It’s that time of the year when we all have to ask the most important question: do you believe in what goes beyond explanation? Halloween gives everyone a time to break out of our monotonous day to day selves and put on a scary costume. It’s a time where everyone celebrates their fears together with scary movie gatherings and new costumed performances of our trauma-induced dreamselves. And although this year we are stuck in a pandemic, that doesn’t mean we have to lose any of the celebration!
While I could raise a costumed glass or watch scary movies on Zoom, they just don’t hit the same behind a glowing screen. My glass of cheap red wine sat in a sad plastic cup alone, attempting to regain some of the warmth that came before all of this. Instead, I have found that more long term horror has created not only the feeling of the magical month, but also a sense of security knowing all our friends are here for each other. I have found this in reading Umineko: When the Seagulls Cry as a group performance with my friends.
Umineko is the perfect game for the quarantined Halloween firstly because of its format. I have a lot of friends who don’t have the brain juice to figure out a complex game or watch a film. However, reading a visual novel together and doing voices is just the right balance of goofing off that allows for conversation as well. Friends are assigned to certain characters and voice their lines when they come up, and usually it leads to fun jokes we all create with each other.
But it isn’t just the form that makes Umineko perfect for Halloween. Umineko is a game that takes place during Halloween. The game follows characters that question what we choose to believe when stressful ambiguity enters our lives. What brought the door to slam on my foot? Was it bad luck? Magic? Perhaps a prank by a rat in the wall? This is the sort of predicament that Umineko questions within a larger story about how several aristocratic figures were killed within the span of less than a week.
The story of Umineko follows the family of a wealthy Japanese dynasty during the 1980’s coming together again on an isolated island for their yearly family conference. However, this year all of the adults think that the family head is going to pass away soon and leave his inheritance of ¥20 billion worth of gold buried on the island. And for a family of wealthy money hoarders, they aren’t going to be satisfied at just getting an even share.
So for the first 12 hours of the game, which make up the first episode, it’s pretty much your visual novel version of Knives Out. The kids all crack jokes behind their parents’ backs as they scheme about how to steal away more money. Parents reveal that they have unhealthy relationships with their children. The house servants are entirely fed up with the family’s games they are thrown into, rightfully so. Then……things get a bit meta.
I should probably mention at this point that Umineko is overwhelmingly long. I don’t mean Final Fantasy long, I mean Homestuck long. So by saying the first 12 hours of the game focus on the family drama, that’s pretty much just a drop in the ocean of what is to come. This is especially true, as a witch named Beatrice reveals herself at the end of episode one and the main protagonist challenges her to replay the series of events which transpired on the island to make his past self believe in witches.
This is the primary theme of the series, and I won’t say I know everything that happens. Like I said, it’s a really long visual novel and I only started this month. But within the almost 30 hours I have played so far, it’s clear that there is a continuously recurring theme of the tensions between believing in magic, and not believing in magic.
In the case of Battler, Umikeo’s protagonist, it’s a logic game to explain how a series of events could occur. Rather than falling for the spectacle of the events, he is stubborn and finds ways to contradict Beatrice’s magic show every moment. He can’t allow himself to believe in her power.
I find this tension becoming more interesting following other characters aside from Battler though. Specifically, it’s in the servants Kanon and Shannon who challenge their servant labels as “furniture” and their relationship to the witch. Rather than the stubborn logic of Battler, these characters challenge belief because they want to imagine that there are alternatives in the world rather than what is oppressing them.
Shannon wants to believe in a world where she can fall in love and form relationships with others. However, being what Beatrice and the family deem “furniture” they are not allowed to form relationships. As it is repeated constantly throughout, “furniture are not allowed to have feelings”. Yet, in spite of this and Beatrice’s argument that she is in control of their lives, Shannon chooses to believe in fate as an alternative. In this act, she gives deeper meaning to the dichotomy of belief and disbelief. This challenge to her system of oppression shows that we have the agency to believe in what brings us the most hope and ability to move forward. And Umineko recognizes through its themes that these choices of belief are built out of material conditions.
A large part of this comes out of the family head having an obsessive devotion to Western culture. From the family members’ names, to the food served, to the design of the mansion, the family follows an aesthetic lifestyle of the American/European aristocrat. On top of this, the roots of the family’s wealth stems from the grandfather, Kinzo Ushiromaya, in ambiguous circumstances during the Korean War. The specifics of Kinzo’s coming into wealth aren’t confirmed by anyone, but they are a result of one of two things: Kinzo investing in the Allied forces in post-WWII Japan to supply the Korean War, or from Beatrice granting a magical wish for a large sum of money.
These Western capitalistic ties shape a lot of how the adults in the family see the world as they are subsumed by the hegemonic structural power of Western capital. Unlike the servants who fight for their sovereignty and Battler who fights to live, most of the family cannot even conceptualize that a means of emotional pursuit exists outside of capital. They are trapped by the intergenerational logics of colonial capital.
Umineko constantly straddles this relationship between the rational and the sublime, belief and skepticism. And for a time of the year where we are made to live very differently than we could imagine, thinking about these questions with friends has been one of the best ways to spend this Halloween. Outside of just playing, me and my three other good friends have probably spent more time speculating and joking about Umineko in our group chat than anything else I have dedicated time to this month. It’s created a source of comfort, creativity, friendship, and laughter when I have felt unsure about how strange life is right now. Rather than trying to recreate a Halloween party or movie night online, it’s this form of celebration that I need right now. Maybe you’ll find that you needed it as well.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.