Spirit Hunter: NG

Spirit Hunter: NG is a 2018 visual horror novel about the urban legends that come out after dark in a sleepy Tokyo suburb. You play as Akira Kijima, a 17-year-old delinquent whose young cousin has been captured by a spirit named Kakuya. Kakuya challenges Akira to a game, promising that she will return his cousin if he manages to confront a series of monsters local to the neighborhood of Kissouji.

The overarching story of Kakuya’s game is somewhat silly, as are the protagonist and supporting characters. The stars of the game are the urban legends that form the core of each of the seven chapters. As far as I can tell, these urban legends are all original, and it’s a lot of fun to slowly gather the details of the stories. The monster artwork is very creative and very gruesome, while the scenes depicting the monsters’ victims are horrible, explicit, and intense. There are no jump scares, but I was genuinely shocked by some of the deaths.

The gameplay is simple. You investigate your environment by shining your flashlight on objects embedded in the background artwork, and you collect various odds and ends that you use to solve simple puzzles. You’ll occasionally find yourself in life-or-death encounters with monsters who want to kill you, as well as overzealous police who will end your adventure early by arresting you. During these encounters, you’re presented with a timed series of dialog choices, and you’ll receive an instant “game over” if you select incorrectly.

Unfortunately, you can only save at certain points, meaning that you may have to replay an entire extended encounter sequence if you mess up. It’s possible to speed through previously read text, but I became so frustrated by an early-game confrontation that I started using a walkthrough to help make the gameplay a bit smoother. Although most of the puzzles and dialog choices are self-explanatory, others can feel entirely random. Still, if you don’t mind consulting a walkthrough before you play through the monster encounter sequences, the story flows smoothly, and the exploration elements are enjoyable and fairly intuitive.  

NG has “good,” “bad,” and “normal” endings based on whether you treat the monsters with violence or compassion. Other than that, there don’t seem to be any branching paths, and your choices don’t have anything more than minor cosmetic effects on the story. You can raise the level of affection that the named NPCs feel toward you, but this doesn’t seem to affect anything other than a few throwaway lines of dialog.

The game also includes a few sidequests that involve solving simple riddles to find D-Cards, trading cards that contain information on bonus urban legends with marginal connections to the main plot. These sidequests give the player an opportunity to explore the environment with a greater attention to detail, and the cards showcase some of the most interesting writing in the game. None of this card collecting is mandatory, but it’s nice to have an excuse to walk around the Tokyo suburbs late at night when all the sources of light are artificial and vaguely eerie by default. The atmospheric sound design is excellent as well, and it’s a pleasure to listen to your character’s footsteps echoing on concrete against a backdrop of city traffic, buzzing streetlights, and convenience store chimes.

If you use a walkthrough to progress smoothly through the confrontations with monsters, NG takes about fifteen hours to complete, and it’s easy to get sucked into the story. All of the urban legends are fascinating, and the game has a fairly progressive worldview on corporate violence, corrupt law enforcement, and the ways in which wealth and power facilitate the “othering” of people who are different. NG isn’t misogynistic or gross about its female characters, and there’s no sexual violence or lolicon.

All but one of the urban legend monsters are female, and NG is a treasure trove of themes and imagery to anyone interested in the intersections between gender and horror. The mystery at the core of the overarching story is tied both to real Shintō traditions and to real urban legends about (hopefully fictional) Shintō traditions, so there are a few extra layers of the narrative that players familiar with Japanese religion and folklore will be able to appreciate and enjoy.  

I definitely wouldn’t recommend NG to anyone who can’t handle graphic R-rated horror, but it’s visually striking and thematically satisfying. I respect and admire the game’s creepy demonic women, and I gradually came to sympathize with a few of the monstrous male characters as well. NG is so rich in narrative detail that it would be a fun game to write an in-depth academic research paper about… and who knows, I might even write this paper myself!

The Legend We Create

The courageous hero loves the wise princess, but they are bound by their fate and must put their feelings aside for the sake of a world floating above the ruins of an ancient kingdom.

…or so the legend goes, but some storytellers have a slightly different interpretation.

The Legend We Create is a tale of mutual pining and second-chance romance on the Great Sea, as well as a meditation on how each new generation heals the wounds of history by telling their own narratives about the past. You can read this short story on AO3 (here).

This story was published in Fated: A Zelink Zine. You check out the work of the other contributors on the zine’s Twitter account (here).

(Haunted) House Hunting

I try not to write about my personal life on this blog, mainly because most things have been garbage most of the time. One day I will be able to look back and laugh, but right now I just want to draw plants and play video games.

Although maybe it’s worth mentioning that I started looking at houses. There’s no real reason, except that I’m getting tired of my landlord’s shenanigans and would like to have an outside garden maybe.

Anyway, I started looking at houses, and I have seen some shit. I thought apartment hunting in Philadelphia was bad, but I didn’t know what “bad” was. The current housing market is a nightmare. I can’t believe the condition of some of these houses, which should be condemned, or how much money people are asking for them.

So you know all those horror movies where a couple moves into what is obviously a haunted house? And then all sorts of creepy things start happening, but the family just sort of quietly deals with the situation without raising a fuss? And then maybe a kid or a pet dies but they still don’t leave?

I get it now. I totally get it. The person on Tumblr who made the post I screencapped gets it too. If you can find a decent house at a reasonable price, and if no one outbids you within hours of the property going on the market, I think you just sort of have to make your peace with the fact that it’s probably filled with murder ghosts.

World End Syndrome

World End Syndrome is a visual novel about a small seaside town with dark secrets. It’s structured like a dating sim, and you have to romance each of the five datable characters if you want to unlock the “true ending” that answers all the questions about the overarching mystery. Thankfully, the dating sim elements are relatively undemanding. There aren’t a lot of dialog options, and the gameplay mainly involves choosing which location to visit on each day during the month of August.

I know this will be a deal-breaker for some people, so I should say at the beginning that there’s some mandatory incest in this game. But it’s sort of okay because of plot reasons? As far as dating sim incest goes, the relationships in World End Syndrome didn’t particularly creep me out. It’s honestly not that big of a deal, especially not in a game that would be PG-rated were it not for the occasional murder, but your mileage may vary.

As the nameless protagonist, you move to the small seaside town of Mihate to live with your cousin following the death of your sister in a car accident. You and your cousin are in the same class in high school, and your homeroom teacher is a folklore scholar who just published a bestselling YA romance novel. The novel is called World End Syndrome, and it’s based on the Mihate legend of the Yomibito, a dead person who returns to life but doesn’t know they’re dead.

There are strong “Bruce Willis at the end of Sixth Sense” vibes surrounding the protagonist at the beginning, but he turns out to be very much alive – at least until he gets murdered at the end of the prologue. This is the game’s official “worst ending,” and you have to start over from the beginning and make a different choice at a crucial point to progress. In order to avoid being murdered, you have to form an emotional bond one of the girls in your class. Successfully doing so for the first time leads you to an ending that, while satisfying in and of itself, does nothing to explain what the deal is with Mihate and its spooky legends.

It would be tedious to explain the details, but World End Syndrome has an interesting system of unlocking various scenes and dialog choices based on the number of previously completed interactions. Your cumulative progress carries over between saves, even when you’re hopping from one save file to another on the same romance route. What this means is that each playthrough is going to be different, even during repeated scenes. Your first full playthrough will tell a fairly straightforward story about a high school romance that’s sweet despite having hints of darkness, but on subsequent playthroughs you’ll begin to realize that there’s something very weird going on in Mihate. World End Syndrome isn’t really a horror game, as it’s not gruesome and doesn’t go out of its way to be upsetting, but it turns out to be an intriguing supernatural mystery.

The character art of the girls is very cute, the character art of the boys is very over-the-top silly, and the environmental art is absolutely gorgeous. Although there’s nothing special about the writing on a line-by-line basis, the translation is solid and pleasant to read.

What helps World End Syndrome stand out is the voice acting and sound design. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what makes the audio elements of the game so appealing, save to say that the quality of the recording is excellent. There’s a lovely in-game radio broadcast that allowed me to finally understand the appeal of ASMR, and I think the sound quality is something you can appreciate even without knowledge of Japanese. The game gives you a lot of control over the sound channels, and you can turn down or even mute the voice acting if you prefer.

I was on the fence about World End Syndrome, as I was dubious about a game that wants you to play the same story six or seven times, but I’m glad I gave it a chance. If you’re only interested in one playthrough, that’s perfectly fine. It takes about ten to twelve hours to get from the beginning to the first character-specific “good ending,” which is a respectable length for a visual novel. Even if you don’t have the patience to solve the mysteries of Mihate, it’s a lot of fun to explore the town, attend club activities, and go on dates while there are dead people (and possibly a cult) wandering around and killing people in the background.

“Empathy” Games

Teddy Pozo, “Queer Games After Empathy: Feminism and Haptic Game Design Aesthetics from Consent to Cuteness to the Radically Soft,” in Games Studies (2018)

Bonnie Ruberg, “Empathy and Its Alternatives: Deconstructing the Rhetoric of ‘Empathy’ in Video Games,” in Communication, Culture & Critique (2020)

Both of these articles are filled with decontextualized citations and poorly defined terminology in a way that’s become fairly standard for academic writing in Media Studies, and I have to admit that I found the writing difficult to read. If I understand the authors correctly, this is what I think they’re arguing:

(a) It’s not cool for corporations to commodify queer experiences branded as “empathy,”
(b) it’s not the job of indie game designers to sell their personal work as educational content, and
(c) we shouldn’t assume that the default identity of a “gamer” is a straight cisgender male anyway.

In order to protest being discursively commodified for an audience of straight men, a small handful of super-indie game developers have created “games” that push back against the idea that their job is to teach a mainstream audience how to empathize with minorities. I’m putting “games” in scare quotes here because these most of these works are deliberately inaccessible, while some only exist in the form of gallery performance art.

This is my take on the conversation:

I read a lot of anthologies of queer, transgender, and nonbinary comics, as well as full-length graphic novels and serialized webcomics by queer, transgender, and nonbinary creators. There are two general commonalities that stand out to me: (1) how much people love and are inspired by queer anime and manga, and (2) how much people love and are inspired by queer video games.

I understand that some queer people are aware of their gender and sexuality from a very early age, and that’s great, but I think a lot of us need to see ourselves reflected in a metaphorical mirror before we begin to understand our identity. Because every individual is different, and because relatable stories can speak louder than pure truth, these metaphorical mirrors don’t need to be perfect. They just need to exist.

So I think that, by being ironic about their work and bitter about how it’s reached a larger audience than an intended in-group of people who all attend the same expensive academic conferences and Bay Area gallery art shows, these queer indie developers and the academics who praise them aren’t being particularly kind to all the kids who maybe didn’t know they were queer until they played a “mainstream” game like Gone Home or Life Is Strange.

It’s also worth mentioning that most of the people involved in this conversation are white. Based on what I’ve read in digital gaming magazines and seen on social media, I get the feeling that there are a lot of BIPOC indie game devs, as well as game devs from non-Western countries, who desperately want people to learn about and empathize with their experiences, and I think it’s important to listen to what they have to say.

Still, I understand the resistance to the commodification of queer discursive spaces, and I appreciate the idea that people don’t need to be able to empathize with difference in order to respect it. For what it’s worth, I’ve started to see more developers use the term “story game” instead of “empathy game” during the past two or three years, and I think that makes much more sense in terms of marketing and finding an audience.

Digital Literacy and Digital Natives

Danah Boyd, “Literacy: Are Today’s Youth Digital Natives?” from It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014)

This is a chapter from a longer book that I found a link to on Tumblr, of all places. I’m not sure I want to read an entire ethnographic study about “networked teens,” but this chapter is illuminating. Every year I find myself working with a surprising number of students who have close to zero digital literacy. For years I’ve been trying to ask my colleagues where this lack of digital literacy comes from, but to no avail.

Thankfully, I finally have an answer to my eternal question of “why don’t they just google it.” Apparently, a lot of Gen Z kids understand the idiomatic usage of the expression “just google it” but don’t know how to access Google. Many children and teenagers only interact with the internet through apps on their phones and tablets, so typing “google.com” into a web browser would never occur to them.

According to the author, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act bears a lot of the blame. Because they were forced to focus their resources on standardized testing, many schools were no longer able to offer once-a-week special elective classes on subjects like music, computers, home economics, and so on. This means that most American kids who went to public school in the 2000s and 2010s never had an opportunity to sit down in a computer lab with a teacher telling them what a search engine is. On top of that, there’s an ongoing education employment crisis in which very few relatively young people have been able to get jobs in primary or secondary schools, while many of the older teachers have no idea what sites like Google and Wikipedia are and how they work, only that they’re “bad.”

A lot of kids manage to pick up some degree of digital literacy purely by osmosis, but what the author argues is that we shouldn’t take this osmosis for granted. Which is fair, but I still can’t help but wonder how a reasonably intelligent American teenager from a reasonably middle-class background can manage to get all the way through high school and into college and still not know how to use Google.

Anyway, (this is the link) to the PDF of the book chapter if you’re interested.

The Shadows of Hyrule

Honey, everyone has a murder dungeon in Kakariko Village.

The joke is that, while the “evil” Yiga Clan is characterized as violent and bloodthirsty in Breath of the Wild, the “good” Sheikah Clan is canonically just as disturbing. They’re all magical ninja assassins. What do you expect?

These two characters are Sooga and Impa from the Breath of the Wild AU melee fighting game Age of Calamity, and this is fan art of the four-part Sooga/Impa fancomic Shadow Folk by Frankiesbugs on Tumblr. You can read Shadow Folk on Tumblr starting (here), or you can donate 1€ download a PDF version (here). I have to admit that I never considered any sort of relationship between Impa and Sooga until I read this comic, but the art is stylish and beautiful and the story is a lot of fun.

On the Internet, No One Knows You’re (Not) Kris

I recently participated in the annual Yuletide fic exchange for small fandoms. More than a thousand people contribute their work to this exchange, in which each participant is anonymously matched with someone who requests a story for one of the fandoms they’ve offered to write for. The person with whom I was matched asked for fic about Deltarune, and they requested “existential horror about free will and the ethics of a player guiding characters with self-awareness.” I’m always up for existential horror, and the recipient’s description of how they view the player-character Kris really vibed with me: “A Weird Kid who’s kinda lonely but not quite knowing how to make friends/not liking many of their options in town before the game starts.”

This prompt inspired me to write a story called “On the Internet No One Knows You’re (Not) Kris,” which is an exploration of Kris’s character within a narrative meta-analysis of the game. You can find it on AO3 (here).

The person who requested the story confessed that they’ve spent countless hours diving down the rabbit hole of Deltarune theories, so I took a plunge into the internet theory maze as well. The game subtly implies that Kris isn’t in full control of their body or personality, and that what’s manipulating them is their SOUL, the red heart that represents them during battle sequences. Many Deltarune theories try to answer the question of who (or what) is controlling Kris’s SOUL. There’s also the issue of what connection Deltarune might have to Undertale, as the two games share the same metaphysics and many of the same characters.

This ended up being my favorite Deltarune theory:
https://theamazingsallyhogan.tumblr.com/post/663249972697907200/great-big-massive-spoilers-under-the-cut-part-1

What this theory posits is that Kris has made a devil’s bargain with their SOUL, exchanging their free will for the power to rescue a childhood friend who mysteriously vanished a few years before the game begins. Although this theory doesn’t explain everything that’s going on in Deltarune – which, after all, has only released its first two chapters – the essay shines light on the characters’ backstory, which is only very briefly alluded to in the game itself.

This theory led me to create an illustration (here) based on the scene from Howl’s Moving Castle in which Howl makes a pact with the fallen star Calcifer, and I drew the comic above about how the ostensible villain of the second chapter of Deltarune might have a radically different view of the concept of free will. I also created an animated illustration (here) of the secondary villain Spamton, but I ultimately decided not to include it with the story. Spamton is bizarrely beloved in a certain corner of Deltarune fandom, but I think it’s probably safe to say that he’s an acquired taste. Still, I had a lot of fun writing Spamton’s dialog in my story. Despite spending far too long on the Deltarune wiki, I regret nothing.

Growing Up with The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda series has been criticized for its formulaic writing, but one of the strengths of its archetypal characters is that they allow room for multiple interpretations. I was born in the same year as the Zelda series, and my perspective on these characters and their stories has shifted as I’ve grown older.

When I was a kid, I loved Link. I had no innate skill as a gamer, but I enjoyed the thrill of running wild in Hyrule. I may not have fully understood the game mechanics, but this meant I was always discovering new things. Despite my many deaths, I reveled in the certainty that I was a force of good fighting for justice, and it was comforting to know that all I had to do in order to succeed was to follow the marks on my map.  

In my late teens, I began to identify more with Princess Zelda. As my view of the world became wider, I realized that it wasn’t always the best course of action to charge forward with an unsheathed sword. I also came to understand that it was impossible for me to be a lone hero. There were times when I would be at the mercy of forces beyond my control, and sometimes I would need to rely on the strength of other people to achieve my goals.  

Now that I’m an adult, I can’t help but sympathize with Ganondorf. The world is infinitely complicated and filled with impossible decisions. Even though you may have the best of intentions, it’s inevitable that some people will see you as a villain when you challenge the status quo. If you want the power to change the world, you have to forge your own path, and no one will give you a map marked with signposted quests to complete. Still, as long as you’re making your own rules, you might as well be stylish and have gorgeous hair.

The Legend of Zelda series has become a type of modern mythology. The games continue to be relevant not just because of the strength of their gameplay, but also because of the resonance of their archetypes in the lives of the people who grow up with their stories. Instead of growing out of the Zelda series, I’ve found that I’ve grown to appreciate it more now that I can relate to the characters through multiple levels of lived experience.

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This essay and its accompanying illustration were originally published in Coin-Operated Press’s Nerd! Zine anthology. You can check out the zine on the press’s website (here).