I am looking for a payphone in Shibuya.
Empty, recently abandoned, and digital – it’s the setting of Ghostwire: Tokyo, where all the humans who once roamed the streets have been transformed into floating blue spirits. Now, the main inhabitants are malevolent entities, humanoid in appearance only. Faceless creatures brandishing umbrellas or scissors.
The blue spirits are currency, collectibles positioned down alleyways or on rooftops or in parking lots when they’re not the spoils for completing some open-world task. At a payphone, I can exchange them for different currency, like the experience points that I, in turn, pump into the skill trees meant to drive my progress by imposing structure on the open world. The other currency is money, to be spent on things like ammunition or health consumables or more paper containers for the spirits, which boost the maximum I can hold before needing to hit up a payphone to empty the tank. It feels a little like emptying out gasoline so that a vehicle may eventually hold more gasoline.
Admittedly, there are times when I find it difficult to tear myself away from this loop, strung along by shimmering sound effects and striking, elaborate animations where my character’s hands pop up in front of the first-person viewpoint to make the gestures that make me recall watching Bleach, Naruto, and other anime whose characters confront the supernatural. There are times when I don’t mind the wandering, either, because finding a payphone is a roundabout means of forcing me to take in the sights and grounding me in a particular sense of place.
But there are equally as many times where I find myself infuriated by how incremental the progress seems, how clearly I can picture myself trudging fruitlessly after a carrot attached to a stick. And it’s in these moments that I think about Mr. Sun’s Hatbox, a far more unassuming game than all the other, extravagant ones that celebrate my ability to make the numbers go up even though Mr. Sun’s Hatbox is quite plainly inspired by them, itself built around skill trees and progress bars and a persistent base-building component.
MR. SUN’S HATBOX
That’s the joke, in a sense: Mr. Sun’s Hatbox is an unassuming platformer, where I select a colorful, bloblike character to take through a randomly-generated mission. But in between, I’m gathering weapons and dodging armed guards, who are also blob people whose necks (do they have necks?) can be snapped. Who can kill my character permanently. And on my way through, in addition to the discordantly mortal stakes of my platforming, I’m dealing with interlocking systems reminiscent of the games we call “immersive sims.” When one of my blobfolk has the “deadly throw” trait, for example, it means that they can hurl a blunt object and, instead of stunning the target, cause the same damage as with a knife; but if I miss and manage to hit myself with the blunt object instead, I also take damage. The store page has a succinct descriptor for the ways in which all these interactions produce unexpected and bizarre outcomes: slapstick.
And although Mr. Sun’s Hatbox has such common, game-y elements as the deified skill tree, the smaller scope allows the game to move through it with a far greater efficiency and satisfaction than other games, where all the aforementioned permadeath and neck-snapping and resource-harvesting might stand out less. In particular, it’s far more satisfying than Ghostwire: Tokyo, whose increments of progress feel more like fighting to reach a point of basic usability. Beyond the ability to pay to hold more spirits at once, so many of the nodes on the Ghostwire skill tree simply speed up animations – if I want to perform the necessary takedown animation 1.5x faster, I need to spend some skill points. Others bump up carrying capacities for items like talismans by an increment of one.
And among open-world games, Ghostwire’s incessant progress is hardly the only approach. Filling out the skill tree in vampiric looter-shooter Redfall feels glacial by comparison, and past a certain point I struggle to even discern what to upgrade — the baseline carrying amounts and animation speeds are adequate enough that upgrading them does not entice me at all.
Historically, I can’t pinpoint exactly when this focus on upgrades, crafting, and overt signals of progress began – Ghostwire is less an originator of this phenomenon than a follower of trends (and hardly the worst offender at that). But when my thoughts aren’t of Mr. Sun’s Hatbox, they travel to memories of playing Far Cry 3, whose early hours practically demand players to run around crafting pouches or bags in order to reach a point where every use of a weapon or tool doesn’t carry with it the need to poke around for a refill.
By contrast, the Hatbox skills do something else entirely; for as much as they superficially resemble these other games, they bring with them sweeping changes to how I approach the game: backup characters, pre-mission briefings. A few are the familiar boosts to carrying capacities and animation speeds, but they don’t feel arbitrary or tedious because they increase by larger increments and also take advantage of the game’s mission-based structure, resetting before each run. Rather than simply putting off the amount of time that passes before I engage in the busywork of replenishing my resources, the upgrades in Mr. Sun’s Hatbox expand the pool of options available to me at the start of a run. And in doing so, it alters how I interact with the objects I encounter along the way: what I choose to take back with me to my equipment stockpile at base changes altogether, and in other cases I gain confidence to take risks for items off the beaten path. I still run out of items, but the variety is such that I’m driven to experiment with other equipment loadouts and/or make use of whatever I procure on-site.
Hatbox, in other words, succeeds because it’s a game of adapting to the constantly-shifting circumstances before you. Well into the late-game stages, I’m encountering new skills that alter my perception of each level by either surfacing information I never had access to or blocking off certain avenues of play I’d come to rely on. Traits like the ability to see sound reveal mechanics the game has been governed by all along. Negative ones force me to improvise, drawing enemies to my position either through loud footsteps or a bad smell or cameras newly able to spot me through walls. Combinations of traits can be particularly deadly or particularly helpful — a character who’s physically incapable of damaging enemies can get by on temporarily knocking them out for a while, up until I start encountering armored enemies who can’t be stunned at all unless damage strips their armor away.
The skill trees and progress bars of so many other games struggle to refresh mechanics that become stale over time. To compensate for an unsatisfying core, they make a lot of noise about how far you’ve come. They stretch a gameplay loop we are ostensibly meant to enjoy to the breaking point. Mr. Sun’s Hatbox may be partly made in the image of these sorts of games with these sorts of development philosophies, but it does them one better for making its progress feel genuinely consequential without compromising its core mechanics. It’s a game from which I’d love to see the countless objects of its inspiration start taking notes.
Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer and editor who will not pick a pop culture lane. He and his cat are marooned in Ohio still.