will you ever return: in da hood

Mainichi: An Unsentimental RPG

by Jed Pressgrove

The title screen of Mainichi recalls the history of Japanese RPGs. Instantly sentimental music is a trick that almost every JRPG plays (even moodier ones like Chrono Cross). Once you move past Mainichi’s title screen, that decades-long thread is lost. Enter a world where JRPG music doesn’t exist.

Mainichi’s rejection of sentimental music is partly why Craig Stern wrote “Mainichi is not an RPG,” a statement that spends too much thought on what RPGs have been rather than on what they can be. Mainichi is a minimalist RPG and demonstrates how one can “role-play” outside of the sentimental model. The game’s sociological approach also contrasts with the sentimentality of many western RPGs — the promise of character creation mostly reflects a colorblind and genderless fantasy.

Developer Mattie Brice uses a Groundhog Day narrative structure to share her emotional struggle as a trans woman. The game’s purpose is no secret, but it does present a more passive attitude than either Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia or Devi Ever’s Grand Titons.  The hurtful messages you receive in Mainichi are influenced by that RPG standby: equipment. The importance of appearance in Mainichi makes even the faction politics of Fallout: New Vegas seem limited.

The player’s mission in Mainichi might become finding the path of least heartache. Walking down a sidewalk, for example, is more than a mundane everyday occurrence. Whereas the sidewalks of Will You Ever Return: In da Hood showcase an intermingling of fantasy and reality, the sidewalks of Mainichi smack only of uncomfortable realities about prejudice and relief. Nonplayable characters prompt you, not the other way around.

The coffee shop sequence is the most provocative part of the game. If you play Mainichi in a certain way, you can avoid discomfort and discouragement until it comes from an unexpected source. This “ending” fulfills Brice’s intensely personal message, less of a damning critique than a difficult heart-to-heart.

Last year critic Sidney Fussell asked “Can videogames teach us about race?” Mainichi, though more about gender, answered that question the year before it was asked. Brice could have made a longer, less repetitive, and more hopeful game (for that, Grand Titons is a better artistic creation), but at the very least, Mainichi provides a window into the social potential of video games.

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Games That Provoke — Will You Ever Return: In da Hood

by Jed Pressgrove

Our responses to video game content seem to be predestined. We can reasonably predict how we will feel about a game’s violence, a game’s lack of diversity, a game’s language, a game’s sex, a game’s political meaning. The unexpected boldness of Will You Ever Return: In da Hood could temporarily halt this pattern — if only it could get more attention.

Some would find it very easy to dismiss Will You Ever Return: In da Hood immediately. The game opens with Satan proclaiming “I like to fuck bunnies” and shooting his spermatozoa. Unlike with a Grand Theft Auto or South Park entry, you really don’t know what you’re getting with Will You Ever Return: In da Hood, even if you’ve played the first two Will You Ever Return games from developer Jack King-Spooner.

Uninterested in building a franchise, Will You Ever Return: In da Hood plays with our perceptions of reality. As Will Smith from his Fresh Prince days, you search a dreary part of Philadelphia and interact with pop culture icons, the majority of whom are rappers. Although you control a Will Smith made of pixels, many icons in the game resemble their real-life counterparts, like pictures cut out of magazines. This visual approach reveals a pretense in how big-budget graphics are often praised — video game “realism” is only polygon deep. (An acknowledgement of artificiality is also why the Scottish King-Spooner can have an American rapper say “mum.”)

The quests in Will You Ever Return: In da Hood also call attention to the commingling of reality and artifice and how we perceive both as an audience (as Tupac says, “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.”). The first significant interaction is with Jennifer Lopez, who tells you she needs crack — a silly fabrication that nonetheless awakens the social judgment that tabloid journalism has taught us. You eventually get caught up in the “war” between Biggie and Tupac, which culminates in a joke straight out of Looney Tunes. Another scenario involves talking with the Wu-Tang Clan about rules of the street. Then there’s a staring contest against Hulk Hogan. This type of satire doesn’t debase pop mythology; it amplifies our understanding of it.

The ridiculous quests are juxtaposed against more pressing social problems. King-Spooner’s gun-control agenda lacks insight, but the game’s attention to poverty and street violence creates a need for catharsis (i.e., the need for Big Willie Style). The historical racial divide highlighted in NPC dialogue (“Emmitt Till to Trayvon Martin.”) goes beyond the debates in the video game community. One can learn more about race from the references in Will You Ever Return: In da Hood than from the self-important public relations about diversity and social injustice at the Game Developers Conference.

Perhaps it’s not ironic that King-Spooner uses Will Smith to reconcile reality and artifice. The developer’s critique of Lil Wayne might seem mean-spirited, but there’s a lot of truth to the resolution: “Will [Smith] raps and the world becomes a better place. Children stop to listen and flowers bloom.” It certainly sounds more credible than the Independent Games Festival telling us that the miserable Papers, Please was the greatest thing of 2013.