by Jed Pressgrove
All Our Asias is admirably upfront about its purpose. The game’s introductory message relays developer Sean Han Tani’s intention to untangle the complicated meaning of being Asian in the United States. From there, All Our Asias becomes less straightforward as Japanese protagonist Yuito, with the help of futuristic technology, enters the mind of his dying father to learn as much as he can from the fading memories of his old man. But in the second half of the story, Han Tani’s contrived lecturing about the dubiousness of U.S. Asian identity unravels the surreal tone that serves the game’s theme so well in its first hour.
Despite the concern of his mother, Yuito, curious about the life of his aloof and neglectful father, decides to take advantage of an opportunity to dive into the brain of his soon-to-be-dead dad. When he travels through his father’s memories, he is but a floating pod, just like the people he encounters on his journey. Yuito is pushy when he speaks to the denizens of the strange world, demanding to know if they might know anything about his dad. Later he meets a character named The General, who sends Yuito on a political mission to level the playing field for Asian restaurant owners in a memory-based Chinatown of Chicago.
All Our Asias is almost nothing to look at in the beginning. That almost everyone appears to be a robotic pod during Yuito’s quest creates a uniquely vacant feeling as your own pod hums its way through the game. The lack of meticulous detail for the characters and environments, along with the jagged look of the polygons, evokes the messiness of human memory. And Yuito’s bullheaded determination to uncover truth is disturbing in this ethereal setting; his aggressive interrogation of individuals essentially kills them, turning them into forgotten things.
Yuito’s obsession eventually takes him to areas that have more visual punch, including a nightclub rendered with wireframe graphics, a hazy forest, and a cold-looking train station. The soundtrack of All Our Asias is as ephemeral as the memories that Yuito pushes around. The score, most of which was composed by Han Tani, goes in numerous different directions in terms of emotional effect, rivaling the quality of Earthbound’s various mood-setting tunes. During one of All Our Asias’ most memorable tracks, it’s hard to tell whether you’re hearing static or rain, and that lack of clarity complements Han Tani’s conflicted perspective on Asian identity.
The philosophical thrust of Han Tani’s message is at first cleverly conveyed. At one point, Yuito hears Japanese but can’t understand any of the language. Despite his removal from the culture of his parents, Yuito is inundated with racial slurs in another scene by people who don’t recognize him as an American. When he later finds himself on a train drifting in outer space, you can imagine how alien he must feel on his search for clarification.
The game loses its footing when Yuito begins doing work for The General, a memory that claims it knew his father well. This is when Han Tani’s storytelling suffers from its contrivances. Not only is labeling a bossy character “The General” too on the nose, but The General’s sermons about the diversity of Asian experiences in the United States come across as overly presumptuous.
Although it’s clear Yuito needs a lesson (his great line “Mom, maybe you were right” shows that), The General goes into left field when informing Yuito that Asians “don’t all look the same” after Yuito expresses sympathy for a struggling Korean restaurant owner based on his perception of shared identity. Yuito’s ignorance never reaches a level where he’s literally unable to recognize any physical differences. Han Tani’s point (via The General) about the cultural and social separation of Asians of different classes and backgrounds is needed in a kneejerk U.S. culture that lacks nuanced understanding. Yet All Our Asias’ preaching seems like a clumsy slap on the wrist in its final act, losing the unorthodox power of its challenging, suggestive first half.