Look up “unique” in the dictionary and you’ll see Cosmology of Kyoto. Only if you use a special dictionary, though. One that has “unique” defined as Cosmology of Kyoto.
Released in 1993, it was sold as a game and is probably more accurately considered a work of interactive art. It’s moody, confusing, dark, and stylized. You could put it in a class with Dark Seed, Bad Mojo, and Haruhiko Shono’s collective work; games that aren’t remembered with much love, but are absolutely remembered.
How did it achieve such rapid (if fleeting) fame? Via a technique I call “through the Mac-door”.
The Macintosh was losing favour as a game development platform by 1993. Due to a dwindling market share and Apple’s apathy towards gaming, it had essentially become a dumping ground for “edutainment” dribble and ports of obsolete PC titles. The occasional original Mac game (even if was a “””game””” wrapped in numerous air quotes) would generate buzz because of sheer novelty, and without fail some marketing genius would conclude that the hype meant the game was amazing and needed to be rushed to DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Amiga, and your kitchen toaster right goddamn now, usually with tragic results. If shitty games were AIDS, the Macintosh was a HIV infected needle in DOS’s perineum. But odd games entered the DOS ecosystem through the Mac, too. Games seemingly made in a fever dream or on drugs.
Cosmology of Kyoto takes you on a morbid journey through the Japanese middle ages. Heian-era Japan is now mostly associated with court writers like Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, but Cosmology is set in the streets and gutters, with supernatural monsters posing an omnipresent threat.
Before you can play, you create a character. You can choose between “Single” or “Married” and between “Male” or “Female” (you can already tell it’s not modern Japan because there’s no “Trap” or “Catgirl”). Then you also change your facial features, although I didn’t have much luck in making myself not look like a dyspeptic Vladimir Putin. You’re also naked, but fear not: there’s a dead corpse whose clothes you can rob. Improvise, adapt, overcome.
You wander around the land, interacting with stuff using a classic “hotspot” based point-and-click interface. You talk to Buddhist monks, samurai, common folk, children, and demons. I died pretty fast: a pissed-off samurai cut off my head, and my soul went to hell.
Another aside: adventure games at this time were split between the Sierra style (the wrong option means death, encouraging the player to plan their actions carefully) and the LucasArts style (you can’t die, encouraging the player to experiment and do as many things as possible).
Cosmology charts a third path: you can die, but if you play your cards right you can escape hell and be reincarnated back into the main game. Which you’ll want to, because hell’s no joke. The game goes full ero-guro on the player here as only the Japanese can: the guy who was eating handfuls of his own brains through a hole in his head stuck with me.
By now, Cosmology’s true purpose is clear: shilling for Buddhism. I’ve seen people claim online that the game has no point, or cannot be finished. Neither is true. You win Cosmology of Kyoto by discovering the source of the demon infestation (I think at the Imperial Palace), and gaining enough karma that you break the cycle of death and rebirth. Kind acts like donating money to beggars increase your karma. Swordfighting and stealing things decreases it. If you have too much negative karma, when you escape hell, you’re reincarnated as a dog. This simple emulation of Buddhist spirituality makes it comparable with western RPGs such as Ultima IV.
There’s a wealth of historical depth to Cosmology. The game comes with a full encyclopedia of Japanese history and folklore, and the map is a grid-perfect recreation of Heian-kyo. I guess Cosmology is a kind of backdoor “edutainment” title, fulfilling the Macware stereotype. Maybe this is another reason for its surprising (if short lived) popularity: it’s a cultural experience. A tech support experience, too. As with many classic adventure games, the hardest puzzle in 2020 is getting it to install and run.
Is it worth playing? I don’t know. I think these sorts of weird-ass games are more fun to be aware of than to actually dive into. You don’t need to go to hell: just knowing that it exists is enough.