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.