One of the most unique and thought-provoking games ever made, Cosmology of Kyoto is a fascinating tale of religion, history, and superstition that ranks among the least-known old games of all time. The game is set in the 10th and 11th centuries AD, during the Heian period in Japan when Kyoto was known as Heiankyo. The game includes episodes drawn from a large body of tales, legends and illustrated literature produced during or after the Heian period. These vignettes are edited into interactive, experiental forms, to allow the user to realistically sense the worldview and lifestyle of an ancient time. The game was inspired by The Tales of Genji and similar Japanese folktales.
Your character in the game is a no-name male traveler, an ordinary human being who is faced with opportunities, driven by desires, and is bound to die. Your actions determine your path through this world, and many reincarnations to come. You may meet troublemakers, and demons, enter Paradise or Hell, be reborn, and re-enact the story of a scholar who played the devil in a high-stakes game of backgammon. In addition to very well-drawn authentic backgrounds, the game includes an excellent database of over 400 screens of text and pictures that gives background information for the time and place where you are in the game.
Calling Cosmology of Kyoto a "game" is a bit misleading-- you don't get to solve any elaborate puzzles in traditional point-and-click adventure sense. Any item you carry with you will be used automatically when the time comes, so you can't really get "stuck" in the game. Cosmology of Kyoto is better described as an interactive story that lets you interact with the game world at your leisure, similar to choose-your-own-adventure books. And what a world it is. The designers spare no pretense, no illusion that this is a "politically correct" or "family" game. Heiankyo comes alive before your very eyes, with all the gory details and harrowing images that its inhabitants truly faced or believed. You will come across a dog eating a corpse's entrails, long-winded old farts, a monk leading a prayer meeting, kids playing ball in the streets, a maiden with an obscenely phallic tongue, and many more true-to-life characters. And when you get to the underworld (yes, you *must* die in this game. Several times, in fact), you will find hellish scenes populated with sharp-toothed demons and tormented souls that are so effective as to churn your stomach. These characters are drawn with vivid facial characteristics, a cross between the cartoons of medieval Japanese art and the exaggerations of modern Japanimation. The speaking voices are filled with personality, often taunting, teasing, or sexy. They all speak Japanese (in the ancient tongue, no less), but all speech is subtitled in English.
What makes Cosmology of Kyoto truly remarkable is that as you enter the town and interact with its inhabitants, you have only two choices. You can, in your arrogance, remain as you are, a contemporary Japanese or American, for example. And you won't get very far. The structure of relations that are the real art of the work won't let you. It does not allow this nonchalance with meaning. A more interesting choice is to try and understand the world as it would have appeared to a person of the time. Then you start to make your decisions, when you meet the guard, or the priest, or the gambler, according to someone else's meaning making map of Kyoto, and indeed of the world. You work within the constraints the artists have placed in the matrix of relations that are the art of this work. The look and feel of it are just window dressing. They are not art, they are design. The art is the in the relations. Follow along the line of those relations, and you learn what it means to be in the world as the world appears from the point of view of Pure Land Buddhism.
As Roger Ebert concludes in his review, "There is the sense, illusory but seductive, that one could wander this world indefinitely. This is a wonderful game." This truly wonderful, delightfully twisted path to enlightenment is well worth the honor of being one of the few full CD-ROM games on the site (yes, that big zip file contains the whole CD). A must-have, especially for anyone looking for a mature, meditative game that is a far cry from today's superficial releases.
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