(Content warning: Police abuse, suicide. Spoilers for Portopia.)
While both Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77] and The Portopia Serial Murder Case  are nostalgic reveries of a real location from the author’s life crammed into the computer, Portopia must abridge its Kobe City. It’s not as geographically exacting, instead compressing locations into composite sketches and eliding transport between locations. It doesn’t even include the titular Portopia! Every single place remaining has story importance, in just the fashion I was yearning for last post. (I actually progressed in the game simply by going to the one location left where nothing important had happened.) I’ve seen people tentatively credit the Japanese manga tradition more than film as the impetus for their adventure game form not being so geographically-rooted… but that doesn’t hold water to me here at the consensus inflection point. Maybe more down the line when graphics are more elaborate. Besides, it’s not as if the slice of American nerds developing video games was not also a demographic likely to be familiar with comics. No, I think the ellipses here are more like filmic. Games have had aspirations to cinema since literally Spacewar , but this is the first game — certainly not the last — I’ve played for the blog that clearly wants to be a movie, from the very jump of its title screen, where it carefully presents itself with an attention to the small details, foregrounded: scene-establishing police sirens give way to the one-by-one clacking-in of the title accompanied by a sound effect that could be a typewriter or gunshots, either equally appropriate as a tone setter and a touch of presentational polish. (In that light, no real surprise that Hideo Kojima got into games from love of this game.) There’s no systemic simulation, no randomness. It’s not even really a murder mystery, it’s a thriller that uses the scaffolding of a mystery to push you through linear plot beats at its pace.
You have to bark up the wrong trees in the exact order it wants you to. Major breakthroughs of evidence opening up entire new avenues of investigation simply fall in your lap when you’ve triggered it by progressing all the way through a previous, fruitless avenue of investigation. This is a classic frustration of video games hand-holding you through their stories (eg, talking to everyone in town opens a gate on the other side of the map,) where effects are disconnected from their causes in terms of story logic, which makes it hard for the player to figure what to do to progress to the next part of the game. It’s mitigated here precisely because of and only by how closed-up and small the game is. The list of things you can try is small and completely transparent. Even if there’s no logical chain you can predict, the player always knows what they’re supposed to be doing in a general sense: investigate. The manual even says that the only place you get those tips is the police station, and that when in doubt, you should just go everywhere and do everything.
This is made for the most part trivial by the verb menu, adapted from Wizardry  but put to radically different ends, that gets rid of the pretense of open possibility space that there is in a text parser, as it renders the game’s entire vocabulary bare to see. This amounts to a trade-off, where you never are going to run up against the trouble of searching for the words to say what you mean in a way the author’s program can understand or any number of parser frustrations, but when it eliminated that, Portopia also rarely asked me to actually think about what to do. Using the verb menu to navigate this story is so easy that the ways it has of producing the friction of a challenging obstacle that prevents you from progressing does not feel naturally integrated to this mode, instead raising hackles at the game’s transparent and willful obstinacy. What’s odd is that what I just called “friction,” in many other games would be called simply “gameplay.” All obstacles in our path need not be there, but are anyway. What makes us accept some, and not others, and use words like fair and unfair? I’m not sure yet. It’s easy to see the development many years down the line of the kinetic novel, which scrubs the interactivity that already in Portopia can seem like an awkward, unnecessary intrusion upon its storytelling. When you lock in with its vibe, its rhythm, become the partner it wants you to be, the game moves at clip, it works. When you get hung up on some hitch, the whole sensation falls into frustration.
Its main tool to induce consternation is the best graphical adventure equivalent to guess-the-verb: the pixel hunt. At the level of graphical fidelity on offer, the screens cannot technologically be cluttered with details to sift through. Instead, when clicking their magnifying glass, the player has no cue between what empty spaces are real empty spaces and which empty spaces, possibly even adjacent, will actually contain a reward when inspected. If there’s any time the player is going to get stuck, it’s going to be due to one of these. Examining every little bit of the images is fundamentally the same as using every menu option at every place, but the fact that it is more arduous (larger search space, hidden options-deep in a menu) makes all the difference. They act as speed bumps, slowing down progress through the game considerably so you can get that sensation of not knowing what else to do and just ramming your head against the case. While in actuality the only pixel hunts are at the crime scene and the immediately adjoining rooms which I suppose should be the subject of intense focus, you can’t know that until the game is over. You can retrace your steps, you can go over everything everywhere neurotically with a fine-toothed comb, panning for leads through rote behavior that may as well be a magic ritual, hoping for a break that’s so disconnected from your efforts it feels like luck at best, before you remember or realize that it’s all predetermined on its little script. This is what it means to be a police detective, to Portopia. There’s no intuitive leap or creative thinking, just exhaustive perseverance down a checklist.
The verb menu gives way to more open input when you dial a telephone, but this is not used for a puzzle. Either you use special phone numbers and functions that are not familiar to me as a young American, or it’s simply a matter of inputting exactly the numbers you find written down, similar to the way that finding out about objects and asking people about them are simple lock-and-key operations. Those again do not rise to the level of puzzle, but to rote, because there’s no reason not to try everything on everyone. While ultimately solving the mystery is one big puzzle capped off by unexpected use of the menu which is another little puzzle, the only other puzzle in the game is a maze. (Lots of mazes here in the early 80s!) Like the written-down phone numbers, you also get instructions for the maze, but they’re cut short, forcing you into the mode of desperation, trying everything available, until you can finally find success by doing something actually odd, banging on or walking into the walls in sweaty frustration. And after that, you have to solve your way out of the maze fair and square. And I do mean square: the maze here is not in the adventure-game style of CCA, but it is a direct homage to the grid maze of Wizardry to go along with the verb menu idea. I was personally pleasantly surprised by this switch of mode, because as I said in that article, I did quite enjoy mapping out the grid maze and honestly didn’t think I was gonna get a chance to do it again in the course of my blogging. Plus, this one had no combat encounters with monsters or anything! It’s indicative of a keen and attentive eye on the part of designer Yuji Horii, or at least an eye sufficiently similar to my own, that he surgically extracted the two parts of Wizardry I think are worth anything at all and left everything else on the table. It’s so promising it’s actually got me anticipating his later Dragon Quest  instead of simply dreading it like any RPG.
Not to cheapen the word surrealism, but it is an act of Video Game Surrealism to have a gigantic, mostly pointless empty dungeon hidden under a loan shark’s mansion, especially contrasting against the rest of the game, which remains entirely non-fantastical in setting. It functions on a metaphoric level. The process of mapping the maze is a great way to get the feeling of investigation. Inside lies the secret private life of Kouzou, the murder victim, from his ledger of illegal business deals caught at the terminal of a suggestively ensnaring spiral, to his diary buried behind two secret walls where he allows himself to express unguarded emotion. It’s the only time we’re not circling around the corpses’ surviving relations but instead get insight into Kouzou. Portopia is using the dungeon’s subterranean nature to suggest not quite the subconscious but the suppressed. This is what Kouzou built his wealth upon, the creation of misery for others as well as himself, hidden deep down beneath in twisted knots of neural canyons.
Rather than all these formal pivots in the adventure game genre being something culturally-specific and innate to Japan, I see it more as borne of the vagaries of conceptual translation over such a distance: firstly, it’s apparently hard to get a text-entry parser to read right in Japanese, especially under early-80s computing constraints. Also, some sources say designer Yuji Horii was inspired by a magazine ad for Deadline  in a beautiful example of partial information as creative inspiration. Rather than model his adventure game off of text adventures, he instead rethought the genre pretty much from scratch, using of all things Wizardry as his model. That’s just ingenuity.
You can see in that picture above other names besides Yuji Horii. Enix, the publisher of Portopia, was an entirely different kind of publisher first: it was a tabloid magazine publisher, the tabloids serving as a way to advertise their real estate dealings. Then, in 1983, in the name of yet further diversifying their portfolio I suppose, they took the bizarre and sudden leap into video games publishing by instead advertising a video game creation contest. Chunsoft was founded by the first-prize winner, Koichi Nakamura, and would shortly take on Yuji Horii, runner-up, to make Portopia before going on to make Dragon Quest, and then went on to be somehow involved in most visual novels that the West has ever heard of. The winning games of Enix’s contest were widely varied in form, but in the context of developers selected from within readers of a tabloid rag and not future knowledge of what Enix later became pretty much thanks entirely to Chunsoft, it’s not shocking at all that some of their earliest games were part of the nascent, emerging scene of Japanese porn games, ones that reveled in pedophilia and bloody violence against women. These are the type of games that give the misleading, back-formulated, foreignizing category of the “visual novel” a bad name.
And it really is a bad name! I think I just won’t use it. I want to be cheeky and call the strand of games Portopia inaugurates “interactive fiction.” It’s fairly accurate on the merits from a checklist AND heritage standpoint… but “interactive fiction” is its own thing, a scene even, so it’s just as much a misleading back-formulation. As productive as I anticipate it being to put Japanese and Anglophonic interactive fiction in conversation, having diverged sharply from the same roots in isolation, I’m going to defer to just “Japanese adventure games” in the interests of people knowing what I’m talking about and not picking a pedantic fight.
Nevertheless, despite not being fairly in the same genre as things like strip poker games, Portopia clearly exists in the same context of the PC gaming market. Where Deadline was a clean room, a staid music box of the bourgeoisie, The Portopia Serial Murder Case is filthy — though actually, much less chaotic, despite its locked room never actually being locked. Without venturing into explicit depiction, it rides atop the salacious and grimy: strippers, suicide, drug deals, police brutality, and of course the titular serial murders. At the climax of the game, to solve the mystery, you even have to figure out to convince someone to take his clothes off and are rewarded with a close-up of his chiseled pecs. (Fascinatingly, this of all things is the first game I’ve played for this blog on a Nintendo console, since the 1985 Famicom port is what’s translated. Inaccuracies to the 1983 PC game be damned, I’m not a historian but a player in 2021.) Portopia indulges in the electric charge a story can get from the immoral while keeping light-footed with the occasional jokes — almost all of which rely on its clever idea of personifying the divide between the player and the gameworld in the character of Yasu, who you boss around as he talks back to you — never stooping to the level of a fetishist or a voyeur, so as to not implicate its observation and yours. After all, you are, once again, a cop. Your job here is to collect and remove society’s filth and yourself remain clean, like the garbageman.
Of course, I already mentioned police brutality. You have to beat information out of someone you full well know is innocent in the interrogation room to progress through the story. It’s pretty easy to see the way it’s needed for success as an endorsement of the practice. In other game stories yet, the immoral acts the player character has to do are so beyond the pale they can’t be taken seriously if you’re taking them seriously. The ways you are a bad cop in Deadline are the ways in which you are bad at being a cop and good at following the game’s script, more or less. The ways in which cops are bad in Portopia are ways in which cops are bad in real life. In fact, the police were never above and separate from the fray, but the prime cause of half of the crime in the game. The twist ending reveals that not only was the culprit your loyal junior assistant cop, Yasu, but also that his motivation was borne of the police department’s complete failure over a period of decades to address the crimes of Kouzou.
Kouzou was a loan shark who repeatedly rode people so hard they killed themselves, including Yasu’s parents. This is obviously terrible and immoral, but not legally murder, demonstrating the limits of laws. But it’s not that Kouzou didn’t do very illegal things, and not even that the police didn’t know he was. He had a recurring accomplice, Kawamura, who was actually caught on his crimes 6 separate times. Kawamura got to continue doing those crimes after every time he was caught, demonstrating that the justice system can’t or won’t stop these people. It’s a question of interpretation whether the Kobe City justice system is simply incompetent and it all slipped through their fingers, or if they can’t or won’t touch rich enough criminals. Kouzou, like anyone else with a mansion, built his wealth on crime, then tried to use that very same wealth to assuage his guilty conscience, planning to make things right with Yasu’s family by giving his sister Fumie a large sum of cash… while still, in the present tense, driving yet another parent, Mr. Hirata, into suicide over debt.
Yasu must have been carrying a chip on his shoulder for his entire life about this all, and yet, he still grows up to become a policeman himself. He still has that Cop Brain, he believes in retribution as justice. He holds no ill will towards the justice system, he just thinks it doesn’t go far enough fast enough. You could be tempted to call what he does violent vigilantism, but extralegal executions of those who he judges as wrongdoers is not at all an outlier for police behavior. Yasu facing any consequences for it would have been, but the story ends immediately after he confesses.
I stopped posting links to a bail fund directory a while ago because it went out of date and literally nobody was clicking through anyway. (That’s not a judgement, I figure my audience was just already on it.) But I feel compelled to say here that black lives matter, all cops are bastards, and that nothing has changed besides the president. Stay in the good fight.