May 06, 2015

Android dreams, electric sheep, and virtual friends

March was a tough month for me. Deadlines, projects, and commitments coalesced into a critical mass that wrecked any chance for free time and recreation. For over a month I woke up early, worked all day, and came back home only to sleep. So imagine my curiosity when I learned about a game advertised as “For you who don't have the time to play RPG anymore: Alarm Playing Game.” The game in question is Dreeps, a Japanese iOS game released in 2015 and developed by Hisanori Hiraoka, Daisuke Watanabe, and Kyohei Fujita.

An “Alarm Playing Game” for people who haven’t got time to play games sounds vague but that’s exactly what Dreeps is. It’s a game where your primary interaction is to set an alarm (and wake up more or less when the alarm sounds). It’s also a role-playing game at least aesthetically if not formally; you have next to no say in character development, narrative choices or even the outcome of random encounters. Everything looks and acts exactly like a JRPG, but what you actually do is watch and sleep and maybe dream. And set the alarm every night.

Every day your character walks down a long winding road. There are no push notifications or alerts: you check in on your character whenever you want and sometimes something happens when you do so. Mostly it’s just the road and the occasional random battle though. Every evening at a set hour (later into the night the higher your levels get) you have a boss battle that rewards you with a new party member. That is, mechanically speaking, a new alarm to set. And if your little android protagonist loses a battle any time during the day whether you were looking or not, it slumps down, all tired-looking. You can help it back up by tapping on it.

And that’s it. There’s nothing more. There’s a plot, perhaps, but it’s intentionally left open to all kinds of interpretations. There’s abstract dialogue but nothing you could explicitly read. Everything rests on your interpretations. The game expects nothing; It’s like having a JRPG Tamagotchi, but even Tamagotchi have more interaction and require more effort.

For a person labouring under intense stress and lacking free time, Dreeps offered a window to another world. I plucked away at my keyboard all day, and every hour or so I would check on how Ishida (my little android – you get to name it) was doing. It was walking down the long road, encountering hardships that I very much sympathised with. Sometimes Ishida needed to be picked up. Often I felt I needed picking up too. It was the best thing! In my pocket, I carried a window to this other world that effortlessly granted me a moment of tranquility in the middle of a busy day. In that world, a tiny android was slogging through its day much as I was slogging through mine.

In her book Millennial Monsters, Anne Allison paraphrases the words of Akihiro Yokoi – the developer of Tamagotchi – who tells a story about “a Japanese OL [Office Lady] who, oppressed by her work situation and particularly an overbearing boss, relieves her stress by taking tamagotchi breaks.” Games are of course a rather universal stress-reliever (with the Windows solitaire and Minesweeper probably being the most ubiquitous examples) at workplaces around the world. But what differentiates Tamagotchi (and recent Japanese iOS phenomena like Dreeps, Survive! Mola Mola!, and Nekoatsume) from Minesweeper or Windows solitaire is that it taps into the very particular activity of caretaking labour. Tamagotchi, Dreeps, S! MM! and Nekoatsume are basically gentle and ultra portable compassion simulators. With them, taking a break is a small moment of simulated empathy and affection. There’s a pet or a friend or a character that exists under your care but – vitally – seemingly separate from you. Their world and their life exist (or at least maintain an illusion that they do) even when you’re not looking, so part of the charm of taking a break is in seeing what’s going on with your friend. They’re a plausible “other”, real to the extent that you can playfully project feelings to them. “[The Tamagotchi] relieves my loneliness,” as the office worker in Yokoi’s recounting says.

There's a lot of talk around videogames about the enjoyment of learning complex interaction patterns and mastering a whole body of rules. And that’s important! Minesweeper becomes super enjoyable when your knowledge of the basic rules and strategies is matched with a level of dexterity to accomplish the sweep in swift pace. But it’s also delightful to have a game where none of that is relevant. A game where you set an alarm – essentially make only one decision of any importance in one 24-hour cycle – and otherwise just let the game wash over you. Sometimes you just want to engage with a JRPG-like world in the middle of the day without having to dive into the spreadsheet pornographies that make up the clockwork engines of most games. Dreeps lets you do just that. It’s an illusion of a more complex game, and thus it lets most of the action take place in your imagination.

Furthermore, there's so much bad writing and exposition in videogames. Ham-fisted game dialogue and worlds built on Tolkien and testosterone quickly get old and awkward. As Tom Bissell writes in his book Extra Lives, “The impulse to explain is the Achilles’ heel of all genre work, and the most sophisticated artists within every genre know better than to expose their worlds to the sharp knife of intellection.”

You can literally read whole books (or at least books’ worth of content) in games like Dragon Age or Skyrim. And while I totally acknowledge that for a huge segment of fans that’s what makes fantasy stories interesting, I rarely enjoy it. I’m happy that there are interesting ruins of a city in a game but I don’t need to know who the city belonged to, why it was ruined, and what the socio-economical structure of the civilization that created it was. Dreeps’s open-ended approach to worldbuilding and storytelling is charming in a way that's simultaneously minimalistic and bold. You parse together your own interpretation. You make what you want out of the lives of the game’s characters and the world they live in.

Dreeps lets you play – in a wide meaning of the term – without demanding (mostly) anything from you. The game is like a playful frame that you carry around: You don’t really need to do anything, yet you know that your character is walking with you, going through the exhausting motions of the day just like you are. The game is on even when you aren’t checking on it. Regardless of your input, your little android has made progress as the day goes by. You could check in on it anytime but you don’t need to.

I got happy just knowing I was sharing my day with little Ishida. I didn’t need to keep my hands on a controller or engage my mind with gameplay strategies or cascades of interaction in order to enjoy playing. I could call up the playful frame anytime – without the need of pulling up the game from the depths of the iPad.

Dreeps, then, is not really much anything. You could argue that it's not much of a game, nor certainly a story or a JRPG. But when life is hard and you mostly just want to take a break from everything, checking up on how your little android is faring while you’re taking a breather is all that’s needed to make you feel a little less lonely. And that's a remarkable achievement for any piece of popular culture.

July 07, 2014

Team of Two

There's a trope in shōnen manga and especially in sports manga where effort and training will inevitably turn into success, regardless of your skill and talent. But this trope does not treat everyone equal. In order for someone to win, someone else must lose.

Sports manga are often fashioned around something of an underdog scenario where the protagonists are still learning the basics of a sport, trying to overcome their status as amateurs by training and going through a series of wins and losses. The other characters in the story are usually depicted as more talented or experienced and act as goals of sorts for the protagonists to strive for and surpass.

And so it is with Yowamushi Pedal, a manga by Wataru Watanabe first published in 2008 and currently being also broadcast as anime. The protagonist of Yowamushi Pedal is Onoda Sakamichi, a guy who has no special skills save for a tireless love of anime and the habit of riding his bike to Akihabara once a week. When he gets into bicycle racing during his freshman year of high school he has to learn everything about the sport from scratch, which is what much of the manga is about.

Seemingly, Onoda's only asset is his high cadence – the way he can pedal fast even when going uphill – but as is demonstrated over and over again, that is only his basic technique. That's just how he rides. His true strength comes from the same place as the true strength of largely all shōnen manga heroes: a will to win, tenaciously enduring training and hardships to emerge stronger after every challenge. And indeed, that is the framing of much of the early chapters of the manga. Onoda faces a challenge but somehow pulls off an impressive feat just by pushing himself a little harder, a little further, a little more.

What matters is your will to win and the lengths you're willing to go. Furthermore, what matters is that seemingly ordinary people like Onoda can be extraordinary if they just have the will to do so, and determination to train. Over and over again the other characters are amazed by Onoda who – even when lacking in skills – pulls through a race just out of pure perseverance.

This is the axiom of the genre. Skill and talent get you far, but your spirit and desire are what count in the end. Enduring hardships, training persistently and believing in yourself will lead to winning.

But Onoda is not the only average guy aiming for extraordinary feats at the cycle racing club. Second-year student Teshima Junta has been into bikes for a good while but hasn't got much to show for it. In junior high he kept attending races but never placed high. He trained and studied theory but couldn't surpass hotshots like Onoda's friend, the lauded cyclist Imaizumi. In the end, Teshima concludes:

No matter how hard the trained, he couldn't break out of the shadow of cyclists like Imaizumi. Teshima had the strategy down but couldn't follow up on it because he lacked stamina.

Then he meets Aoyagi Hajime. Another ordinary guy in his second year of high school who has trained hard but doesn't seem to get any results. Like Teshima, Aoyagi too is "just an average cyclist." Unlike Teshima, Aoyagi has stamina, but he can't come up with a good strategy so he ends up wasting his strength.

The two realize that in each other they have what each of them lack. And so they train and train, combine their strengths, and cover for each other's weaknesses. And they start to win, because – of course – they're ordinary people who put in a lot of effort. The laws of sports manga are on their side.

They promise to each other and to their third-year mentor that they will go to the Inter-high – the big cycling tournament – together. But in order to do that they need to win one more qualifying race to get to the competition team: A race between Teshima's and Aoyagi's "Team of Two" and the first-year members of the cycling club (Onoda, Imaizumi and their friend, the renowned sprinter Naruko).

And how could they not end up in the Inter-high? They have trained harder than anyone, made promises of the sort nobody else has done and have more spirit than anyone else. They've spent all their time training themselves to overcome the mundane. By the axiom of the genre, they should be the obvious winners.

When the time comes for the final sprint of the race, everything is in order for their victory. Except that Aoyagi and Teshima are not the main characters of this story. They cannot win if that means the loss of the protagonist and his friends. Or rather, their winning or losing is not even up for discussion. The point of view is wrong. We should be looking at it from Onoda's perspective. Whether he wins or loses and the significance that has is the important thing. For a sweet while the reader has forgotten that the Team of Two is irrelevant in the grander scheme of things.

And so the axiom fails for them, with Aoyagi and Teshima collapsing at the goal line, their dreams shattered and their bodies failing.

Onoda and his friends go to the Inter-high whereas the second-years are taken to the infirmary to get their torn muscles and broken bodies patched up.

For someone to win, someone must lose. What makes this scene so harrowing and so powerful is not that Teshima and Aoyagi lost, because in sports manga someone always loses, but that they lost even when they were cushioned with the effort axiom of the genre. They lost when they should've won.

After his team wins the race, Onoda looks at his friends, the hotshot Imaizumi and the sprinter Naruko who both are already recognized in the competitive cycling scene, and wonders if he will become as fast as them if only he trained hard enough.

Of course he will. And we readers know that. This is a sports manga after all. A genre where the effort you put in turns into concrete results sooner or later, and where your determination and spirit carry you to victory.

It's remarkable that Onoda asks that question right after Teshima and Aoyagi have fallen. The axiom is still obviously in effect, but those readers who've sympathized with Teshima and Aoyagi find themselves in a weird situation: those exact same things that did nothing for Teshima and Aoyagi are cheerfully re-established for Onoda, who, as it turns out, is nowhere near as average as everybody thought. Onoda is no underdog, nor someone to challenge the elite from the laypeople's perspective: Onoda is one of the elite, through and through.

Of course, epic losses are part and parcel of sports manga. But to have a loss happen so blatantly against the core tenets of the genre is also a betrayal of sorts: for as long as we've read sports manga, we've learned to trust that the weak will overcome the elite. That the best are the best only as long as it takes for the weaklings to power up to their level.

Teshima and Aoyagi had all the reasons to win, except that they were side characters in someone else's story, in a story arc about how willpower sometimes isn't enough, because on the road anything might cost you the victory. It's a manifestation of an unfair world that so often is missing from sports manga. In stories celebrating doing the impossible and winning the unwinnable, having a moment of total failure where all you can do is give up and cry has more impact than a hundred wins. And that failure is all the more stronger when it happens not to the elite but to the laypeople. The ones you trust to win.

I could never pedal like Onoda, Imaizumi or Naruko. I'm a Teshima or an Aoyagi. And sometimes I won't win a race no matter how much I'd deserve it.

July 01, 2013

A cry for frilly parasols

I wrote an article to Zoya Street's brilliant e-zine Memory Insufficient. The issue is titled The histories of gender and sexual diversity in games, and the article is about The World Ends With You, Final Fantasy X-2, The Sims and how I would love for more games to offer wearable items other than body armour and weapons. Go check it out!

And while you're at it, see the other articles too. Good stuff.

August 29, 2012

The Shibuya of my memories

Shibuya brings out the feels

In 2008, I visited Japan for the first time in my life. Me and my partner stayed at a little business hotel in the middle of Shinbashi (chosen as our lodging, I’m embarrassed to admit, largely because of a flash animation listing train stations on the Yamanote line). The Shinbashi station is a simple affair: a few rails, a few buildings and a lot of outdoor space. It was from this relatively straightforward place that we boarded the Yamanote line on our first outing to Shibuya.

Now, here’s the thing about the Yamanote line: it’s a long loop line that visits most of the central districts of Tokyo like Ginza, Akihabara, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Harajuku and, of course, Shibuya. But in between these hubs the Yamanote stops at smaller stations (which, this being Tokyo, are rather big as well, just not... mind-numbingly gigantic). If you board the Yamanote line at Shinbashi and travel the loop west, you’ll mostly hit small stations, leading you into thinking maybe all the talk about crowded Japanese megastations is the stuff of urban legends after all.

That was what I thought up until we got off at Shibuya. A chill went down my spine. People. People everywhere. So many people, so very very many people. More people than I’d ever seen in one place. A bustle that short-circuited all my senses and left me in a sort of social shock. Coming from the sparsely populated Finland, Shibuya was a bit too much.

The station square at midnight, when there were relatively few people around

The station is the fourth busiest in Japan, with some 2.4 million people flowing through it every day. It serves as a station for two JR lines, three private railway lines and three subway lines, all with their own exits, entryways, ticket gates and facilities. In addition, the station houses an impressive assortment of small boutiques and is integrated with the large Tokyu department store that has its own entrances and exits, some connected to the station and some not. Also, the whole station complex is naturally comprised of multiple floors, from several underground levels to floors rising up to who knows how high.

To this maze of commuters and commercialism we plunged, trusting that we could find an exit to the famous Scramble Crossing and the statue of Hachiko. Alas, we took a wrong turn and instead of going via the short route to the exit gates and the Hachiko exit, we ended up into the maelstrom of passageways connecting the Yamanote platforms to the non-JR substations. I grant, it’s easy to get to the right exit at Shibuya station, but if you take a wrong turn you’re in for a harsh lesson in counterintuitive architecture and spatial traps.

We wandered around the station, in the crush of late morning commuters, trying desperately to see any exit gates or info signs. At one point, through a dusty window, I could see a glimpse of the Scramble Crossing, but could not find an exit anywhere nearby. After a while I caught a glimpse of the same landscape, through the same window. And again, a few minutes later.

We were going in circles, seeing the same bagel shops, family restaurants and station snack booths over and over again. No matter which tunnel we took from the little clearing with the dusty window, we always ended up back, shooting increasingly desperate looks at the grimy window that seemed to mock us in a way that was like straight out of a video game.

It was like the level designer of Shibuya station had locked us within an endless loop of scenery, like a variation of Persona 3’s Tartarus, and had further underlined the artificial nature of our surroundings by letting us see that one dusty window, so out of place in the otherwise immaculately cleaned station, over and over again. The Scramble Crossing seemed like a background texture placed behind the window to offer us a glimpse of things to come, in an obvious act of foreshadowing.

I began to wonder if it wasn’t the window that was dusty but the world beyond it. If something had happened to reality while we were trapped within the surreal experience of the neverending station. Silly, yes, but that’s the kind of place Shibuya station is.

We got desperate. To break the spell, we decided to just keep on going, somewhere, anywhere, until we got out of the nightmarish ouroborean Shibuya station. To hell with signs and layout maps, we’d run straight ahead, always towards the first tunnel we saw, until we got out.

And we did get out. Through the grocery and gourmet section of the Tokyu department store, briskly walking past all manner of dead sea creatures and walls upon walls of cookies and little biscuits.

We stumbled out of the building into the heat and sunshine of mid-summer Japan, having no idea which exit we’d taken, where in Shibuya we were or where we should head to get to our destination; the Scramble Crossing and Hachiko. Scramble Crossing was our anchor, our focal point. The one place in Shibuya we knew, and which we planned to use to orient ourselves in respect to the rest of the district. Without it we were lost.

Our maps showed the station as a vaguely rectangular geometric shape, reminiscent of some asymmetric space carrier from an ‘80s anime. There was no knowing where we were, especially since in our mad dash we’d strayed deep into the department store which spreads well outside the perimeter of the station proper, so for all we knew we were no longer even near the station itself.

Then I noticed the buses, and the bus stops. All around us, the easily distinguishable Toei buses were going about their routes. I realized I had seen something like this before.If my hunch was correct and this was the Shibuya bus depot, I knew to the north there should be a...


Moai statue. “Mr Moyai”, to be exact, donated to Shibuya by the kind people of Niijima island in the 1980s.

And if I could navigate from the buses to Mr Moyai, I could surely find an underpass somewhere nearby to the north of us. In the cool shade of the underpass I was sure we’d find Hachiko and the Scramble crossing just ahead.

I knew where we were. More than that, I knew where everything else of interest in Shibuya was. This was my first time in Shibuya, in one of the busiest, most tightly-packed urban districts in the world – and I knew my way. The experience was one of the strongest I’ve ever felt as a gamer. And I wasn’t even gaming, I was standing with my mouth open in the middle of a bustling city!

The reason I knew my way around Shibuya’s landmarks was that I’d been obsessing over The World Ends With You for the last month. Originally bought as entertainment for the oncoming 11-hour flight from Helsinki to Haneda Airport, I was too excited about the game and about going to Japan that I had to play the game right away and get a peek of the digital Shibuya before going there in person.

That little peek turned into around 20 hours of gaming, carefully spent admiring the game’s urban world, grinding for experience points in the fun battles and trying hard not to trigger too many story-advancing scenes so that I’d have something left to play on the flight.

Turns out I had learned Shibuya’s landmarks in and out even before I knew they were real. I had no idea how faithful a representation of the real Shibuya the game really is. Instead of a short – and very fiction-heavy – tour to some of the well-known parts of the district I got a full map and a head full of little details about department stores, restaurants, record shops and tourist sights.

I had a learned a lot, and now it was all being transformed by the experience of actually being there, experiencing the original Shibuya. The clash of digital and physical space was awe-inspiring.

To explore what happened there, let’s dig into some concepts of space and place and the way they pertain to The World Ends With You and Shibuya. 

In his article Kairotopos: A reflection on Greek space/time concepts as design implications in Minecraft [PDF], Isaac Lenhart describes several temporal and spatial concepts that originate in ancient Greek. Of these, especially the concepts of chora and topos made an impression on me as I worked to unpack my experiences with The World Ends With You and Shibuya.

Both chora and topos are words that somewhat correspond to terms we already have in the vocabulary of games writing. They roughly mean a “game world”, as in the full world of a game, and an “instance” (or maybe a “level” in some cases), a smaller unit that’s separated from the larger whole. But game world and instance (or level) don’t really work when discussing a place that’s meaningful both as a real physical place and as a fictional construct within a game.

So, rather than labour under terminology that doesn’t quite fit the bill, lets discuss chora and topos instead.

Chora is a place, an unified area where things can be. As Lenhart describes:

An example of chora would be something like "our country" or "this land", a semi- abstract concept of a world/region that objects can occupy.

Hans Rämö, in his (most awesomely titled) paper An Aristotelian Human Time–Space Manifold – From chronochora to kairotopos [PDF], describes chora like this:

Thus, chora does not denote meaningful place, but a "place" of convergence that is crossed through and "erased".

For Rämö, chora is first and foremost an abstract space rather than a clearly definible physical whole. The exact nuance of the word is somewhat eluding but for my uses the definition of a “space” in the most generic sense of the word is more than adequate. Chora is where things can take place. It’s one level zoomed out from the more specific places of action.

Or maybe it would be more illuminating to say a chora is the space where more specific places can exist. As Heidegger put it in An Introduction to Metaphysics: "[Chora] signifies neither place nor space but that which is occupied by what stands there." Like a stage which in itself is but a space to be transformed into a place by the sets and actors.

Topos on the other hand is a more specific, or more identified, region within a chora. Like a park, for example. Or in Lenhart’s words "[...] topos is a kind of 'special' chora, a subset, a piece of the whole."

The distinction between the two words isn’t, however, especially clear, and they’ve been used for centuries to mean slightly different things.

Lenhart refers to Keimpe Algra and his book Concepts of Space in Greek Thought:

Keimpe Algra goes to great length to tease apart the differences between topos and chora, finding that they are largely synonymous, yet topos connotes a more relativistic and referential kind of space/location.

So, topos is a somewhat subjective term, marking a place as felt, as lived and as experienced, more than a somewhat defined cartographic area. Despite this slight subjective bend, topos does not, in its original form, imply an emotional link or any sort of specifity with a place. For example, it does not imply the sense of "home", as Lenhart states, but is more "neutral and scientific" as a term.

But as is the case with words, over time the term topos has opened up to different interpretations. Lenhart continues by saying that "In the process of by naming and singling out a piece of topos from the general chora, we cannot help but to make it meaningful and significant."

So, even if the term did not originally mean anything but, basically, “somewhere” (if even that), it has in time transformed to encompass the emotional connections too. The term, as it now stands, refers to a place, in contrast with chora which has more to do with the more neutral and generic term space.

Again, from Hans Rämö:
The difference between chora (space) and topos (place) is that, when the former is a geometric or cartographic extension, the latter (topos) is contextual localization, without sharp demarcations.

As a concrete example, Lenhart sums the terms up like this:

To talk about chora, one needs only theoretical knowledge and some technical skills. "My world", "my land", the Minecraft world, even "Azeroth" all qualify as chora when talking about them in an abstract way. To talk about topos, technical skills and wisdom are needed to identify it, why it is set off from the rest of the undifferentiated chora.

Of course, Lenhart reminds us that the exact understanding of the nuances of the words is a tricky business, and my simplified hack job here does no more credit to Lenhart than to the ancient terms and concepts. Nevertheless, the terms are useful when making sense of Shibuya, both the real and the imagined.

For the purpose of applying the term to Shibuya, let’s say the sprawling urban tangle that I call Shibuya is a vague geographic (and mental) label for a district within the city of Tokyo. It has very concretely drawn borders somewhere in the bureaucratic depths of Tokyo Metropolitan Government and its agencies, but as far as the layman wandering the streets is concerned, Shibuya is just “a district”, a perfect example of a rather abstract place of convergence, or in other words, chora.

Fuck yeah, words!

You could argue (and make a good case of it, too) that this whole “Shibuya of my memories” business is actually contributing towards making Shibuya more of a topos than a chora: A place felt and experienced rather than a mere space for things to take place in. But wait! For this specific instance of defining space and place, the various topoi within the chora of Shibuya justify the elevation of Shibuya into a chora. Shibuya is filled with memories and places of meaning, all of which are contained in the chora of Shibuya.

Within the larger whole of Shibuya there is a multitude of smaller, more specific, nodes, consisting of my personal experiences, as well as of those of countless other people. Places that are set apart from the larger whole of Shibuya. For example, the great Scramble Crossing is a place and a state of mind, a very specific spot within Shibuya, immediately recognizable to anyone who knows anything about Shibuya. A topos if I ever knew one, yet utterly void of identity without the chora of Shibuya lending it its surroundings.

In the context of The World Ends With You, the whole game world – Shibuya – forms a chora. A world in itself. (Now, the real-world Shibuya naturally is a topos within the chora of Tokyo, which itself surely is a topos within the chora of Japan, but for the sake of clarity and sanity, Shibuya is the world as far as this post, and TWEWY, is concerned.)

The chora of The World Ends With You exists as this sort of a half-real place. There is a “whole” Shibuya in the game, but it exists only in the background, as a concept and as a geographical tag for the place the game takes place in. You can see the whole Shibuya on the game map, but you can only ever visit parts of it. It is implied that the game takes place everywhere in Shibya, but actually the player can only access certain key locations of the district. Or, to use the Greek terms, the player never actually experience the chora but instead only the topoi within it.

And this is true for both the game and the real Shibuya. The division into places of meaning and un-places of meaninglessness. Our cities are full of places that are, in general, essentially not places. Roads, alleys and vaguely unmemorable stretches of suburbs don’t stay with you, unless there’s something personal you associate with them. Something to separate them from the larger whole. Something to make them topoi. An unmemorable street you only use once and never remember afterwards does exists, sure, but to you personally it might as well not be there after you leave it behind.

The playable locations in The World Ends With You are centered around major landmarks and points of interest in Shibuya. Each in-game location has at least one iconic object (a statue, a building, a shop and so on) that is instantly recognizable for someone who has visited the place in the real Shibuya. Or, vice versa, is instantly familiar when seeing it for the first time in real life, after having encountered it only in the game.

As such, the places both in the game and in the real world are heavy with meaning and history. Playing TWEWY weaved fictional meaning into these key locations which already were rather well separated from the generic urban noise of the rest of the district. This turns the locations to some sort of über-spaces. Spaces that are more than just spaces in the conventional way. Spatial points where experiences from two different worlds meet, blend, and bleed into each other.

Seeing the statue of Hachiko for the first time in Shibuya reminded me of the story of the faithful dog, and all the tourist photos I’d seen of it. The real-world cultural jetsam and flotsam I’d picked up over the years. But it also reminded me of Neku and Shiki meeting there, trapped in a weird world, looking for a way out from a surreal situation. The experience was a combination of geography, history and fiction.

Aside from chora and topos, analysing my baffling experience in Shibuya requires us to review one more term: The magic circle.

Scholars of game studies have, for a good time now, used the concept of a magic circle to describe various spaces and boundaries of play. For as long as the term has been in use it has attracted both adamant support and schorching criticism, both of which stem largely from the vagueness of the concept and its origins.

The magic circle was first introduced to game studies via the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga, who made some references to it in his seminal book "Homo ludens" in 1938. This is the passage that is often quoted from the book:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the "consecrated spot" cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground.

The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Huizinga never thoroughly investigates the concept of the magic circle, and though he certainly makes a case for play being separate from non-play (or everyday life in general), he remains rather ambivalent about the whole term.

The commonly used contemporary interpretation of the term comes from Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, who in their book Rules of Play introduced their own version of the magic circle, based on – but not limited to – the works of Huizinga. As Zimmerman pointed in his magic circle retrospect on Gamasutra earlier this year:

To be perfectly honest, Katie and I more or less invented the concept, inheriting its use from my work with Frank, cobbling together ideas from Huizinga and Caillois, clarifying key elements that were important for our book, and reframing it in terms of semiotics and design -- two disciplines that certainly lie outside the realm of Huizinga's own scholarly work.

The bottom line is, there really is no “magic circle” as such. It’s a metaphor – a tool for effective separation of play and non-play, to be used as one best sees. The use of the term hinges for the most part on one’s definition of it rather than an agreed-upon fixed meaning.

But if we distill the magic circle to its most basic form, we can define it as a boundary between a game and the rest of the world. It demarkates the game, basically.



What The World Ends With You does is it extends the magic circle beyond the game and into the real world. All of a sudden, the separation of the fictional Shibuya and the real Shibuya is blurred. By enhancing the speciality of the already rather special topoi of Shibuya, the game hurls you into the physical city in a way unlike anything else I know. It felt like I was playing even when the game was turned off.

It’s like the game is constantly layered over the observations you make when walking around Shibuya. And the game, when I went back to it after the trip, felt more real, it’s locations more tangible. Not real as in “realistic”, of course, but it felt like the locations somehow contained more of themselves, like they had gained a stronger identity. I had a better understanding of what the game objects signified and symbolized. The chora of Shibuya – the overall game world of TWEWY that is – felt just as it had previously, but now it was filled to the brim with something new: Topoi with an air of life. Places of significance that starkly stood out from the rest of the fiction.

The game world had escaped the digital and entered the real, and simultaneously the real world had come rushing in, subverting the caricature of itself, lodging itself into the game.

The World Ends With You stretches and transforms the magic circle until it covers all of the real Shibuya. The chora of the real Shibuya was overrun by the multitude of fictional topoi, each more important than the other. The effect was most starkly felt near the major landmarks of Shibuya. I could go to any of the central locations of Shibuya and feel like I’d never closed my DS. Walking into Tower Records I almost expected to see the familiar sales guy behind the counter.

But it did not stop with the specific locations. The magic circle was everywhere, filling every street and alley. Even if I wasn’t next to a topos, I knew I was close to one. When I wasn’t at a place of meaning I was inhabiting something else, traversing the meta-Shibuya of the loading screens and background maps, on my way to the next interesting location. The magic circle did not break even when I wasn’t close to recognizable topoi.

In Shibuya, I can’t watch the storefront of Tower Records without thinking about boss battles and cutscenes. I can’t walk from Shibuya to Harajuku, seeing all the little cafés and fashion boutiqués that fill the space between these two magnificent districts, without thinking that somewhere nearby Mr H is fixing yet another cappuccino at WildKat.

And so it is that now the chora of Shibuya is filled to the brim with topoi; The space filled with places, all thanks to just one game. The awe I experienced when the game’s geography started lining up with the real geography was what happens when a magic circle breaks – or doesn’t break, necessarily, but at least spreads to cover much more than a game.

The World Ends With You has a central theme of how the world doesn’t, in fact, end with you, but that we’re in this together, all of us. And only by sharing our worlds we can expand the borders. It is fitting, then, that the game itself has offered such a perfect chance for me to have the boundaries of my personal experience be so radically altered.

It’s a common worry for many a concerned person that video games make us forget what is real and what is fiction. That we somehow lose ourselves in made up worlds and afterwards find ourselves unable to handle reality as it is.

I’m sure those people have never lost themselves and stood in awe in the middle of a foreign city, amazed by how they know where everything is just because they’ve been there before, in another life.

I have fought, I have laughed and I have cried in Shibuya, and I don’t care whether it was real or fiction because I remember it all; The Shibuya of my memories.

March 26, 2012

The white cloak

This is the lesson I learned on my voyage through thatgamecompany's superb friendship generator and awe machine Journey.

During the story of Journey, Great Ancestors, clad in shimmering white and gold, tell your character about the world's history and, I presume, the meaning of your travels. The story is relayed with mural-like cutscenes consisting of simple pictures full of symbols and vaguely recognizable elements from the world.

The point the ancestors are trying to make gets across to you eventually in some form, but very likely only after repeated playthroughs, and even then it’s difficult to decode their message with any degree of certainty. For beings of an advanced civilization that’s some pretty ineffective communication. But then, it's the same vagueness that has ailed ancestors and advanced beings in fiction for ages.

God never spoke especially clearly in the Bible, Gandalf knew a lot more about the world than he let anyone in The Lord of the Rings ever know, and Kosh rarely spoke at all in Babylon 5. It's the part played by all manner of precursors and advanced entities in fiction. Superior beings rarely impart knowledge in sensible manner and verbosity. For all their eminence, they communicate rather poorly.

I've always wondered about that. I mean, god, God, spill the beans already if you want us to follow your plans.

In Journey, all characters start out looking the same. They have a red cloak, a red hood and red clothes. At some point they get a scarf, the length of which varies throughout the game. But in essence, all travellers look the same.

Until you finish your journey, that is. When you start a new journey, your character's cloak has more embroideries than it did before. In practice this means you can tell how experienced someone is by looking at the decorations of their cloak.

At first all the characters were equal. Equally lost, equally bewildered and equally clad. But it wasn't long until everyone changed. Soon the little travellers had capes full of ornaments and everyone knew at first sight who was and who wasn't on their first trip to the mountain.

During the travels you find symbols, little glowing things that make your scarf longer. Once you've found all of these, you unlock an option to change your cloak from red to white. After changing the color of the cloak, your little traveller bears a striking resemblance to the ancestors.

Also, from that point on, it’s obvious to everyone travelling with you that you're no mere enthusiast, retaking the trip to the mountain: You're someone who knows the game's secrets in and out. You're akin to the ancestors in look and in knowledge. You know things a common traveller doesn't.

And wandering around in my white cloak, looking like an ancestor, made me understand.

I had become a God, a Gandalf, a Kosh. I was a being of superior knowledge, empowered with the ability, and responsibility, of sharing it.

I could lead my companion to every secret in the desert, show every trick I know, and in doing that pass on my full knowledge. But in doing that I would also rob them of an important experience. I would rob them of their own journey and discovery. They would learn everything and learn nothing. In a game like Journey the, well, journey is more important than the destination. And I would take that away if I taught my red-cloaked friends all the rules.

So I became vague. I led less-experienced companions near secrets, but didn't always reveal them. I hinted and suggested. Sometimes they discovered the hidden delight. Sometimes I let them run past it even when they were close to a discovery. I would make sure they found something new on their trip; maybe a wall glyph they meant to run past or a scarf symbol they clearly missed. But I let them miss just as many.

And now I know. I know the weight of holding back. Of making a journey worthwhile by being obscure and vague. Of holding yourself back so someone else could grow.

I have become a God, a Gandalf, a Kosh. I have become an ancestor, and I only speak in riddles.

February 07, 2012

Security detail

Adam Jensen, the protagonist of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fearsome guy. He is, by all measures, thoroughly superhuman.

He can hack into any computer, security robot or surveillance camera. He can withstand sustained fire from any source. He breathes poison gas like it was nothing, and can jump higher, run faster and punch harder than any human ever has before him.

But there is something even Mr. Jensen is afraid of: Keyboards. Nothing hinders his advance quite like a keyboard, which he is forced to jab, one key at a time, like it was the first time using such a device. And who knows, maybe it is, judging by the difficulty I’ve been having with them in the game.

I suspect the PC version of the game allows typing passwords and codes via the player’s own keyboard. The PS3 version, however, forces the player to input everything via an on-screen keyboard, one character at a time. And nothing is more frustrating than trying to punch in a long password one key at a time when a security patrol is right around the corner.

I’m frankly somewhat baffled why the game doesn’t include an option to bypass the typing altogether, something along the lines of “press key to enter code”. Jensen simply cannot be as clumsy with keyboards as he is made out to be. It feels very out of character when a player has to input everything like they were spelling out a trainer’s name in Pokémon. It breaks immersion to have this superhuman character sweat over little typos, worrying over long passwords. It’s weird that the best security feature in the world of Deus Ex is a really long password. Hell, given the option of logging in with a password or hacking my way into a system, I almost always choose hacking because it’s less trouble.

And it doesn’t stop there. When you make a mistake while typing a passcode, you can select backspace on the on-screen keyboard and correct your mistake. But when you need to erase something while writing a password, the only option is to use L2 on the controller. This breaks the immersion even further.

The game has you thinking keyboards are diegetic, part of the game world. You accept the clumsy interface because it’s “realistic” in the context of the game world. Yet with this one little detail the game switches to an external input mode and reminds the player that yes, there are numerous non-diegetic ways to influence the world. Sure, pressing L2 to erase is a lot easier than tap-tap-tapping the cursor over to yet another on-screen key. But it’s exactly that little hint of usability that highlights the inconvenience of the rest of the input experience.

It’s a minuscule detail, of course, but it’s nevertheless in stark contrast with the techno-centric world of Deus Ex. Adam Jensen, the biomechanical Jesus that he is, is humbled in front of the de facto human–computer interface of the world. Keyboards must’ve been the prevalent input method for the whole of Jensen’s life, and it still takes several seconds for him to write something as simple as “Unicorn”.

Maybe there’s subtext here, about the emergent interface paradigms human augmentation is rapidly bringing forth in the world of Deus Ex. Maybe underlining the limited accessibility of older technology suits the themes of Human Revolution.

But it’s still annoying.