Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Problem Child

Ben Ratchford

               Child of Eden (Q Entertainment, 2011) is the brainchild of Japanese game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who would be perhaps most recognizable today for his work on Tetris Effect (Q Entertainment, 2018). The game spotlights the music of his band Genki Rockets in its core gameplay and is thematically designed around the band’s (virtual) frontwoman, “Lumi.” It is not an exaggeration to say that Child of Eden is a realization of purely his artistic vision.

               To understand what Child of Eden is trying to do, then, it’s helpful to look at Mizuguchi’s history as a game designer and as an artist more broadly. Mizuguchi got his start making racing games for Sega, where his first big hit was the 3D racing game Sega Rally Championship (1995). After three years of work on this property, Mizuguchi says in an interview with the New Statesman from 2017 that he attended a party in 1998 that turned his gaze permanently to music and movement, to dance, and in particular to “synesthesia” (his word). Following this we saw the release of Mizuguchi’s first musical game in 1999, a rhythm game for the Dreamcast called Space Channel 5 (Sega). This was followed by Rez (Sega, 2001), a musical rail shooter (to which Child of Eden is the sequel), a series of puzzle games, a VR-compatible version of Rez with updated graphics titled Rez Infinite (2016), and eventually Tetris Effect in 2018.

               Mizuguchi also started Genki Rockets in 2006, a virtual band which featured Lumi, played by (then merely 13 years old) Yusada Rei as its frontwoman and lead vocalist. Like much of Mizuguchi’s work, they enjoyed a rather dedicated cult following that lasted into the 2010s. Genki Rockets concerts, Rez, Child of Eden, Tetris Effect, and even some of the lesser-known puzzle games of Mizuguchi all share a theme—synesthesia. In this case, what is meant is a multisensory experience involving the blending auditory, visual, and in some cases kinesthetic elements to create a totalizing gameplay experience.  Mizuguchi labels himself as a “futurist” or “technologist,” rather than a game designer, and claims to be interested always in bringing the height of interactivity and immersion to his works.

               Mizuguchi’s visions ultimately were realized in VR, a medium which he has strived to work in ever since it became possible to do so. This technology, it seems clear, has been most able to meet his desires for totally immersive games with broad range of opportunity for artistic freedom. Whether these are successful as synesthesia (or, for that matter, as art) is somewhat beside the point; there can be no denying the immersive power that these games have when played with a VR headset, and in my experience with, e.g., Tetris Effect, they really work as coherent and immersive audiovisual experiences. They’re fun games, in short.

               Child of Eden, on the other hand, we might treat with a slightly different attitude.

               Child of Eden was released on Xbox and Playstation, compatible with the Kinect and Playstation Move respectively. The game itself is a musical rail shooter, like Rez before it—somewhere between a rhythm game and an arcade game. The player is meant to time their attacks to the beats in the Genki Rockets tracks which comprise the game’s OST, and by doing so they may score sufficiently high to progress through the game’s six levels. If done correctly, the whole game can be completed in about an hour.

               And with the magic of the Kinect, they can do this using nothing but their hands! Mizuguchi likens the actions of the player to those of a conductor; with the right hand, the player controls a blue lock-on laser attack that is released by a (rather vigorous) flick of the wrist, and with the left hand they may aim an auto-firing purple machine gun. These two attacks share a reticle, and cannot be fired at the same time, which led to some rather frustrating moments of trying to switch from one hand to the other under the duress of timing and having the cursor snap from one side of the screen to the other as the Kinect suddenly recentered its gaze.

As mentioned, the game centers around Lumi, canonically the first human to be born in space (somewhat absurdly, on 9/11, 2019), who lives her whole life on the ISS, never setting foot on earth. Ostensibly, her consciousness and memories are preserved on the internet (redubbed “Eden” by subsequent generations) centuries into the future. This is where the game is set to take place: 22XX, Eden is beset by computer viruses that threaten to corrupt and destroy Lumi and her memories, and the player is set up as a hacker who can traverse Eden and purify it of its viruses. This is rather similar to Rez, which also positions the player as a hacker traversing a futuristic artificial intelligence named “Eden.”

The visuals in game consist of a strange blend of elements. Some enemies (or obstacles, as the case may be) are simply geometries, like in Rez, even carrying through some of the same color palate from that game—orange cubes, purple cubes, grey spheres, and the like. Some completely diverge from this scheme, however, and the game features whales, jellyfish, flowers, stingrays, worms(?), and, most prominently, Lumi herself, in the form of a live action recording of Yusada, in several of the levels, often with corresponding bright colors and full-screen movements and light-shows, all set to-time with the soundtrack.

This divergence in style can be attributed partially to the time past since Rez, and the Child of Eden team wanting to take full advantage of the suite of technology at their disposal. It’s probably also partially attributable to the production teams for each level being totally separate, with Mizuguchi being the only common factor between them.

Whether this all coheres into one singular experience is probably a matter of taste, but for me I the technology falls short of providing the intended experience somewhat. Essentially the problem is twofold: first, the Kinect is not a very good device. Second, the story is totally not fit to the gameplay.

Speaking about the Kinect, it’s useful to bring in Melanie Swalwell’s discussion of the kinaesthetic [sic] sense of gaming in her essay “Movement and Kinaesthetic Responsiveness: A Neglected Pleasure” (2008). Swalwell, in analyzing the psychological responses of gamers in a LAN hub to playing their games, correctly identifies (among other great points) the development of an embodied literacy as a key component to the enjoyment of gameplay. What is meant by this is the acquisition of skill, for one, and a corresponding kinaesthetic sense for what motion is achieved when performing the actions required by dynamic and, often, difficult gameplay. She’s referring to the natural sense that skilled gamers have for the way that their motions in interfacing with the controls for a game influence the game world—this well describes the way that a dedicated tetris player might conceive of what it is like to move the tetrominos, or what a skilled Soldier player in Valve’s Team Fortress 2 might feel as they perform a rocket jump, a technical maneuver that requires skill, practice, and a high degree of in-game awareness. In practice, this amounts to a kind of flow state, an (embodied) identification with the player character and an immersion in the diegetic world of the game.

When playing Child of Eden (as it was intended, with the Kinect), for me this flow state was simply impossible to find, and this experience was common among those who tried it. The simple answer for why this is the case is that the laggy and inaccurate Kinect response to my motion introduced an insurmountable barrier to identification of any kind with the diegetic world. This effect would have been somewhat mitigated if not for the game’s insistence on the precise timing of actions to correspond with the music (that it wasn’t totally clear when the crescendos were is beside the point here. I am not a fan of Genki Rockets, and if you are, maybe you would have a better experience here). However, as things were, I was left continually frustrated in my efforts to control the reticle with any degree of consistency, let alone elegance, and the repeated casting motion with my right arm became more of a physical strain than an integrating element.

Secondarily, there exists a rather severe ludonarrative dissonance in the presentation of the game, in which the Lumi plot, despite being consistent throughout the game, feels like an afterthought. The game would have been totally unchanged if this bit of setting were left out. Aesthetically, Mizuguchi’s creative direction leaves a lot to be desired here, and the whole thing (like Genki Rockets) reeks of new-agey end-of-history type vapidity that I simply can’t overcome. In another interview about the game, Mizuguchi declares that the central theme of his work (besides the synesthetic experience) is, simply, “happiness.” What this could possibly mean is, besides being of no interest to me, beyond the scope of this essay, but I think it is obvious from his work that his talents are best left to game design rather than storytelling.

This is not to declare Child of Eden, or Mizuguchi’s ouvre, a totally unsuccessful project; what Mizuguchi intends to do with the technology, although a failure here, is certainly an ambition worthy of our attention, and sees success in later titles. As VR games grow in number and quality, and as the tools to create these games become available to a wider field of game designers and artists of all kinds, we may look to this (frankly) funny experiment as one of many meaningful efforts into the realm of unknown that helped usher in a new paradigm of game design, the ramifications of which are truly still yet to be known to us.

References

  1. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2017/07/how-tetsuya-mizuguchi-reinvented-video-games-his-love-synaesthesia
  2. https://www.siliconera.com/tetsuya-mizuguchi-interview-illuminates-child-of-eden/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayWV7XNRxK8
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetsuya_Mizuguchi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s