Back to Splash Page

The Great Surrealist RPG Maker Games

There'll probably be a sequel to this if I learn anything past the basics of RPG Maker. Ian Bogost, my favorite academic, makes his students code on the actual Atari system, not because it will make great games but because the actual object of the Atari, and the way it was programmed, is an important basis for the sorts of games that could come out of it. I want to learn some RPG Maker eventually, but...

The three games I'm thinking of when I discuss surrealism in RPG Maker Games are, of course, Yume Nikki, Lisa the First, and Hylics. There are other RPG Maker games that, while not surreal, depend on anti-gaming, which is similar. To The Moon got some traction by doing that, and Yume Nikki and Hylics both excel in reducing RPG mechanics into a form of anti-game. But, To The Moon is not a piece of surrealism, and so it will not be mentioned further here.

I'm going to mention Zizek's conception of ideology and dreams, which he developed from Lacan, because I think that's part of the thing at play here. Zizek says that the point of a dream, like ideology, is that one gains no value when looking directly at it. Ideology has its own logic, as do dreams, and these soft underpinnings serve as an unconsidered guide to how you live your life.

Genre, and the RPG genre in particular, and the JRPG genre specifically, on which all of these games riff, serves this same purpose as dream and ideology. The tropes of the genre serve as an unconsidered logic, in the way that capitalism is an unconsidered logic. Leveling systems, the structure and rhythm of the narrative, sidequests, these are all pieces of the genre that guide players without their knowledge.

RPG Maker is inherently a folk object. It allows non-developers to make a JRPG! But, in making a JRPG, due to the inherently mechanical nature of video game design, you have to look directly at the ideology, and thus break it. Unlike writing a book, where you can naively live within the genre, using RPG maker requires a certain technical skill that strips the genre of its unconsidered form. And my argument is that, just like how looking at a dream breaks it, opening up the genre of the JRPG inherently breaks it.

Lefebvre looks down on surrealism because it never had political significance, and because many of its adherents (the Italian futurists and Salvador Dali) turned to fascism, but I think there is a necessary truth to surrealism. It tries to answer how we should behave, and make art, when at least a third of our life is dedicated to misremembered and stranger existence that breaks the second that you look at it. It does so by trying to repair the dream within the context of the waking world. The surrealist RPG Maker games do the same: they attempt to repair the shattered conception of the JRPG that the RPG Maker necessarily produces.

How did surrealism come to affect these games?

I think that Lefebvre's distinction between dada and surrealism is critical here. He states that dada had political potential due to its assault on established hierarchies whereas surrealism can only make the cheapness of the strange. I don't think that is wholly fair. Bunuel is a clear counter example, though he had yet to produce his best works when the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life was published. The purpose of surrealism, according to Lefebvre, is an attempt to inject the mythical, lost under capitalism, back into modern day life. It can only produce the strange, the fortune teller on the corner or astrology columns, rather than the true mythical nature of the past.

JRPGs strike me as doing a similar thing. Well, not entirely so, but the desire held strongly in my generation for Pokemon in real life does suggest a desire to incorporate the now unattainable myths into the everyday. The JRPG's particular mode of escapism ties itself to fantasy fiction, which was another attempt, post-surrealism, to imprint myth into the present. We desire these injections of the merely strange. Cosplaying Cloud further highlights this desire. For a lot of people in nerd culture, JRPGs really represent a global imaginary, a global dream.

The surrealist RPG Maker game easily falls into Lefebvre's analytic, and in some ways, I think, these games are a reaction to this global dream that we have. What happens when a dream becomes everyday, when the strange stops being strange? Well, at that point you need a surrealism about surrealism, I suppose.

I haven't designed anything in RPG Maker, but I have a copy of RPG Maker 2003 that I've toyed around with for a bit. I'm really not a stage in my life where I should be designing games, so it never gets beyond brief experiments. But, the first thing I notice about 2003, the platform on which both Yume Nikki and Lisa the First were produced, is that it is an abstruse piece of software. When opening the software, you are quite literally presented with an RPG world map and some resources. Editing character classes requires a lot of tinkering. I work at a healthcare tech company, and RPG Maker reminds me of the software that we produce: capable of doing amazing things, but with a user interface that disregards users' needs entirely. It reminds me of AVID for video editing, my company's software, or STATA for econometrics. It makes you immediately aware that the mythic thing called the JRPG is mundane and hypertechnical, an object not of Olathe or Terra, but of everyday life. This furthers the previous degradation of the JRPG into a merely strange rather than truly mythic object.

That is why I believe that the two biggest hits of the RPG Maker genre are wrapped up in dreaming and in the surreal, and why the early work of Dingaling, Lisa the First, also exhibits these traits. If you add To The Moon, which deals with fictional worlds and memory in a potentially surreal way, you get at least four major surrealist games on the platform, either because of their status as truly refined games or because they are the juvenalia of a now established developer.

Finally, I think it is critical to point out that at least part of this is due solely to Yume Nikki. Lisa the First is a direct ripoff of Yume Nikki, and given that developers from Toby Fox and beyond have referenced this game in their works, I think it is fair that at least some of the reason for surrealism and anti-gaming on this development platform is because of how massively influential Yume Nikki is, and how it legitimized RPG Maker games as something beyoned mere Dragon Quest ripoffs. The games here are distinct enough that I would not say that Yume Nikki is the only reason for the presence of surrealism on the platform--Hylics plays like a standard RPG, just with dream like trappings, and doesn't have an obvious relationship to Yume Nikki. But, I think it ought to be mentioned, if only because I enjoy greatly discussing Yume Nikki wherever I can.

And what sort of surrealism was born therein?

I use surrealism because these games do specifically invoke dreaming--though, Lisa the First doesn't quite do this, instead using the idea of memory and the idea of mediation in order to accomplish similar effects to dreaming, not to mention the fact that it is a direct homage to Yume Nikki, which more straightly invokes dreams (See this post for more thoughts on Yume Nikki and dreaming, though this is an older essay of mine, and I think my blogging has improved since I posted it a few months ago).

But there is also a cogent case that they employ dada as well, and in a few senses of the term. There is an arguably political, and Lefebvre sees dada as political, angle to Yume Nikki. It depicts a young hikikomori who explores a series of nightmares and, in the end, she kills herself. If not political, then it is at least sociological. Lisa the First similarly explores the memory of abuse in a way that goes beyond the mere strange uttered forth by Lefebvre, and given his future ouevre, which is rooted in gender and racial politics, I think it is fair to say that it similarly falls into the categories of politics/sociology. Hylics, well, is significantly less so, thought it does explore the subtle ideology of the JRPG, I suppose. Hylics is a dada in a different way, not in a political form but in the way that it interrogates and undermines the meaning of the RPG genre. Though, maybe, its disavowal of individualism qualifies as politics.

Here are some of the ways that Hylics does this, and I start here in order to ensure that we have a solid grasp of the dada within these games, which is often turned towards the ideal of anti-gaming and subverting the ways that we engage with the JRPG genre. If you haven't played Hylics, I highly suggest it. It is only three dollars, and it's a simple, effective, couple of hours game available on Itchio. But there are a few ways that it exposes both the mechanical and visual/narrative sensibilities of the JRPG. A good example is its use of randomly generated text. Unimportant NPCs speak pure garbage. In other games, some sort of flavor text would be used in order to better situate the player within the world (the most humorous example of this, which exposed how useless this fluff dialogue was, though by accident, is "I am Error" from Adventure of Link). The main city has a randomly generated name that changes whenever you speak to one NPC at the player's home, which shows all of the silly ways that cities in JRPGs, from Nibelheim to Kakariko Village, are used to lure players into a sense that this world could be real. Hylics's little putty world is polymorphing. There is a final piece of aesthetic decision making that Hylics subverts: Hylics does not feature a leveling system, and there is only one time in the game that you level up, which is when you defeat the final boss, the only enemy in the game that yields experience points.

This last features highlights how these dreamlike games treat the mechanics of a JRPG: they remove some mechanics entirely, and, in other cases, they aestheticize previously functional mechanics. Hylics presents this most clearly: the idea of a level, and of experience, which is core to how JRPGs work, becomes a joke stretched over the course of the game, with the final boss being a punchline. Yume Niki, similarly, aestheticizes two key pieces of the JRPG: money, and HP. In Yume Nikki, you can receive yen by using the knife effect to kill NPCs. This money can only be used for one purpose, and that is to buy soda at vending machines scattered across the game. These vending machines raise your hit points, and are the closest that Yume Nikki gets to a level system. However, these hit points are completely useless. Though there are enemies within the game, the Toriningen, they do not care about hit points at all. There is no combat system in this game, and thus a key mechanic within other games becomes an eerie piece of window dressing.

Lisa the First does this as well, but only in a more minor way. Exploration of a world map is a consistent element of JRPGs. Yume Nikki produces its meaning by taking exploration and making it the only mechanic within the game, an early walking simulator of sorts. Lisa the First has a large cliff, with a rope that you can climb. In JRPGs, the act of exploration yields much meaning, and seeing a long rope on a cliff signals to players that they should climb it. This urge applies doubly in the context of Lisa the First since it is based on Yume Nikki, where often you find yourself climbing up what seems like an infinite staircase in order to find an effect. Lisa the First subverts both the original and the subversion then, for, when you reach the top of the staircase you find a giant middle finger statue, Dingaling literally flipping off the player.

The once important mechanic of exploration, which still informs much of Lisa the First and its predecessor Yume Nikki, in this moment because merely aesthetic, a joke played on the player.

So, one the hallmarks of these games is that, in addition to their relationship to dreams and dreamt meanings, they excel in taking an important mechanic within the genre and removing its real functionality. This helps give it an absurdist quality, or a dadaistic quality, or a surrealist quality depending on how it is employed.

I made the point that the actual user interface of RPG Maker is something that promotes these kind of works. The user interface makes the act of JRPGs hypertechnical. But, there is another aspect of RPG Maker that I think prompts the aestheticization and defunctionalization of mechanics, which is the fact that RPG Maker does not make it easy to make complex games. For those without coding experience, which is the obvious appeal of using RPG Maker, there is little that you can do with it beyond making ripoffs of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. The prepackaged battle system and event scripting system don't allow for much complexity. Outside of experimental games, most RPG Maker games are just, well, bad.

That is, it is not easy to add to the RPG Maker framework, but it is easy to take away from it. This is why these anti-gaming features or so prevalent. The most creative way to use RPG Maker is through innovative subtraction. If you know how to code, you would use a more robust platform, and if you don't know how to code, it is only through removal that you can make your RPG Maker game unique. The one exception, in the context of the three games so discussed, is Hylics, whose novelty also comes from its graphics, in which all animations are done through claymation. That is actually the only thing that is easy to add in RPG Maker: there is already a well-built means of importing in custom assets.

But, beyond that, this call to anti-gaming is in part because RPG Maker gives you these mechanics for free. Were someone to design a game like Yume Nikki in Javascript, they would have to build a cash mechanic, and then build a hit points mechanic, and only then could they make their little slice of anti-gaming. The same is true in Hylics. To make a little joke about experience points and how silly and artificial the level system is, you could write a little scripting event in your battle system. Frankly, this would be easier to implement than the Yume Nikki example. Or, you could just turn off experience for everyone save the final boss, and RPG Maker would do it all for you.

Anti-gaming then comes natural to the RPG Maker game because, well, outside of that you can do little of interest. Marrying anti-gaming to surrealism is a logical next step: since you have already forced yourself to subvert the RPG form, designing things in a surreal mode is an easy way to build an aesthetic to match you mechanics.

Some final thoughts in Hylics

I have already brought up Yume Nikki before, and through my discusion of Lisa the Painful, I believe that I have said enough about Lisa the First. As such, I want to close this post by discussing how it actually feels to play Hylics.

Hylics is, mechanically, almost identical to early Final Fantasy games. There are a few exceptions to this. One such exception is that, in order to increase your hitpoints, effectively leveling up, you must die. Another exception, which I believe adds subtly to the overall effect of the work, is that there are no distinct character classes, and the four heroes that comprise your party have little mechanical distinction with their play styles. Whenever you die and allow yourself to level up, all members of your party gain the exact same amount of hitpoints. Whenever you learn a magic spell, all members of your party learn the magic spell together. Mechanically, the heroes are largely interchangeable.

The visual design of the work, as well as its narrative, further develops this feeling of interchangeability. The world map looks like an early Final Fantasy game, and the means that you explore it are the same: at first, you are confined to walk on land, thus stuck on your home island. Then you get a boat to visit other islands. And finally you get an airship that allows you to travel anyware. The difference, however, is that the actual design of the map does not feel like the vast and attractive continents seen in Squaresoft games. The world seems small and cloistered, despite the fact that you have all of the travel options from more classic games in the genre. The exploration component feels like a JRPG emptied of meaning. (Yume Nikki attempted the opposite: an exploration mechanic pregnant and overloaded with meaning).

The storyline itself is also facile, and plays through some of the common beats of the JRPG. You need to beat some sort of emperor who is going to end the world. There is a detour where you must take over a scientist's lab in order to reach the moon, an oddly common trope in Final Fantasy (That is, commandeering science labs; the entire siege of Shinra in Final Fantasy VII comes to mind, as well as, in a way, the taking of Silph Co in Pokemon Gen 1). This, along with the randomly generated text, both for the names of major capitals and for the potpurri texts that give JRPGs life, show a narrative design that almost parodies the one fact of narrative design in video games: that they are appended after the fact and only exist to further the mechanics and gameplay. Here, a Final Fantasy game does not even have the ambition to keep up this facade, leading to the weird fever dream that is Hylics.

I'm not going to talk implications for these games, since my goal here was to explain how the platform made the medium. I think I have done good by this promise, and as such, am ending this here. I enjoy all of these games, but increasingly I wonder if they have any greater implication over the gaming landscape, save through Yume Nikki, which has already had an outsized influence on indie games. We may just be talking about the quirk of a platform which will, like any good dream, break upon our waking.