel when sharing it with others is almost always unfounded. It’s the sort of reassurance I’d have greatly appreciated when I was a kid freaking out over what in hindsight was always inconsequential, and that half the royalties go to a children’s charity is just icing on the cake.
Sadly Slow Down, Bull’s narrative is saying one thing, while it’s gameplay is saying another. While it’s design is simple enough for anyone to understand in a minute, utilizing only two buttons and focusing around a straightforward collecting mechanic, its scoring system is far less lenient. I was constantly being punished for small mistakes, having to make extremely precise runs just to pass levels and even then being told it wasn’t good enough and I needed to try again.
So much of Slow Down, Bull feels designed so as to be a game everyone can enjoy, with an encouraging message and easygoing gameplay loop, but despite how many times it told me it’s OK that I’m not perfect its scoring system defiantly stated the opposite. It told me that I had to be exact, to get the best scores, to be absolutely perfect if I even wanted to see the next level, and this in turned made playing Slow Down, Bull incredibly stressful. Suddenly I understood why Esteban was getting so worked up, as his game is almost hostile in how hard it pushes you before you’re allowed to proceed.
I really do love a lot of what Slow Down, Bull is trying to do. I like that Insomniac Games is branching out into new platforms and gameplay styles, that they tried to make something encouraging and entertaining regardless of your age, and they’re giving part of the proceeds to help kids that need it. But I feel like by making the game so needlessly challenging and frustrating, they’ve diluted its purpose and made something that instead of helping relieve stress, only served as yet another source of it.