Can Video Games Be Our Friends?

This morning a videogame literally forced me to say "I love you", enunciating every syllable perfectly, clearly enough for a computer program to register, before it would allow me to progress.

I don't use that word lightly. Maybe that's why I have all this money and no one to make happy. I'm not going to lie: I had to close my eyes in order for the words to come out. It was that creepy. Eyes closed, lips pressed close to the microphone so as to minimise the already-minimal chance that the girl sleeping in the other bedroom 20m away wouldn't hear me and think I was talking to her, I said "I love you" to my Nintendo DS. (In Japanese: "a-i-shi-te-ru".) My god; I shuddered. That was the first goddamn time I ever said those words to anyone, real or not. The sickening implications of this — the causes, the effects, the explanations — made me suddenly dizzy.

The girl in the DS then said, "Now say it 999,999 more times". The microphone icon displayed again. Was this a bad dream? Well, certainly, in the game I was playing — Konami Digital Entertainment's Love Plus — it was being presented as a bizarre nightmare of the main character's. I had been living out the simulated life of a high school student for 81 days — 10 hours or so in the real world — and the game was just starting to recognise that I had preferred this one girl from the start. The thing is, she was finally starting to like me. The main character realised this, in much grimmer terms, minutes after I saw the figures and crunched the numbers from the comfort of my giant oak bed, here on a beautiful, crisp October morning. Hence the nightmare. The master bedroom in my current palace-like apartment doesn't have a lock. If it did, I would have done like the time the "Eyes on Me" scene came up in Final Fantasy VIII. Back then, I was a university student living in shared accommodation, and there was a football game on TV. I could have been decapitated.

I told the game "I love you" one more time, finally feeling like I was doing the second worst and terriblest thing I have ever done in my life. The worst was way too terrible. I have occasion to remember it, maybe, once a week. It took maybe three years after doing the worst thing I ever did in my life to even realise how terrible it was to say such a thing to someone, so unthinkingly. With Love Plus, the guilt came immediately. We can get into that part later, if you'd like.

Thankfully, it let me off the hook at the second "I love you".

2009! More than a decade after I experienced the "Eyes On Me" scene in Final Fantasy VIII and eight years after I did the worst thing I ever did to another person, I live soft and work hard in Tokyo, Japan (not to be confused with Tokyo, Nebraska), and I have developed something of a reputation for being a guy who writes things every once in a while. After eight years of doing pretty much exactly the same thing in pretty much exactly the same way, people have started offering me money for it. Hell if I know why! I will say, however, that life feels something like a vintage arcade game. You know, like how in Altered Beast, all you have to do is keep putting money in the machine and you're basically guaranteed to see the ending sooner or later. In the past, the proposed writing assignments were utterly inane. To paraphrase one (which Gmail search makes it so easy to just quote): "We hear there's this popular comedian on TV who sometimes dresses up in a schoolgirl outfit and acts like a girl. Can you interview him? It'd make a great 'WHOA JAPAN IS WACKY' story."

When did I become the "whoa, Japan is wacky" guy? I've even been asked to write about "Ninja and samurai in modern Japanese pop culture". When Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball was released, I got asked to interview Tomonobu Itagaki in a no-nonsense just-the-facts fashion, refraining from putting "any cynical spin" on the proceedings. A couple years ago, this game called Gakuen Heaven: Boy's Love Scramble! was released, and someone asked me to write a "lifestyle piece" about that. Gakuen Heaven is a game where you play the part of a young boy who receives a golden ticket in the mail in the form of an acceptance letter from the most esteemed all-boys boarding school in Japan. Of course you accept the invitation. Unlike, say, Harry Potter, where all the boys would be wizards, in Gakuen Heaven, all the boys happen to be really, really gay. So yeah, I played that game, interviewed the director, the whole shebang. Eventually, the magazine didn't use my article because the director — a woman — used the word "gay" too much, too suggestively, and flat-out admitted that the game is intended mainly for girls who think gay guys and the things they do in the name of being gay are "funny". They figured it would probably offend some people. They figured it wouldn't really offend anybody, however, if, you know, the game was by gay people and intended for gay people. I think they were thinking too deeply about a couple of things. Of course, there are plenty of gay dating simulations in Japan — they didn't want me to write about them though, because they weren't being released on the PlayStation 2.

Anyway, after that — what was there? Oh, there was that Doki Doki Majo Shinpan game, where you're supposed to use the stylus to touch little girls on all kinds of parts of their bodies, to find their most ticklish spots, forcing them to reveal that they are, in fact, witches. Someone asked me to write about that, and at that time I was so inundated in riches that I didn't bother. Then there was this game called Duel Love, where you play the part of a girl who develops deepening relationships with Hot Guys during the precious seconds it takes you to (using the stylus) towel them off between rounds of bare-fisted combat. Both Duel Love and Majo Shinpan are rooted in fetishes so specific that you'd never expect to see them so cutely presented, grinning up at you from a game shop shelf. Neither of them set the world on fire. Well, here I am, in the future, told to write about whatever I want to write about, and I've chosen to write about "wacky Japanese dating games".

I have started and stopped and deleted this question maybe 10 times, now. Let's revert to the first phrasing: What the f—k is wrong with Japan?

I won't dare say that they're morally bankrupt or sick or perverted or whatever. In fact, I find it refreshing that they're so open about things like pornography. I am 30 for-god's-sake years old, over here. I carry a Louis Vuitton wallet and wear Dolce & Gabbana jeans. My glasses contain studs made of actual solid gold. I pay $US200 for my haircuts. If I want to pick up a men's lifestyle magazine from a convenience store newsstand and flip it open to the Boobies Page, I'll go right the hell ahead, and I will do so completely unconcerned about the stares of the people standing to my right or left, whether they be angry old males or attractive young females. Being comfortable about one's sexuality is part of being an adult. Being comfortable about one's fetishes (I'm genuinely attracted to girls who look like guys who look like girls, for example) is part of being a successful adult.

The thing is, the majority of "dating simulation" games are positioned as the same kind of escapism as, say, Gears of War. Gears of War is a game that satisfies the typical 14-year-old's impossible fantasy of being the size of a yeti and shooting mini-mountain-like alien freakbastards with a machine gun that has a chainsaw attached to the end of it. Gakuen Heaven is a game about being a straight boy forced to choose which of a myriad of very gay (and very tall) young men from whom he least minds a super-platonic molestation. The Gakuen Heaven Boy's Love Scramble series is escapism, into the world of straight boys being harassed by gay boys, for straight girls who can't even muster up the wherewithall to be harassed by straight boys. Majo Shinpan is a game for men who would maybe very much not mind touching a four-year-old girl's bikini area and are merely afraid (or simply wary) of the legal consequences.

The trend in modern video game development has seemed to be that every genre decides, every once in a while, that they have to widen the entrance and invite a few new fans in. Konami (arguably) created the dating sim genre with 1994's Tokimeki Memorial (written and programmed by none other than later Castlevania director Koji Igarashi). Tokimeki Memorial was a breakthrough for many reasons. It combined the absorbing atmosphere of a graphic adventure game without the pesky spector of death, murder or whatever Immediacy McGuffin the writer had chosen to slop in there. Adventure games of the "Japanese, Graphical" variety had always tended to be mysteries of some sort or another. There's a dead body at the beginning of the game, there's a gun on the mantle in act two; by act five, the killer is unmasked, and the gun has been fired. The only "mystery" of a game like Tokimeki Memorial is "Which of these girls do I, personally, like most, and how do I get her to like me?" At their cores, early dating sims required you to solve the mystery either by growing some common sense or exercising your existing common sense by jumping through hoops of varying heights and sizes. In short, thanks to the "solution" being rendered a "goal", the games played more than "interactive fiction". Your own choices drove the action forward.

Remember Seinfeld? In season four of Seinfeld, the main characters — Jerry and George, based on the real-life series creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David — begin writing a television series that is nearly as different from their fictional lives as their fictional lives are as different from the lives of the real-life creators. Have you seen The Sopranos? (If not, see it. It's the greatest work of Western art of the 21st century, so far.) Near the end of The Sopranos, a character dies in a car accident while listening to the song "Comfortably Numb", which figured into a poignant scene of the film The Departed, which had just won best picture. The car accident occurs near-immediately after the character says, "Man, this 'Departed' soundtrack is f—king killer".

The thing is, anything explosively successful enough to change or impact the real world on any meaningful level simply can't continue to present a version of the real world without some representation of their pop culture event. It's dishonest. I had half-expected some television drama series representative of The Sopranos — a television show starring characters as informed of mafia stereotypes in pop culture as the characters within The Sopranos itself — to show up at some point in the last season of The Sopranos. That didn't happen, though the awareness was certainly there. (Aside: for some fun, try looking up "Wikipedia" on Wikipedia.)

As far as I have ever been able to tell, Japanese culture seems blissfully, deliberately unaware of itself in the places where Western pop culture would enjoy such awareness. It's not the case that Japanese would-be art-pieces don't copy one another; it's that they pretend they're not copying anything else. If one Japanese comic featuring a character who dresses like a maid finds popularity of any measure greater than mediocre, you can bet that 1500 other comics are going to appear within a year's time that also feature maids. I've touched on this before, in previous columns — The Everything Disease: those tasked with assessing why something is popular will merely write down a list of adjectives that describe the thing and then dash off a conclusion that all of these are reasons why the thing is popular. Maybe I didn't enunciate clearly enough in my previous description of The Everything Disease. Here's a metaphor. Say you have found a way to make a drug that produces the same euphoric feeling of invincibility that cocaine produces, only with none of the side effects. It's not addictive and it poses no threat of killing the user instantly if he snorts too much. If every marketing person in the world thought like a Japanese entertainment executive, you'd possibly have top brass telling you to make sure that your drug can also kill the user, because cocaine can too. Somewhere in another company, someone would produce a drug with none of the good effects of cocaine — it would just come in a powder and kill every user instantly. This is the kind of thing you have to deal with if you exit your house, seeking entertainment, on a Saturday night in Tokyo, Japan!

With videogames and Japanese animation, the self-awareness exists near-entirely in winks, nods, and elbow-nudges that only true fans will pick up. Like, maids are popular, so the game has to have a maid in it. And girls who are meanest to the guys that they like are also popular with some guys. And also, girls with glasses are popular with some other group of guys. Maybe the game doesn't have enough budget to make these three separate characters, and none of these three groups of guys are exactly the core target audience, so they combine the three traits into one character: a mean maid girl with glasses. This character, thanks to maybe one signature line of dialogue, becomes popular with people who like her because no one else likes her. Be honest: Have you ever liked and / or mastered a character in a fighting game because none of your friends ever plays as that character?

Meanwhile, in the real world, some girl who finds she doesn't have much luck with guys suddenly finds that a certain selection of not-unattractive males (of maybe questionable hobbies) will devote to her their undivided attention should she start wearing glasses and a maid outfit. This is how a fetish becomes a fashion. This kind of thing — not just this specific thing — happens all over the place in pop culture.

Escalation is another key principle. In the West, for a while, female pop stars' breasts were getting bigger and bigger, prompting many water-cooler comedians to ask "How much bigger are they going to get?" In Japan, it went kind of the other way. Pop stars getting younger and more juvenile-looking. The more-than-10 tweens of Morning Musume gave way to the, uhh, 48 girls of "AKB48". "AKB" stands for "Akihabara". By all indications, none of the girls involved in this pop music corporation are involved begrudgingly. They all seem to be having a good time. Being popular among and ogled by the types of men who ogle them was a hobby of theirs before they became pop stars. This is (maybe) a key point.

On the other side of another coin, we have hostess clubs. What is a hostess club? A lot of you guys out there carrying Kotaku Readerland passports hear "hostess club" and you think "Oh, they have those in the Yakuza games." That's one way of putting it. A lot of people only know hostess clubs from modern videogames, and relatively few of those people have actually played the game, or — even worse — when they do play the game, they assume that the representation of hostess clubs is a somehow quite toned-down version of a real-life hostess club. You might presume that real hostess clubs invariably involve prostitution. They don't! In fact, your chances of getting laid at a hostess club are significantly lower than your chance of scoring a girl at, say, any given bar for Normal People.

A hostess club is a place to go to pay a lot of money by the hour to talk to girls. There's a vicious cultural cycle involved: The girls in hostess clubs look like girls who would work in hostess clubs. They have magazines devoted to hostess girl fashion — like Koakuma Ageha, which recently had a "Have Toshihiro 'Yakuza' Nagoshi be your customer for the day" contest. The weirdest thing is that, unlike the wider-scope world fashion trendsphere, hostess fashion seems to thrive by incorporating every "successful" trend simultaneously. Though some variation is of course allowed, and though of course clubs can be excused for wanting to look a certain way, it's curious how similar the girls look: They must all have the same ash-blonde hair, teased up into hundreds of finely ironed ribbons, they must all have the same white eyeshadow, the same gaudy glittery nail implant-baubles. Whether it's the industry or the community that imposes such requirements is irrelevant: it's obvious that no one tries to be "completely" original. What happens is more like this: until one day, no hostesses wore white eye shadow. Then one girl decided she was going to. She didn't get fired, and none of her customers threw up for any reason other than extensive inebriation. Two days later, "white eye shadow" was a requirement for all girls at that particular hostess club. Three weeks later, after that hostess club fails to go bankrupt, every hostess club on the street has assimilated the New Trend.

Why are there so many hostess clubs on one street? Well, it goes like this. Here's Japan Urban Folk Wisdom Lesson #1: In many major towns, you will find a "ramen shop street". How did one street come to have so many ramen shops? It goes like this: A man who happens to be a pure culinary genius builds a ramen shop in the cheapest place his starting budget will allow. His ramen is delicious. The people have never had such a delicious ramen. He puts lots of extra garlic in his soup. Maybe he throws more steamed bamboo whatevers on top of the finished soup than any of the other ramen shops in the city. Anyway, word travels fast in an urban atmosphere: The people genuinely love this ramen. They start to line up. Luckily for some skeazy jerky ramen-cooking loser, the real estate in the area surrounding this little ramen miracle spot is exceptionally cheap. Within weeks, another ramen shop has opened up. Maybe some people lined up for the ramen genius decide to just give up and eat at this other ramen shop. Or maybe all they've heard is "there's this ramen shop on this street in this town; check it out". Accidental sales are enough for some businesses to keep their heads over the water. So now we have two ramen shops on one street. Maybe a ramen chef with great confidence in his ability decides to challenge the market microcosm on this little street by putting up a shop close to the genius. Maybe he does pretty well. Maybe people see this third ramen shop on their way to the first ramen shop and after eating the first shop's ramen, they say "that was great", and then they say, "maybe that other shop is good, too". In general, some people just aren't pitch-perfect judges of quality. They might try the other ramen shop a week after trying the genius ramen, and a week removed, they might not be able to tell the difference. Eventually, as the reputation of these two ramen shops grow, so does the number of customers lining up outside them. Then another shop opens. Maybe the second shop goes under. Another hack ramen shop pops up to take its place. Maybe, one day, a ramen shop comes that everyone genuinely agrees is better than the first ramen shop. By this point, this particular corner of the city has already earned a reputation as a "place for ramen shops". You'd have to be a real connoisseur to tell the difference between two bowls of miso ramen beyond just listing the toppings. More often than not, a "genius" bowl of ramen is declared when someone takes the chance to add a different topping, or add a standard topping in a different way. If it looks immediately different and yet produces familiar sensations, it must be brilliant.

What we see in the hostess club example is a "medium" that, unlike Seinfeld or The Sopranos is entirely wrapped up in itself without a scrap of irony. As far as I can tell, the majority of Japanese pop culture evolves in the same way as hostess club fashion. Trend-aeons transpire until, eventually, "fashionable" human beings/bowls of noodles in soup are so loaded down with clicking plastic mobile phone trinkets or chopped onions that they have essentially become indecipherable katamaris. At this point, consumers start to back away. The industry recognises decreased revenues and everyone unanimously agrees, hey, it's time for a reset.

This happened to videogames — pretty recently, even. It's just that this concept of going back to square one is so foreign in a culture like Japan, where everyone creating any kind of entertainment is considered part of some all-encompassing "team", basically working toward the noble goal of finding a way to fit everything in the world into every single 20-minute slot of television. So when a reset comes, and the resetter finds great success — the way Nintendo did with the DS and the Wii — everyone is bizarrely surprised. On another hand, did you know that Square-Enix apparently thought that Kingdom Hearts was a terrible idea? Combining and then cutely fetishising two things that two maybe-different groups of people love with terrifying intensity seemed like a bad idea. How can that be a bad idea? I mean, if you like money.

Love Plus is a reset of the genre of video dating sim game. The fascinating part is how. Here in this modern world, "love" is complicated for an adult. We have mobile phones, text messages, voice mail, email, Skype, etc. The birth rate is declining in Japan for a variety of reasons. If it's declining in the rest of the world, maybe it's not as apparent as it is in Japan. In Japan, many of the reasons are visible to people willing to give in to a little conspiracy-theorising. The ramen shop street phenomenon has led to more than enough installations of particular need-satisfying institutions centred around geographic locations. The "love hotel" industry has been simplifying infidelity for decades. The "health" industry has familiarised prostitution the way "Gokiburi Hoihoi" ("Come On In, Cockroaches") cockroach traps have familiarised cockroaches (by displaying the courtesy to make them into cartoon characters). Rent a hotel, call a Health Girl, go home to your wife, tell her you have a headache, go to bed. If you need to genuinely satisfy the need to interface intellectually with a female, you can go to a hostess club, and sit and talk to a plastic-looking princess. In the name of keeping the content ratings low enough to prevent sales droppage, the makers of dating sims have to pay mind to the hostess clubs and ignore the prostitution. However, more than enough men grow up playing dating sims — it wasn't very hard to find a hostess club with the word "Memorial" in its name, written in the same font as "Tokimeki Memorial" — to be genuinely ignorant of the finer points. Dating sims have created a group of fans, who now allow themselves to be defined as people who play dating sims.

Surely the idea of a hostess club wasn't inspired by dating sim games. Ever since the 12th century Japanese men have been paying money merely to drink alongside women. In the modern age, it's easy to see how the two have evolved in parallel. Just as there are entire niche dating sims centered around a certain painfully specific type of girl, so there are hostess clubs that do the same. If you want to talk to a girl who looks like a "stereotypical university student" because she is a stereotypical university student, you can, for the right price. Next thing you know, there'll be a sub-genre of girl-get games about girls with broken front teeth, and a hostess club to match.

People in the West talk a lot about girls being oppressed or whatever here in Japan. No one really talks about it over here. Maybe it's the Western, puritan views of sexual relations. As far as I can see, many Japanese women are doing pretty well for themselves, flaunting their sexuality whenever they stand to gain from it. It genuinely doesn't bother them when they do this, either. The stereotypical view of a woman is that she doesn't know much about "man stuff". The stereotypical view of "man stuff" is that it's boring, it's complicated, and it makes the man enough money to support his family. Girls at hostess clubs sit with boring older men who try their hardest to act like they're having fun. Part of the employee's job description is to make the customers have fun. This involves pretty much zero effort: A boring Japanese man will try very hard to at least pretend to be having fun around what he perceives to be a pretty girl. Girls are expected to be reserved and calm. All a girl has to do is smile and say she's having fun, and the typical hostess club customer can and will "fall in love" with her. Love doesn't mean he's going to marry her — maybe he'll just bring her chihuahuas.

I used to "date" a girl who worked in a hostess club. She said that, lots of times, conversations with guys would go like this:

"Wow! I'm so tired!" "You must have worked hard today." "I did! Wow, I worked so hard!" "What did you do?" "You know, guy stuff. You wouldn't understand!" "Of course I wouldn't." "Hey, let's drink some alcohol!" "Yay, alcohol!"

Of course, the girls' drinks are pre-watered down. How can a man enjoy this? I don't know. Then again, I don't smoke. When I was working in a Large Japanese Corporation many years ago, there was a 22-year-old man, just out of Tokyo University, who had never smoked a cigarette in his life. The section chief got up to smoke, and all the guys got up to smoke with him. They invited the new kid. He shivered. He went into the smoking room — a veritable hot-box packed to window-buckling pressure with smoke — and emerged 30 seconds later, vomiting water onto the carpet. My impression of Big Business in Japan has built up slowly out of that particular experience.

Where was I? Oh, Love Plus. I view Love Plus's particular method of resetting its genre as noble. It hearkens back to the earliest days of the genre — and the earliest days of its players' existence as sexual beings: High school. Sure, most of these games are about high school. Though few of them are nearly as un-weird as Love Plus. It's breaking the genre down into its essence.

In Love Plus, you assume the role of a mostly-blank slate, a high school boy whose methods of courtship you mostly choose by your own tact. When the game needs to make a girl mad at you for whatever reason, of course, the control slips out of your hands, your guy says something that makes him look like an arsehole, and it gets kind of depressing. You actually have your choice of three girls — one, your age, is a boring princess; one, a year older than you, is somehow mature enough to resign herself to the lifestyle of a workaholic waitress; the other is a year younger, cute, with short boyish hair, big fan of rock and roll music and fighting games. Of course I chose the third girl.

Works in the dating sim genre are typically referred to as "Girl Get" games. The emphasis is on the "get". Once you "get" the girl, typically, the game is pretty much over. "Girl Get" is a much better genre distinction than "dating sim". Love Plus is a dating sim. Once you "get" the girl via 10 or so hours of gruelling menu-mashing, you earn the option to flip the game into "real-time mode". The game gives you "action points" to use to perform actions of your choosing — you have a wide variety of options, from calling your girl to sending her a "what's up" email to scheduling a date. You can even choose the location of the date: zoo, movie, park, shopping centre. Then you have to make sure to turn the game on at the right time to attend your date. Turn the game on before bed and give the girl a phone call to tell her goodnight, etc.

This raises so many interesting points that one man, even one such as myself, is hardly enough to summarise them.

For one, this game is billed as a "sensational new type" of dating sim. As such, it's actually attempting to widen the entrance of the genre by inviting in new fans. This makes it, by default, a "casual game".

However, why should a dating sim have ever been anything other than a casual game? This point really interests me. What are some historically successful "casual" games? Super Mario Bros. and Gran Turismo are amazingly successful, and were loved by millions of newcomers, despite their not being precisely easy. Most players, it's not a stretch to say, really loved Super Mario Bros. without even nearly completing it. Effectively, this means that Super Mario Bros. doesn't "end". So it's possible to say that people like games that don't end.

These days, we have a split between "casual" and "hardcore" games. How did this happen? "Casual" gamers are "newcomers" to the idea of gaming, or people who didn't play games very much before finding their own personal gateway drug.

I am pretty sure that the "casual" distinction only exists in the heads of the "hardcore" gamers, the people devoted to completing and bragging about the bigger, louder, faster, more cinematic experiences pumped out on the next-gen consoles. Anything that doesn't feature better graphics and the same general game mechanics is "casual". To "hardcore" gamers, casual games are weak and small and technologically inferior.

Upon hearing that "casual" games are finding a whole new audience, many software developers began flapping the "casual games" banner. They produced a lot of pretty bad pieces of software under that distinction.

Still, maybe the "hardcore" don't have all their priorities straight when it comes time to bash the casuals. Casual is a good thing. More gamers means more games, means more money being spent on making the big games. Many hardcore gamers were casual gamers, once.

Recently, it's become increasingly apparent that longtime hardcore favourites such as Dragon Quest are, in fact, casual games. When Dragon Quest IX was announced as both a "major installment" in the series and a game for a portable system (the Nintendo DS), many a series fan felt something like a kid whose parents are getting divorced. The game had appealed to both casuals and hardcores for the longest time, and now that it came time to choose between one or the other, the fans felt like the developers had chosen the casuals. Dragon Quest IX's release for the Nintendo DS seems to be part of an industry-wide acceptance that more people don't play videogames than do, so let's try to appeal to those people.

This brings us back to Love Plus. It's a "casual dating sim". It's "casual" because it appeals to people who don't play dating sims for various reasons, like: it's not creepy. It's not weird. It has clean presentation and somewhat tasteful marketing visibility.

Why should a game genre that seeks to educate young men on the moods and behaviours of young women be something only for freaks and closet paedophiles? Why can't this genre be a kind of mainstream entertainment? Did you realise that there are entire films where not one person dies, where the only thing to happen by the end is two people fall in love, break up and remember each other fondly? Annie Hall won best picture over Star Wars, you know. People like this sort of thing. "Well, gamers don't like this sort of thing". Who said so? You?

The modern "casual game" is a very vague idea. We've got human-productivity software like all those brain-training games, which aren't really games so much as they're series of challenges that do have incorrect solutions. These "games" probably shouldn't be counted in the software sales charts. They're something else altogether. For a while, it was seriously creeping me out when people on the internet would celebrate Nintendo's "dominance" over all other consoles because Brain Training was selling more copies in Japan than Halo was selling in the US. These are two completely separate audiences. Well, that's not to say that some of the people who played Halo might also be enjoying Brain Age. It's just that the games serve two completely different functions. I propose that we stop calling things like Brain Age "casual games" or even "non-games". Just call them "software", maybe prefixed with the name of the console they're published for.

Actually, let's stop calling games "casual" or "hardcore". I'm pretty sure that the best games in the world are those that can be enjoyed by both "casual" and "hardcore" game-players alike. When PR people, like that one Nintendo woman (not going to look her name up on Wikipedia because that would be pretentious of me), declare in press conferences that they're going to make an effort to release "more hardcore" games in any given financial quarter, all you're doing is pissing people off. The devoted fans will immediately speak up: "See, they're acknowledging that they've been ignoring us".

You know what's a game that appeals to both casual and hardcore players? Tetris. People can enjoy it deeply without even being good at it. I see them playing it on their mobile phones every time I ride the train. Most of the time, they don't know what the hell they're doing. And then there are the virtuosos. Seriously, there are some people who have built up lifestyles around that game. Have you ever watched a Tetris virtuoso play?

Similarly, I've run into a lot of people over the years who talk about how much they loved Super Mario Bros. as a kid, and then I get them sitting around my living room and we fire it up on the Virtual Console, and man, they suck. I ask them, did you always suck this much as a kid? Usually, they go, "Yeah!" Sucking at a game is fun. Why do we assume that because a game is "fun to play" the player will invariably want to win? I think that somewhere early in the evolution of the post-Super Mario gaming medium, too many introverted people were jumping in and making games. Like, do you remember the old Ridge Racer games? You could be in fourth place and still be allowed to continue to the next race. Now, in the PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 generation, we have Ridge Racer 7, where you start every race in last place and you must finish first to continue to the next race. The base assumption among game makers seems to be that people want to win, or they're not having fun. Somewhere along the line they stopped considering the possibility that people generally felt that it doesn't matter who wins or loses, it's how much fun you have when playing the game.

I've always thought that Tetris doesn't get really, deeply studied enough as a game design. This game, post-Super Mario, turned housewives, of all people, onto the idea of slaving over a computer screen. The game is never about winning. In fact, you can't win Tetris. Tetris is entirely about how long you can survive before you die. The only action you can perform to prevent your collapse in a game of Tetris is rotating blocks. If the blocks fall in the right shape, they complete a line. Here's the intriguing part: all that happens when you close up a complete line is: The line disappears. Your reward for success is that your accomplishment immediately vanishes. All that's left to stare you in the face is your failure. Eventually, the failures stack up until you can't breathe, and you fail. That's kind of sick! That's kind of grim!

And then you mention Tetris in front of a Normal Person — a "non-gamer", if you must — and they say, oh, I used to love that game so much. You ask them what they liked about it and they say, "I don't know, really". Sometimes they say the music of the NES version was "mysterious". Or they'll hum the music from the Gameboy version. Many times, they'll suggest that it made them feel a certain way that they can't put their finger on.

The thing about something like Tetris is, everyone has a time in their life when it resonates deeply with them. The best part is that the time for Tetris to resonate with you is probably created the moment you first start to experience Tetris. It's lighting up new parts of your brain, and making new parts of your "soul" feel this new, weird feeling. There's something half-terrifying and half-lovely about that.

Tetris is near-untouchably abstractly perfect. Future puzzle games attempted to add characters. You've got Puzzle Bobble with the little dinosaurs from Bubble-Bobble, with in-game graphically represented contextual explanations for how your line-clearing tools are able to reach and deal with the crushing death. You've got the death descending from above instead of rising from below because, hey, we don't want to make it too much like Tetris. Puyo Puyo gives all the blocks faces, effectively anthropromorphising them. Also, Puyo Puyo has a story, explaining that the blocks you are making vanish by connecting them to other blocks are tools of some kind of magic duelling practice, and that you aren't just clearing blocks to keep yourself alive, you are clearing blocks to defeat someone else who is trying to clear blocks and also trying to defeat you as you try to clear blocks. How much explanation do we need in a game like this? In Tetris, all we had was a cold background, music evocative of Soviet Russia, and this immediate, direct reaching out of the game straight to our brains. If you're like me, it might be hard to imagine your childhood without all the hours you grinded against the void in Tetris. It changed all of us in ways we can't understand, because we've never been anything else.

Where are games like this, these days? Why can't atmosphere be everything? Why are we obsessed with narrative? Why do games have to tell stories, to talk my ear off? I'd rather be dropped in a world with no explanation of where I was or why I'm there. Like, one of my pet peeves is when I'm listening to a record and a friend comes in and says, after hearing less than ten seconds of a song, "Hey, this is pretty great. Who is this?" Why don't you try listening to the song some more before you worry about the name of the band? Mainstream entertainment seems to do this a lot — neither a "casual" nor a "hardcore" thing — and it bugs the hell out of me. I want to listen to the song, and then be told afterward, by a smooth radio announcer voice, if possible "You just listened to..." Put the experience before the exposition. This isn't the newspaper, this is entertainment; these aren't earthquake death statistics, this is a story about a world that isn't real: Let me form my own opinions before you tell me the facts. Please.

In short, there is a narrative in Tetris — it just doesn't have any characters in it, and it isn't "about" anything. The atmosphere is the narrative. The playing of the game is the narrative. Somehow, in the time spent playing this abstract little software program, you grow...weirdly intimate with some kind of emerging pseudo-consciousness.

The original Super Mario Bros. is totally the same way — for that game, too, the atmosphere was the narrative. The little pop-song-miracle of the theme music (which I will argue heatedly is yet the "Best Thing Ever To Emerge From The Video Game Industry") and the iconic graphics, together with the personable physics with which Mario skids to a stop after running, all meld together in this beautifully chemical way. No matter of scientific assessment and fetishistic adulation could produce a better game. The only better game than Super Mario Bros., as far as I'm concerned, is Super Mario Bros. 3. Super Mario World added more...shit to the game. Well, to be fair, it took some shit out, and then put some other shit in. If you ask me, the game got too friendly. It's weirdly apparent to me that Nintendo suddenly got concerned with people liking their games. I guess it had something to do with wanting them to shell out money for a new console.

"Can video games be our friends?" I don't know. Can they? Can robots love humans? The robot in the film A.I. didn't really love humans. Or is that kind of dumb persistence the same thing as love? Whoa, I've grown all woozy with wondering. Let's investigate:

Love Plus. The director of Love Plus says that the game was designed to make the players feel, and subsequently develop a deep appreciation of "Real Love". When the game forced me to say "I love you", I must say, I did feel something. To be perfectly honest, it was something I have never felt in my entire life. Was that "real love"? I'd feel terrible if it was. For me, the feeling was very ugly, muddy and weird.

Here's how you play Love Plus: Your character is a teenage boy, a nearly blank slate. You are a student at a high school. You live alone for reasons unexplained. Or maybe we just never see your parents. It is definitely not a boarding school, because two of the girls talk about their family lives a great deal. At your school, none of the students have faces or names except for three girls to whom your character is immediately attracted the first time you meet.

Your character has four statistical attributes you are free to grind at your leisure. They are "fitness", "smarts", "sense" and "charm". You grind these by carefully choosing your activities every day. You can only choose four activities a day. You can go running to build your fitness, or study to build your smarts. You can work to gain "sense", or you can "fashion" (trying on clothes at home, maybe?) to gain "charm". Some activities serve as means to talk with the girls in your life. Work at the local family restaurant to talk to the older girl, play tennis in the tennis club to meet the girl your age, or go to the library to talk to the younger girl.

Each girl has different criteria for her future boyfriend. The tennis girl would like a guy to be physically fit. Of course. The library girl would like a guy to be smart. The girl who works in the family restaurant is boring, so how the hell should I know what she wants? The more you grind your physical attributes, the more dangerously close you get to a girl confessing her love for you. When it happens, it happens.

Maybe this highlights a problem I've had in real life: I kind of liked both the tennis girl and the library girl. I liked the library girl more, and if someone would have put a gun to my head, I'd have chosen her in a heartbeat, before telling them to kindly put the gun away. However, I kept seeing those numbers crunching on the left screen (you hold the DS vertical for this game, by the way), and my gamer's instinct kept telling me to just keep grinding, to get the numbers as high as I could get them. When you highlight a daily activity during the schedule-planning phase (scary hint: the default activity choice is always "study") you can see its effects on your stats on the left screen. I was trying to get each of my stats to increase every day. How sick is that? The girl I wanted only cared if I had "sense" (built by practicing music and/or going to the convenience store at night, of course) and a reasonable amount of smarts. Why didn't I just polish those, meet her at the library every afternoon without fail, text her "goodnight" every night and "good morning" every morning? When tennis girl started waiting on the road near my home, asking if I wanted to walk with her to school, the dialogue box stared me right in the soul: "Sure, let's go, yay" or "Sorry. In a hurry." How could I choose option B? Why should I blow someone off in a video game?

This has happened to me every time I play one of these modern games with a "morality" system or whatever. Like, in Fable II, a man is dying by the side of the road, and it's the same number of button presses to save the guy's life as it is to kill him and then make your on-screen avatar laugh about it. Why should I bother to, you know, be a jerk in a video game, given the choice? Why was Peter Molyneux actually surprised that people more often than not play the part of the good guy? As Matt Damon said in The Talented Mr. Ripley, no one ever considers himself a bad person. You have to actually try to be "bad" in a game. You have to try pretty hard, sometimes. You have to willingly detach yourself from the game. In a way, maybe this makes you and the game best buddies. Or maybe it makes you worst enemies. It's a coin toss.

I didn't want to say no to the tennis girl. I let her keep being my friend. I kept talking to her. I hoped that the game would gradually realise I liked library girl more, because I was choosing to spend my afternoons in the library instead of on the tennis court. Tennis girl kept waiting for me after school. Eventually, one day, library girl was waiting for me after school. I walked her home and that was pretty much it. She asked if I wanted to go out on the next pseudo-real-time Sunday. I said why not. Two in-game weeks later, my character had a dream about her. The game forced me to say "I love you". Twice.

This was the first (and second) time I'd ever told anyone I loved them in any language, and I did it to get to the next level in a f—king video game. F—king 30 years old, over here.

Minutes later, one in-game afternoon, library girl met me in the library, asked if I would come up to the roof, and then asked me formally to be her boyfriend. Wondering for a half-second if the game would try to wrap up things with tennis girl, I sighed clicked "Yes", finally thinking, "about time I beat this stupid game". The "final boss" was the mere act of saying "Yes". And then I realized: Doesn't that just say it all?

The guilt came immediately. After trying very hard to polish my guy's stats to perfection on all fronts, to make him a real Renaissance Man, I gave up and started stacking the activities purely in favour of "sense" and studies. I told tennis girl — precisely once — that I was too busy to walk to school. Me and library girl were sliding into a relationship soon after that. It felt ridiculous. In real life, my strategy for sex usually involves much self-effacing, to the point where, after weeks or possibly months of listening to me talk, the girl is finally psychologically worn down to the point where she basically tears my pants off. It's not that I don't want her to tear my pants off. I'd love it if she did it immediately after I said "Hello; you're pretty hot". I'd love it if life worked that way. It doesn't, though. We're not all yeti-sized chainsaw-gun-wielding marines a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. There comes a point in every terribly failed sexual relationship I've ever known where I start to exercise what I believe is a psychic power. Maybe I'm just laying the hints on thicker. Maybe I'm making jokes about my penis more often, talking about how I can't jerk off because I can't raise my hand far enough above my head, or whatever. It felt like that with library girl. Only, in this game there would be no getting laid. I have gotten laid — oh my god — so many times in real life, just because I can play at least three musical-sounding notes on most instruments (most recently learned a couple notes on the cello — thanks for the lesson, American McGee). I've done this all without a single "I love you". And now here's a game, telling me to tell it I'm in love, and it won't even show me any virtual fornication because Nintendo doesn't allow that on their consoles. How weird.

"Real love" is the feeling of settling for something because it's there. Well, that's how it felt to me. I felt like a dunce. Maybe there's something wrong with me. I've seen too many charismatic Jewish guys (Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld) find flaws in any relationship, and I always figure I can do better. What weird courage it takes to say those words that centuries of literature have built up as so holy! It felt like attempting to practice profanity as a six-year-old in front of a mirror Sunday afternoon after church. The top teeth close down on the bottom lip, the "Ffffff" escapes the mouth, the rest sticks in the throat. It felt that kind of weird, futile, introverted, religion-like event.

What is this game, to me? Are we friends? Are we in love? I don't know if we're either. What is love? Who the shit knows? Love Plus's designers seem adamant that Love is 95 per cent showing up, 4 per cent choosing the right date spot to match your remaining number of activity points and your girlfriend's mood, and 1 per cent knowing which six parts of your girlfriend's body she likes you to touch. (Hands, hair, shoulder, arm, forehead — oh, shit, what was the other one? Oh. Ears. (She hates it when I touch her breastlets. Or her, uhh, inguinal area. (The swimsuit region unfortunately falls just beneath the bottom of the screen — can't delete "The Hot Folder" from my hard drive just yet)

You know what, though? Here's where I close my eyes and remember that Tokyo University Kid, who threw up water right onto the carpet after barrel-rolling out of the smoking lounge on his first day, his first cigarette, at that Huge Japanese Corporation all those years back. The moment that happened, I wasn't even thinking that years later I would consider the event some kind of cosmic revelation. No, in the moment, I was remembering and in-head-quoting The Matrix: "He's gonna pop!" Years later, the revelation is this: Maybe love really is just persistence. Maybe there's really no damned difference. You just keep throwing yourself at that wall of ocean, ice, fire, wind, whatever colour of Pokemon you bought on puberty day.

I was watching an episode of Dexter — a show about a serial killer who lives by a code (he only kills other killers) and tries to blend into society. He thinks, when about to comfort his stepdaughter re: some bullshit thing that happened earlier in the episode, "I wish I was like everyone else; I wish I knew what to say". How can't you? Can't the knack for rote memorisation that allows you to be a virtuoso at concealing murder evidence also provide you with a plethora of pre-prepared responses to everyday situations such as these? I've already tooted this particular horn of mine once in this particular piece; let's toot it again: I am a not-completely-normal, game-playing kind of dude, and even I have had sex before. Not only that, I'm pretty good at it!

Apparently, Love Plus is the source of a controversy in Japan. Or maybe this is something the viral marketers made up. You never know anymore, man. Like, apparently there are some girls complaining that men are acting creepily close to their Love Plus girlfriends. They're putting their DSes under their pillows, they're doing the little free-conversation "mini-game" mode in the bathtub, they're interrupting real-life Sunday dates with their real-life girlfriends to switch on the DS and give their fake girlfriend the gift that they bought for them earlier in the week.

There's an urban legend that still spins today on the hot pavement of Tokyo like a shell casing just discharged from a machine gun: a woman was driving a car when her Tamagotchi beeped. "Tamagotchi" is a mash-together of the Japanese words for "Egg" and "wristwatch". It was the first "virtual pet" released in Japan. It caused a huge fad. Tamagotchi was like a Chia Pet with a button to reset it if you screwed up. If you were attentive, and fed and played with the Tamagotchi enough times a day, it would eventually evolve and grow into something bigger, neater-looking, and even tougher to care for. Anyway, this woman's Tamagotchi was beeping while she was driving her car. She got tired of the f—king thing beeping and reached over to take a good look at it. Anyway she got hit by a truck and killed.

It turns out, actually, that this isn't just an urban legend, like that thing about Jamie Lee Curtis being born a hermaphrodite (no, Zak, that is not true). It actually happened.

I got the idea to play Love Plus and maybe write something about it when I saw it reported in various publications that women in Japan were jealous of "virtual cheating". Might this be a viral PR stunt? Or might it be something else even more sinister? If it's a PR stunt, then doesn't it fly in the face of everything the game's director says it stands for — this is a game about teaching men about "real love". And if it's not a PR stunt — if these reports are true — then I guess the game wasn't very successful at teaching men who to love for "real". Or does the A.I. question go both ways? Is it easier for a human to love a robot than it is for a robot to love a human? (Getting a head rush over here. Should probably sleep. Soon.) That said, if a man already has a girlfriend, and Love Plus is meant to teach him to appreciate her more, in this scenario, it's doing a terrible job. (Alternately: maybe the girlfriends of Japan should try becoming schoolgirls that fit into one of three clearly defined stereotypes.)

A Tamagotchi is addictive and interesting, again, partly (mostly) because it's so enigmatic, alien, weird. The instruction manual that comes with an old-school Tamagotchi literally spells it out: The little plastic egg in your hand is a vessel containing a creature. The creature comes from a planet where all beings literally exist only as computer data, however, he feels real pain, real hunger, and real love. Please care for him. A Tamagotchi immediately engages us because we cannot, and never will be able to, prove that he does not feel pain when he dies, hunger when he's hungry, or love when we appreciate him. Though we look at a Tamagotchi and initially wonder "What is this thing?" eventually, we answer that question with "something that relies on me to survive". We have defined a creature's existence based on the sole fact that it relies on us.

What is Love Plus? Well, here's the sad part: Love Plus is a video game for the Nintendo DS. It has a goal: Don't make the girl mad. Nothing you can do will make her die, or make her hate you so completely that you never talk to her again. The girl inside the game is very clearly a slightly abstracted artistic rendition of a female human being.

Rather than explore the possibilities and implications of "virtual cheating", which I suddenly find about as exciting as the idea of skipping breakfast, I'm going to instead pass judgment on the guys who would rather give presents to and/or punctually honour date times with their virtual girlfriend than say one kind word to their real-life significant others or family members: F—k you.

However, the lady who died caring for her Tamagotchi: That's sad. That's a real modern-day tragedy, is what that is. I'm not even being sarcastic. Maybe she didn't have a husband or a child. Maybe all her friends were girls who decided that with the equivalent of $300 and six hours they could look just like the girls in the magazines, and they could get paid enough money to purchase their own lonely shimmering condo and enough chihuahuas to fill it by age 27, enticing and exciting the dreams and shallow hopes of every commitment-fearing man who rang the little chime over the door, never procreating by choice, their goal — like that of so many females in this post-birth-rate nation — merely to be left alone. Here was Chieko — yes, we've just named the woman who died with the Tamagotchi in her car — desperately wanting someone or something to hold onto. Maybe she was unattractive, and probably she was beautiful. Who the hell knows.

Here I am, 30 years old. You want to know something? I have 66 female Miis, all of them tall, thin, with beauty marks just beneath their right eyes and big round glasses on their faces. They all have the same name. That name is "Chieko". Where did they go? Why did they come back? When did I make all of them? What was I thinking? What am I, really, at this stage in my life?

Maybe I'm not afraid of commitment. Maybe I just find other people's idea of commitment shallow. Maybe I'm waiting for some cosmic, huge thing. Love Plus sure as fuck isn't it.

"Can video games be our friends?" This is the second time I've asked this question, unless you count the title of this article. The answer is: I don't see why they can't be. I just don't think they should pretend to be our friends.

Tetris is our friend. Love Plus is not. (Though only because it pretends to be.)

We've got Fable II, right? I might have mentioned before how I'm that guy who's really good at making a game look stupid within seconds of picking it up. In Stranglehold I ignored the on-screen navigation and slid back and forth over a tabletop for maybe two straight minutes. It was hilarious. In Fable II, I stood in town square immediately after they let you go to the town the first time, and I just started spamming the "thumbs-up" gesture for, like, a minute. I had a crowd of people gathered around. Curious, I kept spamming the gesture. I knew there was a computer program trained to recognise "thumbs up" with a positive reaction. However, what I didn't realise was precisely how bone-headed the game was about to be. It turns out that "favorable reaction" stacks up over time, giving no priority to the size or impact of events. After 30 minutes of thumbs-upping in town square, I had no less than half a dozen girls repeating "I bet you'll be giving me a ring, then?" Is that all it takes to get a girl to want to marry you — just prove to her that you are capable of repeating the same tiny task over and over again for a half an hour at a time? (I wonder if one of those shops that airbrushes a photograph of your kitten onto a sweatshirt would do a sweatshirt with a picture of my Dragon Quest IX party on it.)

Now, I'm all for a thumbs-up button in games. I've said before that Grand Theft Auto games are all about violence because there isn't a "hug button". Can you make a whole game where there's only a hug button? What about this Milo thing that Fable II developers Lionhead are working on? It's a whole game built around the idea of interacting with a little boy. That better be really clever.

Maybe playing Love Plus and thinking about Fable II again has allowed me time to think about the nature of violence as an interaction in a game: When you get a girlfriend in Love Plus, you begin a complicated relationship — which is even more complicated for the game designers than it is for you. In Grand Theft Auto, when you shoot a pedestrian, you end a shallow relationship which began only milliseconds earlier, when you pulled out your gun.

Recently, Toshihiro Nagoshi, the director of the Yakuza games, stated that the Grand Theft Auto games were morally difficult to classify in Japan, because they allow the player to do whatever he wants. Also recently, Hifumi Kouno of Nudemaker — developers of intricate mecha-piloting simulation Steel Battalion and a few adult graphic adventures for the PC — commenting on the recent debacle surrounding RapeLay (an amateur-made graphic adventure game about rape), said that it would be possible for a game that concerns a specific situation of violent crime to take an artistic and valid viewpoint, however, giving the player total freedom to murder innocents as in Grand Theft Auto is morally wrong.

What no one wants to talk about is that murdering innocent civilians in Grand Theft Auto is merely "something you can do". It's not a "feature" of the game. It's never something the game tells you to do. Killing civilians in no way deepens your relationship with the game. It does, however, make you feel something. And, more importantly, it says something about you. Did you feel bad the first time you killed a civilian in Grand Theft Auto? I would say, if put on the spot, that I felt "about as bad as I felt when I got a girlfriend in Love Plus". What does that even mean?

How bad did you feel the second time?

There are many types of friends. There are reliable friends, friends who you can always count on. Like Treasure's Sin and Punishment or Super Mario Bros. 3. There are friends who were with you through tough times, like Braid, or friends with whom you share larger-than-life experiences, like Earthbound or Dragon Quest V.

There's a game series that is always your friend, whether you're a casual or a hardcore: Dragon Quest. Yuji Horii once described the ultimate goal of a Dragon Quest as being to create a world that the player "can feel". I feel like I've mentioned this a hundred times: Every NPC in every town serves a small purpose. You might meet an old woman alone in a house. She says (never minding that you just stepped into her house uninvited) that she's worried about her son. He's recently joined the castle guard. Ever since his father died ten years ago, he's insisted on growing up to be a military hero. Later, you find yourself in the castle. All of the guards look the same. They all say the same things. One of them, sleeping on a bed in the barracks, says that he's sick, and he really wishes he had some of his mother's home-cooked soup. Between two tiny NPCs (one of whom looks like a hundred others) and five short sentences of dialogue, Dragon Quest has just presented you an entire world, a world made of people. We need more stuff like that, less stuff like thumbs-upping a girl straight into future-wife status in thirty minutes in Fable II.

Co, can video games be . . . ? Listen, I have been to a lot of modern art museums, and I would reckon the curators of those places make enough money, so they must know what art is. I have seen some stupid shit in some modern art museums. So for the first and last time, of of course they can. Out of this World is art.

Canabalt is art. Try and tell me that's not art. It's Super Mario Tetris. It's got atmosphere.

(Or, "why the Japanese still haven't gotten over Final Fantasy VII") In conclusion, the Japanese still haven't gotten over Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VII was a game that was about something. It had a "main theme". It was successful. All RPGs now try to look just like it, to build their ramen shops right next door. Tetsuya Nomura's character designs have poisoned more than a decade of haircut catalogs. Ugly men whose most memorable human relationships probably occurred between their self and Aeris and Sephiroth in a dark room now enjoy employment at many game companies, sometimes consulting the spreadsheet in their head that lists all of the things Final Fantasy VII did. The thing is, Final Fantasy VII didn't come out of nowhere. It was, itself, calculated. Why is everyone in business trained to consider any success a fluke? No, wait, don't answer that. Final Fantasy VII is not a fluke. They pour love and stuff into the game. Not all of the stuff worked, though the love sure did. People responded to the love. The stuff, maybe they liked some of, maybe they disliked some of.

Why do they just keep making shells built around character designs and loud battle systems? What the hell was Final Fantasy VIII "about", really, aside from characters who looked at least as cool as the characters in Final Fantasy VII? Aside from the fact that the hero had a fur collar, a scar on his face and a gun trigger on his sword? Where were the actual feelings? Do they think players are that shallow? Do they think we care only for the flash and bang, just because we once cared for something that had flash and bang in — in addition to many other things? Why not just look at the things Final Fantasy VII did, and try to do them again? Establish a character that players will like. You sleep in that character's mother's house at one point, for god's sake. Let the player experience solitude and confinement. Give them a world. Then show them something that happens in it.

They're afraid of satisfying the players "too much". They're afraid of "cannibalising" other genres of games. A friend of mine was telling me today that the first phone he ever had in Japan contained a flawless voice-recorder feature that let him record up to 50 minutes of voice. When it came time to finally get a new phone, he couldn't find one with such a robust function. No, his new phone only has "room" for three 10-second memos. How lame is that? It's like, maybe NEC had a voice recorder on their phone, and maybe Toshiba, who also sells phones under the DoCoMo umbrella, came up to DoCoMo and was like, "Hey, we sell standalone voice-recorders and we feel like that NEC phone with a voice-recorder is kind of cannibalising the sales of our voice recorders". This isn't even conspiracy-theory talk: They do have guys at big companies whose only job is to think of shit like this. As the Japanese games industry grew, thanks to Final Fantasy VII, so did its potential for teasing its fans.

And then: I used to know a guy whose job was creating fake, "female" profiles for a Japanese website that advertised to men looking for a quick hook-up. They'd charge guys money if they sent messages to girls. Well, if you signed up, you'd get 30 free "conversation points". It would cost maybe 11 conversation points to open a message from a girl, and 11 points to reply. So this guy would make fake female profiles and then immediately message guys when the server showed that a new guy had signed up and filled out a profile. The guys would reply, and then he would reply back. The guys would reply one more time, which would put them two points into the red. The website sold points at a rate of something like ¥10,000 (around $122) for 100 points. The "server" would "automatically" mail the guy a request for money, bank account information and a please-transfer-by date.

This is the kind of psychotic bullshit from which I suppose games could serve as an escape. Some men on Japanese internet message boards talk about how they "only love 2D girls", or how games are all the "social interaction" they need. Today, I almost find myself sympathising with these people. Loudspeakers right outside my bedroom window blare terrible commercials for bicycle shops or pachinko parlors or cat food wholesale stores, I've just told a game "I love you" so I could get to the next level, I have 66 identical female Miis living inside my Wii, the man across the street at the tiny bakery is standing outside screaming into a megaphone at a dead-empty, early-Sunday-morning street because it's a "proven sales tactic". All over the world, people are pretending to be things or people they are not for money. Maybe it's even someone you know. Sitting here, typing this, half-asleep, in what should be dead, spartan silence, I keep hitting the num lock key on my MacBook Pro keyboard. When did I develop this accident? These days, every day is one of those days when I keep hitting the num lock key on the keyboard. I start to sympathise with Hikkoshi Lady, who became so fed up with the world and her festering place in it that she took to screaming out her window literally 24 hours a day for nearly a decade. At near-inexplicably weird times like this, I feel entertainment, of all things, is failing us.

I wanted to use this story in here somewhere; I can't remember where. I wanted to mention how Hideo Kojima once told me in an interview that his "ultimate game" would be not for any console — it would be a robot, maybe of a little girl, who you had to care for, who would maybe tell you a very long and affecting story. Then I wanted to mention Love Plus, where your guy asks the girl, during a routine walk home from school, "What kind of music do you like?" and she says, "You know, the usual stuff", and your guy says, "You don't seem like you like the usual stuff", and she says, "What's that supposed to mean?" and I'm home, in my boxers, in my bed, blue LED Christmas lights taped in the shape of a psychotic constellation on my ceiling, thinking, I know what that's supposed to mean. I'd ask her, hey, show me your iPod right now! Or if she didn't have an iPod (pro tip: some people don't!) I'd say, what's the last CD you bought? Then I'd realise I'm not on the Holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation, that in this imagined world I can only timidly go where game designers have already gone before.

Then I wanted to mention Final Fantasy VII, then I wanted to mention the Final Fantasy XIII trailer, full of action figures posing and spouting impenetrable, indecipherable catch-phrases in scenes so vague that you can tell the makers hadn't jigsaw-puzzled even a quarter of the game's "plot" together before they commissioned the cut-scene. Then I would paraphrase this joke. It's the kind of joke you can only paraphrase, really. Every culture used to have another culture they didn't like, or considered intellectually inferior, so the main character of this joke was usually a member of that culture, depending on your culture.

It goes like this: A man, who is an idiot, has a superhuman ability to paint straight lines. He gets a job painting a line down a long, straight highway. His first day, he does wonderfully. He paints miles of straight line. The next day, he paints significantly less. By the end of the week, his productivity has fallen through the floor. He's getting no work done at all. His superior asks him: "Are you having trouble?" To which the idiot replies: "Nah. It just takes longer and longer to walk back to the bucket. It takes so long, I don't have time to paint anymore."

It's like that.


Once again, thank you for reading this! Your patience knows no bounds.

I will be back next month with, hopefully, something even more fatuous and impenetrable.

In the meantime, if you are a 2D artist or programmer and would like to help me make an independent game and are willing to work temporarily for (probably) no money at all, please contact me at 108 (at) actionbutton (dot net).

If you have any questions or concerns or suggestions for future columns, please mail me! Getting email is fun!

Also, if you are a game developer and would like me to play your product so as to further my broken encyclopaedic knowledge of game design, please send me an email. Disclaimer: Giving me your product for free in no way guarantees a favourable opinion. I am even enjoying iPhone games, these days.

Tim Rogers is the editor-in-chief of Action Button Dot Net (stay tuned this month for a big-time Action Button revival! Lots of cool stuff coming; bookmark it asap, etc); he lives in Tokyo; friend his band on myspace!

Illustration by Harvey James.


    That thing with the Chieko and the Miis. It was… poignant. I’m not being ironic, it really was.

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