There are times when “Dreamcast” seems to be as much its own genre as it is the name of Sega’s final console, a special category of GD-ROMs infused with a unique strand of unbound creativity where anything was possible; even a “life intervention game” like Roommania #203.
Your one goal in this Japan-only slice of Sega (also available on PlayStation 2) is to try and make Neji – a young man with no special powers, burning ambitions, or secret identity – live a life that involves doing something more stimulating than watching TV or listening to his favourite CDs in his tiny apartment until the end of time. The entire game really is set within apartment #203, a small scrap of rental property with a standing-room-only bathroom just off the one-person-wide kitchen (which is itself right next to the front door): It’s a cramped space but it’s packed with detail and crafted with a sort of realistic disarray in mind, objects left in places where they’re more convenient for their owner than they are in the “right” place. If you take the time to really look around you’ll spot the microwave slightly overhanging the edge of the fridge/freezer it’s sitting on, and a cereal box left next to bottles of soy and other sauces just to the side, in a rack over the kitchen sink. The magazines Neji can flip through have multiple pages in them, each with their own individual textures and all related to the subject on the cover. He can then put that reading material to one side, walk to his bookcase, pull an album off a shelf, open it up, and then put the modelled CD waiting inside into the working CD tray of the hi-fi nearby. It’s attention to detail like this that makes his space feel lived in, an imperfect jumble of personal items naturally accrued over time that don’t necessarily all fit neatly in anywhere in his small home rather than tidy boxes made for an invented space. Neji himself is also deeply unkempt in a very ordinary and endearing way – the sort of guy who eats necks cup noodles and when he’s done he won’t rush off to clean up, he’ll sit and watch TV instead. It’s this celebration of unvarnished reality that sells Roommania as a peek into another person’s life rather than a multi-camera viewing of a well animated character model; seeing Neji split pre-packaged chopsticks before wolfing down convenience store sushi, drinking milk straight out of the carton rather than getting himself a glass, or lifting up his keyboard trying to work out how the heck his computer turned on by itself while he was out (that was me – I’ll explain how in a little bit) all make him less a game object to be coaxed into cooperation and more a person in his own right. His life isn’t exciting in the way you’d expect a “normal” videogame life to be exciting but it’s very human existence, and it’s hard not to feel some kindness towards someone who would just like to sleep in on a sunny morning or loaf around on a cold evening, chat with friends, and try to have a drama-free time.
There is of course an actual game framing Neji’s unremarkable situation: You play the role of a slightly mischievous unseen presence, keen on nudging him out of this rut but unable to influence Neji directly. You’ll almost always have one small specific goal to nudge him towards (such as looking at his diary, or getting him to sit down as his PC and check his email) as part of one of four overarching scenarios (which one you end up with is determined by your actions at the beginning), and often have several days over which to attempt this task. Before thrusting you into Neji’s day the game shows an edited version of Neji performing whatever it is you need to get him to do, so when you need to encourage him to bring some photos out of a small box, you’re not left wondering which box or where in the house it may be.
Many days are split into two periods, one early, one late (exactly how early, and how late, varies wildly: early can mean anything from “dawn” to “early afternoon”, and late can be “evening TV” late or “asleep in the dark” late) and unless you’re in the middle of a string of events you’re free to pick one or both (but if you’re doing both the earlier one must come first). While Neji’s out you can freely float around his home for a short period of time and influence one object of your choosing – you could pull out a magazine from under the bed, turn on the radio, or even fiddle with the lock on his front door – for him to notice when he gets back, and doing so can influence the success of your current objective. If you’ve selected a time period when Neji or any of his friends are around you have to observe their actions from various fixed positions around the house as if you’re operating an invisible CCTV system, and only able to encourage him to interact with specific objects by using the on-screen cursor to throw an unseen (to him) ball at whatever you’d like him to notice. A short list of his upcoming activities, arranged in their current order of execution, can be found in the corner of the screen at all times: maybe he plans on watching TV and then having a smoke, or turning on the radio then going for a shower, or any other acutely ordinary range of behaviours. But if you keep jabbing at the phone, or the lamp by his bed, or the mail he’s left out somewhere, that task will appear on his action list and if you persistently prod that item it’ll slowly worm its way to the top of his to-do pile and hopefully happen before the timer at the top of the screen runs out.
Keeping this from feeling like an endless cycle of same-y days and object poking nights is Roommania’s willingness to cut to the chase: You don’t follow every single day of Neji’s life, not every time period is the same length, and once your latest crucial task has been cleared and the always fascinating results have played out the day ends automatically. On top of that there’s nothing to stop you from ending any time slot early (it’s always obvious whether you’re in “Neji sitting on his backside” time or “You should probably be doing something” time, and whenever you’re in the middle of an important scripted event the screen will appear faintly letterboxed), so there’s no more dead space or trying to get Neji to do things for the sake of doing them than your patience can tolerate.
It’s one of those games that sounds distressingly close to pointless when enthusiastically described to polite-yet-disinterested passers-by in the same sort of way “Paying off a mortgage” (Animal Crossing) or “Looking after some pretend people” (The Sims) are, but it’s almost impossible to not become invested in Neji’s life when you’re sitting in front of a Dreamcast yourself and watching these brief glimpses into his various friendships and hardships play out over the course of the game. His life can run the full spectrum of the utterly mundane to everyday heartache and troubles to the downright bizarre – but only if you make the effort to gently push him outside of his usual routine. By the end Roommania reminded me of – and yes I know how weird this may sound – the labyrinth of ignorable plot threads found within Baldur’s Gate II. Just like that Infinity Engine classic it’s impossible to see every event and action in Neji’s life in one, two, three, or even four runs through the game; but these easily missed activities, potentially unused room decorations, and stories left untold aren’t irritating gaps in your virtual checklist but depth, texture, and honest choices in somebody else’s life – a life that thanks to these either/or choices will always throw up new options and surprises whenever you’re ready to come back and visit.
The easiest thing to do would be to call Roommania #203 yet another weird import and leave it at that – “Guy in a room sim? Hah! Those Dreamcast creators, eh?” – but the truth is the strangest thing about the game is how honestly ordinary it is. Much of the game revels in the absurdity of normality, in relationships and mix-ups and microwave meals. It’s more life than it is weird, the unusual concept “just” end-of-an-era Sega firing on all cylinders and bringing us yet another brilliant idea we never even new we wanted.