In The Console Wars, Astro’s Playroom Is Extraordinarily Effective PlayStation Propaganda

In The Console Wars, Astro’s Playroom Is Extraordinarily Effective PlayStation Propaganda

As I finished the short delight of Astro’s Playroom, sitting back in satisfaction at having defeated those daft dinosaurs, I found myself bathing in the warm glow of affection for a quarter-century of Sony technology, reminiscing about the days of… wait, hang on? I’ve never given a toss about PlayStations before. What is happening to me?

I have never taken part in the Console Wars. Always having considered myself a PC gamer ahead of anything else, I’m console-ambivalent. Alongside many Nintendo devices, of the Sony and Microsoft flagships I’ve owned a PS2, Xbox 360, PS4, and in the last couple of weeks have been fortunate enough to be able to buy a PS5 Digital and Xbox Series S. If anything, I demonstrate a woeful lack of commitment. But crucially, I’ve never felt any notion of loyalty.

The UK was part of the world where the PS5 launch was arbitrarily delayed by a week, meaning I had an extra seven days to get to know my Xbox Series S. An extra week to develop a bond, establish a brand connection, perhaps even fall in love? If nothing else it had a head start, and for lack of any launch games, I ran the updates, poked around the menus, and started diving into the back catalogue of Game Pass games I’d missed for never having owned an Xbone.

A week later, along came my PS5, and after getting over just how astonishingly big it is (you cannot know the true scale of a PS5 until you’ve been in the same room, and feared for your life should it topple over on top of you), put it right alongside Microsoft’s machine. (Well, on the floor next to the shelf holding the Series S — IKEA shelving can only take so much.) I went through the same process, set it up, waited for the updates, poked about in the menus, and got Miles Morales downloading. But while I was waiting, what was this? A game already installed? Astro’s Playroom. Ah yes, I’d read about it – some little gimmicky thing there to show off the DualSense’s fancy new tricks. I figured I might as well take a look.

Screenshot: Sony / Kotaku
Screenshot: Sony / Kotaku

So I was set up for two different first impressions. For the Series S, it ended up being Gears 5, which so many had suggested was worth a play. I spent what seemed like perhaps five months being dragged through the most tedious tutorial, one that appeared to believe no one had ever encountered the mysterious artefact that is the “First Person Shooter” before, such that every element of its conceit needed to be introduced painstakingly, glacially slowly. By the time that torture was over, it was time for bed.

For the PlayStation 5 Digital, it was one of the most joyful, gorgeous, impressive and superbly crafted third-person action games I’ve played in forever. Not only did Astro’s Playroom successfully convince me that the DualSense was made of actual magic, but it delighted me with a product that felt as solid and enjoyable as Ratchet & Clank had ever been. I immediately handed the controls over to my games-adverse wife, who hadn’t used a controller since the Sega Genesis, and she too was instantly hooked. The sense of connection between player and avatar, plus just how satisfying the world was to muck about in, made an instant convert. My six-year-old was entranced too. And then it started getting all nostalgic.

I could muster some nostalgia for, say, the novelty of the GameCube. Definitely the wonderful DS. And a childhood with an Atari ST was impactful. But the PlayStation? Maybe I’m too old, maybe not having owned a PS1 in its time affected things, maybe it’s my Switzerland-like neutrality in the console wars, but my glasses are completely rose-tint-free when it comes to Sony’s consoles. And yet, as I played Astro’s Playroom, I started to feel… infected by it.

If you’ve not played, Astro’s Playroom is a relatively short third-person action-platform game, sort of a sequel to PSVR’s Astro Bot Rescue, in which you control a gorgeous little robot called Astro who lives inside a PlayStation 5. You’re able to explore four different worlds within, themed around components like GPUs, SSDs, and so on, each of which is beautifully realised in colourful zones packed with puzzles, platforms and the gentlest of enemies. It’s a game to be explored more than anything else, with lovely extras like a special robot-monkey suit that lets you climb, or boingy-robot suit that lets you boing. Along the way, crucially, you collect pieces of PlayStation tech from across the years, from the consoles themselves to the most obscure of peripherals (hello, PSone LCD monitor). It’s never difficult (but perhaps for the bonus finale, which is the gentlest of boss fights), constantly ebullient, and packed with tiny wonderful details. It’s hilarious in places, downright weird in others, and honestly, I love it. I desperately wish for Sony’s Asobi Team to be freed of creating promotional minis and set loose on a full-length game.

But also, you know, it’s propaganda.

Screenshot: Sony / Kotaku
Screenshot: Sony / Kotaku

I mean it! It’s extraordinarily effective, incredibly well-made propaganda. It presents all of Sony’s history as iconic, world-changing, adored by the masses (the tiny robot masses), celebrated in displays of grandeur and unquestioning adoration. Its messaging is one of unwavering celebration for its own past, as you gather representations of its creations to present in a vast museum, where they tower over you and your fellow bots, awesome to behold. Because goodness, who doesn’t perceive the PSP UMD as a holy relic?

I was totally sucked in. By the end I was looking upon these wonders, feeling a sense of connection, feeling like I too was now part of this big, loveable PlayStation family. Hey, me and my PS5 are buddies now! And good gracious, what am I doing?

Sony is a massive corporation, and not our friend. It’s a giant business that wants our money. Casting themselves as an adorable underdog robot who bravely gathers icons of its past is cunning! It totally worked on me! Lovely, cuddly, friendly Sony! Not only had they given me a completely free game, but such an ambrosial one!

Screenshot: Sony / Kotaku
Screenshot: Sony / Kotaku

And even in the light of typing this out, it’s a lasting effect. Astro’s Playroom was so utterly charming, and it was just there, waiting for me, a present from my new console. And what did the Series S bring me? Nothing. Nada.

As a result, when I look at the ridiculous monolith that is my all-glowing PS5, I feel that sense of affection. While looking at the utilitarian design of the Series S I see an inert, dispassionate white box.

Does this make me Team Sony now? God I hope not. But goodness me, it worked, right? Microsoft really missed a trick.

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