The technology of the ’90s, including innovations in 3D graphics and affordable storage in the form of CD-ROMs, opened doors for a new generation of video game innovators. One of them was Kenji Eno.
Eno’s games became known for their singular creativity, though they never managed to land major commercial success. But that was all part of what kept Eno going and inspired his fervent work ethic and indie-first mindset.
“Eno's work serves as a lesson in overcoming hardship,” says John Andersen, a writer and video game historian. “Eno's point-of-view was: Forget about the societal norms that you believe are blocking you. Bring your creativity out of the shadows and into the world.”
I have always found it fascinating that someone can be "ahead of their time." In his two decades making games, Eno certainly proved to fit the bill. Nowadays, it is common to find walking simulators like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch that position the narrative first—cinematic-driven experiences that zero in on oddity rather than rogue-like difficulty. Eno was first to explore this now accepted game design aesthetic. Still, his best-known game, D, is barely a footnote in video game history. Perhaps if he had been producing D today, the game and his work might have found even wider acceptance.
On March 1, 1994, Eno founded Warp, a game studio that would go on to produce his most recognized work. The studio was every bit a startup, with a limited staff and resources that would influence which platforms the studio focused development on. A few years before the original PlayStation launched and quickly dominated the marketplace, Tripp Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, left to start the 3DO Company. Among its largest feats was the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, a 32-bit gaming console at the cutting edge with its use of CD technology and 3D polygonal graphics. Eno was attracted to how affordable it was to develop for the console. Using the 3DO’s technical capabilities, he aimed to develop an ambitious filmic game experience that would become 1995’s D.
At a time when “survival horror” was still months—or, in Resident Evil’s case, a year—away, Warp published the game. The story follows Laura Harris as she investigates a hospital after her father has a psychotic break, resulting in a mass-murdering spree (with a controversial side of cannibalism).
The game plays a bit like Myst. Every move the player makes is matched on screen with dramatic cinematic sequences. Coupled with an extremely ominous and moody soundtrack composed by Eno himself, D was a commercial success at the time, selling a million copies in its native Japan and becoming a system seller on the 3DO. In the States, it became a cult classic, launching Eno’s name into the stratosphere of the gaming public.
Game Developers Are Rock Stars
“What I respected most about Eno was that he wanted a better working environment for Japanese game developers,” Andersen says. “He had seen how American game developers operated in the early-to-mid 1990s; he wanted the same environment for Japanese game developers.”
While American developers like John Romero and John Carmack of id Software stepped into the spotlight, speaking out for their games openly and with definable charisma, Japanese game companies were highly structured and culturally devoid of interaction with their audience. Japanese developers seldom looked past their current projects and treated each game as work to be done, moving on without any participation in the title’s marketing or publicity. Eno wanted Japanese developers to be more like rockstars. “He was a very outspoken guy, which is why he chose to strike out on his own.”
His next game, Enemy Zero, took players into deep space. Something goes wrong on the AKI spacecraft, which had been a center of biological research. A recognizable likeness, Eno opted to use D’s Laura as the protagonist, but instead of retaining the game’s previous character narrative, she was instead used as a sort of digital actress. This was something Eno did with many of his characters across games, perhaps inspired by how film auteurs often favor a recurring cast of actors in their films.
Enemy Zero was, like D, a walking simulator decades before walking simulators became a genre all its own. The game utilized full motion video sequences like D for half of the game and 3D graphics for hallways and corridors. The main enemies are invisible monsters that the player can track down and destroy using audio devices. “He was a brilliant developer that was not given as many chances due to limited budgets,” says Barry Harmon, writer and editor at SEGABits. “There are so many stories of him doing things that were against the norm.”
For example, during Enemy Zero’s development, there was an earthquake in Kobe, Japan. Acclaimed composer Michael Nyman (Gattaca, The Pianist) flew in to donate pianos to schools in the city. “I invited him back to my hotel room and tried to convince him, for six hours, to come work with me,” Eno said during an interview with Next Generation. Eno was an accomplished composer himself, having written most of the music for the majority of Warp’s oeuvre.
It was just like Eno to do things with a flare of DIY rebellious spirit. News of their encounter spread throughout games media. Nyman produced the ominous, minimalistic soundtrack heard today.
Thinking Like Eno
Like his iconoclastic game design, Warp’s games often came with interesting packaging. Thinking like Eno meant re-creating the very nature of what “a box” contains. For example, an early Warp title, Short Warp, came packaged with a condom. No one really knows why.
“He was doing this before anyone,” explains Brian Hargrave, founder of Neo Geo Fan Club. “The Enemy Zero crate is the perfect example.”
Enemy Zero had a limited 20-copy run where the game came in a shipping crate along with a bevy of items (including design documents and an Enemy Zero bondage outfit, the same worn by Warp E3 booth girls to promote the game).
Eno's use of limited edition runs was unheard of in Japan at the time. “There's a disconnect between Japanese developers and fans in the ‘90s … and it was uncommon for developers to interact with fans,” explains George Perez, founder of SEGABits.
At 200,000 yen (approximately $2,000), perhaps the sticker shock of these special editions was worth it, with Eno himself delivering each crate to its anticipated owner. “I'd like to think he would have embraced today's popularity of huge limited edition sets,” Hargrave boasts, considering the burgeoning market of special editions and the advent of Limited Run Games.
“It's unusual to do what Eno did. The fact that he went around hand-delivering the packages was quite unique.”
After the development of Enemy Zero concluded, Eno visited a group of visually disabled people that were all fans of his games. The visit became the inspiration for Real Sound, a game played purely with audio, designed specifically for the visually impaired gamer. The game is, at its core, a visual novel about fear and love, particularly how love adapts and is rekindled as one ages.
Like Eno’s other packaging innovations, Real Sound came included with plantable herb seeds and a game manual printed in braille. Sega pitched Real Sound as a Sega exclusive. Eno accepted on the condition that a thousand Saturn consoles be donated to the blind with Eno contributing a copy of Real Sound to accompany each donation. Sega accepted.
Factors Beyond His Control
When the Saturn flopped in 1998 and shifted its energies to the Dreamcast, so did Eno. Warp used the power of the Dreamcast to set D2 in a fully-3D game space, complete with random battles, and extensive real-time cutscenes. Laura crash-lands in a snowy Canadian wilderness after surviving a devastating plane crash. The story line was ambitious and meandering, involving nothing less than the demise of humanity in the face of a mysterious menace called Shadow, the Final Destroyer. Eno’s intentions with the game were to weave a mixture of real-world history and fiction to explore the existential fate of the planet, including world-ending issues of climate change, pandemics, and political strife.
D2 was released mere months before Sega backed out of the console race, effectively abandoning the Dreamcast. Eno didn’t take the news well and left the industry for other artistic pursuits—particularly music. Warp changed its name to Super Warp and in April 2000 changed its focus to online gaming. A year later, the company changed its name again to From Yellow to Orange with renewed focus on web development.
Eno abandoned his previous projects, refusing to talk about D or anything else in media interviews. When Nintendo announced the Wii, Eno became excited by the technology and the Wiimote. His experimentation with motion control culminated in the Wiiware exclusive, You, Me, and the Cubes, a motion-based puzzler involving collaborative gameplay focusing on balancing multiple cubes.
The Myth, the Enigma
“No one really talked about how he personally took risks,” says Perez. “Like with Real Sound, which he made for disabled users. Microsoft and other companies are only now thinking about this but no one was back at the time.”
During his last years, Eno endured a period of creative wanderlust, his artistic drive extending across multiple mediums, including writing a children’s book called Dear Son and the proposed founding of a school dedicated to the arts and entertainment media. Until his death on February 20, 2013, due to heart failure at the age of 42, he never stopped working. Katsutoshi Eguchi, a developer and composer at Warp, told Gamasutra: “He went to America about two days before he died. As soon he touched back down in Japan, he went to his office to work. He didn’t even go home on weekends; he just worked straight through. He never rested.”
Eno left a unique mark on gaming, one that is frequently eclipsed by the efforts of more popular game developers, even though his oeuvre is held close and remembered affectionately by a devoted fanbase of hardcore gamers. “He was able to plant seeds in people's minds, to get them thinking,” Harmon muses. Should you happen to experience one of his games, you too might fathom the full extent of his vision.