Several months ago, I remember briefly discussing with some people the nature of play and the role it fulfills in video game culture. Despite it being central to our common understanding of games, the term remains undefined. What activities count as play? Does play reside within the space the game sets aside for its players, or within the player’s perception of it? Who do we refer to when we talk about a player? For now, it’s this last question I’m especially interested in, largely because of the common implicit answer many readers would supply it. In spite of whatever ambiguities may surround the term “play”, many of our discussions of play assume these two things: play is something a player does, and the player is almost always the person holding the controller. (For simplicity’s sake, these are the players I’ll refer to as “players” throughout the rest of the article.)
As sturdy as this view may seem, certain developments make it untenable. Advances in neural networks foreshadow a future in which play doesn’t require (human) players at all. We may even inhabit that future already: supposing that the act of making a game counts as play, then that play would have fulfilled its purpose long before the game entered the player’s hands. It’s a surprisingly common design philosophy when you know where to look for it, but it runs counter to the more conspicuous notion that players complete games by lending their presence to them. Worse still, these ideas coincide fairly often and in doing so create a tension that neither of them are able to resolve or overcome. I’ve discussed as much before with Paper Mario: Color Splash.
What I wish to discuss here is a game that epitomizes this form of developer-oriented play but avoids the tensions associated with it: Hani on the Road*. This isn’t to say the game has found some unique solution to the problem where others have failed. Quite the opposite: its the historical precedents the game draws on that give it the tools it needs to address these issues. Its premise is simple: players are given four parallel roads leading to a single goal, and they must guide the eponymous haniwa to their end. All manner of obstacles stand between him and his goal, and the player has several tools at their disposal to mitigate those obstacles: jumping over gaps, kicking enemies out of their way, switching lanes to gain more favorable footing, even the rare item to make navigation easier.
Although I present Hani on the Road through a system-centric lens, the activities the player performs within the game are far from the most notable thing about it. On the one hand, Hani on the Road appears anachronistic. The game was released in 1990, right as console gaming began taking on the longform system-oriented design approach it’s known for today, but its simplistic structure is more reminiscent of early 80s arcade games than anything else. Yet within the context it gives itself, Hani on the Road appears conservative, since it never breaks away from the safe cartoon motifs that dominated arcades (and video games in general) throughout the 1980s.
In practice, I find these statements don’t harm the game as much as it sounds like they might. Not only do they not hinder the effects the game cultivates, but one might argue they’re central to how Hani on the Road cultivates them at all. Contemporary standards would have only complicated the game’s task, forcing upon it certain expectations that have little to do with the game itself. To be more specific, play would be instrumentalized, and the player’s focus would shift toward performing work to extract value from the game: scores to beat, levels to complete, a constant need to prove one’s self, etc. You’ll recall that it was this conflict that stymied American Battle Dome’s success, and Hani on the Road’s design isn’t any more conducive to instrumentality, either.
It is for this reason that the game engages in a different sort of play: one privileging not the activities available for the player to perform or systems for them to navigate, but the designers’ freeform exploration of images, symbols, ideas, etc. Put another way, Hani on the Road is a celebration of its own creative potential, one constantly seeking out venues and methods that allow that potential to flourish. Of course the venues have already been found and the developers’ creative energies spent well before the player ever picks up the controller. Hani on the Road is the result of play, not the source of it. It is this fact that allows the game to find fulfillment solely on its own terms.
The effects this contentment has on the game as a whole are complicated and deserve further attention. First to consider is the level of disregard Hani on the Road demonstrates toward both the player and the most basic ideas of coherence. Note the use of the word “disregard” rather than “contempt.” The latter would require that the game notice the player, which I’m not sure it ever does. Hani on the Road’s contentedness limits the game entirely to the ideas it explores, shutting out all else. After all, if each idea, from the beginning, serves the game’s needs on its own, then what more could structure hope to lend the game?
So it is that the game bolts from idea to idea, discarding each as soon as its childlike curiosity has been sated. (The game’s early arcade-style design sensibilities are also partially responsible, even if it exaggerates those sensibilities well beyond the limits its inspirations stopped at.) One level sees the eponymous hero try to navigate a small Japanese town as lovestruck schoolgirls cling to his feet and slow him down. Another has him jump from ship to ship as an octopus army wages war on him. And all the while, he collects items known more for their physical feel or momentary humor than for any purpose they serve the player: bowling balls, trundling hoops, pogo sticks, an item that turns Hani into a Japanese war god, etc. The moods invoked during play end up just as various as the scenarios that created them: sometimes tranquil, sometimes comical, sometimes harrowing, sometimes none of these, often all of them at once.
As chaotic as this may sound in theory, a strange order arises in practice. Since Hani on the Road is concerned with aesthetic value above all else, it puts no more effort than it needs to into crafting the play experience. Goals are weakly stated; pressures to play the game a certain way are barely existent; ludic composition is bare; and the consequences for failure are minimal: an easily earned life is lost and play resumes uninterrupted. For Hani on the Road, this choice of presentation is straightforward, as it creates the conditions needed for the player to appreciate the game’s many gags. This would explain why its charisma is so clear and so strongly felt.
For the player, though, these effects are more complicated and difficult to describe. What’s certain is this: by so heavily emphasizing its own aesthetic craft (a craft which doesn’t require the player to complete it), Hani on the Road decenters the performances rendered within that space as the source of meaning for the game. In doing so, the game effectively does away with whatever structures might judge the player’s relationship with what they see on screen. This isn’t the game’s way of coaxing performative play out of the player. Again, Hani on the Road is too ludically bare to support such a reading. However, the effect is similarly freeing. Advancing through the game at my own pace, switching lanes to probe whatever gimmicks the game has laid out before me, my mind doesn’t perceive the game as a wild patchwork of moods and ideas. All I feel is how accommodating the game is throughout all of them.
What I’ve written so far should not be interpreted as a blanket condemnation of player-centric design. In the right hands, this style can work wonders. At the same time, though, we must acknowledge that this style has taken on a cultural legacy of its own. In the consumerism-driven enthusiast culture so often associated with video games, player-centric design becomes another way of privileging the player above all else. Not only does this devalue all other potential ways of relating to games (since play is central to what games are and only certain actions deserve to be regarded as play) but it leads to unnecessary instability. Player must always seek out justifications for their privileged position, no one justification ever being able to suffice. Hani on the Road shows us one way we might avoid these problems. With the problem of justification answered from the start, both game and player become free to explore things they might otherwise not consider.
*Sources are split on what this game is actually called in English. Some refer to it as Hani on the Road, while others use Honey on the Road. It’s possible the latter title or even both are correct, but what I’ve seen suggests that Hani on the Road is more likely the intended title. I mention Honey on the Road for completion but choose Hani on the Road instead for accuracy.