Video games could use more smaller experience. I don’t mean that they need shorter games, although that wouldn’t hurt. And I don’t mean that they need more indie developers working on smaller projects; that scene is handling itself fine as it is. Rather, I wouldn’t mind seeing more games that concentrate on the minutiae of ordinary life. There’s value to be had in that. There are stories worth telling, and ideas worth exploring that games with a larger scope might not be able to handle.
These are the thoughts that come to mind as I write about Ihatovo Monogatari, the obscure SNES retelling of Kenji Miyazawa’s stories. (Miyazawa himself even makes a guest appearance toward the end of the game.) Ihatovo is by no means a big game. It’s basically nine loosely collected tales joined together by the hero’s search to complete a set of seven notebooks. Yet this loose set-up is precisely what allows the game to work its magic. Ihatovo hones in on the warm and sentimental feeling of life in a tightly knight community. Every fiber of its being is focused on drawing you into that community, explaining why it’s able to do so so well.
This includes the gameplay, surprisingly enough. I say that it’s surprising because compared to a lot of games, Ihatovo is mechanically sparse. All you can do in Ihatovo City is walk around town, talk to the citizens, and occasionally use an item to advance the story. There are no complex systems and no flashy mechanics to work with, even regarding the mechanics I’ve just described. They are what they are. So at first glance, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the game can’t rely on mechanical strength, and instead has to appeal to narrative strength. I certainly did that early on.
But the more I played, the more I came to realize just how vital the gameplay is to the game’s tone. Look at the towns: if not for the tight control Ihatovo maintains over them, the game would lose its feeling of community. Each one is very small yet still identifiable. The largest is Ihatovo proper, whose neat and orderly infrastructure ensures that you can you can find whatever you want whenever you want. Smaller burgs follow suit, marking off plot important areas so that they appear conspicuous yet still organic to the world. On one level, that design gives the game tight control over its pacing. It’s very difficult to get lost between the two small towns the game confines you to at any given time. Yet it’s also worth considering the mood this design creates in itself. Each new location paints a vivid picture of a tightly knit but still inviting hamlet. With everything out in the open, Ihatovo and the towns surrounding it have nothing to hide. They’re social spaces that invite curious eyes to look inside all its nooks and crannies; to get involved with whatever business the player happens across.
In fact, Ihatovo’s strengths don’t just lie in the layouts themselves, but also in the behaviors those layouts elicit, and how the game presents them. For example, what happens if you don’t know how to advance the story? You talk to the people; it’s the only thing you can do in the game. And given how much time you spend in Ihatovo, you don’t just talk to them, either. You get to know them; learn who they are, what their lives are like, and how that might relate to your own quest. In essence, you’re forced to participate in the community that’s so central to the game.
Yet it never feels like you’re being forced to do anything. That would compromise Ihatovo’s project, and the game is smart enough to avoid that. So instead of presenting objects in a way that demands your attention (like blocks in a Zelda dungeon might), those objects exist as features of the world. Everything is where it logically should be, and nothing looks immediately conspicuous. You can investigate these things if you want, but nobody’s forcing you to do so. Admittedly, the game’s only able to have this presentation because of its sparse environmental composition, but it’s important that it does. It’s this presentation that lets the game have its ludic clarity without compromising its inviting attitude. It’s this presentation that lets you get back on the narrative track when you get lost, but without feeling like the game hiding anything behind an obtuse logic. No wonder Ihatovo has such a warm and hospitable tone.
I couldn’t help but compare that welcoming vibe to the unwelcoming one I got playing Yuuyami Doori Tankentai. I know that’s an odd thing to bring up, given the six year gap between these two games, but hear me out. They both start with the same concept, but take it in wildly different directions. For Yuuyami, the everyday is stifling and oppressive; an overpowering force that’s frightening to approach. You feel forced to talk to people to advance the story, even if the game doesn’t make that easy. You can never know who needs to talk to who to move things along, or if anybody will have something useful to say. However, you can be certain that people will tell you to fuck off for even talking to them. And Hirumi City itself isn’t much better. Despite living in the city for all their lives, the characters feel boredom at best and the pain of isolation at worst. The city a convoluted criss cross of confusing paths, each one hiding something malevolent. It’s almost like the game is punishing you for having the audacity to approach it. It definitely makes sense for Yuuyami to present itself like this, seeing how well that presentation lends itself to a horror aesthetic.
Likewise, it makes just as much sense for Ihatovo to flip that script to glorify the every day. Every facet of its design precludes the very confusion and fright that are so central to Yuuyami Doori Tankentai. Where Yuuyami harshly punishes any form of interaction, Ihatovo doesn’t even have the word “punishment” in its vocabulary. The game will never reprimand you for using an item the wrong way, or talking to the wrong person at the wrong term. Worst case scenario: the story doesn’t advance.
And rather than scold you for even considering talking to people, the game gingerly rewards it. The towns are full of distinct personalities, each one beckoning you to come over and converse with them. Off the top of my head, there’s the Einstein-esque doctor, the frog bartender, the office cat, the person running the cinema, the person running the office, Miyazawa’s assistants, etc. Even at their worst, I can’t recall a single instance of them showing the main character the door. And remember that this man is a stranger who wandered into Ihatovo one day on a whim. It says a lot about the kind of town this is if its citizens still accept him. Where Yuuyami‘s world appears suffocating and impersonal, Ihatovo’s atmosphere projects a kind and hospitable tone instead.
That tone even carries over into how the game presents its story. Not the content of that story, mind you. That’s just a loose collection of Kenji Miyazawa tales, and unfortunately, I don’t know enough about his work to really comment on them. But I do know how fairy tales work, and I know the magic they work over Ihatovo Monogatari. On one level, the fairy tale format gives the game the space it needs to develop its ideas without wearing them thin. On another, it lends the game a kind of subjective tone. Fairy tales are these pliable things that change and adapt to specific historical circumstances. In terms of narrative structure, they’re a sharp contrast against how we typically understand video games: as a series of objective events that unfold before us, regardless of our input.
So by drawing from folklore like this, Ihatovo also hopes to draw out that pliability, and in doing so, invite the player into the experience. Not so they can directly affect the events, but to start asking what stories the game is telling them and how the storyteller might be changing them for these specific circumstances. That last point is particularly relevant for Ihatovo, as the story is presented through a colorful protagonist recollecting the events of his life to you. A format like that implicates you, the player, as engaging in a dialogue with him. It’s all really subtle and serves as a nice complement to the kind of social involvement that the game thrives on.
The only thing I could see puncturing that idyllic image would be the themes running through each of these stories. I spotted a few as I played the game: the power of knowledge and the responsibility that comes with it, and man’s connection to the natural world. Yet what caught my attention the most was how the greed of an individual can harm not just himself, but those around him. We see this several times throughout the game. Characters torment (and in a few cases, even kill) those around them out of jealousy. Others exploit their friends for their benefit, like the tycoon who exploits an elephant’s love of trinkets to work it to the bone.
It’s all a really stark contrast against the congenial mood Ihatovo works so hard to establish, and it makes me the tiniest bit reluctant to engage with the people. Sure, there’s ultimate emotional resolution; the story metes out cosmic justice to all the wrongdoers who act selfishly. But their neighbors still have to deal with the fallout from their actions, and so do I. The curtain’s been pulled out before me, and I can see things for what they really are. I can see how precarious the system is, and how easily it can be abused.
In that regard, Ihatovo Monogatari isn’t naive about the pitfalls of trusting in others. It’s willing to confront them, and it’s that willingness that transforms the gameplay into a response to them. Through the gameplay, Ihatovo says that in spite of all the risks trusting in others brings, that’s no excuse not to trust in them at all. Think of all you’d be giving up: the people populating those owns. The sense of order those towns bring. All the interesting narratives embedded in it all. In any case, the game make makes a persuasive and well considered argument for the value of community.