Technology the ’90s, including innovations in 3D graphics and affordable CD-ROM storage, ushered in a new generation of video game innovators. One of them was Kenji Eno.
Eno’s games became known for their singular creativity, although they never managed to achieve major commercial success. But it was all part of what kept Eno going and inspired his fervent work ethic and indie-first mindset.
“Eno’s work serves as a lesson in overcoming trials,” says John Andersen, video game writer and historian. “Eno’s take was this: forget about the societal norms that you think are blocking you. Bring your creativity out of the shadows and out into the world.
I have always found it fascinating that someone can be “ahead of their time”. In his two decades of making games, Eno has certainly proven to do the trick. Nowadays, it is common to find walking simulators like Fire watch and What remains of Edith Finch that put narrative first – cinematic experiences that focus on the weirdness rather than the thug-type difficulty. Eno was the first to explore this now accepted game design aesthetic. Yet his most famous game, D, is hardly a footnote in video game history. Maybe if he had produced D today the game and its work may have found even wider acceptance.
On March 1, 1994, Eno founded Warp, a video game studio that would produce his most recognized work. The studio was quite a startup, with limited staff and resources that would influence the platforms the studio focused on developing. A few years before the launch of the original PlayStation and its rapid market dominance, Tripp Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, left to found the 3DO company. Among its greatest achievements was the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, a state-of-the-art 32-bit game console with its use of CD technology and 3D polygonal graphics. Eno was drawn to the affordability of development for the console. Using the technical capabilities of 3DO, it aimed to develop an ambitious cinematic gaming experience that would become that of 1995 D.
At a time when the “horror of survival” was still months away – or, in resident Evilin the case of, a year later, Warp released the game. The story follows Laura Harris as she investigates a hospital after her father took a psychotic break, resulting in a wave of mass murders (with a controversial side of cannibalism).
The game is played a bit like Myst. Every movement of the player is associated with the screen with dramatic cutscenes. Coupled with an extremely disturbing and moody soundtrack composed by Eno himself, D was a commercial success at the time, selling a million copies in his native Japan and becoming a system seller on the 3DO. In the United States, it has become a cult classic, launching Eno’s name into the stratosphere of the gaming audience.
Game developers are rock stars
“What I respected most about Eno was that he wanted a better working environment for Japanese game developers,” says Andersen. “He had seen how American game developers operated from the early to mid-90s; he wanted the same environment for Japanese game developers.
While American developers like John Romero and John Carmack of id Software stepped into the limelight, defending their games openly and with definable charisma, Japanese game companies were highly structured and culturally devoid of interaction with their audiences. Japanese developers rarely looked beyond their current plans and treated each game as a job to be done, moving forward without any involvement in the marketing or publicity of the title. Eno wanted Japanese developers to look more like rockstars. “He was a very straightforward guy, which is why he chose to go it alone.”
His next match, Enemy Zero, took players to deep space. Something is wrong with the AKI spacecraft, which had been a biological research center. A recognizable likeness, Eno chose to use D‘s Laura as the protagonist, but instead of keeping the narrative of the game’s previous character, she was instead used as a kind of digital actress. This is something Eno has done with many of his characters across games, perhaps inspired by how film writers often favor a recurring cast of actors in their films.