In the two hours that it takes to complete Sumire, you will be reduced to a blubbering mess. Over, and over, and over again. For a game that has a profoundly potent message of hope sitting at its core, there’s also an emotional intensity in getting there that borders on cruelty.
Sumire’s core concept is that you’ve got one day, so you’ve got to make it count. Our protagonist, Sumire (which, for the record, means “violet”, in Japanese, hence the colours that she wears – it has meaning to the culture), is a girl that is deeply unhappy. Her grandmother passed away, her father has left the home, and her mother has withdrawn from the world completely. What’s more, Sumire’s best friend has become a nasty bit of work, and they’re no longer friends. Then a flower from the sky lands at Sumire’s feet, telling her that it has one day to live and that together they must strive to have the “perfect day.”
That perfect day largely involves ticking off a checklist of activities that Sumire wants to complete. Notably, one of the tasks is quite simple: “feel loved.” Yep, here come the waterworks. I really mean this; you’re going to be crying a lot in this game. Knocking off the checklist largely comes down to Sumire fronting up against the many regrets that she has, and coming to a kind of peace with herself, her deep hurts and the world around her.
It’s a game that is deeply Shinto in world outlook. This is explicit – the narrative takes great pains to explain to you that Shinto belief is that everything has a soul, and those souls should be respected… right before you start talking to an inanimate scarecrow and jizo statue. You also visit a Shinto shine to pray early on in the game. This Shintoness will give the game an otherworldly quality to some, and to others, the animism of Shinto will come across as a quaint view on the world – something that the picture book aesthetic supports in a lovely way.
But there’s a stoicism and tolerance that Shinto promotes that is a powerful and important takeaway from Sumire. There are going to be people out there that find the way that the decision systems that are featured throughout the game to be incompatible with their own world-view. For example, as I read in another review: “Sumire is being bullied by a group of girls. Without giving too many details away, you can either choose to help the girls, despite none of them ever showing a redeeming quality, or you can not help them. But if you don’t, the game punishes you for it and makes it very clear that the message is that kindness is always the right option. While I agree in some sense that kindness should be preferable to seeking revenge, it would have been great to include a third option—that Sumire could put these girls in her rearview mirror and move on with her life feeling good about herself without them. Unfortunately, your only choices are to be a doormat to the bullies or become a bully yourself.”
This makes sense from a western perspective (and I’m certainly not criticising the critic for holding to that view), as we do have that individualistic quality and frame of mind, but to the faith system that Sumire represents, the connectedness of the world, people within it, and the need to hold to the stoic moral centre in the face of adversary makes that third option irrelevant to the experience. As W.G. Aston once wrote: “Shinto is essentially a religion of gratitude and love,” and that, by definition, excludes arriving at contentedness through individual satisfaction. I am somewhat surprised that Sumire was localised at all, because while the emotional notes it pulls on are universal (and, once again, the game will get all of you crying), the spiritual and thematic essence will be quite foreign to a lot of players. However, I am glad that it was localised. With any luck, it might convince a few of them to try looking at the world in another way, from a different cultural perspective, and perhaps consider that the way we look at the world in the west isn’t the unquestionably right way.
Mechanically Sumire is very simple, more akin to flipping through the pages of a pop-up book than being a gameplay-orientated thing. Because the tasks that you can complete are open-ended, there’s some “puzzling” involved (i.e. answering the question “what do I need to do to complete all these tasks in time?”) and there is also some light time management involved. You’ll need to be at certain locations at certain times to help certain characters with their problems. This ends up being quite the juggling act, though don’t worry, at no stage is Sumire ever designed in a way that it’ll become stressful. It’s far too interested in making you well up to care much about whether it’s advancing you towards arthritis in the hands.
Aesthetically, this game is nothing short of visionary. Every environment is vibrantly crafted, every piece of music has potency and impact, and every line of dialogue drives at something poetic and deep in meaning. It’s all done with such graceful efficiency, too, that every line has weight and impact, deepening its resonance. I know we’ve talked a fair bit about game length vs. “value for money” in recent times. Sumire would have diluted itself, its meaning and its impact were it any longer. Anyone who suggests that it’s not “long enough” to be worth the time and money with this one is clearly not interested in art on any level, because this is the very finest example of how artworks when applied to the video game format, and the short length of it is absolutely critical to its artistry.
I haven’t been so deeply affected by a game as I have Sumire in a very, very long time. This is an artful experience with a valuable core message; don’t take anything for granted. Sumire has a literal day to achieve what she needs to. Metaphorically we all only have one “day” on this planet, and we shouldn’t waste it. You may be driven to tears playing Sumire, but that’s not a message you’ll soon forget. Not with the powerful way this game presents it.
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