All Our Asias is a (short and free) personal game that tackles universal topics, an exploration of the themes currently occupying the mind of creator Sean Han Tani, boiled down into a story about Yuito – a 2nd generation Japanese-American hedge fund manager in Chicago and his quest to connect to his estranged father who, on his deathbed, sends a conciliatory message to his son.
The game plays around with the ways in which we identify ourselves in this messy modernity that we occupy, focusing on what it means to be “Asian”. Sean Han Tani knows that “Asia” as a label is fraught with meaning, yet so broad that it is often rendered meaningless. The game communicates this clearly, so my aim here, apart from discussing the game, is to explore this label, and show how “Asia” was imagined.
All Our Asias
The first thing you notice about the game is the aesthetic – a grainy, vague, aliased 3D world of abstractions, that reinforces the narrative conceit of the game; you play as a representation of Yuito, exploring his father’s subconsciousness and memories before he passes away. In the game, your interactions and movement within the world are literally framed by the screen of the device that allows Yuito’s to enter his father’s mind.
The device is the interpreter of Yuito’s experience – abstract precisely because of the fantastical nature of his voyage. This sentiment is further reinforced by Yuito’s hand-drawn, realistic portrait that shows up intermittently as he speaks, but prominently enough to create a clash between the dreamy memory world and a representation of “reality”.
I highly recommend watching Amr Al-Aaser’s recent video that does a much better job than I can ever do of interpreting the effects of this aesthetic. I will add that in my reading, the aesthetic is key to ensuring the dream-like nature of the world, the low resolution textures leaving space for interpretation and imagination – something that is so often absent in high-budget, mass market titles, and something that Amr also remarks on.
While the aesthetic is worthy of discussion – and the original soundtrack, also composed by Sean Han Tani, is a wonderful mixture of sparse, low energy electronica soundscapes punctuated at times by loose, rattling beats – it is (predictably) the narrative that intrigued me most about AOA.
The game does not beat around the bush – it is extremely clear what it asks the player to think about, as in the screenshot above, taken during the first scene of the game. Sean Han Tani wants us to confront not just our identities, but the ways in which we create them.
At times it does so in direct, at times in subtle ways, often in intersections of gender, race and class; Yuito is going through an emotionally charged time in his life, but he is clearly portrayed as a character with an ambiguous morality, who is somewhat defined by his wealth and status.
When he expresses sympathy and looks to aid a female owner of a struggling Korean restaurant within the dream world, he explicitly does so, in part, because she is Asian, because he can identify her as part of the same group to which he belongs.
Yuito is then told, however, that while his urge to help is commendable, he should examine his motivations – if “Asia” does not mean as much as he thought it did, should he not extend his goodwill to everyone’s struggle, to everyone who finds themselves down on their luck, no matter their origin?
AOA wants you to understand that “Asia” is a category, and just like any other category, it is malleable, un-fixed, constantly changing and full of internal contradictions. It is a mental concept that we created in order to make sense of the world, to label it, to give it order.
It just so happens that some of my own work engages with this idea as well – specifically from the perspective of imagining – how was Asia imagined, and by whom? With this discussion I would like to invert Sean Han Tani’s intention of “minimizing” his wider thoughts into a short game, instead taking this specific thought, and expanding on it.
As an historian, I am interested in the origins of discourses – the ways in which we describe and understand the world. One of the ways in which we do so is by denoting cultural differences, and there is none more basic and influential than the idea of “West Vs East”.
To be clear – this is a cultural trope. There are so many issues with this type of Clash of Civilisations discourse and thinking, that it’s difficult to know where to even start with this. The underlying problem with this is not simply one of division, not just the fact that it creates imaginary boundaries between us – but that these imagined boundaries also reflect a vision of the world where we exist in bounded cultures.
As a result, the act of constructing opposition, of imagining the Other, also further entrenches the idea of a larger Self, that “we in the West” are all somehow the same, are all part of a group, all closer to each other than we are to those in other groups such as “Asia” or “Middle East” (also an imagined construction).
The Chinese historian Wang Hui proposes that Asia as a concept was imagined specifically as a category to describe a cultural space, equal in scope, but opposite to Europe during the Enlightenment.
In other words, without the idea of Europe as a culturally-distinct space, the concept of Asia would not have the same meaning, therefore the ‘notions of both Europe and Asia were constituted as part of the process of this construction of new knowledge.’ [Wang Hui: 15]
Wang Hui connects this discourse to the European Orientalist tradition of imagining the Ottoman Empire as backwards and despotic – and, in turn, Europe as modern and Enlightened. These elements made their way from this tradition into the imagining of Asia as a space lagging behind Europe in a linear and progressive understanding of history.
One way that this discourse manifests, for example, is in the idea that the Meiji restoration in Japan had at its core the goal of “shedding Asia” and “joining Europe”, differentiating Japan from the rest of Asia, portrayed as backward, with Europe as an example to imitate, as something more advanced along the progressive path.
In the process of uncovering the Imagining of Asia, what becomes clear is not so much the “artificiality” of these concepts, but that they were created on European terms. The last 500 years of human history are defined by the uses and abuses of European power, both material, militaristic, economic – and mental, discursive, cultural.
The Europeans shaped the world by conquests and subsequent economic, political control, but also created labels and categories that defined their “discoveries” using their own discursive tools, their own ideas and mental concepts. European power/knowledge transferred its mental maps and definitions to the rest of the world, forcing us to re-frame native, longstanding, “non-Western” understandings using the European conceptual language.
The result of this history is the creation of “Asia” as the generalised label we know today, with all its complexity, diversity and internal contradictions, and, as the title of All Our Asias implies, a multitude of interpretations for the label: a multitude of “Asias”.
All Our Imagined Asias
In this context, there is an incredibly poignant part of the game that I would like to discuss. I will get into some non plot-critical spoilers, before a more significant spoiler that I will label as such.
On his journey to find his father’s memories in an alternate Chicago, Yuito finds a Chinatown, but it is not familiar – moved underground, identical houses form neat little vertical rows, a single road leading to the mayor’s house at the centre of the cavern. Talking to the people in the area, you find out that the inhabitants of Chinatown moved underground because it became too expensive to live in this part of Chicago – only tourists and the wealthy occupy the surface. Not only that – but now all the residents of Chinatown work from home and almost never leave their houses.
This is obviously fraught with symbolism, but given the context of Imagining Asia that I explore above, a few interesting interpretations can be made. This Chinatown can be a representation of the Asian Self – driven deep within itself, prevented from exploring new ways of expression and identification due to the pressures of global economic forces. On top of that, this Asian Self is contained and constrained in a way that echoes how the Asian Other was defined by the European – using Western concepts and sensibilities. This act limits the Asian Self to a Western dictionary, to something that cannot fully explain and express the Asian Self, restraining it, condemning it to the underground.
To go further into spoiler territory – I recommend skipping over the next few paragraphs if you still haven’t played the game and intend to do so – Yuito finds out that this alternate Chicago is ruled by the Innovators – a group of technocrats, AI and corporate CEOs – and it is this rule that resulted in the submersion of Chinatown.
Yuito is tasked with presenting a policy to the technocrats that will redistribute a tax on large restaurants to smaller ones that are fighting to stay in business, and mandate the former to advertise the latter. Yuito’s attempts, however, fall not so much on deaf ears, but on ears that only understand, and listen to, a particular set of categories.
Instead of hearing out the motivation behind Yuito’s proposal, a computer live-categorises it during his presentation in front of the Innovators:
We should take a part of the revenues made by large restaurants to help ailing ones…
– OK, TAX –
We should also help boost the ailing restaurants by promoting them in the large ones…
– OK, INCENTIVE –
The reduction of complexity into labels, into categories, little boxes that neatly explain away all of our messiness, is a reflection not only of how labels such as “Asian” reduce us to caricatures, but also of how labels such as “Asia” came to be – through a systematic categorisation and re-definition of individuals and groups of people.
Agency is important here, as well – in the game, this reduction is made by the Innovators, read as an amalgamation of Western corporations driven by averages, indicators, economic growth, technological progress and “scientific knowledge”.
All Our Asias is a beautifully written narrative experience that can be read in a wide variety of ways – what you see here is only my interpretation. There is breadth to this free game that belies its short, 1-2 hour length. I highly recommend giving it a shot, and maybe picking up its fanpack (that contains the sublime soundtrack) to support the developer.
I, for one, would love more games from Sean Han Tani, and to see him explore other themes occupying his thoughts.
Wang Hui, The Politics of Imagining Asia (Cambridge 2011), Chapter 1.
For further reading, you can look into:
Wang Hui, “Scientific Worldview, Culture Debates, and the Reclassification of Knowledge in Twentieth-Century China” in The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (London 2009), pp. 139-172.
Jason Ananda Josephson, “Science of the Gods” in The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago 2012), pp. 94-131.
James E. Ketelaar, Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan: Buddhism and
its Persecution (Princeton 1990).
Thierry Hentsch, Imagining the Middle East (Montréal 1992).