I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately. Numbers and terms that seemed abstract when I was growing up — greenhouse gases, 400 parts per million, an ice-free summer — have now calcified into razor-sharp predictors of a bleak and barren future.
Data, statistics, empirical evidence, points of reassurance in times of crisis, now serve to heighten an acute and pervasive anxiety. We’re drowning, in more ways than one.
Maria Ojala refers to this collective dread as “eco-anxiety.” As a professor of psychology, Ojala has studied how climate-related trauma has impacted younger generations. She notes that “many young people are worried about climate change and rank the problem as the most important societal issue.” Much of her time and energy has been dedicated to chronicling how young people cope with such overwhelming stress. Specifically, she refers to “emotion-focused strategies” as a common method of destressing. This is when individuals “distance themselves from negative emotions through distraction, busying themselves with other activities.” Even though Ojala downplays the radical potential of such strategies (as well she should), she doesn’t dismiss them outright.
The domestic routines of our lives — thumbing through a fantasy novel on the way to work, listening to a podcast while doing the dishes, taking an early morning stroll through a rain-drenched field — are made real through the objects that enhance those events. The dog-earned novel, the iPhone with a flickering screen, the once-fashionable pair of designer boots, these objects resonate with an emotional warmth and provide our lives with some degree of definition.
The lived-in objects that become integrated into our humdrum existence can deflect — and in some cases, help sublimate — the existential terror that we all occasionally feel. They create an illusion of space and safety; they provide a necessary — albeit artificial — sense of comfort. They allow us to rest, so that we have the strength to fight.
No creative endeavor has made this clearer to me in recent memory than 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, the latest game from the long-dormant Vanillaware. It borrows from the legacy of mecha protagonists who use the comforting rhythms of daily life to cope with intense trauma, reminding us of the radical potential of everyday objects.
“Little Daily Miracles”
13 Sentinels follows the interconnected struggles of thirteen teenage mecha pilots as they attempt to repel a kaiju invasion force. What begins as a localized scene of urban chaos expands at an exponential rate, pulling its dozen-plus protagonists into a conflict that involves espionage, time travel, memory wipes, computer simulations, giant robots the size of office buildings — hell, name the genre trope, it’s there. The stakes have never been higher. Or have they?
While the dramatic turnabouts that punctuate the game’s many chapters — you’d be surprised how many characters are held at gunpoint in a work with such a warm aesthetic — are satisfying and at times hair-raising, they don’t reflect its soul. Even in midst of such dire circumstances, as a motley crew of high schoolers stare down the apocalypse, 13 Sentinels steps back and emphasizes the importance of the trivial.
13 Sentinels is a game full of stuff. Video tapes, cigarette-stained game consoles, pink parasols, crepes, alarm clocks, hanging lamps, ice-cream cones, gym bags, ink-stained notebooks, half-eaten chocolate bars, sunglasses, keys, train tickets, the detritus of life. “Stuff,” Maurizia Boscagli, in her landmark Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism, explains, “refers to those objects that have enjoyed their moment of consumer allure, but have now shed their commodity glamour — without yet being quite cast aside.” For Boscalgi, the products of capitalism (i.e. things we buy in a store) take on new meaning in relation to their human counterparts. But the reverse is also true.
Similar feedback loops proliferate in 13 Sentinels, especially in its opening hours. True to its adventure game roots, players take on the role of a diverse group of teens as they go to school, run errands, rendezvous with friends, and otherwise experience, as the novelist Virginia Woolf might say, the “little daily miracles” of adolescence. These languorous moments, divorced from the game’s underbaked combat mechanics, lull players into a heartening sense of security.
Now, Boscagli does acknowledge that rampant consumption can numb and paralyze an individual, turning the consumer into a fetish-object. We can all too easily become slaves to the objects we desire. But the timeworn items that pepper the world of 13 Sentinels arguably do the opposite. They take on a symbolic importance and perform therapeutic labor. Juro’s anime tapes, Minami’s yellow notebook, even Takatoshi’s cherished yakisoba pan, these “objects help the individual to control and overcome his or her angst about finitude.” They provide these frightened teens some solace before they inevitably must get in the robot.
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“You sure love mecha, don’tcha?”
George Kamitani, the director of 13 Sentinels, mentions that he set the game in the 1980s because it was “a period of time where robot anime was at its peak in popularity.” The many homages to popular mecha shows are appropriate in more ways than one. Not only do they calibrate the game aesthetically, but they build on a genre that historically has elevated the potency of everyday stuff.
Arguably no mecha property handles these dynamics better than Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-96). Hideaki Anno’s career-defining work thrusts a trio of thirteen-year-old pilots into an ecological hellscape. At the turn of the millennium a cataclysmic event called Second Impact ignited Antarctica, causing a precipitous sea level rise that permanently altered the world’s weather patterns. Facing down a global threat, humanity stood alone.
Shinji Ikari, a barely pubescent boy, must then fight against the otherworldly Angels threatening the Earth. Wracked by indecision, paralyzed by anxiety, he has no one to turn to for help. Each night he returns to his forlorn apartment where he grapples with his anxieties. To cope with his stressors, he regularly listens to his Sony SDAT cassette player, a once pristine piece of tech that now borders on obsolescence.
To Shinji, the mechanical hum of the rubber pinch rollers performs a vital job. It helps soothe his frayed nerves, which in turn gives him the mental fortitude and physical strength to continue. This seemingly irrelevant hand-me-down contains restorative properties. Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher whom Boscagli cites extensively, remarks that “there’s nothing but objects through which the Angst and neuroses can be dissipated.” The tape player’s labor is crucial.
Four years after Neon Genesis Evangelion rocked the world and changed the pop cultural landscape, Sunrise — an animation studio specializing in all things mecha — released The Big O (1999-2003). And like its predecessor, it too emphasizes the radical potential of the ordinary.
In The Big O, a mysterious event instigated global memory loss. Untethered from history, the world fell into ruin. Broken and bereft, the survivors were left with the unenviable task of survival. Viewers follow Roger Smith, the top “Negotiator” of Paradigm City as he navigates the treacherous streets, haunted by an unremembered past. When he’s not battling some criminal element in his gigantic robot, he eases into a well-worn routine.
For as theatrical a production as The Big O can be, it’s surprisingly quotidian. It revels in the mundanity of its characters’ lives: Roger monologuing on a late-night drive, Norman tending to the domestic needs of the estate, Dorothy quietly — and not so quietly — practicing the piano. That’s not to say there isn’t any action, as every episode ends with an obligatory robot showdown. But that’s not what’s important.
Take Roger’s penthouse, for example. Astute observers will remember that Roger collects hourglasses which he keeps in his study. There’s an intimacy to this tableau. He regularly returns to his study to relax and slough off the concerns of the workday. These hourglasses, antiques of a forgotten age, exert a grounding and stabilizing influence. They evolved beyond the commercial aspect of their origin and allow Roger to interact with a lost past. As Baudrillard puts it, antiques “symbolize an inward transcendence.” They spiritually link Roger with his past and, however momentarily, help keep the darkness at bay.
This isn’t all to say that materialism or a consumeristic impulse to buy things is healthy. Quite the opposite, in fact. These urges can alienate an individual and occlude “the history that produced the traumatic event in the first place.” However, like Boscagli acknowledges, there is the potential for something else. Something greater.
I played 13 Sentinels in a still in-progress nursery (remote play, baby). My first child is due to be born in roughly three months. I had to keep the window open — it’s been an uncharacteristically warm October. I’m worried for the future. But returning to Ashitaba City each night, synching my routines with those of its teenage protagonists, comforts me. It reminds me to cherish life’s little moments. It encourages me to rest, so I can fight.