No Game No Life

nogame.jpg
12 episodes of praising Instrumental Reason doesn’t make for good fiction, but it makes it clear why the anime blew up so much. Popularity is never a result of quality, but of fitting in with the zeitgeist, the common biases and worldviews of an age. That’s why Game of Thrones is so popular since it shows a masculinity that’s dark, therefore intelligent instead of the happy-go-lucky nonsense of 80’s action films. As for this anime, its popularity comes from how blatant it is in showing Instrumental Reason to be the supreme reason. Imagine those vegans or marijuana advocates who think that their pet issues would solve all the world’s problems.

Before we discuss why this anime is so bad, let’s clarify what I mean by ‘Instrumental Reason’. I capitalize it because it’s a useful term. To use Charles Taylor’s definition, it is reason which is about efficiancy and problem-solving. It asks how fast we can solve a problem, what is the best way to solve a problem.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-23h30m16s144

Take the case of a busted wheel. When your wheel’s gone bust, you don’t ask what it means, what ramifications it will have on pop culture or on our perception of gender and reality. All that matters is that we change tires as quickly as possible, and that the tire will be good enough to last as long as possible. While there are theories dissecting the meaning behind games, when we play chess we don’t think what the game means. Rather, we asks how we beat the game.

In contrast, there is what I’d call ‘reason of meaning’. By that, you ask what is the nature of things. We don’t just ask how to end racism and poverty, but what exactly is racism and poverty. We’re interested in understanding these issues, defining them, understanding what is bad. Instrumental Reason leads to a lot of money for hi-tech buffons, but it cannot solve all problems since it doesn’t tell you what the problem, or the meaning of things is.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-23h33m26s39

Sora and Shiro are one pair whose world is in Instrumental Reason. While games have meaning, the meaning is related to the mere act of playing. We don’t question whether or not we should win a game and what is the nature of winning chess – the rules decide that. The world of Disboard is a world where every problem isn’t just solved by games, but by Instrumental Reason.

That means it’s a world that doesn’t have any meaning at all. The nature of any problem doesn’t matter, since there will be an arbitrary equation that must solved. Once we solve this equation, the problem ends. The anime tells the story of a megalomaniacal brother-and-sister who beat people in games, gain power and minions and occasionally pay lip-service to morality.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-23h33m54s49

Now, if the series was an examination of such Instrumental Reason, it would’ve been fine. If Instrumental Reason was merely a dominant storytelling tool, then it could still have a decent story. By that, I mean that the show works similar to Death Note and Code Geass. The story moves mainly by challenges facing the characters, and the characters need to solve them. The viewer gains pleasure from trying to solve the riddle along with the characters. However, the meaning of these challenges isn’t important.

Instrumental Reason is so dominant in this anime that these challenges don’t even pretend to have meaning. Death Note may have been a series of riddles, but underneath it there was supposed to be a story about the morality of executing criminals. It failed because it didn’t create situations where we examined the issue, but rather only asked ‘who will win?’. In similar fashion, the only question this anime asks is ‘how will Sora and Shiro win?’.

As a storytelling tool, it’s incredibly boring. It’s essentially watching a staged game. The whole thrill of watching sports is that you don’t know who will win and nothing is decided until the last moment. Stories which use Instrumental Reason make you watch a man playing chess against himself, only with more narrative fluff and (in the case of anime) pretty visuals.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-23h29m19s80

So as a story, this is a complete failure. Really, it’s about nothing. Only near the end it says something about the nature of games, but the whole thing happens in an alternative reality. Once the characters are thrown into it, no mention of the real world. Without admitting there is a real world where not everything is a game, it cannot explore the nature of games. Many throw the word ‘escapist’ around and it’s always debatable how escapist a show is, but can anyone debate this? The characters literally escape the real world so they could play forever.

If the story is an absolute failure, at least it could do well in other aspects. Sadly, it’s all bad except for the art. The art is easily some of anime’s best. It’s such a shame that a highlight in anime art is glued to a horrible story. Look at those vibrant colors, how every scene doesn’t have so much a depth of detail but a depth of color. It creates the feeling of a truly fantastical world. It applies to character design, too. While the series is shameless in fanservice, each character gets its unique touch, unique eye shapes and hairstyles. Shiro isn’t the best design, but her design is a good case in point. Her hair isn’t just long but has a distinct flow to it. Jibril is another excellent case. For a character who floats around half-naked, they sure thought about a lot of unique touches – the asymmetrical gloves, the gardient in the hair.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-23h29m43s103

Sadly, this is where the positives end. Some of the characters are good, but they need a different setting and a different storytelling method. Stephanie Dola could’ve been a light in the dark, a contrast to the world. Her emotional reaction actually could’ve added some ‘reason of meaning’, show us a character who thinks about other things besides winning. Too bad her role is to be slapped around, sexually humiliated and generally used as a tool. If so far you were convinced my rantings about ‘Instrumental Reason’ was just cranking about, here’s the final nail. The anime takes its one character who has a different view than constantly puts it down.

Sora is tied to this problem, and to the misogyny problem. He’s a 20th century masculine stereotype. Writing about transformation of masculinity in fiction is incomplete without him. We see how once the manly hero packed guns, now he’s shagging women and is being a conniving, selfish asshole. What defines Sora isn’t heroism like those in the 80’s movies, but his pure ‘Instrumental Reason’. All that matters to him is winning, all he can think about is winning.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-23h33m45s176

Occasionally he displays some moral code about being nice to those he lose. We never see the general ethics that guide him, though. Since he’s comfortable using everyone as pieces, he’s more like a Wolf of Wall Street, doing everything to win and using people as means to an end. It fits with the zeitgeist. Go to school, and they will teach you how the only important thing is making loads of money. Whatever technology you invent, whatever content you produce, it doesn’t matter so long as you get money. No surprise our politicians are so corrupt.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-23h30m36s81

Using people as means, besides pissing off Kant also gives the whole anime a strong misogynistic bent. You don’t just see women in sexy situations, but often humiliating situations. Stephanie gets the most of it. An episode is dedicated to treating her like an animal only to teach her a lesson. He also takes pictures of her nude without consent and there’s the whole ‘laughing at flat women’ thing. I don’t see anything funny about humiliating a girl, taking nude pictures of her and generally framing her as inferior and dumb. Worst of all, we’re meant to cheer for Sora and the characters eventually come to like him. I don’t see how his rise to power demanded treating Dola so awfully.

Contrary to the creator’s idea, I would rather have a beer with Stephanie Dola and not just because she’s a woman. No Game No Life is pure escapist fantasy for the hi-tech age. In an age where we want to just solve problems instead of thinking about their nature, it’s the ideal anime. I’m reminded of a story where some government officials asked how to lower the amount of poor people. Onc offered to change the definition to the American definitions, and then there will be less poor people on the count. Notice how the numbers change but no one asks what exactly poverty is and what’s the actual problem. It’s a comfortable mindset, but we don’t live in Disboard. Our world isn’t clean and ordered where each problems have clear laws. In this world, you have to ask what is the problem, what it means and the whole shebang. Also, you can’t go around treating women like Sora treats Stephanie. Somebody might come and get all 80’s Action Movie on your ass.

1.5 misogynists out of 5

Advertisements

Brandon Sanderson – The Well of Ascension

mistborn-_the_well_of_ascension_by_brandon_sanderson
Just like that, Brandon Sanderson has turned into George R. R. Martin. A more appropriate title would’ve been ‘The Hell of Continuaton’. There’s no excuse to write such a dull, plodding sequel to a fairly exciting fantasy adventure. What happened? Imagine if a Grindcore band released a twinkly Post-Rock album but kept the noise and the screaming. Actually, that sounds too ambitious. If a Grindcore band did that, it’ll be a push towards new territories. Sanderson had no money for an editor.

Static paragraphs are a disease, especially in adventure stories. These are paragraphs in which literally nothing happens. All we get is the rambling of the narrator or of the character. Since the narrator is often 3rd-person omniscient, we don’t really care about its thoughts. This narrator doesn’t even exist. If it’s the rambling of the characters, a question arises. Why not just write in first person?

It’s a symptom I see in many rookie writers who lack confidence. They don’t see the reader’s point of view or understand what is necessary to them. They don’t understand art is an experience, not a collection of facts. Paragraphs teasing what will happen, what could have happened, what the characters are like litter the pages. As notes, they might be useful. By writing down who your characters are, you have a solid idea of what you should be writing. By writing down what might happen, you have a solid idea of what routes you can take. As a technique to avoid ‘just write the next scene’ writing, it’s brilliant.

These are just notes for a novel, not a novel itself. Bands don’t put all their jam sessions and demos smack in the middle of a song. Imagine if, in the middle of “One Step Closer”, Linkin Park put a random jam session that later gave birth to the chorus of “Numb”. Sure, it’s interesting but what is it doing in the middle of a punchy Nu Metal song? Any time an author puts rhetorical questions in a 3rd person narrative, he’s being a horrible author.

Narrative questions are always answered, so asking us ‘will he be able to save her’ is pointless. We’ll see in a few pages. As for philosophical questions, they must not appear since fiction is expression of philosophy, not an essay about it. I did put some rhetorical questions in this review. The purpose was to make you imagine, to focus your attention by varying sentence structure and expressing disdain at such techniques. In narrative prose, they make zero sense.

What’s odd is that it’s the only bad technique Sanderson falls into. In all other aspects, he remains fine. His story is still shallow, but he avoids the long-winding descriptions of Martin or his misogyny, or his multiple plot threads that go nowhere. Sanderson describes rooms using, at best, 3 sentences. It’s never profound, but he emphasizes the right details. The plot is also tightly focused, with a small arc inside the gigantic save-the-world one. The book was padded to 700 solely because of these static paragraphs. If Sanderson got rid of them, we would’ve been had 300-400 pages of a shallow but exciting story. Did Sanderson pad it so it would look cool on the Fantasy shelf?

As for the story itself, it’s just as shallow as the previous one. All hints of something deeper, more original are gone. As a role-player, I noticed there’s a scale between games heavy on playing a pesonality and games playing on skill. The latter are elaborate puzzle games with a bit of pretending, whereas the former are an improvised theater. The former are more fun, since they’re more emotionally engrossing and memorable. Whenever I jump into a game I always aim for that direction and find myself not doing anything. My character has a lot of skills which I’m supposed to use but forget about. I don’t care how good the paper says I am with a sword. I want to understand my character, get into his mindset and interact with other characters.

Sanderson comes from the opposite tradition. His magic system exists solely for RPG’s, with instruction manuals and technical information but little meaning. This is a world where people can influence emotions, store attributes yet the psychology of this never appears. I don’t buy the excuse that they all had to go into hiding. That’s just Sanderson avoiding confronting the meaning behind his magic. As a role-playing system, it seems exciting. Reading about it is dull.

All these details about what they push, how they push, how they recover strength is so dull. When someone tells you their character in their RPG has 80 STR, do you care? Does it make you want to play the game? The problem with writing about fictional fighting is that it’s so arbitrary. Sanderson dispenses a lot of physical facts about non-physical objects. Non-physical objects don’t have physical traits. All fiction is symbolic since in the end it’s just some ink on the page. The action scenes consist of unimportant physical information with nothing symbolic. Conflicts are elaborate chess games, with enemies having a weak point you need to use V.A.T.S. to target. One scene even features a dungeon crawl. To his credit, the final confrontation had some emotional depth.

His characters remain his strong point. Even if by this point they won’t ever have a complex psychology, they have personalities and distinct dialogues. His dialogues are the most excited parts and not just because dialogues are exciting by nature. He gives his characters obvious quirks that affect all of their speech patterns. Even when Ham isn’t musing philosophically, he has a more thoughtful tone. Breeze’s conceit is always apparent, sometime more and sometimes less. That’s why even if Sanderson’s story is, at its heart, shallow his characters are alive enough to make it exciting.

His story mode also eschew the typical long journey story mode for a more static one. Most of it is spent waiting for the big climax, but by sealing our characters in a small area he gives them a lot of room to interact. His story is less driven by action and more by character interaction. If there was any opportunity to launch his story into something truly special, it was here. Sadly, it padded by a lot of static paragraphs. The ending is also disconnected from the main story. Whereas the novel’s center is the siege, the ending brings back the Hero of Ages myth. Sanderson isn’t very good at splitting his books and dividing them into individual stories. That’s sad since they are here. He only needed to finish the book when the siege was over.

Sanderson doesn’t deliver on the promise of Mistborn. Then again, I heard this was typical, run-of-the-mill fantasy. Sanderson’s storytelling is more energetic, more character driven and his writing isn’t so stiff. It helped make the first book an exciting adventure, but this one is a good writer in search of an editor to help his writing give shape. I’ll still tackle the final book but I’m worried.

1.5 failed ascensions out of 5

Hyperdimension Neptunia: The Animation

neptune
The problem with Neptunia isn’t that the source material doesn’t translate well to anime. The problem is in the process after translation. The content translates smoothly, but there’s just too much of it and the creators can’t make sense of it.

They did make some brilliant decisions. The anime jumps headfirst into the story without exposition. It doesn’t need to. Introducing characters is pointless. If your characters are developed enough, just show them walking around, talking and doing things. We will learn about them as the plot goes on.

vlcsnap-2016-03-18-15h12m12s81

That movie is brilliant and works. The cast is wonderful. Most of them are archetypes, but they’re deliberate. The key to making these archetypes work is how they relate to their environment. Blanc is your flat-chested stoic girl, but in a happy-go-lucky world she sticks out. Vert’s breasts are an extension of her motherly persona, which sticks out when everyone around her are children. Neptune is the embodiment of the franchise and, in a satirical way, the audience. She’s a lazy airhead who just wants to play games and can’t take anything seriously.

Even when characters are similar to each other, there are differences. Uni ┬áis a tsundere like Noire, but she doesn’t have her position of power. So she’s more friendly and easier to get along with. These personalities constantly clash and interact. Although the anime throws all kinds of external challenges at our cast, it never feels like they drive it. Every line of dialogue, every act is modified by the personalities.

That’s why the move to more serious ground isn’t stupid. You don’t need realism for effective drama, but characters who feel real enough. The cast of Neptunia is strong, but the poor pacing throws drama way too early.

vlcsnap-2016-03-18-15h09m19s140

As developed as they are, we still need some time to get to know the cast. There are about 8 characters so, and you can’t make the audience know them in just 6 episodes (especially when there are plenty of action scenes). Already around episode 5 or so, we get dramatic scenes, the world on the brink of extinction and nobody laughing.

The drama is ineffective both because of its placement, and how it’s handled. The drama is too serious for its own good. The creators forget they’re dealing with a world inspired by gaming consoles. It’s not like the introduction of seriousness also comes with extra thematic depth. If your drama doesn’t add any depth, just make it as over-the-top as the show itself. It also appears too early, way before the viewer can get a basic understanding of these characters.

vlcsnap-2016-03-18-15h08m11s229

A departure scene later in the series is great, but that’s because it doesn’t rely on the characters being serious. By the time it arrives we know the characters much better. We saw them on various adventures and learned how their relationships work. It’s also more subdued. The previous drama scenes were overly serious but not over-the-top. Since this one is more subdued by nature, it can tone the ridiculousness down without losing any effect.

The franchise’s premise doesn’t sound like it’ll be friendly with tonal shifts. Still, it’s easier to make you care about a bunch of weirdos than it seems. The pacing is too brisk though. The show keeps throwing events and interaction and jokes at you and there’s never time to take it in.

There are no build-ups. The story doesn’t build towards a single conclusion. Rather, it follows a collection of arcs that end with the a Huge Dangerous Object. If the series built up towards that conclusion, then the fast pacing would have been easier to take. Since the arcs aren’t really connect, it’s like a show is constantly on fast forward, jumping from one idea to next and showing only beginnings and conclusions.

vlcsnap-2016-03-18-15h07m36s85

The brisk approach also works against the aesthetic. Neptunia‘s style is cutsie and bright, sometimes too much. The voice actors, especially Neptune’s/Peashy’s/Abnes’ are trapped with a pitch that’s too high. Their performance is suited well to the characters, but plenty of times I wished they’d put on some effect to lower the pitch. It was too much on the ears. Blank and Plutia are a blessing just because they speak in a calmer manner. If the series was a little slower, then the voices wouldn’t feel like an assault. It does get better in the second half though.

Despite this small bump, the aesthetics are still one of the franchise’s strong points. The character design is astounding. Every character looks distinct. Even characters who are meant to be similar have their clear and subtle differences which make them unique. The show is moe, of course, but it finds so many variations on it.

There’s also the aspect of fanservice. While there are a few uncomfortable moments, the fanservice is well-integrated most of the time. The character design is beautiful, and but the series rarely slows down just to remind us that. It always constructs scenes and shots that both advance the story/characters and let us enjoy the view. It’s also never too profane. The sexuality is elegant, never shoving itself in your face. The characters just happen to look good. The ‘fanservice episode’ is a great example how they do it, and also of the self-aware humor.

vlcsnap-2016-03-18-15h06m36s44

One thing the anime lacks, compared to the source material is the self-aware humor. It surfaces occasionally and it’s always better than expected. The fanservice episode was great, poking fun at tropes but integrating the personalities into the humor. There isn’t enough of it though. I understand the fear of breaking the fourth wall. It can easily slip into trying too hard. Just look at Deadpool. Neptunia doesn’t have Deadpool‘s macho bullshit, though. It never pretends to be cool (It disregards coolness completely. That’s why everyone is feminine but also sexualized), so it can run wild with the self-awareness. It’ll just be a part of the general absurdity.

It’s a curious thing. Here in the West we want our heroines gritty and tough. We love Furiosa and Rey for how macho they are. They scream at men to stop holding their hand and don’t wear skirts. Yet here we have Neptunia, which is a big franchise where all the heroines are unbashedly feminine. There are no apologies here. How can they create a diverse cast of females with both great looks and great personalities while Hollywood directors struggle with one heroine? It’s so pathetic to praise Black Widow when we have the whole cast of Neptunia.

The anime is fun, but it feels like there’s more to do with the franchise.

3 plushies out of 5

 

Sword Art Online

SAO
What a glorious mess. Average should mean unremarkable. Average things can sometimes be worse than bad things, because they can’t make you react. At least something that’s offensively bad makes you angry. Sword Art Online is average because there’s a crappy, overly serious hero’s journey here mixed with a subversive, psychological sci-fi story.

Villains often want to make a change to the world, and that takes the form of destruction. Saving the world means not letting the villain destroy it, whether it’s a senseless bad guy or a specific idea. We rarely meet villains who are creators. We sometimes get the ‘death game’ creators (Saw, Death Race), but all they do is make other people destroy stuff.

Here, we get an actual creator. Our main villain is in a position of God. He created the world, he controls it and he doesn’t let people just easily exit. On paper, this sounds like an exciting adventure which will explore interesting themes like suicide and optimism. Harlan Ellison tackled the God-like character in his brilliant story about mouths and screaming.

Sword Art Online isn’t a death game like the aforementioned films. It’s a real world with slightly different rules. You can die in it just like you can in the real world, but unlike Death Race you’re allowed to do more things than fighting or dying. That’s why it makes sense when some people decide to stop trying to get out of SAO.

Instead of trying to Win at Life, they’d rather slow down and find a few things they like. For some of them, the world of SAO is far more exciting and beautiful. Then again, isn’t that why some people play video games and watch anime? They’re trying to escape from one world to another. Yet when they get trapped in that world, they want to escape back to the real world.

All of this sounds really clever, only there’s no character psychology to give substance to these themes. Akihiko’s motives for creating this world are, what? Just to observe people in action?

When Harlan Ellison created AM, who has the power of God, he tries to think what kind of power can do to someone. In his eyes, it would drive a person insane and made torture people because he got nothing better to do. I kept waiting for something like this in Akihiko, some motive that will make his actions make sense or how creating SAO affects him.

How does all this power affect him? What did he learn from his observations? Maybe he’s like Attack on Titan’s Hanji, a person who’s too caught up in his research to notice people? He delivers some speeches in the end of the arcs, but he might as well walked with a sign that says ‘a winner is you’. That would be funny and more clever.

vlcsnap-2015-08-20-21h17m57s63

Wine bottles from Skyrim make a cameo appearance

It gets worse, though. Akihiko is an interesting character whose psychology was left on the floor of the board meeting. Sugou is just a cartoon. He’s evil for the sake of it. There’s no difference between him and your average Digimon Adventure bad guy, only he doesn’t look as cool. The package comes complete with grand speeches about evil ambitions, mind control research and slug-like creatues who want to molest poor Asuna. Just in case you didn’t get it, the bad guys are ugly slugs.

It was going so well until then. Some complained about the time skips, but I just see focusing on what’s important. The format of ‘This happened, and then this happened’ is boring. Storytelling is choosing what to include and exclude. In those Slice-of-Life-esque episodes, the creators chose stories that will illustrate how the world works and how people behave in it. This is how worldbuilding should be done.

Even the romance section wasn’t terrible. It was actually one of the highlights. A romantic story doesn’t end when the two get together. There’s a story to be told of how their relationships work. These romantic scenes make us care about their relationship because we see it in action. We see them laugh, think about the future and enjoying each other’s company. Put them next to the stories when they deal with death and it’s even more effective. Sachi’s episode remains hard-hitting, and the first episode hints at something unsettling like Digimon Tamers. We even get color schemes that echo the D-Reaper, and you can’t go wrong with that.

Then it degenerates into Rescuing the Princess. Kirito’s a Gary Stu, but it doesn’t become as annoying until that happens. SAO swings from a fun adventure to serious Sci-Fi without notice, which makes it just an admirable failure. When Sugou does his sexual molester stuff, the series just gives up.

Silica's_first_appearance

Personaliy + twintails. What a waste

I could tolerate Kirito in a more light-hearted context. He and Asuna are both pretty perfect, but there’s charm to his humble, yet powerful persona. He’s stuck in a show that keeps pointing to depth. Since we never get enough meaningful moments, the Gary Stu problem just makes it obvious how shallow it is.

I found myself more interested in Sugou than Kirito. We never get to see Kirito’s hard work. He’s doing nice things because it’s nice to do them. He never strives for something, but why should he? He’s an alpha male who get a beautiful girl and got some others going after him. He has all he needs in the world. Even the hard re-adjustment to the real world isn’t addressed. He just goes off to rescue the princess.

That’s a static character whose role is to mow down mooks, not to make things happen. Sugou is interesting. He doesn’t just react but acts, creates conflicts and his wants, needs and flaws.

Yet, even when this series gives up on itself you get a moment that reminds you of what it could have been. There’s a harem thing going on, but it’s much less prominent than people say. It also lets us see the rejected character deal with heartbreak and trying to get over it. The incest thing may have been out-of-place, but at least it’s handled well. Suguha isn’t cast aside, but reacts to the heartbreak.

Those moments were enough to make me curious to check the light novels, but the anime is just a collection of good ideas brought down by cliches. It’s Date A Live all over again, only less brave. It’s weird. Date A Live was more obvious in its harem, but it never settled on clear heroes and villains. Sword Art Online is a cool series that gives up on itself, tells the hero to go rescue the princess just because they’re sick of the whole thing. Someday, someone will remake this and fix these flaws. Until then, I’ll sit back and watch people get really angry over this on message boards.

2.5 swords out of 5