Ping Pong the Animation

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By the sixth time the characters talked about how talented and brilliant Tsukimoto is, I had to make sure I wasn’t watching a battle shounen series. At least the observers in Medabots looked anxious and worried. Ikki fought against tough enemies and had to find chinks in their armor. Here, Tsukimoto hits the ball a few times, push up his glasses and walks away. Not smiling did not add depth to the character.

There’s a brilliant story here somewhere. The story follows a cast that each has a different approach to the sport. This is an archetype that gives you so much do it never gets old. Often, the series understands how to use it. There are about five different viewpoints here. Each is unique in its way, and each is presented as reasonable. The creators never rely on caricatures. They rely more on super-talented protagonists and an unorthodox art style that adds nothing.

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Tsukimoto and Peco are both talented people who we are supposed to cheer for because they’re talented. While Peco’s lively energy is fun, it’s not enough to drive a main character. It’s barely a quirk for a supporting one. Tsukimoto is supposed to be unique with how he refuse to smile, but his character never settles on pretentious moron or angsty teenager. Both would’ve been fine, but at best the series makes him the former. It also takes his pretense seriously.

There is nothing exciting or valueable in being unenthusiastic about life. Tsukimoto walks around with an apathetic expression and doesn’t seem to like anything. His attitude towards life is the same thing that made Joy Division successful, but Joy Division didn’t just sell indifference. They explored that attitude.

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Color me unimpressed

People who reach such a state probably have something in the past that made them this way. They would also lead terribly dull and sad life. The idea that such a person can be so talented is far-fetched. Wouldn’t winning games require some sort of drive? People sometimes hate what they’re good at, but that’s at least an emotion. Ping Pong wants us to believe that a walking embodiment of Joy Division’s classic album is somehow a champion in table tennis.

A bullying story is tacked on at the end. It’s a predictible story that shows us that the kid was disliked, but never the horrible reality of it. Tsukimoto even gets a cheerful person to stick with him. Both of them turn out to be extremely talented in ping pong. Where’s the struggle?

Peco faces losing for the first time and gets bummed, but this is where their troubles end. They’re celebrities and heroes in the eyes of everyone, but not heroes that are uncomfortable in their position. They’re not like Kazama, who was driven to succeed to cover up his emotional troubles. Kazama is a champion who uses victories as a way to find happiness that he can’t achieve. His talent is part of his struggle.

Ping Pong also has a strange view of talent. Talent is something you either have or don’t, and no amount of practice can make up for it. It’s a fatalist view, and not a good one. It could be talent is something you’re born with, but how will you know if you’ll never try to prove it? Indifference like Tsukimoto’s rarely produces noteable people.

What’s thrilling in such stories is not to see the characters win. All the creators have to do is just write that the characters won. What’s interesting is their struggle, their view on victory and why they’re doing it. Their reaction to losing or winning is what makes things exciting. China, Sakuma and the long-haired dude all have such an arc. One uses the sport to return back home. One uses it to lift up his own low self-confidence. Another one is on an eternal search for meaning.

Their stories are far more exciting and humane than Tsukimoto’s/Peco’s. They are stories of people like us, rather than two people who found out they’re talented. It’s amazing how similar it is to cookie-cutter heroic stories. Substitute ‘talent in ping pong’ with ‘magic sword’, ‘victory’ for ‘saving the world’ and it turns out the anime isn’t so unique as it looks.

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Bruce Willis?

How it looks is a big discussion point, but not that exciting. The only good thing about it is how unorthodox it is. The character design is a weird take on realism that looks grotesque without bridging the gap. What especially sticks out are the lips, which look huge. The sketchiness also makes the character design inconsistent. In too many scenes, the characters look like blobs.

This is not minimalism. They look like shapes drawn in a few seconds. The roughness achieves nothing. It could be an expression of the character’s imperfection, but the story disagrees with that. Peco and Tsukimoto are heroic champions. It doesn’t achieve any type of warmth because it’s too stylized and distant. All the rough lines and emphasized lips don’t give it the elegant simplicity that saved Mushishi’s character design. Being different is great, but if it doesn’t contribute to the story it’s just a fancy cover. There’s nothing particularly unusual about it other than a sketchy look that achieves nothing.

The animation is different, and Ping Pong fares better there. The series overcomes one of anime’s main flaws – its static animation. Most anime are fairly static, with more focus on design rather than motion. While Ping Pong fails in design, it’s a total success in kinetic energy. The Ping Pong matches are stylized action scenes that rely on visual expressions, not coherency.

Animating a sports match as it looks in reality is pointless. If you want to watch a real game, you’ll watch a real one. The only reason we watch a sports story is because of what the sport means to the characters. Each match is animated with focus on its place in the character development. The matches are the same in what happens in them. They all consist of people hitting the ball. The difference between them is the meaning, and so every match is an engrossing action scene that leaves everything else in the dust. It doesn’t just set the blueprint for how to animate sport scenes but how to animate action scenes in general.

Ping Pong is not the peak of anime. It’s not even among the more unusual of its type. Despite trying to create its own rules, not enough of them serve the story and it falls back on sport prodigies. The exploration of that type doesn’t go deep enough. Still, it has a great cast of side-characters and fantastic action scenes. Its attempts at understanding its cast are admirable, and so it relies more on developed characters than emotional manipulation. It’s not a milestone, but there’s enough to enjoy here.

3.5 chinese people out of 5

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All Games are Storytelling

All games are interactive stories. The dictionary defines ‘game’ as an interactive pastime meant to entertain. Before video games, it’s easy to see why this would be the optimal definitons. There are no characters in hide-and-seek or in basketball, but let’s describe them. Basketball is about two opposite teams trying to complete an objective, preventing the other one from completing theirs and thus coming out as winners. Hide-and-seek also has this structure of two opposite teams, only this time one team has just one person. Doesn’t this simple descriptions sound like a plot structure waiting to be filled? Isn’t Star Wars also about two opposite teams, trying to achieve their objectives and preventing the other from completing theirs?

It wasn’t apparent then. Basketball and hide-and-seek contain no characters. There’s no good and evil, and the opposite team don’t represent anything. This carried itself into the early video games, like in Pong. The two sides of Pong have no difference between them. Quickly, though, stories begun to appear. Pac-Man is a story. It’s a story of a creature running away from his enemies, collecting MacGuffins and occasionally finding the strength to face them by eating special fruits. Somewhere, someone wrote an article about Pac-Man being a story about drugs. Space Invaders is also a story. What’s the difference between it and a stereotypical action film? Both feature a hero killing a lot of bad guys in order to reach the Big Bad.

The story is told via the game mechanics. For a specific analysis, see my essay about Five Nights at Freddy’s where I noted how its game mechanics contribute to the storytelling. The game mechanics are the tools and obstacles the heroes face. The way they’re being used can tell us about the character. Pac-Man can try to collect the dots as fast as he can, or he can take his time and try to avoid the ghosts more. He can immidiately for the fruits, or keep them until things get tough. The ghosts also have their own behavior. They can either be programmed to follow you if they spot you, or merely go in a set movement pattern. I’m not sure what is actually programmed in Pac-Man, but that’s irrelevant.

All of these can tell us what the story is about and what it means, both what’s automatic and the choices that are left to the player. In literary analysis, a choice like whether the hero hurries to his objective or be cautious matters. It tells us about his general character. The enemy AI tells us about their character, too. If the ghosts have a set movement pattern, the hero faces a dumb, predictible enemy. If they follow him, he has a bigger challenge. The main difference between fiction and video games, however, is the element of choice.

This is what Klosterman said in his essay, “Pong X Infinity”. The analysis of video games should not ask what does this mean, but what could it mean. As I pointed out, you can choose Pac-Man’s behavior, and thus can lead to multiple different stories. RPG fans love to praise Fallout 2 and New Vegas for their amount of choices, but in fact all they do is expand on the element that defines video games. A choice whether to be more evasive or more confrontational may seem like a gaming preferance, but for literary nerds this is one of the most important character-telling moments.

That’s why praising a game for having a lot of choices as good storytelling is silly. Choices, as a storytelling device, are only useful if they expand the meanings the story can have. The choice in Pac-Man’s story are irrelevant because itx story leads nowhere. In the end, it’s just a cute arcade game. In Planescape: Torment, the choices matter because each influence not just the outcome but the meaning of the story.

It seems that recently, most games that are praised as story-reach are just games with a lot of text. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t take advantage of the unique medium. There is some ground to the criticism that games like Fallout and Planescape are sometimes like interactive novels, like a visual novel with more action. However, the sandbox style is a great example of mechanic that’s just as important for storytelling. Visual novels is merely steering a novel in a few possible direction. In Fallout and Planescape, you have much more freedom of what to include or exclude from your story. You even have the option of forgetting about the main story and be a boring, homicidal maniac. This freedom is useless unless, of course, we’re given interesting choices.

This is not an attack on the visual novel or text-based interactive fiction. Both are great formats that can tell good stories, but they don’t take advantage of the video game medium. They’re an extension of literature, more than anything. Fallout, Planescape: Torment, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and Five Nights at Freddy’s are examples of games which take the advantage of the mechanics to tell a great story.

While the mechanics how the game tells its story, sometimes they go against it. I’ll explore in a later post when does a game mechanic exists for both storytelling and gameplay purposes, and when it exists solely for one of them. An example is how Bonnie in Five Nights at Freddy’s teleports. If you played the game, you can think about this and whether it exists solely to offer gameplay challenge or also to add to the story. I’ll write my views in a different post.

John Updike – Rabbit, Run

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Writers try to express their meaning not just by their choice of words, but the way they’re used. Raymond Carver wrote about the simple life using simple words and simple structure. Paul Auster’s fiction tends to contain multiple layers, so his sentences tend to drag on, too. As for John Updike, any sentence that is not longer than a line is useless. A few of these survived, but they’re endangered species in Rabbit, Run. It’s unclear why.

There is a pretty big paragraph which describes the planet in the garden Rabbit works in. It’s a horrible piece of writing. It’s literally a list of the plants and a brief descriptions of them. It’s not writing and it’s not typing. It’s lifting up straight from a Beginner’s Guide to Garden Plants. Updike could have at least put in the end the name of the guide he lifted the descriptions from. After wading through the forest that is Updike’s words, I wanted to have some idea of how these plants look like.

There’s no way Updike actually wrote that paragraph. Early on in the novel, Updike describes a basketball game with big sentences and big paragraphs. The shock that someone used all these words and didn’t stumble wears off quickly. It’s that good. It transmits the energy of a basketball game, and this game is an important character building moment. That’s a good reason to linger on it. What did that description of the garden helped? Why were the roofs of the houses were described over, and over, and over?

Updike tells me a simple story using complex language. He’s the antithesis of Raymond Carver, only writing about the same thing. Updike occasionally writes paragraph that are as good as Carver, but then he quickly falls again. This style of writing is just not suited to the subject matter and the themes. Worse, Updike hints that he says the same empathy and insight that makes Carver’s fiction so engrossing.

Updike wants to transmit the dullness of suburban life, but can dull life be described in such an explosive language? Maybe, and Updike sometimes reads like he can do it. Too often, he lingers on irrelevant details. It makes sense when he lingers on the women’s bodies, and even on the golf game even though it ended up being incomprehensible. He can even make a description of a chair important. The problem is, Updike is not selective in what he describes. He describes everything, both things that are irrelevant to the story and themes and things that are.

Descriptions are more than to tell us what the scene looks like. In fact, ‘what the scene looks like’ is not that important. Whether there’s a picture of Hemingway or Steinbeck in the room is irrelevant – until it tells us more than just that the picture is there. If the author tells me there’s a picture of Hemingway on the wall, it should be because he wants to tell me the character is obsessive over Hemingway, is literary, wants to be macho, or something like that. This is called being selective in what you describe. Updike doesn’t fail because he’s bad at describing, but because he’s not selective in what he describes. Even a talented guitarist would be boring somewhere in a sixty-minute jam session.

The story itself crumbles underneath this weight. Rabbit is an asshole, and that’s great. Updike is willing to explore a character that John Green would have turned into a one-dimensional antagonist. He makes Rabbit human and believable enough, but he forgot to show us what made him appealing to other people. It’s to easy to imagine how a once basketball star would be fun to have around, but there aren’t any examples of that. People say they love him a lot, but that’s it. There’s even an instance when one says they can’t describe why. Was that a moment of self awareness?

The asshole aspects of Rabbit are great. Updike knows how to make understand, if not necessarily agree with Rabbit’s actions. As immoral as he is, every action of his makes sense. He’s also not just an asshole. Bad people don’t want to be bad. They just have a different set of values. Rabbit is capable of being moral just as he is capable of being an asshole. Two great moments show these sides. One moment is where Updike nails what “guys entitled to sex” means. It’s a great portrait of the sexual insecurity of males. Another is a big plot moment where Rabbit’s character turns around. It’s easy to make this an out-of-character moment and make the plot go dumb like E-40. Since Updike is wise enough to portray Rabbit is a human first, this sudden burst of good just makes him more real.

Updike is just as good as portraying the other characters. Every character has its own values and worldviews. It’s most apparent when Rabbit visits his parents-in-law and then his own parents, but morose in two scenes. There is one section that centers on Eccles, and another on Janice. In these scenes, Updike follows them in an ordinary day, but by selectively describing some things he gets into these characters’ head. Eccles is interesting to lead his own novel. Janice is more vague, although her scene is more important. Still, he managed to make the ‘who’s guilty’ question of the novel a never-ending debate. He did it not by being too vague, but by creating real, flawed human beings which are the cause of such tragedies.

These great moments though tend to be buried under heaps of words. Rabbit, Run feels like a language exercise, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a simple story about simple people. Even if these simple people go through an epic quest, writing them in a simple language will give them more respect (As in Grapes of Wrath). It’s worth reading for its story and ideas, but it’s a short book that has about 70 extra pages. Updike probably just wanted to avoid writing a novella.

2 rabbits out of 5