Iceboy in Lavaworld

You may think platform games that resort to including a lava world, ice world or, heavens to Betsy, a combined lava and ice world, are suffering from designer’s imagination impoverishment syndrome (the well-documented but as yet untreated D.I.I.S. epidemic sweeping our industry). Let me tell you, they are not; these worlds are a virtual reflection of a typical Japanese tradition: the heaters and air-conditioners in office buildings.

After the sweltering heat and suffocating humidity of a Tokyo summer the dry, crisp cold of a Tokyo winter is usually the highlight of my year. The skies are bright blue, the sun shines, the air is dryer than an A.A. meeting and temperatures are comfortably low without the fear of frostbite. I love Tokyo winters. I love them as much as I detest Tokyo summers, and that is a lot!

However, with the cold outside air-conditioners, operating on a building-wide regime, get turned to heating, blasting the entire building with warm air, with no real options to turn it off locally, save for allowing a few slight temperature settings. What usually happens is that the building owner or concierge discusses with representatives of each company in that office when would be a good time to switch and at what time in the morning to turn on the device or when to switch it off. Sometimes it isn’t even discussed and the switch is made when the calendar dictates it’s autumn or spring, regardless of the weather. For most companies this works fine, but not for game development studios.

We are on a higher floor, so the heat of the floors below us rises. On top of that we have enough computers and devkits, whirring away, often and usually unnecessarily overnight, that we could, if we wanted, calculate Pi to the billionth decimal in microseconds. All these devices generate heat. All our pasty, flabby bodies, stuffed together in a small office, generate heat. The air becomes heavy, stale and hot. We open the windows but there is little breeze, so the desks on the outer edges become freezing cold but those in the center remain in pockets of stifling, stale warmth, not unlike a badly microwaved apple pie. In one office you’ll see both people with heavy coats and lap blankets as people with T-shirts and slippers. The outer circle develops colds, the inner crowd headaches. Productivity plummets, people get tired. And short of forcing a shutdown of the building-wide heating system there is nothing that can be done about it.

The summers aren’t much better, the situation being the polar opposite (and that is a better pun than you’re giving it credit for!) Those in the inner parts of the office are freezing, wearing coats and lap blankets as the air-conditioner blasts icy gusts straight down their necks, while those next to the windows are sweating and stripping to the bare essentials.

Maybe I have been unlucky, but in the small majority of offices I’ve worked this was the case. Recently it’s been so bad on any given day there will be at least 4 or 5 people off on a sick day – in itself a rare occurrence in Japan. It is extremely unpleasant. But at the same time, what can you do? Apart from having the building owner install a better and presumably much more expensive system would probably negate the cheap rent that got us renting an office here in the first place. Moving to another building would, aside from the problems of finding viable, affordable places, eat away at our already tight deadlines. We’re up a certain stretch of river without a boat propulsion device. Or rather, we are stuck in the first circle of Hell without the eternal damnation.

So there you have it; lave and ice worlds in games are actually subtle and politically subversive comments on the tyranny of office building air-conditioners. I bet you didn’t know that.


  1. Wouldn't be the summer conditions be more like a badly microwaved hot pocket?
    Habe you though about setting up some fans to circulate the air a bit?

    Oh the calender/design switch craze in Japan.
    All the poor students having to wear the winter uniform when it's hot and the summer uniform when it gets cold.

  2. We have fans, but their effective range is about half a yard. You'd need about seven fans per person... :(

    Poor students indeed. Store clerks too are victim to the calendar, with their wool/cloth uniform switches. It's getting worse too, with the weird climate changes. This year it was quite warm until quite late, so people were already stuck in their winter uniform while it was still sunny and pleasant.

  3. such rigidity in uniform dates. Seems very impractical...

  4. You should be able to buy standalone air conditioning units like these:

    All they need is a vent to the outside through a window. We used one of these while we were waiting for our main airconditioner to be repaired.

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