Code Geass

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First off, this anime ends horribly. People talk about anime suddenly ending with no resolution. Sometimes they overreact – Deadman Wonderland and Attack on Titan end an arc but keep the big story unfinished. It’s frustrating, since the arcs are integral to a bigger story and don’t stand on their own. Code Geass, however, simply ends. Worse, it ends on a cliffhanger. I know there’s a second season, but you don’t separate seasons (Or episodes, or books) for the sake of it. You separate them because they’re different stories. This one’s unfinished and this is a huge blow.

More news at 11.

At first, it’s tempting to view the anime as exploration of Japan under Western influence. World War II wasn’t so long ago, and we all heard about how the Japanese are poor victims. This story is false, and bones have a way of digging themselves out. Japan was an aggressor in WWII and responsible for some true horrors. So seeing a story in which they are oppressed can be bizarre – you have to wonder whether in the world of Code Geass they found the bones in Shinjiku. The big Western oppressor this time is the UK, whose main contribution to the world after WWII was Big Beat and Dubstep.

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It’s not about politics. The Geass is a physical manifestation of power. The creators wisely chose to never talk about how it actually works. There’s no D&D-esque magic system behind it, only a few limits to help us understand power better. A Geass is limited, because power comes in different forms. A Geass can also be used once, but can consume you.

Power doesn’t just come in isolation. Something drives power. The user wants to achieve something with that power. We hear about how some people just want to feel powerful, but why do they want to feel powerful? Powerful is ability and security. Power cannot be an end. If it is an end, it is only because power is the means to get many ends. Power never stands alone.

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Here’s your main problem with the anime. Power here stands alone. Excluding Euphie, the story is an ordinary one about oppressed people rising against their overseers, but so what? What does the British empire stand for? What do the Japanese stand for? You cannot just kill the tyrant but have to replace it with something. A person once said that anarchy is a ‘tyranny of people with guns’. Since humans are pack animals, leaders come by naturally and can be good for us. Leaders work differently, though even when they seem similar. Both the Nazis and the Japanese did unethical human experiments, but for different ends.

The series is soaked by the theme of power. The position of every character is established quickly, and is an important part of everyone’s lives. Notice how Rivalz is obviously inferior to Lelouch, how no woman swoon over him and he’s mostly just there. During high school scenes, we follow the most powerful people – the student council whose head is the daughter of the principle. Lelouch is a person who lost his position of power and that’s the same story for Jeremiah. Cornelia’s and Euphemia’s relationship isn’t just about protecting the little sister – one is clearly more powerful than the other.

It’s a fantastic stage to test what drives power and they squash it. The two sides fighting stand for nothing. Many stories use the typical Hitler-esque tyrant, which is cliched but at least something. Here, the British Empire only protect its own existence without ever answering why it exists in the first place. The Japanese want to free themselves, but they only free themselves into a vague ‘equality’ thing.

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Then again, it’s not a story of simple evil vs. simple good. Many scenes show us the Britinnians, their lives and how they’re actual human beings. The inclusion of school life comedy is brilliant. It shows us there are people behind the oppressors who might be used to their lives of privilege, but they’re still people. When everything falls apart, there’s no sadism but empathy towards the upper class.

If the creators can write vibrant scenes about everyday life, why can’t they imbue their characters with motives and ideologies? Relationships with the same structure work differently. Both Lelouch and Cornelia protect their little sisters, but Lelouch is the soft warm protector whereas Cornelia is the condescending one. A small character arc involving Jeremiah – a clear villain and an asshole – shows us the pain of falling from a position of power. Even while the series sides with Lelouch, it doesn’t shy away from how his power can hurt his enemies.

The ‘Grand Purpose’ is integral to any piece of art. Everything connects to it, and it makes the flaws more understandable. Without the grand purpose, there is nothing to review. Even shows whose only purpose is to show big boobs have this purpose. Often, average shows swing between two such purpose and commit. Code Geass doesn’t even swing between purposes but simply doesn’t have one. It goes through the motions, provides good storytelling that leads nowhere.

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Credit must go to the designers. The series sports one of the best character design I’ve seen. As pure beauty few anime match it. In fact, the characters are so beautiful that it feels like a plot point. Everyone radiates sex appeal, but somehow no one has sex with anyone. The overly-slender bodies do contrast with this. They’re not just thin but long, but every face is plastic-surgery perfect. Every stare is full of confidence with sensual lips. Even the voice-actors give a sexual smugness to it all. CC and Milly always sound teasing, like they’re just about to invite you to their rooms. It’s nice, but sometimes bizarre.

It’s also fairly expressive. Notice the contrast in design between Lelouch and Suzaku. Suzaku has a softer, cuter look with the curly hair. Lelouch has sharp eyes, black hair that falls in spikes. These designs amplifies their personalities. Rivalz is being stuck with a goofy blue hairdo. The decision to give characters similar but different hair colors is meaningful. Euphy’s pink is brighter than Cornelia’s purple, just like their personality.

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The gigantic robots don’t fare so well. The action scenes are a constant thorn in the anime. Although there are emotional moments in those scenes, they take the chess game technique to the extreme. They become more about Lelouch’s genius rather than the characters. Imagine JoJo but with giant robots. JoJo was nice, but its storytelling was built for shallow stories driven by excitement. Here, the storytelling always aims for something deeper. If the robots had a cool look to them, then fine. The designers went full lazy and just had gigantic hulks of metal with arms and legs. None of the imagination that fuels the character design (A character who appears for a barely a minute looks better than most anime characters) reaches them.

Contrast this anime with Future Diary. It’s another overly ambitious anime with so much going on it couldn’t flesh it all out. When Future Diary tackles an idea, it does so with full conviction. It may need more length, but when it’s about comedy it’s all about comedy. When it’s horror, it’s all horror. More importantly, Future Diary wasn’t about build-up but about arcs. Each arc had its own style. All of the elements in Geass aren’t spread evenly but crammed together into one gigantic arc that builds up to a huge climax. There is very little resolution in this anime. Some may enjoy the cliffhangers, the ‘what’ll happen next?’ but that’s boring. The most exciting anime are those that are exciting because what’s happening, in the present tense. They’ll keep you coming back.

Code Geass fails only because what it set out to do is be the best anime ever. It’s overall a good show with a dynamic story and a wide cast, each with their own point of view. Although it slips often to cheap thriller mode, the characters’ personality dominate it more than conventions. Even if it’s not the best anime ever, most creators can’t even attempt something this ambitious.

3 sexy homosapiens out of 5

Ernest Hemingway – Men Without Women

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Hemingway is a fascinating character. Many tell stories, but Hemingway lived in an epic poem. He traveled the worlds, participated in wars, hunted, fished, went through four marriages only to commit suicide. If I needed source material for an epic tragedy, I wouldn’t need to look further. I wouldn’t even need to add themes – masculinity, romance and war are constant themes in Hemingway’s life. This fascinating Hemingway is the only good thing about Men Without Women.

Nowadays, Hemingway’s prose reads more like a parody of realism. He didn’t understand the purpose of it. When he talks about his Iceberg Theory, he talks about hiding things from the reader. Yet holding back information isn’t good storytelling. It’s how cheap thrillers keep us hooked by hinting that if we invest more time, a revelation will come. The purpose of minimalism is to reveal using few words.

Carver came years later and saw it through. When you read Carver, you don’t need to dig deep to find buried ideas. Rather, Carver’s bare prose makes everything float up to the surface. If something is hidden or implied, it means that the mere fact of it being hidden is important. At the end of “One More Thing”, Carver tells us the man doesn’t know what to say. That’s enough to show us how confused, how broken that man is. If Hemingway wrote that story, it would end with “The Man said.”, as if not telling the reader what he said is somehow more profound than showing the man is at loss for words.

These aren’t stories of beginnings, middles and conclusions. They’re snapshots of life, which is fine. “In Another Country” is a story that goes nowhere, but it’s so lifelike. That story must be close to him since it deals with war wounds. He’s not worried about being obvious there, but just let the images stand on their own. In it, there are machines that are supposed to cure body problems. Despite being the first of their kind, there are images of before-and-after. It’s not a complex image and perhaps not a very subtle one, but it’s more powerful than anything here.

“Hills Like White Elephants”, perhaps the most famous story here both shows where the style works and where it generally fails. It’s routinely praised for only implying it’s about abortion instead of saying it, but what’s the point? If you insert the word ‘abortion’ there, would it change the story drastically? Often that word dies to appear on the page, especially if you read an analysis of it. Hemingway writes it while struggling not to mention it for fear of being obvious. It’s like a band who stumbles upon a great melody, but repeats it only once in fear of being ‘poppy’ or ‘mainstream’.

This isn’t being concerned with literary quality, but with literary image. A story that aims for critically-approved traits like subtlety and depth misses the whole point. Even if you do switch the word ‘operation’ with ‘abortion’, the story would remain excellent. It’s really about a couple who reached a stumbling block in their relationship and don’t know where to go. There’s a reason they spend the whole story in a train station.

If you found his dialogue stiff and repetitive before, it’s even more so here. Some stories have sections like a broken record. “The Killers”, an otherwise excellent expression of fear of organized crime, has at least a page worth of unnecessary dialogue. Whenever Hemingway slips into this, you can feel him dying to say something but too afraid of ruining his image. He’s not completely awful in his style of omission. He said he left out the whole Chicago thing from the story and that’s a wise decision since namedropping the city wouldn’t add anything. Organized crime is scary regardless of where you’re at, but killers who repeat the same words ad nausam just don’t make sense.

Across his books, Hemingway’s flaws are as repetitive as the dialogue. Yet I keep reading because there’s something beating here. Discovering Hemingway lead an epic life isn’t surprising once you read a few pieces of prose by him. There’s distress, a desire for more, an obsession with concepts that fuels great people. It’s also not surprising Hemingway killed himself. Literature was an outlet for his troubles, but he couldn’t let it out.

Again, his Iceberg Theory stabs him in the back. Being a stereotypical man means bottling up your emotions and going fishing. Men are supposed to be tough and invulnerable. A vulnerable man can’t protect your children, after all. The stories try to dig into these masculine troubles, but end up conforming to stereotypes instead of breaking them.

The troubles are distinctly masculine. Violence and heartbreak often plague our characters. The violence is either for glory or for survival. As for women, their role is to provide a respite from this life. Perhaps that’s why the man in “Hills Like White Elephants” is so vague, anxious both to make the abortion and telling her she should choose. He’s afraid of losing her because if she’s gone, all he will have left is bullfighting and war. There’s glory in bullfighting and connection when you’re at war with your buddies, but these things can also be your downfall. Then again, in Hemingway’s stories women can also be the downfall.

Downfall is always around the corner, but the sense of dread which the characters feel never surfaces. Hemingway wants to imply so much that the stories feel like a person opening up about his break-up, only to shut up once he talks about the real reason. You, as a listener, is being teased and your curiosity isn’t satisfied. The person who needs a good talk is too afraid to speak, so he doesn’t get any help. The best stories here are “In Another Country” and “Now I Lay Me”. Hemingway lets himself go in these. There’s a bit more telling, but the emotional punch of them is powerful. Both can slot nicely into a Carver collection without a change in quality. The worst story is “The Undefeated”, where Hemingway flexes his jargon and ruins what could’ve been a beautiful story.

Don’t read Hemingway to say you’re reading the canon. Read Hemingway because you’re interested in his personality. None of his books that I’ve read are truly great (I’m yet to reach Bell though) but they each expand on his unique personality. If you find Hemingway an interesting enough person, read this. It’s not good, but like anything else he wrote it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.

2.5 men out of 5 women

Eshkol Nevo – Neuland

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Israelis love to escape, or maybe they just need to. It’s a country constantly under the threat of war. The fear of an attack is always upon us whenever we go outside. Even if we don’t consciously think something might happen, it’s in the back of the head. The news is constantly informing us about who died and who got injured. While everyone else in the Western world is having sex at the age of 18, we’re learning how to use a gun.

The desire to escape is all over the country. Not everyone actually experiences the army, but they’re well aware of it (and aware they were completely useless). Nevo isn’t any different. Addressing this escapism can be a recipe for a great Israeli novel. It won’t be good just in the traditional sense, but also provide insight into the Israeli psyche. Every country needs literature that can define it. Nevo takes the idea of escape a little too far though. He doesn’t explore the idea so much as trying himself to escape into his own book.

Bad things happen, so? There’s a reason schizophrenia, depression and discriminated sexual orientation are among the top reasons for suicide. Nevo’s main problem is that, while he can write about terrible things happening he cannot write inner troubles. How events affect us is what’s truly important. Read stories of people who’ve been through horrors. The transformation, their new point of view is what’s so harrowing. Read Dylan Kebold’s mom article. The horror is in her inner struggles, how the Columbine Massacre made her question everything.

People die and everything is falling apart in this novel. One person commits suicide and the other suffers from PTSD. In order for our main characters to question, to struggle with something, they first need a personality. Unless there is a personality that reacts to the events, all there is generic sadness. People get sad over dysfunctional relationship and death, but that’s it? It can’t be that simple. I’ve read hundreds of stories of people who lost others to suicide and each one is more harrowing as the previous one.

It can’t be that easy, but Nevo wants it to be so easy. His main characters are both sex bombs, people who don’t actually struggle with anything. Dori is an idealist who never has an oppurtunity to doubt his idealism. Women fall for him, students adore him and his relationship with his wife is rocky. Nevo solves this conflict by dismissing her as a career-freak who doesn’t know what’s really important. As for Inbar, she’s also a sex bomb who wants the travel the world and see stuff. If you’ve been to Israel, you met these type of people – aimless, directionless, always horny and thinking that weed is profound.

What does it say about an author who pushes aside a PTSD victim and a suicide in order to focus on these two perfect people? It’s as if Nevo epitomizes what’s wrong with the world. We’re all so focused on the pretty and perfect people we forget the Nobodies. I thought literature and art in general meant to give voices to the weird, the strange and the surprising. There’s nothing gripping about this couple. Nothing about them is startling or odd. They’re exceptionally normal. Sure, they get sad over stuff but that’s it.

Later in the novel a paradise is introduced. Besides admitting that it’s not a utopia and that they’re still working on it, it’s as bad as it sounds. If you needed any other proof Nevo wants to escape, this is it. It’s a world where the mentally wounded (who are all happy there with no evidence of their ‘wounds’) can gather and heal themselves. It’s a self-sustaining community with no conflict and all peace. Why? I don’t know. It doesn’t reveal any flaw in the original Zionist plan. There is no philosophy that drives this utopia besides being nice to each other. It’s a cute idea that’s very hard to put in practice.

The utopia is also rigidly against violence. Why? Violence is an integral part of human nature. The utopia does feature sport games, which are an extension of violence. We enjoy competition and the adrenaline of hitting and being hit. A good civilization finds a productive way to use this drive. It’s ironic Nevo sings praise of sexuality while dismissing violence. Anyone can pick up a sword, but sexuality is also a world of losers and winners, where the Beautiful People are having fun while everyone else is cast out. If anything, violent games are more fair than romantic love.

Nevo’s vision of South America is your typical Israeli bullshit. There’s some poverty, but life is mostly peaceful and fun. The occasional view of the dangers is quickly swept aside. South America is mostly a place for new adventures and new perspective. If I were a SouthAmerican, I’d be offended. These countries don’t exist to provide Western people a new sense of purpose, to cure their emptiness. They’re countries with their unique histories and cultures and issues. Israel has a strong Leftist/Social Justice movement. I’m surprised no one called out Nevo about how South America isn’t an amusement park or a psychotherapist.

The prose is also horrid. Nevo rambles with no style or rhythm. There isn’t a word for this type of prose. It’s not a sign of uniqueness but a lack of focus. Nevo just spills a lot of words, going in and out of character heads. He puts no quotation marks around dialogues. That might make sense in minimalist novels but not in a gushing prose like this one. He also likes to ‘switch’ points of view. It’s the third-person-limited which is really third-person-omniscient and doesn’t add anything.

We even get long backstories about side characters. There’s that washy-washy thing about how our current couple re-create the secret and forbidden love of their grandparents. It’s kind of epic, but looks silly in a serious novel such as this. What does it have to do with the Israelis’ desire to escape?

I have read an interesting article about the symbolism and meaning. The novel isn’t without purpose. Nevo just took it too close to heart. Instead of examining the Israeli psych and its darkness, our desire to escape he just wrote an escapist yarn for himself. It sold a lot of copies, but that’s because Israelis will escape anywhere – to South America, to Game of Thrones, to the dream of getting rich off SmartPhone apps and to crap novels like this. If this is how one of our most acclaimed novelists write, we’ve got a bigger problem than the conflict with the Palestinians.

1 blue pill out of 5

The Tatami Galaxy

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A common misconception is that being experimental makes your work inaccessible. Too many experimental works got this reputation, and too many people now think difficulty is praiseworthy. It’s as if jumping through 50 hoops somehow increases the value of 20 dollars. It may increase perceived value, but that’s not the same. It just means your mind distorted the real value so you won’t feel bad about wasting time.

Difficulty can’t be the main aim of any piece of art. Art is a way to communicate ideas. The reason we seek these experimental/non-traditional/avant-garde methods is not because of their difficulty. These new approaches are meant to enhance a story, to shed new light on the same ideas. Experimentation shouldn’t draw you away from an anime, it should make you curious and involved in it.

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Tatami Galaxy is a perfect example of an anime that’s both experimental and, at the same accessible. It follows a non-linear narrative, whose structure has significant meaning. The characters all look weird, but that’s only makes them more lively. The characters themselves are weird, but people are weird. All their quirks aren’t there just to make them different from one another, but related directly to their personalities.

Jougaski’s love for a doll is directly related to how he’s an idol for women. Akashi is cold and intelligent, but it doesn’t help her when moths are around. Ozu is a scumbag, but even scumbags like him can love.

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The way they are drawn is also important to their personality. Anyone who thinks character design isn’t important has no business watching anime, with Tatami Galaxy a strong argument for the importance of character design. The designs are expressive for their personalities – Jougaski looks perfect, Akashi is pretty in a low-key way, Higuchi looks both absent-minded and too wise to care. Look at the shut eyes and the small smile. It’s right between a wise master and an oblivious buffoon.

The designs are both cartoonish and realistic at the same, and that’s whole approach of the show. It manages to be realistic by being cartoonish. Too many times we see attempts at realism by being ‘low-key’, like in Mushishi or Texhnolyze. In order to be ‘realistic’ you first have to ask yourself what is the reality your story is about. Then you seek methods, techniques, and cues that make us believe in your reality.

Life is weird, but college life is especially weird. It’s not a matter of life and death, but it’s a constant chase after an ideal. Even outside college, the dream of a life of constant partying, joy and excitement is common.

In the age of social media, this theme of ‘rose-colored life’ is more common. People often post only the good stuff and inflate them. We follow celebrities more closely than ever. Sometimes celebrities rise out of that social media. As a satire of that desire, Tatami Galaxy is dead-on.

It’s not so much about choices, because whatever Watashi chooses the results remain fairly similar. It’s also not about some big philosophy about Destiny and Fate, because every time Watashi fails it’s in different ways. The reason he fails so much is because of his desire. This dream of the rose-colored life is his undoing.

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Whether it exists or not, the anime doesn’t answer. It shouldn’t, since easy answers have no place in a great story like this. What it asks us to do look beyond our huge ambitions. The vivid, wacky art style is meant to portray a reality that’s varied, full of weirdness and ups and downs. Notice how the colors constantly change. Life can’t be ‘rose-colored’. It has too many colors.

The message is, thankfully, not just ‘enjoy your life and be thankful for it’. As I said, there’s no room for easy answers in stories that ask questions. Failure is a running theme and the anime is aware you can’t avoid failure and how painful it is. Characters who should lead ‘rose-colored life’ don’t lead them. Jougaski has plenty of things that make him ‘not a real man’. Hanuki may be a sexy, fun woman but she still falls into bad relationship. Ozu may be cunning, but he can also fall apart when loves takes over.

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All the colors, weirdness, and personification of a sex drive only lead to one conclusion. Life is a mess. You can enjoy it not by stop aspiring. You don’t even need some sort of ‘mythical balance’. The world is full of things, of Ozu’s who will knock us down and Higuchi’s who will babble nonsense. It’s about trying to enjoy it despite all these things, to sort out the mess and find what fits you. You can be life-affirming without being shallow

Some have pointed out that the monologues can be too fast. At first it’s annoying, but it quickly dies down. Watashi still talks pretty fast, but the monologues become less dominant and slightly slower. It was easy getting over.

The Tatami Galaxy is worth all the hype surrounding it. It manages to be so many things at the same time, and never losing control. It’s realistic without being dry. The narrative is experimental, but in a meaningful way rather than an obscure one. The character design is weird, but it’s for expressive purposes. For all the reputation it gained as an ‘intellectual anime’, it’s so accessible I’d recommend it to anyone, even people who aren’t into anime.

5 tatami rooms out 5

Theodore Dreiser – An American Tragedy

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“intermingled and furnished it in some nondescript manner which need hardly be described.”

I dare you to find a funnier joke in all of history of the world. Only Robert Jordan’s death can compete with this. Theodore Dreiser overwrites like no other, and he is telling us twice that something is nondescript and there shouldn’t be described. I don’t know whether it’s a moment of self-awareness, or whether it’s definitive proof there was no editor.

You better laugh, because An American Tragedy is a heavy novel. It’s heavy in every sense of the word. The book is long. The writing is dense, overwritten, everything is repeated and reptition is everywhere. The subject matter is the same, the nature of crime and ambition and other big topics about life. The psychology is just as deep, with Dreiser refusing to cast anyone as pure evil.

Dreiser does the impossible here. Authors write great books by sticking to principles of good writing. They each have their own unique spin, but you can draw general rules that these books have in common.

Dreiser breaks every conventional rule. The end of the novel is obvious from the title. The writing is the worst you can find. I can never say enough how Dreiser overwrites. Plenty of things get described and every thought in the characters’ heads is spelled out for us. Dreiser never shows but always tells. The novel is just one psychoanalysis of his characters, but he doesn’t even give us the privilege of letting us do the hard work. He shows both the evidence and the conclusions.

Good thing that Dreiser can back it up. The reason all the overwriting is forgiven is because Dreiser has too much to say. By trying to show the story rather than tell it, he would have lost of the information he wanted to convey.

Is it the easy way out? I don’t know. Showing this story means writing a lot less. By telling everything, Dreiser has to grapple with his ideas head-on. An American Tragedy may be a busy novel, but it has clear themes you can follow. It also has an abundance of them.

It feels so epic, yet the story itself is simple. You could probably tell it in 5 pages. The thing is, what makes literature remarkable is less what happens. The meaning behind it counts far more. That’s why we can tell stories of rise and fall until the heat death of the universe and we don’t get sick of them because they each have different themes.

I doubt many of them can hold a candle to Dreisser’s work. He was blessed with the unique ability of reading minds. That’s the only way to explain the characters. They feel real because they’re each understandable. There’s a murderer, but there’s no villain. By the end, the reverend who constantly begs for mercy isn’t just the character but Dreisser itself.

Weren’t oracles always portrayed as being greatly affected by their visions? This novel shows how understanding the human mind can affect a person. Dreisser doesn’t just overwrite. He wrestles with the tragedy of the human condition. I know this is a huge word and it makes me sound pretentious (and a white straight male). How else to describe this novel, though?

We puny humans are always in conflict. All of us think we’re right. The man who can cure cancer, the soldier who kills a terrorist, Ian Watkins abusing kids, the person who prevents suicides and the suicidal person all sure that their worldview is current. They also all come in conflict. Now, when you only thing your side is right it’s easy. Just keep attacking the other side no matter what. What do you do when you can understand everyone? What do you do when you see both the selfishness of heroics and altruism of it? What do you do when you understand a cruel murderer but can’t ignore the pleas of the victims?

These questions always pop in the novel. American Tragedy is confusing not because of silly things, like ‘it could mean anything’ or because you can’t understand what’s going on. It’s confusing like real life is confusing. There are no shades of grey. It’s one whole kaleidoscope. Dreiser has some answers. Clyde is definitely guilty, but beyond that Dreiser leaves us with questions and keeps us wondering.

While it’s a tragic novel, it’s not a depressing one. A novel that tries hard to understand everyone isn’t a product of a nihilist. It’s a product of someone who loves humanity. Love is a problem like it is a blessing. Like Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between people because of his love for them. Unlike Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between more than just two women and he’s unsure who to choose. Seeing how much compassion he writes this novel with, it only inspires me to be as compassionate to others like Dreiser is to his characters.

Be careful when starting this. The novel takes time to read. The langauge is complex. The paragraphs are long and the plot is very slow. It also took me about 90 pages before I got used to the writing style. It might be inaccessible, but it’s well worth the effort. The novel wouldn’t work if it wasn’t so clogged with Dreiser’s own thoughts on his characters. That’s how he reveals to us all the grey areas in the novel.

As inaccessible and hard to read as it is, I’d recommend to everyone. If literature is about enriching our understanding of ourselves, then this is definitive literature. It loses a few points for dragging, but as difficult as it is I know I will return to it someday.

5 murders out of 5

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

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Imagine if Dragon Ball Z was actually good, or if Kill la Kill wasn’t so weird.

I feel sorry for this anime. It takes a stupid, pointless idea and makes the best of it. The world has dozens of stories about macho dudes beating up other macho dudes because they don’t agree with their morals. In the worst cases, these stories are filled with overcomplicated fight systems nobody cares about, and silly monologues.

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The world of macho dudes who never really die, where time doesn’t exist is a bit tired now. Franchises like Naruto, One Piece and Dragon Ball will outlast the heat death of the universe. It’s bizarre how no author of these mangas pulled a Robert Jordan, but nothing is as bizarre as this anime.

Macho-ness, like most tropes, is bad because it’s boring. The problem with using tropes has nothing to do with sophistication. It’s just that after seeing the same technique for 100 stories, you get bored. You become like JoJo and can predict their next sentences. Bad cliches are used by storytellers who don’t know what kind of story they want to tell. Is it an epic adventure? A silly show about silly people beating each other? An examination of good an evil?

JoJo‘s strength is the focus, unlike all these shows. The anime makes it clear what it wants to be early in the beginning. Then, every single thing that happens connects to that. JoJo wants to deliver a simple story of good and evil. The bad guys are really, really bad. The good guys are really good and charming. If the fate of the world was really in the hands of a macho dude, we’d all be filled with adrenaline. When it’s a bunch of colors on the screen, you need more than this.

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Since JoJo knows its purpose is to deliver excitement, it will do everything it can to raise the stakes. Bad guys don’t come back after being defeated just because you can milk the show a little more. They come back because it raises the stakes, makes us wonder how they can be defeated. The anime establishes that everyone knows what everyone’s next move is, which is exciting because we wonder when will one of these will fail.

Battles in anime always have pre-determined results. Every battle in anime is a man playing chess against himself. So a battle is only as exciting when the writers can challenge themselves, when they find ways to overturn their own schemes. The set-pieces drive the battles, not just meaningless shots of people using fists. Each battle is a progression of moves. It’s an odd way to describe a fight but they’re like a chess game in how every move has a clear influence on what happens next. There’s something thrilling in seeing a person trying hard to beat himself up in chess.

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It’s not the animation that sparks up the battle, which is weird. Most of the time, exciting fights are well animated. They have fluid movements that create a kinetic energy. JoJo opts for more still shots, but its set-pieces and beautiful progression saves it.

The art style itself is very old school and gloriously macho. It’s so old-school it’s jarring at first. Everyone has a Schwarznegger build and dangerously low amounts of fat. Even characters who don’t fight look muscular, with square faces and bodies of an endomorph. This style can be ugly. It does suffer from Same Face Syndrome, but they make up for it in other ways. Where it fails to dazzle in character shapes, it succeeds in customes and hairstyle. Every important character has a unique, often elaborate dress style.

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In fact, beyond the endomorph build, JoJo‘s version of macho is unique. Perhaps it was common in old times, but today it’s rarer. We now love our heroes rebellious, slightly selfish and enforcing their morality in brutal ways. We want Deadpool and Iron Man, heroes who are only good because the plot requires it. The macho-ness of JoJo is the ‘respectable gentleman’, a man who respects even his enemies. The first part drills this the most, but even the second arc with the rowdy second JoJo has it. Wham is an honorable villain. JoJo duels him fairly and with respect, rather than with malice.

So the characters don’t look gritty and tough. Rather, in the language of 12-year-old kids, they look gay. Their customes are elaborate and decorative. They look like men who are so sure of their macho-ness that they don’t mind looking so ridiculous.

The female design also enforces this weird form of macho-ness. JoJo doesn’t downplay the female’s femininity. In fact, it shows it with all the glory. Although there are no ecchi moments, the female characters look distinctly feminine – lipstick, eyelashes, gentle features. A common problem in battle shounen is that everyone is so macho, the show is afraid of femininity. So besides having longer hair and breasts, the females look like men. JoJo doesn’t need sexuality to remember its female characters are female. It’s a macho series that doesn’t view femininity as a weakness.vlcsnap-2016-03-05-23h15m50s208

For all its fun (and it’s a lot of fun), there’s a glass ceiling it cannot break. It’s a great macho adventure about saving the world, but that’s all there is. It does a lot with its style, but it’s always limited by it. Dragon Ball Z looks pathetic next to it, but JoJo is overshadowed by Kill la Kill. For all of its weirdness and energy, it never becomes as absurd Kill la Kill. It aims there and it succeeds enough to not become useless. I’ll definitely check out the sequels, but Imaishi’s cartoon prove there is so much more you can do with macho bullshit and saving the world. The fact JoJo keeps up with it and and is still worthwhile is a point for it.

JoJo is excellent at what it does. There are plenty of silly people who think there’s no value in adventure stories about saving the world. It may not be Kill la Kill, but it gets everything else right – the pacing is focused, the art is beautiful, the fights are coherent. It’s the sort of thing that inspires a lot of anime that can’t measure up to it.

6 skedaddling out of 5 here

 

Mushishi Zoku Shou (Next Passage)

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Mix a few of these episodes in the original Mushishi, and hardly anyone would notice the difference. That’s not a compliment. The original Mushishi had mainly novelty value. It was a deeply flawed show with a brilliant premise. Next Passage doesn’t do much but gets more steam out of it.

The fact it’s still fun speaks volumes of its premise. The appeal of Mushishi was its weirdness. It’s both because it’s so far away from Western thought, and because weirdness is integral to its themes. Nature isn’t a benevolent or a destructive force. It just exists, indifferent to us and we have to learn to harness it. The mushi and the mushishi are an expression of this idea.

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It’s also a unique take on fantasy, one we don’t see enough. Instead of grand heroic stories, Mushishi is personal. The plights of the characters are always simple and relatable. They deal with relationships, sickness, raising children and depression. They live in the mountains, but they face the exact issues we in the 21st century face. Some themes are eternal.

The series doesn’t know how to handle these stories, though. If they are personal, they need something to bring them to life. The world is full of people raising children and losing their loved ones. The only reason we care about a story like this is because we identify with the person, because we know him.

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You need ‘relatable’ characters, but it doesn’t mean they need to reflect the viewer’s personality. It means they should be written with specific speech patterns, behaviors, and reactions that establish a personality. Once you establish a personality we can believe this is a real human being and we’ll be invested in their struggle. After all, don’t they say that a million deaths is a statistic, because the numbers strip the people of their personality?

Now, the people in Mushishi aren’t numbers but they’re rarely human beings. They exist so things will happen to them and Ginko exists so he will reach them. All of this is so a story will be told. All of this without any grand purpose. It’s odd to have such a unique anime that never tries to lift itself up.

There are moments where it improves on the original. Next Passage is noticeably darker. The situations are often less certain. It’s a small addition, which adds a bit of danger and excitement. It also causes the characters to not just be peaceful. The emotional scope is wider, with a few characters bordering on the immoral. It was almost non-existant in the original, but here it makes the world more believable and alive. The improvement is only slight.

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It also shares with the original a horribly constructed first episode. The exposition was a nice re-introduction, but the first episode is never sure whether it’s concerned with the main character’s story, or introducing elements of the world. The show settles for the usual format in the second and the quality improves.

The art is more beautiful this time around. People always over-emphasized the atmospherics, as if the stories didn’t matter. The art this time though is a wonder to behold. The level of detail is high, but it’s almost negligible. Every story has its own atmospheric focus, and the extra darkness helps the atmosphere. There is always a little dread in the scenery, nature looking good but always hiding something. The movements of the characters are also very smooth, helping bring them to life a little.

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The stories themselves, even without characters are interesting enough. The novelty value hasn’t worn off. There’s still nothing quite like Mushishi and it’s hard to think something will ever come. The Mushi don’t appear visually so much, but their odd presence still takes the center. The mushi always represent some idea, in some episodes much more clearly than others. They way they operate is tied to that idea. Every detail about a mushi is a part of the theme it represents. This makes them both magical and fantastical, but also interesting. This is how magic should be.

Next Passage got its acclaim because most of those who watched were already fans. It’s not brilliant and it’s not a step forward, but it shows the idea still has steam in it. Even if it didn’t improve on the flaws, the uniqueness of Mushishi still works. If you enjoyed the original, there’s no reason not to enjoy this one. In some cases it’s better.

3 mushi out of 5

 

 

 

Cassandra Clare – City of Bones

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Other reviewers listed the stories that this novel borrows from. Characters are, apparently, plucked from someone else’s movie or book, given a different name and a slightly different attire. I’m not familiar with the Big Things of teen fiction. I’ve never watched Buffy and never immersed myself in Harry Potter. This still felt so derivative.

This is another book that came out of fan fiction. You’d expect it to have more verve, more energy. Copy your favorite story, but at least show the passion you have for it. If the novel had the rabid energy fans express over Harry Potter or Star Wars then the unoriginal story wouldn’t matter so much. It’d at least have excitement.

City of Bones feels tired all the way. It’s written by an amateur author who has little experience with what stories can be. It never imagines stories can do other thing than just become more convoluted. We all had this phase when we thought that plot twists was proof the writer was clever, but I thought we’d outgrown it. Surely, even the overrated Nolan proved thrillers have more than just “Surprise!”.

Clary does nothing. Calling her a ‘weak female protagonist’ would at least means she has some sort of role. A female whose role is only to help the main male character at least does something, active in some way. Clary is an observer. She stands around and things happen.

It’s amazing how many events rain down the characters and how little of them are instigated by them. It’s not the examination of “life is out of control” idea. The events have nothing to do with the characters and Clare doesn’t examine their reactions. She introduces a conflict, the characters solve it because of brute force and then they wait until something else happens.

If Clary helped solving the cases, it’d add some intensity. She tends to sit back and look at everyone do their thing, Shadowhunters shadowhuntin’.

There’s something tempting about such protagonists. They’re easy to write and they give the reader (or more important, the author) a hole to insert themselves in. This way, you can watch the story happen through someone’s eyes.

This character is never actually a part of the story though. The camera is never a part of the film’s plot. Some stories deliberately create such characters, but this ‘observer’ nature is addressed in the story and a part of the personality. Clary’s personality is never meant to be a shy observer.

Perhaps she’s meant to be some sort of sassy heroine. She sometimes slap people or gets mad at them, but that’s not enough for a character. A character’s personality is established by multiple incidents that can be connected. More importantly, how the character reacts needs to be connected to the personality. Even if all your characters are cruel, they each need to do it in their own way (something Future Diary does well, for example). Clary just gets angry.

The other characters don’t have much going for them. The other female is supposed to be much prettier (although Clary gets the red head), there’s a gay dude who could have been interesting and the Nice Guy/Brooding Assole dualism. Is daddy issues a new thing in this type of fiction?

You know these characters are different because the characters themselves say it. Somehow, they see things that Clare didn’t write or left off. Everyone talks in the same way. Everyone makes the same sarcastic jokes. I know sarcasm seemed like the newest thing when you’re at your teens but isn’t it a little old? So the books are set at a time when sarcasm is still new. There’s no way everyone is witty.

Her world borrows every fantasy staple. She adds nothing we haven’t seen before and none of the staples she uses are interesting. Vampires still suck blood and have pale skin. Werewolves learn to control their shape-shifting, mostly because one of the good characters is a werewolf and that would be inconvenient. Warlocks are more interesting. They’re hedonistic party animals who dress like they’re in a rave. Here’s a way to modernize a fantasy staple. Too bad that the warlock only appears for one scene and his role is (like everyone else’s) to give us more exposition.

It always happens with such books. The side-characters end up being more interesting because they’re more conflicting. Even Alec, who gets little page-time is a more interesting idea. He’s a gay who’s into a straight dude. That’s a worthwhile situation to write about, but that would require focusing on psychology and character interaction. Such a story couldn’t rely on events just happening.

Using Biblical names and fantasy staples doesn’t make your fiction fantastical. The world here is so familiar, so ordinary and I’m not even well-versed in fantasy. I also watched High School DXD while reading this and the whole devils ‘n’ angels things kept getting mixed up. The difference between the two is that Clare has no purpose for what she does. DXD knows it’s just an overblown ecchi show.

We also get an evil character who wants to purify the world and kills what he considers bad. As Fallout 3 displayed, this idea is still worthwhile. It can be used to explore racism and bigotry by giving the bigot some reasonable basis for his beliefs. Clare had a potential here because the creatures the bad guy wants to kill are a bit in the morally grey area.

Instead of showing the issue from different perspectives, we just have the bad guy laugh maniacally and dream of strength. Then again, halfway through the book or so it’s revealed the series is named after a series of plot coupons.

Clare’s writing isn’t too dense, but it’s also not smooth enough. There are a lot of similes, many of which are pointless. Clare doesn’t overdo descriptions. She lingers on the odd details, the type that stick out to the eye. Her description of a party room is great, pointing out all the colors and odd shapes.

Her way of writing is devoid of personality. The smilies are random, exists mainly because Clare can’t think of describing something without a simile. At first, the huge variety of them is fun. After about fifty of them it gets tiring. It’s a sign Clare has no interesting way of looking at things or of writing about them.

The novel relies mainly on things happening. Werewolves arrive, parties are getting rocked, someone turns into a rat, swords clash and blood pours. This can be exciting even if your characters have no reason to exist but enact these events. Clare’s writing isn’t exciting. It doesn’t drag the scenes down but doesn’t add energy to them because she has no interesting phrases. The event themselves can’t stand on their own. It’s mostly blood pouring and swords clashing.

There’s some fun to be had in this novel, but I expected more. Even as just a Young Adult adventure about hot brooding guys, paranormal beings and saving the world this could’ve been more fun. Clare writes like she’s just trying to please herself. I hope she’s passionate about generic werewolves and passive heroines because it sucks to write about things that bore you. Still, if only a little passion leaked to the page it’d elevate the story. The only remarkable thing about this is the controversy surrounding it.

2 cities out of 5 bones

The Fallout Series

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To the west, you can see a natural light. For the first time in your life, you are looking at the outside world.

I was introduced to the Fallout series via Bethesda’s entry. If your exposure to RPG’s consist of their fantasy series and Dragon Age, you were probably a little shocked by the angry vitriol aimed at Fallout 3. The cries went beyond Bethesda’s changing the gameplay. The series wasn’t known for its fantastic turn-based combat that’s based on luck. Bethesda were criticized with ruining the original spirit of Fallout, and New Vegas was praised with reviving it.

Playing the original Fallout‘s failed to convince me Bethesda did a disservice to the series. It did the complete opposite. Although New Vegas had plenty of references to the old games, and a lot of characters made a comeback, Fallout 3 felt like an actual continuation of the series, at least continuing what begun in the first game. New Vegas continues Fallout 2 and how it turns the wasteland into a wacky, fantastical world. That wasn’t the heart of the series though. No amount of name-dropping things from previous entries will help you capture the old spirit.

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“The Unity will bring about the master race. Master! Master! One able to survive, or even thrive, in the wasteland. As long as there are differences, we will tear ourselves apart fighting each other. We need one race. Race! Race! One goal. Goal! Goal! One people . . . to move forward to our destiny. Destiny.”

The forums in RPGCodex define players as either storyfags or combatfags. I’m deep in the storyfag party. Combat in video games is mostly for easy fun, something to do while checking out the latest records and thinking how overrated the canon is. Perhaps one day I’ll see the beauty of a million algorithims that decide whether my character dies or becomes a banana octopus, but until then it’s the storytelling that’s much more exciting. Fallout didn’t have an interesting combat system either, but its strength was always in its storytelling.

In the first game, you are not born in the wasteland, unlike 2 or New Vegas. You emerge from the vault into a world that’s completely alien to you. It’s not just alien because it’s supposed to be the first Fallout experience. The wasteland reveals itself slowly. You do not immidiately hear about the booming center. You do not meet fantastic events in the beginning. The game begins with a small, unremarkable town. Later, the towns’ size increases, which turns your first encounter unique.

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The wasteland is neither depressive and gloomy nor a huge satire of humanity. It thrives on weirdness, but not weirdness for the sake of cheap amusement. The litany of absurd things – two-headed cows, an irradiated maniac with the name of an egyptian God and the various cults are here to show us the absurdity (and beauty) of still trying to make it through a wrecked world. It makes little sense to try to survive in the wasteland. Mutated animals, radiation, anarchy – the future doesn’t seem to exist, yet people are still trying to make it.

Fallout 3 continues in that vein. Worshipping an undetonated atomic bomb and people pretending to be superheroes makes perfect sense in the wasteland. It’s a place that will most likely break people down mentally, instead of keeping them normal. The gameplay and the actual fictional world are not the same thing. The gameplay always makes it easier to survive, but imagine if you were really there. The world that surrounds you is wrecked, most animals are distorted and you probably heard old tales of how bright the future could be. You might also be pretty lonely. Putting on a superhero suit makes sense in this setting. It will drive you crazy, and the suit might intimidate some people.

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New Vegas and Fallout 2 can’t keep this theme going. Fallout 2 actually starts fairly well, even if the tribes would have been more comfortable somewhere in Planescape (Unlike the cult in Megaton, Bright Brotherhood or the Unity Church, the tribes have little connection to the game’s themes). Broken Hills and Modoc are great places. The former is an experiment where the three races live together and the latter is a depressed, doomed community that the wasteland is bound to have hundreds of. Things start to get worse once you get to New Reno. The gang wars aren’t updated to fit the wasteland. This isn’t a case of taking an inspiration from something real and changing it to fit the wasteland. Instead, Black Isle lifted mafias with all their drama and visual style and just placed them in the wasteland. The bouncers wear fedoras. The families are powerful. The casinos are prospering. Later on, you’ll encounter a strange Chinese cult. Fallout 2 may be a frankenstein of sorts, consisting of parts from RPG’s buried in development hell.

New Vegas is slightly better, but it’s a western more than anything. Most of the people act like cowboys and ranchers. The whole look of the place relies on how we thing the wild west was. The Mojave is treated more as just a desert, instead of a wasteland. The general view of Fallout 3 is full of ruined buildings and dark skies. New Vegas has the great outdoors that are a common feature in country music. Again, we see here imagery lifted straight from an unrelated genre with little change to it. Obsidian did slightly more with the material they lifted up. This form of wild west does make sense in a post-apocalyptic world. Fallout‘s main source of inspiration, Mad Max, was a western in a post-apocalyptic setting. The people in the Mad Max films though were just as weird as those of the Fallout series, but they had their own culture and myth. New vegas’ culture is just a slightly altered western.

Fallout 2 and New Vegas are praised for their amount of choices, unlike Fallout 1&3. It’s a cool gameplay mechanic, but unless these choices are meaningful storywise, that’s all they end up. They become as meaningful as your choice between a shotgun or a submachine gun. Caesar’s Legion is a boring faction which consists of bad guys with no motive. At least the Enclave look like good guys as seen from their point of view. The NCR and Mr. House are much better, and represent ideas more complex than good and evil. New Vegas‘ plot doesn’t really develop these, though. There’s a point where you make your choice, and the main quest becomes a series of hoops to jump through in order to get to the big battle. At some point, the game stops delivering new informations about the factions. In Fallout 3, you keep learning about the wasteland throughout the various quests. It’s only the final one that is just one huge action scene. I won’t even start on Fallout 2. The terrible Scientology parody and the Chinese took me out, and I keep finding better games to play.

Video games are themselves all about choices. Something happens in a video game only if you choose to do it, even if it’s as dull as moving to the next level or keep hanging around this one. The choices mechanic in RPG’s is just an expansion of it. Good storytelling in video games doesn’t need choices, and choices only improve the storytelling if they help to develop more meaningful stories. The choices in Planescape: Torment are great not just because they add a bunch of different routes. These choices increase the number of meaningful and great stories that the game can tell, and that’s what increases the replay value. The choices in New Vegas don’t offer a particularly new story, and Fallout 2 is just a mess. It’s the first and the third just offer great stories, and if they have to be linear to do it then it’s a sacrifice worth making. They also both deal with the theme of race with more depth than most fiction, something I will elaborate on in a different post.

Pictures are taken from the Fallout Wiki

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.