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Kenji Eno was one of the more interesting men to hit the video game industry, as enthusiasts know. His horror title "D" made a splash in America for getting by on a Teen rating despite dealing rather nonchalantly with cannibalism. (The sequel, "D2", would have an infamous nigh-tentacle rape cinematic.)
He locked himself in a hotel room with composer Michael Nyman until, six hours later, he agreed to compose the soundtrack for his sci-fi survival horror title "Enemy Zero", which failed spectacularly for being incredibly unforgiving. (The titular enemy is completely invisible and can only be detected through sound.)
Needless to say Eno himself is a man worth researching, although these days his occasional endeavors are hardly of interest, but this simple and rather pedestrian story is centered on a different game called "Kaze no Regret" (translates to "Winds of Regret"), a game that fulfilled Eno's burgeoning interest in the limiting of the senses in video games. (I already mentioned "Enemy Zero", but "D2" also has sections where the player must navigate the game-world based solely on sight or sound.)
Eno wanted to create a game that could be equally enjoyed by seeing players and blind players; this somewhat ridiculous concept led to the Japan-only release of "Winds of Regret" in 1997 for the SEGA Saturn, along with Eno giving away one thousand Saturn units to blind players in Tokyo. For those of you familiar with visual novels, "Winds of Regret" plays exactly like one, but without the "visual" part, of course. It is narrated by various voice talents in its entirety and tells a story of young love and loss, which becomes quickly entwined with a suspenseful tale; Eno was known for injecting horror into everything he dealt with, after all.
For those not familiar with the genre, "Winds of Regret" is like a choose-your-own-adventure game, where events are narrated and then you reach a point where you must make a decision. Once you do, the narrative continues until you reach the next narrative forked road. This build results in expansive dialogue trees and, ultimately, multiple endings.
I am quite obviously not blind, but I was always interested in Eno's work and the concept of "Winds of Regret" (and the fact that it was greenlighted and actually released) hooked me. I think I first found about it in a blog by a young temp working in Japan, but I can't really remember anymore.
After copious personal research and lots of e-haggling, I finally got my hands on a copy of "Winds of Regret". Even the packaging is unique and done with evident attention for detail; the box itself is transparent, marked by a soothing blue sky motif, and the instruction booklet is in Braille! I also heard that early copies came with a bag of "herbal seeds", but mine did not come with such a thing.
It all starts as expected. There, is of course, nothing to see on-screen, just Japanese speech narrated slowly and clearly introducing the game. Then it tells you which button to press to start the game, so I do. As I actually play through it, the game feels like a somewhat sad experience; not only because the complete lack of visuals is disheartening, but because of the concept itself.
"Winds of Regret" begins, story-wise, in middle school. You are initially put in the role of Mizu Sakura, a shy girl who has transferred to a new school and is soon completely smitten with classmate Hiroshi Nonoiti. The (exceedingly) young couple decides to elope, which is a pretty common narrative element in Japanese love stories, and are to meet at the school clocktower at a certain hour of night to escape.
Mizu never shows up (probably because she suddenly acquired a modicum of common sense), and it this point the story moves away from character-based perspectives and places you as an omnipresent God-audience, watching the lives of the various characters unfold in the city below as years pass by. Mizu and Hiroshi meet once after their failed escape, and then go on with their lives separately, until a mysterious death in the Tokyo subway system makes them run into each other again.
The only thing that surprised me about the first twenty or so minutes of "Winds of Regret" was a single visual that leapt to the screen at one point. In between loading for two scenes, a sprite-based rendering of the clock tower where Mizu and Hiroshi were to meet appears. The clock clearly signals eight o'clock, which is the correct time for the young couple to meet. Later researched confirmed that a version with limited visuals of "Winds of Regret" was released... but for the DreamCast. I was playing the original version on the Saturn, so it was impossible for me to have a mixed-up version. I continued anyway.
As I mentioned earlier, the plot of "Winds of Regret" quickly takes a turn for the suspenseful, but not the full-on horrific. (The sequel was planned to be a full-fledged horror title, but never saw the light of day due to voice compression issues, I think. Remember, the *entire* game is voice-narrated.) Spoiling the plot would be rather harmless, but there's no need to do it anyway. Just rest assured that there is something in the subway system killing people, and it is surprisingly related to Mizu and Hiroshi's childhood promise.
Now this is where things get a little weird.
Quite simply, after a certain crucible in the plot, images accompanying the narration begin to appear. As I mentioned before, this cannot possibly be the image-enhanced DreamCast version, so there’s no real explanation for them, other than maybe this being a beta version of the aforementioned DC port with “placeholder” images. (Then again, I did get it in full packaging.) The images themselves are remarkably mundane.
They are all low-quality and based on what the people are wearing were probably taken sometime during the eighties. Most of them are pictures of Japanese everyday life in major urban centers; a friend of mine identified a particular picture as having been taken in the Golden Gai district of Tokyo. They have pretty much nothing to do with what the game is actually describing. When the narration gets the point where Hiroshi explores an abandoned subway tunnel, the game is showing you an image of a young Japanese woman staring straight at the camera and smiling, as if posing for a rather tacky advert.
Moving towards the final stretch of the game, the pictures become more “intimate”; they depict the inside of a tiny apartment bathroom or the apartment itself, or the view from the balcony, although so far none of my Japanese Net acquaintances have managed to identify where this picture could have been taken from. While in previous images the photographer seemed to have simply taken pictures of what surrounded him (a homeless man in a park, children playing on a swing set), he or she now has moved on to create apparently deliberate set pieces, such as a zoomed-in picture of two English toy blocks, each depicting an English alphabet letter on the side, spelling out “NO”.
One could argue that at this point the pictures also gain some degree of coherence with the narrative, although it is faint. A rather odd element of Western religious imagery creeps into the game, such as a group of picture of young kogal (they’re essentially Japanese valley girls) wearing crucifix necklaces, a popular fashion statement in Tokyo as I am told. This is congruent with the theme of salvation present in later comparisons of Mizu and Hiroshi to Adam and Eve. There are other faint links which friends have pointed out to me, but there is nothing particularly worth mentioning except for maybe the series of pictures depicted during the ending scenes.
Consistency in quality and the generally improvised nature of the shots suggest that the same person using the same camera was responsible for them. They are notable in that they no longer take place in the open public spaces or the inside of (presumably) the photographer’s apartment. Instead, they begin with a picture taken of an open sewer manhole leading straight down into darkness.
(If you’re wondering where the game’s narration is at this point, it’s the final dialogue, which I will not spoil, but is completely unrelated to anything depicted in the pictures.) What is REALLY interesting is that, as I mentioned, dialogue trees in this game have various “branches” (paths that the conversation can go down depending on the player’s answers). Each “path” seems to be mapping out a procession of images taken down here in the sewer complex. So whenever you play through this final sequence of dialogue, you are also exploring a different section of the sewers as you progress through the series of photographs.
During my first play-through, I elected what I thought was the “standard” path of dialogue to go down. You know how in games you are sometimes given a choice, but there’s an obvious “right” answer that the game wants you to pick and the others are going to just lead to a dead end eventually? I picked the “right” answers. (That’s not to say that there aren’t other endings, though.) So the conversation progressed and the photographer’s little bout of urban exploration progressed in the pictures as well. I was reminded that “Winds of Regret” was designed for blind players, and imagined a blind person happily playing through the game, not knowing what is going on the screen at all.
In the very end, the photographer goes down a particular sewer path, with the gunk up to his or her knees, I would presume. The camera inches closer to a bulge lying on the side of the canal, until the very last picture reveals what it is: a dead cat. Superimposed on the picture is what looks like a tacky Word Art rendering of “!CONGRATULATIONS!” (with the bizarre additional exclamation point), but it’s pretty blurry. Then the game ends. Nothing else of note happens.
Why would Eno include this on purpose in copies of "Winds of Regret"? There's no real reason. I haven't come across a single Internet testimony or reference to demonstrate that this strange "picture path" appeared in any other version of the game. The visuals-friendly port for the Dream Cast does include images, as I mentioned, but they are stills drawn in the anime style and congruent with the game's story, not the odd, low-quality pictures in my copy of the game.
I picked some other options to see if there was anything else amiss, in order to cement the possibility of this being an early beta version with some additional content that was later removed, but everything else seems to work fine. So, under the assumption that it was some kind of joke by the development staff, I decided to play along and started a second play-through.
Now, have you ever played Suda51's "Killer7", for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube? Once you finish it once, if you choose to begin a second play-through, it will turn into "Killer8" if memory serves, as the opening logo instantly changes. This is a new mode where you can play as an additional character.
Something similar happens with "Winds of Regret". The logo in kanji changes to "Kaze no STIGMATA" (Winds of Stigmata), with "STIGMATA" spelled out in English alphabet characters. Thinking that maybe this is a "bonus" mode, I began the game.
Everything is the same, though, including the pictures, although some of them may have been swapped in terms of order here and there. (Or that may just be a repercussion of the different choices I made in this play-through in comparison to the last one.) I was just playing to get to the ending dialogue and seeing what I would find this time.
I picked a different set of answers during the final dialogue, this time going for the "maverick" path, the path that the game is tacitly pushing you into *not* taking. There is, of course, an alternate end where events play out differently, but at this point I had lost interest in the plot of "Winds of Regret" and was instead looking intently at the pictures.
Once again the photographer leads us through the sewer system, but this time he or she goes down a different path, which seems to lead further down. The very last picture depicts the ceiling of the sewer canal. It's worth noting that this is the only picture taken with visible flash; it depicts graffiti painted on the ceiling, of a pair of eyes and a pair of hands. And once again, that's all.
My leading theory regarding this "picture path" in the final sequence of the game is that the development studio decided to include a little "extra" for one lucky "Winds of Regret" player, thus creating an alternate story that had nothing to do with the narrative, but told through pictures.
This is interesting, even if it defeated Eno's purpose of creating a game that the blind could enjoy equally to the those with sight, because it instead created a game that people could enjoy on entirely different levels that were parallel from each other. But game design theories aside, it seems to be a studio spoof.
Now, I haven't done a lot of searching around for this yet, but as far as I know, "Winds of Regret" has three different endings plus one "joke" ending that can be attained about halfway through the game. The other three are the results of different choices you make during the final dialogue sequence, the one with the sewer pictures. Knowing this, I started a third play-through of the game to finish the final path. The logo changed once again into "Kaze no Mizu" ("Winds of Mizu"), apparently named after the titular heroine.
As with the second play-through, everything else about the game was unchanged, other than the pictures. However, the final sewer path and its results were probably the most surprising. I picked the third set of dialogue options, which morally speaking is sort of a "neutral" path in between the "good" and "evil" paths (visual novels don't have a whole lot of moral ambiguity most of the time).
Once again I was treated to a picture tour of what I assume is Tokyo's expansive sewer system. This time, I was shocked about halfway through the dialogue; the photographer was heading back! The pictures showed him/her retracing steps back to the ladder leading to the surface world. The final set of pictures shows the photographer climbing up the ladder into the light, and in the very final image, the photographer turns the camera on him/herself and takes a picture of his/her own face looking into the lens.
The reason why I have continued to refer to the photographer as gender-ambiguous is because, well... We don't actually see the 'face'. The photographer's face is blurred out by pixellation to the point where you can't tell anything about them other than that they are presumably a human being. In the background is a nodescript small park, presumably in the middle of an urban center, with some people walking around. I guess it's odd that in the middle of the day nobody stopped him/her from illegally sneaking into the sewers.
Just like how the tacky "!CONGRATULATIONS!" sign is superimposed on the picture of the dead cat in the end of the first path, this one also has some text, which appears a few seconds after the image just sits there. First, an arrow with cutesy pink and white kanji appears pointing at the person, saying "This is Mizu".
Seconds later, white kanji of great size, taking up the whole screen, shows up. It says "Mizu is dead".
There are many ways to potentially interpret this, but I feel like at this point I have to spoil the game's story a bit: Mizu, the character, does die if you take this path, so there is congruence between the pictures and the narrative. But I have no idea what the people behind this whole thing were trying to say through this sequence. Maybe one of the developers' relatives was named Mizu, and died during development of the game, so he created this weird and complex sequence to honor her?
Or maybe it's just a collective spoof by the development team? Did they send a worker they didn't like down to the sewers to take pictures, saying it was "for reference", and then insert this into a copy of the game without his knowledge? Stranger things have been found in game code, in places where developers never thought tech-savvy losers would look. But this transcends that, because I still can't make sense of it and because it's so goddamn elaborate.
There are a couple of other things worth mentioning in regards to my copy of "Winds of Regret". Out of a fleeting curiosity, I actually looked up Braille to try and decipher the instructions booklet, and found that the booklet's text actually translates to nothing but gibberish. The Braille makes no sense at all. Chalk it up to a misprint, I suppose.
Furthermore, after I completed my first play-through of the game, the opening screen's logo once again changed, but now it changed back to the original "Kaze no Regret", with one difference; it now has a sort of subtitle in white under the logo, which reads, in barely legible print, "Mizu is dead". I have played through the story a couple of more times since then and the logo has no longer changed.
After completing the bizarre third path of the game (note that I am simply referring to it as the "third path" because I took it in that order; the paths can be taken in any order depending on the player), I played it again to try and get the joke ending, which can be triggered about halfway through the story and thus shouldn't take long.
To my surprise, the joke ending has a page-by-page scan of a chapter of famous boxing manga "Ashita no Joe", while the very last sequence is taken from an old Shintaro Kago one-shot. I suppose whoever was doing this ran out of ideas, or time to take pictures of Japanese suburbia.
And that's my story regarding my copy of "Winds of Regret". I have played around with the game a few more times after that, but found nothing else worth noting. I also have to admit I was a little creeped out by the whole picture sequence because I still haven't found anyone else on the Net whose copy of the game did anything even remotely similar. So I guess I'll never know the truth. If I ever go back to Tokyo, I guess I'll steer clear from the sewers, just in case. Not that I planned on going down there, anyway.