Disaster Report: real world events and the language of video games

| Hamish

In the chaos of the Great East Japan earthquake, there was a story that understandably drew little attention. It’s a story about a small game development team within its publisher, Irem. The team makes a series called Disaster Report – video games about surviving natural disasters. Just after the quake, the most recent game, Disaster Report 4, was cancelled, and all the previous Disaster Report games were removed from Japanese shelves, almost without comment.

But despite the garish way they’re marketed in the west, the Disaster Report titles were really quite slow and respectful games. Their subtlety is immediately visible in the trailers and Japanese boxart, which is soft and innocent. They don’t promise the thrills or graphical punch of some games. They only promise that they will try and show you what it is like to be a person escaping from a beautiful and welcoming environment that has suddenly become hostile.

In the games, you try to help people, but sometimes they die. There may be something you can do about it, something difficult and frightening. But often there isn’t. Coming to terms with this is evocative – it is not great art, but it is sincere.

There is an early sequence in the first Disaster Report. You meet an old couple in a collapsing building – a wounded man and his wife, who refuses to leave his side. Your character talks to them, you hear they have a son. You find a photo in the rubble. You give them the photo. It shows them with their son, whom they tell you is going to university. You hear a helicopter land outside, so you go to meet it. But as you begin to leave the building, it collapses. With some effort you manage to evacuate a friend, but the couple is killed. In the crashes and grinds of breaking concrete, the photo is blown clear and flutters to the ground.

Here we see the use of every convention in the toolbox of the action-adventure game designer. You have to make sacrifices as regards your inventory in order to pick up an item. You then give the item to someone by taking it out of your inventory, which is the only way that the player (rather than the “character”) can communicate with them, and you see that the item means a lot to them. You separate from them to meet the helicopter, emphasising your role as the one who must push onward. And then when the building collapses you have to navigate treacherous surroundings in a short space of time, trying to acquire something (your friend) while also under the obligation to leave some things behind (the couple).

The game isn’t just an action-adventure though; the team was willing to step outside the conventions of video games. They had to, to avoid being gratuitous.

How would you or I go about making a game about death? Bearing in mind that in almost every game ever made there is an awful lot of “dying.” In video games we drown, we have our bones crushed, we are burned into paralysis. What usually happens then is that the screen fades out, fades in, and there we are again, standing where we were a minute or so ago, right as rain.

There are good reasons for other games doing this, and good reasons to expect it to be done – resurrection allows players to engage with tense and interesting challenges. But this approach treats death with irreverence, which is problematic if you’re addressing real world events (as many noble game developers attempt to do nowadays).

The Disaster Report games make some effort to imbue their “dying” with the horror that a conscientious artist would want to. There is a mechanic in the original game centered around becoming “thirsty” (and “cold” and “stressed” in the sequels), and it can move the player to panic. Just like in the aftermath of a real earthquake, you are required to scavenge and scrimp resources. If you fail to do so, you may become so dehydrated that you collapse – this risks the loss of hours of progress. So you worry immensely about what you’ll find around you.

“Losing hours of progress” is a trite reflection of what is at stake for the real people who survive real hardship, but it is the most powerful punch a game developer can pack. It feels highly unfair. It makes you hate the environment. If you (understandably) don’t appreciate the symbolism, then you may even hate the game.

I should add that the games also contain quite conventional platforming challenges. These parts regress to the standard approach players “dying,” so there is almost nothing at stake. Perhaps here the developers had no other viable choice. But I maintain that the original sentiment was commendable, even if it turned out that its implementation was not in tune with the language of video games.

At the core of it, the Disaster Report games just have a simple and quite affecting premise, in stark comparison to other high budget titles. They do not involve hurting anyone. They do not involve feeling powerful or especially beautiful. They do not involve saving the world. They just involve saving yourself and the friends you make. With its limited technology, the first game was a subdued affair – no epic score, few dynamic environments, few human beings beyond what was necessary for the next setpiece. It felt desolate and cruel, which is exactly how it should have felt. We see this in the other games too.

Admittedly, the first games made a lot of mistakes, although at least they’re honest mistakes. The feel of the challenges is similar to Uncharted, with all the manipulative stupidity that that entails. The creators were interested in presenting the images and narratives that come out of a natural disaster – they weren’t all that interested in providing interesting or fair gameplay.

For example, when debris falls around you, the harm that is done to you feels random. You are able to defend yourself by crouching; the way your avatar cowers is theoretically compelling, almost educational. But it adds up to a blockheaded game mechanic. The philosophy at work here is “if they audience is pressing buttons while watching this, then they will feel involved.” The same as Uncharted, or any Adventure game – although at least it’s not as bad as Enslaved or Heavy Rain. Disaster Report contains moments of great friction, like when you’re trying to walk up a precariously tilted surface or pushing an object – you don’t get that in adventure games.

My point is that the makers of these games treat their subject matter with reverence. They are aware that they have an artistic responsibility, something most game designers will go out of their way to avoid.

“The Kobe disaster of 1995 was in [the designers’] minds during the making of Disaster Report” a spokesperson for Irem told me. I believe that Irem could have continued backing the design team – in an ideal world at least. They have already proven they can use the conventions of games to effectively talk about this subject, and the recent catastrophe could have moved the team to even greater dedication. I know the people who carried out the cancellation of Disaster Report 4 believed that they were being compassionate. But in their fear of offending a wounded post Fukushima disaster Japan, they have missed an opportunity for great relevance.

Hamish Todd had to import Disaster Report 2 from France