When Michelle Zauner was in high school, she discovered something huge: She was an artist. But she was also, by her own estimation, an outcast. A loner. A weird kid.
“I think most artists are pretty lonely and sad people,” she told me this week. “They’re shitty outcasts in middle school and high school, and that’s kind of a real fodder for being an artist.”
What she could not find in her peers, she instead found in music — something that’s stuck with her ever since and helped her find critical acclaim as indie solo artist Japanese Breakfast. Music wasn’t her only comfort, however. She also was in love with video games, a love she’d had since she was a four-year-old playing Secret of Mana with her dad.
“It was a huge bonding thing for me and my dad,” she said. “We would spend hours and hours playing this RPG together. It’s such an intense team-building thing to share with a parent, especially when you grow up and you find different interests.”
Now, many years later, Zauner has found a way to combine these two passions. Her first video game, a free, browser-based role-playing game that’s playable now, is called Japanese BreakQuest. But pardon the pun, because the Super NES era-inspired project is actually far deeper than the name suggests.
Japanese BreakQuest is inspired by a song off the artist’s sophomore album, “Machinist.” The game — co-developed by designer Elaine Fath — stars a woman on a space station named J. Brekkie, which fans will recognize as Zauner’s Twitter handle. A mysterious robot appears to her in a vision, warning of her of a coming alien invasion. It’s up to her to rebuild this robot, known as the Machinist, to defeat the aliens and save the ship.
Along the way, indie music fans will find references to Zauner’s fellow artist friends, like (Sandy) Alex G and Frankie Cosmos. (There’s even an ability called “Philly Indie Cred.”) Coolest of all, Japanese Breakfast’s entire Soft Sounds From Another Planet album provides the soundtrack, albeit in an appropriately 8-bit form.
The game is essentially a classic RPG with some very current twists. But even with in-jokes and references to other bands, it’s important to Zauner to maintain the spirit of her favorite video game genres.
“For me, consuming media, I am kind of a traditionalist in that i kind of enjoy a real narrative,” she said. “That’s what really fulfills me as an artist. I feel like the most impacted by that kind of storytelling, so that I knew that I wanted it to be an RPG and Elaine was really good at structuring it.”
Japanese BreakQuest is a much shorter affair than the Final Fantasy, Mana and Chrono games that Zauner grew up devoting hours to. The game runs about 30 minutes, a hair shy of her new album’s runtime. She’s open for tackling a longer project next time, should she get the chance to do it.
But Japanese Breakfast fans should take heart that music remains her top priority for now. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t still harbor a love for the anime and games that comforted her as a self-proclaimed lifelong nerd. (We definitely geeked out over favorites like Tenchi Muyo and Final Fantasy 8 for a long part of our conversation.) These influences continue to bear out in her music, whether it’s hidden anime sounds on her albums or translating those intimate character relationships and intricate stories into songs.
“I remember being a kid and it never being enough,” she said of the JRPGs that inspire her still. “I remember being so excited to get to every cinematic moment in the game, seeing different artists’ versions of the characters and stuff like that. That kind of stuff is an element of a JRPG that makes it feel like the world is so much deeper.”
Check out the video for “Machinist” below. You can play through Japanese BreakQuest now, if you’ve got a half hour free.