This article was originally written for Who Dares Rolls (www.whodaresrolls.com) and is reproduced here with permission.
Note: This article also includes some references to experiences of death and loss, and discusses those themes in detail.
Christine Prevas’ (@cprevas) 36 Minutes is not an enjoyable game to play. It sits strangely within the genre it evokes because it plays out in real time a very particular sequence of suffering and death that absolutely would have a huge, unwelcome emotional impact on some players. You could roleplay it differently, and if anything make it more fitting within its genre, but I think doing so would require a significant distancing between player and character that the game does not necessarily encourage. Perhaps that is the intention; it certainly feels like something intended to take players out of the safely expected bravado of what is often a heroic, noble kind of war story. On the other hand, if you are trying to do something like that, something that wholly subverts the usual methods of a genre to question its implicit associations, that in turn is an act which needs interrogation.
Its premise is incredibly specific. You, the player, take the role of a mech pilot trapped and dying in a damaged machine, and try to put voice to the thoughts of someone coming to terms with their own imminent, unavoidable death. The science-fiction and military trappings here seem secondary to the heavily pushed theme of exploring the mindset of the dying, and the protracted play session which goes through, effectively a series of stages of grief almost paints the experience as a microcosm of terminal illness. I found myself personally unable to distance my imagined musings on mortality to far more mundane, intimate and personal matters of death and that added such strong emotional resonance to my experience of 36 Minutes it ended up far distanced from an experience evoking mecha anime.
It is worth, before continuing to talk more about my personal thoughts on 36 Minutes, considering how it is distanced from the usual expectations of its genre. When I read the game’s short rules, I found myself thinking – like with other games in this game jam – what scenes, what series, what storylines informed this? I was coming up blank for specific examples from mecha anime that were quite so protracted and introspective. Over half an hour dwelling on imminent death does not really fit even those mecha stories that try to be tragic and emotive. The most protracted scene I could think of was the ending of episode 6 of Soukyuu no Fafner, where a character’s last stand begins at minute 16 or so of a 24-minute episode. And to be honest that is a scene that the first time I watched the series I felt so melodramatic, so overwrought, it made me not bother watching more. It was almost exploitative, I felt. On a revisit I still felt it a little overdone, but I appreciated more how it was framed and I had a much greater appreciation of what Fafner was doing with its awful, protracted deaths set against uncaring families. When a lot of mecha anime wants to make an emotive point with a death, it does it suddenly, often brutally and uncaringly. War is capricious, and cruel, and sudden. Good people die stupidly. I could name a lot more sudden, unexpected deaths than I could drawn-out, slow ones.
This leads into a bigger point which draws in the Fafner scene I was talking about, too; arbitrary, stupid deaths are set in contrast to heroic sacrifices. In Fafner the heroic sacrifice is a cruel thing that the others are forced to watch, knowing it is the rational thing to do and also knowing it is a friend dying. Quite the different sort of approach to framing the heroic sacrifice as a manly or honourable thing to do, the ultimate act of camaraderie by the bravest of the brave with dramatic music. And yet also the more heroic act; rather than swallowing fear, abandoning reason and going out in a blaze of glory the pilot in Fafner is sickly, scared and desperate. The very opposite of the heroic older figure doing the right thing without fear.
This is an interesting digression about how mecha anime handles its deaths, but it is moving ever further from 36 Minutes, which goes out of its way to make the depicted death as unheroic and awful as possible. Its situation is described as an “improbable catastrophe,” not even – implicitly – enemy action. The language is freighted at every turn with the insistence that this is the most meaningless of deaths, a freak accident on a routine flight where no safeguards or safety measures worked. A compounding of bad luck, in a sense. The ultimate arbitrary, capricious death. The questions the game asks allow the player to shift this around to whatever end they like, asking the character to admit why they might have been able to avoid it, to add detail to the situation, but ultimately this is not telling a story of how people die in battle, this is telling a story of someone confined, alone and trapped realising death is unavoidable. That is a sort of introspection that mecha stories very rarely cover and I am honestly not sure the science-fiction aspects are even needed for the point that comes across about how the imminent end of life encourages reflection on perceived failures. It would be easy to play 36 Minutes in the voice of a heroic pilot accepting their death as a sacrifice to ensure others can live, to swallow fear and project bravado to a silent radio, to burn one’s life out raging against the dying of the light. And it would absolutely not, from my experience of playing 36 Minutes, be particularly satisfactory. It would temper the self-reflection about mortality in a way that would probably make it less moving, but it would not really capture how mecha stories usually handle self-sacrifice or mortality.
I am interested in 36 Minutes. It is an RPG experience that, at the very least, encourages thought about death in a medium and genre where killing is a common way of interacting. But I feel its conclusions and questions that it implicitly leads to – what do you regret in life, what do you feel you achieved, who do you blame for your failures, why don’t you blame yourself – sit awkwardly alongside prompts to thank your faithful mech for keeping you alive, or prompts encouraging the roleplaying of fruitless repair efforts. 36 Minutes sits like a protracted, grim disaster movie death scene played out in realtime, free from any glamourising effect of dramatic compression. But at the end of the day I almost feel its most interesting aspects are cheapened by its need to conform to genre expectations, to be a mecha story about confronting mortality.
The genre trappings do not soften the harshness of what it demands adequately. And yet I feel this is definitely intentional. It is easy to watch media where people face death fearlessly, where they go to do a far greater thing than they have ever done, to kick reason to the curb, whatever you like. Encouraging someone to be honest with themselves when imagining themselves in a situation, shaped through questions that cast doubt on the ease with which you can be the big damn hero, could work very well to question the cheapness of life in war stories and the ease of self-inserting as the hero. Put like this I like 36 Minutes, I see why it had to be what it is. And yet I don’t love it, I can’t quite make it hold together for me. It made me feel something, but that was not always welcome.
To continue on this theme, my next review will be of Jeff Ellis’ Death Sentence, which does far more directly focus on the heroic last stand as a trope and which in its own way made me question how I viewed such scenes again.
This is my own playthrough of 36 Minutes, following the recommended prompts and timing and written in one take without editing.
1. This is- I’m hit! Target unknown, trying to recover. I-
2. That light, on the horizon. That’s the Caliburn. They haven’t left yet, I just need to get their attention. Why’s it moving-
3. I need to get back to my route. If I can do that, I’ll be able to report
what happened, arrange a pickup. I’m not hurt, I think.
4. You’re not hurt. You’re not. hurt. There’s no blood. So calm down, move
your damned arms, start trying to get this thing back moving again.
Just calm down so you don’t die. Don’t die. Follow the procedure.
5. Tonight we were going to go to the deck commander about the sleeping arrangements.
Hagane wasn’t happy about sharing a room with Tokimune.
6. How did this happen? How did I let myself be this damned STUPID? What kind of-
Why, why did I do this? Pay attention! Pay attention!
1. If I’m seeing this right I’m well off course now. That means I’ve been drifting
these past six minutes. Do I still have thrust? No, I’d feel that. So
I need to-
2. I must still have power because there’s light. So what’s shot the computers?
Something’s stopping me getting back into the system. I need to get the
panel off and see what’s going on. Quickly. Otherwise-
3. There’s a knife in the survival kit. I won’t be needing the other stuff unless
I can find that damn knife. Where is it? I’ll tear this place-
4. Why the hell isn’t Lezard out here? What gives him the right to sit back on the
ship and send us out every day like this? When I get back I’m done with him.
5. I’m done with this. I’m done with this whole stupid war. I don’t care if that
makes me a coward or a traitor or a child I am not going out here again. I’m not.
6. …maybe it was the fact I was stewing over being told I had to do this stupid
extra patrol made me miss whatever I walked into? If I could get the
screen working, if I hated myself, I could check the logs.
1. That’s the monitors back online, at least. Not going to die alone. No, I’m not
going to die. If I’ve got systems back I can get engines working and
lock onto the Caliburn and-
Why the hell is the screen blank?
2. The SOS beacon. Why isn’t that- wait, if we don’t have sensors that means the
main comms dome is out, which means we can’t broadcast or receive. I’d need
to go outside and check-
3. Assume I had the beacon online. Assume we had the radio working. What would I tell
Tokimune and the others? Unknown threat area, pilot down, send rescue?
Send them straight into a minefield? But if anyone could get me home it would be her…
4. I should have more air than this. There isn’t a hull breach I can see, so what’s wrong?
My suit’s probably shot, which means… of course. Without the filters I’m using it up faster…
5. Wait, if my air filters are shot then my suit can’t cycle air. Which means I CAN’T
go outside to check for structural damage. Which means I need to hope the comms
system fault is something on the inside, not the whole damn antenna shot off.
Where are the suit patches?
6. It’s not a suit breach, it’s a problem with the air supply, stupid. You’ve checked to see
if there’s a leak, you’ve- why have the monitors gone off again? Not just the controls
but the main camera’s failing. Must be structural damage.
1. If I can’t fix any of this all I can hope is someone realises I’m missing before
I die, right? Someone’s got to notice. The others would be back now. I was
supposed to be buying Hazama dinner tonight…
2. Don’t worry, I said. I’ll get this done for you and be back so we can have that
steam bath before they switch to water conservation for the night shift.
3. I was eating when Lezard told me I had to cover this. Had just sat down with
dinner. Strange. I’m hungry now. Hadn’t thought of that before, but now…
4. I was looking forward to all this being over, going back to Earth, feeling
actual gravity. Always thought that was silly sentimental stuff but…
I realised before long you did miss the small things.
5. Imagine if I’d not been sitting down to eat when I did, if I’d hit the baths
beforehand. Someone else would-
Someone else would be dying in my place, probably.
6. I really should have tried a bit harder, right? Fought my corner a bit more.
If people didn’t walk all over me, I’d have been giving the orders not
dying as a result of them…
1. Maybe if I’d not taken this posting I’d not be here. I’d be living nicely
on a base somewhere on the back lines…
But at the same time I’d not have been doing anything, and other, better
people would be dying.
2. I really think I’d been doing something to get over myself, to actually be
someone decent. Is that why, deep down, I can’t hate anyone too much for this?
3. I could have said no. What could Lezard have done? Sent me to cool off for a bit?
Put me on godawful shifts?
Did I really volunteer to go and do this? What the hell could have made
me do that?
Why didn’t I say no?
4. I wish I could… I want to talk to the others. I want to know what they really
thought of me. I thought they tolerated me. But did they-
5. The first time I took off into space was the best day of my whole life, stupid
as it sounds. I thought I’d never die, to be honest I thought I wasn’t going
to have to fight back then. I really thought that this whole sea of stars
was setting me free.
I think I helped people. I helped protect people.
1. I thought machines were supposed to outlive us stupid weak humans. Like hell
they will if they break this stupid easily, if all it takes is one
small stupid little thing to make them just give up and let us die…
2. Sleeping on the job, huh? Guess you’ve earned a rest, putting up with me all
this time. Shame you never quite made it home…
3. Come on. You’ll get lonely out here like this. Go home. Get us home.
Get us home.
4. Might as well take this helmet off. Always found it uncomfortable.
These seats aren’t as bad as people complained. Could go to sleep in this.
I mean, that’s what they say it’s like, right?
5. It’s pretty dark out there. Can’t see the ship. Can’t see whatever the hell
killed me. Looks like the others-
Looks like the others aren’t coming.
Is there anything out there? Or am I looking at a blank screen…
6. “I don’t-“