I want to walk you through my notes from an essay that was written 15 years ago in Japanese. But I also want to try and take you with me a bit on my journey toward finding the essay.
I feel entirely disoriented, like I’ve made a jump across time and space that I’m not yet skilled enough to navigate smoothly. 1999 is a time I can never go back to, Japanese feels like a language I’ll never be fluent in. I’m insecure about my Japanese language ability—I want to be proud of how far I’ve come, but I feel ashamed of how hard it has been to get here.
The Japanese internet is different to my internet. Less Wordpress, more Hatena. Less Youtube, more Niconico. Less white space, more… information… information that takes me at least three times as long to decode as it would if it was in English. I’m experiencing culture shock, and I haven’t even left my apartment.
I started at critiqueofgames.net, because I’d already found that site before when searching for ‘geemu hihan’, games criticism in Japanese. Critique of Games is no longer being updated very regularly, and many of the more recent posts are about gamification rather than about addressing critical issues within games. In any case, the site has a list of links to external sites that he put together around 2002, so I clicked every link in the list until I found something that was a) not a 404 and b) not just a bio
I ended up at Sawaduki, an old-web relic that I’m completely enchanted by. I quickly realise that I’ve struck gold. While my ‘read more games criticism in foreign languages’ project is not the same as my ‘research the history of games between the years 1998-2008' project, it’s great to find something that serves both goals. The site is intriguingly nerdy: there’s a fair amount of work creating grammars of games, a bibliography of academic writing about games from the 1980s until 2011, and a complete list of everything that writer Sawaduki You played between 1997 and 2005.
The site hosts work by guest writers too. I found an essay about a visual novel called ‘Captain Love’ posted in 1999 by a writer called Nakagawa Daichi, and decided that this would be the first thing I read in-depth. I saved it to Pocket, hoping that it would be converted into a more readable, responsive format (it didn’t work) and went to bed so that I could approach the task the next afternoon.
The title contains a word that neither I nor Google translate understand. I plug it into regular Google web search. I end up on a very strange wikipedia page about faceless people with eyes in their anuses. Clearly I’m overthinking this. I consult one of the dictionaries I used to rely on when Google translate was still young. I learn that the word is shirime, and it means ‘to look askance’, or as we millennials call it, giving side-eye.
Captain Love, expressive games, and giving side-eye to the interactive fantasy
Over the course of this essay, Nakagawa’s personal philosophy about games is transformed by his experience playing a comedic dating sim. Captain Love looks trashy as hell to me based on the google results I can find, and this was Nakagawa’s first impression too. He calls it yabo, an old word from the Edo period that draws on a contrast between the stylish, educated city folk and the bumbling hicks from the country.
Nakagawa explains that he only really began to “scratch his head” and consider that maybe the game was actually quite profound after he had read other people’s views on it. It quickly becomes clear that he’s interested particularly in how Captain Love might make important contributions to “expression as a game” — how does it play with the medium to find new ways of telling stories.
The conflict at the heart of Captain Love is between the eponymous protagonist and Rabu Rabu Kyou, “a secret organisation that aims to distribute love equally, guided by a philosophy of love communism.” Captain Love is the “hero of love and justice,” and he has fallen in love with the daughter of the head of this organisation.
The first chapter introduces this heroine of the story. The following chapters each introduce a different eligible female, but unlike most dating sims, the game doesn’t put you through a series of dialogue puzzles and then reward you with a romantic liaison with the lady in question if you get them right: Captain Love is already sworn to someone else.
Nakagawa poses this question: where is the game-ness in a game that doesn’t ask you to solve puzzles or apply reasoning?
Nakagawa goes on to argue that the critical consciousness at the heart of Captain Love comes from this rejection of the idea that games are about player choice.
There’s a pivotal moment in most dating sims, Nakagawa explains, where the protagonist makes a promise to a love interest. Normally it happens toward the end, but in this game it happens right at the start. Captain Love makes his promise to the heroine, and then the story continues from there.
Most dating sims’ gameness comes from choosing your favoured partner, and then trying to make the right decisions to win their affection. Each episode’s love object is presented to emphasise their attractive features, and the player takes on the “emotional burden” of choosing one over the other. In Captain Love, that choice is taken away: the player still gets the same cues to develop an emotional attachment to a love object, but then they are forced to abandon that object in order to progress with the game. Captain Love is already sworn to someone else.
To cap it all, the heroine introduced in the first chapter is completely unlikeable: Nakagawa describes her as a “jealous, spoiled brat” — I haven’t played the game, but it sounds in all fairness like she has reason to be jealous, and I’m personally a little concerned about buying into the misogynistic idea of the spoiled girlfriend harshing on the hero’s good times.
In any case, Nakagawa is impressed by the way that limiting player choice and focusing on maintaining an unpleasant relationship makes this game a “real depiction of love” in comparison to the standard dating sim formula. Forcing you to turn away from your love object makes this a game about “worry and rejection”.
Interactivity as appreciation
“As the amount of audiovisual information increases,” says Nakagawa, referring to the increased storage capacity of the new consoles launching around that point in time, “we need to be more authentic with that audiovisual content”, or else, he argues, the stories that are told through game software won’t have the emotional effect on people that we hope they will.
Captain Love “gives side-eye to depressing story games’ dilemmas between excessive fantasy and selfish disillusionment”, and in doing so, it made Nakagawa think differently about the relationship between author and reader in games. Maybe the player doesn’t have to be able to affect the outcome of a story. Stories in games don’t have to be manipulated by the players’ hand: the player can just step into the game and try to play a particular role to a higher degree of perfection.
Nakagawa uses words like “internality” and “catharsis”, basically making the same argument that was used more recently in English-language games writing to defend Twine games against criticisms that they lack gameness. “The point of this game’s interactivity is not much different from the act of ‘appreciation’ in other expressive media” says Nakagawa.
“And maybe that’s okay”.
I got to the end of this essay and felt like there’s no way Nakagawa stopped writing about games. I feel like anyone who goes adventuring in the ‘storytelling vs. player choice’ swamp gets stuck on games writing and never comes back.
A quick google took me to a fairly active Twitter account, which made me feel embarrassed about the intimate relationship I’ve had with this guy’s 15-year-old writing this afternoon. Now I have to find the courage to say hello to him. In any case, the Twitter account also shows that Nakagawa is currently “Deputy Editor of Criticism Magazine PLANETS”.
Off I go to PLANETS.
I can translate your next project. Visit secaican.com/translation for a quote.