Yuoni Makes me Nostalgic for a Place I’ve Never Been
I speak some German. I think I’ve mentioned that. If you’ve ever had a strange feeling, and you can’t place it with the English language, German has you covered. Someone with a punchable face? Backpfeifengesicht. Secondhand embarrassment? Fremdscham. I love those goofy words, but after recently playing Yuoni, which is set in 1990’s Japan, I felt some big fernweh. Fernweh is “farsickness”. It’s the feeling of homesickness for a place you’ve never been nor will you probably ever be.
The 1990’s in Japan was actually a fairly rough time. Known as the lost decade, it was a period of rising joblessness, resulting in a lower quality of life. I can’t help but feel like I wouldn’t do well in Japan in the 1990’s. A lot of that is that I don’t speak Japanese, nor know much about Japanese culture. My fernweh wasn’t about the customs or people or pop culture of 90’s Japan in Yuoni. It was all about the feel. It’s strange to quantify a feeling. Yuoni takes place right before nightfall, in the “magic hour”. The oranges, reds, and pinks exploding through windows as the sun goes down to make way for night.
It reminds me of something I know, and at the same time don’t know. I grew up, and still live, in farm country. I’m on a ranch right now, bad internet and all. I know the quality of light a sunset can produce. Yuoni has captured that feeling perfectly. It almost isn’t scary with how well it captures the golden rays pouring through into an abandoned hospital. It’s calming. It feels like sitting on the back of a tractor running a windrower while you watch the last bit of sun slip over the horizon and knowing that you’re almost done for the day. It’s a feeling that doesn’t have a word in any language. Satisfaction comes closest, I suppose.
Yuoni is, for all intents and purposes, a horror game. It has no right making the player feel that damn comfy. It’s very rare that a game can hit that sweet spot. It’s usually all oppressive, all the time, or too goofy to take seriously. To seamlessly mend comfort and terror is a hard balancing act. I’m not saying Yuoni does it perfectly, or even on purpose, but it does accomplish something like it. I think developers sometimes forget that horror can be beautiful. I’ve seen plenty of rooms made out of flesh, and yawning canyons filled with tentacles. I know I’m supposed to be afraid of that stuff.
It takes a light touch to make the comfortable into the obscene. The bastardization of things we like. Yuoni makes the sunset the backdrop for some ghostly shenanigans, and it works. Instead of trading on starting you out in a bad situation, it lets you work into one, all while enjoying the world it’s created. That’s one of my issues with Silent Hill. The switches between the waking world and the world of Silent Hill aren’t too terribly different. It’s not a huge change for Silent Hill to suck more. It would be more impactful if nothing was wrong with the town before the sirens started.
Horror these days doesn’t ease us in. We aren’t made to feel comfortable before the rug is pulled out from under us. I miss that feeling. Something like the wonderful Bleakstead by Valerie Dusk is another perfect balance. You’re wandering through a small desert town at night. The stars are high in the sky, and everything is very quaint…until it isn’t. One notable example is Resident Evil Village. You’re treated to a bit of relaxing family time before things go off the rails. We were all expecting it though, and the impact was lessened.
I guess to make it work properly you have to try and market your game as capital “N H” Not Horror. Things like Doki Doki Literature Club got people by presenting itself as a harmless visual novel, before slowly (and damn I mean slowly) eased you into the creepiness. After it was discovered, the surprise was ruined. We knew to look for it. I don’t think it’s possible to give people those moments easily. That’s what makes Yuoni so impressive from an aesthetic standpoint. You know something is coming, but the game convinces you wholeheartedly that maybe you got the wrong game, this is just a walk around during the sunset simulator. It’s greatest strength was making me comfortable enough to forget that things were going to get bad. We need more comfort in our horror, even if we know…it’s gonna get bad.