portable island

a review of Portable Island : Te no Hira no Resort
a videogame developed by namco-bandai games
and published by namco-bandai games
for the sony playstation portable
(originally published on 14 august, 2006 insertcredit.com; reprinted (by the author) without permission)
text by tim rogers

ZERO stars

Bottom line: Portable Island is “a postcard from a robot.”

(Author’s note: I originally wrote this article for insertcredit.com nearly two years ago. Though I didn’t know it back then, the “mission” behind writing this review would essentially serve as the “inspiration” for starting this here “website”. So let’s go ahead and call this review right here, originally titled “postcard from a robot”, “the genesis of action button dot net”. i don’t think enough people read it when i first posted it, so i’m putting it here, and now. i just kind of felt it was weirdly relevant to the two new reviews going live today.)

Fuck you Namco. Fuck you Bandai. Fuck you Namco-Bandai. Fuck you Bandai-Namco.

Fuck you for being presumptuous. Fuck you for being insulting. Fuck you for sneering Tetsuya Takahashi off of Xenosaga. Fuck you for tempting that man to even make a single one of those games in the first place. Fuck you for assuming the first of those games would sell a million copies upon release. Fuck you for being disappointed when it didn’t sell a million copies.

Fuck you for pressuring Keita Takahashi into making a sequel to Katamari. Fuck you for refusing to believe that a man capable of birthing such a brilliant idea might actually have a couple more brilliant ideas.

Fuck you for seemingly deriving pleasure from wronging people with the last name “Takahashi.”

Fuck you announcing Ridge Racer 7 for PlayStation3 not six months after releasing Ridge Racer 6 on Xbox 360. Fuck you for taking nearly five years to increase the numeral from 5 to 6, and then increasing the numeral from 6 to 7 in a few short months.

Fuck you for Ridge Racer in general. I bet, within the walls of your company, it’s absolutely positively imperative that everyone use the politest language when addressing the secretary, using the coffee machine, or operating a stapler; I bet you require your employees to turn off their cellular phones when they take a shit in the employee restrooms. I bet you’re really proud of that shit. Yet apparently you don’t think it shameful that you’re always there to release a schlocked-together Ridge Racer for every new console. Fuck you for possessing that ballless notion that “people who just bought a new console are bound to buy any game, right?”

Fuck you for Tekken 5! Fuck you for Tekken in general! Fuck you especially for Tekken 4, though fuck you super-especially for releasing Tekken 5 on PlayStation2, and then immediately releasing Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection in the arcade. Fuck you for announcing Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection for PSP, with its shitty little directional pad and unresponsive buttons, instead of PlayStation2!

Fuck you for that game sucking to begin with!

Fuck you for the character costumes in Soul Calibur III! Fuck you for giving Yunsung neon green Adidas high-tops!

Fuck you for putting names like “Zasalamel” on the back of cars in Ridge Racer 6 for Xbox 360! Fuck you for treating the names of your insignificant fighting game characters like they were fashion brands! Fuck you for presuming I care!

Fuck you for presuming I want to play Pac-Man while Ridge Racer 6 loads? Fuck you for sneering at the irony of a guy greeted with Pac-Man when he’s waiting for a game to load on his new high-definition television!

Fuck you for putting that Pac-Man game in the loading screen, when it’s not even a “loading” screen! I mean, why put a “Loading” game in there when there’s also a “Press the A button to start the game” displayed from the second the “Loading” screen appears!

Fuck you for Pac-Man, while we’re at it!

No, really!

 

Can you not see how fucking retarded Pac-Man is? He’s a yellow circle with a mouth! You make him three-dimensional, and he’s just a sphere! A fucking sphere! Who gives a shit about a sphere?

Fuck you for the Tales of… series — sure, some of them are fun, and I enjoy them, though fuck you for having so many different teams working on different Tales of… games at any given time because even though the games are all well-made and stand apart from one another in terms of story, you’re deathly afraid of releasing an RPG with any other name because you’re positively convinced they won’t sell, because you’re positively convinced people wouldn’t know the game was worth buying, because they wouldn’t be able to judge quality for themselves, because people need names and numerals in order to make decisions. Fucking lighten up!!

Also fuck you sideways for Tales of the World, an “original” PSP RPG that basically stars you as a generic guy who meets all the characters from the Tales of… games. So it’s like Kingdom Hearts, without Disney? And, according to screenshots, in Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology, EVERYONE IS LEVELING UP CONSTANTLY

 

LEVEL INFINITY

And most importantly, fuck you to the moon for presuming, time and time again, I have nothing better to do than play videogames.

On top of all this, fuck you for Portable Island: Tenohira no Resort, and all that it represents.

Basically, Portable Island: Tenohira no Resort (“Resort in the palm of your hand”) is a non-game. I almost typed “a non-game in the vein of Animal Crossing,” though I think that would be saying a little much. It’s not in the vein of Animal Crossing — it’s more in the vein of reading a six-month-old tennis magazine in a dentist’s office waiting room than it is in the vein of Animal Crossing.

To put it simply, the game is about a beverage-like island. The advertisements on the subway trains all over Tokyo this summer ask the passenger, “Would you like a tropical island?” using the same sentence structure with which a bartender would ask a customer if he’d like a beer. The island of this game is, then, to be drunk like shots of whiskey. The advertisement consists of a sticker plastered to the doors of the Ginza Line. Passengers who had been, a minute earlier, waiting on the platform at Ueno Station, fanning themselves with a plastic fan handed to them by someone at Yodobashi Camera an hour ago (mine said “Intel Core2 Duo Processors: On Sale Now!” on it) now stand, looking at this advertisement. “Would you like a tropical island, sir?” After just spending four uncomfortable minutes on a train platform where the air-conditioners are positioned at weird angles, and standing at the front of the line, the position most likely to score you a seat, means tragically dodging the overhead air-conditioning unit’s diagonal flow, you get on the train, and you have to stand, anyway. The tidal wave of air-conditioning in the train chills your sweat. Your shirt sticks stiffly to your skin, and then it does not. Like magic, your body temperature begins to do a little dance. Your eyes chance upon the advertisement on the door. “How about a tropical island right about now, sir?”

How does this make you feel? You’ve just felt refreshed, like diving into the ocean after spending a hectic afternoon being chased by bandits through the desert. The idea of a tropical island should at least have some emotional response.

I somehow doubt, however, that the marketers were thinking this far ahead.

When you hear the words “tropical island,” what do you think? What sensory reaction does it awaken in you? Do you recall sand pleasantly between your toes? Sand frustratingly beneath your swimsuit? Itchy sand in your pubic hair? Cold water on your toes? Warm water on your toes? Cold water up to your waist, suddenly turning warm? Beach balls? The smell of beach ball-vinyl? The heat of said vinyl, baked in the sun? Volleyballs? Smell of the ocean? The sound of seagulls?

The smell of the air-conditioning in the hotel. The sound of muzak at the hotel lounge. The way the sun plays your skin like a different organ than it is back at home. The bewildering sense of distance when you gaze at the ocean; though your home may lie in the direction behind you, when you watch those waves, if you have come from a place where no waves break, to see breaking waves should fill you with a feeling that wherever you live, it should be beyond this, out there somewhere. The sea has enchanted men and women and children for years, across many centuries and fictional universes. You can fall in love with nothing at all — a wonderful feeling — just by standing and staring at it.

If you’ve never been to a tropical island, you might hear the phrase “tropical island” and think, perhaps, of Hawaiian Punch, and the way it makes your teeth red.

 

They say it’s made of lava rocks, you know.

Either way — whether it’s the crushing, vaguely peaceful notion that, like the waves, our lives will eventually crash to a shore somewhere and break, or memories of summer stomach flu and vomiting Hawaiian Punch into a public pool in a manner that burned your nostrils, either of these experiences represent memories Portable Island cannot compete with.

If you see that advertisement on the train, you might fall into a standing heavy reverie about vacationing. You might feel like going somewhere far away, and for a few precious days existing in a place you do not normally exist. You might desire a paradigm shift; you might consider just about anything an escape.

This game is promising you a vacation in the palm of your hand. It is promising you relief from your everyday life. You put it in your PSP, and you play it on the train with headphones on. It’s supposed to make you feel calm. It’s supposed to make you feel peaceful and serene in short, violent bursts. It’s the aromatherapy of videogames; you have it turned on in your room, or your office, and there it is, a window to a world that is not your world, or anyone else’s. It’s at atmospheric modifier. It’s here to brighten your day, and sometimes engulf your attention.

I would sincerely like to believe that anyone able to be fooled by this parlor trick has not the social standing to ever board a train.

I don’t want to talk about the game, really. I really don’t want to. It’s not worth it. It’s a game about an island. Only you don’t do anything on the island. You relax. You can press buttons to lie down in the sand on the beach. You can walk up to the water. You can press a button between trees and attach a hammock. You can lie in the hammock, and tweak the analog stick to swing the hammock. You can aim a camera lens and take pictures of yourself in the hammock. You can lay your character in the hammock and then sit the PSP in a stand on your desk while you work on some inane project in the office. You can gaze at him every once in a while, and feel jealous. How you wish it were you in that hammock. The game is a ship in a bottle; much as you’d like to ride it, you can’t, because you yourself are not small enough to fit into a bottle.

When your character puts the hammock away, when he or she is done with it, the hammock disappears into the black hole of his or her pocket.

You can walk along rocks. There are penguins there. You can look at them. You can take pictures of them. If you want to go to a different part of the island, you can open your menu and warp there. You can collect food for turtles. You can throw the food on the ground near a turtle, and watch a turtle walk up and start eating it. Only you can’t squat low enough, and zoom in far enough to see his mouth on the food. He’s mostly just hovering and twitching over it.

You can change your character’s clothes. You can make him look like a beach bum, an Abercrombie kid, or a surfer. If you’ve chosen a female protagonist, you can make her wear a bikini or a trendy tropical dress. You can wear big floppy sun hats or Hawaiian shirts. You can touch the screen and think, “That is what I would be wearing if I were really heading to a tropical island this summer!”

If you use the game as a planning tool, the most important lessons it can teach you have mostly everything to do with videogames: fast-travel gets you where you’re going without having to press a boring amount of buttons, and items like mangos, when investigated, appear, accompanied with full descriptions, in the “item” menu. Mangos are high in vitamin C, says the menu. You can collect a whole lot of item descriptions, animal descriptions, and fish descriptions. The game doesn’t keep track of quantities of items collected. Otherwise, you’d feel like you were competing with something, and competition isn’t necessary of a vacation. This game is utopia in a box, and utopia consists of precisely one citizen.

According to an interview in Famitsu the week before the game’s release, the developers really love money and are genuinely afraid of the most efficient ways to get it. Takayuki Nakamura, the game’s producer, says people often tell him it seems like Boku no Natsuyasumi (“My Summer Vacation”) “for adults.” Director Shigeki Tooyama says, “People often ask, ‘Oh, do you regain your HP by sleeping in the hammock?’”

Producer Nakamura explains that the goal of their design is best summarized by the fishing activity: “In other games, the programmers have determined the plentitude and size of the fish. In this game, there is no action. You put out the fishing rod and watch. It’s relaxing. You don’t go on a vacation to be stressed.” I imagine he says this with a cheeky grin, like Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld pitching their idea for a television show “about nothing,” knowing it was a brilliant idea.

Their concept gets a thumbs-down; their execution gets a middle finger up. The game is very tacky. The only game the producers — and Famitsu‘s Mr. Hamamura, ever respectful — are careful not to mention in the brief interview is Animal Crossing, which is likely where Portable Island took its inspiration from. Animal Crossing is a relaxing game with a weird little economy system worked in; it is a game about living a life in a town with other residents. Portable Island is about being dead-alone on an island paradise. That the game doesn’t involve any skill for tasks like fishing is unfortunate; that it is set up in such a way as to make the player never feel like he’s anywhere, much less an island paradise, is near-tragic. That the developers skirt around so many questions in the interview, and talk about how AMAZED people are when they explain that the game has no HIT POINTS or LIFE METER or FINAL BOSS makes it impossible to believe they’ve never played Animal Crossing or Nintendogs. They’re being deliberate in the PR where they should have been deliberate with the game.

Could the game have been saved? Could it have been exciting, enthralling, captivating, and still been about a tropical island? I don’t see why not. Animal Crossing is about a peaceful village of animals, where there’s never a hurricane and there’s never a fire, and it somehow manages to captivate boys, girls, men, and women alike. Why is this? It’s because the game is about maintenance. There’s something to maintain. You clean up your room, you position furniture. You trade things with the animal residents, or with other players via the internet or wireless connection, and you sell them to earn money to buy other things, or a bigger house. You can go fishing, and tweak your fishing rod in hopes of catching bigger fish. You can sell the fish, and make money to buy things for your house. Time flows in real time; night falls, morning comes. Items in the shop change. There’s a mystical thrill out of seeing new items appear. That thrill turns real when you show that new piece of furniture to a friend and he or she says, “I want one of those, too!” As a videogame and as a piece of entertainment, Animal Crossing is a wonderful way to waste time on the train.

In Portable Island, when you collect items, they appear in a list. You can view this list in the menu. You can see a large photo of an item, and read a description of it. Is this supposed to be fun? Animal Crossing gives a graphic realization to each item; you can see it in your room, push it, and move it around. You can play with the positioning of every item in your house. In Portable Island, you’re staying in a hotel room that has to look exactly the same when you leave as it did when you arrived. Only you’re never leaving. Your main character, then, is a nutso conservative of the most mathematical variety, for adding up “room must be in the same condition when you leave as it was when you arrived” and “you will never leave” and ending up with “do not touch anything.”

You are alone on an island. You are very alone. There is nothing to do except sit by the waves, and ponder things like real-life credit-card balances.

That the producer suggests, in the abovementioned Famitsu interview, that anyone had ever likened his game to a Boku no natsuyasmi “for adults” smacks of the worst kind of bigheadedness. It’s a guy being bigheaded and uninformed, trying to hide his big head, and not realizing that everyone sees through it. No, Portable Island cannot be Boku no natsuyasmi “for adults,” because Boku no natsuyasumi is already “for adults.” The game is not merely a “simulator” of a vacation. It is a retelling of an actual, specific summer vacation, one experienced by a young boy, taken to his aunt and uncle’s country home in 1975. There are characters who talk about themselves. There’s a girl whose brother died. Each day begins with calisthenics and breakfast and ends when you go to bed. There’s a ghost story. In addition to collecting and trading fighting beetles, you will witness a young boy learning about others and learning about himself over the course of one bittersweet summer. The game reminds you that nothing, even (or especially) carefree days, lasts forever. This is a tale for adults who have grown up; kids look at Bokunatsu and think they’d rather play Pokemon. This, right here, is a game for the wisened men of the world.

Portable Island contains no love interest, no murder mystery, no ghost story. It’s just you, dead-alone on a fucking island. Turn the PSP on in the evening, and you can watch a sunset in a bottle. Why would you do this? At the same time, in the real world, a real sun is setting. You could set the game time to a different timezone, so that the sun will be rising in the game when it’s setting in the real world, though if you do this, you’ll be missing out on the alarm clock function.

Yes, the alarm clock function. Be aware that when I say that people don’t want games they can also use as alarm clocks, I am, of course, speaking for myself. I don’t want a game that can be used as an alarm clock. I have an alarm clock. It’s called my cellular phone. (Which also runs the original Ridge Racer.) I set the alarm before I go to bed. I tell the alarm to go off at 5:07AM with a light ring. Then I set a second alarm, to go off at 6:27AM, with a louder ring. I wake up and go running.

My phone is set to “original manner mode” — so I can configure how loudly each type of event is announced. A phone call always rings quietly. Phone emails are silent. My set alarms are as configured in the “alarm” menu. So I make one quiet, and one loud. This is my casual, modern-life acceptance of the fact that people will always hit the “snooze” button for an hour before actually waking up. So far, my brain hasn’t figured out the alarm is a filthy liar and started rebelling. Or maybe it has it figured out all along, and just doesn’t mind.

I have more fun programming my cellular phone than I do playing Portable Island.

In order to use Portable Island as an alarm clock, you need one of those PSP stands, you know, where you put the PSP in and it keeps it charged up. Before you put the game into sleep mode, you tell it what time you want it to go off. The game will then wake you up with “pleasant ocean sounds” when the time comes. Actually, you can set the ocean sounds to go off in a murmur ten minutes before the alarm proper.

Here I will say something about the sample quality of said ocean sounds: they’re pretty good, I guess.

The alarm clock function is featured on the advertisements on the Ginza Line. Right beneath “How about a tropical island to ease your worries, buddy?” are three photos. One of them shows the game as an alarm clock. “Wake up to pleasant ocean sounds! Brighten up your room with pleasant ocean sounds at any time of day!” That’s kind of creepy. Though I guess some people do stuff like that. They buy VHS tapes with tropical fish on them, because they can’t have an aquarium. Personally, I prefer the sound of the highway and the distant trains outside my apartment, especially when I’ve just gotten out of the shower and am drinking a cold glass of tea, and there’s a nice breeze coming in the window.

The other two pictures on the train advertisement display the “camera” function (take pictures of the game and save them to your Memory Stick!) and the musical instrument feature, respectively. The musical instrument feature is what professional journalists call a “crock of shit”; you can play a ukulele, assorted percussion, or steel drums, using only the PSP’s buttons. The “assorted percussion” instrument is basically a throwaway. You just jag the face buttons and the directional buttons, making a cacophony. Or, well, it would be a cacophony, if the PSP’s headphone volume went up loud enough to allow a cacophony, or if the PSP’s speakers were strong enough to allow anyone else to hear the sound effects over the volume of the clattering train rails. The steel drums are slightly more interesting, because each button or direction pressed plays a specific note. You can actually put together melodies, if you have the patience, and/or love music despite a deep hatred for touching actual musical instruments.

The ukulele function is the one that’s getting all of the attention. Famitsu did a full feature on it, for example. All the way back at Tokyo Game Show 2005, Namco had hula-skirted booth personnel carrying PSPs around tempting people to try the ukulele. I was one such tempted. It was a novel idea at first. You hold the PSP upside-down while pressing and holding the face buttons (or a shoulder button plus face buttons for extra notes), and then flick the analog stick with your thumb to simulate strumming. (One of the options in this mode is to toggle the upstroke on or off, which is mystifying, because ukulele is quit the upstroked instrument. I say this as a man who’s screwed around with a ukulele whenever at a certain friend’s house.)

You can perform in time to songs, if you want. The game will simulate the other instruments, and you will strum the ukulele. It’s worth noting that the timing practice you’ll get by strumming the analog nub can actually gift you with some real skill at playing a ukulele. However, pressing and holding buttons on the PSP can’t exactly prepare you for playing a ukulele. There are no frets on a PSP. Moreover, the game does not grade your performance. Grading the player’s performance would, I imagine, go against the producers’ “relaxation” idea. As well produced as the musical mode is (probably handled by Namco’s Taiko drum game team), the songs all happen to be dismally fruity island numbers; having your significant other walk in on you practicing one of these would be like being caught by your mother masturbating to a pineapple fetishist’s magazine.

If you’re interested in ukuleles, for the price of this software you can purchase a real ukulele of above-average craftsmanship. It is about as portable as a PSP, and actually weighs less.

For the price of a PSP and this game, you can purchase a ukulele of superior construction, or else a Fender Japan Stratocaster electric guitar. Just saying.

You could also, yes, purchase an airplane ticket somewhere sunny, with some pocket money left over for a few beers, and sleep on the beach at night. Sleeping on the beach, you’ll find, is more comfortable than being packed into a late-night rush-hour train and staring at a fake young man lying on a fake hotel’s fake bed.

The game also has a “radio” function. Engage this function, and you can listen to any mp3s stored in your Memory Stick’s PSP/MUSIC folder played under a weird filter of static, seperated by the whisperings of a DJ whose English sounds vaguely (and with probably good reason) like a Japanese who grew up in Hawaii.

The inclusion of this tool is oddly flattering, and oddly insulting, depending on the flip of your mind’s coin at any given time. For one thing, I can listen to my mp3s on an iPod without this game’s randomizing help. And I can listen to them, maybe, in a cafe overlooking a rainy highway in Shibuya, during a devastating autumn where the nightingales flew south early, while waiting for a friend to show up and cheer me down. That Portable Island creates falsely picturesque context (listening to the radio on the beach, miles from civilization) for its presentation of the mp3s feels hollow given the game’s love of lack of conflict. Yet the basic premise feels like it might not be a bad idea in an actual game: if a game set on a tropical island would use your mp3s as background music during gameplay, interrupting them sometimes with tropical weather reports, it would be kind of neat. Yet this wouldn’t work for Portable Island, firstly because there is no actual “game” to speak of, and secondly because of the PSP’s hardware limitations. The system couldn’t possibly handle hammering the CPU, the UMD, and the Memory Stick all at once without expending the battery in thirty-five seconds.

This brings us to the main point of this critique: the PSP itself. The hardware limitations are this game’s ruin. Based on my hours of time playing it (to spite myself), and my seconds spent gazing at the advertisement on the Ginza Line, before the doors opened at my station and the ad slid into the abyss, I have come to the conclusion that any and all hope that this game will sell depends on, if not making the player feel like he or she truly is on a tropical island, at least reminding the player what a tropical island is like if he or she has gone, or imparting a little bit about what makes a tropical island great to players who have never had the opportunity to go to a tropical island.

At this goal, the game fails in all aspects. I could go into detail about how cheap the experience of actually “being” on the island feels, about how fast-travel forgives the laziness that prevents you from wanting to walk anywhere, how pressing a button to lie down in your bed feels clever until you realize now you’re staring at yourself in a bed, or how the island’s layout isn’t really that interesting, and most of the locations look the same. I won’t, however. I’ll just pick on the graphics and sound: the graphics look like little more than a polished-down PlayStation2 game. The sound — good samples, yes — is tinny and at a squeaky volume. It’s all very quiet and understated.

Let’s get it out in the open: This game is not virtual reality. This game is not a lucid dream. This game is definitely not the Holodeck on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“Virtual reality” used to see bar patrons, six beers rich, paying four dollars to put on a plastic helmet and scream at flat-shaded pterodactyls for three minutes. There were maybe goals in this; the problem was it kept sobering people up, at which point they realized they were too old to pretend to do shit that didn’t at least look real. Virtual reality, as an institution, collapsed, because ten years ago, when the most sophisticated polygons were in fighting games like Tekken, nothing a computer generated would end up looking worth the shame of putting on that plastic helmet. It would, in fact, be jarring, and disturbing, and sobering, though it might have been the developers’ intention to immerse the player in a world that felt real.

What I’m saying, then, Namco, is that until I can feel the sand between my toes, smell the sea, dip my toe into the waves, fall asleep, and work on a tan with the help of a computer program, please don’t make a game like Portable Island.

Well, I guess it’s a little too late for that.

Recently, the idea of virtual reality has started to creep back into the pop-culture pre-conscious. The head/movement-tracking technology necessary to make a game like Dactyl Nightmare more like a good dream is only recently being revisted, in the oddest little places, like Nintendo’s DS and Wii. Photorealistic graphics, as well, are being strived toward as we speak. In this light, we can pretend to appreciate Madden a little bit, as a game that, year by year, inches strategically toward total realism. Obviously, the average Madden fan doesn’t want to have to work like a football player to play the game, and that is why a sub-VR experience is fully tolerable. The ideal Madden would be, essentially, “realistic, interactive watching.” This is still a long way off. Though today’s fighting game characters look and move far more realistically than, say, they did ten years ago, if Oblivion is the best graphics can get in a game about a large, detailed world, then I’d say we’re a long way off of creating non-games that let mom star in her favorite soap-opera. How’s mom going to appreciate her favorite soap opera, if the male romantic lead in the game world looks uglier — and more like a haunted town’s female librarian — than she does in real life? See “The Uncanny Valley” for more.

In other words, there are technological leaps and bounds yet to be taken just to bring the audio/visual experience of gaming up to a level where something like Portable Island, a game about nothing, could be in the least bit successful. Then there’s the olfactory/tactile factor, and I reckon smellovision is still decades away.

So, until then, until that golden age where the “user interface” melts away, where all videogames will be “non-games,” until that day I can enjoy playing the part of Konstantin in Square-Enix’s Anna Karenina, I take it people will continue to escape from every day life with games that feature contests of wit and skill. You see, compared to a game of Gradius V, life is actually quite dull. There are many less meteors to dodge, fewer chances to fire lasers. To escape is not to relax — it is to live a fantasy. It is to fly, where we could previously only walk. To succeed at invented tests makes us feel proud. To fail at them makes us long to succeed, at times when there are so many real things around us that we need to maintain, we will gladly welcome a fleeting desire to succeed in something we can give up at any time. In games, we will run and jump, whereas in life, we seldom do more than walk.

There’s a hypothetical question for the moment, now that we’re thinking about it: could a game about walking be fun? Perhaps more poignantly, could a game about running be fun? Recently, Rockstar released a Table Tennis game, to the whoa whoa shocking shock of many games publications. People went nuts — “The makers of Grand Theft Auto bring you TABLE TENNIS!!!” — that the game didn’t involve killer prostitutes or, at least, selling drugs to minors, or shooting up high schools. Yet, one of the developers, interviewed in some videogame rag I read I don’t remember when, said they made the game out of a desire to perfect a representation of one simple action. So they chose the simplest action that could still be interesting and involving for two players: tennis. Well, table tennis, because the scale is smaller, and would allow them the breathing room to give optimal attention to all aspects of presentation. EA’s recent Fight Night: Round 3 tries the same thing — removing the “videogamey” elements of a sports game, forsaking life meters in favor of on-character damage indicators, telling us the score only as the score would be told if it were a real sporting event — that is, via voiced television announcers. Is this the future of sports games? Without a doubt. Is it the future of all other videogames? Only if a certain few designers like Fumito Ueda have their way.

Now, remember the first time you played Super Mario 64? It might have been at a demo kiosk somewhere. You might not have known how to hold the controller right away. Yet, eventually, it started to click. The idea of pushing the analog stick a little bit to make Mario walk, and pushing it all the way to make him run was a wonderful thrill. It was often said that you didn’t even have to enter the castle to have fun, the first time you played the game; of all the things the game did right (and, to some extent, wrong), the utter joy of your first run around the castle was a pop culture miracle in and of itself. Without music, without enemies, without the possibility of dying (outside of jumping off the top of the castle), we were able to have fun simply moving around in a videogame, and with the use of only two buttons, really. Future entries into the 3D platforming-adventure genre, such as the first Jak and Daxter, would later be criticized as “About as much fun as Super Mario 64 — if you couldn’t enter the castle.” Once we’d seen the thrills that lay inside the castle, the idea of just running around outside forever seemed ridiculous.

So it occurs to me, quite naturally, that before we can make a hypothetical videogame retelling of Anna Karenina (or, perhaps, War and Peace) that involves the player playing any role he wishes, we need to first make a game about running. And I don’t mean a kitschy simulation like cavia’s Naoko Takahashi’s Let’s Run a Marathon! — I mean, a game where the player actually presses buttons to run, all alone in a desert, or perhaps a city at night. The game will not allow the player to be free to enter buildings. However, it will be so enchanting in its simplicity and serenity that no one would dare think to enter a building. Why enter a building, when there is this thrill right here, this thrill of running?

Recall the scene in the film “Adaptation” where Robert McKee yells at Charlie Kauffman for accusing real life of being boring, with nothing happening. He says there are people dying everywhere, every day; there are people getting shot, people killing other people out of jealousy or politics. He says it’s presumptuous to try to make entertainment imitate your own life, just because your own life is boring. What he is implying is that if it is only possible to write what you know, and the only thing you know is idleness, and if idleness is not worth the time it takes to tell of, you should perhaps seek to know something else before seeking to tell a story.

Yet, in running, there is conflict. The goal changes from moment to moment. You will breathe differently as your heart is beating now than you will breathe when your heart is beating more quickly. When an exhale intersects with both feet being off the ground, the inhale feels different than it does at other times. The goal in running is to keep running. Simpler than Pong, with a ball and two paddles, this Hypothetical Videogame About Running would, ideally, seek to literally and concretely reconstruct, if only in audio-visual aspects, the perpetual struggle of a man against a believable road containing no obstacles. Without a single health gauge, ideally, the game’s conflict would be to not give in to tiredness; there would be no power-ups. At the end of a session, a player would not think he had wasted his time; he would not say, “I should have just gone out running for real,” because the game will impart on him the idea that all we do until we are killed by time is kill time. That all we can ever do is attempt to escape.

Perhaps that’s putting it a little desolately.

What I am perhaps endeavoring to say is that, in a videogame consisting of images on a screen (as in, not a VR program), starring a human character, game designers are responsible for

1. placing the character in an interesting situation
and/or

2. endowing the character’s every movement with a joy-like friction.
Perhaps I got a little too prosaic with that second rule.

There is no joy in the movement of the character in Portable Island. If there were, the designers wouldn’t see fit to include a fast-travel function for traveling around to the different parts of the island instantly. There is no contest, and no struggle. There are no interesting situations. That it was made by men who have played games “about nothing,” yet also feature struggles of the hand/eye or psychological variety, men who have no doubt made videogames about giant robots destroying buildings, or girls crying because of situations involving virus-carrying aliens. These are men whose “creative” switches have only two settings — nuts or nothing. One or zero. There’s nothing in between. Digital. No analog.

It’s tempting to say that the idea of a game where you do nothing, where nothing relies on skill, nor even on persistence, could be done well. It’s tempting to say that a game where you merely relax could, under some circumstances, be a tonic for a certain kind of life gone astray. Maybe girls who work in tough offices, and live with their stern parents, and enjoy taking the time to gaze at a far-off sunset in the palms of their hands, yearning for a life that turned out a little bit differently. These girls — these parasitic princesses of the modern era — deserve love, no doubt. They deserve flowers and they deserve the joy that comes with being told they are an essential ingredient of someone’s world.

Yet they also deserve the thrill of discovering how it feels when patience is awarded. They deserve the rush that comes with the realization that in this world, there are things that we can do. Portable Island wastes no time in advertising itself as a “soothing experience” for the soul. Therefore, it leaves itself wide-open for the following criticism:

Is this game a fitting escape, then, from our rigorous life at the office? What does it soothe? What needs soothing? The official site shows a picture of a man with Portable Island in his white PSP, kicking up a racket of sea sounds as he pounds away at some fierce code on his Sony Vaio. The game is positioning itself as something to be enjoyed passively, though I reckon any man with a computer can also download a music program to aid him in listening to sounds he’d prefer to hear over false ocean noises.

Another game tried, a while back, to appeal to the unfortunate princesses of the modern era. That game was Nintendogs; it sought to soothe the wailing desires of little boys and girls who wanted dogs and could have them. Yet, as a videogame, stupid as it was (I found it quite insipid and repetitive), it also contained real, momentarily flickering tests of circumstance. You throw the frisbee and watch it fly. There is joy in its flight. The dog catches it. There’s something nice about that. If your connection to the dog is a strong one — if your heart, as it were, is pure going into Nintendogs, it will entertain you for hours on end. A child unable to have a puppy could own this game and love it, and eventually be given a puppy for his or her birthday, and love the puppy for entirely different reasons. In the same way, yes, a human can love a robot, though only if the robot doesn’t, up front, guarantee it will be able to return this love — or, more specifically, if the robot makes it sparkling clear at the outset that “I am a robot; I cannot treat a human as a human would treat a human, because I am not a human. I am a robot.

If Portable Island is indeed an effort to cure or a compensate for something lacking from our real lives, then I argue, on the basis of the above points, that it is a failure. There may be people on Amazon.co.jp who say they like it, though I reckon the girl who says “Children would find it boring; it’s clearly a game for adults who understand life’s finer pleasures” is a viral plant and the one guy who says the game “soothes” his worries gave Madonna’s album “Who’s that Girl?” four out of five stars, so he’s obviously a flake. (It deserves only three.) He also gave Nintendo’s Brain Training three stars out of five, indicating that he, too, might be a viral plant of Bandai-Namco.

Unlike Nintendogs or Animal Crossing, Portable Island is never a place we are; rather, it is a place someone we know has been. Inserting Portable Island into the PSP and flipping the POWER switch is not unlike sending your robotic butler to Hawaii and monitoring him with a hidden camera. On the island, he is free to do anything as long as it is possible to do, only he doesn’t seem to actually do any of these things, because he is a robot, and robots and butlers just don’t know what to do on vacation. Expecting him to turn around and do something fascinating in this vacuum of a world would be like expecting your coffee machine to start dispensing photocopies of gorilla handprints.

And so therein lies the rub; even a pacifist finds it impossible to play Grand Theft Auto without committing an act of violence, because the game is programmed with more attention to the physics that result from violence than the pyhsics that result from standing around doing nothing. In Portable Island, the pacifist is given a world where violence — or action — is not allowed even in imagination. While Grand Theft Auto might unknowingly aspire to be a mural painted by a naughty child, Portable Island is a postcard from a robot.

Repeat after me: we do not need postcards from robots. Though the robot might really be on the island in the photograph, the robot is only sending the postcard because someone else told him to. At least, when your aunt sends you a postcard from the Bahamas, she’s doing it because she’s thinking of you, or she wants you to think she’s thinking of you. Portable Island, a postcard from a robot, is not thinking of you, because it’s not thinking of anything. And that brings us to the problem with the world:

The most basic way to put it is that there is a problem with this world. That problem, put in simple words, tells us that “without war, there can be no peace; without hate, there can be no love.” Why is this so? Without yin, there cannot be yang; without light, there cannot be dark. Without the bad days, there can be no context for what makes good days so good. Every rock and roll band that stands on a stage in an arena faces sometimes tens of thousands of people who, without knowing it, are asking, deep in their hearts, “Why can’t it always be love? Why can’t it always be peace?” They are lacking in something; the rock and roll star, history’s greatest robot, without making a promise or a presumption, gives them what they need at that exact moment, and though the rock and roll star might create a memory or two in each of those people, it can’t guarantee them a safe and joyful future.

The problem with this world is that we can’t always be love, and we can’t always be peace. If this problem were willed human form, and it stood before you, what would you do? Would you punch it in the face with hopes of knocking its block off? Or would you jump to the ground and sink your teeth into its ankles? Would either course of action be the “right” one? The answer is simple, and at the same time, it is nothing at all. Let’s get pretentious and damning, then:

Each work of expression humankind creates will sit at the bottom of a gazed-down-upon canyon for centuries to come, as messages from the past. Portable Island is a message from a land so far away it might as well not even exist, from a person so dry they might not even be real. As an “artistic” endeavor, it is presumptuous, ankle-biting trash that the modern world would have been better off without.

That’s putting it simply.

 

note how they use a photo of a real island on the box. that fact will be important in the following section.

As mentioned, you can use the camera function to take a picture of the screen — maybe with a little zoom-in or zoom-out — and save the screenshots to your Memory Stick Duo. Yet, should you import the screenshots to your computer, maybe for printing out, you’ll find they are all watermarked in the lower-right corner with rather large white font:

COPYRIGHT 2006 BANDAI-NAMCO

What the hell is this, really? Is this at all necessary?

I can imagine printing one of these and taking it to my grandmother in the hospital. (Actually, my grandmother’s dead; roll with it, though.)

“Did you ever take that trip to the tropical island? Did those bad boys at that office of yours ever give you the time off?”
“Yeah, yeah they did, grandma.”
“Did you take a picture of the sunset for me?”
“Yes, I did, look.”
“Oh, this is lovely . . . wait, what’s this? Who’s . . . Ban-dai-Nam-co?”
“Oh, that, um . . .”
ARE YOU GAY!?

It would probably ruin her last few days on earth.

In a way, the idea of watermarking the screenshots the player takes within the game is pretty heavy. It raises a lot of questions. The watermark in Portable Island is such a sterile, ugly, huge one. It clutters up as large a chunk of the screenshot as possible, just so anyone looking at it knows exactly what company made this game.

Why not lighten up a little bit with it, though? Why not put the “Portable Island” logo down there, instead, plus a “Bandai-Namco” logo? Why make it so legal, and sterile?

Tiny font in the instruction manual reads, “Each screenshot will be watermarked for legal purposes.” What legal purposes? So that no one can use a screenshot from this game on their blog, and fool people into believing they’ve actually been to a tropical island? Are the graphics even good enough for that?

The only situation I can think of wherein having copyright information on each screenshot of the game would be a legally “necessary” thing would be if someone were to find a way to make the characters take on lewd poses or participate in scandalous situations. And then, the watermark would only exist to confirm to the public who is responsible for this mess. That’s a pretty sanctimonious reason for watermarking a screenshot.

If I were to ask a member of the development team about why the watermark appears on each screenshot, and why it’s so ugly, I’d no doubt be told, “Hey, it’s Japanese copyright law.” Yet, as one who lives his life by the letters of Japanese copyright law, I know it’s not necessary to protect such assets. You don’t have to put your name on each screenshot unless you’re overflowing with pride and want everyone to know it was you who did that. (That, or if you think people will use the screenshots for money purposes. Though trying to imagine anyone making money selling Portable Island screenshots to a vacation magazine only leads me to a conclusion that makes Namco look like assholes, so I’ll let go.)

Yet Namco is not proud. This game was appropriated a modest budget, was delayed for a while, was shrugged at by many executives, and somehow just emerged.

Once more, the fact that these Japanese game developers are all, on the average, run by chain-smoking combed-over sixty-something men with hair the color of cigarette ashes and teeth like fat-caked fishbones comes frighteningly into view. Bandai-Namco must put their name on the screenshots generated by the game because

1. The screenshots contain no characters immediately recognizable to the general public as Bandai-Namco properties (Pac-Man, Gundam, M.O.M.O, Tekken‘s Panda or Marshall Law)
2. If this situation had come up in the past, this is certainly how the elders would have handled it.

For fuck’s sake, though, you’re spoiling how people enjoy games. They enjoy showing things and saying, “I took this picture in this videogame.” If they say, “Hey, I took this picture in this game called Portable Island,” if they let the name of the product emerge naturally in one conversation, then that’s a larger commercial success than subjecting a thousand indifferent people to your watermark. I mean, really, do you think the average consumer is going to look at a picture of a computer-generated polygon man in a hammock and say, “BANDAI-NAMCO, HUH? I SURE HAVE A LOT OF RESPECT FOR THAT CORPORATE CONGLOMERATE, NOW!”

Get over yourselves!! If your game was interesting to begin with, people would ask the name when they saw the screenshot. They’d say, “Hey, what game is that from?” Maybe you’re afraid that’s never going to happen? As it is now, putting your name on a screenshot of a generic island paradise is like hanging your kid’s C-minus on your refrigerator, because you’re pretty sure he couldn’t do any better if you asked him nicely.

(And while we’re at it — videogame websites, stop watermarking screenshots. You didn’t fucking make the games. Even if you took the screenshots.)

A recent Famitsu shows that Sega will release a PSP version of their Homestar home planetarium in October. The original homestar was something you place in your living room and turn off the lights, and suddenly, right there, on your ceiling, there’s a starry sky the likes of which you’ll never see in Tokyo (light pollution, you see). The Homestar was popular to a point where it’s now marked down enormously in electronic stores all over Japan.

Well, bewilderingly, there’s a PSP “version” coming. In addition to allowing you to gaze at the starry sky in the palm of your hand, there will be trivia modes and educational tours of the cosmos.

I can understand a home planetarium working on a ceiling, though come on, in the palm of your hand? There was a survey recently that said most PSP gamers in Japan play their PSPs at home. I guess this game is meant to be the evolution of reading a book under the covers with a flashlight?

Still, though: No. For one thing, my PSP screen has five or six dead pixels in it. What if I mistake a dead pixel cluster for the North Star? The educational aspect of the software would be failing then, wouldn’t it?

This is the latest in a fleet of “non-games” for the PSP, flagshipped by Portable Island. I watch each of them come, and think Nintendo really needs to hurry up, release the Wii, blow away the public, and convince every developer that the DS isn’t just a pop-culture fad-fluke. They need to show these people a little discipline.

What if I want to gaze at stars on the train to work? The PSP’s screen is so shiny that the black background would reflect the harsh train lighting. This would mean I’d be gazing at my own face and not imaginary stars. In the same way, I can mess with the timezones on my Portable Island, by locating the magical clock-idol deep in the island jungle (or by warping to the general vicinity), and make it so the sun is setting when I wake up in the morning, making the sky over the beach on my ride to work splattered with stars. The harsh orange lights on board the Ginza Line reflect in the PSP screen, and there I am, seeing up my own nostrils. My nose is kind of oily. I should quit eating some of the things I eat. I should probably try to be healthy, like I keep saying I will be, eventually. “Eventually” is a rough concept. I should quit listening to music that makes me yearn to make things better, and start actually trying to make things better. For myself, I mean.

I soak in some air-conditioning and think back to that advertisement on the train. Why release this game in the summer? Why not release it in the winter? It would make more sense to release it in the winter, especially with the slogan being “On Portable Island, it’s always summer.”

Hey. I know another place where it’s always summer. Yeah. A tropical island.

–tim rogers wanted to find a reason to mention that you fly to Portable Island on ‘ban-nam airlines’

Comments

7 Responses to portable island

  1. I remember reading this on IC. I liked your piece on My Summer Vacation better, though this was entertaining as well.

  2. I’m imagining how awesome this game would be if halfway through, you see a flashback of the player-character’s wife leaving him, and if the game required you to drink yourself to death, spending all day drunk, fucking up on the ukele songs, cavorting with island prostitutes (when you die, your guy would just flop over on the beach and lay there before the crashing waves until you turn the system off). It would lend a tragic poetry to the pointlessness of it all. Your guy would be voiced by and modeled after Tom Waits and the graphics would be in stark black and white.

  3. Wow, the start is so full of rage. And this is definitely one of my favorite reviews evar~

  4. A little unrefined I think, compared to the newer stuff. I guess people like it because the rage is purer.

  5. Pingback: The Sims Social | action button dot net

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