This is the second of a two-part series on Daniel Remar’s Iji (2008). The first entry is here.
I care about Iji because of her story, and I care about Iji in spite of her story. At times, I found myself removed from the experience because of the game’s writing. The way Iji constantly talks to her brother (whom she always calls “bro”) in this vulnerable, eager-to-please, little-sister fashion, even after she’s just butchered dozens of the finest alien warriors. It doesn’t really suit her. In spite of her impressive capabilities, Iji’s know-it-all older brother, Dan, is always there to keep her head in the right place. When they talk, my mind wanders. When a cutscene throws tedious exposition at me, interrupts to tell me things that I could discover for myself in the game world, I skim. I admire Iji’s narrative ambitions, but I found myself getting hung up on the details.
Yes, Iji has its flaws. But there are things it does really well. Once you’re no longer immersed in its fantasy, it pushes you farther and farther away until your perspective is no longer that of the hero adventurer, but that of a bird flying over a maze. It asks you to look through and past its narrative dressings to the ludic tales beneath. It reminds you of why you really want to play this type of game: to explore and discover; to jump and dodge and shoot; to do things that are absurd and stupid; to pick something apart and learn all of its secrets. Inexplicably, once I picked Iji apart, I found myself even more willing to buy into the fantasy. By pushing me away, Iji pulled me back in.
Like Pixel’s Cave Story, Iji presents an enemy that executes genocide. And like Cave Story, Iji prevents its themes from becoming overwrought by tantalizing the player with a videogame vocabulary of exploration: There’s a ledge just out of reach, decorated with glowing power-ups, leading to unseen territory. You could pass it by, but it’s kind of driving you crazy. You recall that the gun you just found produces splash damage that hurls you backwards. It occurs to you that if you fire a rocket blast into the wall while standing next to it, you might be able to reach that ledge.
The game frequently entices you with invitations to use its own rules against it. Intentionally jumping into a rocket in order to reach an unreachable platform defies the logic (Don’t get hit by rockets or you’ll eventually die.) of the fantasy world Iji is trying to sell. Iji knows this, and it encourages you to do it anyway because it wants you to explore every nook. All games offer “break points” because every game is made up of smoke and mirrors that impress us until the illusion breaks. But many games resist this break point, or wrongfully assume that the player won’t test it. Iji is not like this. It’s funny. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It comes from the school that says “please break me.”
An in-game log describes a cruel game that the aliens play.
Author: Komato Recreational Unit
Subject: Rocket Jumping
The pioneers of rocket jumping were not exactly volunteering for the job – Komato raid parties simply found it hysterically funny to see how far a Tasen could fly when hit by their heaviest weapons. As usual, someone with the idea that ANYTHING can be turned into a game came up with the rules that still form the basis of modern Rocket jumping. Like Hyper Turret Game or Ultra Minefield Run And Seek, the game is easy to learn.
You come across this log, read it, and later realize that this is an instruction for reaching restricted areas.You have stumbled across the tutorial for a part of the game that isn’t mandatory. It’s easy to overlook, buried beneath some silly text that rambles on: Due to the heavy (and very expensive) armor used, the contestant can usually walk away without any lethal injuries…..It is widely considered that the inventors of Rocket jumping were as brave as they were stupid, but Komato Recreational Unit would not endorse such a statement.
It occurs to you that Remar has meticulously, painstakingly fawned over every aspect of this game. These moments of levity are what make you willing to buy the yarn that he’s spinning.
In my last playthrough, I was attempting to collect all of the supercharges, which would allow me to max out most of Iji’s skills. To get the supercharge in one of the sectors, you have to use a Tasen shredder, the game’s only vehicle, to build up enough speed so you can jump long gaps. The problem for me was that I was also trying to maintain a pacifist run by keeping my kill count at zero, and if you run into a soldier with the shredder, it kills them instantly. I figured out that if I jumped off the shredder right before I reached the gap, the game wouldn’t blame me for the ensuing deaths that were merely a screen away. Then, I could grab another shredder and propel myself safely across.
Playing the game like this completely removed me from thinking about the Tasen or Komato as living beings, as the fantasy demands. Through the sheer absurdity of the situation, it forces you to think of them as predictable equations or algorithms. Shredding Iji‘s narrative to pieces exposes a new layer of engagement. This is something I wouldn’t have discovered, had the game not encouraged me. It’s nice that the story is there because if it weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to tear it apart.
In the last post, I said that people are getting tired of violence. Maybe more specifically, they’re getting tired of a certain type of violence. Iji doesn’t preach. It doesn’t make you feel particularly good about taking the high road, walking the path of the pacifist. This road makes the game faster, but more difficult and less rewarding in some ways. Iji knows why it’s fun, and it knows what I’m there for. There’s no real narrative reward in sparing the Komato, though you’re ironically awarded the most powerful weapon in the game for keeping your kill count at zero. But in the pacifist’s playthrough, violence is effectively reduced to absurdity. I only vanquished enemies by dropping bugs on them or invading their personal space as they pummeled us both with explosives. I only used my rocket launcher to reveal hidden paths and painfully launch myself towards impractical ledges. In Iji, violence is stupid, and it’s a better game for it.