An unnamed feeling sets in around your mid-20s, perpetually itching the back of your brain as if someone scraped out the soft nub of your visual cortex and replaced it with the crunchy Styrofoam from inside a stuffed animal from the country fair. Too mild to be free-floating anxiety, too insistent to be ignored, it manifests as a nagging concern that there’s something you’re supposed to be doing right now. You forget what it is, but you also don’t really care. Years of adulthood are required to finally name that feeling: boredom. Life is repetitive whether you’re working like a dog or living out your fantasies, and part of growing up is contending with the numbing pall of boredom until it passes. Inevitably, that boredom turns into eventfulness—a new friend, a bad day, a lost opportunity, unusual weather. When things are happening, we don’t notice. We’re caught up. Kyle Hyde, the put-upon ’70s detective of Hotel Dusk: Room 215 knows that feeling. Even teenage Ashley Robbins, the old soul starring in Another Code R: A Journey Into Lost Memories, knows it. That feeling, against all logic, defines their stories.
Good storytelling is directly at odds with the average cycle of boredom. There’s no time for characters to just go through the motions. The great story, as they say, follows its characters at the most interesting time in their lives. Footage of Luke Skywalker actually going to Toshi Station to pick up power converters in the original Star Wars was filmed but cut because, honestly, who gives a damn? Our sharing a character’s life for a while is dependent entirely on how relevant what they’re doing is in the larger scheme of the work they appear in, and the storyteller who forgets that is inevitably doomed—unless that storyteller is Cing, the now defunct developer behind the likes of Hotel Dusk and Another Code R.
Its series of mystery games for Nintendo DS and Wii are so languidly paced, so free of incident, that they can cure insomnia. Even when you meet ghosts or solve cold-case murders in Cing’s Nintendo games, the events don’t feel momentous. They blend into the lackadaisical flow of Ashley’s and Kyle’s lives. The most interesting times are present, but they’re inextricably woven into the rest, sharing space alongside every mundane conversation with short order cooks and guarded bystanders. These stories shouldn’t work at all, but they do because we recognize the truth of them. It would be boring if it didn’t feel so natural.
Kyle and Ashley may have already lived the most interesting moments of their lives before their games even start. When Hotel Dusk opens in 1979, Kyle’s left behind his life as an NYPD detective and settled into the distinctly 20th-century profession of traveling salesman. He arrives at the eponymous hotel, both to ply his trade and settle unfinished business from his hard-boiled days. He’s actually hunting for his old partner, who went missing after the pair investigated an organized crime ring and its art-forging operation.
Were Elmore Leonard to sit down and take the reins of this premise, Kyle’s story would probably be a whole lot more exciting. It would be turned into a wry series of twists and turns, with unexpected violence, betrayal, and long drags off cigarettes at sunset. That stuff does happen throughout Hotel Dusk, but those moments come between scenes so dry they could start a brush fire. Kyle saunters around the hotel for hours and hours, taking his time to talk to every last guest and employee about their lives and what brought them here. In trying to pick up clues, he gets roped into long drinks with Louie, the hotel’s all-purpose lackey, learning about his old days as a thief and his ridiculous crush on Mila, the mysterious amnesiac girl who resembles the daughter of Kyle’s missing partner. Most of the time, Kyle is wandering the halls just trying to figure out which random conversation or nightstand drawer will contain the story’s next bread crumb. Even when he discovers hidden rooms and the secret history of the hotel’s current owner, those revelations seamlessly lead back to blind fumbling.
The pleasure of Hotel Dusk is an unusual one, then. Rather than getting a thrill from each plot twist or tense confrontation, the flavor comes from Kyle’s comfort in his own skin. He isn’t rushing around the hotel like an obsessed gumshoe. He ambles and checks the place out slowly, as restless as anyone whose job takes them to weird hotels. He patiently meets with other residents, absorbs what they have to say, and gets to know them gradually.
Finishing the game, finally learning who Mila is and what happened to Kyle’s partner—it feels less like the wrapping up of a tight tale than it does the end of another week in Kyle’s life. He’s a little different, but he’s still the same guy deep down, still struggling with painful memories and figuring out what to do with himself. That inconclusive feeling carries over into the follow-up, Last Window: The Secret Of Cape West. Picking up just a year later, Kyle’s living his life in an apartment complex. He eventually uncovers new truths about his father’s death, but he also spends a lot of time hanging out with the other tenants and in the diner connected to the building. It would be infuriating in another story, but with Cing at the helm, it feels just right. “Satisfyingly uneventful” isn’t the quote a developer wants on the back of a game box, but it’s the honest way to sell Kyle’s games, as well as Another Code R.
Another Code R was the only mystery Cing made for Nintendo on one of its home consoles. The change in presentation from tiny characters on static backgrounds to a fully realized place you can wander around adds a colorful new dimension to the Cing atmosphere. While Ashley Robbins is just a teenager without the miles on her life that Kyle Hyde had, she has, as they say, been through some shit, making her more of an adult than she seems. Because of their work studying memory, Ashley’s scientist parents were both taken away from her when she was a toddler. Her mother was murdered and her father mysteriously disappeared. In Another Code R’s predecessor, Trace Memory for the DS, Ashley travels to a Myst-like island, meets a ghost, and tracks down her dad. It was a disjointed story that never congealed in the way Hotel Dusk does, but it did set the stage for Another Code R’s satisfyingly uneventful story of reconciliation on a family vacation gone awry.
Ashely travels to Lake Juliet to go camping with her father. This is the first time Dad and his understandably hurt daughter have seen each other in months. When she gets to the lake, situated near a research facility and the neighboring company town, her time unfolds much as Kyle’s did in Hotel Dusk. Ashley gets caught up in troubling memory experiments, solving a missing person’s case, revealing the truth behind an unsolved murder, and even reconciling an elderly landowner with her estranged daughter. A sociopath with a gun and shadowy corporate agents threaten her and her father multiple times.
Every one of these big moments comes sandwiched among hours of conversation, careful observation of the small town, and most importantly, long walks between the little pocket world of this town, a local park, and an unfinished lakeside resort. While conspiracy and pain wait underneath Another Code R’s facade, Ashley spends most of her time picking up cans to recycle for a shot at a prize at the lake’s visitor center. She hangs out with the owner of a diner, discussing her ambition to be a guitar player and his dream of making the perfect salmon burger. When she catches up with her dad, finally, they don’t quite know how to talk to each other, and instead, she does some simple meal prep for a barbecue at the campgrounds.
All of these Cing mysteries blur the line between major plot points and the average boredom of living these characters’ lives. For every moment of danger, there are two of wandering around or talking to someone about something that doesn’t matter. Another Code R extends that feeling of a realistically flowing life by literally giving you the time to think about everything she’s doing. The next conversation or incident doesn’t just spring up; you have to walk between them, chewing on your relationships and the events of your day. As with the average day in a real life, Ashley is surrounded by space and time that isn’t automatically filled for her. The story isn’t thrust endlessly forward by the mechanisms of plot and video game activities. It ambles along and doubles back, sometimes seemingly without purpose.
The result is unexpectedly intoxicating, as invigorating as a morning you get up and realize precisely how miraculous it is just to be awake. We come to love not just Ashley’s new friends but also the space around her—the painterly wash of Lake Juliet in the background, the sudden rush of leaves and wind as she jogs between town and the campgrounds. The interior life of thoughts and connections meets the physical reality of her world, and it echoes our own. I play Another Code R and notice the small things I’m grateful for in the apparent repetition of my own routine. Cing’s games didn’t capture the attention of many, and the studio closed shortly after the release of Last Window. But it did capture a rare phenomenon in its games: the beauty of real boredom, the color of a natural life.