The white remote you hold in your hand is dotted, in the middle of its body, with six neat lines each composed of three tiny holes. They are above the buttons numbered 1 and 2, just for reference. The plastic enveloping the remote is probably drenched through with months’ worth of your sweat by now, yet you cannot recall if you have ever found a use for those tiny dots which, you gather, harbour some sort of microphone.
One day you start seeing those lines differently. It happens as Seto, the young man who acts as your avatar on the screen, is trudging through an underground labyrinth that once was a subway. Seto, you find out, is alone in the desolate world staged by the video game Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon . The only person he ever knew, his grandad, died leaving him with a mission — to look for survivors in a barren city where human life has ceased.
This form of nearness is a respite from the loneliness surrounding you.
The labyrinth looks vast and dead, nothing like a real subway station: as if somebody had taken the idea of a subway and iterated upon it, ad-libbed it in their head while removing the original functionality of the place. Amongst the metallic scraps of the station, Seto has recovered a robotic companion who promises him assistance and kinship; it is now attached to the boy’s shoulders like a backpack. The dots on your remote are picking up what sounds like the soft crackle of static, a bottled version of the ambient noise you hear from the screen; when you hold them to your ear to listen more closely, you hear the soft voice of Seto’s robot friend whispering indications and assorted sweet nothings. This form of nearness is a respite from the loneliness surrounding you. Throughout Fragile Dreams , you move through an eerily quiet suburban Tokyo after some kind of apocalypse, bearing the marks of a normality that Seto himself never got to experience.
Post-apocalyptic settings have become omnipresent throughout pop culture and gaming in recent years. As often in genre literature, there is great comfort in rehearsing a well-worn scenario with slight variations. You may have recently experienced Shin Megami Tensei V , which delivers yet another version of a deserted Tokyo where demons from world mythology roam free — apocalypse by brimstone and fire, where the remnants of the old world are only stylised vestiges that the creatures and the characters of the game occupy with little trace of nostalgia or melancholia. This brutal post-apocalyptic scenario sets its own rules and mechanics.
The world was now clearly presenting its own fragility as a fact which had to be accepted
Fragile Dreams espouses another idea of the end-times — an “apocalypse by fatigue” in which the old lingers on but has lost its material solidity, becoming discoloured and dishevelled. In a brilliant essay by Dominic Fox, you once read of a “world voided of both human warmth and metaphysical comfort. This cold world is the world made strange, a world that has ceased to be the ‘lifeworld’ in which we are usually immersed and instead stands before us in a kind of lop-sided objectivity. It is a world between worlds, a disfigured world”. You feel that the game encapsulates that same sense of coldness, a patina of dust and pallor afflicting the buildings and infrastructures Seto encounters. You have an immediate flash of recognition on seeing them, thinking, “this is a subway station”, “this is a hotel” etc. — whereas Seto must register them as molochs from a past civilisation that he sifts through in search of companionship; unable to sustain life, these places become mazes and riddles standing in his way.
The young boy will also collect objects that yield snapshots of the lives of their previous owners, mostly registering a feeling of disenchantment and fatigue towards the unfulfilling tedium of a humdrum life of rote work and normality, while at the same time showing Seto examples of the mutual kindness and affection he hopes to find in others. The world of Fragile Dreams was cold long before the events of the game, since the voices that you get to hear from that past belonged to people who were already turning into ghosts as they lived, losing their motivations and their contact with others. It is through you, playing Seto, that an “archaeology of empathy” can occur amidst these ruins, recovering the warmth of human and non-human contact in order to build a new world from scratch.
As tenuous as that hope may be, it is still a small beacon pointing you towards interesting directions
(Re)playing Fragile Dreams in 2021, you thought of the days in 2008 when word started getting around of an economic crisis that was unprecedented in our lifetimes — the worried voices of experts and journalists coming through your dad’s car radio on a winter evening as you were driving back home in the snow. You thought of the more recent quarantine — of that afternoon in early April 2020 when you stood on a flyover near your house staring at the subway tracks below it, a broken link leading to a city that had gone to sleep along with many other cities in the rest of the world. Both of these rehearsals of the end-times wreaked tragedy and death on a massive scale, yet experiencing them in day-to-life was — for you and many other people — more chilling and disquieting than epic and spectacular. This world was now clearly presenting its own fragility as a fact which had to be accepted — “you cannot make your home here,” it seemed to be saying, as people have done with various degrees of comfort and discomfort up to this moment.
Much like Seto, you and so many other people were embarking on a journey through the wreckage of a reality made strange and unusable, pushing you forward into an expedition whose results are still ultimately unknowable. An optimist in a pessimist’s disguise, you have at least enough longing and companionship to sustain you. And as tenuous as that hope may be, it is still a small beacon pointing you towards interesting directions, like a friendly voice whispering sweet nothings into your ear through the manifold dots of a crackling microphone.
NAMCO & TRI-CRESCENDO (2009) Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. [Wii]
ATLUS (2021) Shin Megami Tensei V. [Nintendo Switch]
Fox, D., (2009) Cold World. The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria. Winchester: 0 Books
The Global Financial Crisis (2007-2008) sparked what is known as the Great Recession, the most severe financial crisis since the Great Recession.