December 6, 2007 2:10 PM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
If creating motivation in gameplay were a simple matter, designers would be all set. As it is, there are many kinds of gamers, and many kinds of motivation to which they respond. One tried-and-true motivator that has been a standby through the ages is the "save the princess" mechanic -- create some simple emotional or conceptual attachment to a character, and then whisk her away. There are many variations on this, of course -- find the lost relative, rescue all the hostages on the floor, extract the military scientist.
This mechanic works well not only because it can create a high-stakes purpose, but because the idea of being on a rescue mission endows the protagonist -- and, thereby, the player -- with a sense of his or her own heroism. It's rewarding to feel you can make a difference, that you are critical to someone else's survival. Usually, this savior role means defeating a boss, navigating a difficult terrain, or assembling the clues to solve a mystery.
But this is the Aberrant Gamer, and we don't do usual.
Nocturnal Illusion (JAST USA, 1997) is a dreamlike, surreal immersion into emotional purgatory. Nondescript college student Shinichi Kashiwagi -- unusually mute and story-less even as hentai game protagonists go -- is on his way to a dream vacation when bad weather knocks him unconscious. On waking, he finds himself effectively trapped in an elaborate mansion, full of odd and mysterious characters who drift in and out of the periphery like apparitions from a dream. Many of them, of course, are hot girls of varying ages, but all of them are trapped here somehow, same as Shinichi.
Some are imprisoned by a dark secret, others by fear or madness. Some of them are ghosts, stranded in the wrong era. To escape the strange mansion, Shinichi must save each and every beautiful, suffering maiden, by enlightening them all, liberating their spirits, introducing them to their true selves and releasing them from the chains of their past.
Translation: You need to screw the brains out of every last one.
Particularly appealing about this title is the sheer variation on order. The game does, of course, haul out many of the usual archetypes -- a curvaceous, maternal house Madam in lingerie and her tormented, submissive maid, a traumatized teenager, a tomboyish schoolgirl and a prissy, abusive reporter, for example. And yet on the other hand, the game crosses unflinchingly into the realm of fantasy. There's a mermaid, a vampire, and the juvenile ghost of a doll. Pushing the envelope further, Nocturnal Illusion also features a beatific shrine maiden who has an incestuous relationship with her brother -- who happens to be a beastly monster -- and, last but not least, the apparition of Little Red Riding Hood of fairy tale fame.
The oddest thing about this game is not the girls themselves -- such variation, coupled with the dreamlike, dark-fantasy tone of the story are actually refreshing. Nor is it the fact that, after the fashion of old point-and-click adventures, you sometimes have to wander the entire mansion and look at everything in order to trigger the next event, which can result in plenty of time commanding Shinichi to "look at the dresser" and "think about the dresser".
What stands out about Nocturnal Illusions is the concept that your intercourse with these women, sometimes forcible, somehow holds the key to their individual salvation and self-actualization. Even after rape, the girls are tear-filled and blushing, grateful and transcendent. Given that this is a game where a good many of the characters blatantly mock the tedious claim by publishers and retailers that "all characters depicted are 18 years of age or over" (there are also patches available to show the underage nudes), the idea of heroism in this context is partly laughable, partly unsettling. After all, don't pedophiles often testify that in their twisted minds, they'd reasoned they were "helping" or otherwise nurturing their victims?
Still, the concept is obviously more than a little appealing to more than a small segment of the H-game audience, since Nocturnal Illusion is not unusual in this respect. In several titles we've looked at recently -- for example, The Sagara Family and Yume Miru Kusuri, sex is often viewed as a way to salve, aid, soothe or support the women involved, and to help them solve their family problems. Which isn't necessarily so far from real life, but the way that the male protagonist's indiscriminating lust tends to result in significant life changes for the woman, resulting in her undying gratitude, is rather distinct in these games.
Nocturnal Illusion, like most of its kin, lets the player choose one of the ladies at the end of the game to marry and live happily ever after in one of multiple different endings. These always feature an uplifting, cheerful picture of a girl who was a tormented victim or monster inside the mysterious mansion when you met her -- you'll instantly get a warm, fuzzy feeling from the fact that you rescued some girl from sexual bondage (by putting her in your own sexual bondage, no less). Oh, yeah, and despite having plowed through every other girl in that mansion, you suddenly realize you love this one, you moral savior, you.
Shinichi isn't necessarily a serial rapist per se, even if a lot of his couplings in Nocturnal Illusion are manipulated, or slightly violent. But is the concept of aggressive sex as well-intentioned, or even life-saving, simply a way to assuage players' guilt about playing smut? Is it an attempt to enrich the game experience by adding, albeit poorly, some emotional dimension?
Despite the strange mechanic, Nocturnal Illusion is a lot richer and more atmospheric than many of its peers. It's often outright philosophical, metaphors, symbolism and all, with a distinct tone of melancholy beauty, sometimes a creeping darkness, throughout. It's a pervasive, oppressive sadness that the protagonist actually has an opportunity to address, replacing beautiful, fearful faces with more beautiful smiling ones. With all this in mind, it makes one wonder -- is this a hero story first, with sex scenes secondarily? The materialization of a wish that we could sleep with Zelda after we rescue her? It puts a whole new spin on "saving the princess," that's for sure.
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer