When I think back to being a kid, I don’t really remember carefree days, or a world full of possibility and wonder. I kind of just remember being bored. It’s easy to romanticise that part of your life before messy relationships, shitty jobs, and tax returns, but to do so is to filter out the excessively long family car trips, or the school afternoons spent staring absent-mindedly out the window. It’s why the films of Studio Ghibli and Pixar tend to pair their depictions of childhood with elements of magic and adventure; for the most part, being a kid is actually, pretty rubbish.
How refreshing it is then to play a video game that isn’t afraid to explore childhood as it was actually experienced. Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale!, developed by the relatively obscure LEVEL-5 games, stars Sohta, a 10-year old boy who has just moved to the Japanese town of Fuji No Hana. The move is exciting for a few reasons; not only is it a new town with new friends, but it’s also the filming location for Guardians! Blue Planet Space Defenders!, a Japanese ‘hero show’ which sees mighty heroes do battle with gigantic monsters. These shows, the game explains, were extremely popular during the 1960’s and 70’s, in a post-war Japan still finding it’s feet against globalisation and the threat of nuclear war. Guardians! is filmed in Fuji no Hana for one very special reason: every Friday night, monsters do battle on the fields just outside of the town.
The game forgoes many elements traditionally associated with a Japanese adventure game, such as inventory management, an involved plot, or a complicated combat system, because its not really interested in creating a compelling gameplay experience. It’s interested in recreating a real one. As a player, your actions are essentially limited to walking, talking, and an interactive trading card game. These mechanics limit your interaction with the game to simply exploring the town’s various nooks and crannies, speaking to the adults as they go about their business, and playing silly, inconsequential games with your friends. You are given just as much agency as the character you’re playing as; a character who has to run errands for his parents and be home by sundown. Although the town is open for you to explore, it’s a restricted space, filled with linear pathways and fixed camera angles. As Sohta, your freedom is an illusion; you can explore as much as you want, but only within the limits. Despite it’s menacing title, Attack of the Friday Monsters isn’t afraid to just let you leisurely explore your new town, and play with your new friends. Sohta’s agency is your agency. His perspective is your perspective.
And it’s this perspective which also calls into question the validity of the game’s central mystery: the Friday monsters themselves. Does sunset herald the arrival of actual, real-life monsters, or merely the airing of the kid’s favourite television show? Are those giant footprints on the edge of town actually there, or are the kids just pretending they’re there? Children have a way of integrating information from the world around them into their own internal logic, in a way that makes sense for them. When I was a kid, I used to think that older photos were black and white because the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs kicked up so much ash that the world was literally black and white until the 1950’s. Sohta and his friends are faced with a mundane, boring summer in a mundane, boring town. They elevate this with playful, inconsequential rules and superstitions which on the surface have no logical coherency (how exactly did stepping on a crack break my mother’s back?), but warp the everyday, mundane experience of being a kid into something exciting and magic. In a day-to-day existence which only offers chores, empty afternoons, and trading card games, it’s no wonder the children of Fuji no Hana fill their town with heroic superheroes, vicious monsters, and alien conspiracies.
As I wander the twisting pathways and winding creeks of a small virtual town on the outskirts of Tokyo, I am reminded of the suburbs and parks I explored as a child, the games I invented, the explanations of the world which at the time felt perfectly logical. Being a kid was boring. But as long as we had our friends, our imaginations, and just a little bit of freedom, we could make childhood something worth looking back on. Attack of the Friday Monsters is not an epic adventure filled with magic and intrigue. It’s a tribute to the adventures we made for ourselves, the monsters we fought, and the magical, mundane experience of being a kid.