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April 13, 2005

Discussion: Ikiru


Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, which roughly translates as "To Live", is a wonderful movie about a man who discovers he has cancer and makes a great effort to overcome the bureaucracy in which he serves by any means that he can and do something good for the world in the time he has left. He determines to build a playground, to bring the civil service to bear on converting a flooded area in the midst of a working-class neighborhood into an area with grass, swingsets, and monkey bars. It's a humble little story, which reminds me in its scope a little of something like The Bicycle Thief.

Unlike other simple tales, this one is told in a really interesting way, which is primarily what concerns me here. At the beginning, Watanabe learns that he is ill¹, and it causes him to stop and take stock. He tries to tell his son, but he cannot; he and his son do not have a relationship in which such sharing is possible. He would tell his wife, and perhaps does -- he spends time burning incense before her shrine, for he is a widower.

Then, after a chance encounter with a young woman from his office whom he previously considered brash, he latches on to her, trying to get at the heart of what makes her so joyously alive. When he was her boss, he found her a nuisance -- always laughing and carrying on, telling slightly off-color jokes and never taking anything very seriously. Now that he is dying, he has a desperate wish to live a little, but he doesn't know how, and he spends time in her company just trying to understand how.

When finally she tires of him, he is crushed, he finally returns to work, and we assume he will just go on plodding until he keels over at his desk. But suddenly, he gets a fire in his eyes and we soon know what he plans.

It is at this point that Kurosawa does something remarkable -- he moves ahead in time to the funeral of this man, where people reminisce about what happened next. We get a fractured series of flashbacks which collapse the remaining months of Watanabe's life. In fact, we only see how he lived through the lens of his death, and the effect he had on people around him. The effect is initially jarring, but it so perfectly fits the film, the culture, and solves a technical problem for Kurosawa: how to present six months of what would mostly be drudgery in a quick way that nonetheless conveys an essential thread, and doesn't even feel all that fractured². We immediately adjust to how the story is now being told, after a momentary confusion about where the film will go next, now that our protagonist is dead.

It's a profound way of telling a story, and upon reflection, it made me think that something like this should appear in a game. It sort of has, already, and there may be games of which I'm unaware that employ such a strategy -- if there are, please educate me. It makes me think most of the structure of the story of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time which was so enormously charming. But that wasn't quite exactly it -- there was simply a wonderfully ornate frame around a more conventional story in PoP.

We constantly play games in which we move in time in leaps and jumps; why not a story in which we know the outcome and yet are driven to play the good bits by the formal structure of the story? I don't want to play Ikiru's story, per se. I just think that this sort of storytelling is entirely possible in our medium and would address certain problems that we encounter or might encounter.

The other thing it reminded me was of my idea for how to present save games. Many years ago, there was a radio program named Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Dollar was an insurance investigator who tracked down thefts and such. What was interesting was that the story was constantly moved forward by entries in his expense account. It might go something like this:

Dollar: Entry #5: 50¢, for a cup of coffee.
Joe Blow looked ragged when I met him at the Ten-Spot Café on the corner of Five and Dime. I knew he knew something, so I came right to the point.

In other words, the story was constantly helped along by setting the stage for what was going to happen next with entries from Dollar's final report. It was simple and completely effective, and it kept you up to date if you happened to miss the 15 minutes the night before. (In the interests of full disclosure, I wasn't alive when this was on the radio, and I've only heard complete episodes strung together. But I can still appreciate the format and what it allowed them to do.)

One problem I'd love to see solved with something like this would be keeping me up-to-date on my games. You see, it often takes me months to get all the way through a game -- I have a lot of other interests³ and I have kids, and a long commute, etc. So, it's not uncommon for me to come back to a game having not picked it up in a while and say, "What the hell was I doing?" At times like this I may stumble for a while, or I may simply hit GameFAQs and skim until I find something more familiar.

What I'd really love is for a game to load up and then, if I haven't played in a while, find an in-context mechanism to remind me what I was doing. "I checked the local newspaper -- but there weren't any messages in the personals for me. Looks like I'm on my own to find the kingpin. Damn." or "My dreams were feverish, an image of the hilt of my sword glowing with a hunger for the blood of the Xvarts. I must find that tribe and eliminate each of them for what they did to my..."

I'm a part of the audience that is getting older. I have other things I want from games, but some simple things could make my experience much more enjoyable, and hopefully, by extension, make it easier for people who don't have tons of time to devote to it to enjoy some of our games.

¹It's more accurate to say that he deduces it from the specific form of the misinformation that he's given. It's a strange little scene that can't really be adequately explained. Apparently it is rude in Japan to tell someone that they are dying.
²The man was a master. I knew this. But I've seen several of his films over the past year and I've gone and added several more to my queue on the basis of this latest one.
³Including spending an hour a few times a week writing in this blog...

Posted by Brett Douville at April 13, 2005 10:26 PM