Osamu Sato. This name happens to be mentioned from time to time by gaming enthusiasts in the depths of the Internet, where this strange man's creative impulses seem to have spawned kind of a cult following. There isn't much that is known about him, though. He was born on April 14, 1960 and graduated from the Kyoto Institute of Technology. He first worked for an agency called Moss Advertising, but left around 1988 to start a freelance career with the "Osamu Sato Design Office" as a multimedia artist, dabbling in CG illustration, video art and electronic music. His first independant work is a psychedelic typographical collection called Alphabetical Orgasm which was exhibited in Tokyo in 1991. From an artistic standpoint, he mentions Russian avant-garde, with elemenets of futurism and bauhaus as his greatest influences. But also, and above all, he had a boundless love for the computer as a creative tool. Sadly, there exists no real interview with Sato, so that's probably the most detailed info available. Where it starts to get really interesting is in the year of 1994, when the studio he funded - renamed to OutSide Directors Company - developed his very first video game, an oddity called Tong-Nou.
He also constantly sports very cool shades.
The game wasn't much of a success. It was initially released in Japan as a Macintosh exclusive, after all. They did re-release it for Windows computers and apparently had (eventually doomed) plans for a PlayStation port, but it was a weird move from the start. Yet, Sony Imagesoft thought it was totally worth trying to market this oddball experiment in the West for some reason, and localized the game for the PC under the name of Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou the following year. The reason why they would even consider doing that is left to anybody's guess, but it hardly gives us any reason to complain, since it means the game was made available to unassuming Western gamers.
The story was co-written by Hiroko Nishikawa, who returned as a scenarist on most of Sato's works. The game follows the misadventure of Rin, a young man who wakes up to realize the absence of a soul - a spiritual essence without which he'll end up dying as a empty shell. The thief? The enigmatic island of Tong-Nou, a distant location of the Far East which is said to devour the souls of human being. Set on getting his hands back on his immaterial attribute, Rin visits someone called "Kashiro" who lends him his own soul for fourty-nine days - just enough for an adventure on the mysterious island. After having sailed beyond the ocean to an intersidereal void, Rin finally has Tong-Nou in sight. Except the island happens to take the form of a gigantic, greenish representation of Osamu Sato's face.
Yeah, the island of Tong-Nou is a colossal head hovering in the midst of nothingness, and yes, it's Sato's very own head. Why? Who knows, really. This otherworldly location houses a deep network of spiritual worlds that you can access through its earholes or the grotesque cavities in its cheeks. What seems like a nervous system of its own is divided into four areas: the Land of Life (Ming-ken), the Land of Time (Shi-chieng), the Land of Desire (Yui-wang) and the Land of Dreaming (Mon-chien). And if you want to get your soul back, these unexplored regions will require your thorough inspection.
The least that can be said is that the game's tone is definitely set. At first, in spite of its raw craziness, the game looks rather classical in its approach. On the surface, it's a '90s Myst-like first-person adventure game where you click around to move between screens and interact with characters or items - nothing new here. However, you'll soon start having the feeling that something is kind of... off.
And it's the fact that you have NO idea where you're supposed to go or what you're supposed to do. Literally. Sure, adventure games back then could be obtuse at times, but you didn't just get stuck walking in circles after ten minutes of gameplay. Furthermore, trying to fiddle with what lies around only seems to bring more confusion as to what's going on. Besides, Tong-Nou is not really the most secure of places, and you'll inevitably get yourself killed by clicking the wrong stuff while trying to find your feet around this mind-boggling place.
But it's nothing to worry about.
Actually, that's what you're supposed to do. Die. Because nothing ever really ends in Tong-Nou. In the very first half-hour of the game, the only way to make any real progress is to die, which is where the adventure really begins. After dying, you do not disappear - instead, you get to "transmigrate". What is transmigration? Well, it's the process through which you get reincarnated in different entities that act as a vessel for the soul you borrowed. In a glimpse of Buddhic metaphysics, "Game Over" just doesn't exist in this game. Life is a permanent cycle, and dying from whatever abomination's wrath implies not a harsh halt to your playing session but new beginnings as you're simply taken back to the Tree of Life to transmigrate once again, as if nothing had happened.
The game's goal then becomes clearer. You need to fulfill the fate of each of these entities through which you can transmigrate - nine in total - to get your own soul back. To start a quest, you have to choose a set of facial attributes (eyes, nose, mouth) at the roots of the Tree of Life, which will spawn one of these entities that will be your flesh and blood for a while - that is, until you get killed and are reincarnated, or until you do complete the quest in question.
There is no real order in which to complete these quests, so the game is very non-linear, and some operations can actually be completed in different ways. Your progression and inventory are left untouched when you die as well, so you can almost switch between incarnated entities at will, and it's kind of pleasing to be allowed to take a try at another quest when you get stuck in one. Just let yourself die and start anew from the Tree of Life.
But what are these missions about? Most of the people who have finished the game will agree that words cannot describe it. Oh, there is sort of a vague guiding line, but that will hardly hint you that well at what you're meant to seek. How are you supposed to understand that the mission requested of the entity called "Byou" is to get to the depths of the Tree of Life by making its face sneeze to get hold of a secretly-guarded eyeball that you'll then need to mount on the King of the Land of Dreaming's eye socket using a monkey wrench?
Well, the answer is pretty straightforward: You can't. You just... don't.
It's probably one of the most daring aspects of the game, and what makes it so unique - its hardline surrealism. Sure, messed up logic was not unusual in most of that era's adventure games. But here, it's not just about a few hard riddles - it's about a whole game purposely stripped of all logic.
And, strangely enough, it's not annoying at all. Quite the opposite, actually. Most of the time, if you get stuck in an adventure game, it's easy to get frustrated. But in Tong-Nou, this total lack of common sense just... makes sense. Being clueless as to what the heck is going on is part of the experience; immersing oneself in a dimension where regular human concepts do not apply is part of the travel. It's true you'll definitely need to glance at the walkthrough from time to time, especially towards the end where annoying backtracking is required. But it's only after a long and clueless time of wandering through the incomprehensible that one resolves to break the spell and reveal the answer. Do know that you can buy an in-game encyclopedia at the Ghost Market that lies beyond the eye of cyclop stones, but be warned that the quantity of trivia per actual clue will only contribute to the slow but inescapable transition of your consciousness to Osato-induced hypnosis. Not that you'd mind at this point, really. It's what the pleasure of experiencing Tong-Nou is all about.
This is indeed the game's greatest and most striking force - it manages to drive you to willingly abandon all logic, to try the most senseless solutions and to leave you in total awe of what happens as a result. The deeper you get in the island, the more consistency as you know it seems to dissolve, and the more you end up adopting Tong-Nou's wicked surreality as a regular thought pattern, especially since we're not under the constraining threat of death anymore.
What's great is that this freaky premise is greatly supported by the game's off-beat visual and musical aspects. Osamu Sato isn't just some crazy game designer - he's also an equally atypical and talented illustrator and composer.
Tong-Nou's landscapes are as artificial as they are oniric - as if they were the expressionistic representations of what goes in the mind of a processing unit come to life. However, they seem like a minor detail when compared to the character designs. All of the creatures in the game are made of a grossly modelized mash-up of simple geometrical shapes that have no regard for the laws of anatomy or physics, which kind of gives the impressions that these were created using automatic drawing, under the influence of mind-altering substances. The end result sits somewhere between the ethnic side of hippie artcraft, what alien hieroglyphs would probably look like, and procedural fractals determined by an AI from the '90s - the '90s of another planet, that is.
This style will basically become Sato's trademark and return in most if not all of his works - actually, he had already theorized that concept in his 1193 guide to CG creation called The Art of Computer Design.
"As in music, when using the computer to create graphics you begin with a vague image. You begin to create something, and this is followed by the appearance of various new ideas in your mind. You don't create by following directions. You create because you want to make something new. That is the wish. Different people have different ways of creating, but the computer is an ideal tool for all." Osamu Sato
An example of the process he goes through on a regular basis.
Of course, knowing Sato's love for computers, it goes without saying that the soundtrack would be made up of electronic music. Technically, it's one of the most experimental soundtracks you'll ever get to hear in a video game. It sounds like a very personal take on old-school electro with a very new age-ish bent, with synthetic drums and mesmerizing pads. Some of the most spacey tracks go as far as to recall early experimentations with synthesizers as it was found in krautrock during the '60s, even though a progressive house beat sometimes find its way into the mix. There couldn't have been anything more fitting to the game's atmosphere - it's as cosmic as it gets. Also, some of the game's sounds were featured on Sato's 1995 album, Transmigration.
It's no surprise the idea of a disorienting dream-like environment would resurface a bit later in Sato's carreer - that's where he truly gives the best of himself. The game does have some of the usual flaws commonly found in adventure games of the era, but that certainly is where the comparison stops. Through its deregulation of the player's senses and Buddhic approach to death and reincarnation as much as in its visual and musical proesses, Sato's fascinating brainchild is by far one of the most unique - and mind-screwing - games you will ever get to play.
One could attempt to find meaning to Rin's adventure through Sato's head, the same way religious disciples would try to find the meaning behind the parable of a monk on acid. Yet you'll probably feel more like letting it flow than trying too hard to pin a definitive explanation on it. Why? Because...
All that has been acquired will be inherited to the next life.
Your soul will continue this travelling eternally.
Into the infinite and eternal future.
Make of that what you will.