The video game industry follows its own set of norms for publishing and marketing. When a video game is produced, it leaves behind materials that make the game easier to account for, whether that’s ephemera, like advertisements, trailers, and promotional interviews, or simply a copy of the game that we can point to. These are the materials that can be readily collected by museums, libraries, and archives, and those materials form the canonical record we rely on to understand the history of the medium. If this is how we make historical sense of games and their developers, how do we deal with a game that was produced outside the traditional practices of the industry? I’m not just referring to an independent game, or a game with an unusual development story, but a video game that was designed completely outside the structure of the game industry and does not conform to its standards. How can we fit something into the bigger history of video games when it can’t be interpreted in the same way, when a physical copy of the game raises more questions about its publishing history than it answers, and when its mode of production is so unconventional that there’s hardly any formal record that the game exists at all?
These are questions we need to confront when dealing with Comer, a surreal adventure game from Hong Kong that was self-published by its designer, Kyle Choi, in 1998.1 Comer was produced entirely by one person working alone, without support from a publisher, distributor, or any other industry group, which means there is almost no official documentation for this game or its development. But the story of Comer gets even more complicated when we look at a rare physical copy of the game itself.
Over the summer, an internet user going by the name Kite Line sent me a copy of Comer, which they had ordered from eBay. Just examining the box, it seems to exist in an undefined space between formal and informal game publishing that defies easy categorization. It looks like it was manufactured professionally, but its shape and size are slightly too squat for a so-called big-box computer game from this era (fig. 1). The manual was printed at a low resolution in the default Times New Roman font used in office software in the 1990s, as if it came directly out of an old version of Microsoft Word, and its text-heavy dual-language packaging design, presented in Chinese and English on opposite sides of the box, doesn’t adhere to any standard design practices of the video game industry. But its most interesting feature is a warning label on the top of the box, advising that the game was only intended to be sold in “Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan, [and] Singapore.” This was even more surprising because this copy of the game shipped to me from Athens, Greece.
The box for Kyle Choi’s Comer (Shine Studio, 1998). The front of the box reads: “COMER is an interactive adventure into the surreal world of natural and architectural wonders. Be a COMER and experience the story, 3D graphics, stereo sound with a quality of no compromise. In an ancient oriental script of prophecy, life was referred to as ‘The Game of Zao Hua.’ In modern terms, it might be ‘The Game of Creation and Evolution of Life.’ The study of prehistoric earth reveals that there were periods of lifeforms such as that of dinosaurs and that of mammals. Usually in a drastic ‘Bang!’, one period ended, lives were wiped out, new cycle started. Here and now, another ‘Bang!’ is taking shape ...” (Image courtesy of the author)
This game took a long, weird journey, and yet it left very little trace of its existence along the way. Trying to make historical sense of Comer forces us to rethink how we approach the material history of games like this on the fringes of the commercial industry. For an outlier game like Comer that lacks a canonical record, a physical copy can speak volumes about its production, arguably more than it would for a typical retail game. It’s also an object that begs for additional context that can be hard to come by, which emphasizes the need to turn to the informal resources compiled by the video game fan community.
Little is known about the development of Comer. Kyle Choi has maintained a low profile since the game’s release, and he could not be reached for this article. The limited insight we do have into the game’s production is based on two sources: a single promotional interview for the game that Choi gave with the adventure game enthusiast website Just Adventure,2 as well as a personal statement he included in the game’s manual. Interestingly, from what Choi has disclosed about himself, he’s not the person anyone would have expected to produce his own game because games seem to have been just about the only field that he wasn’t interested in. In his interview with Just Adventure, Choi explained that he had bounced around disciplines throughout this life, dabbling in art, music, and architecture before he became a computer engineer.3 Despite this wide range of interests, he didn’t care for video games, at least the games he was familiar with. They were violent and boring, he said in his personal statement, and he was confused by their “unreal” pixelated graphics.4
His outlook changed after he played Myst, the blockbuster CD-ROM adventure game released in 1993. Myst was a quiet, exploratory game that transported players to another world, and Choi described his experience playing it in revelatory terms. The nonviolent, “realistic” world of Myst, as he put it, convinced him that games were the future of art and that they had the capacity to be beautiful and express ideas.5 As he recounted in his personal statement, he kept looking for another adventure game that had the same emotional impact for him as Myst, but he came up short. So instead, despite having no prior experience in game development, he decided to make his own. He would spend the next three years working on Comer.6
The result is a game that is both deeply personal and deeply inscrutable. It’s not just that it takes place in a weird, hypersaturated world but also that it awkwardly wrestles with massive questions about the meaning of life. The player is the “28th Comer,” the last in a long line of gifted humans who has been chosen to solve an ancient puzzle that will determine the future of humanity. Only the most exceptional individuals throughout history (including Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci) have been selected to be the Comers, but so far, all twenty-seven Comers have failed. The player picks up where they left off, entering a Myst-like environment filled with obtuse puzzles and cryptic messages about the secret history of the earth.
Choi’s sprawling narrative is difficult to follow, in part because of the game’s muddled English translation, but primarily because he brings together a constellation of so many disparate ideas. As best as I’m able to understand the game, it deals with humanity’s relationship with the earth; how the spirits of nature are watching over us, trying and failing to save us from our own violent behavior; and how this is part of a cycle of spiritual reckoning, eradication, and rebirth stretching back millions of years to the time of the dinosaurs. Choi’s preoccupation with architecture is a major influence on the game, too, with fragments of modernist and classical structures woven in and out of the scenery, as if the buildings themselves are learning how to live in harmony with the natural world. It culminates in a bizarre ending in which the player solves the ancient puzzle, breaking the cycle and allowing humanity to decide its own future, but this victory comes at a price. With their spiritual assistance no longer welcome, the spirits of nature depart from the earth, taking all the planet’s trees with them into outer space (fig. 2). Humanity is now free to solve its own problems, but they are left alone on a barren, soulless planet.
Ending sequence from Comer (Shine Studio, 1998), in which the earth’s trees leave the planet. A view of a lake with a classical structure halfway submerged in the water. On the hills surrounding the lake, tall conifer trees are shooting into the sky like rockets, with bright lights emitting from the base of their trunks like jet engines. (Screencapture by the author from the video file “treefly1.avi” from the fourth disc of Comer using VLC Media Player)
Needless to say, Comer is unusual, even for a game that was self-consciously copying Myst, a game that billed itself as a “surrealistic adventure.”7 But as perplexing and frequently incomprehensible as Comer can be, it feels sincere. There are troublingly Randian overtones to the story, which suggests that only the most extraordinary people should be allowed to decide what is best for humanity, but the ending sequence balances that out with the bittersweet idea that being able to choose our own fate means that there’s no one else looking after us. Comer deals with big existential concerns about our place in the universe, and that feels like something Choi had been ruminating on for a long time, as if he had been looking for a way to express all these complicated thoughts he had about nature, architecture, and violence. For better or worse, this is exactly the game Choi wanted to make.
Self-publishing Comer was not his original plan, however. In his interview with Just Adventure, Choi explained that he wanted to find a publisher who could handle the business and distribution side of the game, but he was unable to attract any interest. Without directly pointing fingers, he seems to blame it on the backlash to Myst clones in the game industry—the oversaturation of similar first-person adventure titles trying to capitalize on the hit game’s popularity.8 There may be a kernel of truth to that, but it might have just simply been too difficult for a first-time developer from Hong Kong with no connection to the industry to even get noticed by a game publisher, let alone convince one to take a chance on his impenetrable personal project. Additionally, as Just Adventure noted, the game was saddled with an awkwardly translated title that takes on some unfortunate innuendo in English,9 which certainly would not have made this game any more appealing to publishers. Not knowing what else to do, Choi decided to publish the game himself and sell it exclusively through the website for his company, Shine Studio (fig. 3). “Comer is sold online because there seems to be no other way out,” he said. “I would rather like a publisher to handle the business aspects and Shine Studio to be kept as a development entity in order to focus on quality titles. Unfortunately the real world is not like this.”10
The ordering page from the Shine Studio website. The site lists Comer for $28.00, as well as a Comer Music & Sound audio CD for $12.00. The listings indicate that Shine Studio offered worldwide shipping for their products. (Screencapture from the Shine Studio website, accessed by the author via oldweb.today via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, captured on November 28, 1999, https://web.archive.org/web/19991128155736/http://shinestudio.com/order.htm)
All this background explains why the physical copy of Comer is so significant and unusual. Rather than just being a retail copy of a game produced through the standard machinations of the game industry, the box for Comer is the culmination of an ambitious project by a developer who was so determined to release his bizarre, homemade, spiritualist adventure game that he had no other option but to manufacture and distribute the game himself, presumably in limited quantities and at considerable personal expense. The boxed copy of the game provides a connection to that production process. This gives it a level of importance beyond the sum of its materials. Decades later, the rise of digital distribution has removed much of the friction associated with releasing a self-produced, independent game, but when Comer was released, physical media was the only viable way to distribute a game like this, which spans across four CD-ROMs. It’s remarkable that Comer was released at all, let alone that this specific copy, intended to be sold only in select countries in East Asia, changed hands untold number of times over the course of two decades and traveled from Hong Kong to Greece before, finally, ending up here in the United States. What are the chances that Choi originally mailed out this copy of the game himself?
The physical game, its unusual production story, and even the meaning of the game’s narrative are intertwined, and the significance of one can’t be fully understood without the others. This is a challenge, though, because the game’s unconventional publishing strategy has all but guaranteed that this information is hidden from view, if it has survived at all.
Comer was quietly released in 1998 through the Shine Studio website to minimal fanfare. In the absence of a marketing campaign or retail presence, Comer received little coverage in English-language publications. Oddly, Just Adventure published two separate reviews for the game: one that called the game “achingly beautiful” and more rewarding than Myst,11 and a second review assailing it as “an unfinished amateur product” that jeopardized the reputation of the adventure-game genre as a whole.12 There were a few other scattered reviews published on niche gaming websites, like Mr. Bill’s Adventureland13 or Gamezilla! Online Magazine,14 but ratings were middling, and no major outlets covered it. Although Choi declined to disclose sales numbers for Comer,15 it speaks for itself that this was the last game developed by Shine Studio. Despite Choi’s dedication to his game, it would never have been an international success.
What this also means is that there’s minimal documentation for this game. Because the game was produced entirely outside the traditional structures of the game industry—no collaborators, no publisher, no advertising, no coverage by the mainstream press—there’s no real record of this game to reference, and the passage of time has nearly erased the evidence of Comer from existence. Many of the publications that reviewed Comer have removed their old content or have gone offline entirely, including Just Adventure, which despite its extensive coverage no longer mentions Comer anywhere on its website. The game is missing from even the most comprehensive volumes on the adventure genre, like Hardcore Gaming 101’s 772-page book The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. Kyle Choi, the only person who would be able to document the game’s production, seems to have stepped away from public life altogether.
In lieu of these materials, and with the scarcity of the actual game, it’s difficult to imagine how Comer would be reflected in the collections of a video game museum or archive—or, frankly, how those institutions would know the game existed at all. The answer may instead lie with the efforts of the video game fan community, which often fills in the gap in the formal historical record with crowd-sourced information and collections. Comer has a limited fanbase, but even so, its few hard-core fans have provided most of the game’s surviving documentation. On the encyclopedic game database MobyGames, the entry for Comer was written primarily by the author of Game Nostalgia, a fansite that covers niche adventure games like Comer in exhaustive detail. The only video of Comer currently on YouTube was uploaded by the channel Hall of First Person Games, whose maintainer has taken on the impossible task of trying to record the first ten minutes of every known game that uses a first-person perspective. Kite Line, the internet user who sent me this copy of Comer, has even taken it upon themselves to be the steward for the extremely rare physical copies of the game. They said this was actually the third copy of the game they’ve purchased over the years because as a dedicated fan, they wanted to make sure it found a good home.16
Some parts of Comer have still fallen through the cracks despite the collective efforts by the community; an accompanying audio CD with the game’s soundtrack, documented on the video game music database VGMdb,17 is so far unavailable. But without the superfans who have written walkthroughs, recorded gameplay footage, assembled lists of reviews from long-defunct web publications, and collected physical copies of the game, there would be no proof that Kyle Choi’s personal magnum opus ever happened at all. In fact, I relied on those informal resources when writing this article.18 Given the variety of these difficult-to-track sources, the enterprising and highly adaptive fan community may be better suited for organizing information about a nontraditional case like this than a formal institution would be.
Comer has a rich, meandering, and somewhat elusive story behind it that speaks to the aspirations and failures of game development on the periphery of the industry and what might drive someone to express themselves in the form of a commercial video game, and the physical package is key to understanding the game’s journey. But how does that fit into the bigger picture of video game history? In short, it doesn’t. For understandable reasons, video game history tends to focus on the things that are easier to document, like consumer products, and a game like Comer will always be treated as a curiosity. Consequently, the objects, perspectives, and experiences from people on the outside of video games—which may not be as visible from an industry-centric viewpoint—are sidelined. We need to work toward a more holistic game history that treats games with unusual modes of production like Comer not as anomalies but as an essential part of the history of games. That starts by formally recognizing the research and marginal materials collected by fans, who are often the ones saving these games and their stories from being forgotten. At the end of the manual for Comer, Kyle Choi offered a dedication that seems prescient now: thanks to “the many helping hands over the Internet around the world for whom you may never know and for whose faces you may never see.”19
1. ^ Several English-language sources claim that Comer was released in 1999. However, the game’s manual says that it was copyrighted in 1998. Given the game’s unusual nonretail publishing strategy, its distribution may have been staggered without a firm release date, which makes it difficult to claim either 1998 or 1999 as the actual release year. For simplicity, this article will use 1998, as stated in the manual.
2. ^ This interview was conducted by Jenny Guenther, who was then coeditor of Just Adventure. Guenther’s interview, as well as her review of Comer, were also published on the defunct adventure game website Four Fat Chicks, where Guenther was a contributing writer. It is unclear which publication came first, but this article assumes that Guenther originally wrote them for the website where she was editor.
3. ^ Jenny Guenther, “Interview with Kyle Choi,” Just Adventure, https://web.archive.org/web/20010222194429/http://justadventure.com:80/Interviews/Kyle_Choi/Kyle_Choi_Interview.asp.
4. ^ Kyle Choi, Comer (Shine Studio, 1998), CD-ROM.
5. ^ Guenther, “Interview.”
6. ^ Choi, Comer.
7. ^ Cyan Worlds, Myst (Broderbund, 1993), CD-ROM.
8. ^ Guenther, “Interview.”
9. ^ Ray Ivey, “Review: Comer,” Just Adventure, https://web.archive.org/web/20011225094335/https:/www.justadventure.com/reviews/Comer/Comer_Review2.shtm.
10. ^ Guenther, “Interview.”
11. ^ Jenny Guenther, “Review: Comer,” Just Adventure, https://web.archive.org/web/20010716162502/https://www.justadventure.com/reviews/Comer/Comer_Review.shtm.
12. ^ Ivey, “Review.”
13. ^ William and Lela Horton, “Comer Review,” Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, 1999, modified 2001, http://www.mrbillsadventureland.com/reviews/c-d/comerR/comerR.htm.
14. ^ Suzanne Houghton, review of Comer, by Shine Studio, Gamezilla! Online Magazine, January 24, 2000, https://web.archive.org/web/20020208173610/http://www.gamezilla.com:80/reviews/c/comer.asp.
15. ^ Guenther, “Interview.”
16. ^ Kite Line, Discord message to the author, August 19, 2020.
17. ^ VGMdb, “Comer Music and Sound,” accessed November 4, 2020, https://vgmdb.net/album/1749.
18. ^ Besides the physical copy of Comer provided by Kite Line, I relied on a list of press reviews from MobyGames (“Comer Reviews,” accessed October 23, 2020, https://www.mobygames.com/game/windows/comer/mobyrank). Like the rest of the MobyGames entry for Comer, this index appears to have been compiled by the fan community circa 2006, back when many of these defunct websites were still online; thankfully, they continue to be accessible through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. This index is an invaluable resource because now that many of these small publications are unavailable on the searchable web, their reviews would have been extremely difficult to discover.
19. ^ Choi, Comer.