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Kenji Eno

A Growing Life

Game designer Kenji Eno left behind a legacy of singular horror, humor, and compassion.

By Anthony John Agnello • March 4, 2013

Kenji Eno scared the crap out of me when I was 13 years old. I didn’t know who he was at the time. I didn’t know that he was barely an adult himself at 24, running his own game studio, WARP. Didn’t know he’d cut his teeth making weird Nintendo games as a teenager, didn’t know he was a high school drop out who loved writing music and got along with his dad. Had I known his name at the time, I would have been hard pressed to say it correctly out loud.

Nonetheless, Kenji Eno scared the crap out of me with D in 1995, and I didn’t even play it. The advertisement in the back of Electronic Gaming Monthly was enough. It was the logo, hiding a woman’s face stained with tears, and the tiny screenshots of Laura, who had the haunted look of a Chris Van Allsburg painting. With just a few static images, Eno transformed video games into something mysterious and adult, something I didn’t quite understand.

Kenji Eno died of heart failure on February 20. He was 42 years old. He’d spent most of the last 10 years not making video games but playing music, working on weird pieces of technology, and trying his hand at whatever came up. He designed a hotel. He designed a restaurant and a smartphone app that let you buy soda from a vending machine without touching it. Eno was that kind of guy.

But from the late ’80s to the early ’00s, he was video games’ Frank Zappa, a talented, confrontational, and impressively business savvy young designer. His earliest work on the Nintendo Entertainment System, like the culinary monster tale Panic Restaurant, was offbeat but still familiar. When he founded his studio WARP, Eno found his voice making deeply surreal games that could be frightening, hilarious, and unusually kind, often at the same time. With the exception of some strays like the maddening One Dot Enemies on iPhone and You, Me, And The Cubes for Wii, Eno had abandoned the video game industry since finishing D2 in 2000.

Yet even though Eno had almost entirely left game making behind, his fingerprints linger, little tattoos on some of the most daring stuff made in recent years. Like most games, Eno’s creations were a group effort, but he did most of the work, directing and planning the projects in addition to composing sound effects and music.

The influence of D’s surreal horror can be seen in the 2010 cult favorite Deadly Premonition. And there are echoes of D’s branching story in everything from Mass Effect to Dishonored. Yet Eno’s most famous games are unique. You can literally run out of time in D. If you play for two hours without guiding Laura out of Los Angeles into a weird nightmarish castle, the game resets. D won’t let you save your progress, either, forcing you to play it all in one sitting start to finish.

Enemy Zero also feels familiar. Laura’s second outing, a science fiction story on a spaceship beset by nasty extraterrestrials, nailed the “claustrophobic wandering through empty hallways” made famous by Ridley Scott in Alien. Even wrought in the chunky graphics of the Sega Saturn, Zero was a lonely, scary game. Unlike its descendants, such as Dead Space and even BioShock, Zero is brutal to its players. All of the monsters you face in the game are totally invisible, detected only by sound. Like D, it demands your full attention.

So while traces of Eno’s work show up in many games today, his greatest achievements remain oddities. He had a giving sense of humor. After foisting the utter mindfuck D on players, a year later he made Short Warp, a mini-game collection that spoofed his own work. Each of Short Warp’s 10,000 copies were hand-numbered and came packed with a special WARP-brand condom. Eno said he made it because he wanted to help “balance” himself. Then there was the special edition of Enemy Zero. WARP sold 20 copies of the game for $2,000 apiece, which Eno hand-delivered in a rented truck. “I wanted to do that for a long time,” he said in 2008. “Actually give the product to customers. I wanted to do that for a long time, so I was really happy to do it.”

Eno possessed a rare compassion. D captured my mind when I was a boy, but it’s Real Sound: The Winds Of Regret that’s always fascinated me as an adult. Not being able to understand Japanese, I’ve never been able to play Real Sound. It’s not the sort of game that you can fumble through with a FAQ open on your iPad. There’s no point since Real Sound has no visuals whatsoever, just music, sound effects, and dialogue.

After Eno spent time with a group of blind people who loved action games even though they couldn’t see what was happening, he made a game you don’t need to see at all, so as to level the playing field. Eno’s publisher, Sega, wanted an exclusive deal from WARP after D and Enemy Zero became hits, so the company asked Eno to make Real Sound just for them. He did it on the condition that they donate 1,000 Saturns and copies of the game to blind players. At the precise moment when Eno was at his most commercially successful, he refused to chase popularity. Horror and flashy computer animation had made him famous, but what interested him most was making something unique to make underserved people happy.

The last game Eno released during his creative heyday was a Dreamcast remake of Real Sound. The remake had a new feature—the screen displayed some of Eno’s own photography as you played—and it also came with something else: a pack of herb seeds. The seeds served two purposes, according to Eno. They told people what type of game he was making before they even turned it on, and they helped players grow, to make something new.

When he died, Eno’s muse had already taken him far from video games. While recent flirtations like You, Me, And The Cubes hinted at a rekindled romance, we’ll never know if he would ever have come back to making these weird stories. But his art lasts, its roots still deep in the games we play, and his legacy is his implicit call to action: Make new things that grow.

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  • Citric

    Eno was also behind the mysterious Sunman, which started development as a Superman game before being rebranded and then quietly cancelled. It’s not where you would expect his career to begin, but did he do anything you would expect?

  • rvb1023

    I suppose this is as good a place as any to ask, but as a fan of horror games is D any good? Always looking to try out new horror games and the connection Anthony made to Deadly Premonition got my hopes up.

     

    • DrFlimFlam

      The Missus FlimFlam is a huge survival horror fan, and we own both D and D2, and she likes both. Kind of weird, and you have to play a game that is almost 20 years old. Games have come a long way since then.

      • rvb1023

         I’ll admit playing games from back in the day requires a certain kind of patience, but considering the sorry state of horror games today beggars can’t be choosy.

  • BROedipus

    The link to the logo of “D” is broken. It connects to http://u/, which is not a website at all. Also, Eno seems like the type of person the gaming industry needs. I won’t say it’s “too bad he strayed from video games later” because he seemed like he was always doing what he was passionate about, but I do wish there were a lot more people like him around.

    • The Guilty Party

      Yeah, it really should go to http://d/

      • fieldafar

        But not http://b/

        • BROedipus

          One can only imagine the horror that could ensue when clicking that link and accidentally opening Pandora’s box of penises.

    • DrFlimFlam

      The problem with weird brilliance is that its unpredictable. All we can do is enjoy whats out there and hope.

  • Destroy Him My Robots

    I always enjoy stories where developers are out in the wild — anecdotes about location tests, usually — but this one, the little bit about delivering a limited edition with a rental truck, is a special kind of beautiful.

  • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

    .

    I remember being freaked out by those ads in EGM too. Reading this makes me feel like he was the kind of guy the industry always needs more of. Certainly poorer off for not having anymore.

  • http://twitter.com/djbeema beema

    This guy sounds wonderfully insane. I had never heard of him or his games before. Shame he died so young.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000590707081 Chris Ingersoll

       Same. Only 7 years my senior…

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      Ugh, I’m frustrated to have missed this very nice piece after expecting it earlier.  Yes, he’s the kind of person whose games made space for others, the sort of boundary-pushing that money can’t buy.

      I don’t think “wonderfully insane” (though meant as a compliment; that’s not a slam on you), “so Japanese,” “experimental” or other terms that have become boilerplate really capture what we did.  Anthony did good work, and I’d add http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/warp/warp.htm .  He’s a reminder that “independent” is a philosophy, not just a business plan.

      We’ve lost Cave composers, Game Arts founders, and now Eno early and in such a short span.  Ugh.  This is mid-tier Japanese game development.  It shouldn’t cause this.

  • http://hoyvinglavin64.livejournal.com/ rubi-kun

    I never played any of his other games, but You, Me, and the Cubes was awesome. Sad he died so young.

  • The_Lame_Dane

    Really wanted to like D2 but kind of regretted paying 40 dollars for it, it’s weird but not really enjoyable to play I guess if you enjoyed killer 7 you’d love it.