WASD a Mile in Another Person’s Shoes

Mainichi looks like a throwback role-playing game but plays like an avant-garde experiment of how we express and internalize our feelings.

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One unique property of videogames is their relationship with time; a significant part of the play experience is being allowed to organize the temporality of the world around your actions as a player. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the role-playing game (RPG), with its non-player characters who stand around, idly awaiting the player character to interact with them, so that they can impart information or offer a quest. When the world caters to the player’s schedule, exploration becomes one of the central categories of play; a world that only comes to life when you consciously choose to bring it there creates a compelling reason, and something like a moral imperative, to explore.

Mainichi is a short game developed by Mattie Brice using the RPG Maker tool, which is a program that allows users to make a game in the style of early role playing video-games. Both aesthetically and mechanically, games developed using this tool resemble NES/SNES era titles. In these games, the world is a massive grid, tiled with spaces to walk on, spaces of obstruction, and spaces to interact with. Mainichi does away with the battle component, which generally takes the characters into an abstracted space where conflict is (violently) resolved by tactically maneuvering a menu. In Mainichi, The tiled world is all there is.

Leigh Alexander, in her write-up of a panel for the Different Games conference, notes that Mainichi has been called an “empathy simulator.” The gameplay guides the player through a representative day in the life of a trans* woman of color, as she gets ready for and attends a coffee date with a friend. The player has a relatively limited number of choices: she can spend her time getting ready or procrastinating, she can choose which side of the street to walk down, she can pay for coffee with cash or a card, and she can try to engage or avoid the “cute barista.” Different actions and interactions are represented to the player with an elegantly simple form of visual feedback. A small thought bubble appears over the characters head with a musical note, an ellipsis, a heart, a roiling cloud, or an exclamation point. Or it doesn’t, and there is significance to this as well.

Because I had grown up playing the games that Mainichi aesthetically recalls, I assumed that the game borrowed the established genre conventions as well as the graphics from its inspirations. The world, then, should prove to be an abstracted space that depended on me to complete a series of scripted actions in order to switch from one state to another. All of this happened at an unconscious level; with nothing more than a title screen and a set of graphics to prime me, I fell into the trap of thinking that all of the mechanics were fixed and it would only be the story that differentiated the game. I tried to walk around, and then I tried interacting with the various abstracted objects that seemed most likely to have some coding associated with them. Once I had the how down, I started investigating the what, and quickly understood that the desired actions were to bathe, put on makeup, and dress. So, naturally, I proceeded in such a way as to save those things for last, in order to experience all the possible options in one playthrough. When I had done the three other things available in the house, I was surprised when an exclamation point appeared over my character’s head and a prompt that told me it was time to leave.

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In an interview in Weekly Famitsu from 1992 (translated here), Shigesato Itoi, the designer of the SNES game EarthBound, says, “In single-player videogames, the amount of human tactic involved is a battle between the player and the programmer who assembled it, so the programmer can’t just go and lose to the player.” An empathy simulator like Mainichi might not seem like it would have much interest in this idea of the player and the programmer being at odds; in many ways the game acts as an active deconstruction of this mindset.

Yet when that little exclamation point appeared above the player character’s head, I felt very much the same as I did wandering the Dusty Dunes Desert in EarthBound, speaking to the black and white sesame seeds. I felt entitled to be able to explore the world infinitely, and also to be rewarded for doing the same. Yet here the game had undermined my expectations, and I had been outplayed, my cautious over-adherence to implicit rules called out. But not as punishment; only as a reaffirmation that, yes, play structures itself, but there are external factors, too.

I played through Mainichi again immediately after completing it once, and did the opposite, following the path that was sure to result in the greatest possible amount of success. And it did, in a way; the volume of the ambient interactions went up, and the writing was straightforward without losing any shade of complexity. When, for instance, you have played through and dressed up completely, if you get the attention of the barista, he asks if he can sit with you on his break. When you return to have coffee with the friend you were meeting, however, and share that you think he is going to ask you out, your friend responds with the ambivalent reaction, a series of ellipses, and ultimately says, “I mean… does he know? You know? I just don’t want you to get hurt.” As structured and clearly “indicative” as this interaction is — and has to be — it reads sufficiently realistically to capture the charged, unconscious motivations that make any interaction a minefield far beyond the straightforward use of obviously pejorative or demeaning language. Even the game’s street harasser has a degree of complexity to his awful yelling; statements like, “THAT’S SOMEONE’S *SON!*” encode not just revulsion, but a particular set of patriarchal moral assumptions about gender and the value of family that creates and encourages revulsion towards things which don’t comply with them.

More than that, though, was the way the interactions that elicited reactions from the player character indicated an equal complexity using a distinctly gamey idiom, using the typical signifiers for bad/good, or incentivizing/disincentivizing, in ways that reacted to the implicit content of the statement as well as the explicit. When the player character tells her friend about the barista, the friend’s concern is initially registered by the ambivalent ellipsis thought bubble. Or when the street harasser, after initially eliciting the roiling cloud/negative feedback, continues harassing the player character, but no expressive cues result. Things like this tell complex stories with simple tools, allowing the player to understand not just that street harassment, for example, is upsetting, but also how it gets internalized and normalized, or how friendly concerns, no matter how well intentioned, can situate themselves right alongside the other micro-aggressions that pile up over a typical day.

Mainichi is a game that is very much about the particular, the experience; and as a game it is necessarily situated within the systemic. This is, perhaps, what makes it so absolutely wonderful. Even though it doesn’t look “experimental,” it is much closer to the tradition of avant-garde experimentation than most games that do. It engages with form in a way that is a perfect mixture of comforting and alienating, producing a reflection on form that is truly affective, interpolating the player in ways that simultaneously deepen and reinforce its didactic/pedagogic intent, and ultimately allowing the player to recognize a space within both games and life that they (or at the very least I) failed to recognize prior to their playing.