★★☆☆ One of the few horror games on the DS, Nanashi no Game is genuinely scary and offers some poignant commentary on game development. It’s more than just Ring as a downloadable game instead of a video casette—but it should have been much more than that.
The premise of the game, whose title can be interpreted as either “Nameless Game” or “Seven-Death Game”, should be recognisable to people who aren’t even interested in the horror genre: play this haunted piece of media, and in seven days you’ll die. The malevolent spirit behind the curse is a little girl who has a bone to pick with the living for shattering her nuclear family.
Nanashi no Game doesn’t creatively utilise the DS’s unique hardware: its touch screen, microphone, or dual screens. You hold the DS like an open book for the most part, move around a 3D environment, which is displayed on both screens, examine objects, and occasionally open the menu (which mimics the real DS system menu) to read your emails from your handler, check how close any ghosts are (the “title screen” of the cursed game becomes staticky the closer they are), or download and play updates for the cursed game from the Internet. You can open drawers here and there, but otherwise, there’s no object manipulation as in Ace Attorney, just text descriptions. Most of the ghosts are on strict patrol routes, and can be spotted easily in either brightly lit or darkened areas. Much of the game consists of sneaking past near-sighted ghosts; the few chase sections where the player is actively hunted across the map are genuine thrills that led my lovely partner, who wasn’t even the one playing, to kick and pull his left hip tensor, leaving it sore for days. Yeah, I’m real glad I wasn’t in front of him.
The backbone of Nanashi no Game is its sound design—you absolutely need to play this with headphones. It’s responsible for almost all the tension in the game as the player works to figure out where one or another sound is coming from, forcing them to reluctantly investigate the source, dreading inevitable run-ins with gasping ghosts. The cursed game’s melancholic leitmotif turns increasingly distorted as the game is further corrupted by the curse. It starts to chase you on more devices—as if occupying your character’s smartphone-DS (in Nanashi no Game the device is called a “Twin Screen”, or “TS”) that’s always in your pocket wasn’t enough—and you start hearing the melody in the physical world, always an unnerving occurrence.
Like Ring, it’s not immediately obvious that the curse was laid by a traumatised child who died horribly. The first half of the game investigates the question, “Why would anyone make a cursed video game?” and raises the broader question of: “Why make a game at all? Why do people make games?”
Ring treats the stifling expectations placed on women in pre- and particularly post-war Japanese society and the disintegration of the family, and Nanashi no Game treats the people in the games industry in general, and what it takes to finish game development these days. Turns out, it’s hell on your personal life.
Japan has more than its fair share of tales from the trenches, and Nanashi no Game’s treatment of crunchtime—indefinite periods of mandatory overtime where staff are compelled to practically live in the office in order to finish a project by the deadline—could be extended to the anime industry (Spirited Away, Little Witch Academia) or any creative industry today. Japan also holds the ignominious, and unfortunately not unique position of having a word dedicated to sudden deaths, most often heart attack or stroke, caused by overwork: karoshi. China and South Korea are two other countries that have developed in the postwar periods words for overwork death: “guolaosi” and “gwarosa” respectively.
So why do people make games? Why does anyone go to any length to make any work of art, especially one that might not sell well?
The answer that Nanashi no Game provides is thin gruel: love. A father’s love for his wife and daughter, the love of artists for their audiences, a musician’s love for her own music. It’s not a bad answer, certainly the real answer for many people, and it’s not necessarily a shallow or limited one—but what’s unfortunate is that love is the game’s answer to everything. Why do fellow classmates spend time with each other? Love! Why do people murder each other? Also love! Why do ghosts exist? See, those are love ghosts—
It’s a boring answer that ignores art as a social phenomenon. The fact is, intimate relationships aren’t the only or even primary reason that people make art—or do anything else in their lives. Why do most people work? To forestall homelessness in a capitalist society. (Notably, one of the developers of the cursed game becomes a homeless squatter after losing his job, because he can’t pay his mortgage anymore.) Why is crunchtime so common during game development? Because the companies in this multibillion dollar industry have a legal obligation to line the pockets of their investors (whether crunch is actually cost-effective project management is another matter). Why are certain (anti)creative decisions made? To maximise market share.
Proving my point: Square Enix never published Nanashi no Game outside Japan because Western focus groups complained that a horror game in which ghosts can phase through walls to chase you didn’t give you guns to shoot them with.
Ironically, the glorification of bloody violence by the most popular games on the market is exactly the reason why the cursed game’s developers—and presumably Nanashi no Game’s actual developers—worked so hard on such a niche project. 2008 was the year of Grand Theft Auto IV, Gears of War, Call of Duty: World at War, and Fallout 3, and here comes this little handheld title appealing to the better and nobler sensibilities of the population, reminding them that they’re human. It’s actually quite touching to hear the cursed game’s devs talk gush about their latest project, before their tragic and horrible demise. You get a bit of a sense of the excitement of working on a creative project with a dedicated team of artists.
The game’s conceit is that love—and its mirror twin, hatred born of jealousy, are infectious and can be spread from one person to another. The question isn’t of complex social relations developing under particular, broader social conditions, but of transmogrification of one emotion into its mirror opposite. Maybe just a little bit of love can make the world a better place… It’s a noble sentiment, but a flimsy one that doesn’t begin to address why the interactive medium has become synonymous with “virtual violence simulator”, or how these kinds of fantasies have become so popular in the first place.
For a story so obsessed with “love”, there’s very little to be attached to. The player character’s two best friends are executed summarily without a genuine friendship ever being conveyed to the player, and the player never gets the sense that the lead is grieving or even emotionally affected by the horrific double loss. Instead, you and your character attempt to back out of a murderous love triangle that you never asked to be a part of. The sole human contact you have for almost the entirety of the game is one of your college professors, a paranormal researcher of some sort, and you never work with him to solve this mystery or lift the curse, he just orders you around. Maybe the writers intended to craft a duo with a complimentary split between the intellectual labour of mystery-solving and the crucial legwork, but for the most part, he’s just a bossy and useless exposition dump who sends you out to take on all the risks as a human shield/paranormal guinea pig. Why can’t I access the IP address logs on my TS, or contact my buddies or relatives in the local police department to access crime scene evidence?
At one point Professor Ooyama carefreely calls a five-year-old to pencil in an appointment for you with the cursed game’s devs, at 2200, in an office space in a mall long after closing time. He advises you to carefully broach the subject of the cursed game because it’s an unannounced title with no press releases. Kinda weird but you should be fine.
“We talked to a focus group and they thought it wasn’t good for the market, so we didn’t do it. Maybe as a downloadable title it’s possible… The opinion was you couldn’t shoot anything. Maybe we shouldn’t have been too concerned about it.”
—Takashi Tokita, Producer
He also commits one of the biggest sins in horror: rationally explaining away the mystique and horror of the paranormal with a pseudoscientific explanation of the ghost curse’s biological mechanisms. (Think what midi-chlorians did to the mystical Force in Star Wars). Here I wish the game had taken even more cues from Ring. See, one of the many things that film adaptation did right was removing the contrived and laborious biological explanation for Sadako’s curse, focusing solely on the social tragedies befalling the female characters and being scary.
Nanashi no Game is also surprisingly light on working conditions in the game industry and what it’s like to actually make a game, though the stars of its story are arguably the developers themselves. (It’s certainly not you, the player character.) I don’t know what things were like between studio Epics and publisher Square Enix, but the conditions at Square itself weren’t rosy just a mere three years after the game’s release. As DualShockers reported:
“If you thought the guys at Team Bondi had it hard when working on LA Noire, [Naoki] Yoshida is no slacker himself. Final Fantasy XIV’s cheerful producer walks into the office at 10 AM, attends development meetings until 9 PM, and leaves the premises at around 2–3 AM, after responding to an average of 230 emails. Since taking this job he routinely soldiers on by sleeping between two and three and a half hours a day.”
Maybe Epics didn’t want to be rude to Square Enix for giving them money.
No, I’m serious.
The curse in the original Ring novels:
An intersex woman’s virile attempts to inseminate women with herself via sexually transmitted smallpox that unforunately causes heart attacks more often than pregnancy.
Nanashi no Game gives a tortured explanation of The Matrix.
Nanashi no Game’s director, Nobuhiko Tenkawa, is no stranger to disappointing creative endeavours: he was director of the 1998 Soukaigi, also published by Square, an ambitious fantasy RPG for the PlayStation sprawling over three discs, in which his team were allowed complete creative control. Execution did not meet expectations, however, and the only things Soukaigi is remembered for nowadays are its budget, gigantic even for Japan’s bubble economy (the budget for the music alone was 30 million yen) and fantastic live orchestral score, a fusion of progressive rock, Celtic, Brasilian, and Malaysian music.
Square as a company has a compelling heritage that Nanashi no Game could have drawn from: Final Fantasy, envisioned as possibly the last game that director Hironobu Sakaguchi and Square itself would ever make—Square was teetering on bankruptcy at the time, and Sakaguchi planned to leave the industry if his game failed—and it was titled as such. Final Fantasy.
The cursed game’s studio, Utasoft, was a small team staking their dreams on a labour of love. Their tragedy is pinned on one guy not liking the fact that the project’s director had a wife and kid to love. That’s it. Far more compelling would have been to pit this individual director’s personal artistic aspirations against the broader pressures of developing a game for profit, and the tense certainty that if his game failed in the market, then the studio would have shuttered and every developer at the studio would have been out of a job in their dream career. Dragging down everyone else’s dreams with a futile dream project—that would have lent the game’s villain sympathy and believability, but instead we get a guy who wants to kill a five-year-old just because he doesn’t have one of his own. Jealousy is the game’s answer to everything (I’d love to see how this explains the murder chambers in the abandoned hospital you visit), and it’s just not believable.
As a DS title, Nanashi no Game doesn’t do anything particularly distinctive with its hardware. As a horror story, it’s one that’s been told better by others (Ring) and is disappointingly shallow in its treatment of its own unique subject, game development. As a horror game, the environmental and sound design does well to keep the player wary—and the game’s red-bannered train to hell left a stamp on my mind that will remain distinct in my memory forever; but a reliance on cheap tricks, especially near the climax, leave the player annoyed instead of fearing for their life. As an appeal to people’s nobler proclivities, Square Enix’s The World Ends with You, also a Nintendo DS exclusive, released just a year earlier, did better narratively and mechanically to strengthen prosocial attitudes and behaviours. Unless you’re a horror aficionado with a DS—and there are admittedly very few works of horror on the DS—it’s hard to recommend this game.
I don’t regret my time with it. (Tolly doesn’t regret pulling his hip tensor, either.) It just has a lot of promise and potential that wasn’t fully realized.
What might be the most nonplussing aspect of Nanashi no Game’s untapped pedigree is its producer, Takashi Tokita. Lead designer of Final Fantasy IV, co-director of Chrono Trigger, director of the original Parasite Eve, and a lead writer for all of the above, Tokita helped enshrine Square’s reputation for narrative focus and dramatic characters. He was also responsible for getting Nanashi no Game made in the first place: after seeing a first-person horror shooter at GDC 2006, Tokita, head of one of Square’s project development divisions, was inspired to greenlight a first-person horror on the DS. Creatively, it seems he kept a hands-off approach; perhaps a nod to Tenkawa’s sincere creative effort a decade earlier to produce an original and honest work.
Maybe, like Tenkawa’s Soukaigi ten years earlier, what people will remember most about Nanashi no Game is its aural identity. Composer Masayoshi Soken certainly hasn’t forgotten: he covered its leitmotif as a pop ballad in Final Fantasy XIV.
“Way back then, the spirit was that we weren’t making a product but a creation. It was putting our soul into the production—pouring all of your ideas into the game, even if they crop up during development; not saving anything for the sequel. So when you finish, you’re empty—you’ve got no idea what to do next.”
—Hironobu Sakaguchi on Final Fantasy and developing at Square, MCV Develop interview