Game review: Mainichi

Title: Mainichi
Developer: Mattie Brice
Platforms: Windows
Price: free

“I should try to be more positive today.”

Mainichi is not an RPG, but it’s made in RPG Maker and it forms an interesting contrast to games that are RPGs–so we’re going to examine it.

RPGs are games about character progression. Insofar as the player character is meant to be agent of positive change in the world, RPGs are also about capital-P Progress.

Mainichi is not about Progress. Nothing ever improves in Mainichi. Rather, it is a loop, an endless repetition of the same tiresome choices about whether to trade inordinate amounts of time for the ability to duck a near-constant stream of indignities.

I’ve complained about how RPGs almost universally fixate on the epic at the expense of the personal. Related to this, I think they can do much more to give us experiences from real people whom we might otherwise have difficult empathizing with. Mainichi seems custom-made to respond to these criticisms, focused as it is on personal experiences from a community in deep need of some empathy.

The word “Mainichi” is Japanese for “everyday,” and that seems to be the motif that Mattie Brice is going for here: something like Molleindustria’s Every Day the Same Dream, but focused on examining the experience of being young and transsexual in a contemporary American city. I’ll quote from Mattie directly:

This is an experiment in sharing a personal experience through game mechanics. It helps communicate daily occurances that happen in my life as a mixed transgender woman. It also explores the difficulty in expressing these feelings in words. As well, it stands as a commentary of how we currently use game design for broad strokes of universal experiences instead of the hyper-personal, and often exclude minority voices.

Mainichi also addresses one of Mattie’s perennial complaints about games: namely, their obsession with violence as a primary mode of interaction. There is no combat in this game, no death or physical injury. It is highly grounded in mundane, everyday interactions. Mainichi not only eschews standard-issue emergent systems like combat, it also fails to add anything comparable in in its place. It is wholly scripted from start to finish. This places Mainichi pretty squarely in the Interactive Fiction genre (though perhaps it merits the moniker Interactive Nonfiction).

The “interactive” half of the equation is very limited. Mainichi is extremely short, and (just as in Every Day the Same Dream) it repeats while you experiment with different choices. To start, you have three actions to take before leaving your apartment. Generally speaking, you can choose to spend these actions on some combination of beautification or leisure activities. You then walk to the coffee shop, either going through a crowd of obnoxious people or sticking to the empty side of the street. At the coffee shop, you have a choice of how to pay for the coffee, and a choice of whether to flirt with the barista. Then the day repeats.

The scripting is highly restrictive: you cannot initiate conversations until the game wants you to, and you cannot take actions outside of a set order. Meanwhile, although your choices each day do have some limited consequences, I can count on one hand the number of things that actually change between playthroughs. There are only two endings, both of them sad.

This all bothered me at first. Choices without significant consequences are something I see frequently from fledgling developers who haven’t yet gotten the hang of scripting interesting scenarios in RPGs. Here, though, I suspect that it’s intentional: the two endings dovetail nicely in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t fashion (one which ultimately manages to make Mattie’s friend look like a well-meaning but thorough hypocrite).

Further, the ability to make choices with lasting consequences is a mechanic that plays into the power fantasy central to most RPGs. RPGs let you create a character tailored to how you want to interact with the game world. In Mainichi, by contrast, you simply are who you are. In most RPGs, you have the power to change the world, deciding the fates of otherwise equally matched factions, making kings and slaying deities. In Mainichi, you can’t even use a credit card without being reminded of what an outcast you are. There are no lasting consequences in Mainichi because you are helpless to effect any. It is the exact opposite of a power fantasy: it is a reality of powerlessness.

“I should try to be more positive today.”

The meaning of this game lies in its repetition, and yet Mainichi doesn’t do much to indicate that you should replay it. You’re in the middle of a conversation, and then abruptly, you’re back in your bedroom. It isn’t clear at first whether you’re meant to keep playing, or whether Mattie simply forgot to add in any sort of end state. I’m pretty convinced that it’s the former–but then again, I was an English major. I’m used to reading and rereading, building up a semiotic theory. Without some sort of cue, I doubt most players will get past a first playthrough; regardless, I encourage my readers to do so.

If I have to make one complaint about Mainichi, it’s that the writing is extremely threadbare. It bears mentioning that RPG Maker is not exactly built for expressive visuals. To really work as storytelling vehicles, RPG Maker games typically need some combination of custom graphics, emotive music, and strong, descriptive writing. Mainichi uses sprites in the default RPG Maker style, and lacks the sort of moody soundtrack that worked so well for Every Day the Same Dream. Writing is really the only trick it has.

Mainichi is very light on description, though this does have its advantages: as you go through the days over and over, you won’t have much to read. The prose itself is not especially impactful, and yet the wearying effect of repetition largely does the job for it.

More worryingly, Mainichi does very little to develop the internal life of the protagonist, instead opting for little emoticon thought bubbles. I wouldn’t say that this “explores the difficulty in expressing these feelings in words” so much as it throws up its hands and leaves the player to fill in the blanks. Perhaps that’s the point: to force the player into imagining the emotions Mattie feels in these situations. Still, there aren’t many games like this out there, and I think it’s a waste not to go deeper, to let the player experience more. Without that shared depth of experience, most players won’t have the means to fully fill in those gaps. Without that shared depth of experience, there can be no progress. But maybe I should try to be more positive today.

The Verdict: This isn’t an appropriate candidate for a numerical score. Just play it and think about it.

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