His spirit roams the internet throughout niche video game forums. His day-to-day tweets call forth daily happenings. But he's all but disappeared from the gaming industry. Osamu Sato may as well be a ghost.
Born on April 14, 1960, and having graduated from the Kyoto Institute of Technology, the quiet Sato worked originally for an agency known as Moss Advertising, but created his own freelance entertainment firm known as the Osamu Sato Design Office. It was there he would tinker with multimedia projects, creating independent works and art installations that would eventually be on display in Tokyo in the early 1990s. In 1994, he doffed the "Osamu Sato Design Office" moniker and decided instead to fund a new studio known as OutSide Directors Company, which is still in business today, but operating outside of the video game industry.
Despite being a video game developer, composer, and talented artist, up until 2009, when his Twitter account was created, you would have been hard-pressed to find anything about his personal life, his current projects, or even his contact information while looking up the games that made him famous. And yet, his creations remain online, the focus of several obscure games graveyards and the inspiration for lo-fi indie game creators looking to cobble something new from the ashes of the old, or in a specific case, rebuild one of Sato's games entirely.
As you'd expect, being the creator of some of the most bizarre and terrifying games of all time— LSD: Dream Emulator (1998) and Eastern Mind: The Souls of Tong-Nou (1994), namely—Sato is as enigmatic as he is inaccessible. He's stuck around long enough in the industry only to plant hundreds of questions in the minds of fans hungry for more content, while answering none. He doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page outside of a brief profile of sorts on the Japanese version of the encyclopedia. If you're going to contact him, you'll have to do so in Japanese. That is, if you can run down the best email address to do so. In a time when developers are so easily reached and likewise reach out to their fans, Sato is an anomaly, and one that fans are desperate to reach out to in order to pick his brain.
After ruminating on Sato's catalogue and shadowy existence for quite some time and completing some of the games on my own, I set out to find the man who had, for one reason or another, eked out an existence online in absolute silence.
A taste of LSD: Dream Emulator.
My first stop was The Obscuritory, where curator Phil "Shadsy" Salvador posted information about several of Sato's games. Salvador had obtained an email address for some very annotated correspondence with Sato, though an answer for an interview request wasn't exactly guaranteed. It was only by a stroke of luck that I managed to contact Phil and obtain the email for this very piece, only adding to the odd nature of Sato's secrecy.
With fan rumors swirling around that he had passed away given the radio silence and the dearth of new projects on the way, it was assumed for the longest time that Sato had passed away, with only his games remaining as a "channel" to experience his unique brand of surrealism.
But in one of the first interviews with Sato in years, he's quick to dismiss these allegations of course, finding humor in the massively morbid situation: "Actually, if I was really dead, I wouldn't have any way of knowing about it, which makes it even more amusing to me," he told me. He went on to liken the situation to the infamous "Paul is Dead" phenomenon that kicked off after Paul McCartney was photographed walking barefoot across Abbey Road on the infamous album cover.
He's blissfully unaware of the fervor that's accompanied the games he's released in the West alone, with entire forums and websites erected in honor of titles like Chu-Teng, the long-lost sequel to the bizarre, introspective Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong-Nou. LSD: Dream Emulator was one of the first projects of Sato's to blow up online, attracting legions of fans who read about the title on humorous top-list blogs or publications like Cracked.
As one of the many games in the industry meant to explore and pick apart the notion and act of dreaming, LSD: Dream Emulator was a PlayStation-exclusive Japanese release that never made its way to the West. Physical copies are an extreme rarity, going for ridiculously high prices if and when one does surface on marketplaces such as eBay, so the only easy way to obtain it is, ironically, through a PlayStation emulator, which is illegal.
The game itself is meant to be a playable dream of sorts, where you simply explore with no real objective or goal in mind. One moment you may be walking through a more realistic house or field area: the next, you're lost in a seemingly looping hallway emblazoned with Japanese kanji and hiragana interspersed with low-resolution images of women. In the distance, there might be a little girl leading a hula hoop with a stick. Behind you there may be a woman who loses her head. And then you wake up. You restart the entire process, and you keep dreaming. It's wholly unlike any other video game you've played before, and impossible to properly explain or dissect.
"Dreams are irrational without any rules, and you most often don't remember when you wake up in the morning. I wanted to make a piece like that."
Fans have tried their best over the years to decode the mystery behind how LSD: Dream Emulator scrambles its visuals and randomly recycles artifacts, and what it all means. Why would Sato choose such a bizarre method of production to pursue?
"I conceived the idea when I saw the demo and specs of the PlayStation," explained Sato. "The world that you rove through when you crash and die in a racing game…[sic] From that, I came up with the idea of wandering in a dream world. Dreams are irrational without any rules, and you most often don't remember when you wake up in the morning. I wanted to make a piece like that."
Modern Let's Play video curators, who record video game footage and offer commentary to viewers, play off the game's abundance of weirdness and over-the-top quirk, and over the years it's become the subject of debate between gamers looking for answers from the creator himself and finding nothing, instead having to draw their own conclusions along with scouring online marketplaces for the accompanying information the game itself once shipped with.
The likes of software manuals, documentation, and even the special "dream journal" that came with the game originally were recovered thanks to the due diligence of fans who simply wanted more. When quizzed about LSD's popularity among Western game fans and why that may have cropped up, Sato is relatively clueless. "I'd love to hear about it since I don't know all of what [the talk] is about," he told me.
While it may not be clear off the bat what LSD is attempting to convey, it's no surprise that fans latched onto the game and continue to enjoy attempts at unlocking the mystery. One fan in particular, a modder known simply as Figglewatts, is working on painstakingly recreating the game in all its bizarre glory using Unity, a game development engine that allows for some impressive creations to be erected by nearly anyone wishing to create a game. What's more, he's eventually looking to add in virtual reality augments with Oculus Rift support. The developer has even begun a Patreon campaign in order to ensure the project itself can actually be completed rather than eking out a pathetic existence as a playable demo, but Sato himself will likely never know about or wish to comment on Figglewatts' endeavor.
It all seems a bit like a cruel joke to have such a burgeoning mind full of interesting takes on reality, the psyche, and the worlds we explore within video games to be so aloof and disconnected with the very realm that will have immortalized him long after he's passed: the Internet.
In the end, the fans are going to be forced to carry on his legacy as they do in real life. In 2014 the sequel to one of Sato's long-lost games was finally recovered thanks to them, in fact: Chu-Teng, the follow-up to 1994's Eastern Mind. Years later, in a gaming ecosystem that rewards mainly annual franchises like Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed, this game was still being sought out, and by the fans themselves without any sort of real direction or help from Sato himself.
In fact, Eastern Mind itself is something of a legend in the realm of PC gaming. It's an experimental trip that fully embraced the weird; part of the many one-off iniquities that only seem to have survived over the years thanks to steadfast fans and enthusiasts who love Sato's games too much to let them languish in obscurity. It was an adventure game, but not nearly as approachable as the stable of LucasArts adventures (see: Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road) that hit their stride back during that time. It also happened to be one of the most self-indulgent experiences a fan of the surreal could ever ask for: a niche computer game forged with the psychedelic imagery and distinct technological limitations of the mid-90s.
It's a weird-seeker's paradise, in other words. In it, you'll become acquainted with a being who possesses three minds, then commits suicide within the span of ten seconds; you'll collect important key items like the "Eyeball of Dreaming"; and you'll visit the Helix Palace, where you could be force-fed until your body explodes. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. It may only display 256 colors, but it's a veritable hallucinatory rainbow of iniquities. Ever wanted to meet a creature that "dines on its own legs?" You can in Eastern Mind.
A taste of Eastern Mind.
It's a very disturbing game but it's delightfully weird, and it sits in stark relief to what most modern games would tell us we're interested in. True to form, people have pointed to the game over the years as a chintzy Japanese obscurity, an inaccessible and "random" adventure that exists only as a novelty, more something to point and laugh at when Japanese culture comes up in conversation and less of a testament to what Sato himself poured his life and soul into while still creating games.
Eastern Mind could be viewed as a sort of sideways commentary on life, death, and the souls that inhabit our physical vessels. It's such an interesting specimen, largely because of the juxtaposition between its status as a little-known game from Japan and the many small clusters of people clamoring for it to find a place among the "weird" out there. For such a small, little-known title it amassed a cult following while remaining largely invisible to most players.
Chu-Teng, finally recovered and distributed among the very same gamers who gave LSD: Dream Emulator life on the internet as well, was thought for years to have been either an unfinished prototype, an unprocurable relic, or so rare that only a minuscule amount of players would ever be able to experience it. No amount of research unearthed any details on the game beyond minimal information and rudimentary setups, until 2014, when a fan was able to procure a copy. Fans triumphed once more, without the influence of the Creator himself.
Osamu has since ceased production work within the game industry, citing a lack of freedom to create "various experimental projects," with a "different situation" these days in that he simply can't develop racing, fighting, soccer, or baseball games, as he put it. It seems there simply isn't a climate today for the types of games he carved a niche for all those years ago. In a world where free-to-play mobile apps are the driving force behind an entire market and a generation of addled gamers hit up YouTube for reading-free assessments of games already, his ideas are already set up for failure outside of the indie sphere.
"Nowadays I've been working on artistic projects where I can work on my own. They're in forms such as paintings and photography," Sato explained.
"I find my creations are rather contemporary art using game consoles."
Despite having curated a catalogue of games that both obfuscated and obliterated the walls of what a game could or should be over the years, Sato himself has expressed the notion that he's never even been in the business to create games, citing only their use as a vehicle for artistic expression as a motivator for getting involved in the first place.
"I'm not specially interested in making a game or playing it. Games just happened to be one of [one kind of] media for my expression as an artist. For example, the promotional copy for LSD was 'This isn't a game.' So I find my creations are rather contemporary art using game consoles."
Given that the only other works he's submitted in the past were the art he mentioned in our chat or "non-game apps for i-αppli (Japanese phone apps for NTT phones)" we can only surmise that we've seen what is the end of the career of one extremely fruitful and talented developer, and one man who apparently wishes to stay more private than the cult of the internet would let on.
Until the day Sato decides he may return to games or producing artistic works beyond that of traditional medium, however, he remains one of the most sought-after and intriguing personalities in the world of cult gaming, a spirit that haunts those who hunt the surreal and those who clamor for more like he produced in the past. Unfortunately, it looks as though his migration from the spotlight LSD: Dream Emulator brought him so many years ago has become permanent, and we're left with only fragments of what could have been.