When we talk about realism in games, it’s usually a very narrow view of realism. In fact, the word might as well be synonymous with realistically(ish) proportioned characters draped in textures. Think Gears of War or Fallout 3 or The Witcher. Now I don’t have anything against these games, but I do wish the medium would do more than it has with realism. There’s more than one kind out there, and video games are selling themselves short to deny that variety. Even ignoring that, most games don’t do a lot with their realism. They’re happy to accept it rather than critique it or analyze it or expand on it or comment on it in any meaningful way.
So imagine my surprise after finishing Yuuyami Doori Tankentai, the super unknown Playstation horror game that actually does something with reality. Granted, it might not look that way at first. The game starts off on a dull note as it too enthusiastically embraces its realism. But I implore you, push through. It’s worth soldiering on to see the amazing (read: foreboding) things it does with the real world.
Before I go any further, I should clarify what I mean by “realism.” For Yuuyami Doori Tankentai, it’s very different from what you’d expect. The game centers on three Japanese high schools who spend their free time investigating scary rumors: Sango, Nao, and Kurumi. Imagine Persona 4 with about 80% of the fantasy sucked dry. This is one of the most realistic depictions of Japanese life I’ve seen in a video game, for better or for worse, and in the game’s beginning moments, that usually means worse. Each day in Hirumi City follows the same boring schedule: listen to whatever humdrum conversation you happen upon, hope it results in a rumor you can investigate, and then run around town to find the conclusion.
While I want to defend the game as making some kind of statement with how boring the world is, I highly doubt that’s the case. The depiction of daily life is there, yes, but there’s no commentary on top of that. Not even a distinct personality to fill the void. Instead, this is just the way things are; no greater reason behind it. And on that note, so much of the boredom comes from mistakes in the game’s design, like half-defined characters and unbelievably slow pacing. Now I’m not trying to say that the game starts off on nothing but mistakes. Yuuyami’s otherworldly elements have no such flaws, if the disorienting panorama sections are anything to go by. But looking at the real world elements, the game’s doing no better at investigating reality than the countless other games that claim to be realistic.
That changes once you hit late June. (For context, the game begins in early May.) Not the supernatural elements; those thankfully remain intact. I’m referring almost exclusively to changes in tone and direction. Without spoiling the narrative, the plot jolts into a darker place about halfway through, and it finally starts to deliver on its horror premise. The rumors become a little gloomier, the characters a little interested. But what I’m most interested in is how the game delivers all this: through its reality. That’s the beautiful thing about Yuuyami Doori Tankentai: it changes very little about its world or the inhabitants in it, yet still manages to unnerve the player with its strict reality.
In fact, the game is more equipped than ever to unsettle you when it embraces that reality. There’s the obvious argument that that this makes the game easier to relate to and thus more terrifying, and while that’s absolutely part of the game’s success, I think it goes a little deeper than that. After all, Yuuyami doesn’t break reality apart or confuse it in any way. This is the same mundane world you knew before. However, something isn’t right. You don’t know what, but you can sense that something is off. The Hirumi City you once knew now resembles a threatening labyrinth of roads and pathways. And you begin to notice the homeless and crime problems that pose actual physical harm to the characters. Not to mention the cold judgment the social world is willing to dish out.
I’m well aware that these are broad issues, yet that’s precisely what makes them so unsettling. When you consider them alongside the game’s atmosphere, it’s almost like the game is saying the world is functioning as it should. What else does it need to say after that? What could be more disempowering than knowing that not only are you powerless to affect the world, but maybe you wouldn’t even want to? It’s as though the game consistently finds the precise spot it needs to hit to unsettle you in the long-term. I can’t imagine any of the game’s supernatural parts coming close to equalling that. Now I’m not saying that they fall short. Just…what leaves a greater imprint on your mind: finding out that your close friend is possessed by kitsune, or finding out that your close friends spend their free time murdering cats? (I wish I was kidding about that last one.)
Yuuyami’s sense of dread is especially palpable where its characters are concerned. I didn’t mention them before because it takes a while for them to evolve beyond blank nothings whose only job is to advance the plot. Fortunately, they eventually move past that role, and into one that explains why they solve rumors in the first place. They’re friendless outcasts without many friends outside this small circle. And when you start to see this, you also begin to see just how bleak their situations are. Sango can barely stave off her suicidal thoughts; Nao might be bullied at school; and Kurumi has a developmental disorder that basically renders her blind to how bad the world around her is. OK, so the game brings up mental illness more than I’d realized, and I’m ambivalent about how it treats the subject. For every character who sees their mental illness treated honestly (like the protagonists), there’s another who’s just clinically ill or something and that’s the end of it. And each time I see those characters, I wish the game would explore them in a little more depth.
Yet in spite of that uneven treatment, I don’t think I’d remove the mental illness angle from Yuuyami Doori. Because for all the game’s blunders, I don’t see any of them as overwriting the game’s accomplishments. With just a few narrative twists, the game can bend suburban Japanese life into something unsettling. And it’s not because of different this world is from our own, but because of how similar it is to ours. Therein lies the game’s greatness: it doesn’t have to rely on its supernatural elements to make a point. (I mean, it has them. It just doesn’t have to rely on them.) All it has to do is present the world as it is, and then let that world run its course.