The most lasting monument that will be built to honor me is likely to be a simple gravestone with my name and dates of birth and death etched into it. A tombstone is an enduring memorial, but it’s also an impersonal one. It’s difficult to express the wonder and the turmoil of a single human life with a single slab of granite and a bouquet of flowers resting at its base.
9.03m seeks–but ultimately fails–to honor memories in a way a simple monument cannot. It is an interactive memorial for the precious souls lost in 2011 when a powerful tsunami devastated Japan’s eastern coast. It does not depict the lives of known victims, nor does it present a solemn list of names on which to pontificate. Instead, it leads you across a tranquil beach in first-person perspective, where glowing markers lead you to dark silhouettes that represent lives cut short. As you approach, the shadowy figures dissipate, replaced with precious items that embody the joy, the youth, and the love that were washed away in the destructive deluge. The first figure: a young boy who vanishes, and is then substituted with a soccer ball, which in turn erupts in a flash of luminous particles, leaving a butterfly that flutters ahead, guiding you to the next shadow.
This 10-minute journey uses emotionally manipulative audiovisuals to make its impact. The sky, the sand, the ocean, and even the sun are infused with an indigo hue, initially lulling you into a serene melancholy underscored by the hushed roar of waves lapping at the shore. A maudlin piano soundtrack creates momentary dissonance with suspended chords, then gives way to relaxed thirds–a simple, proven method of inviting quiet contemplation. Each cherished object you examine (a music box, an engagement ring, and so forth) brings to mind an individual who will never dream again, yet each butterfly seems to emblematize the victim’s soul, the game implying in its cliched conclusion that the spirits of the lost live on.
You might call 9.03m a form of interactive poetry, though its final message is more “Hallmark card” than “heartfelt eulogy.” It is undoubtedly committed to its manipulation; the gentle camera movements, glittering waves, and hazy visuals want to comfort you, to embrace you. And in some sense, 9.03 works, in the way a Thomas Kinkaide painting works, or a Stephenie Meyer novel works. It has a shallow allure that allows you to use words like “pretty” and “pleasant” to describe it. But the game’s laudable sentiment is an empty facsimile of grief and hope, rather than an honest expression of those emotions. Just as a tombstone is too dry and solemn to properly commemorate the tumult of a human life, 9.03m is too hollow to be a respectful tribute, and never uses player interaction in any meaningful way.
9.03m thus has no more to offer than would a pretty landscape drawing dedicated to the tragedy’s victims. It’s hard to fault the developer’s intentions, and I appreciate the game’s tranquil color palette and its pensive atmosphere. In a different context, 9.03m might have been a lovely trifle–but the lives snuffed out in 2011, and the survivors that mourn them, deserve more than just a trifle.