Art Credit: John Liberto

There’s a battle-ready mecha gracing the cover of Peter Tieryas’ latest novel. Despite this, United States of Japan is probably not quite what you imagine it to be.

In this “spiritual sequel’ to Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, Tieryas (whose work has been featured on TAY, and with whom I’ve co-authored a few articles) poses a scenario in which Japan wins World War II. In the alternate timeline, a video game begins circulating throughout a technologically advanced United States of Japan (USJ) in 1988. In the game, named USA, the United States wins the war and becomes a symbolic hope for the rebels, The George Washingtons. USA garners the attention of the secret police as it is considered dangerous propaganda, forcing Game Censor Beniko Ishimura and Tokko Agent Akiko Tsukino to seek the truth behind its origins and cease its distribution.

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On the surface, it sounds like a slightly insane premise. However, it’s thankfully much more in-depth. Tieryas details war, the various meanings of freedom, and the parts of our humanity we sacrifice to attain it. Still, frightening human behaviour, challenging beliefs, and dutiful loyalty are all parts of war. Video games and giant robots aren’t usually, at least not in the traditional sense. But in USJ, Tieryas finds a way to incorporate gaming, history and an alternative “what if” scenario into a creative sci-fi, action-packed, profound, and solemn narrative.

Art Credit: John Liberto

The novel often includes uncomfortably close, and gruesome descriptions of violence in warfare. It’s a reality of war, and as I found out when I inquired of Tieryas, wholly intentional. He says, “I feel in many ways that it’s obscene to censor, and in some cases, inadvertently glorifies violence by muting its impact at the individual level. Casualties aren’t just statistics in the book. War and torture are horrifying and to depict it in any other way is perpetuating that cycle. I wanted readers to get in the heads of both the victims with their last gasping breaths, as well as the perpetrators and the way it destroys their humanity. It’s been an interesting contrast of reactions to the violence; those familiar with the history felt not only that I was fair, but didn’t go far enough in showing the brutality on the Pacific front. On the other hand, those in the western world who, like myself, were initially unfamiliar with the past, felt it was too extreme.”

There are segments, too, where this imagined society utilizes advancements of controlled viral mutations as weaponry to twist and re-structure anatomy. USJ blends a sobering reality with sharp, often unsettling, science fiction. These moments are offset by the fantasy imbued in the scenic fights with mecha, and the game USA which is tightly weaved to the narrative.

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Driven by separate but distinct displays of human nature and will, the mecha and game are two aspects of USJ which create a tribute to games, anime, and Japanese culture. Along with the tribulations, questioning minds and evolution of its two central characters, USJ goes further to set its story apart as anything but pure adrenaline fluff, but rather a humanistic think-piece, incorporating current cultural phenoms in surprising ways.

Art Credit: John Liberto

Perhaps it really isn’t too surprising that Tieryas includes a video game as the medium to spread the message of hope in resistance. Games are versatile and in some instances, a method to relay stories for a bit of escapism. There are those that offer a chance to step into a sought after reality or fantasy. And others that try to emulate the real world in locations and ‘what if’ questions of their own, which many can relate to through shared experiences, or used to start conversations.

In that regard, USA embodies much of what USJ’s citizens seek. It’s a manipulative game from a story perspective—able to appeal to or bend the emotions depending on the one consuming it. That’s not unlike many of the story-driven games we’ve played here in the real world, such as Suikoden II with its deceptive, intelligent, and gutting narrative. Games can be more than just fun diversions, but many are built with those entertainment values in mind, and that’s true of USA as well.

The game is branded as a shooter with the fantasy of a victorious United States. However, USA’s not just a depiction of the war won, but a virtual simulator on how it could have been won.

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USA takes these playable mechanics to make something competitively compelling in the realm of a shooter. At a certain point in the novel, it becomes an e-sport—with multiplayer elements and team matches, offering chances to play as the rebels against the Empire, which in itself offers the thrill of being enraptured in deviant behaviour in a heavily censored society. The game satiates curiosity by daring to live dangerously both virtually, and as a viable risk to citizens in USJ’s reality with life-threatening repercussions, even so far as providing entertainment for underground death matches with gambling human lives for sport.

But the true premise of USA is an enticing lure—with its real purpose buried as its narrative for layers of importance for the novel’s characters, and for all involved in its creation and distribution. Addictive, fun gameplay and fantastical stories are elements a lot of games strive for, and USA’s popularity and success are attributable to both of these things, for USJ’s own characters to connect to.

It helps, of course, that Tieryas is not a stranger to games himself, having worked with EA. He’s also written about games, and plays many genres regularly.

Some of those influences show in the novel, and stems from his time working at EA. He says, “EA has always had a deep impact on me. I think Melville said, ‘A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.’ I went to CAL, something I shared with PKD, but one of my biggest influences was working at EA. The amount of attention to detail, the massive productions, and the corporate politics for every project, was unlike anything I’d experienced. They recruited some of the most talented people in the industry as they were expanding on a massive scale at EALA. I often learned more from developers over a single lunch than a hundred articles I’d read about gaming. Despite the reputation, I was time and again impressed by the dedication to gaming from artists all the way to the producers.”

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When I asked for his thoughts on multiplayer gaming, I discovered a history rooted in a Sega Genesis game. He recalls, “My love for multiplayer began with a strange and obscure game called Herzog Zwei for the Sega Genesis. The tactical elements flying around as a transforming mecha really appealed to me and while the AI was difficult, my favorite victories were against other people, much the same as it did later playing multiplayer in EA games like Medal of Honor. That’s because their personality reflected their play style so it wasn’t just a random battle, but a matching of wits. Fast thumbs helped of course.”

“Matching of wits” is something prevalent during the mecha portions of USJ. The fights between giants are the spectacles you’d imagine or see in an anime. They’re explosive but as with some of the more politically-driven anime involving massive tech and robotics to decide outcomes of wars, it’s the pilots of USJ who are even more fascinating. They wield their ideals and justice as extensions of their soul channeled into large electrical swords. Their strong convictions are embedded in their no nonsense, matter-of-fact attitudes while they master graceful moves from the cockpits of their mecha.

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Two of the pilots’ characteristics lend to the idealistic pushes against the sometimes terrifying messages of USJ. The inclusion of the mecha fights don’t detract from that heavy element of the storytelling, regardless of how grand they are in scale. And I’m not going to lie; I was worried about how they’d fit in. The fights are sharp, quick moments of impact but never overstay their purpose of being exciting bursts of sci-fi action, while showcasing military tactics.

Art Credit: John Liberto

Like the mecha fights and USA detailing risk and precision used in tactical decisions for chances at successful outcomes of battle, so too is USJ one engaging narrative which analyzes the motivations of its various parties and main characters. There are questionable acts carried out by its protagonists. In other instances it’s survival, honor, and loyalty which determines reasoning. There are truths which remain sealed until the novel’s final moments. Information withheld, and used to the advantage of those holding or seeking power. USA and Beniko Ishimura’s role as a Game Censor are tied heavily to building this world in which games are important beyond pieces of entertainment. They’re tools for invasion of privacy, for one, and become weapons used for control over the society in USJ—information gathered can be used as credible reasons to execute punishment.

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It’s a troubling thought and one Tieryas mulls over and filters into the novel. He says, “One aspect of USJ I find intriguing is how many readers are scared by the implications of a world in which the government monitors gameplay. Designers in the book, many of military background, are encouraged to create scenarios that will flag users for potential treason. The inspiration for this was RPGs and games with RPG elements in which your actions are tallied up and they give you trophies based on behavior. Having seen some of the behind-the-scenes development, they care about what decisions you make, what areas you tend to explore, which missions are the ones you enjoy.”

He continues, “Google and Facebook already chart your likes and searches. It wouldn’t be a big leap for gaming to be able to make psychological profiles based on gaming choices. I think the scariest part of writing United States of Japan for me wasn’t necessarily how different the alternate world was but how similar. It’s not a big leap to start wondering, what if that gaming data was mined by the government?”

What if, indeed.


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Follow N. Ho Sang on Twitter at @Zarnyx if you’re feeling adventurous, or you can read her articles here.