This post actually started as a long youtube comment that youtube decided to eat since it doesn’t like people expressing themselves at length and posting a bunch of links. Thankfully, youtube has no control over what I can write on my own blog, and its crude automated censorship actually encouraged me to develop the writing I’d done into a more extensive piece about something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. Much thanks to Vysethedetermined2, for always inspiring me with his videos and his own writing!
Pixy Garden! This game is a trip. When I found the English-narrated intro to the original PC-98 version on youtube years ago, my mind was blown by how creative the game was, especially by fact that a somewhat mainstream game could have a plot so strangely imaginative (watch it the clip!):
The concept of the game and the gameplay itself feels so attuned to nature, and to the idea that what the player is trying to do is actually create natural order. It feels so unlike the tone of most of our games now, which are ever-increasingly competitive and hardly ever relaxed, hardly ever aiming to achieve a state of creative harmony rather than one of competitive discord. The entire tone of Pixy Garden is super relaxed, super thoughtful, colloquially: chill, because it invites the player to create and nurture a small natural area and the fairy beings in it, much in the style of Princess Maker and other raising sims, and especially like Mercurius Pretty, a homunculus-raising sim previously developed by Pixy Garden’s creators. But Pixy Garden has this broader element of bringing order and natural balance to the world itself, as if its creators decided to combine Mercurius Pretty with something like SimCity.
Lately I’ve been reading Rumiko Takahashi’s new manga, MAO, and the titular character in it is an onmyoji, a kind of Taoist magician who’s able to divine the future by reading the very patterns of nature. In the Heian era, onmyoji often gave advice to rulers on how to make choices from an enlightened natural-spiritual perspective, which is much like how we still use the ideas and techniques of feng shui in our modern times, especially as they’re applied to a wide geographic area, like in the episode of Cowboy Bebop where Jet and the young daughter of a feng shui master use the techniques of the art to search for a hidden treasure, primarily through the use of a luo-pan–a sort of Taoist compass which orients the user by measuring the power of natural elements in a surrounding space. Not coincidentally, the luo-pan is very much like the circular measuring-designs you see on the title screen of PC-98 Pixy Garden:
The game is an imaginative incarnation of the active, creative side of arts like onmyodo and feng shui, where instead of simply measuring the spiritual and elemental qualities of an environment, the player intentionally sculpts and nurtures a harmonious environment where all of the elements and natural spirit-entities are in perfect balance, thereby magically enabling human life to flourish on an alien planet. It’s spiritual terraforming.
Game-wise, the idea reminds me of Square’s Legend of Mana, which has an artifact-placing system through which the player creates the entire game world. The time of year and the relative placement of the different artifact-lands affects the different levels of mana in each land, and the mana determines the occurrence of the game’s missions and plot events. It’s a very complicated system where everything is interrelated, and invites extensive calm rumination from the player.
Focusing on a system like this puts the player into a thoughtful and creative headspace–one that’s placid and reflective rather than nervous or reactive. Along with being heavily influenced by the art of feng shui, this game design approach of encouraging the player to sculpt and read the nearly-invisible but powerfully influential patterns and relationships of the natural world reminds me heavily of Shinto animist concepts, specifically Shinto’s sense that every unique thing in a natural environment is instilled with kami–a particular aspect of manifested spiritual energy. In Shinto, reality consists of a complicated dance of all those hidden energies subtly interacting with one another. Pixy Garden’s creators chose to embody that kami energy in fairies, in a way that seems to mix the concepts of Taoism and Shinto with the spirit of English folklore. I think this was a fantastically creative choice, a divinely inspired bit of video game syncretism, especially since the actual designs of the fairies are great in both of the games, feeling both traditional and anime-inspired. Here’s the cover of the PC-98 version:
And here’s the art from the title screen of the Playstation game:
I was surprised by how different and how almost sci-fi looking the designs in the Playstation game were, and at first I wrote them off as being too slick and modern to befit the game’s vibe, especially since I’d really enjoyed the more elemental character designs of the original game. The cute and sexy fire sprites on the cover of the PC-98 game’s OST are a great example. There’s so much personality in this art, and such a vivid feeling of wildness!
But I took to CHOCO’s pixie designs in the Playstation version when I saw the loving way they were rendered and animated in-game (as can be seen in the video at the top of the post). Really, both versions of the game have their own distinct charm. The original effectively captures the vibe of those old European photographs people supposedly took of fairies, specifically the sense that the then-novel technology-magic of the camera was being used to capture something supernatural, something implicitly present in nature that couldn’t be seen by the naked eye. The game directly evokes that particular feeling in the way the main gameplay screen is literally inside a magical wooden camera box that allows the player to see the otherwise-invisible fairies in their natural environment, but only when it’s peered through at a certain nexus of space and time.
The Playstation game has a charm all its own, though. The 2D sprites of the fairies are beautifully detailed and animated, far moreso than in the PC-98 version, and all the pixel art of the game’s fungi and plants is incredibly detailed as well, showing the best kind of work from this era when Japanese digital artists so often applied their talents to evoke elements of the natural world. The 2.5D nature of the game’s stages adds a lot to the presentation too. I love the lake and forest and the distant misty hills in the background of the first area, which are so blocky-pixeled they almost look like they’re from Minecraft (once again, check out the video at the top to see this in motion with deep parallax scrolling, which is far more affecting than a mere still shot).
This diorama-like 3D background is a perfect example of achieving a marvelous effect of perspective and verisimilitude despite working with low-resolution visuals–and in fact, it’s effective particularly because of the limited resolution, because the carefully-crafted simplicity of these visuals naturally inspire the imagination. Watching the game in action, I vividly believe that I could go back there and visit that lake and those hills, and I really want to, because of the way they’re tantalizingly presented in the misty distance and brought to life with the parallax layers. But in practice, the player is so busy managing the lively world of the game’s foreground that they won’t be too concerned about going back there.
The Playstation version of Pixy Garden takes the game’s original concept and graphically enlivens it in a way that’s incredibly immersive and cinematic. But in contrast, I do like how the original game offset the relative simplicity of its presentation by invoking an environment of ages past, using sepia tones and ingame window frames made of carved wood, having the player access the database of information on the different plants and fairies in an actual book:
This effectively evokes a feeling of gaining occult natural knowledge by visiting an old wise woman’s house in the forest, and effectively puts across the idea that even though the protagonist “Miracle Man” is a super-scientific astronaut visiting other planets, his most important wisdom comes from this connection he has to history–specifically to the kind of natural-intuitive understanding that Shinto and Taoism and the metaphorical belief in fairies all represent. This intuitive knowledge is what causes Miracle Man’s abilities to be actually magical–miraculous–because having a keenly sensitive intuitive understanding of nature and a wisely-arranged relationship with it is what allows us to live richly fulfilling lives, and to nurture the same kind of life in the animals, plants and other people around us. Human beings have had this kind of intuitive wisdom about the patterns of the natural world for thousands of years–since long before we became obsessed with the scientific method–and one can see the practical expression of this kind of wisdom in arts like bushcraft and farming and herbal medicine as much as in the more abstract spiritual methods of feng shui and onmyodo. By being conspicuously vintage with its presentation and evoking an ambiance of sepia-toned mystery, PC-98 Pixy Garden reminds us that this history of intuitive natural technology is still alive and in our world, and suggests that such natural magic can still be learned in the right places, like inside a mystical old woman’s library of anicent leather-bound books, hidden away in her cottage deep in the woods.
There’s something wonderfully creative and enticingly mysterious about this vibe of the original game that really feeds the imagination and makes the player appreciate this particular kind of real magic, and so I think it’s no surprise that another team wanted to re-create and enhance the whole thing on the Playstation, with its much more powerful 3D-capable hardware. It’s interesting that when they did, they chose to re-stylize the title as Pixygarden, probably because they wanted to indicate that their game was quite different from the original. In any case, I think it’s a bit amazing to see how much budget and effort went into the Playstation game. Pixygarden is clearly not an “indie” game or a throwaway title–tons of thought and long hours of focused work went into re-imagining the game, with an enormous amount of the kind of loving attention to small details in the art and design that makes Japanese games from this era so fantastic.
All of the unique art of the game’s main character Neredy feels very alive, along with her every line being fully voiced, which was an extravagance at the time. And then there are the sequences included on the extra disc (seen toward the end of the youtube video) of the interview with the character designer CHOCO, and the outdoor idol shoot and interview with Moe, Neredy’s voice actress. The whole presentation of the game and these supplementary materials is overflowing with otaku love in a way that makes it obvious that the people making the game were totally dedicated to it, and weren’t spending their time fucking around on the internet or distracting themselves constantly with smartphones, most certainly not treating the game like a project they just wanted to get over with. Instead, a lot of them probably slept at the office–and not because they had to, but because while they were creating this game, it was their life, their entire life. You can see in CHOCO’s own workspace at the start of his segment that love of artwork and characters from anime and games defined everything his life was about, and powered the dedication he had to the thousands of hours of drawing that turned him into such a fantastic artist. Powerful creativity is driven by pure passion like this!
What can we say this about now, in our own culture? Who dedicates themselves so singularly to creating something wonderful? Game companies themselves would ruin something like this now with crushing deadlines and too-small budgets and no sense of real pride in what’s being produced–no real otaku love for it. The studios behind Pixygarden, Escot and Imageworks, were smaller companies, so that must’ve helped even back then. But do we even have “middle-tier” well-funded-but-independent game studios like this now? Maybe there’s a few–CD Projekt Red and Wayforward immediately come to mind. But the few studios like this we do have aren’t making anything so mellowly relaxing and inviting to the imagination as Pixygarden, with the small exception of Atlus and some of the great RPGs they still make for handheld systems. It’s going to be a shame when the 3DS finally dies and we no longer have a go-to platform for these more relaxed and traditional kinds of RPGs and sim games that hearken back to the more relaxed social worlds of the 1990s. I worry that the entire era of retro-style otaku gaming we’ve enjoyed on portable machines since the GBA may soon end. The Switch, for example, is not like the GBA or the DS or 3DS; it’s very purposefully mainstream, and in my opinion the countless “indie” titles that one can play on it for the most part show nothing remotely approaching the level of developer investment and quality of something like Pixygarden. I’m sure there are a few standouts, but overall the scene is nothing like Konami making metroidvania games for the GBA and DS or Square remaking the old Final Fantasy games on those platforms–and certainly nothing like the incredibly large number of thoughtful, imaginative, creative, soothingly engaging games that were made back in the actual era of the Playstation and the PC-98.
When I think about this modern artistic problem, I always console myself by thinking about how we will always have these older games. I just wish more of them were in English. I would love to play and understand Pixygarden if I could. It’s possible someone may translate it someday, though. That’s one really nice thing about our current era, despite the relative lack of new games like this: translation projects of obscure retro games seem to be more common than ever, and even when we can’t directly play them, we can experience them and feel the vibes of a calmer, more creative, more loving era through videos like this one Vyse posted on youtube.
More than anything else, I get such a chill vibe from Pixygarden, with its serene crystalline 90s VGM in the background of the planting and nurturing of plants and fungi, with fairies happily floating around in the foreground. It reminds me a lot of the “A-Life” Nightopians in NiGHTS Into Dreams, and also of the music and environments of that game. It’s a vibe that’s dreamy, beautiful, relaxed and creative, that encourages the player to fully immerse themselves and engage with the game world–to put down roots and become part of it. I think the relaxed vibe itself is an essential part of feeling, because a person can’t really immerse themselves in something and fully absorb it, experience it directly, if they’re anxious or nervous and constantly distracted.
So many of these old Japanese SNES and Playstation games have beautiful green and blue environments and serene calming music, especially RPGs and sims like this. Such soothing aesthetics ease the player into a state of mind that soon becomes a fully immersed state of flow, like a meditation that’s guided by the game, gently stimulating the brain and promoting all kinds of creative thoughts, opening up imaginative possibilities. I think this kind of entertainment is actually good for our minds and ends up making us better people, because instead of getting wound up and nervous and aiming to compete and aiming to end and win a game or a conversation with a “victory,” we’re thinking about exploring possibilities in a serene and beautifully harmonious world, actively working to create that serenity and harmony ourselves, to open new doors of possibility, to explore on eternally, letting the game go on forever as it inspires the creation of other imaginative games, the chain of inspiration leading ever on, the opposite of being whipped up into a competitive, anxious, distracted and discordant state which is always anxious to end the game and be somewhere else. Such a state has inspired the name of our most popular modern gaming chat app: Discord.
Personally, instead of being on Discord I’d rather be logged into a BBS named “Harmony” in 1999, where myself and other relaxed, playful, pleasant, serenely-minded human beings imagine and role-play and exchange ideas, playing a kind of neverending creative social game where we share our mutual love of immersive inspiring dream-worlds like the ones in NiGHTS and Pixygarden, and dream up our own.
But what was possible in 1999 is no less possible today. There’s nothing stopping us from making games like this again–from using our minds to dream and create instead of to desperately compete, anxiously obsess, and constantly judge–except for what the internet and constant access to it through smartphones has done to our brains. The net has created a world of constantly-aroused, stimulation-addicted minds, minds which cannot calm down and relax long enough to directly experience reality for more than a few seconds or minutes at a time, and so exist in states of constant anticipation, constant seeking, constant unrest, always searching for an ideal future outcome rather than appreciating what is here now. In contrast, a game like Pixygarden is all about now, about how we can make the present moment of time and space into a beautiful, harmonious, intuitively-ordered place by focusing on our deep unconscious abilities to sculpt the spatial relationships of the natural world around us and wisely determine our own place within them. Down this path of relaxed presentness and openness to the quietly whispered wisdom of our intuitions lies a state of real joy. The path of consistent calm and gentle stimulation of the mind, relaxed excitement, opens up our creative potentials and ultimately leads the kind of deep fulfilling happiness that can only emerge from consistent daily patterns of present engagement and serene open-hearted love. The wellspring of creativity is calm passion, radiant tranquility.
If we’re ever to reach a place like this again at a cultural level, then peaceful relaxed engagement, calming down, is the only path. We’ve been at that place before, vividly and magically, in both the eastern and western worlds. And it was only twenty years ago. What took us away from that place was not a loss, but an acquisition–we have acquired nervous, agitated, desperate habits of the mind, psychic diseases contracted in our near-constant immersion in nervous, frenetic, collectively-imagined worlds on screens that are hostile by default and which create an addiction to hyper-stimulating novelty that we simply did not have before. Even worse, these worlds create a constant terrible underlying fear of being judged and cast out if we do not constantly maneuver our superficial social net-presences to get ahead of whatever ephemeral trend of the day people are competing for fantasy status over.
This is the inevitable digital landscape created by the mass-mind, unconsciously woven by a billion people’s vanities and unacknowledged fears. It is a psychic world so non-creative, so unwise, so hostile toward genuine individual existence and the sanctity of the individual mind that it is almost comically terrible, almost hard to conceive of in its foolishness. No true art, no true love, no true enlightenment can ever come of such an environment. It is merely a flailing morass of mutually-reinforced anxiety, never at peace, never tranquil and calm, never radiating creative love, never genuinely existing in the moment. In order to change the real world for the better, to see the real world directly again and exist in it–truly in the moment and not frantically attempting to escape from the here-and-now–we must reject the endless fever-dreams of the net-world, firmly spurn the very concept of it in its entirety, repudiate its hostile thrashing about with endless tirades and judgments, endless division, endless agitation, endless discord. We must reject all of this in its totality in the same way one would reject and separate from a partner in a hostile and abusive relationship. And we must replace it with what we once had in its stead–a real culture created by individual artists instead of by a mass of fools, a psychic media-tapestry skillfully woven with threads of inspiration and empathy and love by creative individuals intentionally pooling their talents to create works of great insight and vitality, divine dreams culminating in states of harmony and serenity that reconnect us with the deepest roots of our intuitive understandings of ourselves and the world, and thereby revivifying everything valuable in our lives.
If we focus, and actually try, I know we can reach this cultural state again. At least, some of us can. In the past, especially in the twentieth century in America and Japan, artists were blessed by cultures that implicitly and unconsciously supported their work by giving them the license to be who they were as individuals–granting them the psychic space to be themselves, naturally unconsciously appreciating that individuality borne of calm reflection is what produces valuable masterpieces. But for us, now, in a intensely neurotic society that wants only to judge, this sacred creative space for the artist’s individual soul must be intentionally created, and the connection with the endless pernicious neurosis of the mass-mind must be be cut off. Beginning is simple: unplug the ethernet wire, turn off the wi-fi, and breathe. Go outside and take a look at a tree. Then, quietly, begin to dream your own dream.