As cliche as idolizing games from the 1990s has become at this point, it’s worth remembering what it was about that decade that still lodges itself in the collective consciousness. It’s not just that people grew up during that time. Looking back on the era, I can see a lot of games that were exploring new waters not only with new gameplay models, but also with themes games still aren’t known for dealing with. This was the era of Yuuyami Doori Tankentai, iS: Internal Section, and the Deception series of games. (The PlayStation wasn’t the only place where developers were experimenting, obviously.)
Unfortunately, not all of these experiments ended with success, as I learned after playing Capcom’s One Piece Mansion. The game is a definite product of its time: a late PlayStation game with arcade sensibilities, all of it built around managing an apartment complex. I appreciate the pioneering spirit driving the game, but I also recognize that it can’t carry the game as far as it wishes it could. As compelling as the gameplay can be, its ideas about community building are too thorny and too riddled with problems for me to completely recommend the game.
Not that I want to undermine any accomplishments the game actually does make. For example, the gameplay has a lot to offer when you put aside narrative context and consider it on its own terms. As the owner of an apartment complex, it’s your job to manage new and old tenants in such a way that everybody’s living in harmony (and paying their rent). You do this by creating rooms for new tenants and swapping old tenants between existing rooms, like a slightly more complex precursor to [adult swim]’s Girls Like Robots. And just as Girls Like Robots works within a well established tradition of Flash games, One Piece Mansion bears the insignia of late arcade design. Its rules emphasize simplicity that belies a rich nuance, but it’s the quick action you’re more likely to notice first. Playing One Piece Mansion feels hectic: you’re constantly running about your apartment complex, shuffling rooms, putting out fires, building the new structures your building needs, etc. Even when you’re not moving around, you’re eyeing your tenants to make sure none of them are considering moving out.
For as involved as One Piece Mansion is, it has some clever tricks to ensure play never becomes outright stressful. The most important of these is the building block aesthetic the game leans into so much. Their immediate effect is to render an otherwise difficult to follow system through something we can more easily understand. It feels like a natural fit for what the game is doing. Appending new rooms to existing structures feels like you’re playing with blocks, stacking them to see what fantastic shapes you can come up with. But this speaks to a deeper effect this aesthetic has on the game. By framing the action like this, One Piece Mansion is able to introduce an element of play to an otherwise competitive game. This helps to prevent the game from becoming too serious and thus too stressful to play. The art style does something similar, combining the toylike look and feel Capcom had used before (see the 3D Mega Man games they were developing at the time) with this mischievous air that lies somewhere between Saturday morning cartoons and independent comic books from around that era.
Yet it’s the game’s ideas about community building that prove its most interesting and its most troubling assets. First impressions would lead you to believe the game’s intentions are respectable enough: it recognizes how the impact a wider community has on the individual’s ability to function, which is why you’re encouraged to create your community intelligently. A diverse community is something to be valued, yes, but scattering tenants about the building with no regard for how they affect one another is a good way to lose them. People who stomp around their apartments are better off living near the bottom, and the affectionate Ai-chan can only support those around her if they’re literally around her. This isn’t even mentioning the support A-chan needs, too. At least so far, One Piece Mansion does a great job teaching the player not only to respect these characters’ individual attributes, but to let them resonate off each other and create harmony – even if it is to make a quick buck.
Still, its teachings require further interrogation. As fun as the chaos feels while you’re playing the game, how stressful would it be to live through that? Your neighbors leave their domiciles for brighter horizons on a regular basis, and you change rooms even more frequently at the behest of a frantic landlord. I have a hard time imagining that such an environment could create the tight bonds a community needs to survive. But let’s assume the building arrangement has some level of basic consistency, as it sometimes does during gameplay. Even under these circumstances, I don’t get the impression that the tenants constitute a strong community. I never saw my renters talking amongst each other, and rarely did I see any meaningful interaction between them as neighbors. In fact, the only time they leave their room is with the intention to make everybody else’s lives miserable. Any positive interactions are implied, if they’re acknowledged at all.
Worst of all are the essentialist views One Piece Mansion has regarding what makes a bad neighbor. Despite correctly identifying the reason they’re bad tenants (they damage property, harass other people, and generally make other people’s lives a living hell), the game still makes the mistake of reading their behavior as reflecting some fundamental part of their character. Bad tenants don’t change according to their context, but will always be a bad tenant. You can’t even attempt to reason with them because the game assumes they can’t be reasoned with. Assumptions like that point to the limits of building a community, but I’m more concerned with what it suggests we do with these people What is the shut-in supposed to do? Or the musician? Or anybody else the game designates a bad tenant? Where can they ever find some place they can call “home?” Sadly, One Piece Mansion isn’t interested in answering these questions. It can only interpret them as impediments to the ideal apartment complex.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the game was at least honest about the situation. Yet the game takes a dishonest approach by asking you not to outright evict unwanted tenants (where would the challenge be, then?), but to basically manipulate them into wanting to leave. It doesn’t matter that you engineer these conditions to further your own goals; they left of their own accord, so you’re absolved from any blame. Prospects look bleak for the game. At its best, One Piece Mansion presents us either a group of unrelated individuals who occupy the same building, or a community of people who only tolerate each other’s presence. And at its worst, the game suggests that the best community (the one that most efficiently functions) is exclusionary, judgmental, and unwilling to change because it interprets anybody outside the group as the same.
Maybe One Piece Mansion is just trying to introduce humor to its scenario. If it is, then it definitely chooses an uncomfortable angle from which to deliver that humor. In a way this speaks to the awkward growing pains that it was forced to go through. You can see that the game is right on the cusp of an important realization. It’s designed in such a way that it can make real commentary in a way that’s both clear and immediately relatable. But without the proper knowledge about how to use that potential, One Piece Mansion flounders, and we end up with the unfortunate results I’ve just described. It’s a game that others can learn from, albeit not for reasons it wants people to.