Zettai Zetsumei Toshi: Old Wreckage With Lingering Potency
I won't attempt to claim for a second that I can really relate to what happened on the screen when I played Zettai Zetsumei Toshi, the unedited original Japanese edition of Disaster Report on the PS2 that thrusts you in the midst of a disaster-stricken Japan. I've experienced a few light earthquakes and some monsoons in my heyday as a Japanese resident and having grown up in Colorado, I've also certainly had my fair share of bitterly cold, dense blizzards during numerous winters and inappreciably warm heat waves throughout most every summer. But I have no sense of what it's like to live through anything much more substantial than those things, no perspective on what it means to actually lose things, property, or lives when nature becomes troublesome. As an American native and a Japanese speaker, I can, without a doubt, vividly recall watching events like 2005's Hurricane Katrina and March 2011's Tohoku Earthquakes unfolding on my television screen. I definitely remember feeling the horror at watching a government astoundingly slow to react with the former and the depressing depths my mind entered as I watched a country I called home be torn asunder by earth, water, and nuclear power in the case of the latter. But I don't have the right to actually call those experiences formative. Not when I didn't experience them myself and, especially with Tohoku, not when I didn't go out to help clear the wreckage in the aftermath.
Yet at least I can't deny the dread that I often felt while going though much of Zettai Zetsumei Toshi and its disasters. Every vibration on my controller signaled another make-or-break moment as the tremors around me would force me to decide on a moment's notice whether running or bracing for impact was my best option, the level geometry very visibly twisting and breaking up around me as I deliberated. Every time water came rushing towards me and got close to my feet as the artificial island I was trying to flee was crumbling, I knew I was just one misstep from becoming another of the many bodies nature had already decided to claim. When up became down and left suddenly meant turning right because the earth chose to upend itself, I knew that the objects around me that were innocuous and thoroughly ubiquitous in better days were out to crush me if I didn't get out of their way. Things naturally only got worse when the game saw fit to throw combinations of those dangers at me simultaneously, becoming only more of a regular occurrence the deeper I got into the island. I don't know if what I felt even begins to resemble what enduring a real disaster is like, but I do know at least that my emotions remained consistent with the empathy I always felt in those earlier instances.
If I haven't made it apparent enough already, Zettai Zetsumei Toshi is therefore not a particularly fun game to play. Having to keep a constant eye on my hydration levels as I ran, jumped, and climbed my way through the island, for instance, was an understandably realistic necessity, but I can't say I enjoyed feeling that irony of having too much water out to kill me and comparatively little of it out to nourish me. I only felt relief when I found a water fountain that still worked or an abandoned water truck left out for those unlucky souls like myself still fighting their way out of that hell. Likewise, it may have been nice when scavenging for items in abandoned buildings would yield something useful, but not when it would potentially come at the expense of disposing of something that might still be useful later on for the sake of making room in my backpack. There's also almost never any music to speak of in the game. Nothing was there to cheer me up or otherwise set the mood; just a lot of quiet calm before a lot of storms that needed to be weathered. And while I did appreciate having company in the form of mostly plucky lady friends, it's hard to stay happy when all you both want to do is get out alive and hopefully pick up any lost ones along the way, assuming that's even still possible. I wanted to be friendly with them, but honestly it was mostly just because I wanted to be on their good side as a partner in survival and not be left to my own devices. Tedium, anxiety, and despair, in effect, become your constant companions virtually from the moment you take control of the protagonist.
Yet I know this is how it all should be in a game like this. If I was actually having fun with it, if I was having a good time, that would have immediately deprived the game's setting of any remote sense of legitimate heft. Again, I won't dare to presume that a game, especially an early 2000s-era PS2 game like Zettai Zetsumei Toshi, can do all that much to emulate the emotions and situations people can go through when actually living in the midst of a disaster. But the game did get my imagination to wander into dark, fearsome places. I very much so wanted to fulfill the basic objective of just surviving as the protagonist, but after a while when I had entered so many buildings that were one tremor away from toppling over with me inside, it became hard not to think that the end was always near and that I'm just an unlucky soul who gets to see it unfold front and center. I always pushed on because it was always in my interests as a player and human being, but remained deeply aware of my vulnerability. That's not the way things are ostensibly supposed to be in other video games, but given the subject matter of Zettai Zetsumei Toshi, it's only appropriate that the ruleset incorporate such fundamental human weakness.
This isn't to say that Zettai Zetsumei Toshi is everything it could be. If you want to pick at weak spots, there are a lot of areas to attack, be they the low difficulty on default settings, the often unstable framerate (or often stably low, depending on how you choose to look at it), a huge reliance on menus that take just too long to respond, the fact earthquakes and environmental destruction are always scripted to occur in the same places, or narrative writing that is only sporadically interesting. If the existence of two sequels indicates anything, it's clearly a game with some unfulfilled potential at this point in the series. Whether those later games better live up to those ambitions isn't my place to say as someone who hasn't played them yet, but at least with this first game, there's a special audacity in not creating an experience that exists solely to validate players' competence. That combined with the setting and unrelentingly somber mood make for an experience that can still be respectable regardless of whether the second and third games in the Zettai Zetsumei Toshi series do all of that better.
That's why despite being an early PS2 game, Zettai Zetsumei Toshi is a game that still manages to be relevant over a decade after its original Japanese release. Save for its sequels, few other games have taken up its mantle and chosen to pick up where it thematically stopped. Standing for a lot of perpetually unpopular causes, it's about as philosophically far from empowering players as it can get compared to most other games, is thoroughly nonviolent, and, in spite of the relatively low normal difficulty, is not otherwise a game that's made to be fair just by virtue of its setting and mechanics. You can't really play it to have fun or to win; the island that you're stuck on has already gone to hell by the time you take control and only deteriorates more as you make your way out. Escaping only means you weren't done in by nature, not that you “won” or “beat” it. Zettai Zetsumei Toshi is as such a dark game not merely to be self-serving and stand out in the artistic landscape, but because that's just how its subject matter tends to be in reality as well. I have no idea how well it manages to capture the feeling of being stuck in a disaster zone or the difficulties in eking out a life under such conditions, but I will say that as an unpretentiously nihilistic work and something that never wavers in staying grounded in its depiction of tragedy, it at least dared to have me as a player to enter some uniquely dark facets of my mind and memory. Zettai Zetsumei Toshi may very well have long since been outclassed on most fronts, but so rare is it to see the way its individual pieces come together that they still hold power and relevance today, modest though it all may be.