I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually encounter a game like RUN=DIM: Return to Earth. As a writer, my ethos has always been to promote stronger critical engagement with games, and my approach to this has always been to look at games that people routinely overlook and/or dismiss. What alternate histories do they point to? How do they conceptualize games? What new possibilities do either of these things allow us to realize? These are the questions I hope to answer through my writing. Of course, there is a problem with my method: my focus on older games overlaps with a focus on commercially sold games, and time and again, games in the consumer space have proven themselves not only artistically dead, but also opposed to any sort of wider artistic or historical engagement. My response to this has been to resist the consumerist mentality embedded in games like this to find the value they may not realize they ever had.
RUN=DIM inadvertently challenges this. To provide a brief summary of the game, it’s a Wonderswan shooter based on the anime of the same name. Despite these origins, it may be better described as a Korean video game than as a Japanese one (at least judging by the credits). However, nationality is less important to understanding RUN=DIM than the fact of its being a consumer product. The game is remarkably honest on this point, but that honesty serves to deflect the question of what substance, if any, the game actually has. This is because RUN=DIM has no substance to speak of. What it instead offers is a sort of brazen nihilism: “I am nothing. I speak to nothing and what you do with me means nothing; play me anyway.”
Of course, this is a very broad way of characterizing the game, so it may help to specify. When I say the fact of its being a consumer product is important to understanding RUN=DIM, I mean that what most defines the game is its frequent use of anime and video game tropes that were present in contemporary pop media/consumer products. In fact, the game takes this to such ludicrous extremes that it empties itself of all potential content to become an assemblage of those tropes, divorced of all context.
It’s a trend that shows up all throughout RUN=DIM, but because anime tropes tend to be more strongly codified than video game tropes, it’s a trend that’s most easily seen in the narrative. The action takes place in (what at the time appeared to be) the distant future of 2050, and it follows two young mech pilots. What is their world like? What is the conflict these pilots encounter? What circumstances would force two teenagers to participate in armed conflict? I’ll come back to some of this later when I explain the premise in greater detail. For now, it’s important to note that the game itself is only minimally interested in answering any of these questions. For RUN=DIM, the story’s real purpose is as a backdrop for familiar anime conventions. The not-Shinji-Ikari pilot, the detailed mech designs, the sometimes clean sometimes murky future architecture – these are the game’s most immediate features and what it perceives as lending it its greatest value.
When understood in a larger anime context, such trope usage becomes very typical. According to major academics/Japanese cultural critics, the anime scene is defined more by the act of constantly remixing familiar material than anything else. The more things a given work points to and the more richly its pointing, the more positive its reception among fans. This practice has become so ubiquitous that many argue originals don’t exist anymore; all we have left are remixes. This is frequently presented as a minor cause for celebration, mainly because of the resulting flow of creative output, how a remix-oriented environment (theoretically) decentralizes major creators and makes for a more equal artistic space, and almost certainly because of its role in Japan’s rise to pop cultural power.
I’ve already addressed these points myself before. Here, I’ll reiterate how skeptical I remain on the act of remixing pop cultural detritus. Should an artist’s playing with these conventions define a work, even after they’ve opened up the results of that play for others to experience? Is the act of artistry enough to lend something value, even if it only further enmeshes us in flawed and harmful systems? Can remixing function as another way of avoiding taking a stance, saying something of import, through one’s art? In RUN=DIM’s case, the answer to this last question is probably yes. Its performance points to nothing in particular; no reality, no fantasy, not even its own conventions or the performance of them. It is a thoroughly empty game, yet it can never realize this emptiness as a form of being.
This is easiest to see during play. Much like how RUN=DIM as a whole is defined by its reliance on anime tropes, play so heavily relies on side scrolling shooter traditions that they come to define it: the specific waves enemies come out in, the types and nature of the weapons you use, etc. It relies so much on these traditions, in fact, that it can never move beyond the fact of those traditions existing. Gone is any possibility of a Silpheed-esque aesthetic delight, and gone are any hopes of using play to convey narrative, either for a realistic military conflict (the enemy tactics are too ridiculous to assume that) or for a romantic look at the hero’s journey (both hero and journey lack their necessary context).
Other options similarly fall to the wayside, and what we’re left with in the end is nothing. The backdrops wait for action to come along that they might realize themselves in helping that action along its way to realize its own potential. But that action never comes, and the backdrops wither into nothing as a result. Stages start to blend together over time; a dull procession of conflicts underscored by a lifeless melody. Bereft of any meaning, play becomes an absurdity: one plays only to continue playing.
One might respond that in the face of such meaninglessness, it’s up to us to make our experiences with media like this meaningful to ourselves. It’s an approach I see limits in: we may confirm the object’s emptiness by shifting focus away from the object in question and toward our half-used critical capacity to project value onto anything we desire. In addition, certain games empty themselves of meaning for this exact reason.
For RUN=DIM, though, there’s reason to believe an approach like this might work, as the 2050 setting for its narrative puts it in contact with issues that are still relevant in 2018. Global warming has ravaged the Earth; many cities are now underwater, and the survivors are forced to fight over dwindling resources. In particular, the story focuses on two parties: the JESUS Foundation, a Japanese military organization and the game’s antagonists; and Green Frontier, a unified coalition of the all the other nations opposed to the JESUS Foundation, and the game’s protagonistic force.
The vision of the future that RUN=DIM presents is very bleak. Humanity will just find new stages on which to enact further destruction on the world; ironically in an effort to fix the destruction they’ve already subjected themselves to. In addition, trying circumstances lead to an inevitable regression of politics, if the JESUS Foundation’s militaristic bent is anything to go by. The fact of Japan’s actual move toward militarism in the intervening decades since this game’s release makes RUN=DIM scarily prescient.
Despite these connections, I wouldn’t put much stock in what little the game has to say. For as much potential as the game has to connect with modern events (even if by accident), it’s a potential RUN=DIM has no interest in developing. Its only interests lie with science fiction motifs and plot action, IE in JESUS’ machinations. Quick to forget the implications those motifs or plot pose, it relieves its narrative of any ability to map to the larger issues that exist outside itself. Whether it’s global warming or militarism, neither one is given enough substance for our critiquing their representation to mean anything. Thus we find ourselves led back to the same problem we thought looking toward the narrative might alleviate. I can’t even say that RUN=DIM’s empty nature has advanced my understanding of video games, as I remember making very similar points about Android Assault: The Revenge of Bari-Arm. No matter the road we follow, it always ends with exposing the emptiness at the heart of RUN=DIM.
If pressed to answer how the game ended up like this, I would guess that any potential for an identity was dismissed from the start. It was always meant to be just another product to be sold, consumed, thrown away, and forgotten. It’s important to acknowledge when something like this comes to define a game so heavily, but it’s just as important (if not moreso) to resist such a view of games as a whole. Every game, by virtue of its existing in the world, implies circumstances beyond its making; circumstances that extend both into a past of its own making and a future that may flow from it. Thus each game holds within it the potential to turn the world around it into something different, and it’s up to us to search out and recognize that potential wherever it may manifest. It may not be clear which method, if any, is best for achieving this end, but the necessity of achieving it will always remain.