YIIK: The Ugly Truth
Back when YIIK released, we at SwitchRPG gave the game a pretty glowing review. Well, that’s not true – I gave the game a glowing review. I don’t often like to speak directly to those who read my content, but there are a few aspects about the narrative that has emerged around YIIK since it landed on the Switch eShop that have forced my hand, so to speak. So first, let me describe myself, to you:
The first RPG I truly fell in love with was Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Yes, I played Pokemon and Dragon Warrior Monsters on my Game Boy as a kid, but Paper Mario did something for me with its combat and narrative. It was different from other RPGs, and it was different from other Mario games, and I appreciated it, for that. As you’ll likely come to find by browsing through my articles, I tend to like products that are a bit more niche, and break from traditional RPG formulae. So, I fell in love with Paper Mario.
When I saw so much of that DNA in a game like YIIK, my curiosity was piqued. The game was odd, surreal, and featured a wild soundtrack (this is something I will still defend), but upon playing it, I discovered something else: an off-beat RPG that wanted to distance itself from Earthbound’s alien premise just as much as it wanted to step away from RPG conventions. I was relieved to see an imperfect America within the game, filled with sleazy online forums, discrimination, and teenage spirit – to me, this was more honest a portrayal of my country than most writers in the medium tended to depict.
I enjoyed the references to Pokemon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Final Fantasy throughout. I was a bit surprised to find myself resonating with the narrative as much as I did- though we can get into that a bit later. Despite its fail-state misses, I came to master and anticipate the battles and their mechanics. As a reviewer, I did my best to reach out to the developers and chronicle each bug I encountered, simply because I wanted the game to succeed. I wanted to see what others thought of this game, partially because I discovered that the developers had created the product over a series of harrowing years, but also because they were huge fans of RPGs and Haruki Murakami, two things I loved very much. I believed that, because of this Paper Mario DNA, these shared interests, and my own personal experiences, others would see the game in the same way I did. I was wrong.
I’ve seen a great amount of vitriol slung at YIIK since its release, a title that many people have joined in hating for a variety of reasons. Specifically, because of its unlikable protagonist, punishing action command combat, and tonal inconsistencies, though there have been many fringe discussions regarding cultural appropriation, political correctness, and storytelling mechanics. The fact that the internet tends to chew on and expel things based upon certain screenshots and snippets of commentary should come as no surprise, though I have heard of and witnessed a number of let’s plays for the game echoing similarly critical sentiments.
While I had hoped that at least some individuals would take a step back and look at the wider scope of the product and the implications of its narrative, it seems that no one is willing to give YIIK a chance. Not only that, but a dedicated group of individuals seemed determined to dredge up as many negative aspects they could about the developers and the game itself, resulting in revelations both absurd and unfounded as well as deeply upsetting and valid. There’s no mincing words, here- the developers have attempted to combine much of what they love and what fascinates them into a product, and that has resulted in a game that is equal parts earnestly ambitious and embarrassing and unprofessional. Attempting to tell a story about a self-centered and negative individual in a world where nothing makes sense is admirable, having an extremely buggy game that fails to properly cite famous authors properly is anything but.
I seek not to redeem Ackk Studios or YIIK, just as I don’t intend to demean the game’s critics. Depending on your sensitivity to certain subjects and imagery, I believe YIIK can be very emotionally distressing and may even trigger some individuals – in the most legitimate usage of that term as possible. Likewise, while some of the developers’ comments may seem inflammatory out of context, I have always viewed them as those who have been stung, quieted, and upset by the mixed to negative reception of the game. I seek not to justify any of these statements; however, I just feel that the subtext of remorse, emotional damage, and humility is tangible in their exchanges.
Instead, I wish to discuss YIIK from the most honest perspective I possibly can – as someone who wrote a positive review about the game. I want to address elements of the gameplay in the most concise manner that I possibly can, so that I can move on from this game. Quite honestly, it has turned into something I do not wish to discuss any more after having been something I was once extremely curious to hear other opinions about. With that said, the following article discusses major spoilers from the narrative’s second and third acts. You have been warned.
Dealing with Loss
YIIK is a game about loss. This should come as no surprise to those who have followed the development of the title, though that hasn’t stopped a number of trolls from posting wildly insensitive comments about the nature of the game in relation to specific individuals. During the development process, two of the lead members of the team ended up losing their mother, and it seems that this harrowing event trickled into their product in some form or another. Death and loss are tough subjects to tackle in any medium, which is why its even more uncomfortable to hear extended dialogue sequences about it in a video game.
Again, I am not praising the game’s writing for its choice of subject material or its style, but it does attempt to depict character dealing with various forms of loss, and what elements and aspects of personalities and behavior become fractured as a result. Michael has moved away from Frankton and lost his best friend. Vella has lost one who she once thought was a positive creative influence and lover. Rory has lost his sister in a tragic fashion. Claudio has lost his younger brother, and Chondra has lost Claudio in turn, his obsession with finding answers about his brother leaving her as a passive observer.
Then, of course, there is Alex, whose initial “loss” seems to be Sammy, though the truth is hidden under several layers of the mind. Alex’s issues and personality are deeply influenced by the loss of his father at a young age, a man whose musical influence and attitude have buried themselves deep within Alex’s subconscious and caused him to develop his own negative tendencies. This revelation emerges from progressing through Alex’s Mind Dungeon, a veiled reference to the levels and extent of subconscious burying we tend to implement in order to avoid harmful memories.
While all of these characters are dealing with various forms of loss, they are also given purpose through them, as many have managed to turn their feelings of depression and despondence into positive influences – except Alex. This is important, as Alex is meant to represent more than just one kind of loss- he is only a facet of a greater whole, a portion of a larger soul that encompasses all of these characters.
See What You Want to See
Reality has already begun to fragment at the start of YIIK, and its arguable if any of the events that take place are real. Vella Wilde, Semi Pak, and The Essentia 2000 are all stated to be part of the same soul, though the late-game twist reveals that the Essentia 2000 is also a part of Alex, meaning that all of these characters – and perhaps, all of the playable cast – are actually fragments of the same soul, that of Alex himself. The Essentia is very much an embodiment of Alex’s self-loathing, claiming him to be her “favorite soul” but also leading him down the path to ruin, hoping that he will destroy himself in the process so that she might be free of him.
To hate oneself to such and extent, where self-harm begins to factor into the equation, is a dark subject, but it is a key element in the narrative, as is the understanding that you are also an extension of Alex’s soul- or rather, he is an extension of your own. This is a fairly standard trope in video games, as playable characters are often the link to the game world, and make decisions based upon the choices of the player. Several characters comment on how Semi’s death is used as a lure for Alex, and really, it is the reason for his quest – and the player’s, as well.
As much as we like to deny it, video games and a great deal of pop culture media revolve around the idea of saving a damsel in distress, and we are often dragged along for the ride whether we enjoy it or not. The point of YIIK’s plot twist, where the player is revealed to be a parallel version of Alex, is not meant to imply that we are the same as him – but that we have the potential to be. Semi is ashamed of her role, which is why you can either save yourself by exiting with her into the Soul Space in one of the game’s endings, or accept the part of your soul that feels self-loathing and become one with it once more. Either way, there is no stunning final battle, or thrilling and epic conclusion that comes with the credits roll. It is a journey of self-realization, and by the end, Alex can only hope to become better as a result.
With that said and done, there are still questions to be raised. Why does Semi’s disappearance mimic that of a real-life incident? Why are there unquoted segments and a very blatant reinterpretation of Haruki Murakami’s work within the game’s script? Why are there critical miss scenarios in the combat? Why is there a tombstone to Satoru Iwata in one of the graveyards? Why does Claudio represent a superficial precept of an anime fan? Why does the developer reference their own titles several times? Why did they claim that their attempts to create a video game that was artistic were a waste?
While many of these could be chalked up to them being pretentious assholes, there is an alternative scenario: maybe they are – or were – passionate about them. Maybe they love all of the things they referenced. Maybe someone can be a fan of something while also being self-depreciating of the culture it possesses. Maybe the developers went through a tragic loss and decided to make a game that is very intensely focused on the idea of self-loathing and purpose in the face of traumatizing events. Maybe they have a sense of humor that is sometimes hit or miss. Maybe they’re an independent developer, and sometimes, independent developers make mistakes.
In lieu of negative feedback, the developers have continued to hold interviews, patch their game of reported bugs, and engage with others on social media. They are aware of the negative press, and are likely aware of the numerous negative comments made by those who have judged the game. For them, there may not be a way to move past YIIK. Perhaps there are more mistakes in the script or code to uncover, but the most disturbing aspect of this whole story is how many people seem to delight in ripping into a flawed product- not just playfully, but venomously. As much as I see YIIK as a well-intended, problematic, and flawed experience, I can no longer muster the desire to engage with it.
Maybe it’s time we started to have discussions regarding what we love, rather than what we hate, for whatever reason. And yes, I say all of this as someone who has, in the past, spoken out regarding a popular game because it isn’t my cup of tea. As someone who has railed on poor design in a poorly received game. But maybe, if there is one thing I can take away from YIIK, it’s that saying you’re going to be better means nothing unless you actually do better. I’ll continue to work on that.