The Itch Scratches Back
or, myself is here (but not there)
This piece is really, really long. I have dropped a line divider of asterisks (* * *) to mark a point, slightly less than halfway through, that I think is a good resting place. The divider doubles as a spoiler warning for anyone who wants to watch the video the piece is about before reading to the end.
One of life's great joys is sharing personal discoveries with friends, peers, and interested strangers. That great joy may become an immense one if the discovery is a particularly meaningful, resonant piece of art. Yet those same qualities that enable the piece of art to impart meaning and resonance to one person may be part of the scaffolding of a seemingly insurmountable barrier to appreciation by another. The result is a frustrated catharsis, a mutually fulfilling transaction kept at arm's length behind a pane of frosted glass.
For culture writers seeking to turn their audiences onto unfamiliar art, this barrier may manifest as form and genre designations, which can be reductive and obscurantist as often as they can be convenient and illuminating. Certain forms are naturally disadvantaged by a pre-existing reputation of immaturity and unseriousness, dissuading even those broadly conversant with art; within these forms, certain genres are so marginalized that their very mention may provoke reflexive dismissal or disgust. This is the environment in which video game writer, raconteur, and connoisseur Tim Rogers found himself after playing the flagship entry of the Japanese language dating simulation series Tokimeki Memorial. I find myself in similar muck after spending more than a year repeatedly watching his resulting video review, which has significantly shaped the ways I think and write about art.
It is absurd on its face to review the work of a video game reviewer. We should observe, though, that in the decades-young field of video game writing, Tim Rogers has been a highly unusual voice for nearly the entire millennium. Contemporaries visiting his personal website (“action button dot net”) in the rapidly dwindling frontier of the pre-corporatized internet of the 2000s have touted him as "the Lester Bangs of video games" after an incendiary claim by Chuck Klosterman in 2006 that the artform lacked such an “authoritative critical voice” (1). In this, they were considering Rogers the provocateur and iconoclast, who once pronounced up front, in large-point text about a mainstay of “greatest video game” lists: “Bottom line: BioShock is ‘not art.’” (2), perhaps a parallel act to Bangs’ blasting of some upstart “unskilled laborers” calling themselves Black Sabbath (3) as a 21-year old not even a full year on the Rolling Stone payroll. But if only these initial appraisals had lingered on the comparison just a little longer, they may have encountered a much more substantial similarity – the inseparability of the personal relationship with a work of art from truly good criticism of it. Lester Bangs cannot begin to review Van Morrison's album Astral Weeks without crediting it for probably saving his life during a period when he was a "physical and mental wreck." (4) Tim Rogers cannot write about Super Mario Bros. 3 without confronting the reality that he, an aspiring game designer, will never make such a game that is so good that it “colors our expectations of fun from here to eternity.” (5) The particular life context in which an album was first listened to or a game was first played often becomes imperative for both writers to reconstruct, sometimes at the cost of dredging up painful, unshared memories. To conjure such a specific frame of mind and then to adequately process whatever raw emotions or associations may reemerge requires a great many words and forays into art, literature, philosophy, and other intellectual and artistic frames of reference the writer has at their disposal. Consequently, both Bangs and Rogers have accrued countless charges of pretentiousness and verbosity from readers to whom play with language, desire to share ideas, and a presumption of intelligence from the reader are alienating qualities.
Yet, it would require grand imaginative vaults to sincerely dismiss the work of either man as intellectual bluster. In the critical and artistic worlds they’ve inhabited, Bangs and Rogers have been renowned for walking the walk. Bangs devoted himself to the study of popular music as a teenager, was hired and fired in a few short years from Rolling Stone for his uncompromising brashness, lived in Detroit and New York City in proximity to the first wave of American punk acts, partied just as hard as many of his subjects, and died of a freak tragic overdose at the age of 33, completing an oft-mythologized outline of a life. The personal essays of Tim Rogers reveal a difficult video game-obsessed adolescence in Indiana in the early 1990s, a sudden, hard infatuation with Japanese popular music after a party in college, a snap decision to stay in Japan during a visit, in large part to be near the noise scene there, a decade of enduring poverty wages and crunch conditions working in the video game industry as he played in numerous punk bands, modeled for fashion magazines, and published writing that so resonated with some of his readers that they traveled to Tokyo to visit him. (6-7)
Cementing this status as a living work of punk art did not guarantee full-time access to a personal platform, and Rogers endured a second decade of misery after returning to the United States – working soul-sucking corporate jobs, freelance writing for magazines, expanding his brand by founding the independent video game development studio Action Button Entertainment, and tending to the community that had formed around him. The conflict between the studied weirdness of his approach as a writer and the demands placed by the video game journalism industry upon its employees to constantly be churning out click-maximizing, viral-going content about big recent games sharpened, as it dawned upon Rogers how much he was sacrificing simply to earn enough money to not live desperately. While working for the website Kotaku, Rogers began creating video reviews and developed an iconic sign-off for them in which he would flash up his entire resume on screen, and then intone the three sentence mantra: “I was born stupid. However, I will not die hungry. Video Games Forever.” (8)
In February 2020, Rogers sensed an opportunity to finally liberate his creative mind. He quit his job at Kotaku and devoted the majority of his newfound free time to spiritually reviving his long-dormant action button dot net website as a YouTube channel, with the goal of training a perspective mellowed out with age into composing elaborate, systematic reviews of the best video games in his personal canon. His initial goal of producing one two or three-hour video per month quickly gave way to ambition and a tendency toward thoroughness, and in 25 months, Rogers has composed "just" six reviews. Browse the channel for a bit, however, and see that the Tokimeki Memorial review clocks in at nearly six hours in length, and the description of the seemingly-lean 66 minute discussion of Cyberpunk 2077 reveals it to be the introductory segment of an eight-part “choose your own adventure” review that sits, all told, somewhere north of 10 hours. Sit down to watch one of these videos and realize in short order that these are not the multi-hour analyses of Pokémon games or other nostalgia properties that might pop up in your recommendations, in fact, these videos seem almost intentionally designed to avoid all mass appeal. There’s no thumbnail with a gaping mouth, no attention-grabbing language in the title, no calls to like, subscribe, or share. Just some guy with glasses and a sometimes-nice haircut talking for hours over a small handful of public domain classical music pieces, the majority of that time spent squarely facing the camera. Almost nobody would watch these videos if Tim Rogers was not an enormously gifted speaker. His Midwestern radio voice, cadence, emotional range, sense of timing, deeply odd sense of humor, his “nebulous, ostentatiously fancy prose,” and his childlike obsession with funny sound effects combine to float the viewer from point to point. (9) Soon enough, you’ll have sunk an hour or two into a video and realize that you’re watching a man being relieved of the burden of decades or lifetimes of percolating thoughts, impressions, and feelings, through the crafting and delivery of just the right statement, the authoritative say about the games that shaped his life.
Tim Rogers envisions himself not as a typical YouTube content creator, but rather as a curator of a sort of virtual museum, each "season" of his channel charting an artistic pathway through a set of major video games. In the introductory segment to his Tokimeki Memorial video, he shares his methodology for the channel’s inaugural season. He debuted with the recently-released Final Fantasy VII Remake, a deconstructive reimagining of its source material whose “philosophical magnitude” could only be matched by the-then much-hyped infinite dollar budget open world RPG Cyberpunk 2077, which he planned to review to close out the season. In threading these two games together, Rogers was led to consider video games in which the player’s “conversational decisions held narrative weight” – games in which one talks to people instead of killing them. In considering several famous candidates for an archetypal game with such a focus, Rogers says, “I was deluding myself. I had the answer, right there like a knife-sized splinter in my brain the whole time. It had to be Tokimeki Memorial.”
Such a figurative laceration summons the painful memory that had left it. Like many American children in the 1990s, fourteen-year-old Tim Rogers regularly read game magazines to keep abreast of new releases. In step with the broader orientalizing tendency of American media toward Asian pop culture, these magazines would fawn over the Japanese games they featured if the games had explosive violence or good graphics, and would ridicule them as “weird, crazy, or perverted” if they had anything else. Rogers paraphrases a particular filler segment about Tokimeki Memorial he had encountered in a magazine as saying, in effect, “a game where you date girls instead of stab men?” pausing before intoning his deep voice filter, “Dude, that’s gay.” “I wanted to play it, and the game magazine made me feel bad for wanting to play it,” Tim reflects. The magazine’s insinuation that “a game about talking to girls was basically on the same page as pornography” hurt Tim during a vulnerable time during which he “often flat out lied both to other people and myself about what I liked.” His voice softens, as he begins to articulate a universal coming-of-age difficulty. “Some of us are so ashamed of even the most innocent aspects of who we are, that eventually we run out of people to be.” This current of emotional candor permeates the review. Not long after reading this issue as a fourteen-year-old “probably straight” boy, Tim would start talking to girls at his school, and he could not help but spare a thought for “some other kid” who could have played an English localization of the game had one been available, and perhaps been helped through this particular social anguish. Decades later, after he finally played through Tokimeki Memorial extensively for the purpose of reviewing it, Rogers admits in the first five minutes of the video, he found that the game had brought him, a “41 year old man living in the year 2020,” to tears. And “these were weird, deeply interesting tears,” he adds. “Look at the length of this video, buddy. [5 hours, 56 minutes, 26 seconds]. That’s how long it’s going to take to describe these tears.”
The endeavor to fully describe Tim Rogers’s tears immediately hits a stone linguistic wall. As the developer Konami never translated the game into English for localization outside of Japan, the vast majority of interested audiences lacking Japanese language skills up to at least an intermediate level will not be able to play Tokimeki Memorial. Assuring the segment of his audience that likes to play games in anticipation of his reviews, Rogers boldly declares: “don’t worry: I’ve played Tokimeki Memorial, for you.” And he’s played it for you not just once, twice, or thrice, but fourteen times, at least once in all of its different console versions, for a total of 89 hours. And as a neurotic context-obsessed researcher, Rogers reveals, he hasn’t just played the original Tokimeki Memorial, but also the sequel games Tokimeki Memorial 2 and Tokimeki Memorial 3, the gender-flipped spinoff game Tokimeki Memorial: Girl’s Side, twelve adventure games in the franchise (“none of which I enjoyed at all. So I didn’t bother playing the other fourteen”), and even the 1988 Konami title Snatcher, a crucial link in the evolutionary lineage between graphical adventure games and dating simulators. He kept himself immersed throughout his research process by exclusively listening to 1980s and early 90s Japanese popular music, whose idols inspired Tokimeki Memorial’s aesthetic, watched several contemporaneous Japanese television dramas, and “read every scrap of Japanese and Western media coverage related to the series” that he could find.
The product of all this research should be thought of as a digital documentary film in seven segments, three intermissions, and an epilogue. Two introductory segments (titled “introduction” and “‘The First Dating Simulator?’ No, actually”) situate Tokimeki Memorial in conversation with its forebears and myriad successors, connect it to the Action Button Reviews project, and establish Rogers’s personal relationship with the game. The third segment (aptly titled “let’s talk about the game”) walks us through the core gameplay loop. The player of Tokimeki Memorial controls the activities and conversation choices of a male student throughout three years in a Japanese high school. Unlike so many other video games about high school, Rogers says, “Tokimeki Memorial ultimately makes role-playing a teenager seem like… your first ever part-time job,” which you might have worked for the novelty or the extra opportunity to hang out with your friends. As with so many dating sims, menu choices in Tokimeki Memorial determine whether the student you play dedicates a given week to studying, socializing, exercising, participating in extracurriculars, caring for his appearance, or resting. Each of these actions affects a particular stat that dictates which girl’s “path” or which particular ending your playthrough is headed towards. On Sundays and holidays, you gain access to your phone and can attempt to have your character ask girls out. Your selections from predetermined dialogue choices or actions determine how your character interacts with girls at school or on dates. Planning and talking are the only actions you take in Tokimeki Memorial, yet they together guarantee that wildly divergent outcomes are possible. Behind the information visible in the game’s menus is an intricate clockwork of hidden mechanics, which if disassembled would “fill the Library of Congress and the Library of Congress’s parking lot,” Rogers quips. Very few events and scenes are common to every complete playthrough of the game, and in fact, someone playing through the game just once will have experienced a miniscule sampling of the game’s occasional storytelling. All playthroughs end at graduation day, during which the player character may or may not receive an anonymous letter summoning him to a particular tree on the school grounds, where legend states that a mutual confession of love would guarantee the lovers an eternal fairytale romance.
Although the standard player of Tokimeki Memorial will naturally wish to romance whomever their favorite girl might be, the game’s box art, promotional media, and opening prescribe a specific win condition: wooing the player character’s childhood friend Shiori Fujisaki. In much popular Japanese media about adolescence, the childhood female friend is an archetypal character with an outsized importance in the life of the male protagonist. In Tokimeki Memorial, she’s the smartest, prettiest, and most talented girl in school, a niche that may be familiar to most people who remember being a teenager. Romancing Shiori is so fiendishly difficult that it required Rogers to play through the game fourteen times to develop a process to do it without external assistance from guides. The fourth segment of the video (“Let's Play Tokimeki Memorial (playthrough #1: no-research shiori attempt (failure))”) presents Rogers’s entire first blind playthrough of the game, wherein he applies common sense and familiarity with video game logic and human conversation to try to win Shiori. In this playthrough, Rogers states, “I failed miserably. And I don’t use the adverb miserably lightly.” The fifth segment (“Let's Play Tokimeki Memorial (playthrough #14: no-guide shiori attempt (success))”) describes the full last playthrough, informed by extensive notes that Rogers took over the previous thirteen playthroughs. As Rogers says, “In this playthrough, I succeeded miserably.”
* * *
What could be miserable about beating a video game, particularly if doing so means becoming the boyfriend of the most popular girl at school? How could it produce such tears? Questions such as this arise in response to some of Rogers’s more peculiar claims, unsettling perfect comprehension and clouding a first-time viewer’s forecast of where this unusual, yet logically-ordered project is headed. When Rogers announced that he would be reviewing Tokimeki Memorial, many wrote to ask him if he had played the 2017 indie game Doki Doki Literature Club, a dark subversion of the Japanese visual novel. Duly acknowledging the impact of this “significant work of video game,” Rogers assures the viewer that “Shiori Fujisaki needs no deconstruction.” Like the game that contains her, Shiori is “deeper, twistier, and more mysterious than even the most subversive revisionings,” a “complete work of profound art transcending all possible parody.”
When we turn to the segment containing the successful Shiori playthrough, it has been at least two hours since these thunderous, grandiloquent claims have settled in the recesses of our minds. Rogers examines a line of text in the ending of his first failed playthrough, written by an “eighteen year old digital ghost exhal[ing] a forty year old’s moaning lament.” “Ah! I wish I could do it all over again, just one more time,” he translates. This invitation, in a game all about “doing high school all over again,” to “do high school all over again… all over again,” constitutes a “sinister twist.” The game is explicitly aware of what many of its players are about to do: play again in the hopes of reaching a better, if not the best, ending. With this insight, the first crack appears in our extrapolation of the review’s critical trajectory. Even having amassed pages of notes and eighty hours of footage, Rogers does not feel prepared for a successful Shiori playthrough. Playing Tokimeki Memorial optimally requires keeping obsessive track of each girl’s facial expressions and particular word choices as they answer the phone or greet your character at school, managing their feelings carefully so that they don’t “bomb” you (a gamified representation of rumor-spreading), and grinding stats evenly and carefully enough to guarantee that only six of the game’s dozen girls ever appear. Breaking his own rule about not consulting guides, Rogers learns that the club Shiori joins is mathematically determined by her own birthday, so he chooses St. Patrick’s Day to ensure that she and the protagonist speedily join the same club and that her birthday doesn’t come too early in the game to be useful. Maybe we’re in too deep, but isn’t it a bit weird that we control the birthday of the perfect girl whose heart we’re trying to win, such that it becomes like moving a piece on a gameboard? Another crack, maybe.
After a fumbling start which made this little ploy almost immediately meaningless, Rogers breaks yet another rule and reloads. Setting both the player character’s and Shiori’s birthdays to the same day (!!!) and conspiring to again have them both join the same club, he heads off to the races. He begins to raise all of his stats together, although he keeps his science stat just below the threshold needed to meet the “science girlfriend” Yuina Himoo, not willing to risk her unpredictable bombing pattern. Using his frankly scary knowledge of Tokimeki Memorial, Rogers had arranged for the player character to avoid a girl he doesn’t even know about, his role as digital watchmaker now becoming apparent. A big crack. During dates with Shiori, Rogers consistently chooses the best, most romantic conversation option, for which the game visually rewards the player by suddenly contorting her face into a pronounced blush. He compares this to the thrill of killing a boss in an action game, and playfully dons Pavlov’s coat by playing a headshot sound effect after each blush. Emboldened by his success, Rogers asks Shiori to walk home and “she said yes. She would never stop saying yes for the rest of the game.” A chilling statement, especially as it is delivered on an extreme close-up of Shiori’s face as the colors gray out. Reflecting on a date with Shiori to the movie theater to see “Tokimeki Memorial’s in-game equivalent of Forrest Gump,” Rogers realizes that he had become more manipulative than “even the screenwriters of the real Forrest Gump.”
The game tries to stop him: at one juncture, he has three dates lined up with three girls at three different places on three consecutive weekends, and the protagonist twice asks himself “where were we supposed to meet again?” offering the player monologue choices of three locations. “If this had been the Monty Hall problem, I’d have certainly chosen one of the other two places,” Rogers says, but it was and it wasn’t. “I was Monty Hall,” he brags. On an amusement park date with Shiori, the protagonist notices that a special show is taking place; he clearly wants to go, but a memory flashes from a prior playthrough of the game indicating that Shiori hates novelty shows, and so Rogers elects to disappoint him. The identity of Tokimeki Memorial’s protagonist as semi-autonomous from the player now comes into focus. “At this point, I had begun to dislike both the man my avatar was becoming and the person I was for marionette-manipulating him,” Rogers says. Maybe this admission snaps our suspension of disbelief, because why would anyone take all of this minutiae so seriously? Yet if individual sentences in novels, chords in songs, and tricks of light in television and movie scenes regularly make us feel things and join our memories, then why shouldn’t we be prepared for our choices in interactive media to do the same?
The perfectly orchestrated playthrough begins to buckle and give way. Rogers reloads again after an unfavorable prayer on New Year’s Day, and then again when the most romantic conversation option was not available on a subsequent date with Shiori. An outing with Shiori to the pool triggers a random special date event in which she kicks the player character in the back on the water slide as a prank, followed by a “genuinely heart laugh” and a realization for Rogers that, after endless hours of preparing to romance Shiori, he genuinely knew nothing about her. On three occasions, lines of dialogue spoken by Shiori extract digressive memories of Rogers’s friends in Japan saying exactly identical things to him, and he begins to trace his subsequent histories with those friends before trailing off. Shiori’s face contorts into a permanent blush shortly before Rogers is prompted to reload once more. He then embarks on a miniature quest to create the perfect circumstances under which to reconstruct the blush; he pumps his fist when it does, even as it visibly takes the life out of him. Another special event scene follows, during which Shiori points out marks that she and the player character had made of their heights when they were children, wondering why they had fallen out of touch. A subsequent scene with Shiori during Christmas pushes this thread further, as she reminds the player character that they used to celebrate Christmas together every year as children, then asked which of them stopped the tradition to celebrate with friends of their own gender? The player character responds, of his own accord, “uh… me?” only to be met by a teasing Shiori revealing that it had actually been her. Rogers responds with effortless frankness: “I felt my brain tearing in half. In this game about knowing people, I felt like I didn’t know anybody.”
The knowledge spills out faster and further. On the protagonist’s shared birthday with Shiori during the final year of the game, she invites him to her house to eat a cake she had baked for the two of them. She reminisces about how as children, they would always celebrate their birthdays together in her bedroom, swooning about the “romantic beauty of two best friends sharing the same birthday.” More than a year of casually watching this video and I can never make it past this part without shedding a single tear, even as a third-hand observer. We are made voyeurs to such a private, intimate recollection of an edenic pre-gendered childhood as a reward for a particularly cold, algorithmic approach to playing the game. As if to throw an emergency ballast to our sinking hearts, as well as his own, Rogers illuminates a figment of humanity in his approach. After a business meeting that Rogers once had with the famously eccentric video game auteur Goichi Suda (aka “Suda51”), the two got to talking about Tokimeki Memorial. Rogers recalls the oddly specific advice Suda gave him: “Make sure you make your birthday and Shiori Fujisaki’s birthday the same day. And make sure it’s a bank holiday in March 1997.” Shiori’s trancelike blush and her eyes, the “cold eyes of a hypnotized robot,” remind Rogers of Demetrius, who out of tragical necessity remains the only character to still be enraptured by magical love when he exits Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “We own our own minds. Imagine that taken from you,” Rogers states. He turns to Shiori, a “virtual person containing moments of raw personality just hidden enough under an ocean of game mechanics to make her feel real. I had written her into this. Redrawn her into this.” When Rogers sees Shiori next, her permanent blush and hypnotized love for the protagonist make her appear “genuinely dead.”
On the final day of the game, despite these considerably vulnerable moments between the player character, Shiori, and himself, Rogers was still unassured of victory. There were a few statistical discrepancies between the protagonist and Shiori of the game state and the pair of real, human lives he had come to know. Yet he finds the anonymous summons to the tree of legend, indicative of having reached a good ending. As the final shot slowly pans up to reveal the face of the anonymous sender, we see her hands clutching her heart, and Rogers clutches his own.
We adopt wholesale some of the annoying habits of our influences. Without spending nearly 1700 words describing this last playthrough segment, I could not credibly declare that this is where the work transcends the bounds not only of the video game review, but those of criticism itself. So far, we have seen “ACTION BUTTON REVIEWS Tokimeki Memorial” as a historical survey, a substantial work of memoir, and an act of simultaneous curation and independent artistic statement akin to Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s notorious readymade Fountain, the mental image most of us carry of that most famous urinal. Here, it acquires an additional characteristic: the capacity of a piece of criticism to be experienced as psychological fiction. This segment is replete with realizations that things are not quite right, disturbing images, wild lurches into memory, profoundly moving developments, and an inverted cliffhanger concealing an outcome that we care about far less than the excavated truths that are to immediately follow. The end of the narrative-fictive layer coincides with the heating up of the psychological one. “You stand upon the threshold of dark territory,” Rogers warns in an intermission ahead of the sixth segment (entitled “The Point: "The Itch The Freak Scratched" (or, "Myself Isn't Here")”). Before the game has shown the face of the girl under the tree of legend, Rogers sees his previous playthroughs flash before his eyes. No matter how you decide to play Tokimeki Memorial, the figure of Shiori Fujisaki looms large: you see her every day across your bedroom window and at school, and you talk to her after school and on dates. During his second through thirteenth playthroughs, Rogers “friend-zoned Shiori Fujisaki every which way the game let” him as he learned so much about her, including things that “damaged [him] to have learned.” Rogers demonstrates, by means of side-by-side comparison of voice clips, that when you reject or ignore Shiori, she responds with a palpable forlornness that should hurt an attentive, conscientious player. On his eighth playthrough, Rogers was stunned to witness a random event in which the protagonist, without the player’s input, has a snippy, terse conversation with Shiori, as if the two were an unhappy couple. This conversation is prompted by Shiori refusing to sit for an artist, telling the protagonist that she hates having her portrait drawn. Rogers takes the comfort level and intimacy required to make this declaration as a sign that Shiori already loved the protagonist, and, in fact, had likely always loved him.
When he realizes that events of poignance such as this were likely only witnessed by a handful of people who lucked into the highly specific game state needed to trigger them, Rogers throws his idiosyncratic experience with the game into relief against what he imagines to be the median one. Many people likely played Tokimeki Memorial as if they were taking a personality test, perhaps wooing their favorite girl and then talking about it with a friend who had had a completely different playing experience, and then moving on with their lives. “What did you spend to make this perfect girl blush?” Rogers asks himself, over the expected image of Shiori’s face under the tree. The self-excoriation continues: “Look at her. First, she was to you… a final boss with softer verbs. Now you’ve done it and you’ve duped her, you’ve worse than duped her, you practically wrote her.” His voice faltering, Rogers begins to alight on authorial intent: “When you make a game that feels like a person, you make a player that feels bad to treat that person like an object.” He falters for a moment, and then continues: “Ain’t love changing yourself for someone else. Ain’t love a two-way street?” As he sorts through his deluge of feelings at the game’s true ending, Rogers gains confidence that his particularly grueling, emotionally draining experience of playing Tokimeki Memorial was the intended one. He hypothesizes that nobody ever played Tokimeki Memorial, without external assistance, and won Shiori Fujisaki’s love “on their first try, simply out of the pureness of their heart.”
A trace of the provocateur remains in Rogers as he has grown as a critic and person beyond his early 20s. In the first few minutes of the review, Rogers stated as the “bottom line” that “Tokimeki Memorial objectifies love.” Here, at the heart of the heart of the video, Rogers puts forth the similarly-worded statement that we may have been thinking all along: “Tokimeki Memorial objectifies women.” Yet this is not a fifth hour heel turn into liberal feminist pillory. Rogers acknowledges that the game, like a lot of popular animated Japanese media, contains handful of by-the-book ecchi scenes like up-skirts and peeping, and that the bombing mechanic does not exactly challenge the notion of women as gossipy and emotionally volatile. Rather, he means the verb “objectify” in the more defamiliarized sense of game design. Every game contains objects that are manipulable by players. In Tokimeki Memorial, those objects are women, who are manipulated by choosing lines of conversational dialogue, yes/no responses to walks home or date invitations, and gifts. Rogers remembers the very first date he ever had with Shiori in his first, naïve playthrough, during which he realized that a dialogue option that he eschewed for being too saccharine and cheesy was likely the “correct” choice that would have most impressed Shiori. “I had made it exactly 31 minutes, 17 seconds, and 12 frames into Tokimeki Memorial before I stopped treating Shiori Fujisaki like a person, and started treating her like a fictional character,” Rogers states with organized precision. He clarifies: “I started to think of her like she was a character in a story I was writing.” From that moment on, Rogers “coldly began writing the mundanely perfect story, at the end of which Shiori and I would truly wind up together.” Through hundreds of little objectifications, he wound up writing a story that should have been even more grandly romantic, the protagonist and Shiori being relieved of their mutual social objectification of one another via a watchmaker’s hand guiding them into requiting their unrequited love. And yet, the actual process had felt grotesque, unnatural, and inhumane. The contortion of the protagonist into Shiori’s ideal man required substantial objectification of outward masculinity. The position of Tokimeki Memorial’s designers, Rogers divines, is that “the ideal girl doesn’t really exist to be won. She exists in 12/13ths of its parallel realities, to make you better from afar as you admire her unrequitedly and fadingly.” The process of winning her feels like breaking the game.
The narrative design of Tokimeki Memorial “slowly transforms the player into co-writer,” Rogers observes. Through a reading that is definitionally queer, his review of Tokimeki Memorial morphs its source material into a brilliant, enthralling, multifaceted art object. In writing about the review, am I obligated to continue the pattern of transmutation? When Rogers chose Tokimeki Memorial to review, he was looking forward to “pretending to relive high school.” I first watched the review on the day it premiered on New Years’ Day, 2021, sitting in a little nook by the top of the stairs in the house my family and I had moved to when I was in 10th grade. The school is just a couple of miles away from my house, yet if physical distance corresponded with emotional distance, it might as well be located on Saturn. Not only had I not lived my ideal high school life, but with the way that I had lived, such a life would not have even been visible on the horizon. When I graduated, I was five years away from having sex for the first time, nine years away from beginning to unravel my sexuality and gender, and twelve and a half years from being relieved from feeling like I was sabotaging myself whenever I worked on something I cared about. I elected to vicariously enjoy Rogers’s whimsical imaginative journey as a stowaway specifically because I knew that I could never have a parallel sojourn, as I simply recognize too little of myself in the pieced-together memory fragments of my mid-teen years to have anything to work with. Rogers emerged from his journey with a set of new perspectives on the form and nature of love. I emerged from my ride with him with a crystallized perspective on the nature of form itself. This six-hour digital film is the physical form taken by a 26 year personal relationship between a man and a game, and all of the attendant impressions, thoughts, memories, and tears. When we meticulously render our entire relationship with something into art, what shape does it naturally take? How much of this idealized response is amputated by the formal limitations of a novel, a personal essay, an album, or a film? The recent surge in popularity of literary autofiction, and the heated contesting of its definition and parameters, strongly hints at an answer. We enjoy art located at the fault lines of form as long as it is comprehensible to us. We trust good writers to keep us engaged as they self-mythologize. Many of us first encountered well-known ideas not in treatises or monographs, but in partially-digested form within works of fiction, such as Tolstoy’s rejection of the thesis that great men are the drivers of history in the epilogue to War and Peace. Tim Rogers provides us with another possibility: an organized, exhaustive piece of criticism that runs its audience through all the emotional beats of psychological fiction to render us maximally receptive to its conclusions. As a greater proportion of art flows from dissolution of form, criticism must be prepared to respond in kind with a fluidity of its own.
1. Klosterman, Chuck. “The Lester Bangs of Video Games.” Esquire, 30 June 2006, https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/news/a797/esq0706kloster-66/.
2. Rogers, Tim. “Bioshock.” Action Button Dot Net, 25 May 2008, http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=371.
3. Bangs, Lester. “Black Sabbath.” Rolling Stone, 17 September 1970, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/black-sabbath-188300/
4. Bangs, Lester. "Astral Weeks (1979)." Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus, Anchor Books, 1987, pp. 20-29.
5. Rogers, Tim. “Super Mario Bros. 3.” Action Button Dot Net, 14 August 2008, http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=426.
6. Rogers, Tim. Large Prime Numbers. http://largeprimenumbers.com/
7. Ellison, Cara. "Embed with … Tim Rogers." Embed With Games: A Year on the Couch with Game Developers, Polygon Books, 2015, pp. 40-56.
8. Rogers, Tim. “1994: The Kotaku Review | Tim Rogers | Kotaku.” YouTube, uploaded by Kotaku, 27 December 2019,
9. Rogers, Tim. “ACTION BUTTON REVIEWS Tokimeki Memorial.” YouTube, uploaded by Action Button, 1 January 2021,