My Exercise opens in absurd but relatable style. A chubby boy lies on his back with his knees raised as if about to perform a sit-up. Except he’s not alone; a dog standing on all fours holds him in place and acts as a cushion for the young man’s rising head. I touch my phone screen and the boy does a sit-up. And if I keep my finger held on the screen, the boy tenses his abdominal muscles further, eventually sinking into the dog’s squishier-than-normal stomach with Cronenbergian aplomb. The pup, for its part, looks on expressionless, seemingly nonplussed. I lift my finger from the phone; the boy returns to the floor, ready for another crunch.
This is the first video game by award-winning Japanese animator Atsushi Wada, maintaining the doodle-like line drawings and bizarre situations which have characterised his work since 2005’s lo-fi Day of Nose. Press materials talk of Wada’s fondness for exploring the Japanese concept of Ma, describing it as the “tension produced between movements," or what we might call negative space. My Exercise, released yesterday for PC and iOS, contains all these elements, plus a new degree of interaction. Developer Ryoya Usuha helped make the game playable, alongside the micro-team behind the equally absurd but life-affirming viral hit KIDS,.
When I reached the end of my first playthrough, what immediately sprang to mind was the “clicker” genre, a set of often ironic games in which simple clicks are the catalyst for vast chain reactions (Universal Paperclips is my favourite for what it's worth). Exercise, of course, is ripe for a similar kind of satire and indeed criticism thanks to its modern obsession with numbers and machine-like performance. While My Exercise is less bombastic, more human than other clickers, it certainly exists in their orbit. A single click (touch if you’re using a smartphone or tablet) produces a sit-up, and the number in the screen’s top right keeps track. Throughout the exercise session, the boy is joined by anthropomorphic characters who, by its end, help multiply the sit-ups into a high-score he alone would never have been able to achieve.
But the game isn’t just about numbers; it’s fascinated by physical form, from the wiggling finger which illustrates how to play to its cast of supportive characters. A seal joins proceedings—seemingly sniffing the dog’s butt in time with the boy’s abdominal strains—and then there’s a woman who claps the most delicate, fluttering clap I’ve ever heard when he reaches a milestone. The game, which feels a little like Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ reimagined for the twenty-first century, is full of these small, sensual and mostly private joys (yes, including the ass-smelling). Wada captures this sentiment beautifully, finding precisely those negative spaces which exist within the hard work, and allowing us to uncover them one touch of the screen at a time. It’s a useful reminder that even as we toil away, in exercise or whatever else, modest pleasures will materialize.