Memory, culture, and the limits of artifice

Memory, culture, and the limits of artifice

The protagonist's name is Yuito.  31, Japanese-American. Hedge fund analyst. USA-born and raised.  One day he receives a letter from his estranged father. His father is dying. It's too late for Yuito to speak to him. 

But his father is on life support, and Yuito has an opportunity. He can undergo a Memory World Visitation, and enter his father's Memory World, a series of supernatural landscapes where Yuito can explore his father's experiences and secrets.

It is risky, but the idea of meeting his father, and perhaps something more, compels Yuito to make the journey…

In a lot of ways, All Our Asias made me feel like I was listening in on a conversation between two other people: it’s not really a game made for me, the white, gay trans woman in Toronto, Ontario. The two people in front of me are talking about the label of “Asian” — about how it can be an overly general term, but also about how there can still be shared experience in the notion of Asian-American identity as well, one that still creates a common sympathy. As I’m not suited to speak to those topics, there are some great thoughts here by Sanud about playing the game in Singapore; and a thorough discussion on the imagined Asias here.

While I patiently peered as a voyeur in terms of its central discourse and thesis, as a game designer I was envious of the craft behind the game’s presentation and narrative approach. I admire Sean Han Tani for the ways in which they can craft something so aware of games-as-artifice and representation, using this awareness as a narrative tool; something that isn’t afraid to set up a premise and then consistently challenge it — and in doing so, challenge the tropes behind all interaction in games.

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After all, all games are a kind of artifice; they are small worlds with dictated rules and realms of agency. There’s a codified, unspoken catalogue of understanding their interactions, a conversation between what you can do, or when you can do it, or even if you exist in the world at all. But dissecting those rules — and dissecting the permission to play — is where All Our Asias goes from a lo-fi adventure game, a conversation, to a complex masterwork for the medium.

While Yuito begins the game exploring his estranged father’s Memory World, he is very quickly disappointed in the memories he pillages. His exploration is violent; in trying to satisfy his curiosity, in the very act of turning it into play, he’s ignorant of how it represents a world (and a life) that’s dying. He denies himself the very compassion and empathy he seeks by engaging with the world as something playful. He destroys the people of the world by questioning them for answers; he ignores their lives. He just wants the answer: “Who was my father?”

So, the game starts over; we find that this Memory World is but one of millions; it’s not an abstract oddity or an exotic locale, but parallel and mundane. The story moves to a parallel Memory World of Chicago, Illinois. There the task changes: you are not empowered to explore and question. You are tasked to understand just one person’s plight (buried, like a lede, behind a chain of tasks), and question why you continue to proceed on your journey, apart from engaging with the world as an object of play. Instead, you must let the world explain itself to you as storyteller and listener.

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Forging this kind of relationship as a game designer is incredibly difficult. Players are always given tasks and rewards, but they’re also given a degree of agency and power that lets them feel in control of the reward. In my own games, I’ve set up relationships where the player is either disempowered or otherwise made to feel that their empowerment was something violent or terrifying. But it doesn’t always work: the effect isn’t projected powerfully enough to be understood, so the player feels disempowered arbitrarily; or, worse, they feel held back by poor execution on the designer’s behalf.

 

In engendering this particular relationship with its player — as an active listener — All Our Asias manages to feel both like an explorative adventure and a thesis defense-in-progress at the same time.

 

All Our Asias is presented with no fewer than five different screens on the simulacrum of a physical, handheld device: one screen names each area; one screen displays an equalizer for all the sound in the game; one screen displays when you can interact with an object or person in the world; one screen displays all text; and finally, one screen displays the physical world we maneuver within.

The screens are joined by exposed circuitry, and they serve to segregate the information into sensory data: location data; dialogue; sound; interaction; and the physical ‘world’ of the game itself. The physicality of the game’s frame only emphasizes its status as an artificial object; it is constantly self-conscious of its presentation as an artificial world and the limits of that artificiality as an instructive tool.

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That said, it’s important to note that Yuito himself is represented with an illustration that breaks this framework: he isn’t on the view screen, but he instead is on top of all the screens, on a secondary frame visible to the player. When we see this illustration of Yuito, we — the player — know he is speaking. Otherwise, the viewpoint between “player” and “Yuito” is meant to be identical to the framework of the device itself. This transition between “the GUI framework of the player’s interaction” and “the implied framework of Yuito’s interaction” is constant and seamless.

With this in mind, the self-described, lo-fi “Playstation 1” graphics of the game are an intentional limitation: they refract the world; they self-consciously represent another world. The graphic limitation is a symptom of the game’s artifice; the graphic limitation makes us — and Yuito — see it as just a game. But the artifice isn’t play, it’s experiences. It’s a life. And it can’t just be pilfered for an answer on our terms. And so, what do you do instead?

Well, you just have to listen.

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All Our Asias is on Itch.io and Steam for free, but I highly recommend picking up the fan pack for the soundtrack and graphic book — they, like the game itself, are exquisite, pensive, humble, and beautiful.