Human capacity for evil and manipulation is one of the most terrifying things but the supernatural still raises goosebumps. Yo-kai Watch is not the best case for true scares but at times, it’s twisted enough to give me chills. What can I say? My childhood was filled with creepy stories, and the game reminds me of that.
While much of the world was busy socializing and re-enacting their childhood fantasies in Pokemon Go, I spent the last two weeks recalling mine with Level 5’s folklore-inspired game, Yo-kai Watch. Folklore’s penchant for making me delightfully shiver began when I was really young. I say ‘delightful’ now but it was more of a train-wreck fascination on my part. Growing up in Trinidad in the West Indies meant a culture rich with raw tales—stories designed to warn against deplorable behavior, to keep little children in check, that were plain old wicked, and always nightmarish.
Yo-kai Watch is catered to a younger audience in mind. There’s a very detailed and sprawling Japanese neighbourhood laid out for its young protagonists, Nate or Katie (either character players can choose to control at the beginning) to explore. It’s a Summer story and school’s out, making it a perfect playground for a young child to idle away spare time—and the perfect stomping ground for strange Summer whispering of ghosts and ghouls to find their way from old wives tales to reality.
Kids, after all, are perceptive and sometimes gullible. They’re receptive to letting their imaginations get the best of them. It’s why Yo-kai Watch, even though it does not speak to my own specific cultural experience, really appealed to me. I was happy to oblige in a light re-telling of familiar, made-up stresses of my youthful days.
In Yo-kai, things happened differently from the scares I endured as a child. Nate and I spent hours searching for new yo-kai spirits to befriend. We helped people inspirited by the sometimes lonely, naughty, or bad yo-kai. When possessed, humans in the game acted in bewildering ways, usually with reversals of personality or exaggerated innate attributes. There were times people made these wishes of their own accord—like the boy who wanted to stray off the straight and narrow path and live dangerously as a hooligan.
With the power of yo-kai—each with a designated ability for varied tomfoolery in laziness, abrasiveness, shyness, courageousness and many other heightened human vices or traits—Nate and I fulfilled many desires. Some resulted in feel good stories of performing exemplary deeds. Others were hilarious disasters with grey area results and brushed-off responsibilities, with arched eyebrows and general acceptance of a mission completed.
The family in Tranquility Apartment B 104, however, experienced worse than mischievous hi-jinks with a humorous twist. Their sidequest saw them living four to a tiny space with the father out of work, the mother bemoaning all their broken appliances, and the children observant to their unlucky plight.
A yo-kai was responsible for the string of bad luck which lasted weeks in-game, and would have possibly been that way for forever had I not discovered them during my usually carefree cycling tours through Springdale. Theirs was a sad story with a resolution that ended as many quests do in Yo-Kai Watch—a tussle with the offending yo-kai and once they’re beaten, an apology. Things looked up for the sad family at the end of it all, with confidence on their part and faith in silver linings. It wasn’t a tangible guarantee but the promise of something more.
It was supposed to be good enough. But I didn’t feel as enthusiastically hopeful. The feeling of real despair was there, yo-kai-induced or not.
My strange, mystical journey in Yo-kai Watch showed me so many stories. For a children’s game, it dealt with these good deeds and slightly darker implications of tragedy waiting in the wings for many of these people. The yo-kai were charming, often disgusting looking creatures. Nate’s yellow bicycle carried us far through busy downtown districts, wealthy neighbourhoods, working class areas, rural, and derelict locations. The shops and business establishments were a wonderful mix of high class cultural museums to local, homegrown littering of curiosity shops and saunas. Food establishments such as the ramen shop in the market area or the convenient stores made me especially content in Yo-kai’s world. It made the town feel distinctly alive, natural, realistic, and ever so grounded.
The normalcy to Springdale, and the everyday problems of its people made the accompanying yo-kai feel even more enchanting.
Being a game geared towards children, Yo-kai Watch never stumbled headlong into utter hopelessness, nor were any of the yo-kai I encountered dripping with pure evil intent to be truly feared (save the villains but their ‘evil’ was cartoon-ish behavior). In the case of the unlucky family, the hint at malevolence was there but easily ignored thanks to the good-natured approach to the situation of its former inspirited victims. There were some yo-kai robed in clever designs for more grotesque natures and colourful representations of their real-world origins. The game couldn’t be outright pitiful for the very reason of its target audience.
One of the only real moments—save a few yo-kai characters’ appearances and its abandoned mansion and hospital—where I felt a pang of anxiety was during the aptly named “Terror Time”. My first encounter with the phenomenon occurred when I first made a forbidden step outside my house after dark. A fog rapidly seeped into Springdale, and sharply animated grays characterized the town’s transformation into an otherworldly space. Then the worst happened—a giant red, mean looking demon with grinning minions appeared, determined to give chase at inhuman speeds if spotted. I got away the first time, with a special chest item in tow.
The second time I was less fortunate. And worse, I learned in that instance that Terror Time could occur at any given moment—even during the daylight hours, when most real world folklore usually caution that evil hides under the cover of darkness. There’s no bloody murder for being caught by the hunkering demon. Not for your character, anyway. The beast will destroy your yo-kai and after losing the unwinnable battles (during the majority of the game), players will find themselves back in bed, confused as to why.
Terror Time frightened me for being unlike most of the light-heart presentations in the game. It heightened risk and increased the potential for danger. Eventually, those moments became situations of survival. It was a different scare than that of the blood crawling creepiness I initially felt during the first and second occurrences, but the lesson (which I never quite learned and paid for it numerous times) was the same—idling and misbehaving is a ‘no’.
For as scary as Terror Time is, and playfully weird yo-kai can be in the game, many of them are fun representations of cultural myths, and a far cry from my own tales of folklore nightmares. Trinidad’s home to variations of the usual suspects of world mythology. There are those that are vampire-like in nature. Enchantress demons taking on the forms of women with hooves for feet. The lost souls of children backward legs and knock-knees. Many others that probably never reached my ears—stories from deeper into the heart of the countrysides. Some stories did from family members claiming encounters with malicious or misguided spirits. I’ve had some inexplicable things happen to me personally, as well.
I love Yo-kai Watch for its sense of humour, and simple joys in handling the supernatural. The town itself helps sell its curious nature hidden in shady alleys, under cars, trash heaps, and the creatures hovering undetected right over NPCs’ and your own character’s shoulders. It’s a safe cultural telling that’s mostly stripped of the underlying evil presence that’s often aligned with myths and folktales. Yo-kai Watch, however, keeps the nature of its cautionary tales intact.
Yo-kai Watch fueled my imagination to enjoy a little bit of folklore without any of the uneasiness attached. And it meant I could sleep at night, without being stricken by what some would call an irrational fear of the unexplained—very unlike many sleepless nights I had as a child.
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