"They had shoved my memories out of my conscious awareness. They had stolen my memories from me! ... I will get out of this insane netherworld and get my stolen memories back and live. Forget the end of the world, I was ready to reclaim my whole self."
— "I", Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
RPGs often avoid touching upon the realm of surrealism. We see glimpses of the unexplainable, the grotesque and the unexpected in titles such as Sting's Baroque and Edmund McMillen's The Binding of Isaac, but seldom is this genre explored to the fullest outside of survival horror games. There's no good explanation for why this is the case, but I think exploring the surreal has the potential to create new and exceptional ideas for storytelling in role playing games beyond ye olde sword and sorcery or generic fantasy world #256.
Surrealist fiction is characterized by element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequiturs. These aspects transcend logic and habitual thinking, and often attempt to share with the reader a hidden or deeper sense behind these elements. The unconscious mind plays a huge role in how these stories develop, allowing readers to feel as though they can connect on a more meaningful level with the story's protagonist. In 1985, a Japanese novelist by the name of Haruki Murakami penned one of the most profound works of surrealist fiction, one which explored parallel narratives in the mind of one protagonist — Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
What is unique about Murakami's novel is its structure: its chapters alternate between two bizarre narratives — the 'Hard-Boiled Wonderland' and 'The End of the World.' This use of alternating chapters allows the reader to see the protagonist mind in two different and distinctive states. 'Hard-boiled Wonderland' is structured closer to a detective story about the narrator's life as a "Calcutec," a human data processor/encryption system who has been trained to use his subconscious as an encryption key, yet must protect his memories from the evil "Semiotecs" who steal "data" from those who exist in the real world. On assignment, the narrator finds out that he only has a day and a half to exist before he leaves the world he treasured so much, to dive into the world created by his subconscious mind, where memories cease to be real.
In "End of the World," this very same narrative exists in an isolated town that is surrounded by an impregnable wall. Each person who lives inside "The Town" has had their shadow severed from their body, and are no longer able to think for themselves. The narrator's "End of the World" self becomes a Dreamreader, whose job it is to remove traces of mind from "The Town." As the novel progresses, these two worlds begin to converge as the narrator makes choices in each realm. The choice he makes affects the other world, his memories, and asks questions of his unconscious and identity.
Murakami is well-known for his works touching upon themes of the surreal and unexpected, but the underlying tone of his writing often expresses alienation and loneliness. His protagonists are not always looking for acceptance or a place to belong, but rather they challenge social conventions as though they are always the odd man out. In Hard-boiled Wonderland the psychological impact of the worlds converging is Murakami's magnum opus; he demands the reader's attention and wants the observers of this personal apocalypse to make the right decision for the protagonist. The importance of remembrance and identity are major themes in the novel, and Murakami's question to the reader is how much do you take your memories and self for granted? Do you let others in or shut them out completely?
In terms of role-playing games, how many can you say you've honestly played where the choices you made truly affected the world and its protagonist? While games like Dragon Age: Origins have achieved this goal on some levels, what if you could be transplanted into the mind of your protagonist and make his or her choices breakdown their subconscious? We've seen parallel narratives in games like Suikoden III, but never presented in the format that Hardboiled Wonderland shares. While we've seen this somewhat in games like Catherine, I'd rather see these ideas explored further and with more of emphasis on consequences based on the actions selected. Catherine is very much a triumph in this aspect, so why can't we have RPGs that deconstruct the self and make the player feel as though their choices or even the minutest of details have the power to change the world around them?
Since the novel is all about the preservation of memory and how we choose to exist, it would be amazing to be able to make the choice for the narrator and determine which of the two worlds he should inhabit. Murakami shows pros and cons of both realms, and he doesn't make either seem like one is better than the other. Instead he offers two visions, and does not offer the reader any hints or ideas about which world the narrator selects.
I think it would be intriguing to take on the role of a protagonist whose mentality is at a crossroads. The idea of being able to explore his subconscious in such a way where things we think, touch, and say could potentially change the world as we know it or possibly completely end it is something that hasn't been explored. Choice is great to have in RPGs, but it gets to a point where roving already discovered terrain doesn't offer enough anymore. I think Hardboiled Wonderland offers some interesting opportunities to RPG fans as it has the potential to force players think about action and consequence, while also allowing them to wander into the realm of the unconscious mind.
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