|George Costanza in the game Kramer's Field (From Software 1995)|
The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is upon us. Players anticipate E3 because it brings announcements of new games, as well as old games in new coating - the remaster, remake or the often equally enthusiastically embraced, unpolished re-release. Videogame enthusiasts really do like replaying decades old software on whatever the latest gaming system is.
I want to draw attention to a little-known game by the renowned Japanese studio From Software. This is a game that has near zero likelihood of being announced at this year's E3, but there are good reasons for an HD-upgrade: It came out on the original Playstation hardware and makes use of early, low-polygon 3D, and thus its visuals look quite jarring on contemporary TVs. The game also never made it out of Japan, and might deserve the possibility of broader reception. It was called Kramer's Field, and as far as 90s games goes, it was highly unconventional and remains an undiscussed entry in the early days of what would turn into a major video game developer.
Kramer's Field was a spin-off of the more well-known series King's Field, and in particular its second installment. The second game in this series, King's Field II, released in Japan summer 1995, and would find its way to Europe in December that same year, and to USA February the following year. In the West it would simply be known as King's Field, while the Japanese original (just as Kramer's Field) was never ported to the West.
Everything about Kramer's Field is shrouded in uncertainty, with only very little information available online in Japanese, and no software ROM downloadable (a common format for archiving and playing retro games). Kramer's Field released in November 1995. It places you in the role of the character Kramer from the hit tv-series Seinfeld. The series was never big in Japan, however, which might explain how the then relatively unknown From Software could have been tasked with making perhaps the only officially licensed video game of the franchise (bear in mind that they had no prior game releases in the West, and would become known as a major company following the releases of Demon Souls in 2009 and Dark Souls in 2011).
It is not certain that any of the developers at From Software had watched much (if anything) of Seinfeld before making the game. There are some visual resemblances to characters, and locations, but very little of the characteristics of Seinfeld has crossed the transition from American comedy to Japanese videogame. King's Field, and the later games by From Software, such as the Souls-series and Bloodborne (2015) would draw heavily on Western Medieval Fantasy. From Software would filter the fantasy elements through a Japanese framework, to the point where standards of the genre are rendered strange to the point of being almost incomprehensible. Kramer's Field is likewise the result of someone deeply fascinated by anything American and pop-culture, but often completely misunderstanding and even utterly neglecting the humor that made the show so successful. The strange incident that is Kramer's Field would constitute a mystical re-imagining of the iconic 90s Western situational comedy.
Kramer's Field not only shares name with the King's Field series but also gameplay elements, as it uses the King's Field game engine for development. In the second game of the series you control a character washed ashore on a remote island, where you explore and battle beasts. The perspective is first-person, and you roam around a setting that is medieval and mysterious. For the 90s King's Field was unusual, lacking cartoony vivid colors and joy, instead placing the player in a hostile world. The game feels overwhelming and confusing. You do not know where you are, what to do, or why any of it is happening. The combat also has an extremely slowness to it - to the point where it feels like moving underwater.
Kramer's Field is likewise in first-person, letting you see through the eyes of Kramer. The talkative characters you meet in Kramer's Field are cryptic in the way that characters regularly are in From Software games. Although some of the vagueness can be ascribed to my own poor attempts at Google-assisted translations of the dialog, it nevertheless seems bizarre that George would tell Kramer: "Oh, the wretched things that have shown themselves before my soul's gaze, I can feel my own presence fading. Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, where might my friend gone?". This is in fact the way that the central task of the game is introduced, with Kramer asked by the waning George and a completely incoherent Elaine, to find their friend. Kramer's Field turns Jerry into not only a character, but a central glue for the others, a force that keeps them from losing not only their friendship but their mental balance.
The Kramer you meet in Kramer's Field has little resemblance to the jittery and witty character in Seinfeld. His search for Jerry is an introspective, solemn journey. The character moves as if every step is heavy, dreading the potential answers that he may find - what has happened to his dear friend, is he even alive? Kramer moves through a labyrinthine re-imagining of New York City's streets. New York is here all grey streets and buildings which trap you into tight corridors. Here you fight off hordes of equally monotone aggressive characters: mostly looking like homeless people, but also face-less well-dressed humanoid Wall-Street drones. Apart from the streets, you can explore Jerry's apartment, and others in his building, as well as the city sewers.
Seinfeld is famously a show about nothing, where even the most mundane is discussed as if of utmost importance, and no action feels too shallow to pursue. This feature is again mirrored in strange manner in the game. The locations are filled with the eerie emptiness that characterizes early 3d games, as if you are walking around in a dream landscape of a world that is yet to render properly. Yet they are all vividly memorable. One of the best elements of Dark Souls is the interconnected world that the player explores, uncovering new routes and secret paths along the way. These are found in Kramer's Field, where nondescript walls can give way to novel pathways, and normal objects become wormholes: Dialing a sequence of numbers found on a note in the sewers on Jerry's phone turns it into a teleport. Kramer's Field also shares horror elements with the more conventionally Gothic, Lovecraftian Bloodborne. In that game, revisiting locations with greater insight (a form of in-game currency) reveals gruesome beasts that had previously lingered unseen. Instead of tentacles and black goo, Kramer's Field shows the alien horror inherent in everyday objects. After hours of play, the air-condition of the apartment is revealed as a hostile force, that slowly and remotely has been draining power from Kramer, fogging his mind and slowing his movement. It is as if the jittery energy that Kramer possessed in the show has been sapped from him and distributed to the surfaces and objects of the game. Every object thereby feels ripe with potential, but also frightening, as it could lose its insignificance, and turn into a portal or a threat.
Ultimately the game itself could be about nothing. The clues and puzzles that Kramer uncovers may not actually lead to the discovery of Jerry. Halfway between a tech-demo and a seemingly endless dungeon-crawler, it is unsure whether the game can actually be completed. Kramer's Field seems to have had limited release even in Japan, and it represents a mistaken path by From Software. But what would have happened to video gaming had the company more fully embraced this peculiar take on Western culture rather than the dark fantasy route?
Instead of situational comedy, this is situational horror, which turns humor into anguish: The characeters are imprisoned in the surface mimicry of actually-lived in locations where their every action is determined by the laugh track. The viewers get caught into this prison as well. Mathjis van Boxsell writes in Encyclopedia of Stupidity (2003), that people watching comedy with laugh tracks believe they have laughed more than they actually did. And what could be more horrifying than someone trapped in a room, sitting on a couch and watching someone else, also incapable of escaping their confines, maybe sitting on a couch as well, perhaps even watching tv themselves, with mechanical laughter making sure that everyone seems to be enjoying themselves? What if you were not just watching, but playing it instead, in a comedy where you were the punchline.
The situational horror is comparable to the one found in the zombie game Resident Evil (Capcom 1996; 2002), whose title indicates that the frightening resides in the residence itself. You are placed in a haunted house from which the only escape is to continue playing, to take up residence in the haunted mansion. But as the players try to find their way out they become more and more trapped in the game, for hours and hours, up to decades. The players play and replay, buy and rebuy, from release to remaster to remake. In waking nightmares the players repeatedly find their home to be the haunted mansion, where they again and again are bitten by zombies, turning themselves into the great masses playing. But Kramer's Field is infinitely more gruesome than the classic zombie horror of Resident Evil or From Software's own Lovecraftian Bloodborne. This is because Kramer's Field shows what Ian Bogost terms Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing (2012), which is the way that objects experience us. Kramer's Field shows that neither Jerry's or your air-condition ever really belongs to you or to anyone. It shows that objects could always be something apart from what they seem. Jean-Paul Sartre describes the intimate ties between horror and houses:
"To preserve its reality as a dwelling a house must be inhabited, that is to say, looked after, heated, swept, repainted, etc.; otherwise it deteriorates. This vampire object constantly absorbs human action, lives on blood taken from man and finally lives in symbiosis with him. It derives all its physical properties, including temperature, from human action. For its inhabitants there is no difference between the passive activity which might be called ‘residence’ and the pure re-constituting praxis which protects the house against the Universe" (Sartre 1976, Critique of Dialectical Reason)
Kramer's Field shows the situational horror of dwelling with videogames, which derives their physical properties from human actions, requiring our willingness to keep playing for their continued existence. There is no way that Kramer's Field could be announced at this year's E3. The game is just too horrifying.