Philosophy in a Pack of Cigarettes

Thoughts on “The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa”, a game by Yeo.

High school is a game of stages.

It starts full, fresh, exciting. Let’s take it from the top, people. You’ve got the rest of it ahead of you, and you know where, how, and with whom you will experience it all. You’ve got plans, certainly. Hopes. Ideas. Intent to make it all go down just how you drew it up in your mind. This happens, that happens, you take a few things too quickly, take other things too slowly, miss a chance to split some time with people. What that something is, is for time and you to shake out. You spend your time fretting and being molded by the gentle or course hands of experience. When it’s partway done, maybe you realize where you’ve locked into, what you are now, and who you might be. When it’s partway done, maybe you realize you’ve squandered something, but certainly not everything and that goddamnit you’re going to make the last part better than the first. Maybe when it’s partway done, you don’t even realize it and blaze right past. Just to keep going. Same as it ever was, right?

And then you’re down the final year. The final dregs, the last few puffs. The ones to make count. It’s been stressful, right? It’s been rough, right? You’ve spent all this time reaching from the same pack; and what happens now? It’s spent. Maybe you share those last moments with someone, or maybe you just crush through them; because goddamnit you just can’t wait to be done.

Ringo Ishikawa and his friends can’t wait to be done.

All images captured via in game screenshot on the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo/Yeo

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Ringo Ishikawa is a Japanese student in his senior year of high school. He’s the head of his school’s local gang of tough talkin’, smoking, fist fighting, and class cutting delinquents. The game opens with something that feels like an early 90’s anime that never got translated, as Ringo and his crew are laying the beat down on some punks from another school (who conveniently wear colors in sharp contrast to your own) while on a train ride to go beat up some more punks from another school. We’re introduced to mechanics, taught how life is going to work for the next 15-some hours with this game. A side scrolling beat ‘em up tapped from the same vein as River City Ransom. Punch, kick, block, grab. You know the rules of engagement, and are soon set loose to unleash your might and potential on an unsuspecting world of adolescent punks via a huge brawl with all your closest friends against the rival school. Title card, then cut to black.

So this is a game about beating people up with your friends.

The warm camaraderie and “blood brothers ‘til the end” nature of the opening scene is put into contrast with the following (in-game) day when you arrive at school and have a frank conversation with your favorite teacher.  He’s gruff, but he means well. Maybe some of this will sound familiar:

You’re a smart kid. You’ve got so much potential. If only you would apply yourself more. It’s not too late, you know. What are you going to do with your future…?

You know the type.

Sensei thinks you could do it, thinks you might be able to salvage your grades, and that you should at least try. He even incentivizes you with cash in exchange for good grades.

So this is a game about turning a life around, and maybe fighting some people in the process?

And that’s really the last bit of guidance the script of the game gives you. You start the next day fresh, alone, and in your room with everything before you and nothing to lose. I discovered quickly that while raising Ringo’s grades are a recommendation from a single person, they are not the goal, nor the point. Nor is defeating all the enemy gangs, because there’s always someone else. Nor is making money, or eating, or working out, or socializing, or any of the other systems the game provides you to engage with. Truly the game gives you next to nothing as far as explanation goes. Not when school starts, or ends, or what time to be where, or what there is to do.

So this is a game about… what?

I thought I knew what I was doing. I was keen on what the point of it all was here; I’d played Persona. Raise your skills and stats, earn some cash, hang out with your friends, and every few days there would be some kind of event or skill check that tests how well you’ve developed. There’s a level and status screen right in the main menu, after all. Maybe if I was lucky, I could flirt with or go on a date with the cute girl in my class. I had it figured out: this was a 2D life simulator game with solid beat ‘em up combat mechanics, social options and interactions, set in early 90’s small town Japan with graphics that were appropriately evocative of 16 bit games of the era; and aesthetically appropriate music to match.

Immediately I started going to school, and studying in classes. The game never outright explains how to do anything, like the fact that to “study” in class you need to hold the A button on the Switch.  This was a discovery I made quickly, but still felt charmingly drawn to. Such a small thing still felt engaging, in a way. If Ringo has to sit here and do something while the teacher drones on, then so do I. By day I went to classes, by afternoon and evening I gathered all the friends I could (of which there were plenty, particularly after the way we crushed those red uniformed goons from the other school), and wandered around town. We bought books, we ate burgers, we defended ourselves when those jerks in the purple uniforms wanted to pick a fight. We bought cigarettes from vending machines and smoked and lit each other’s cigarettes. At the end of the night I went home, slept, and began it all again the next day. The game has a constantly ticking clock that never relents in its passage of time. Working out takes about an hour, classes take three or four, reading some of the games many philosophical books takes time, and you likely won’t finish the longer ones in a single sitting. There is a lovely and languid pace to the game.  Events and character actions happen with or without you. Getting across the open world isn’t a problem, but deciding where and how you want to spend your time might be. If you were in class learning English while one of your friends was out getting into something or having an existential crisis and you weren’t there for them, you will likely never know about it. Looking back at my time, I wonder how much I missed.

After a few more days, and after acing the first set of tests, I had a cocky, smug, and utterly teenage realization: the game had never actually told me that I had to get my grades up all the way. I could do whatever I wanted, man. You’re not the boss of me, no one is. I’m making my own rules and my own game.

And I did. I skipped some classes, still went to others, hung out near the tiny gym in town and made friends with its owner basically by bugging him to let me work out there. I bought and read books. I got a part time job at the local video rental store, owned by what might be the world’s worst film hipster. And most importantly I made myself available to my friends. I got to know them, and care about having them with me. The one with the shaved head? That’s Goro. He’s a little thick but he’ll have your back and is always available. The blonde guy over there? That’s Masaru. To be honest, he’s kind of a dick but he’ll tell it like it is, that’s for sure. That guy in the back? That’s Ken. He’s not always available because his parents are strict and want him to study and keep up with boxing on the school team.

I began moving and living in this world on my terms; both in a way I thought maybe I had in the past and in a way that I had always wanted to do more of. My ragtag teenage warriors were kings of the town. This game hands you the power to live in a strangely limitless way. Even being defeated in combat doesn’t feel like the end of much of anything, except for maybe the day and the loss of a few hours. You wake up in your bed a few hours later, with no loss of money or items. Just some time man, but hey, there’s plenty of that. No one told you or set a timer on your time in this world, so who cares?

The systems and events in this game are what make it feel alive and organic. I noted above games like Persona, and to an extent games like Red Dead Redemption 2. If you miss a moment or scene or quest in big games like these on one day, just come back later. It’ll be there tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever. The developers made this content for you to see, and if you want to see it they will be happy to let you. You know how those things go, right? In something like a Harvest Moon, you know that if you missed the social event at the shop on Tuesday it’s okay because the game tells you. The game will tell you who has what schedule, and where they will be when. Of course Ann will be at the bar tomorrow night, she’s there every Wednesday, I can catch her and do the event then! And to be clear, this isn’t an indictment of those kinds of time mechanics in a game. I like them and appreciate them when a developer is trying to engage you with a character and their story; and you as the player are trying to live your best fantasy life. I bring this up to highlight the sheer flow of The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa. At one point two characters were talking about another character’s gambling and money problems. Ringo was just as ignorant as I was to them. Would I have known if I hung out with them more, talked to them more, or ran into them late one night at the local bar? I don’t know. What I do know, is that on my way home late one night I ran into one of my friends who is thinking he’s outgrowing the small town living, and wants to get the hell out to the big city ASAP, and that maybe he’s developing a taste for acting and poetry. Is it to impress a girl? Well, yeah, sure. But also dude, this Shakespeare guy is like, a pretty good writer or whatever. I also know that after picking a bunch of fights with the local green uniformed teenage ruffians, they decided they wanted an alliance. Their leader met me outside my school and kowtowed himself. I was happy to oblige and not beat them up anymore after that. They even began to help me in my quest to beat up other local teenagers who wanted to be the toughest school in the town. These moments are not some big unique moment in story telling, but are raw and simple. This game is strangely mysterious, in a way that I never knew if what I was doing actively caused some of the actions and reactions around me, or if it was the random hand of absurd chance that my actions coincided with new events. After all, sometimes doing nothing resulted in running into new events, too. Life in this town moved around me as much as I moved through it, with or without my intervention most of the time.

Dialogue doesn’t always feel like the words a teenager or young adult would use, but more often than not the writing certainly captures the feeling and attitude of this tender and emotional time of life. Characters often don’t know what to say to each other, and many emotional or existential scenes result in some form of “damn man…. That sucks.” Sometimes, the game posits, that’s all there is to say. You’ve reached the butt of the cigarette and that’s all there is. No more.

It reminded me of nights sitting on an empty playground, walking back from a local gas station at 2 AM, arms full of soda and snacks, and generally trespassing places we shouldn’t have been at that time of night. It reminded me of being hunkered down in the park near my friend’s house, puffing awkwardly on cheap grape cigarillos. It reminded me of someone talking about how worried they were about the future, and someone else talking about how they really liked this girl, man. She was really special, and they just wanted to talk to her. It reminded me that I never knew what to say when someone was struggling with more than my 16 or so years of life could comment on, and that even now trying to answer someone else’s question of “What am I doing with my life?” feels like a fool’s errand. Lots of speculation, maybe some hope. And god you hope you’re saying something that sounds halfway profound. And even when you pour out your deepest and most honest philosophies, the response to your call for connection is heartrending and hollow.

Ultimately this is a well-written and well thought out depiction of conversations between a bunch of kids that don’t know what they’re doing anymore than you did… or do.

Sure enough, life progressed for Ringo and I, but day by day things began to change. I lost my job at the local video store because I missed work too many times. The owner wanted me to come in twice a week around noon. The pay was good, but once I got back into classes, I couldn’t miss my afternoon lessons. This was entirely my choice, and not some game design or predestined event. I was warned that missing work would have consequences, and when school became more important to me, I got fired. That’s okay; the storeowner was a dick anyways. Super pretentious. Fuck that guy. So my income slowed down, and I had less money for movies, books, and hamburgers, but that’s okay. I got by. Still was getting income from my sensei for doing well on my tests. I made a choice, and as far as I was concerned it felt organic and it worked out okay. But it wasn’t just when life changed for me because of my choices that I started to really feel something for this game, it was when life changed for other people and there was nothing to be done for it.

One member of my gang, my friend, my party member, was getting into debt with some bad people. His gambling problem was getting worse. Another friend’s mom ended up in the hospital. Goro saw Ken kissing the girl he liked outside the park. He was heartbroken, and the depths of his despair were palpable. I tried to talk to Ken about it. Ken was flippant, and thought Goro needed to get over it. I tried, Ringo tried, we all tried, to keep things going and act as a fence to keep everything in and keep everyone at least vaguely together. And the effects of this were more than story and lore. They were tangible. As the group fractured and splintered, there were fewer members of the gang to take out with me. People who used to wait for me after school were no longer available. Party members who used to be scheduled and easy to find now skipped class every day and didn’t hang around after school. Ken had always been the smartest one of us, and now was going straight home to study for college. The game has an incredibly smart and real feeling method of slowing making characters and friends unavailable to you not because of some kind of binary choice that you fucked up on, but because that’s how it is. People are busy. People have things to do. People can’t be at your beck and call, people change and we aren’t kids anymore damnit, we have real shit to worry about. Not me though, all I needed to do was make some money to buy another book, or a game console and a TV. Or study. No one was mad at me, and the game never chided me for my choices or what had happened, it simply was. People grow apart. I often wandered the streets alone now, smoking at the dock or in the park by myself, listening to the game’s music and taking in its inspiring pixel city vistas. It was peaceful, and at first I didn’t notice the change much. I had leveled up, I had grown strong, acquired new skills, and if this was how it was going to be then fine; I’d take care on my own.

Even when I hit a point where I didn’t feel a need or desire to engage with the fighting system in the game, it delivered an emotional reason for me to start wrecking havoc. The leader of the red uniformed street punks (who I had been beating up a lot of) broke the hand of one of my gang members, one of my friends, one of my strongest fighters. Not only was he out of commission for me to use now, but also he was probably going to lose the boxing scholarship he was counting on because he couldn’t use that hand now in the upcoming tournament. After this event I fought every student in a red uniform I saw. My gang and I spent days demolishing any of them, or anyone fighting with them. The game tempted me to engage with a feeling and I took the bait. This temptation is brilliantly executed, as it begins to put more rivals from this school around the town, and they are certainly more aggressive to you than they were before, often attacking on site. This set up is about halfway through the game, and the pay off it leads to at the end is really something. I truly don’t want to spoil it because I think it’s best to be experienced first hand. I audibly reacted to how the game ends, and I had to slowly set my Switch down as the screen faded to black and the mellow groove played me out.

But the end isn’t really the point, right? Not the whole point, anyways. It was the trial of being a moody and melodramatic teenager that got me there. It was who Ringo had been before the game started, who I began to steer him into being, and who I felt like he was as a result of the interactions I did and didn’t have. I acted on things I thought I had to do, like studying. Did this provide me some kind of benefit or tangible reward that I would have failed the game without? No. It was about as impactful as pressing B to smoke whenever I wanted, holding R to walk like a delinquent with my hands in my pockets and a smug strut, or pressing buttons near scenery to sit on a park bench, lean on a railing, or hunker down as my friends and I shot the shit. Was there a point to any of it? Would I have done any of it different? Hell, I don’t know. I think I would, but would I have really? I did what I wanted, and that’s the rainy gray melancholy of this game: not everything has a point or purpose. Most things don’t; not intrinsically at least. The onus is on us when it comes to that. Was there a benefit to reading the longest book in the game or buying all the movies at the video store? No. But was it what I wanted and chose to do? Yeah. I ignored things and let go of things that the game was more than happy to let me engage with; like ping pong or billiards with friends and working out with a mechanic. I’m terrible at ping pong and not great at billiards either, why would I want to play those? This game isn’t about doing everything and seeing it all, it’s about doing what you want to do and seeing what happens as a result of your actions. Or seeing if anything happens as a result of your actions. The response of others or the world around you is never guaranteed. As I’ve illustrated the game turns you loose with little direction or command. Not even a game over screen for ‘failing’ something. It’s about getting to the end of adolescence and wondering if you wasted your days doing something that didn’t matter. It’s about how we connect with who we know, and what happens when those connections start to fray. It’s contemplation about what it means to be young and full of potential, and it’s about the crisis of “oh shit, have I wasted all of it?” and “oh shit, is this it?”

This game isn’t outright nihilistic, but it certainly is existential and ponders what the hell we’re doing with what we have (our “talent” as the game often puts it) and who we have around us. The game contends that maybe the ability to finish things and see them through is simply a talent that not everyone is born with. Maybe it could be cultivated. The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa is a game about how we live, told through the lens of an immensely vulnerable part of life when copious amounts of interests, habits, and traits can be formed. This isn’t a game about struggling in the face of adversity, or making a big comeback to win. This is a game about living on your terms. Because when it comes time for you to reckon with where life takes you, only you can see how you put yourself there.  

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