The island is blackened; a red ribbon tangled among a single tree’s branches. A blocky person stands on a rock contemplating death; the red ribbon draped around its neck. Candles line the perimeter of the rotating platform, though none are lit. After a bit of time, a terrifying dark settles in. It’s a polygonal vignette that seeps of disturbing imagery, though it’s not without reason.
Kurt Young and Nikola Kostic, of Mokuni Games and KBros Games, respectively, created Jukai: Ocean of Trees in 2016. You can see the game in action above and download it here. (Chih-Tang Chang, also of Mokuni Games, did animation for Jukai, while Sam Warfield worked as composer.) A project for Global Game Jam 2016, Jukai is a story of perseverance and of loss—it’s a story about death and of life. Young lost a dear friend to suicide, and Jukai is an homage to that loss. Japan’s Aokigahara forest, a well known suicide spot in Japan, is a clear reference in the game’s name and theme. Neither Young nor Kostic are Japanese, but felt a connection to the forest after seeing a Vice documentary on the subject.
“I was thinking of Jukai just yesterday as I was walking by a park during the snow,” Young told Glixel.
Many others, Kostic included, have been thinking about Aokigahara lately. YouTube star Logan Paul is facing criticism this week after filming a dead body hanging from a tree in the Japanese forest. Paul entered the forest with a video crew and a handful of friends; in the video, he called the forest “haunted,” suggesting it was a place where ghosts “lured” depressed visitors to their deaths. Paul has more than 15 million subscribers on YouTube, many of which are young viewers.
Paul cited false statistics regarding the forest—he said nearly 100 suicides were committed in the forest each year, but the number is closer to 30, according to the New York Times. He’s criticized for the insensitive portrayal of suicide, as well as the commodification of Japanese culture.
In a video posted to YouTube, fellow YouTuber Reina Scully criticized Paul for his lack of respect for the Japanese as people. “It’s almost as she he sees us as caricatures of people,” she said. (Reina Scully is now facing an onslaught of hate from Paul’s fans.)
Paul says in an apology posted to Twitter that he intended to “raise awareness for suicide and suicide prevention,” though many continue to find his apology disingenuous, given his behavior in the video and his other antics around Japan.
When Young and Kostic approached the topic of suicide, they did so with sensitivity and respect—two tenets that influenced their ultimate result. With the development of Jukai in 2016, Young entered the project wanting to “do more” with regard to suicide prevention.
“I lost a friend to suicide back when I was in graduate school in [New York City’s School of Visual Arts],” Young says. “She was one of my best friends and was suffering from bipolar disorder for a couple of years. And suddenly there came the news that she took her own life on a vacation in Taiwan.”
Young continues: “That got me thinking about this, what if we had noticed something earlier on, when she was still at school. She privately expressed some depression to me, but it felt like normal because of the stress of school and the work we were doing.”
Jukai is a literal expression of the desire to do more to save a friend. “[The game] is very straightforward,” Young says. “It’s a person at the edge of taking their own life. It’s the ultimate visual for the theme.”
With Jukai, the team intended to approach suicide without judgement, but, instead, with hope.
A red ribbon is tangled up on the game’s haunting tree. It’s both a way out of the forest and the end of life; the motif is taken directly from the Vice documentary, where Young and Kostic first learned about its meaning. It’s a way out of the forest should someone change their mind, Young says. Candles line the circular, rotating platform in Jukai. Light shines up from candles on the ground, with golden orbs appearing and disappearing along the pathway. The player controls a growing ball of white light—a “guardian” spirit that knocks away ominous black clouds that surround the polygonal character.
Jukai’s black clouds keep rolling in, one after the other. By blocking a cloud with the white light a candle is lit.
“In the game, you play as a guardian spirit fending off the bad energy that plagues our protagonist,” Young says in a commentary of the game posted on YouTube, “and at the same time, bringing orbs of light into our protagonist’s life.”
When a cloud hits the character, a candle dies out. Players can also charge up big blasts of light that can rebound multiple black clouds at once. Once all the candles are illuminated, a giant, red mantis–creature appears. Only a powerful blast of light can take down the creature.
“When we do this kind of project, there’s this human story behind it,” Young says. “We created this minimal cubic character, but it’s more of a projection of you or someone you know as that figure. We wanted people to think there is a way to help.”
And that human story is one of Young’s close friend; Jukai is for her.
“Jukai is a tribute to a dear friend who was a talented artist, a happy spirit, and a cheerful person, but committed suicide after a long suffering from bipolar disorder and anxiety” Young says in the game’s commentary video. “I wish I could have said something to make her feel better, or done something to prevent it from happening… but it was too late. The thoughts come back to me often.”
“Gaming is such a popular medium and we should be responsible with what we try to reach people with it."
Both pieces of media—Jukai and Paul’s video—feature uncomfortable imagery, but Young and Kostic approached it with a clear intention of help, whereas Paul created a much more controversial and negative image. The character in Jukai can commit suicide if the player does not successfully hold back the darkness. It’s a disturbing image, despite the use of a polygonal character. And as such, not all feedback on Jukai was positive, Kostic told Glixel. “A few people were shocked when they saw what [Jukai] was about,” Kostic says. “It’s disturbing to look at the images. It’s a figure about to hang itself. But that’s what it is.”
Young and Kostic recognized the seriousness of the topic. Paul’s video, on the other hand, “raise[d] serious issues from the point of suicide prevention,” says Jiro Ito of Tokyo-based suicide prevention organization Ova in an interview with The Japan Times. “It’s totally unacceptable to show someone who was driven to suicide as if it’s humorous content,” Ito adds.
Young and Kostic reiterated the importance of games tackling tough subjects in respective ways. “Gaming is such a popular medium and we should be responsible with what we try to reach people with it,” Kostic added. “It’s not just about shooting things up all the time.”
Both Young and Kostic have continued to create games and work on projects that center on important issues. Young spoke about dividing some of his professional business resources into mental health awareness, and he’s now working on other games projects with the theme in mind. He’s spent time learning from professionals in the field, organizations, like Mental Health First Aid, that dedicate their time to teaching others how to support those in crisis.
“This is the kind of climate we’re in,” Young says. “We can do more than just getting attention [to an issue] and try to do something that’s really helpful.”