We sometimes like to forget there is an agreement between creator and reader this is a work of fiction. We prefer to describe games as “cinematic” and novels as “realistic” instead of appreciating their more fictional elements. No matter how much cinematic realism we seek, we are still playing a video game or reading a book. But our language of criticism still makes us pretend realism is an important asset in the art of fiction.
But when we find a work that goes the other way — away from realism — it feels different. We don’t know how to describe it. But there is always the temptation to describe the indescribable with certain fallback words: unique, stylish, psychedelic, artistic, and experimental.
Of those five cliched adjectives, the last word I find in particular is detestable. The adjective suggests someone has tried something new and unique, but they left the approach without applying them to anything. Not many works deserve that label unless they are literally first drafts posted on the web. A work that is described experimental should have traits that show it is half-baked and not ready to be shown.
That is the main problem when it comes to describing some video games in the English language. Video game criticism is too focused on the “logic” of realism that it is hard to find words that describe games that are doing something else. We use well-worn comparisons and words in order to place these “alternative” games in a mode of reality more known to us. This artificial system of rules functions to stamp out “experimental” ideas and gameplay for safer, more conventionally accepted works. But what if such a game that does something else lands on your hands? Will you reject it or try it out and see what this world of fiction is all about? If you do like these “rejects”, does this mean the criteria system you and others have built over the years have to crumble before your very eyes? And if so, what will you do then?
These are the thoughts I had after playing through Suda51’s Kill the Past trilogy, a series of games that toy with the artificiality of its video game reality. Its reality may be a lie, but it doesn’t give a damn anyway. The truths of these games require their characters to take a leap of faith and back to where the real reality is (if it actually exists).
The trilogy came to me when I wanted to find more things that go beyond plot and characters. As I grew older and immersed myself into several subcultures, I wanted something “inner” if that makes sense. Some kind of untold story. As friends around me matured and found themselves comfortable in their own chosen subcultures, I kept searching for that “inner” narrative. Their tastes narrowed while mine opened to find that something I wasn’t even sure it existed. But it was by chance, supergreatfriend had started a Let’s Play on Killer7 and I got into the visual designs and the story it was trying to tell. It’s hard to say what exactly in that game made me click, but I thought I had to check out the other games in the trilogy.
The first game, The Silver Case, is best explained with a reference to Suda51’s biggest inspiration, Franz Kafka. The writer from Prague whose distaste for the bureaucracy is well known has a diary filled with existentialist comments like:
April 27. Incapable of living with people, of speaking. Complete immersion in myself, thinking of myself. Apathetic, witless, fearful. I have nothing to say to anyone – never.
Kafka, repressing his hatred for the red tape that entangles his life, writes out stories of men turning into insect pets before getting abandoned by their families or men walking in bucket down the stairs to cry before an old couple for some coal.
His depiction of reality is not our mode of reality, but it is a reality all the same. The magical realism people speak of Kafka is only “consistency” in the words of Albert Camus. The “consistency” of logic is what differentiates Kafka’s reality from others and why it is so absurd. “Kafka’s world is in truth,” Camus says in his essay titled “The Works of Franz Kafka”, “an indescribable universe in which man allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing can come of it.”
This is the type of reality the mysteries in The Silver Case are in. They follow the logic of hardboiled mystery cases, but they are not the type of casefiles you would find lying about in a private detective’s office in Los Angeles. These cases are the dreamed up facts and debris of logic washed ashore with not much explanation howsoever.
The protagonist is none other than yourself. You name yourself and embody an intimidating male figure who people either have a strong liking or hatred toward you. You are a member of a squad that got decimated by a serial murderer named Uehara Kamui. And you cannot speak nor express any form of emotion. You stand coldly before people as if you are one of Kafka’s creations. Nevertheless, the investigation team always feels compelled to call on you over a case. Something about your presence has helped them solve cases they have trouble completing by their own. You become a vital member of the team for reasons unknown to you and everyone else.
Everything about this silent nameable protagonist is fucked up. You don’t know the character at all, despite you controlling him the same way as you would with any other character in different video games. Moving him is easy: press the up key to move up, left to turn left, right to turn right, down to turn around. But are you really comfortable controlling a body you barely know? You don’t belong here in the strange setting of The Silver Case. It’s too … unreal.
This sense of detachment never ceases to disappear as you play throughout the game. You, the player, are constantly alienated from you, the character, as you move around the map talking to kids who treat you like you’re their big brother they’ve known for years. Player participation in this game is almost like you’re nor participating in the game at all.
So who the hell are “you”? Why do “you” belong to this realm of reality? Where should “you” be exactly?
As you think about “yourself”, you have cases to solve. Cases where you seem to get clues through supernatural causes or skip out on the important details and find yourself going on a ride to somewhere. You don’t matter in the investigation. You are just there to observe as the detectives work out their brains and “instinct” to solve the cases. Their methods are eccentric and barely follow proper procedures; in one case, a woman investigator named Haruchika gets pissed she is not allowed to use forensic science under her supervisor who she by the way has an affair with so it’s all cool.
The bureaucracy’s methods settles everything before you can attempt to learn anything about it. That is the logic of the world. Experts like to talk and create amongst one another, but they also want someone outside to recognize their efforts. Who the outsider is doesn’t matter. As long as someone is peeking in, that’s fine. That is the role of the player in this strange world.
Once these cases are solved, you have the option to look through the same cases through a different perspective: an outsider who at least lives in this setting. Morishima Tokio, a freelance journalist, lives with a pet turtle named Akamimi (Red in the English translation). He connects the dots with the cases, something the player character neglects to do, and his investigations serve as supplemental material.
But Morishima’s story doesn’t end there. He has his own story to fulfill, his own place to find, his own past to kill. As he wraps around his head over these abstract as hell mysteries, he walks on the concrete pathways of life figuring out what exactly he wants to do. You control him when he wakes up from his couch for the nth time and walk to the computer to check the mail. Sometimes, you swirl to the left and have Morishima discuss with his pet turtle over the incident he is investigating. He contacts Erika, once a love of his, for clues and breakthroughs. This is all you do whenever you control him. Ennui sets in from the repetition and you too wonder where Morishima’s place is in all of this.
Occasionally, he goes to a bar called Jackhammer to escape from his dreary life. The bartender is at times philosophical, at times blunt with his views on Morishima’s life. This is where themes of The Silver Case become apparent. The bartender observes that the restlessness Morishima feels is a creative yet destructive energy. It stems from the existentialist angst people have and he advises Morishima to pick up woodcarving.
Tools are how we expend this energy into creating something new. It may be the sole reason why we create art because our creative energies need to be spent on something else. The murders in The Silver Case sort of happen because they are left unrestrained and unchecked. The past is a source of this confusion which brings up these repressed emotional energy.
Finding a medium to put these “creative yet destructive” thoughts to rest is not easy for many of us who are not artistically-inclined. This is where social media steps in to fill that gap. Suda51 and his screenwriters have predicted our future in 1999 when they look into forums and IRC chatrooms and realize these users are muttering complaints about their lives. They don’t care about if people are listening to them because they are not messages directed to anyone and there’s no wisdom in them anyway. No, they tweet because they are “diseased”.
This affliction doesn’t just apply to young people but everyone. We are all diseased. We want to do something with our lives and pasts to make a name for ourselves. In some cases, that energy could mean blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Others might wield it the same way a kid wields a knife.
The more we repress this energy, the worse how we might express ourselves in the most unsightly of ways. Messiah complexes in the world of The Silver Case are nothing but the depravation of humanity who’s stuck to the ways of the past.
So we are stuck with the same never-ending thoughts Kafka had when he wrote this diary entry:
This tremendous world I have inside of me. How to free myself, and this world, without tearing myself to pieces. And rather tear myself to a thousand pieces than be buried with this world within me.
Finding this freedom is why we try to commit the treason of escapism. But video games, a source of such escapes, are only but a small reprieve from it. Once they are over, nothing is left. You can move to the next video game to escape from this nihilistic version of reality, but it’s only a postponement. It is not a permanent solution. Nothing, especially a video game, can “free yourself and this world without tearing yourself to pieces”.
In order to kill the past, the characters of The Silver Case must see it as a real problem and learn how to kill it. They want to return to the “real world” and solving mysteries is the only way to kill the plot of the game which is embodied by Uehara Kamui himself. Who is Uehara Kamui? Does he even exist? It doesn’t matter. He is “real” enough to be an antagonist and we have to kill him to end the game. He is the “past”. We have to kill him.
As the game draws to a close, the premises founded upon this system begin to crumble as if they are not there in the first place. This game-like reality is superseded by the reality of the truth. The truth ends everything dear to them. Contradictions turn up at the end to complicate the truth, but the characters know at least the world is now going to end. The turn of the millennium is approaching.
The question, “where to afterwards?”, is not answered in the game. You do see hints of characters leading lives, both in the fictional world of The Silver Case and beyond in realer lives. You end up feeling unsatisfied that not much is resolved in the game, but it sure is an experience.
That is the peculiar charm of The Silver Case. It feels less of a story and more of a dream you have entered. The game begins in the middle of things and ends when you have to wake up. The bits and pieces of wisdom and entertainment the game has are very rare as with dreams. You just follow the bureaucratic logic of dreams created by you and others and see where it leads you to.
If this game sounds extremely abstract and sometimes unfun to play, that’s because it is. The Kill the Past trilogy in general is not something everyone can pick up and play. It is more like a novel you read for what I call “academic pleasure”. Its postmodernist antics are suited for a few weird folks like me.
But it is the kind of storytelling that I did not expect and now want in video games. Some would call this pretentious, too experimental, too abstract; however, I welcome a game like The Silver Case to shake up the core of what it means to tell a story. If a story is a dream, wouldn’t it make sense for the creator to point out how dream-like the video game reality is? Works like this may not be the best, but they show me that my taste — instead of narrowing and becoming solidified — is still developing.
These kinds of works can challenge what you want in a video game and, by extension, alternative modes of reality. They become meaningful to you once you know how to see them as “tools” to expend that excess of energy The Silver Case worries about. Analysis and criticism over something as meaningless as dreams and fiction can prove fruitful in understanding what we want in our life and where this creative drive comes from.
It doesn’t matter if we don’t know where exactly it stems from; as with everything in The Silver Case, you don’t know if the information is real. Some of the facts don’t align. The background information behind the setting is wild and insane. But we have to solve the case anyway with these imagined facts, dreamed up truths, and the gut instinct all detectives share. This is how all modes of reality unfortunately work, but at the very least we know we are getting closer to the truth. Maybe someday, we will learn how to exit the game-like reality we’re in ourselves.
This obsession over what the past means in defining reality describe the Kill the Past trilogy. Next week, we look at what flowers, sun, and rain have to do with reality.
The Silver Case is available on Steam for USD $20 in dual language. If you like reading this post and others, consider supporting my Patreon which helps put down research costs for content I will like to write about.