The games community lost a brilliant man far too soon last week when Kenji Eno, 42, died of heart failure. The name likely won't ring familiar for many, but his contribution to the medium reaches farther than a recognizable face. Known for the horror games D and its follow-up Enemy Zero, his team pushed the use of full-motion video to unsettling places rarely explored.
But it was his final game with his new studio fyto, created after nearly a decade out of the industry, that shows off his unique, left-of-center thinking and a design philosophy that will be sorely missed in our present era of annualized mini-sequels and thriving indie creativity.
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You, Me, and the Cubes released on the WiiWare service in 2009 to little fanfare. It was a hard concept to sell in a capsule review or elevator pitch: You throw humanoids called Fallos onto a series of connected cubes floating in space; once each Fallos lands, they move around independantly, shifting the weight of the structure.
If the balance tips too far, they'll slide off into the blackness. Throw the required amount of Fallos onto the cubes, maintain an even level for long enough, and you win. As your points are tallied, each successfully thrown Fallos transforms into a dove and flies away.
The entire sequence flows from one emotional extreme to the next: a relaxing low-fi ambiance, to anxiety as the cube tips, to elation as another tossed creature rights the balance, to hypnotic as your little beings transmogrify and flap their wings, circling the screen. There's no other game quite like it.
And it's the idea that brought Eno back into game creation after a ten-year hiatus. He stumbled upon a video of Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo, revealing the Wii controller, what looked like a TV remote with motion-sensing capabilities. In an interview with Chris Kohler of Wired's Game/Life blog, Eno explains his reaction:
After the presentation was over, I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he says. “It got to the point where, using a piece of paper, I made a 3D model of the controller for myself. I got in contact with people at Nintendo, and off we went."
In You, Me, and the Cubes, the player uses the Wii remote as an extension of their hand, physically flinging the tiny creatures toward the television screen, where they land on those floating, shimmering shapes. But first you have to create them: You do this by shaking the Wii remote; you hear a mechanical jingle through the controller's imbedded speaker (they're alive!), then you point and select where on the cubes you want to toss them. Finally you mime a throwing motion and off they go.
In the six-year lifespan of Nintendo's Wii console, pathetically few developers took advantage of the interface's radical departure from the norm. Eno was one.
In my head, I thought of it as an actual toy... The idea that there would be this cube here, and you and your friends would be throwing these tiny dolls, like little robots that had some intelligence, that would walk around the cube.
A simple idea, really. But it took an odd mind, tapped into the unexplored potential of things, to conjure such magic from a device most saw as pointless novelty. And now that mind is gone, locked away in some dark abyss.
As your cubes tilt and those creatures you brought to life begin to slide, they scratch and claw at the polished surface below them, trying desparately to stop their inevitable fall. Unless you toss another on the opposite side, they plummet to their doom, emitting a tiny piercing wail. Cuteness turns to terror.
In this way, Eno's last game was as much a horror game as his early successes were. I only wish we could have stopped him from falling.