CROSS†CHANNEL: 人には人が、必要だと思いました

Around a month ago I finished a second playthrough of my favourite eroge CROSS†CHANNEL, and despite attempts to move on to other games I’ve been stuck basking in the afterglow ever since. I was conflicted about whether writing this post would be worthwhile—after all, most eroge fans are already familiar with the game and it’s so articulate that it may as well be analysing itself. But in honour of Taichi I decided it was only fitting to use this blog as my hokora and 記録 my feelings about the game as best I can while they’re still fresh in my mind.

/ 感想

CROSS†CHANNEL is an iconic eroge written by Tanaka Romeo, published by FlyingShine in 2003, and subsequently republished every few years for two decades (play either the original or the 復刻版, you’ll thank me later). It has a fair deal of mystique in English-language eroge communities, with most English readers’ experiences of the game as filtered through any of three separate disastrous translations quite at odds with its acclaim, which in turn is mostly diminished to endless memetic “untranslatable kamigem” copypastas. I want to avoid hyperbolic language in this post for fear of sounding like one of them myself, as hard as that will be to do considering the amount of praise I have for the game. I think it lives up to its legendary reputation, and it’s not hard to see why the game is as beloved as it is.

I’m going to start with the writing since it really is the game’s most immediately striking asset. It’s a compelling read in every sense—mesmerising, funny, evocative, poignant and unforgettable. Sentences are succinct and articulate and unbelievably quotable, making CROSS†CHANNEL sometimes feel more like a 名言集 than a game. The lines carry so much weight and subtext, yet never stop feeling smooth and snappy. The writing style is quite dynamic, shifting in subtle and drastic ways alike throughout the game to match different situations and mental states. There’s also no real wasted space so to speak of; I found that after finishing the game I could reload basically any save state (of which I ended up with 92…) and immediately be reminded of why I loved the game all over again.

The script would be impressive in any context but it’s unthinkable considering the ridiculous fact that the game’s dialogue had to be completed in isolation before its narration. The final product is so cohesive and flows so perfectly that you could be forgiven for not noticing at all, but I do think it lends the game some unique qualities. For instance, there are a lot of scenes where the narration and dialogue read like separate trains of thought heading simultaneously, but from different angles, toward a shared destination. I also think the aforementioned cohesion is to some degree a consequence of the script having been subject to several ‘passes’, passages and symbols have a habit of being recursive and even the earliest parts of the narrative reflect a thorough understanding of the eventual trajectory and conclusions of the later parts.

CROSS†CHANNEL being as holistic as it is would not have been possible without the commendable planning and direction behind the game. Its narrative structure and interactive mechanics are creative and engaging, becoming meaningful avenues for communicating ideas to the reader. As a side note, I highly recommend exploring the game on your own without bothering with a walkthrough. Here is a simple spoiler-free list of the few important missable scenes and ‘recommended route order’ choices you might want to be aware of going in.

Okay, characters! Taichi is a hilarious, vibrant protagonist. He’s initially reminiscent of the unhinged playboys abundant in ‘90s eroge like 同級生, but by the end of the game he’s transformed into one of the most compelling, developed characters I’ve ever come across. His perspective is very immersive and it’s hard not to get swept up in his worldview and let it colour your interactions with the game. The character writing across the board is strong, and really pops on subsequent playthroughs. Attitudes, behaviours and offhand comments that at first seem archetypal and inconsequential can be pretty revealing with more context about the characters they belong to and the lives they’ve led. The game is especially good at depicting mental illness in a candid, yet tasteful and empathetic way.

It’s thematically timeless and bizarrely prescient, the ideas it explores might be more relevant today than they were in 2003. It’s a powerful experience that I imagine will strongly resonate with most anyone interested in eroge. The measured, purposeful language employed throughout the game bolsters this; whereas I think a lot of eroge writers will decide on a particular “theme word” or two to base a route or story around, CROSS†CHANNEL may as well have an entire thematic lexicon at its disposal. Dozens of words and phrases are reincorporated again and again, ultimately taking on new significance and tying together to form an internally comprehensive philosophy. The culmination of these efforts is the lyrics of the breathtaking ending song “CROSSING”, which manages to effortlessly synthesise and distill all of the game’s motifs into a powerful final message.

It also holds up quite well in an aesthetic sense. The BGM, as soft and understated as it often is does a tremendous job conveying the game’s atmosphere, with a few very memorable standout tracks (Crisscross, Daylight, Fated, fucking Signal…) The seiyuu give good performances, especially Koyasu as Sakuraba and Rita as Nanaca. Matsuryuu’s art is expressive with vibrant colours (especially the sunsets) and iconic CG compositions. Oh, and you know what else holds up? Fucking NANACA†CRASH, it’s way more fun and addicting than it should be. I wish I knew about this game in primary school instead of whatever shit I was playing on coolmathgames.com…

That’s about as much as I can say while keeping things this vague, so the rest of this article will SPOIL the ENTIRE game. If you haven’t read it yet I hope this article has convinced you it’s worth your time. Even ignoring how iconic and influential it was, it’s a genuine powerhouse of an eroge. It’s hilarious, heartbreaking, interesting, sincere and unforgettable. At the very least, I doubt you’ll regret trying it out.

Sorry, Tomoki…

X 解析(ネタバレあり)

Okay, let’s start from the beginning. Each route in CROSS†CHANNEL has its own title, visible from the save/load screens. The first two routes, Misato’s and Touko’s, share two titles. Both are at first labelled 崩壊 as Taichi returns from the disastrous club camp to discover the town deserted, the title changes to 純化 as his relationship to Misato or Touko becomes more intimate before reverting back to 崩壊 in the final scene as the bloodbath inevitably breaks out atop the school roof, closing the futile loop that has come to define Taichi’s life. This same cycle can be seen all throughout the story.

Much later, Youko will explain that the time loop simply begins too late for Taichi to ever reach a true happy ending regardless of how many attempts he makes. The starting conditions just aren’t right. Likewise, Taichi feels that every personal relationship he forms is fated to collapse under its own weight, that he’s too broken and poisonous to begin with for them to go any other way. And so he desperately represses his empathy and holds people at arms’ length, treating them as props in an endless sick comedy routine because it’s easier than facing the truth that he couldn’t stop himself from snapping and hurting them even if he tried.

To make matters worse, Taichi is enrolled at 群青学院, a school for the mentally ill. Gunjou is not an environment conducive to its students overcoming their traumas or learning to adapt or forming healthy relationships but rather a glorified holding facility for people externally deemed to be unfit for society. Gunjou is a place where broken people can only seek healing from other broken people. Nobody at Gunjou stands a fair chance at life, especially not somebody with as much baggage as Taichi.

Taichi’s defeatist attitude does not come without reason. He’s grievously traumatised by unimaginable tragedy, experiences that infect and corrupt his everyday perceptions of himself, others and their place in the world. His psychotic disorder is shown to be a direct result of years of physical and sexual abuse he endured in his early childhood. Perhaps as debilitating as the abuse itself is that it deprived Taichi the ability to ever live a normal childhood, to safely interact with other children and learn how to communicate. Taichi describes communication as a process of trial and error, one that will inevitably bring conflict and suffering but remain an invaluable learning experience. Throughout the years of his life when he needed it most, Taichi was denied even that.

足りなかった。
接触が。触れあいが。
家族は。
……いない。
箱庭の楽園で、空気みたいに薄い人々との交友。
……顔さえ忘れそうだ。
曜子ちゃんとの出会い。
……彼女は俺を他人とは見ない。
新川の人々。
……人間が敵だということを学ばされた。
幼少期の、もっとも多感な時期、俺は人に触れなかった。

But does any of this actually justify Taichi’s behaviour? His cruelty, his manipulation, his sexual harassment, his violent outbursts? Is he even capable of empathy? Is he even human? These questions constitute the backbone of Kiri’s route, the centerpiece of the game and the point where a lot of the pieces finally start clicking into place. Kiri’s route can be seen as an extended philosophical dialogue between two people, as Taichi tries to challenge the worldview Kiri has been committed to her entire life. Whereas Taichi dreams of isolation because he’s scared of hurting others, Kiri dreams of isolation because she’s scared of being hurt by others. The world through Kiri’s eyes is a fearsome place, one overflowing with hatred and evildoers so sick she can’t even bring herself to consider them human—怪物. Every conflict is a case of abuse, with an evil abuser and an innocent victim.

With absolute conviction, Kiri accuses Taichi of being one such monster. She decries his every act of kindness, his every hint of humanity as manipulative lies employed tactically to disguise his true nature as a parasitic beast consuming those around him for sustenance. Harsh though it may be, this is if anything a convenient excuse for Taichi’s behaviour. If he was just a wild beast, could he really be blamed for any of his indiscretions? The unfortunate reality is that she’s wrong. Taichi is a human, one capable of kindness, vulnerability, loneliness, guilt and yes, abuse, and he takes no joy in demonstrating that to her.

Along with Touko and Taichi’s breakup, Kiri icing Taichi out after Yutaka’s death and encouraging Miki to do the same was one of the biggest contributing factors to the club’s dissolution. Kiri is directly and deliberately responsible for quite a lot of the alienation Taichi experiences. It’s no surprise that when she hears the full story of Yutaka’s sexual abuse of Taichi, she acquiesces to him immediately. After all, she processes this information the only way she knows how: she and Yutaka were the abusers all along, and Taichi the victim. Her worldview hasn’t really been changed at all, just redirected. But in the very last scene of the route, in a pointless radio broadcast to an empty world, Taichi finally manages to express his regret in a way that strikes a chord in her heart.

Taichi has adopted a rather pessimistic view of human relationships, which he describes as a series of crossings, fleeting connections between people who are cursed to one day sour on each other and drift apart. Communication is a weapon and words are bullets, sooner or later every interaction will bring pain to its participants, especially when he’s involved. But even so, Taichi still wishes he had the strength to face Yutaka after everything he did, to empathise with him, to forgive him and recognise him as another victim of the same abuse he suffered. Not just for Yutaka’s sake, not just for Kiri’s sake, but for his own sake too. Reaching out is human nature and communication is invaluable; even if we hurt each other, it’s worth it just to try. The sky burns with light, the world resets, Taichi embraces Kiri and cries as his consciousness fades and for the first time the reader finally starts to really understand him. The signal is sent; a successful communication.

But even this relatively optimistic route is not without tragedy—Taichi discovers Touko dead in her bedroom, having willingly starved herself with nobody around to take care of her. Youko was right. Even if Taichi can, on a scant few occasions, manage to reach truly meaningful communication, there’s only so much progress he can make in a single week. To put it in eroge terms, he can’t complete multiple routes at once. Even in these conditions, even when the hostility of the outside world has been completely erased, the happy ending Taichi dreamt of is impossible. Tucked away in the hokora lies a detailed record of every steadily amassing failure, every breakdown, every time Taichi has killed his friends with his own two hands. Eventually he’s left with no option but to face the fact that he’s not just capable but essentially guaranteed to cause real, severe damage to the people he loves most. It’s with this in mind that Taichi makes the difficult choice to send his friends home and stay in the parallel world by himself alone for potentially the rest of his life.

The sequences of CROSS†CHANNEL that follow are deeply emotionally conflicting. It’s moving to see Taichi find the strength to make such a drastic sacrifice to protect his friends and watching him make a genuine, concerted effort to help them as much as he can before he sends them home is some of the most compelling character development I’ve ever seen. One-by-one he works through their issues with them individually, leaving them with the tools they need to work towards change after he’s gone. It’s meaningful that even after everything he put them through, his friends all end up better off for having known him. At the same time, it’s devastating to see somebody as broken as Taichi, who has been trying his entire life to socially adapt and find a way to seek companionship without hurting the people around him, finally give up and submit to his alienation.

Throughout the game Taichi has expressed envy for those with the strength to live a life of perfect solitude. As much as Nanaca tries to convince him otherwise, that it’s okay to show weakness and to need other people in your life, he just can’t forgive himself. Taichi has idolised this strength ever since his early childhood in the mansion, where he would spend his days gazing from afar at Youko, his 孤高の君. But when he’s actually faced with even just a single week of true solitude, it’s unbearable. Through some of the most creative and harrowing writing in the game we watch Taichi tread the razor-thin line between his typical unhinged ノリ and complete fucking insanity, his mind slowly distorting and shattering until we finally catch him in a brutal moment of clarity, seconds away from committing suicide. He can’t go on like this, but it’s too late to go home. The gate has already closed, the parallel worlds have crossed. He’s out of options.

In this moment of abject existential despair it’s difficult to believe that CROSS†CHANNEL is the affirming, hopeful story that it really does end up being.

「あなたには誰かとの思い出が、ありますか?」
「それは貴重なものです」
「決して忘れないようにしてください」
「孤独と向かい合った人の、唯一の支えだからです」

The support Taichi gives his friends before sending them home is not a selfless action but a mutual one. Taichi does what he can to help them, and in return he obtains memories he can treasure and cling to when they’re gone. When he finally does send them home, the narration emphasises the way he stares at them, burning their faces into his mind as vividly as he possibly can. These memories fuel him, they motivate him to continue living his own continuous existence, his 固有の時間, rather than resetting and losing everything. They motivate him to stay human in the face of devastating loneliness.

CROSS†CHANNEL’s prologue is an unusual, disorientating thing. It’s unclear whether humanity has or has not disappeared, present day scenes and flashbacks are haphazardly mixed together with no sepia filter to distinguish them and it unusually ends on a positive note, with the entire broadcasting club surviving and successfully broadcasting the SOS. The precise nature of this chapter is left to the reader’s imagination but I personally interpret it as the dream Taichi sees as he sleeps in the epilogue—or to put it another way, the aggregation of all of the memories he’s formed throughout the game. Having seen the best in all of his friends he placates himself by internally constructing a world where the conditions were ever so slightly different, a world where they could have worked through their differences and come together without destroying one another. He dreams of this world believing in his heart that one day if he keeps surviving, reaching out, trying to get better, learning to adapt, one day if he outgrows the need to isolate himself, maybe that world will be there waiting for him.

When Taichi is at his lowest point, one last memory comes flooding back. He remembers the moment of his birth. The first words spoken to him by his late mother Nanaca, words of unconditional love and affirmation, a promise that she will never regret giving birth to him no matter how much pain or suffering he brings to either of their lives. Taichi remembering Nanaca is likened to the feeling of embarking on a long journey to search for someone only to turn around at the very end and realise they were right behind you the whole time. Nanaca and her role in the story is the ultimate personification of the life-affirming power memories can have if we cherish them. Our relationships may sour and fall apart, we may lose the people we love, but nobody can take our memories from us.

This revelation also reveals my favourite piece of symbolism in the game. Narration throughout CROSS†CHANNEL routinely describes Taichi’s deformed eyes. They’re compared to the eyes of a cat, with heightened night vision and motion detection. These eyes gave Taichi the power to 観測 the parallel world, to jump between it and his own, and ultimately to send his friends home. The flashback explains why; Taichi spent the earliest years of his life in hiding, alone with a perpetually frightened Nanaca in a pitch black room. Over time his eyes developed to recognise her in the darkness and know that he wasn’t alone. Taichi’s eyes, then, represent the power to recognise and feel the presence of other people, even when it’s not obvious they’re there.

Even when we’re alone, we can still believe in other people, still define ourselves against them and in the process continue to be human. The ending of the game leaves it somewhat ambiguous whether Taichi ever managed to make it back home, though the deafening cries of the cicadas that fade back in during the game’s final moments are a promising sign. But in the meantime Taichi continues to communicate from afar, albeit one-sidedly. He reaches out time and time again with his broadcasts knowing he’ll never get a response but content with believing that there’s somebody out there on the other end listening. He finds the power to isolate without ever being truly alone.

「理想は、近くにいてくれる誰か」
「けど今は、そんな当たり前さえ保証されない」
「けれど……俺はここにいます」
「あなたがそこにいるように」

…that’s my interpretation of the game, anyway. There’s so much in CROSS†CHANNEL to dig into that I can imagine others reading it through pretty different lenses (and if you did take something different from it I’d love to hear about it, this game is an endless joy to discuss). By now you can probably tell that I found it pretty deeply affecting but I’ll spare you the theatrics and simply say: reading CROSS†CHANNEL really did, in some sense, make me feel a little less alone in life, and I genuinely am thankful for that. I’m glad that I played this.

また来週。

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