In Soul-Patron, the user follows an animated stuffed animal named Tokotoko around Japan, from a fishing village to a Tokyo supermarket to numerous shrines. Along the way, they learn about Japanese religion, culture, and society. Topics include Mizuko Jizo, the guardian of children, and everyday details about the country such as what to say when exiting a crowded train car, how to use a vending machine, and how to bow properly.
How It Works
Soul-Patron is made up of 34 different locations around Japan. Each location starts with a static video loop. Embedded in the video are multiple hot spots to click on. Doing so leads to a new static video clip with more hot spots to click on. The user goes on clicking until they reach a dead end and have to backtrack or click on the hot spot that leads to the next location (there is usually the choice to skip a couple of scenes along the way if they want to). So at a Kamakura Temple, the user can navigate to video loops of, among other things, an orange tree, hanging lanterns, praying candles, or religious statues. Once they are done with that, they can move along to a video loop of the village of Kamakura where there is plenty of other minutia to explore.
Almost all of these clips include pop-up text boxes that provide more information about what the user is looking at. Occasionally, an animated Tokotoko will enter the scene and tell the user something new (this animation is particularly well done, Tokotoko looks like he’s really in the picture).
There is also background music and related sounds from the scene to bring the videos to life. In this way, the user is supposed to feel like they’re really in Japan, travelling from site to site. An overview menu keeps all of this organized for the traveller, which, frustratingly if you have to start again, doesn’t allow you to click on places you haven’t visited via the hot spots.
What Works, What Doesn’t
Aesthetically, Soul-Patron is beautiful. All of the videos are nicely shot. The very use of looped video adds to the sense of being there. The problem is that nothing really happens in them. It’s just scene after scene of what amounts to still life.
The text that goes with the videos doesn’t help. The information tends to be Wikipediaish in its generality and blandness. For example, the text for Iriya, a neighbourhood in Tokyo, reads in part, “Iriya is an old, peaceful, lowcost area filled with corner shops and mom-and-pop businesses and factories. People live here. They have small plots of land on which they built two- or three-story wooden structures.” And the topics are so diverse that, while the user is taught a little bit about a lot of things, there isn’t anything to draw them into a larger narrative. The only character is Tokotoko, but everything he says is about as bland as the text. When the user finally reaches the last location – the Mizuko Jizo shrine – they might not remember that that was the entire point of the trip.
It’s a shame because the basic idea behind Soul-Patron is novel – a virtual tour. If the creator had narrowed the focus to something smaller than an entire country and had dug up some more interesting facts to tell or included characters the user could have connected with, it could have been an interesting trip. As it is, it’s just a long one.