A Game That Uses PS1 Visuals to Tell a Story About Asian American Identity
'All Our Asias' is an expressive game about memory, identity, and the power of intelligent abstraction.
All images courtesy Analgesic Productions
Sean Han Tani has made some of my favorite games. Working with collaborator Joni Kittaka, he made Anodyne, a thoughtful 2D Zelda-style adventure, and my personal game of the year in 2016, Even the Ocean. His new game, All Our Asias (out this week) is a more personal work, made mostly on his own in the course of the last year.
Inspired by Taiwanese cinema, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and Oikospiel (among other things), All Our Asias is a 3D exploration game with a heavy emphasis on story. You play as Yuito, a 31-year-old Japanese-American man who works as a hedge fund manager, who gets a note from his estranged—and dying—father begging for a visit from his son. Yuito rushes to see him, only to find out that his dad is too far gone to talk. He undergoes a risky procedure to enter his dad’s mind—into his memory world—to try and get to know him before everything is lights out.
Over the course of about two hours, you explore abstract, PS1-style landscapes—forest canyons, cities, nightclubs—that litter this world, encountering fragments of memories. Most of the game is in third-person, as you control a simple avatar—a sort of globe with pedals—through low-poly mountain passages, deceptively open snowscapes and stylized city streets.
Some memories are playful, some are sad, some are infuriating—like the racists who litter the game’s highway—and many point specifically to aspects of the Asian American experience, as lived by this character.
“Narratively I'd say I'm inspired by Taiwanese, or Asian American filmmakers and novelists,” Han Tani told me via email. “As well as the scholars who write about them—and I wanted to explore a topic I'm personally invested in, through the medium of games/3D space. So that's partially where the tone of the writing, and subsequently the visuals/music came from.”
All of your interactions are mechanically simple—down to an “interact” command and some easy platforming—but meaningful. Those racists on the highway hurl slurs at the character, and make comments about driving. In one city scene, you work for an immigrant’s rights organization in Chicago's Chinatown, helping to enact a new policy to make it easier for folks to get small business loans. In yet another, aspects of masculinity are touched on, in memories that paint a picture of Yuito’s father as a young man who was unlucky in love.
It’s all appropriately piecemeal, in the way real memories are ephemeral and frankly weird. The minutia sometimes blots out the big, dramatic stuff. Or speaks volumes about it.
It’s hard not to feel for Yuito, who was abandoned by his dad and risks his own life for this last chance to get to know him. He is, himself, wrestling with his identity, being a financially well-off man, born, as the game states, “in the USA, to Japanese parents.” He’s actively grappling with what all those signifiers mean, and what they mean to him.
Yuito grows frustrated with the fragments of memories. He wants a simple answer or an uncomplicated picture to give him some closure, or, at the very least, some resolution. But for the player, the lack of an easy, simple solution fits so well with the themes of the game, and works especially because of the tone and scope that Han Tani chose for his game.
It covers a great deal of narrative ground, but nothing feels crowded or overstays its welcome. The full game lasts only about 90-120 minutes, a length that Han Tani said forced him as a designer to focus on what he wanted to present, “rather than presenting 10 iterations on some central mechanic.”
“What worked for me with AOA was to pick a few familiar topics I've been thinking about, then 'minimize them' by looking at them through one character,” Han Tani said. “Then, it would naturally grow from there and encompass other issues related to the initial ideas. I figured this out because of an abandoned game from 2016, Perfect, which tried to cast too wide a net—and I was never able to finish a first draft of the writing.
“So I picked themes like developing race consciousness, some masculinity stuff, complicating the notion of ‘Asian America,’ which when expressed through Yuito, grew to encompass ideas like community/family.”
The result is a game that feels very specific, and in that specificity and honesty, feels universal. Much of this is also carried by the art style—low poly worlds and abstract character art that feels deeply evocative, at once preserving the warmth of the pixel art that dominated Han Tani’s earlier games, and adding the sense of freedom and size that 3D navigation can bring to the table.
Playing the game, I had a hard time pinning down exactly why it was working so well. It looks simple, yes, but the art and music and dialogue are effective at evoking sharply-felt bits and pieces of the real world, emotional experiences and issues.
“The abstraction and simplification AOA's style uses is good at making me focus on exactly what aspects of reality I want to represent,” Han Tani said.
And that’s what it is: There’s a very deliberate sense here of not just what is important, but how and why we fill in the details in our own brains. Han Tani says that he wasn’t aiming for photorealism, and instead wanted to encourage players to use their own imaginations when exploring the world or speaking with NPCs.
Some of that simplicity is a smart choice: Han Tani admitted readily that he is not a professional 3D artist. He can do his best work in this way with the simpler tools.
“I'm interested in the lo-fi aesthetic as a way to save money and time for art, and it plays to my strengths as a non-professional-3D-modeler/texturer,” said Han Tani. “It's an accessible art style to use. I'm able to incorporate a lot of my 'taste' in 3D spaces/photography/lighting/mood more easily in lo-fi 3D.“
There’s also the plain matter of personal taste. “I personally like the lo-fi aesthetic a lot,” Han Tani told me. “It’s stylish and feels cozier/warmer/more personal, capable of more ways of expressing than some of the recent visual trends in AAA and indie games.”
Designing deeply personal games is very difficult—it’s hard to find the right tone and tenor, and even harder to scope appropriately. In a lot of ways, sticking to classic video game tropes and recipes is easier, and putting yourself out there with personal, earnest work can be frankly terrifying. Han Tani did express some anxiety here, again, being a first solo writing project thrust out into the world. But it also sounded as if it was worth it, and a good experience to have as an artist and designer.
“It felt like a much more personal, maybe even at times indulgent project!” he exclaimed, comparing the project to earlier, more collaborative efforts. “There's a lot more questioning about why I'm making the game, its purpose, its worth. Working in a team, you feel like you're doing it to help your collaborator, which makes those questions pop up less.”
“It's easier to work solo in that all the decisions are done faster—there's no going back and forth with questions or double checking things like you need to do in a team. But on a team it's nice to have decision making delegated in part to others, or someone to reliably discuss things with. They're both interesting styles of work I'll pursue in the future.”