Game designer Sean Han Tani (Anodyne, Even the Ocean) is no stranger to appropriating the console staples of our youth for his modern-day work, and his latest, All Our Asias, borrows polygonal, PlayStation-era graphics to tell a story that hinges on the increasing gaps in our memories — and dares us to rethink who we are.
All Our Asias is free-to-play on Mac and Windows, and it’s one of those story-heavy experiences that unfurls over a short amount of time. This is not to say it’s a derivative “walking simulator”; it’s nothing like that. Instead, the thoughtful adventure game is a unique blend of simple, puzzle-based gameplay and emotionally complex storytelling, all coated in 32-bit visuals.
All Our Asias stars Yuito, a Japanese-American 30-something who seizes the opportunity to learn something about his ailing father, right as he’s about to pass. Yuito grew up without his dad in his life, but newfangled tech called Memory World Visitation can give him a limited amount of time to venture through the actual vestiges of his father’s past experiences.
It’s an odd premise, and one that never quite rises above incredulity. But the game slowly endears itself to the player, despite its high-concept ideas. Yuito — who’s represented by a blocky, go-kart-looking thing — goes to different parts of his father’s mind, each one punctuated by some stellar art design and an amazing soundtrack. In each area, he must complete simple quests in order to progress further. These involve traveling through areas from his father’s past and finding the right people to talk to, so that Yuito can collect the information about his dad that he’s looking for. (There are plenty of other inhabitants of Yuito’s father’s memory banks, it turns out.)
Through conversations with various people in the Memory World, Yuito learns a lot about the father he never got to know. A huge part of that process for Yuito is reconciling his assumptions about his estranged dad with the positive picture of him painted by the people he meets. Each little quest is a fun way of revealing this information, even if both gameplay and details are often slight.
The nuance of identities, like that of Yuito’s dad, serves as the core of the experience in All Our Asias. Yuito introduces himself to the people he encounters as a second-generation Japanese-American, and he’s sure to bring up that he’s a hedge fund analyst, too. But in the first area he explores, Yuito runs into several other people of Japanese descent. As with his father, their native tongue is Japanese; they explain how Yuito can progress further into his father’s memory banks in a language he can’t understand. A later stage even features a racist interaction, which leaves Yuito stunned. What seems at first like an easy task becomes more complicated, with Yuito understanding only snippets of what he’s told, or speaking to people in broken English.
It’s a wake-up call for Yuito, but it’s also one for players like me, first- or second-generation children of immigrants where there’s a big gulf between how we relate to each other. I’ve always struggled to establish true empathetic connections with my mom, who didn’t grow up in the U.S. There’s no language barrier, but there are inherent differences in how we grew up and how we see the world that I just may never get on the ground level. But Yuito assumes that, because they’re family, he’ll be able to relate to whatever he finds inside his father’s head. That’s not the case: His dad grew up ostracized and rejected; his son, meanwhile, is doing well for himself.
This misconception, that all it takes to understand someone is a shared origin, extends to how Yuito deals with East Asian people of all kinds. Toward the game’s finale, Yuito meets a mysterious being, the General, who claims to have information about his father. In order to pry it out, Yuito has to run errands across a replica of his hometown of Chicago, which lead to encounters with struggling Korean and Taiwanese restaurateurs. He tells the General of how much he empathized with these people, but the General corrects him quickly — being Asian doesn’t mean he can relate to them on any personal level, especially considering his privilege as a native English speaker with money to burn.
Perhaps this all sounds convoluted. In a sense, it is. All Our Asias juggles a lot of things at once, posing questions that don’t quite come to satisfying conclusions. The game ends on a heavy-handed note, with the General lecturing Yuito on the fallacy of assuming shared experiences just because of shared heritage. Yuito will never get to really know his dad; instead, he can only get to better know himself, and where he stands as a second-generation Japanese-American.
All Our Asias doesn’t get everything right, but it’s thought-provoking enough to warrant the two hours it takes to run through. If nothing else, it’s a pleasant (and free!) nostalgia trip back into the console days that linger in our own memory worlds — with an added kick of modern-day philosophizing.