Summer Memories review – compelling earthquake adventure
Early into his career, the journalist and former Wall Street trader Michael Lewis published a piece of what might be termed “speculative nonfiction”, in which he imagined, in awful detail, the effects of a devastating earthquake on Tokyo. Fictional elements in Lewis’s article were designed to magnify the impact of his traditional reporting, which argued that Tokyo was ill-prepared to handle such a visitation (one that was, Lewis argued, long overdue). The Disaster Report series of video games, which launched in 2003, is rooted in melodramatic entertainment, not rigorous journalism, but by placing you on the Tokyo streets during a major earthquake and its brutal aftershocks, the effect is equally chastening.
In this latest, long-awaited entry to the series (development was temporarily halted following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, the epicentre of which was 232 miles north-east of Tokyo) you play as a young out-of-town office worker. The game opens on a packed bus, moments before a grasshopper chorus of smartphone buzzes starts up as the government sends a city-wide text message alerting residents to the incoming disaster. At this point you must choose how to react from a number of options: continue to stand nonchalantly in the aisle, not wanting to embarrass yourself in front of strangers, or fall to hands and knees and steady yourself for the worst.
The earthquake strikes, the bus flips, and you crawl from the wreckage into a city transformed by the ground it once stood firmly upon. As you pick your way through the city, aftershocks cause buildings to collapse, roads to crack open, fires to ignite and, of course, the death toll to rise. Along the way you meet a cast of characters who react in the precise variety of ways you might expect in the aftermath of such a disaster: the instagrammers snapping shots for the feed, the convenience store workers hiking the price of bottled water, the gawpers, the helpers, the wanderers, the purposeful.
The game has an idiosyncratic tone, at times approaching something like a public infomercial (when threatened by an aftershock, the game challenges you to choose whether to seek out open spaces, or resilient-looking structures for shelter), at other points like a daytime soap. As neither a svelte blockbuster nor a tightly focused indie game, Disaster Report IV belongs to an almost vanished class of game: the mid-budget romp. It struggles to match its ambitions from the position of this middle ground. The translation work is distractingly inadequate (as routine an English word as “flooding”, for example, is rendered as “liquification”). The designers’ vision for arresting set pieces – toppling skyscrapers that kick up tsunamis of dust and all the rest – is almost never met by the programmers’ technical capability. The experience is also littered with strange, meaningless design choices: this is, for example, one of the few games in which the protagonist is forced to visit the bathroom for essential toilet breaks.
And yet for all these shortcomings, Disaster Report IV remains an unforgettable journey. As the rumble of an aftershock rolls in, the screams go up, and you frantically look around to see if and where the next wave of damage is likely to occur, the game offers a compelling, frightening glimpse of how it might feel to live through this particular natural disaster. (This is especially true of its virtual reality mode, unlocked midway through the adventure, which further situates the player inside the harrowing drama.)
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that humans find foresight much harder to act upon than hindsight. Lewis-style speculative non-fiction based on scientific modelling, or unheeded warnings from experts offered numerous, persuasive warnings of what we are living through now. It’s arguable that video games like Disaster Report have a role in educating the public as to what to expect, and how to survive, and serve a useful function, as well as an entertaining one.
(Crispy’s!; Sony Computer Entertainment; PS4)
Five steps still further from current reality, Tokyo Jungle presents a post-apocalyptic vision of Japan’s capital in which human beings have been entirely removed from the picture. Here, Tokyo has been reclaimed by the flora, fauna and mega-fauna that vie for dominance among the weeds and vines. You choose an animal to play as, and tour the city searching for prey to eat and partners to mate, while watching out for predators. Never has the circle of life been so plainly or compellingly presented in a video game. But Tokyo Jungle has its moments of humour and whimsy too. As well as scavenging tins of dog food to stave off hunger and bags of medicine to fight the toxicity in the air, you’ll also find items of clothing – baseball hats, bikinis, sunglasses and sneakers – with which to dress up your chosen Pomeranian, deer or tiger. Wild, refreshing game design, if you can stomach it.