Interview: Melos Han Tani

Patterson - Han Tani Picture

Melos Han Tani (formerly Sean Han Tani) is a game designer from Chicago of Taiwanese, Japanese and Irish descent, currently living in Tokyo. He created the game All Our Asias (2018), and is one of the two members of his game studio Analgesic Productions, which made Anodyne (2013), Even the Ocean (2016) and Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (2019). From 2016-2019 Sean was a game design and game music lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

Christopher B. Patterson is an Assistant Professor in the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia. He is author of the books Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific (Rutgers University Press, 2018), and Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games (New York University Press, 2020).

Christopher B. Patterson: What has your experience been like thus far as an Asian male developer?

Melos Han Tani: As a financially privileged East Asian male, I have had no troubles money-wise, but there is a mismatch of culture and priorities with local, primarily white indie groups I’ve been around in the past. Though I have met many like-minded developers of various descent, my goals do not align with the mainstream in most ways as I’m focused on games that have a concrete social focus. Due to my racial background, I feel an urgency to explore these topics more and incorporate them into my games. There’s a shared solidarity amongst other critics/game developers who are doing the same, but we’re not the majority and it’s pretty hard to find institutional support.

C: What influenced your decision to make games with a “concrete social focus,” and what challenges have you faced in doing so?

M: As I’ve grown older and started to really understand the various political forces at work in the world, I’ve come to realize that few games make an effort at confronting and thinking about those forces in our world in a concrete way. Yes, many games are about “confronting evil!” and whatnot, but what good is that if evil can be misconstrued as whatever the viewer wants it to be?

After Anodyne, I wanted to be part of that conversation, continuing a long, yet sparse, history of game designers who are grappling with the world. Other mediums have been doing this FOREVER, so I’ve been deeply inspired by film, literature, etc. I’ve had tons of support from fans and developers along the way, which is amazing, but even with all our commercial-focus and business savvy, it’s still a tough career to stay afloat in. One primary challenge is that games have developed to be a medium that caters to needs of escapism, imagination, high fidelity, power fantasy, wish fulfillment, relaxation. Nothing wrong with that in the right context, but when detached from the context of our world, they feel off to me. Popular games right now basically end up as societal status-quo maintenance, mood stabilization, or marketing catalysts for the latest corporation’s gaming store or next-gen gaming hardware. I (and others) believe games can be more.

But it’s discouraging because in the same year, a great game like my All Our Asias can be released, while a shallow, shiny game like Florence (Mountains, 2018) (led by an outed abuser!) can receive universal acclaim, despite being a pretty common, low-stakes take on “racial identity” as a theme.

C: I share some of your feelings about Florence. What do you think about minority representations in games in general? Are there ways that designers can depict experiences of marginalization that are unique to games?

M: The kind of representation players want from corpgames—also known as “AAA” or corporate games—is impossible to solve. I hear a lot about how ‘representation will be great!’ once we can accurately simulate certain hairstyles, but that assumes that representation is entirely just seeing someone who looks similar to you on the screen, which is absurd.

Corpgame “representation” will only appear in mass-appeal games, often violent or featuring guns, or, for example, family-friendly stories that can still make enough money back. Even if we somehow manage to represent every minority voice in the USA through corpgames, what about the rest of the world? Most corpgames are from well-off, wealthy countries. If only corpgames can offer “good representation,” what does that imply about the games industry in less wealthy countries who can’t afford a $1 million camera rig to scan a celebrity into their games?

At this point, a player should ask themselves why it’s important to see themselves exclusively in corpgames. As humans, we’re so much deeper than the single, market-tested story a corpgame can offer us. Players should open themselves to the idea of finding representation from many indie creators instead of one big game release that has “bottom line” breathing down its neck throughout development.

I understand that it can feel good to see a character who looks like me in a popular game, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to look towards corporations to give me nuanced and deep takes on issues and histories relating to my identity. It’s healthier to focus on finding inspiration or role models from local community members or more independent artists and to unlearn our one-sided reliance on corporations as the source of our artistic enrichment.

C: Who is the audience for your games, and do you find them mostly to be in America (or to be Asian American even)?

M: Our audience is anyone who wishes to agree to be affected by a handful of hours within our game worlds, and let that positively influence their life (via resonances between the game and their personal experience and knowledge). Of course in certain games (All Our Asias) the audience is narrower—e.g. middle-class Asian Americans who want to experience one person’s take on “race stuff” during the late 2010s.

All Our Asias (2018). Source: Author

All Our Asias (2018). Source: Author

C: Alongside All Our Asias, you’ve had other games about Asia, Consumed Orient (2016) about China, and Hiroshima 2016 (2016) and A High Fiber, Japanese Empire Cereal (2015), about Japan and Taiwan. These games deal heavily with Cold War politics, the legacies of Japanese imperialism, and contemporary forms of sexual assault. What inspires you to return to Asian history?

M: Well, growing up as an East Asian American and having many friends who have various backgrounds but fall under that umbrella got me interested in the various historical forces that led to us all growing up in some pretty white upper-class suburbs. And as I follow one thread, I find more threads and they connect in interesting ways. Not only that but in some cases, Cold War politics are a force that led to games being so popular! It feels important for creators to dive into the endless complexity of the 20th century and how that relates to the present moment. Of course, I’m happy to see non-Asian creators explore these topics, but if you grow up knowing hundreds of different people with various Asian backgrounds, that does give you a leg up in terms of nuance.

C: All Our Asias is a game about memory, immigration and race, which you wrote the story for. Was the game personal for you?

M: I based the protagonist, Yuito, off of a future projection of myself if I had “branched” in a different direction at a past point in my life. The Chicago locations are places I’ve been to often, but there’s not much directly autobiographical, though various aspects are based on my experience.

C: One of the pinnacle moments of All Our Asias is when the son has to re-enact some of his father’s local organizing of immigrant restaurant owners. Tell us about why you wanted the player to “play” the role of a grassroots organizer.

M: I read once that a lot of the work of organizing is just showing up—giving your time to people in your local town or community for a cause greater than yourself. While I never did organizing beyond light community organizing (connecting various friends to other small groups in Chicago), following the news and having friends who were organizing gave me a sense for how things work.

While living in Chicago a constant theme of local community/government interaction, and a general pattern of the needs of longtime locals never being listened to, whether it be a new park construction or a new residential building being made.

I wanted to try to highlight that in All Our Asias, even if it ended up a bit loose/clumsy. To show that the process of change starts locally – listening to and meeting other people, meeting them where they’re at, connecting them to others, finding out what their concerns are. The news tends to show the more “televisable” stuff – protests on the street, or at city council meetings, speeches – but from what I can tell, much of “the work” is forging friendships, relationships, donating your time, and using those to work towards a greater cause.

C: Your Anodyne series seems to be your most popular work. Though it doesn’t deal with issues of race and sex quite as directly as your other games, the Anodyne games feel very uplifting and comforting without resorting to power-fantasy. What was your thinking in making these games, and how do you see them impacting players?

M: I saw how the stylings of Yume Nikki (Kikiyama, 2004) and darker aspects of Link’s Awakening (Nintendo, 1993) managed to be deeply affecting to people, even though there isn’t much writing there. And so I decided to put some basic self-expression into a surreal setting and see what happened.

However, Anodyne is too scattershot of a communicative approach for me right now. The vague setting sort of leads to a work being co-optable by any political ideology. I got handfuls of players that loved Anodyne but consistently bother us about Even the Ocean’s themes.

C: Even the Ocean does deal more directly with issues of race and environmental degradation. How did you think about race in this game, particularly when it came to forms of environmental justice?

M: Much of the plot was written during the trans-Ferguson and creation of the BLM movement (2013-2016). The game was finished during the rise of Trump and released around his election.

The abundance of POCs in the game was based on our experience of the USA and the people we know. I don’t think we were thinking about an environmental justice standpoint explicitly while making the game, though now I can obviously see parallels with towns like Flint bearing the brunt of environmental hazards, the USA sending its trash to other countries, or poorer countries having poorly-regulated, polluting factories (e.g., Taiwan constructing plants in Vietnam).

Even the Ocean (2016). Source: Author

Even the Ocean (2016). Source: Author

C: Part of the challenge of Even the Ocean is playing a woman of color character who, despite being quite skillful and intelligent, remains complicit within a racist and capitalist corporation, and whose actions result in some pretty disastrous ends. What were your thoughts in creating a character bound so much within these oppressive systems?

M: We wanted to explore the idea of minorities facing disaster caused by political/economic systems. The narrative intention with our levels was to capture [the protagonist] Aliph’s mental state of going into autopilot, working through her job. Her job may have loosely different challenges, but ultimately it’s pretty smooth sailing. She’s a cog in a system, even enjoyably so, despite what her work actually means politically.

The ending was apocalyptic, yet we left it with a hopeful note, hoping that players could be motivated to think about their world, what kind of disasters are happening and coming, and what could be done. It was very reflective of the middle of this decade, I guess. A lot of new political awareness from the privileged, although without direction.

Looking back, Aliph feels illustrative of how easy it is to live your life as a well-meaning minority, and be swept up and co-opted into the world’s dominant ideology, have radical ideas defanged by your proximity to power and willingness to ignore the majority’s well-being in exchange for your safety and comfort.

C: I teach your games in a course concerning race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of power and difference in video games. How do you feel about using games as a medium to express complex ideas about power and privilege, and how have you seen their social impact so far?

M: I think games are capable of getting people to think about themselves in ways they wouldn’t expect to, to reflect on their lives, and also, to learn about different topics, or to have a point of reference in which to contrast their lives against. Games put people into sort of a fantastical mental state, and when the right words/visuals appear, a game can resonate with a person deeply. It’s hard to measure this social impact, but perhaps it’s like literature or film – the sum total of consuming a lot of different work might subtly change the course of someone’s life. Or so I’d like to think.

Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (2016). Source: Author

Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (2016). Source: Author