Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

I’ve been saving Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for a rainy day since it came out on the Nintendo Switch in September 2019, and my “rainy day” turned out to be my first winter back in Philadelphia, which has hit me with far more snow than I expected. Wrath of the White Witch is magical and delightful, and it’s the perfect game for cozy days indoors.

Wrath of the White Witch is a seventy-hour JRPG that’s intended for kids around the same age as the game’s protagonist, who is around ten years old. It was developed in collaboration with Studio Ghibli by Level-5, which makes the Professor Layton and Yo-kai Watch games.

As indicated by the game’s title, it takes place in two closely connected worlds, a high fantasy world of wizards and castles and talking animals and a world loosely based on our own. You play as Oliver, a boy who travels between a suburb of 1950s Detroit and the fantasy world with the intent of finding a way to save his mother, who has recently passed away from an illness. The idea is that Oliver’s mother’s “soulmate” in the fantasy world has gone missing; and, if he can find and rescue her, then this might have an effect on his mother’s fate in his own world.

The game’s combat system is much more complicated to describe than it is to actually play. You have three characters who can move freely across the battlefield while executing commands. You control one, and the others are controlled by AI. The AI is unfortunately not that smart, but almost none of the battles are actually that hard. The classic JRPG strategy of “just be five levels over where you probably need to be” works perfectly every time, and there’s also an Easy Mode that you can switch on and off whenever you like.

Each of your three characters can equip three familiars, which you can catch in the wild and train like pokémon. You’ll use your familiars to fight, but there isn’t any pressing need to balance your team or do research into the strengths or weaknesses of individual creatures. There’s also no pressure to catch new familiars, or even any way to check your progress if “catching them all” is your goal. The familiars are cute and fun to play with, and there’s no drawback to just using the ones you like. You can also feed them adorable status-boosting snacks if you want to.

The combat system is fairly deep, but it took me about five hours of gameplay to start moving beyond a basic sort of “attack by hitting the enemy with your stick” mentality. Wrath of the White Witch originally came out on the PlayStation 3 console in 2011; and, true to that era, it tries to explain everything to you with copious amounts of text. Oliver is accompanied by a companion named Drippy, who’s a little like Fi in Skyward Sword in that he will repeatedly interrupt gameplay to explain mechanics you could easily have figured out for yourself. Thankfully, he eventually backs off, which makes it much easier to experiment and thereby figure out the ins and outs of battle strategies.

There are a few other aspects of Wrath of the White Witch that show the game’s age. To give an example, it reminds me somewhat of Final Fantasy XII in that it forces the player to sit through more than two hours of exposition and pointless tutorial missions before the game actually begins in earnest. I won’t lie – this is horribly tedious, and you just kind of have to sit there and be patient.

Bits and pieces of the game’s story are a little tone-deaf as well, especially given its secondary setting in the United States at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

There is one African-American character in Wrath of the White Witch. His name is Rusty, and he beats his wife. Like, right in front of you. His back is turned to the camera when he does it, but what’s happening is obvious. This is one of the only real instances of the game portraying a negative emotion stronger than mild anger or gentle sadness, and it’s… I mean, this is a poor word choice, but it’s striking.

One of Oliver’s traveling companions in the fantasy world is Esther, a girl from a vaguely Orientalist desert city modeled on Silk Road culture. Her counterpart in Oliver’s world is his best friend’s neighbor, a girl named Myrtle. Oliver has seen Myrtle out of her window, but he’s never spoken to her because she’s ostensibly too sick to leave the house.

It turns out that the Myrtle was sick but has gotten better, and that she doesn’t leave her room because she’s scared of her father. Rusty, a car mechanic, has had to work overtime to pay for her hospital bills, and he’s been taking his frustration out on his wife, which terrifies Myrtle. Since Oliver is a wizard, he can use magic to heal Rusty’s heart, help Myrtle overcome her anxiety, and thus inspire Esther to embrace the courage she needs to go on her own journey.

This is very much a ten-year-old’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, and it makes sense in its own way, but…

Both Myrtle and Esther have straight blond hair, bright blue eyes, and peach-tinted pale skin. It’s weird to call anyone speaking Japanese “white,” but almost everyone in the game is a generic light-skinned anime person. This means that the abusive husband’s racial identity really stands out.

He gets better, of course. After Rusty’s heart is healed, he apologizes to his wife and hugs his daughter, and everything is okay. He helps you out with a sidequest later on in the game in a way that demonstrates his high competence as a mechanic. But still, for there to be only one Black person in Detroit… And for the one Black character in the game to be violent like that… And for both his wife and daughter to be coded as white… I just feel like there’s a lot of racial history at play here that isn’t given sufficient depth for its inclusion in the game to be worthwhile.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s more to American culture than hot dogs and hamburgers and saying hello to your neighbors from across their white-picket fences as you stroll down Main Street. If you’re setting a game in the United States, you should have more than one Black character, and you need to be aware of the historical violence and deep cultural wounds created by stereotypes about Black male violence against white women.

I suppose you could counter this with, “But Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese game for children that flattens and parodies all of the people and cultures it incorporates into its fantasy world,” and that’s fair. At the same time, I’m happy that Japanese game developers have since figured out that it’s okay to have more than one Black or dark-skinned character in any given game, and that it won’t break anyone’s sense of immersion to have NPCs walking around with a variety of skintones.

(Just as an aside, I want to emphasize that I’m not cherry-picking an example here. There are a few other examples of problematic portrayals of racial and ethnic difference in Wrath of the White Witch, as well as many other examples that could be drawn from JRPGs in general. This is a serious and complicated topic, but addressing it isn’t really the point of this blog post. If you’re interested in pursuing this further, the essay collection The State of Play is a great place to get started.)

So there are elements of Wrath of the White Witch that betray the game’s age, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of its reflection of the then-current state of transnational conversations concerning representation. Still, most of the game is an absolute treasure.

The cel-shaded graphics are amazing and have not aged a day. The animation is spectacular. In particular, the way that the mantle of Oliver’s cape moves is a technological marvel. You really do feel as though you’re walking around in a Studio Ghibli movie, and it’s incredible. The world map is gorgeous, and the towns are intricately detailed and full of life. You can tell that Level-5 and Studio Ghibli put a lot of love and attention into designing the world, and it’s an enormous amount of fun to explore and take on sidequests.

The translation is brilliant, and the voice acting is lovely. The level of detail put into the sound design is pure Studio Ghibli. The score by Joe Hisaishi is everything you’d hope it would be.

I’m not saying that every game needs to have an active fandom, but I wonder why this game is relatively uncelebrated in my circles of social media. There were precious few JRPGs on the PlayStation 3, which was odd after the immense popularity of JRPGs on the PlayStation 2, so you’d think a high-quality game like Wrath of the White Witch would have stood out. Then again, I myself never managed to get into it back when it first came out despite having started it a few times. My guess is that Wrath of the White Witch’s innocent charm and nostalgic JRPG elements help it work well as a pokémon-style portable game on the small screen of the Nintendo Switch.

I know that a sequel, Revenant Kingdom, was released for PlayStation 4 in 2018, but I was too obsessed with Breath of the Wild at the time to pay much attention to it. Revenant Kingdom is partially set in contemporary New York, and I get the sense that it’s intended for an adult audience. I think it might be worth checking out once I finish up the last few postgame sidequests of Wrath of the White Witch just to see how the world of the story (and the worldview of its creators) has changed in the past ten years.

Hades

I’ve spent a lot of time playing Hades during the past two months, and I think it’s fair to say that I enjoy it. I’d like to write about brilliant its storytelling is, but first I have to explain the gameplay.

Hades is an isometric Rougelike action game, which means that the player watches from a bird’s eye view as the character runs around and kills things in randomly generated levels. Like most Rougelike games, the level of difficulty is fairly high, but the game’s optional “God Mode” allows the player-character to become incrementally more resistant to damage with each successive death. Because of the way God Mode eventually allows you to calibrate the game to your exact level of comfort, I would recommend (and have recommended) Hades to anyone who enjoys video games, even if they hate Rougelikes. Hades is a long game with a lot to discover; but, somewhat like Breath of the Wild, you have to commit to around three to four hours of learning how the game works before you get to the good stuff.

You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, and your goal is to leave the underworld to find your mother, Persephone. You start the game in the House of Hades, where you can talk with various NPCs, buy upgrades, and choose the weapon and status-boosting “keepsake” you’ll use on your next run through the game. A complete run will take you through four levels, each of which are about ten stages long, and a final culminating boss fight. If you die, the River Styx carries you back to the House of Hades to try again from the beginning. You collect various resources during each run that you retain when you die, and you can use them to make your character stronger between runs.

It took me 24 attempts to make it to the end of a run and beat the final boss for the first time. After you finish your first complete run, it takes another 10 successful runs to be able to watch the end credits. The game is only really half-finished after you watch the end credits, however. In order to complete the story, you’re encouraged to work toward an epilogue. It took me a total of 87 runs through the game to trigger the epilogue.

When you first start playing Hades, a full run might take 40 to 50 minutes. Once you become more comfortable with the game’s weapons and start to learn enemy attack patterns, it takes about 20 to 25 minutes to do a full run. If you balance out the longer run times with all the times you die within the first 10 minutes, I’m going to say that an average run takes about half an hour.

What this means is that it will probably take most players about 20 hours to get to the end credits and perhaps around 45 hours to complete the game. In my case, at least, these were 45 hours well spent.

If playing the same four levels over and over and over sounds repetitive, it absolutely is. Hades is a game about trying and failing and gradually getting better. There’s a lot of failure, and a lot of trying new things to figure out what works. If you’ve ever played an action game, whether it’s Super Mario Bros or Super Meat Boy, you’re familiar with how this gameplay cycle operates. What sets Hades apart is just how fun and flashy its combat mechanics are. Hades has the same addictive gameplay everyone loved in Supergiant Games’s debut title Bastion, except now you’re given the opportunity to explore the full range of each level and weapon and ability instead of quickly moving on to the next thing.

Thankfully, the randomly generated Rougelike elements of Hades are programmed to be fair, and the player is never punished by simple bad luck. After playing through the game about two dozen times, you start to get a sense for how its stage creation algorithm works, and the level design and enemy placement no longer feels random at all. Nothing unexpected comes out of left field; and, once you get to a point where you stop dying, you probably won’t die anymore. I know that sounds tautological, but what I mean is that the difficulty curve is well-designed, even for someone such as myself who is embarrassingly bad at action games.

If the sheer enjoyability of the gameplay helps Hades shine, the cleverness of its storytelling raises the game to the level of brilliance.

Hades tells its story through a series of conversations that are spread out across multiple playthroughs. You won’t learn a character’s story by speaking with them once, or even a dozen (or two dozen) times. Because the character interactions are (somewhat) randomly triggered, you have to be patient.

You can earn the trust and affection of most of the game’s primary and secondary characters by giving them rare bottles of nectar and even more rare bottles of ambrosia, and most characters have a “heart meter” that shows the progress of your relationship. Even if you want to focus on developing a relationship with a certain character, however, you can’t guarantee that you’ll encounter them in any given playthrough. You also can’t guarantee that they’ll be willing to accept gifts from you – each character’s heart meter is “locked” at a certain point, and it can only be unlocked by meeting certain conditions, which usually involve having conversations with other characters. There’s been a lot of message board speculation about what the heart meter unlocking conditions are for each character, because they’re not straightforward. I want to emphasize that it’s not difficult to max out each character’s heart meter, necessarily; rather, it requires having the patience to allow each relationship to develop organically and understanding that each character has connections with other people, not just with the player-protagonist.

Hades thereby forces the player to take time between conversations, to develop an understanding of a wider network of social relationships, and to keep returning to each character with additional knowledge and perspective. This type of fragmented storytelling allows for a degree of complication and nuance that a more straightforward story might struggle with. It also encourages the player to develop empathy for characters and situations that are “problematic” – or, as they might be more accurately described, “interesting.”

If you’ve been considering whether you want to play Hades, I hope you’ll be convinced to give it a shot. The rest of this post is filled with spoilers, so you may want to stop reading here.

To summarize what follows: As amazing as the gameplay of Hades is, its storytelling is even better. It’s fun game about fighting with good writing about family, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Okay, spoilers below. . .

As Zagreus, the son of Hades, you begin the game with one objective – to escape the underworld. Your father doesn’t want you to leave, because he’s apparently an asshole, so he sends various monsters and shades of the dead to stop you. You, however, are a badass, and you do what you want. The gods of Olympus have somehow learned of your desire to join them on their mountain, and they send you various power-up “boons” to help you fight your way out of the underworld.

The story becomes more complicated as you play. You learn that, due to an esoteric decree of the Fates, Zagreus was born dead and can’t survive outside of the underworld. His mother Persephone was so traumatized by this that she left Hades, not understanding that Zagreus was still “alive” in his own way. Unfortunately for Persephone, she has nowhere to go, as she had secretly asked Zeus to set up an arranged marriage with Hades because she hated Olympus. Hades is worried that, if Zagreus meets Persephone, the Olympian gods will learn where she’s hiding and force her to return against her will. Your goal therefore becomes to help Persephone and Hades communicate with one another, and then to help Persephone communicate with her extended family.

After the end credits, Persephone returns to the underworld and is reunited with Hades, who has always loved her. During the epilogue, all of the Olympians are invited to a party in the underworld, and Persephone tells them (a version of) the truth. Most of the gods already knew what was going on, but they still appreciate the gesture. There are no hard feelings, and everyone behaves like an adult and has a wonderful time.

Despite the unabashedly happy ending, the point of the story is that everything is more complicated than it seems at first. Characters who seem strong and unyielding have weaknesses, characters who seem like antagonists have their own valid motivations, and characters who seem as if they only live to serve the interests of the player actually have interesting lives and stories of their own.

It’s one thing to read a few sentences stating that these complications exist, but it’s something else entirely to experience these complications for yourself through scattered conversations across 45 hours of gameplay. While running around and killing things, the player has time to process each conversation and reflect on it before the story progresses. Nothing is resolved quickly, so the player has to sit with each new complication while slowly developing a more well-rounded sense of perspective on each character. Some contradictions end up never being resolved – and, by the time you get to the end of the game, you realize that that’s okay.

In particular, the character Hades becomes much more interesting as you get uncover more of the story. Although he’s not supportive of Zagreus in a way that perhaps he should be, Hades is a constant presence in the midst of a shifting cast of characters who come and go as they please. He’s there for his son at the beginning of every run; and, as the final boss, he’s there at the end as well. He checks up on Zagreus at various waypoints and helps him out in small ways. Most players will eventually realize that Hades isn’t too terribly committed to playing the role of an antagonist, which begs the question of why he’s so opposed to Zagreus leaving the underworld in the first place.

This realization is not immediate, however. In the game’s only flashback scene, Hades is having a bad day and takes it out on Zagreus by being needlessly hypercritical. As an adult, I know exactly where Hades is coming from, but I also remember being a teenager and not understanding what was going on when teachers and managers were like this. Hades is tired and overworked and lonely and doing his best, but he doesn’t have the emotional energy to communicate effectively and transposes his frustration at his own behavior onto his son. I’m not trying to suggest that Hades’s behavior in this scene is healthy, of course, and you can understand why he and his son have such a tense relationship. Still, the way the game allows you to gradually develop a broader sense of perspective helps you understand that Hades isn’t just a “villain” or “abusive” or “a bad father.”

This sort of nuance in characterization is present in other types of relationships. Although Hades allows you to romance various characters, it’s not so much a dating sim as it is a “learning to communicate properly before you enter into an intimate relationship” sim.

One of the romanceable characters is Dusa, a disembodied Gorgon head with self-confidence issues. Zagreus can follow the standard gameplay path to romance her, but this romance ends up becoming a romantic friendship. Zagreus’ foster mother Nyx cautions Dusa against talking to him, but her reservations have less to do with class (ie, Dusa is a servant and Zagreus is a prince) than they have to do with Nyx’s concern that Dusa is only exacerbating her issues with self-confidence by engaging with someone whose position makes her nervous about her own role in the household. In other words, Nyx is attempting to encourage Dusa to grow as a person so that she can make a choice about the relationship that stems from her own feelings, not a sense of obligation. Dusa seems to start out as a joke character – she’s a cute anime maid, but also a disembodied monster head! – but her narrative arc is surprisingly touching.

The player watches all of these stories unfold while Zagreus is doing his own thing, fighting and collecting treasure and leveling up weapons and gathering resources to add cosmetic changes to the game’s central hub, most of which do nothing except look pretty and earn irate comments from the comically grumpy Hades. The brilliance of the game’s storytelling is that, while you’re living your life, you come to the realization that other people are living theirs, and they’ve got just as much going on as you do.

Hades is a super fun and stylish game about killing things, but it’s also an empathy game in a way that only a super fun and stylish game about killing things can be. The action-oriented gameplay is a buffer that allows the story to unfold at its own pace, which is slowly and erratically. You can’t make a walking simulator 45 hours long, but the Rougelike gameplay of Hades not only gives you those 45 hours but ensures that you enjoy every single one of them.

It is a beautiful day, and

You are a terrible bog witch dwelling in a haunted swamp forest.

You have just woken up from a three-month nap, and you hate everything.

What do you do?

.

I’ve been thinking about getting into RPG Maker, and I think I want the player-protagonist of my first game to be a horrible old woman. My ideal project would basically be a 16-bit version of Animal Crossing. You explore a haunted swamp forest, collect materials, and run errands while planting trees and watering flowers. The catch is that all of the dialogue choices will be extraordinarily rude and filthy. You’ll also have dialogue options that encourage murder, but the game will always tell you that killing people is wrong and make you choose something else.

I think it might be neat if the game were set in the world of The Demon King, with the demon king himself being a secondary character. The witch will coerce Balthazar into doing manual labor (like clearing away fallen trees) through shame, bullying, and offering him smutty romance novels, and each encounter will open up more of the map.

The point of the game will be to care for the forest while helping spring transition into summer. I imagine that it will take about two hours to play through the story, with five or six “stages,” or perhaps “chapters.” My main inspiration for gameplay is A Short Hike, but I’d like there to be significantly more text.

I wonder how long a project like this would take to put together?

Political Art

I’m about as “indie” as someone can be, but I’ve had trouble finding a place in various indie creative communities during the past year. This is partially because I can’t meet or talk with anyone face to face, but I think it might also be because the sort of work I do isn’t considered to be political. I’m not punk enough, basically.

I don’t see my work as apolitical, though. For example, the full title of this illustration is:

“In higher education, you can’t ask for help because people will think you’re damaged, and you won’t receive help because no one wants to waste resources on the sort of person who has to ask for help. I tried to change the system from the inside by becoming a professor and being kind and supportive to my students and colleagues, and I was remarkably successful. In the end, however, I’m still the sort of person who needs to ask for help every once in a while, so I was denied tenure. The ideology of neoliberal capitalism has all but destroyed the values of higher education, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the damage. Because the problem is systemic, there’s very little any one individual can do, so here, have some plants. They represent diversity, but only in a superficial and visually pleasing way.”

This botanical study was inspired by the point-and-click game When the Past Was Around, which tells a story about burning out and rediscovering joy. Through its gameplay and visual design, the game encourages the player to nurture a more forgiving worldview and advocates for adjusting your goals to reflect your passions instead of your limitations. It’s a short game, but it really spoke to me.

A lot of people are very angry right now, and I understand that. I’m angry too, but I express it in my own way. To me, the opposite of neoliberalism isn’t “productive” anger, but rather “laziness” and an embrace of the sort of gentleness and beauty that exists for its own sake. I like video games precisely because they’re a “waste” of time. I like fan art because it’s “worthless” in creative economies, and I like plants because they exist in their own “imperfect” and “limited” ways without requiring “work” or “effort.”

In any case, aggressively ignoring the bourgeois dichotomy between high art and pop art feels very punk to me.

Root Letter

Root Letter is a mystery-themed visual novel that should take most people about six or seven hours to play. I’ve read a number of positive reviews of the game, so I went ahead and downloaded a copy onto my Nintendo Switch when it went on sale at the end of the year.

You play as Takayuki, a thirty-something white collar worker who’s left his job at a design firm and has a bit of free time before he’s scheduled to start a new job. When he goes home to visit his parents, he finds a set of letters from Aya Fumino, his pen pal from his senior year of high school. He’d exchanged nine letters with her, but he discovers a tenth at the bottom of the stack that he doesn’t remember reading. In this letter, Aya tells Takayuki that she can no longer continue their correspondence. She apologizes, saying that she has killed someone.

Takayuki decides to try to find her in Matsue, a city on the Sea of Japan about halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima. When he arrives at the address on the letters, however, he finds an empty lot. A passing neighbor tells him that the house burned down fifteen years ago, so he checks the records at the city library. He learns that, while a girl named Aya Fumino used to live in that house, she died twenty-five years ago, long before she could have written to him.

Why did the house burn down? Who was pretending to be Aya Fumino? And who did she kill?

With a week of free time and an intriguing mystery on his hands, Takayuki sets about tracking down the seven friends his pen pal mentioned in her letters. None of them want to talk to him, however, and everyone claims not to know anyone named Aya Fumino, even when presented with her photo. Your goal, as Takayuki, is to find and interrogate these seven adults in an attempt to figure out who “Aya Fumino” was and what happened during her senior year of high school.

There are five possible endings to Root Letter, but its gameplay is almost completely linear. You use a drop-down menu to move between various locations in Matsue as you follow various hints and clues, and the “Think” command on your menu will (almost) always tell you where the game wants you to go next. The interrogation scenes feature a few Ace Attorney style elements that involve presenting the right piece of evidence at the right moment, but this is also extremely linear. There’s no reward for exploration or creativity; but, thankfully, there’s no punishment for failure. Root Letter is much more of an interactive novel than a game, and it’s not interested in derailing your progress through the story.

The ending you see is determined by your choice of how Takayuki responded to the letter from Aya Fumino that’s presented at the beginning of each of the game’s chapters. You’re given two sets of choices per letter, and your options tend to fall into discrete categories at don’t make much sense unless you already know which ending you’re trying to unlock. Like the shitty casual gamer I am, I chose a “normal” (to me) range of mixed responses and got the worst ending, in which the whole mess about Aya Fumino was a government conspiracy to cover up an alien invasion.

My advice would be to avoid my rookie mistake by consulting a guide to the endings before you begin. Don’t worry about spoiling yourself, because Root Letter’s story is so convoluted that none of the endings will make sense if you haven’t played the game.

It’s my understanding that the “default” ending, meaning the ending you’ll see if you always choose the first response option, is a bittersweet story about missed connections, growing up, and letting the past go as you move on with your life. Another ending, the “Cursed Letter” ending, is about the power of teenage imagination to create both urban legends and personal identity; while another, the “Princess of Himegamori Forest” ending, is a horror-themed exploration of local Shintō folklore.

One of the main benefits of playing the Last Answer edition of the game (as opposed to the original 2016 release) is that it contains an optional “drama mode.” The drama version of the game uses photos of real actors and locations; and, based on what I’ve seen, the photography is quite polished and surprisingly faithful. Having played the game through once with anime illustrations, I’m looking forward to playing it again in drama mode at some point in the future.

While Root Letter pushes the player forward with the strong forward momentum of its mystery story, it also invites you to take time to appreciate the sights of Matsue. As Takayuki, you’ll get to stay at a traditional hot springs inn, stroll through the forested grounds of Matsushiro Castle, visit art museums, and eat at trendy cafés. Root Letter leans especially hard into its celebration of the local cuisine, and I’m excited about the prospect of being able to enjoy photographic depictions of Matsue’s food culture.

Unfortunately, some elements of the game haven’t aged well, probably because they were never attractive to begin with. To give an example, one character admits to a violent attempted rape, and the other characters just sort of shake their heads and move on. If this assault only comes up briefly and is never mentioned again, why include it in the story at all? Likewise, “Aya Fumino’s” fake suicide is teased fairly early in the game but isn’t given any dramatic weight. Rather, it’s played purely for shock value, with the implicit understanding that this sort of thing is just what moody high school girls do.

Some of the most uncomfortable parts of the game involve a character nicknamed “Fatty.” This character’s entire arc is about how he’s overweight, and about how overweight people are weak and gross and unlovable. In order to psychologically break this character during his investigation, Takayuki taunts him with chocolate-covered potato chips, which he can’t resist because, at the deepest core of his being, he is and will always be a big fat fatty. The whole thing is super gross, especially in combination with the casual gay panic thrown into this chapter. I feel that this is one of the many instances in which a more judicious localization could have made some slight changes, not to erase this type of bigotry and meanness, but to mitigate it somewhat.

The player’s enjoyment of Root Letter is largely based on its story, so it’s a shame that the translation is so lackluster. It’s perfectly serviceable, and it’s far from unreadable, but it has numerous quality control issues that would be tedious to list. My main complaint is that the translation received very little localization, which is frustrating in terms of both story and gameplay.

Regarding gameplay, the lack of a localization has rendered it somewhat difficult to talk to or interrogate people, as there are numerous instances in which none of the dialog choices make the slightest bit of sense. The game isn’t that complicated, so you can brute-force your way through the poorly translated bits by trial and error, but it goes without saying that you shouldn’t have to.

It’s tricky to discuss the situations in which localization would have been preferable to a direct translation without resorting to an infodump, but I can give one example that’s fairly self-explanatory. One of the friends Aya Fumino mentions in her letters is nicknamed “Bitch.” In Japanese, the loanword bicchi doesn’t necessarily mean “mean girl,” as it does in English. Rather, it’s the 2015 version of gyaru or kogal, and it refers to a teenage girl who dyes her hair and uses tanning lotion and dresses in trendy clothes and pays a lot of attention to the entertainment industry. The English equivalent of this term changes from decade to decade; but, given that Takayuki probably went to high school around 1998-2001 or thereabouts, “valley girl” or “Barbie girl” might work. The character nicknamed “Bitch” is actually quite friendly, so listening to the other characters talk about how much they used to admire their friend “Bitch” is bizarre.

Root Letter has some definite rough patches, but I want to emphasize that I enjoyed this game. I spent a week playing it, reading for about an hour every day, and I had a lot of fun with its ridiculous characters, charmingly convoluted plot, and unapologetic embrace of virtual tourism. I’m happy that I finally got a chance to play Root Letter, but I’m also happy that I was able to get the game on sale, because I’m not sure it’s worth more than $20.

Mutazione

On its Steam page, Mutazione bills itself as “a mutant soap opera where small-town gossip meets the supernatural.” This is wonderfully catchy, but this atmospheric story game is much more chill and relaxed than its tagline would suggest.

Mutazione is about a normal teenage girl named Kai who takes a ferry out to an island to visit her sick grandfather. Her mother, who left the island with her own mother when she was still a child, is busy with Kai’s baby brother and sends Kai in her place. When Kai arrives on the island after a short prologue, the player realizes that it’s a special place. The island is littered with the overgrown ruins of highways and office buildings, and many its flora and fauna – including its human inhabitants – have undergone dramatic mutations.

Playing as Kai, your goal is to interact with the islanders and their environment in order to care for Kai’s grandfather, whose health turns out to be connected to the health of the island’s ecosystem. Mutazione is divided into seven days, with each day being further divided into different times (such as morning, afternoon, and so on). Every character on the island offers a new conversation during each time division, which can perhaps be thought of, in gaming terms, as “stages.” The game is clear about which conversation will end a stage and move time forward, and the player is free either to explore as they wish or move straight from one objective to another. To my knowledge, nothing in the game is hidden or missable, and the player’s dialogue choices don’t seem to affect the outcome of the main story.

The landscape of the island is divided into a series of small areas, each of which is a static screen that scrolls as the player moves through it. Some of these areas are more central than others, and some are only unlocked later in the week, but the island isn’t that big. There are only about seven or eight areas that most players will visit with any regularity, so it’s not prohibitively time-consuming to go from screen to screen to check in with the island inhabitants.

Mutazione also incorporates a gardening minigame that isn’t so much a “game” as it is a natural element of the story. To simplify, there are seven small gardens on the island, and every garden is associated with a “mood” such as “harmony” or “wanderlust.” Every day Kai learns a new song that will help foster the growth of plants associated with a given mood. You can run around the island and collect plant seeds, but it’s not necessary to go out of your way to do so. The gardening elements are all very relaxed, and the player can put as much effort or as little effort into this minigame as they want.

The “soap opera” story elements involve the love stories of two adult women on the island. Although these two stories do indeed feature dramatic elements, they’re both actually quite mature and understated, as well as appropriate to the setting of a small community. Kai, who has a crush on a girl on her swim team back home, is mercifully free from being romanced or having to romance anyone, and she’s mostly a passive observer and casual confidant. Mutazione isn’t aggressively wholesome, as people’s emotions and reactions are genuine and relatable, but there are no dramatic slap fights or screaming matches. Thankfully, neither women nor men are nasty to each other, and everything is very friendly and chill.

Unfolding alongside these small stories is the larger story of what happened to the island, as well as what the older generation of people on the island were doing there before the incident that caused the biological mutations. Many of the details of this background narrative are never fully explained, and honestly, that’s okay – we get the details that matter and enough pieces of the puzzle to fill in the rest for ourselves.

All of the people on the island have interesting personalities even if they don’t have a full story arc, and I appreciated the opportunity to get to know a few characters whom I don’t often encounter in video games. I was especially intrigued in Yoké, an older man who runs the island archive. He’s been in a wheelchair all of his life, which is handled with a welcome degree of realism, and he’s also beginning to lose his sight. The ways in which Yoké processes the indignities of aging are handled with just as much nuance and sensitivity as the game’s two love stories, and the sense of community is just as integral. In addition, given the racial and ethnic diversity on the island, as well as the mutations of the inhabitants, the game contains a few subtle but pointed conversations about tradition and transmission from a perspective in which whiteness has been refreshingly decentered.

Despite Mutazione’s exploration of themes such as difference, aging, and legacy, Kai is still a teenager who is largely uninterested in such things, which prevents any of the conversations in the game from becoming getting too heavy or academic. The fact that Kai is a teenager with a concomitant lack of perspective is sometimes frustrating, especially in her occasional solipsism and lack of concern for aspects of the island that turn out to be dangerous. Regardless, she’s friendly and open-minded in a way that perhaps an adult character wouldn’t be, and she functions well as a point-of-view character in both lighthearted and more serious scenarios.

In terms of its graphics, Mutazione is unique and gorgeous. The character designs are distinctive, the environments are lush and evocative, the mutant animals are brilliantly fantastic, and the mutant plants are creative yet feasible. The game also contains its own herbiary that’s accessible from the main menu. It’s completely optional, but it’s really fun to flip through. I’m not an expert on plants, but I know just enough to be able to understand that there are some cool references to the real-world scientific field of botany in both the main game and the herbiary.

The Mutazione OST, which you can find on Bandcamp, is one of the best things I’ve discovered in This Wild Year of Our Lord 2020. I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that it’s an extended LoFi Beats to Chill To playlist mixed with a few Riot Grrrl style anthems. I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the wordless punk songs, but the rest of the OST is lovely, both as an accompaniment to the game and as a nice background for writing or studying. My favorite tracks are the three “What’s on the Menu” pieces, which are super ambient and relaxing.

The closest comparisons to Mutazione are probably Oxenfree and Night in the Woods, but Mutazione is much more secure in its identity as a story game. It doesn’t require any platforming, puzzle solving, or reflex-based minigames, and it tackles real and interesting topics and themes without forcing the player to sit through extended scenes of teenagers being awkward and unpleasant to one another. Mutazione does have a few creepy moments, and some of the revelations Kai uncovers about the island are genuinely upsetting. These darker elements add stakes and momentum to the story, and the ending of the game is incredibly satisfying.

You can probably finish Mutazione in about two to three hours if you just want to get through the main storyline, but I spent about ten hours with the game over the course of three weeks, playing a bit at a time and making sure to check in with everyone to get all of their stories. That being said, because of the gradual building of narrative momentum, I got hooked at the end and eventually reached a point where I couldn’t put the game down until I saw how everything turned out. I played Mutazione on PlayStation 4 on a big HD television, where it was absolutely gorgeous, but I’d gladly play it again on the small screen of a Nintendo Switch if it were ever released on that platform.

As much as I’m currently enjoying Age of Calamity, I found that Mutazione scratched a specific itch left by Breath of the Wild, specifically regarding gentle exploration and patchwork storytelling that proceeds at a pace set by the player, with careful attention to the environment rewarded by strange seeds. I’m actually surprised that I haven’t seen more people talking about how amazing Mutazione is, because the game is engrossing and beautiful and original, not to mention a refreshingly accessible vehicle for an incredible story.

By the way, the writer and narrative designer for Mutazione, Hannah Nicklin, has a piece on Gamasutra about how her creative philosophy is expressed in some of the decisions she made regarding this game, and it’s a really fun read.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince is a 2D puzzle platform game about two small children making their way through a creepy murder forest. Unlike similar games (such as Limbo, which jumps immediately to mind), The Liar Princess might best be described as an interactive storybook. The game’s emphasis is not so much on puzzles or platforming, but rather on using the conventions of gaming to help deepen the player’s connection with the characters as they travel through the story together.

This game was created by Nippon Ichi Software, which has developed a reputation for cute horror games with titles like Yomawari: Night Alone and A Rose in the Twilight. Still, I think The Liar Princess isn’t so much horror as it is dark fantasy, or fantasy with a few creepy elements and a touch of dark humor. There’s nothing explicitly violent or disturbing in the story or imagery, and the game itself is quite easy. I probably wouldn’t give this game to a young child, but playing it was a relaxing experience for me as an adult horror fan.

The plot and the gameplay go hand-in-hand, much like the eponymous princess and prince. The story has strong fairy tale elements, with a wolf asking a witch to turn her into a human so that she can save a prince. The prince’s misfortune is the wolf’s own doing, as she accidentally blinded him with her claws. The player’s goal is therefore to help the “princess” escort the prince to the forest witch to be cured before he discovers that she’s the wolf who blinded him. In her beast form, the wolf is powerful and impervious to attack, but she can only hold hands with the prince to guide him forward when she’s in her human form. The wolf can change forms at will, so the main challenge lies in positioning the prince in exactly the right way so that he can walk forward while remaining safe from harm.

The Liar Princess has five levels with four stages each, with a short prologue and a longer “final boss” level. (I’m using scare quotes because this final level is more of an obstacle course than an actual boss fight.) It’s relatively easy to figure out most of the puzzles through trial and error, and the death of either character usually only results in a small setback that generally involves the welcome reset of a specific puzzle. The game also gives the player the option to skip a stage after ten minutes if there’s a puzzle that’s just not clicking. Most of the actual fun of the gameplay involves searching each stage and taking calculated risks to find secret collectibles, which unlock pages of concept art and segments of the forest witch’s backstory. More than anything, The Liar Princess reminds me of the Metroidvania-lite feel of Super Princess Peach in that there’s no real sense of danger and failure is never punished.

The sort of people who complain about games being “too easy,” including no small number of professional reviewers, didn’t hesitate to make that complaint about The Liar Princess when it came out in English translation back in early 2019. The undemanding level of difficulty isn’t a deal-breaker for me personally, but I have to admit that the game isn’t without annoyances. There are a few number puzzles in the third level that are bizarrely tricky, for example, and sometimes it can be hard to tell whether you’re taking the incorrect approach to a puzzle or whether there’s been a glitch in the hitbox for a certain switch that isn’t triggering for some reason.

That being said, the main appeal of this game is visual, with its expressive characters and stylish backgrounds. (In fact, I might even go so far to say that The Liar Princess is perfect for people who love the visual design of Hollow Knight but don’t have the patience to deal with the gameplay.) The character designs are especially interesting and creative, from the weakest enemy in the first stage to the flower-eating “mole” creatures at the end of the game. Although the basic shape outlines are cute and simple, there’s always a fun twist somewhere – when the first mole creature opens its mouth, for instance, you are in for a treat. The game plays with its visual style to make all manner of (relatively gentle) jokes about how the prince doesn’t know that the characters he encounters are all people-eating monsters, and these jokes collectively raise questions about “blindness” and “monstrosity” that are subtle but engaging (and not in the least bit ableist).

My favorite part of the game is the wolf herself, who makes horrible decisions but is basically decent. Despite the fact that she is clearly lying in a way that hurts other people and herself, you can’t help but sympathize with her as her good intentions lead her increasingly astray. The development of the friendship between her and the prince is extremely cute, as is the way both characters smile when they’re holding hands. I’m also a fan of the unapologetically evil witch, and it’s worth seeking out the game’s collectibles in order to learn more about her story.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince isn’t a perfect game, and many people will probably think it’s too easy and too short. Playing it from start to finish took me about five hours, including the time I spent going back to earlier stages in order to pick up collectibles I missed and rewatch the cutscenes I unlocked. Despite a few frustrations with the gameplay mechanics, I loved The Liar Princess. I’m somewhat surprised that this game is considered to be a niche title, because it’s refreshingly accessible and a lot of fun. Although the most obvious comparison would seem to be something like Limbo, The Liar Princess actually feels much more like Journey – it’s a visually immersive and relatively chill game about loneliness and companionship that’s easy to dip into for fifteen minutes at a time when you want to relax and unwind.

The Last Campfire

The Last Campfire is a puzzle-centric exploration game with no combat or danger that should take most players between three to five hours to finish.

If we can posit that there are three main genres of video games – shooting, it’s about depression, and Nintendo – The Last Campfire is definitely about depression. You play as a childlike little creature called an “ember” (who are like the red-robed creatures in Journey, but baby) that is either dying or already dead, and your goal is to move on to the afterlife. Along the way, you’re tasked with helping other embers that have gotten psychologically stuck and are unable to complete the journey on their own.

There are four main areas of the game – forest, swamp, marsh, and cave – and you have to help four embers from each area before you can progress to the next. To help an ember, you must first locate it in the overworld before entering its inner world, which consists of a single puzzle or short series of puzzles, all of which are spatial in nature and generally involve moving blocks or floor tiles. None of the puzzles are timed or involve physical dexterity, and you can reset each puzzle by leaving the headspace of the ember and returning. There’s no penalty for this, and loading times are super short, thankfully.

The game has an easy mode that simplifies the puzzles, but all of the puzzles are already so simple and self-explanatory (even for a dumb-dumb like myself) that this isn’t necessary. In fact, I’m going to say that playing on easy mode might actually be more difficult, as it removes some of the discrete steps intended to teach you how the game wants you to solve each puzzle. Either way, nothing important is actively hidden from the player, so you can solve most puzzles just by fooling around with them for long enough.

The difficult thing about The Last Campfire is locating the lost embers in the first place. Like a Zelda game, the overworld has its own share of puzzles, and it’s rarely self-evident where you’re supposed to go. There is zero signposting, and all of the screens that comprise an area have multiple entrances and exits (some of which are one-way), meaning that it’s easy to get lost. It’s also not immediately clear what you can and can’t interact with, and I have to admit that I had to consult a walkthrough very early on to learn that the player is expected to find and physically touch the ossified bodies of the lost embers in order to solve their puzzles and progress through the game.

Unlike the individual ember puzzles, it’s easy to get stuck in the overworld and not know what the game wants you to do. Although it’s fun to explore the beautiful environments, I think The Last Campfire would have greatly benefited from some sort of map. For me, this was the difference between the game taking three hours (which I think is supposed to be an optimal playtime) and taking almost six hours, which I mainly spent getting lost and having to consult various YouTube videos to figure out where I was supposed to go and what specific object I was supposed to interact with.  

I think that the game could also have benefited from giving you the option to turn off the voice acting. The English version of the game is narrated by a woman with the exact accent and vocal pitch and timbre of Björk. While this narration was cool at first, it gradually began to grate on me, especially when I would get frustrated. The actress sometimes puts a heavy “w” sound in some of her lines (as in, “the ember had mispwaced a memowy”), which can get a little too close to Elmer Fudd territory if you’re listening to the same line being repeated for the fifth time while re-entering an area or restarting a puzzle.

(I should say that I don’t mean to hate on Icelandic accents, which are lovely. Still, I think creating a Pavlovian association between frustration and someone’s voice has the potential to generate annoyance at anyone’s accent and vocal patterns.)

The Last Campfire isn’t as chill and relaxing as it seems to want to be, and most people are probably going to have to play it at least partially with a walkthrough; not because it’s actually difficult, but rather because of what I think it’s fair to call a certain immaturity of game design. Still, it’s an interesting little game, especially during the periods when it’s better about subtly guiding the player forward.

In a lot of ways, The Last Campfire reminds me of a 1992 Super Nintendo game called Soul Blazer, which was a very simple and sweet game about freeing the souls of a cursed world’s inhabitants by entering the dungeonlike spaces of their minds. It’s a neat concept, especially in the visual contrast both games display between the lush natural spaces of the outer world and the barren and overly complicated spaces of the inner worlds of individual minds. I also appreciate that both games acknowledge and respect the fact that not everyone wants to be “saved” by a hero. As one ember in The Last Campfire puts it: Not every problem is a puzzle to be solved.

More than anything, it’s the visual landscape of The Last Campfire that appealed to me, especially in combination with the atmospheric ambient music and the crisp sound design. I think that, if you enjoy this sort of game, the merits of The Last Campfire outweigh its flaws. I also think it has a decent replay value, if only in the sense that it may be more enjoyable to play for the second time once you know where everything is and what you’re supposed to do.   

Almost everyone who’s written about The Last Campfire has mentioned encountering a few glitches and frame rate issues. I played the game on the Nintendo Switch Lite and had no problems with that sort of thing at all. The game can easily be divided into short sessions (and its autosave feature is completely unobtrusive and stress-free), so I think it may be better suited to a small-screen portable experience.    

“Representation” in Final Fantasy XVI

I had to block someone on Twitter this week.

To make a short story even shorter: Issues surrounding representation in media and popular culture are very important but extremely complicated, and I’m not interested in decontextualized virtue signaling being used as a weapon to beat down individual members of marginalized communities on social media.

To set the stage: I watched the reveal trailer for Final Fantasy XVI, and I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually.

Seeing as how my PlayStation 4 plays DVD and Blu-ray discs just fine, I probably won’t buy the PlayStation 5 console, but that’s okay. Knowing Square Enix, they’ll probably release the “game” as a movie, an animated miniseries, a novel, a short story collection, a manga, a spin-off manga, a mobile-only trading card game, a series of themed deserts in their Tokyo café, and so on. Maybe I’ll play the actual game, and maybe I’ll engage with it through other media. Given that the project is still in development, this isn’t a decision I’ll have to make anytime soon.

Still, based on the trailer, Final Fantasy XVI looks like a cool game with an intriguing premise. After watching the trailer, I made three tweets about how:

(1) I like the dog,
(2) I like the Dark Souls aesthetic, and
(3) I like how this game seems to be developing the themes of the previous games.

Almost immediately, some random person whom I’ve never interacted with before decided that my positive reaction tweets about a promo trailer would be a good venue to tell me that it’s problematic for me to express appreciation about a game that doesn’t have any female or LGBTQ+ characters.

I also saw this sort of knee-jerk reaction from a few people I follow and respect, and I have to admit that I was surprised.

First of all, this was a four-minute trailer for a game that’s going to come out who knows when. “The next big information reveal is scheduled for 2021,” apparently. Although it seems as if the player will control a solitary male warrior, we don’t really have a lot of information about who the characters are and what their sexual histories and preferences might be.

Second, how dare this person come into Yoshi-P’s house and assume he’s not going to have female and queer characters in this game. Naoki Yoshida is famous in the gaming industry for hiring and promoting female staff members, and he’s been nothing but respectful of the LGBTQ+ communities that have formed within Final Fantasy XIV. All of the (female and queer-identified) translation and localization staff who have worked with him have nothing but good things to say about the creative environments he facilitates.

Third, although I may have once seen myself in Final Fantasy games in a way I didn’t see myself elsewhere, both the franchise and the gaming industry have shifted dramatically during the past ten years, and I think it’s unrealistic and unfair to rely on the four-minute trailer of a mainline Final Fantasy game for validation and representation.

Both as a queer creator (and translator) and as someone who works with and promotes queer creators (and translators), I always get defensive when people say that we don’t exist, or that the work we contribute to large projects is somehow invalid if the final product doesn’t meet certain arbitrary standards of “representation.”

When I look for representation – meaning, when I look for meaningful stories about identity that transcend mere tokenism – big-budget mainstream games are never going to be the first place I look. This is not to say that there aren’t female and queer protagonists in big-budget mainstream games, and this certainly isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like to see more of them. Still, I think it’s much more reasonable to expect a more specific type of “representation” from games created by smaller studios that are more invested in allowing individual voices to be expressed with clarity and distinction than they are in appealing to a broad audience. I’m almost 100% certain that there will be female and queer characters in Final Fantasy XVI, but that’s not why I would (or wouldn’t) play the game.

To me personally, it’s extremely insulting that someone would look at all the amazing and important work done by female and queer creators in the gaming industry, as well as all the powerful representation in both triple-A games and indie titles, and say, essentially, “That’s not good enough because it doesn’t interest me.”

I agree with this person that there should be more female and openly queer characters in big-budget mainstream game franchises. Of course I do. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I’ve been engaging in a PLAYABLE ZELDA 2020 online campaign since at least 2015. Attempting to shame random people on Twitter for being fans of large franchises isn’t going to dismantle systems of inequality, however, nor is denying the existence of the diversity and representation that so many individual creators have fought and sacrificed to make happen.

But I couldn’t say all of this in a Tweet, so I just blocked this person. If nothing else, it’s rude to invade someone’s space for the sole purpose of publicly engaging in performative wokeness, and I don’t have the time to spend on that sort of emotional vampirism.

So I don’t care that the main protagonist in Final Fantasy XVI is probably going to be male. Once the game has been released, I might have more to say about what it does and doesn’t do regarding representation. Until then, I’d much rather devote my limited emotional resources to appreciating games from diverse creators that speak to me in a meaningful way.