Going to the backlog

This is an unexpectedly slow month for the site, partly because of personal circumstances and partly because of how the coronavirus has fucked my work situation. Luckily for me, despite all the worry over the virus, individual people and big ass corporate entities alike will continue to sue each other, so I still do have work. I’m thankful for that, but obviously conditions have changed and we’ve all had to adapt. All this also means that I haven’t had much time to play anything in the last month or so. However, I still have a fair backlog of games to get through piled up in my Steam account. A lot of us are stuck inside for an indefinite period of time, so what better time to catch up on that? Not that I was ever much for going outside anyway.

Here are some of the impressions I have of the games I’ve started. It’s not an exhaustive list, and there’s definitely no guarantee that I will get through all, most, or even any of these. Since I’m doing my best to economize and actually play the fucking games I buy during Steam sales, however, they’re the ones I’m most likely to play in the near future (aside from Persona 5 Royal, which yes, of course I have preordered. Atlus hasn’t let me down yet, except once, and those P3 and P5 dancing games were still basically decent despite the ripoff price.)

Rabi-Ribi

In what’s undoubtedly the biggest shock of the decade so far, I bought a game featuring a bunch of cute animal-eared girls. I know, really unexpected. But that’s not the only reason I got Rabi-Ribi (I won’t lie — it’s a reason, just not the only one.) This is a combination platformer/bullet hell game about Erina, a regular rabbit who mysteriously turns into a rabbit-eared/tailed human one day. So she has to figure out how and why that happened by seeking out her human owner and her other friends, and these adventures involve a lot of bullet hell-style boss fights with other girls.

If you’d say that this sounds a hell of a lot like a Touhou Project game, I would agree. Aside from the fact that it’s a platformer instead of a vertically scrolling shooter, I get strong Touhou vibes from Rabi-Ribi so far. It’s all about cute girls shooting bullets and lasers at each other in a fantasy setting, so there you go — basically a Touhou game. I’m really liking it so far, though I might end up regretting playing the game in normal mode instead of novice mode. But that would just hurt my pride too much, even if I am generally pretty lousy at games like this.

LiEat

This is a strange one — a trilogy of what look like RPGMaker games (or maybe WolfRPG; I tend to lump all these kinds of games together) bundled together for a few dollars on Steam. I like stuff like that, so I thought why not drop a few dollars on LiEat. The first game starts out with a pair of travelers: Leo, an experienced, hardened kind of guy, and Efina, a dragon girl who recently hatched from an egg and is in the process of figuring the world out. Efina can also “eat” lies somehow — when someone tells a lie, it manifests as a monster that you can fight and defeat in a turn-based battle.

I’m not too far into it yet, but LiEat is interesting so far. I like strange games like this, and it also doesn’t seem to be that much of a time investment even if it is a bundle of three games.

Yuppie Psycho

Okay, I haven’t even started Yuppie Psycho yet, but I am 99% sure I’d like it from everything I’ve seen and heard of it. So why haven’t I played it yet? I don’t know, but I’ll try to fix that soon. All I know is that it’s a horror game about Brian Pasternack, the young panicked-looking guy in the suit above, starting a new job at a big corporation. It looks like there’s a lot of weird Lovecraftian shit going on, and there’s some kind of AI/android girl in there, and the soundtrack was composed by Garoad, the same guy who made the amazing BGM for VA-11 HALL-A. This game was pretty much made for me, so I will probably get around to playing it soon.

Momodora IV: Reverie Under the Moonlight

This game has been sitting in my backlog for so long that it should have grown some mold by now. It was sitting there so long that the developer has since released a new game, Minoria, that I also haven’t played. I still intend to get around to Momodora IV sometime though. I really liked Momodora II, though part of the reason for that was its being free — but it was legitimately fun, and IV looks and plays a lot more polished. Protagonist Kaho is a shrine maiden and the ancestor of Momo from Momodora II, and she’s going on a similar kind of quest to banish some evil somewhere with a close-range fan weapon and a long-range bow. This is another game that seems to demand some dexterity and skill. It doesn’t even bother to hold your hand in the first area. I like a challenge (even if, again, I’m not great at stuff like this) so that’s fine with me. I’ll get through it eventually. Someday.

Evenicle

When I wrote in my last post that I had picked up Evenicle, I was serious. Since then, in fact, I’ve gotten all the way to the third chapter of the game, which feels like the start of the mid-game in terms of pacing. Evenicle is a turn-based RPG made by Alicesoft, and if you know Alicesoft you know what that means. If you don’t know Alicesoft, it means that this game is full of sex scenes and would probably somehow offend at least 80% of anyone taken off the street at random. Just look up the Rance series and you’ll see what I mean, but don’t do it at work.

Despite a couple of fucked but not unexpected moments (again, not unexpected if you know Alicesoft) I like Evenicle so far. The turn-based combat is pretty basic but works well, and the characters are well-written, even if a lot of the women are throwing themselves at the protagonist Aster. But that’s the whole point, anyway: you’re helping Aster build a giant polygamist household (my favorite wife so far: Riche, though I get the feeling Kathryn might steal that spot when she figures into the plot more.) And to be fair to Evenicle, it’s making Aster earn at least some of the love he gets through his being a generally good-natured guy with a ton of motivation and ability. He’s not just some bland dumbass of an RPG protagonist, in other words: he has an actual personality and some traits that make you believe people would want to be around him.

Also, the character art in Evenicle was done by Nan Yaegashi, the Senran Kagura artist, and I’m the kind of idiot who will buy a game or watch an anime series just because it features the work of an artist I like. It really is fantastic artwork, though. I still wouldn’t recommend this game to most people yet, but you probably don’t need my word on it anyway — Evenicle seems to be one of those “you probably already know if it’s for you” sorts of games just from looking at the title screen and reading the synopsis.

***

So those are the games sitting at the top of my backlog list. I’m hoping that maybe this apocalypse we’re living through will at least give me the opportunity to get through some more of these games instead of being forced to go outside and actually talk to real people in real life. How about I just quarantine myself forever? Why isn’t that an option?

In defense of offensive content

Months ago, I wrote a post about obscenity law in the US and how anime, game, and similar material that some people would consider offensive or objectionable fit into that framework. However, there was a key question I left hanging back then that I’d like to address now: why protect art that many might find offensive? And in particular, why protect the creation and marketing of erotic and pornographic content?

I might also be writing this because Evenicle was one of the games I got during the lunar new year Steam sale

As I wrote before, this isn’t merely an academic question, because some people seem to believe they should be allowed to enforce their personal views about art by effectively regulating the expression of people they disagree with. You’d think that socially conservative fervor of the 80s and 90s had made a comeback for some of the puritanical screeds you’ll find on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and all the other big social media platforms. This attitude seems to be thriving now more than ever, in fact. See Sony’s changes to their content policies over the last year and self-censorship now on the part of even Japanese developers and publishers. I certainly can’t say how much, but at least some of this is likely a reaction to these agitators. Even honest, hardworking NSFW artists on Twitter have had to bear insults and attempts at shaming online, and for what? For exercising their rights to free expression. I know I’m a complete nobody who should probably be saying these ideas while standing on top of an actual soapbox in a public park, but I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to stop talking about these issues while things remain as they are. Hence this post, in which I’ll probably once again be preaching to the choir. But I welcome anyone who disagrees with me to read through my arguments and post a comment challenging them.

As before, I’ll be looking at this question partly from the legal perspective, with all the same disclaimers contained in my last post on the subject: none of this constitutes legal advice, it’s all probably nonsense, etc. etc. If you haven’t read that post, I’d recommend it anyway — you don’t have to read that one to understand this one, but it does provide some background to what I’m writing about here. Again, I’ll be addressing the situation here in the United States because that’s where I live and hold my license, though I do think a lot of the following arguments apply universally. And finally, if you’re tired of reading my broken record bullshit ranting and raving about art and censorship, you should probably skip this post. Drop in some other time.

First of all, what constitutes offensive art? There are probably as least as many answers to this question as there are people on Earth, so I don’t want to say I have an exact definition of the term. And I can’t refer back to the Supreme Court’s Miller v. California test here, because while it uses the term “patently offensive” in its second prong, it doesn’t define it other than to say that something patently offensive might be considered obscene. Moreover, different works of art offend different sets of people, and they offend for different reasons.

Yes, the First Amendment generally protects art from government prohibition, even if the author’s intent is mainly to offend. However, there are plenty out there who want to regulate art on the basis of its content, whether they perceive it to be too violent, or too sexual, or expressing an unacceptable political or social opinion. While these people aren’t anywhere near a majority of the consumer base, they’re fanatical and vocal enough to have their views taken into account by developers and publishers who will sometimes practice self-censorship simply to try to avoid a controversy.

I still don’t know if that’s why Nintendo censored Tharja’s butt in the Fire Emblem: Awakening DLC. I guess a tame bikini shot was just too much for American 3DS owners to handle.

I suppose it’s very obvious by now how I feel about these self-appointed guardians of purity and their efforts to strictly define the boundaries of what’s acceptable in art. I believe that people should have the right to enjoy any kind of art they like as long as that art doesn’t involve causing harm to others.1 My belief in protecting the integrity (and even the sanctity if you want to get really lofty about it) of art and its free enjoyment has a simple basis: that none of us chose to be born on Earth, into whatever society we happen to live in, so why shouldn’t we be able to escape from our daily lives however we wish? It doesn’t seem right that anyone should be prevented from getting their escapism in whatever way works best for them, and I’ll defend this position until I’m cold and dead in the ground.

Okay, so maybe I’m getting a little dramatic. But I feel just that strongly that people should be able to create and enjoy art freely. To that end, I’ve made a very incomplete roadmap of arguments to defend that position. I also have to admit that I feel this strongly in part because the above-mentioned fanatics like to go after some of the developers I like for their inclusion of erotic or even just plain pornographic content into their games. I’m not talking about criticism here, to be clear: I have no problem with someone saying they think a game or anime series I like is lousy for reasons I disagree with. Reasonable people can and do disagree about the quality of art — that in itself is completely normal. No, my arguments are directed against those who pressure developers and publishers to self-censor and who support restricting the sales of these kinds of works, banning them from online platforms, or taking similar action.

These are also purposely written as defenses, not as attacks. I’m not really interested in attacking anyone else’s personal views, just as long as said views aren’t put into practice with the effect of restricting the legitimate freedoms enjoyed by all the rest of us. Again, if you disagree with anything I’ve written below, please feel free to post a comment. Same if you’ve found a hole in any of my counterarguments.

So let’s begin. I’ll throw out some of the most common attacks I’ve heard along with my responses to them.

The distribution of socially harmful works should be restricted for the public good.

This is probably the most common argument I’ve seen in favor of censorship or heavy regulation, and probably because it’s one of the more convincing arguments its proponents have. While I don’t see much of a problem with pornography in itself, it’s true that its excessive use can hurt a relationship if it’s diverting attention from one or both of the partners. The same might even go for milder forms of erotic art, though it seems a lot less likely to be the case the tamer the content gets.

However, this is not a valid argument to restrict such content, much less to ban it from certain platforms. There are plenty of perfectly legal habits and practices that do more demonstrable harm to the people involved in them. Gambling, drinking, and tobacco use each arguably take a far greater toll on mental and physical health, relationships, and the public good as a result. Yet they’re not banned, and nobody outside of a few on the political fringes seriously suggest they should be. They’re regulated to some extent, but beyond that people are free to enjoy such potentially destructive habits. So unless the person making this argument is also advocating for the banning of all potentially socially harmful vices, it comes off as disingenuous. Even if some people may find a way to use such material irresponsibly, it doesn’t follow that it should be banned or strictly regulated.2

Not unless something like this ends up happening, and even then I’m probably okay with it.

That’s not even mentioning the fact that some works containing erotic content deliver what most people would consider positive social messages. Interspecies Reviewers, for example, has stirred up controversy for its sexual content, but from what I’ve seen of it, the manga and anime both express ideas of acceptance and diversity in a natural, non-stilted way. The content is certainly sexual, but the message is a good one. The same is true of many other works that take hits for being “fanservice garbage” or “basically porn” without regard for their context. In fact, a lot of the proponents of censorship don’t seem very interested in considering context. But context is everything. It’s what gives content its meaning. How can it be ignored if the argument is based on the supposed harm an artistic work might do to society? It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a difference between erotic and pornographic material, and also between non-sexual nudity and sexual content — differences that rely upon context. Context that, again, all too often goes ignored.

But nobody’s talking about a government ban.  Calls for the artists and the game industry to self-regulate have nothing to do with First Amendment rights.

It’s true that this isn’t a First Amendment issue, at least in the way these arguments are normally made. Groups that pressure artists to self-censor can claim that much. However, self-censorship can create the same kind of chilled environment for art that government censorship can, to the point that there may be no real difference between the two.

This isn’t just a hypothetical situation. It’s occurred throughout our modern history, both before and after the landmark Miller case. Looking back to the 1950s, we can find the Comics Code Authority, a private organization created by the comic book industry to regulate its own product. See also the Hays Code, which from the 1930s to the 1960s strictly regulated content in American films that the MPAA perceived as carrying immoral messages. And as recently as the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center, headed up by the wives of several prominent DC politicians, pushed for the heavy regulation of rock, rap, and pop albums for their perceived violent and sexual content. Senate hearings took place in which musicians as varied as Frank Zappa and John Denver warned about the dangers of censorship of music and of art in general. These proceedings resulted in a compromise, the infamous Parental Advisory sticker, which ended up becoming a kind of badge of honor for musicians whose albums received it — presumably not the effect the PMRC had intended.

This label should have just said “BUY ME TO LISTEN TO SWEARING AND WORDS ABOUT SEX”

This is the pattern of censorship of art in America: not direct government prohibition, which would in almost every case violate the First Amendment, but rather interest groups urging politicians to “encourage” industry associations to regulate themselves (fill in the blank implied by “encourage” however you like, but money is certainly involved, at least indirectly.) Sure, that doesn’t create a First Amendment issue, but the end result is nearly identical. So why should things proceed any differently now with video games? Starting in the 1990s, interest groups of various stripes have pushed for the regulation of games. This again resulted in a compromise with the creation of the ESRB and its rating system. Which I think is a perfectly reasonable, sensible approach to the issue. Mark games with content that might be objectionable on the box and let the consumer decide what to play on that basis. Or let parents decide what games are suitable for their kids to play. The creation of this framework should have ended the controversy about objectionable video and PC game content, but naturally it hasn’t, because games make for a convenient scapegoat when bad things happen. Easier to blame this weird new popular entertainment medium than to admit that there are underlying problems in society that need fixing and trying to actually fix them.

I suppose all this boils down to the following: while it isn’t, strictly speaking, a First Amendment issue, it doesn’t really matter if the end result is effectively the same as placing a direct ban on or restriction of erotic or otherwise off-color content. That’s assuming that the various interest groups in question don’t try to have such material banned outright, which is not something we can take as a given. As I wrote in my first post on the subject, there’s no reason to believe socially conservative groups that want to tear down the wall of separation between church and state would have any love for the free speech clause of the First Amendment. And I highly doubt the group of fanatics attacking artistic integrity from the political left would care either. Extremists and fanatics in general seem to think in the same way, even if their end goals are diametrically opposed. As far as they’re concerned, freedom of expression is a right that belongs to their camp and a privilege that may or may not be extended to others depending upon what they want to express.

However, that wasn’t exactly what our founders had in mind when they signed off on the Bill of Rights. It certainly doesn’t fit with the current understanding of the First Amendment, at least not since the old English legal precedent Regina v. Hicklin was overturned by the Supreme Court back in 1957.3 The Hicklin standard that governed until the mid-20th century defined obscene and therefore bannable art by testing “whether the tendency of the matter is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of [the] sort may fall.” Though it’s usually not stated outright, this seems to be the standard that some of those on the extreme but very vocal fringes want to return to. The trouble with Hicklin, aside from being far too broadly worded, is that it requires a moral arbiter to decide what counts as an immoral influence. I know many of our friends on the far right and left would be happy to take that role, but good luck finding any consensus on the matter. This is the sort of thing that might work in a very small community where everyone goes to the same church, but the point is the standard wouldn’t extend beyond the bounds of that community. The alternative, again, is to impose the values of one of the lunatic fringe upon the entire population.

If there’s one thing the members of ResetEra and Focus on the Family can agree on, it’s that short shorts and thick thighs in video games are a terrible and corrupting influence on their players

So you’re that willing to defend your anime boobs and all that stupid nonsense? There are far greater problems to deal with than this, so you should just drop the issue.

I certainly agree that the human race faces greater problems than an outfit in a game being censored when it crosses the Pacific. I don’t need to look beyond the borders of my own country to see that. Our infrastructure is crumbling, our access to health care is still inadequate, many of our public schools lack funding, and our political system is currently being put through a stress test that it might not pass.

However, this argument is still worthless. Because we aren’t the ones creating the controversy: it’s rather those self-appointed guardians of purity on Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere calling for developers and creators to practice self-censorship and attempting to use public shaming tactics to get their way. This is an attempted intrusion upon what I see as the artist’s right to create and the consumer’s right to enjoy art. If they want to blame anyone for manufacturing a controversy that might distract from more important issues, they should blame themselves.

You should get a life/get out of your parents’ basement/etc.

I only include these lines because they and others like them are thrown around so often in arguments about erotic and pornographic content in anime and games as if they had any bearing at all. In politics, irrelevant personal insults thrown around wildly can sometimes lead you to victory (just look at our current chief executive for proof of that.) However, when we’re trying to get to the truth of a matter, they’re merely a distraction. They’re also effectively an admission that your opponent in the argument has nothing left, so you may as well quit the conversation at that point.

Even supposing that people living in their parents’ basements who don’t get out much automatically lose the argument (which makes no sense whatsoever) it’s worth mentioning that fans of anime, manga, and games that may sometimes include some spicy content are all types of people living in all types of situations. But no, please keep ignoring that fact. Just keep throwing those bullshit insults around. We’re all antisocial unskilled basement-dwelling man-children. Oh yeah, and we’re all members of the alt-right too. Every one of us!

Just let me brush tails in peace. That’s all I want, is that so much to fucking ask

But how am I supposed to take you seriously when you’re placing a screenshot from a porn game in your serious post about law and art?

Okay, maybe you have a point, hypothetical opponent.

Then again, this is part of the point I’m trying to make. I will admit that certain expressions may be so extreme that the risk they pose to society outweighs the value of allowing them to be expressed. As an example, let’s say a group of people wants to stage public orgies, right out in the open. You could make a decent argument that this counts as an artistic expression depending upon how it’s staged, but aside from the fact that such an expression would violate existing public decency laws, I don’t believe it’s right to subject the general public to such an extreme display. However, many of the expressions people take issue with are nowhere near that extreme hypothetical. If your plan is to banish all depictions of nudity from society, you’d better start going around all the art galleries in the country loaded up with cans of spray paint. And in any case, to demand the regulation of what a person is allowed to enjoy in the privacy of his or her own home, no matter whether it counts as pornographic — that’s a different matter entirely.

Anyway, what do you think, reader? Am I insane? That’s entirely possible. I’m just tired of the unbearable smugness of these knights of purity, those guardians of propriety who think they can just enforce their views without any meaningful opposition. As long as people are too squeamish to talk about erotic and pornographic content, the pro-censorship and pro-restriction camp will have the advantage, and they will use it. So let’s not be shy about the matter. Our arguments can and should always be well-reasoned and civil, but we shouldn’t feel compelled to blunt them just because we think we’re on the less socially acceptable side. If I even possessed a few remaining fucks about what society thought of me anyway, being a lawyer for the last few years has taken them from me.

And now that I’ve given my big Braveheart speech, I’m done. I know there are plenty of people out there saying the same sorts of things I’ve written here, and many more thinking them, so it’s not exactly like we’re a lonely bunch. It can be easy to forget that sometimes, though. I also wanted to expand upon what I wrote in that first post and fill out the “why” part of it that I felt was lacking there. I hope I was able to do that without rambling too much. Next time, I’ll probably be both calmer and more coherent. Until then. 𒀭

 

1 I may as well throw intentional harm towards animals in this category to expand it to all sentient beings — I’m absolutely not a vegetarian, but I also don’t like the idea of harming animals for mere entertainment. It’s not an especially brave stance I’m taking here, I know.

2 This is the same argument proponents of cannabis legalization like to use, and I agree with it in that context too. I just don’t talk about it here because it’s not relevant to the subject matter of the site. Neither is politics in general, except when it intersects with art as it does in this case.

3 If you’re wondering why US courts were applying UK law in this case, it’s because US law was originally based on the old English common law system, and so the courts and even Congress would sometimes use an English precedent to base their rulings and bills upon when they couldn’t find an American one. Many of our own common law standards can still be traced back to the post-Norman conquest English legal framework, though you’ll hardly ever find anyone using an English or UK precedent anymore in practice. It’s also why we have so many old Norman French terms in legal jargon along with all the Latin. And no, we’re not letting go of any of it. It might be the 21st century now, but in some ways our profession is still stuck in the 13th.

Listening/reading log #5 (February 2020)

End of the month, so it’s another one of these. I don’t have a good way to start the post this time, so I’ll just get right to business.

Tarkus (Emerson Lake & Palmer, 1971)

Highlights: Tarkus, Bitches Crystal, A Time and a Place

Continuing the tradition of covering one classic prog album per post, here’s one of my favorites from one of those bands with a name that makes them sound like a law firm.  Tarkus isn’t great all the way through (the painfully preachy atheistic anthem “The Only Way” and the boring “Infinite Space” suck pretty bad in my opinion, and I don’t like the album closer much either) but that doesn’t matter, because the main point of the album is the title track, a 20-minute multi-part piece about… well, according to the inside art, it’s about the “armadillo tank” on the cover hatching out of an egg and going on a rampage, fighting other weird monsters straight out of an old kaiju movie.  Not that the lyrics give any clue of this at all, but who cares when the music is this good?  Keith Emerson is a master on his piano, keyboards, and synths, Carl Palmer does a great job drumming, and Greg Lake delivers some of the best vocals on a prog album in the “Stones of Years” and “Battlefield” sections of the suite.  The songs on side two are supposed to be outtakes, songs that didn’t make the cut for “Tarkus” proper, but some of them are excellent as well like “Bitches Crystal” and “A Time and a Place”.

For me, this album is the ultimate proof that music and art in general don’t need to be about a damn thing to be entertaining. Tarkus is about fuck all and I love it, or most of it anyway.  And I still think it should be adapted into a game.

Argent (Argent, 1970)

Highlights: The Feeling Is Inside, Liar, Schoolgirl

This band’s name isn’t all that imaginative (it’s not even named after the country or the Latin word for silver or anything, it’s just the last name of founder/pianist/organist/producer/etc Rod Argent, who previously co-founded the Zombies aka the guys who did “Time of the Season”.) But they made some good music, and this debut has some fine songs on it. “The Feeling Is Inside” is a nice soulful tune about a guy who cries because his girlfriend is so hot, and she brings him coffee in a special cup, whatever the hell that means — maybe they got that line from Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So”?  But they’re both great songs. I also like “Liar”, a much harder-edged breakup song that might be the sequel to “The Feeling Is Inside”. Another highlight is “Schoolgirl”, featuring a guy reminiscing about his love when they were younger.

Hey, this whole fucking album is full of love songs, isn’t it? That’s not usually my thing — I prefer meaningless nonsense music like Tarkus — but these love songs are well-written, so it’s no big deal.

Adult (Tokyo Jihen, 2006)

Highlights: A Secret, Niigata

For the first and certainly not the last time, I’m writing about a musical act that I’ve already written about once. Sort of. Tokyo Jihen, or Tokyo Incidents, is a band formed by singer/musician/songwriter Shiina Ringo. I covered one of her solo albums just a few months ago, but I’ve been listening to some of her stuff again lately. So here’s Adult, featuring songs that don’t sound too different from her solo stuff. More of that mix of jazz, pop, and rock all done in a classy and catchy as hell way. I don’t like Adult quite as much as Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana, but it has some excellent songs like loud jazz blast “A Secret” and somber piano ballad “Niigata”. Some of the album consists of more standard pop stuff, but Shiina’s amazing singing makes it all worth a listen.

And now the featured articles:

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020 Film) review — The consensus seems to be that the new Sonic the Hedgehog movie doesn’t suck, which is far more than most people expected out of it. I might even bother to watch it at some point. If you’re interested, check out this review of the film from Wizard Dojo.

Game Designer Spotlight – Sid Meier — From Caleb Compton of Rempton Games, an interesting look at a man who provided me with many hours of entertainment growing up: Sid Meier, creator of the Civilization series and a bunch of other good stuff.

Good Sexy, Bad Sexy — Aether explores the use of sexuality in games and how it’s used both effectively and ineffectively. This is a subject I’m extremely interested in (as you all probably know already) and I found Aether’s take on it to be very insightful.

Who — The Who put out a new album, a fact that was completely shocking to me considering the fact that they’ve been around for 55 years now and half of the original lineup is sadly no longer with us. Find out what Matt at Hi-Fi Adventures has to say about it.

[GAME REVIEW] Mega Man 3 — I’ll just keep posting links to Red Metal’s Mega Man reviews, since they’re all comprehensive and entertaining.

And finally, let’s welcome Nep back to reviewing games after a hiatus. I look forward to seeing what comes next!

As for me, it’s another grinding month of toil and bullshit.  I’ll do my best to finish out the Disgaea feature I’ve been working on, though.  Can you imagine that I originally intended it to only be one fairly short post about Disgaea 1, and now it’s grown into a four-part series.  Now I know how George RR Martin feels.  Still waiting for The Winds of Winter here anyway — the day it comes out I’ll be taking at least a two-week break from the site.

Deep reads #2.3: The power of love (Disgaea 1)

Almost every time I’ve read a review of a game from the Disgaea series on one of the mainstream game review sites, I think the reviewer felt obligated to mention how crazy and over the top the story/characters/humor in the game are, either at or near the beginning of the review. As if to say “yeah, I know these ultra-powerful demons and angels look cartoonish and silly and all, I know” and almost apologizing for that before going on to mainly praise the game.  This doesn’t seem too different from the “guilty pleasure” disclaimers you’ll see people post at the beginning of reviews for works that are traditionally considered embarrassing to like too much.  I know I’ve seen people attach similar disclaimers to reviews of otherwise critically acclaimed movies, stuff put out by Marvel and the like.  Hell, I know for a fact I’ve done this myself with a few games right here on this site.

So you’d be justified in calling me a hypocrite if I say that I don’t like seeing these disclaimers, simply upon the principle that if you like something, you should like it without shame (that’s a belief it took me a while to finally reach, but I have.)1  That’s especially true of the Disgaea series for me.  Because under all the slapstick antics, the the over-the-top expressions, and the planet-destroying sword and magic attacks, the Disgaea games have substance and a real heart to them.  And while the series would make a lot of mechanical upgrades throughout its decade-plus run, the best example of this heart is still in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, the PS2 original, and its several ports and remasters.  (Actual disclaimer: All the screenshots here are from Disgaea 1 Complete, the PS4 remaster, but it’s essentially the same game for story/character purposes at least.  Also, I don’t feel like digging my PS2 out of the box it’s in.  I’m moving again soon, you know how it is.)

Also: massive spoilers ahead.  I spoil the whole damn plot to this game below, so fair warning as usual.

Fighting a dragon in the tundra, just another day in the Netherworld

In my first post in this series, I covered how ridiculous and wacky the characters and stories in Disgaea can feel, at least at first. That tradition started with Disgaea 1.  The game opens with a text crawl and narration explaining that the Overlord of the Netherworld, King Krichevskoy, has died, leaving his only child Laharl the heir to his throne.  Laharl, however, went for a nap two years ago and hasn’t woken up since.  In the course of his sleep, the Netherworld has gone to hell, with petty demon lords rising up and taking control of their own pieces of it.  This is where Disgaea 1 begins: with Etna, one of Laharl’s few remaining loyal vassals, trying to wake him up by hitting him in the face with various weapons and power tools.  Finally, when she’s about to try shooting him, Laharl wakes up and wonders what the hell all the noise is about and why Etna is pointing a gun at his head.  Maybe we should call Etna questionably loyal.

Not trying to kill you, I promise

Once Laharl learns that his father is dead, he immediately declares himself the new overlord by right of birth and sets off to rule over his realm.  Except it’s been without a ruler for two years, and vassals who were formerly loyal to Laharl’s dad because of his strength and influence don’t have any regard for his kid.  So Laharl decides that he’ll need to beat some sense into his subjects to get them back into line. The only help he’ll have with that at first is Etna and her squad of Prinnies, a set of penguin-esque monster characters that contain the souls of sinful humans put to work in the Netherworld until they can pay off their moral debt balance and reincarnate.

One of Laharl’s vassals giving him valuable advice.  I wish I could tell you we get to take this talking dragon with us to battle, but these lazy NPCs just hang around the castle all day while we do the fighting.

Unfortunately, the Prinnies aren’t terribly useful at first.  Being monster characters, they can’t equip regular weapons like swords and spears, and they’re not especially impressive in any one stat.  As Laharl starts to plunder the estates of nearby petty demon lords, however, he makes money that he can use to recruit new demons into his army, including a growing set of specialized character types like Mages, Archers, Thieves, Ninjas, and Healers, each with their own special sets of skills and weapon proficiencies.

Just as there’s a Netherworld populated by demons, there’s a heaven-like land called Celestia populated by angels.  And at around the same time Laharl begins his quest to consolidate power, the head of the angels, Seraph Lamington, decides to send one of his trainee angels down to the Netherworld to assassinate King Krichevskoy.

Pictured: probably not your ideal candidate for the open assassin position.

Wait, what?  Yes.  At first, it might seem that Celestia has some bad intel, but we eventually come to learn that Lamington has some ulterior motives and is sending Flonne down to this hellish land for another purpose entirely that he isn’t telling her about.  Because 1) he already knows Krichevskoy is dead, and 2) from the one scene we’ve seen her in at this point, Flonne comes off as the exact opposite type you’d want to carry out an assassination: cheerful, kind, and a little naive.  This is made clear shortly afterward when Flonne somehow makes it down to the Netherworld, arrives at Laharl’s castle, accidentally runs into him while doing her best ninja impression… and politely introduces herself as an assassin.

Flonne then remembers she’s on a secret mission and runs away, but not before deliberately bowing and saying goodbye, seemingly not realizing who she’d been talking to. Laharl is so flustered by what the hell just happened that she gets the start on him; however, despite her ninja skills and serious magic abilities, an angel like her can’t get far in the Netherworld. Laharl and Etna fight through a bunch of angelic monster summons, finally manage to corner and capture Flonne, and find out what she’s up to.  But when Laharl tells Flonne that the old Overlord, his father, is already dead, Flonne bursts into tears.

This understandably weirds Laharl the fuck out considering the fact that he’s talking to his dad’s intended assassin. Flonne asks Laharl why he doesn’t seem sad about his father’s death, and he replies that it’s only natural, because love isn’t something demons feel. She can’t bring herself to believe this, however, and decides to join Laharl and Etna for a while to discover whether the Netherworld’s demons truly can’t feel love. Laharl lets her tag along, reasoning that he’ll have fun shocking her with the kinds of horrors she’d never witness in Celestia.  Meanwhile, Etna wonders out loud what the hell Laharl is thinking by letting an angel into his court.

The mid-game follows this trio as they work to claim the overlordship of the Netherworld for Laharl. Along the way, they run into a lot of other strange characters, including a money-loving pig demon, a Dracula-esque vampire lord, a team of ineffective, understaffed Power Ranger/Super Sentai ripoffs, and a Buck Rogers 50’s serial-style dashing hero from Earth.  The crew must defeat all these characters and more in battle, and in many cases these defeated enemies are converted into allies and join Laharl’s party, often completely without his consent.

Laharl’s vassals gather to take him down. Thankfully, these ones are just a bunch of basic grunts.

By the game’s final act, Laharl has defeated his demonic foes and claimed his throne, but he and his crew then have to ward off a joint human/angel invasion of the Netherworld led by General Turner, the military ruler of Earth, and Seraph Lamington’s hotheaded lieutenant Archangel Vulcanus.  At the end of this war, assuming the player achieves the best ending, Laharl establishes himself as the new overlord, and everyone is happy except for the assholes who instigated the Netherworld invasion in the first place.

Assholes like Vulcanus, here trying out for the role of YHVH in the next Shin Megami Tensei game.

So maybe you’re thinking sure, that sounds kind of silly.  And it is in parts.  Disgaea 1 features plenty of buffoonish characters, slapstick antics, and dirty jokes.  However, buried under the surface is a story about coming of age and coping with loss — about a kid who rejects the concept of love not because he’s a demon, but because it’s the only way he thinks he can deal with losing the person closest to him.

The first hint of this seriousness comes when Laharl has to decide how to handle one of his father’s old vassals, the money-grubbing Hoggmeiser, a pig demon who “says” dollar signs at the end of his sentences in the same way some characters end theirs with hearts. Laharl is all set to kill this disloyal vassal, but when Hoggmeiser’s young son stands between them and refuses to move, the prince decides to let his enemy off the hook.  He even leaves the family enough money to get by without starving. Laharl still loots most of Hoggmeiser’s stuff, but this act of mercy is enough to give Flonne hope that Laharl does have some love in him.

I know I’ve used this screenshot before, but it sums up Etna so well

A few chapters later, Etna intentionally leads Laharl into a trap set by another one of his dad’s former vassals, the above-mentioned Dracula-esque demon lord Maderas.2  Not for no reason, either: Maderas is blackmailing Etna in exchange for the return of her memories that he somehow stole from her, straight out of her brain. In true villain fashion, Maderas decides to have the whole lot of them killed once has has them surrounded, including Etna.  But Etna has already outsmarted him by paying off the Prinnies he sent to spy on her, and the team wipes the floor with him and his demons (assuming you beat them in a boss fight, of course — these parts are entirely up to the player’s skill.)

After the fight, Laharl naturally asks Etna what the hell she’s about. Etna admits that she betrayed Laharl at first, but says she really intended to use Laharl as bait to get back at and defeat Maderas, which is supposed to make her original betrayal okay somehow. Anyone would expect this self-proclaimed Overlord of the Netherworld to show no mercy in a case like this.  However, after freaking out at Etna a bit, Laharl laughs it off, saying he would expect no less of such a devious demon.  Flonne is surprised to see this mercy on Laharl’s part and decides that demons might have love for each other they show in ways other beings don’t.  Laharl clearly feels some kind of bond with Etna — not one of love in the way we’d normally understand it, but there’s some kind of affection there even if Laharl would never admit to or even recognize it.

This is where things start to get a bit heavy

Even the sarcastic, cynical Etna seems to genuinely care for Laharl in her own way.  Despite being his vassal, she treats him like a kid, albeit one she cares about, a bit like an older sister might a younger brother.  This semi-sibling relationship is strengthened by the fact that Laharl’s father took Etna in as an orphan.  She has a lot of reverence for Krichevskoy, going so far as to ask Laharl if she can steal a portrait of his father from the wall of one of his other vassals to keep for herself.  While she does go hard on Laharl most of the time, she also says she’d like him to become the kind of ruler his father was — powerful but fair-minded.  She also says she’ll kill him and take his place as Overlord if he fails to do so, and the game gives us no reason not to believe her.  But there’s still a kind of caring there.

This brings us to Vyers.  This guy is initially presented as a joke character, an extremely vain upstart demon lord who has nicknamed himself the “Dark Adonis.”  Vyers is the very first enemy that Laharl pursues, mostly for the purpose of getting some loot to build his army up.  He puts on a lot of airs when they meet face to face, but Laharl and Etna aren’t impressed and give Vyers a different name that they think suits his character better.  Since he’s not even important enough to be a final boss, they call him “Mid-Boss”, and in the first of many, many meta-jokes in the series, Vyers’ name in the game’s dialogue box (and his profile, stats page, and everywhere else) immediately changes to “Mid-Boss.”

Mid-Boss after taking yet another beating from Laharl and company

Mid-Boss refuses to leave the party alone, showing up a few more times throughout the game to challenge Laharl and his vassals to a fight.  However, despite appearances, he isn’t just some buffoonish fop who keeps annoying Laharl for no reason.  Now and then, the game cuts away from the Netherworld to see how things are playing out in Celestia between the serene Lamington and his eternally pissed-off and aggressive subordinate Vulcanus.  When Vulcanus isn’t around, Lamington has private conversations with a hidden figure who happens to sound a lot like Mid-Boss.  Players who are paying attention the few times Krichevskoy’s portrait comes up on screen might also notice a resemblance between him and Mid-Boss.  The game doesn’t spell it out until the late game, but it’s heavily implied by the end that Mid-Boss is Laharl’s father in disguise, revived for a short time by Lamington so he can watch over his son long enough to ensure he’ll be all right on his own.

Laharl’s long-deceased mother is also present and watching over him, though again, the game doesn’t hint at this fact for a while.  There’s one Prinny in Etna’s squad of servants that’s different from the rest in almost every way: demeanor, voice, style of speech, and even color.  All the other Prinnies we meet are lazy and prone to partying and getting drunk when they’re not on the job, and they use that now-iconic “dood” interjection at the ends of almost all their sentences.  By contrast, this “Big Sis Prinny” is diligent and responsible, and she seems to have to consciously remind herself to add in that “dood” interjection.3  She even helps Flonne out early on during her stay in the Netherworld by giving her a potion to help her survive the hellish environment.  As Etna points out, the Prinnies in the Netherworld generally house the souls of the worse sort of sinners and so aren’t usually inclined to be too helpful to others, but we already know Big Sis Prinny is different from her colleagues.

Just as planned?

If you’re used to these kinds of twists, you might have predicted that this unusual Prinny carries the soul of Laharl’s mother.  Laharl only discovers this Prinny’s true identity in his efforts to stop some of the Prinnies working in his castle from reincarnating and leaving his service without his permission.  Laharl and his crew pursue them and even fight a group of death-god demons to prevent them from being sent to their next lives.  After beating them, however, Laharl is persuaded to let them go by Big Sis Prinny, who’s also in line for reincarnation.  This particular Prinny, it turns out, was sent to the Netherworld as a punishment for suicide.

At this point, it becomes clear that she’s Laharl’s mother, though she doesn’t come out and say it directly.  A few chapters earlier, Etna related to Flonne the story of how Laharl suffered from a terminal disease when he was a child.  No doctor could cure him, but the Queen knew of a sure way to save him: by sacrificing the life of someone who loved him, he could recover.  She therefore took her own life to save his.  The cure worked, but at an obviously great price, both to Laharl and his father.  It’s implied, then, that this is why Laharl is so down on love — he blames love for his mother’s death.  Of course, there’s a massive irony here: in saying that he doesn’t believe in love because it took her from him, Laharl is admitting that he loved his mother.  Otherwise, he naturally would not have cared about her dying to save him.

To the game’s credit, it doesn’t take this chance to write in a tearful, heart-string-pulling reunion.  Laharl’s mother says she has no right to face her son after everything that’s happened.  She only asks Flonne and Etna to take care of Laharl before her soul is transported, leaving the empty shell of her Prinny form crumpled on the ground.  Laharl, meanwhile, seems to have quietly absorbed all this and tells his crew that they’re headed back to his castle, leaving the rest of the Prinnies to reincarnate in peace.

Laharl’s arc comes to an end in the final chapter, when he and his vassals are about to face up against that allied human/angel invasion force.  In the course of helping to defeat both the massive spacecraft fleet of General Turner and the angelic forces of the archangel Vulcanus, Flonne ends up injuring humans and fellow angels — two of the most serious sins an angel can commit.  And when Flonne decides to go back to Celestia to seek out Lamington and ask him about the invasion, Laharl, Etna, and their crew of newly conquered human allies come along, resulting in her leading a sort of informal counter-invasion.  Not that Flonne intended for it to be taken that way, but she’s not given the warmest welcome when she returns home.

I could write a separate post about how angels are usually arrogant assholes in JRPGs and how that contrasts with the view we have of them in the West.

So our heroes are required to fight a bunch of battles once again on their way to meet the Seraph.  When they finally reach Lamington and find Vulcanus at his side, Flonne explains herself to him and delivers her account of the Netherworld’s invasion.  Lamington realizes Vulcanus has been conniving behind his back all this time trying to purposely start a war between their two worlds, and he fucks his disloyal lieutenant up by turning him into a flower.  However, Lamington also tells Flonne that she must be punished for her own sins and turns her into a flower as well — if not exactly killing her, then putting an end to her existence as a sentient being.

Despite his insistence throughout almost the entire game that he doesn’t care about Flonne and finds her completely irritating, Laharl completely loses it at this point and proclaims that he will kill the Seraph for what he’s done.

Yeah, the fun’s over now

What happens next depends upon the ending you’re locked into. In the course of the final fight with Lamington (PROTIP: you should have a thief in your party to steal his equipped item Testament; it’s good) Laharl gets the upper hand and defeats the Seraph. However, despite his anger, Laharl concludes that killing Lamington won’t help bring back Flonne. He instead prepares to give his own life to revive her, repeating the sacrifice his own mother performed to save his life when he was a child.

If you’ve achieved the best ending, Mid-Boss shows up at this point to stop Laharl. He explains that he and Lamington had been secretly working together to make peace between Celestia and the Netherworld by sending Flonne down as a sort of envoy in disguise.  Apparently direct negotiations would not have worked, so this backdoor approach had to be taken instead.  Even Flonne had no idea that this was her true role — her natural kindness more or less acted on its own, something that Lamington had been counting on.

Mid-Boss then tells Laharl his self-sacrifice isn’t necessary and revives Flonne himself, but not as an angel. Flonne instead returns as a fallen angel, a special class of demon. He says this was Flonne’s true punishment for fighting against humans and angels.  Not that it seems like much of a punishment.  Flonne ends up looking a little demonic, with a pair of bat wings, a tail, those pointy demon ears, and red eyes instead of blue.  Otherwise, she’s exactly the same old Flonne as she was before.  Mainly because she still doesn’t shut up about love and kindness, much to Laharl’s current and future annoyance.

I like the new look better myself

Lamington, despite being passed out for most of this final scene, is all right, and when he gets up he makes a peace deal with Laharl, just the thing that he and Laharl’s father had been planning for behind the scenes.  Laharl’s father, meanwhile, uses up the rest of his borrowed reincarnation power and finally disappears, joining his wife in the afterlife.  And Laharl and Etna return to the Netherworld along with Flonne, who’s now a permanent resident at Laharl’s castle.  Laharl establishes himself as Overlord, Flonne continues to try to teach demons about love with probably very mixed results, and Etna does… whatever it is Etna does.

Part of it probably involves her making fun of Laharl for acting like he doesn’t care about Flonne, as in this scene where she’s doing a mocking imitation of him (it works better if you’re listening to the voice-over.)

So despite how it looks on the surface, Disgaea 1 does have some pretty heavy emotional moments, with Laharl coming to terms with the death of his mother and nearly sacrificing himself for Flonne’s sake.  It’s easy to imagine how a different game might play up the melodrama, but Disgaea does a good job at keeping it measured, even when Laharl is going berserk near the very end of the game.  It’s only when Flonne is turned into a flower that Laharl loses control in that dramatic scene, but by this point the drama is earned because their relationship has been pretty well established.  Even if Laharl still won’t admit it, it’s pretty obvious well before this point that he cares about Flonne, even with all her irritating talk about love.

And when Captain Gordon, Jennifer, and their retro-sci-fi robot Thursday are thrown into the mix and fight/make friends with/join Laharl’s party, they don’t take away at all from this aspect of the story even though they’re coming in straight from a 50s sci-fi serial, a style that you wouldn’t think would mesh at all with the game up until that point. Gordon is a buffoon of a space captain sent by General Turner to the Netherworld as an unwitting tool to open the way for an invasion from Earth — he’s sort of a Zap Brannigan from Futurama, only a lot more noble and less of a selfish jerk, standing against Turner when his true intentions are revealed.  In fact, his far smarter and more competent assistant Jennifer has her own drama dealing with the fact that General Turner, her adoptive father, is an asshole who only cares about using her for her genius mind.  (The fact that Jennifer always wears a bikini and nothing else isn’t even a distraction from this dramatic character development.  Okay, maybe just slightly, but not too much.)

I think Jennifer is probably a reference to an old sci-fi serial character too, but I have no idea.  Maybe Nippon Ichi just wanted a busty blonde somewhere in their game.

Disgaea 1 also tries to incorporate its gameplay mechanics into the plot.  As you play through the regular missions and move the story along, you may very well accidentally kill an ally.  This is surprisingly easy to do, especially once you start to unlock attacks with wide areas of effect, and it’s all the more likely to occur if you take breaks from the main game to dive into the Item World.  At first, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  A unit that gets knocked down to 0 HP during a battle isn’t killed forever, after all — all it takes to bring it back is the right price paid to the Netherworld Hospital.

However, killing even one ally means that you lock yourself out of the best ending, in which both Laharl and Flonne survive unscathed.  The ally kill count can be tracked by checking the game stats with the male healer standing in one of the corners of Laharl’s castle, but it can only be reset by starting a new game cycle.  There are thankfully ways to do this without playing through and completing the game’s final chapter, but most players will likely do exactly that and be left with a bittersweet ending on their first playthrough in which Laharl goes through with his sacrifice and revives Flonne, ending his own life in the process (well sort of — as we’ve seen, death isn’t a totally permanent state in the world of Disgaea, and this ending concludes with Flonne and Etna talking about a new Prinny at the castle who has antennae sticking out of his head that look just like Laharl’s.)  Other, significantly harsher endings can be achieved by really going nuts and killing loads of your allies early on in the game.

I do like the fact that there are multiple endings to Disgaea 1.  It fits well with the game’s central themes of love and sacrifice that Laharl is made to actually carry his sacrifice out in one of the more common endings.  The one-ally-death mechanic is a little harsh, though.  Even when you’re actively trying to avoid causing ally kills, one or two always seem to occur in the course of a typical game.  It’s easy to remedy the situation by saving often, cycling those saves, and checking the ally kill count with that male healer NPC on a regular basis, but this does add some extra work to the game that some players might get frustrated with.

No, I’m not mistaken, this is indeed the male healer

And I wouldn’t really be able to blame them.  Later games in the series eased up on this criterion for getting the best ending, requiring an ally kill count that would take serious negligence or total callousness towards ally units on the player’s part to achieve.  This works better in a thematic sense as well — if the idea was that Laharl could only achieve the best ending for himself by proving himself a good ruler and not harming any of his allies, it seems unreasonable to punish him for screwing up a single time.  It doesn’t even have to be Laharl who screws up, in fact.  Even if he’s is killed by one of his allies, the player is locked out of the best ending.

Still, this effort to link the player’s in-game conduct to the ending is admirable.  It’s not exactly innovative; plot-driven RPGs and visual novels had been doing it for a long time by this point, but usually by way of more straightforward player choice through branching dialogue options or decisions to be made at key points.  The bad endings of Disgaea 1, by contrast, are generally unexpected and really hit you in the face as a consequence when they happen.  The game is essentially set up to lock you out of the best ending your first play through, since killing allied characters seems so consequence-free at first.  So unless you’re using a guide to play, it’s more than likely you’ll rub out a few of your allies by accident and think nothing of it.

Linking this game mechanic to the ending you get also might serve to show that the love Flonne keeps going on about isn’t strictly familial love, the kind that Laharl claims he never felt for his father.  The love she talks about is a broader kind, including the bonds between friends, and even the bonds that should exist (but rarely do) between a boss and his subordinates.  Even the extremely unromantic Etna pushes Laharl to show this kind of love to his subjects so that, rather than ruling over them through brute force, he can gain their respect the way his father did.  Realizing this kind of love exists within him is part of Laharl’s arc throughout the game, to the point that by the end of the game he manages to show mercy even to a mortal enemy.

And of course there’s an element of romantic love in Disgaea 1 as well, namely between Laharl’s parents.  Because both these characters are technically sort of dead at this point, all of this romance occurs before the events of the game, but there are some hints dropped throughout that suggest Laharl’s father and mother were very much in love.  You might even read an implied future relationship into whatever it is Laharl and Flonne have going, since they pretty much shack up together at the end of the game.  Well, so does Etna, but I can’t see Etna settling down with anyone.  Anyone who tried getting with her would most likely end up on the wrong end of her spear.

If you’re looking for a game that places the main characters into a straightforward romance, check out Disgaea 2. No, not involving the talking frog, but rather the human warrior Adell here and the demon princess Rozalin on the right. There’s a bit of that commoner/nobility romance novel appeal in this game too. An old angle, but it still works.

While this emphasis on the power of love works as a theme, I think the storytelling in Disgaea 1 ultimately succeeds because it implements that theme in an interesting and effective way.  In a typical JRPG, you’d play as the hero, probably a human, entering a Netherworld to fight its demon overlord, and you’d probably end up drawing from your friendships and the power of love in that sense to gain the strength to defeat him.  In Disgaea 1, by contrast, you’re playing as the demon overlord and fighting/recruiting the heroes sent to vanquish you.  This in itself is turning the usual RPG setup on its head, but it does so still again by depicting the demon overlord and his minions as not typically evil.  They think they’re supposed to be uncaring and unloving and try their best to act that way, but the game slowly reveals that these demons are a lot more complicated than even they realize.  Meanwhile, while Lamington and Flonne talk about love and peace and all that good stuff, most of the angels we meet in Disgaea 1 are almost robotic in their obedience to Vulcanus, who even the top demons of the Netherworld think is an evil bastard.

By the end of the game, both demons and angels come off as a mixed bunch — driven by the same emotions of love, caring, greed, and ambition.  They really just come off as overpowered, more extreme versions of humans.  Maybe that’s the main gist of the game: that despite our preconceived notions about what we’re “supposed” to be, we’re not all that different from each other.

In the end, maybe Disgaea is just another JRPG about how the power of friendship defeats evil. But it does so in a unique and interesting way, and that’s why I like it. 𒀭

***

If you were wondering why it took so long for me to post this, I guess it’s pretty obvious by now.  I try not to make these too long, but the show/game-specific deep dives that get into plot specifics are hard to edit down too much.  And I’ve still got one more to go.  Next time, we’ll finish out the series with a look at Disgaea 5, seeing how the series evolved over twelve years and examining some of the weird quirks that make that game unique in its own right.  Until then.

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1 Here’s a meta question for you: was this opening itself the kind of disclaimer I was just saying I didn’t like?  Am I still a hypocrite?  Think about it.

2 I don’t know the English-language voice actor who plays Maderas, but he does a good Bela Lugosi impression.

3 After all this time playing Disgaea games, I still don’t know where “dood” came from.  I think it was the localization team’s best attempt at translating the Japanese sentence-ender the Prinnies use, which is something like -ssu.  It might be related to “ossu”, which is a very casual greeting that fits with the Prinnies’ kind of sloppy, lazy attitudes.

Yet another Valentine’s Day post (or, four game characters I might want to date if they were real but probably shouldn’t)

I have to admit that there are a few games I’ve played featuring characters who I thought were pretty attractive, in that “if only she were real” sense. However, as we know, fantasy is one thing, and reality is quite another. And since reality is generally speaking a big pile of shit, it stands to reason that someone pining for their game character waifu (or husbando, let’s not forget them) might end up a bit disappointed if said waifu were real. But why? Let’s find out both the answers to that question and also possibly to why I make such terrible life decisions.  Here they are listed in random order, along with their respective official art/game CGs.

4) Kat (Gravity Rush)

In almost every way, Kat would be an amazing catch.  She’s bright and determined.  She has a strong sense of self but doesn’t take herself too seriously.  She’s exceedingly hot (I do have a shallow side, I won’t lie to you.)  And finally, she’s got the unique ability to shift gravity around her, letting her fly through the air by “falling” in a different direction than gravity would normally allow.  This is the central mechanic of Gravity Rush and is part of what elevates it well above the standard action game.  Seems like a useful skill to have in general.

As great as Kat is, though, there’s one problem: her gravity-bending powers are a bit indiscriminate in practice.  When the player suspends Kat in mid-air before choosing what direction to send her “falling” into, other objects and even innocent bystanders in her immediate vicinity are caught in the same suspension.  Sending Kat off into another direction in this case also flings anything and anyone in the affected area through the air.  This isn’t such a problem for the inanimate objects that get caught up in Kat’s gravity field, but for the living things it is most certainly a problem.  Not that she’d ever intentionally do that to anyone, but you’ll send people flying to their deaths often enough during a playthrough of Gravity Rush even if you’re not trying to do it.  So just hanging around her might end up with me getting accidentally flung into a brick wall or off the edge of the city into the abyss below.  Though Kat honestly might be worth taking that risk.

3) Patchouli Knowledge (Touhou Project series)

Patchouli is my favorite Touhou character.  The characters in this long-running shoot-em-up series aren’t all that fleshed out in the games themselves — the fans do a lot of the heavy lifting through their own doujin works that include fan games, comics, and animations — but Patchouli isn’t really that complicated to begin with.  She’s introduced in Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil as the librarian of the Scarlet Devil Mansion.  This naturally means that you have to fight her and endure her insane bullet patterns.  Outside of EoSD, though, Patchouli doesn’t seem to care for fighting very much, preferring to stay holed up in the mansion’s giant library surrounded by her books, studying and drinking tea.

So Patchouli is absolutely my kind of woman: such a complete shut-in that she never bothers to wear anything other than her pajamas (at least that’s what I think those robes are.)  However, it would be extremely dangerous to try to date her.  Not so much because of Patchouli herself, but rather because of her employer: Remilia Scarlet, the mistress of the Scarlet Devil Mansion and a straight up vampire girl.  Remilia and her even more dangerous little sister Flandre are supposed to be the descendants of Vlad Tepes, the real-life medieval Romanian ruler also known as Dracula.  Since Patchouli generally doesn’t leave her library, then, you’d have to brave the mansion and the vampiric sisters living there, and that might end up with you getting put on the mansion’s menu.  I don’t think I’m quite so brave to risk that.

2) Astrid Zexis (Atelier Arland series)

Skilled alchemist Astrid Zexis has a lot going for her.  On paper, anyway.  She has a quick mind and a sharp wit, she owns her own business, and she’s got that girl with glasses appeal that seems to be so popular these days.

However, she’s also careless and lazy to an extent that amazes even me.  As a result of her shitty attitude, by the beginning of the JRPG Atelier Rorona her alchemist shop in the capital of the Kingdom of Arland is failing and about to be shuttered.  The townspeople who might normally speak in her support hate her for screwing up their orders and generally causing a lot of trouble, so they seem more than happy to let her business flounder.  Despite her predicament, Astrid is still too lazy to actually do anything about it, so she very generously hands ownership of her atelier over to her apprentice Rorona, the clumsy but determined main character of the game.  Everything works out eventually, but that’s primarily thanks to Rorona constantly busting her ass to meet deadlines set by government agents who are working under orders to close the shop unless she can fulfill certain requirements on a regular basis.  Astrid admittedly does get around to doing some things to help Rorona, but at that point she’s just gaining back a few of the many points she’s lost.

Astrid, center, pushing her failing atelier off onto Rorona, left, at the beginning of the game.  Also pictured, right: best girl Cordelia.

If you really need to know about Astrid, you might ask supporting character/party member Sterkenburg.  This stern young knight dated Astrid for a while and it didn’t end well if their interactions in the game are any indication.  I’m sure there are two sides to that story, but Astrid still seems like a real handful.  I know this because I had a relationship fall apart once because one of the partners in said relationship was an Astrid, and that Astrid was almost certainly me.  Hell, maybe I should date someone like Astrid.  Two assholes with fuck-off attitudes would probably suit each other quite well, wouldn’t they?

1) Saya (Saya no Uta)

Now now, before you say anything — Saya’s on this list only because of the weird circumstances surrounding her existence.  For the uninitiated, Saya no Uta is a visual novel about one Fuminori Sakisaka, a medical student who has an accident that gives him a rare type of brain damage.  This condition makes him perceive everything in the world as disgusting to all his senses.  Even his friends now look, sound, and smell like bizarre rotten meat-creatures.  However, one single being on Earth appears to him as normal: Saya, a strange girl who discovers Fuminori while he’s contemplating suicide.  Fuminori clings to Saya as the one remaining thing in his life that seems pure and good, and Saya becomes just as attached to Fuminori.

Playing Saya no Uta, I couldn’t help but think that if I were in Fuminori’s place, I’d probably fall for Saya too, and that scares me a bit.  I won’t spoil it here, but if you want to read my take on how well Saya no Uta weaves its romance and horror elements together, check out the piece I wrote last Valentine’s Day on the game.

So hey, happy Valentine’s Day again.  Or not, if you hate this holiday, which I’d understand for a variety of reasons.  As for me — the above post is about as romantic as I can possibly get, which should tell you a lot.  Look, I couldn’t even be bothered to write a decent title for it. It does fit this holiday, though, doesn’t it? A tossed-together bullshit post, I mean. The equivalent of buying an off-brand heart-shaped box of chocolates at CVS. You deserve better than this. I’m sorry.

Blogger Recognition Award + 200th post landmark

Many thanks to both Irina from the excellent blog I drink and watch anime and Ospreyshire from the also excellent blog Ospreyshire’s Realm for nominating me for the Blogger Recognition Award, which I believe was created to recognize bloggers.  As always, I’m grateful for an excuse to go on about myself.  This also happens to be the 200th post on my site.  You’d think I’d have posted more considering the blog has been active for over six years, but some years I didn’t post a whole lot, and I also took a few months-long hiatuses.  So yes, this is post #200.  Not a bad time to look back on what’s happened and what’s still to come and all that stuff, though I’ll save the big retrospective for when I hit the seven-year mark.

I don’t think of my birthdays as very important, but I’ll throw one for my site.  I also now have a bunch of Disgaea screenshots that I’m never going to use anywhere else like this one.

The rules are as follows:

1) Say thanks to who nominated you and leave a link back to that person’s blog.

I can check this one off the list.  By the way, if you’re not following Irina and you’re into anime at all, you should absolutely be following Irina.  Ospreyshire also writes on anime and entertainment in general and posts original spoken word and musical works.  Check it out!

2) Give the story or history of your blog.

I might have recounted this already, but I started this blog as a way to have something else to do while I attended law school.  I can’t say how much writing here helped me retain my sanity.  In fact, it still plays that role, helping me to deal with circumstances.  This is one place where I can truly be myself, where I don’t have to pretend at all to be what I’m not.  It means a lot to me that people care to read what I write, in part for that very reason.

Over time, the focus of the blog narrowed a bit to primarily anime, games, and music, with an obviously heavy emphasis on the weeb material that you can find from the very beginning.  I’ve also recently shifted over from reviews to long-form commentaries and analyses, so if that’s more your style, I’ve got plenty more of it on the way.  Not that I’ll stop writing reviews, but it’s become harder to find time to play new games with my work schedule.  I still have a massive backlog to work through, though.  One day I’ll get it cleared out, I hope.

If there’s one screenshot that sums up my blog, it’s probably this one

I wish I had a more dramatic story to tell, but that’s really the whole thing.  As stated above, the blog did go inactive a few times for months-long stretches, but I always felt the urge to return, and now I’m dedicated to posting on a consistent basis, even if that means only posting once every week or two.

3) Give two or more pieces of advice for new bloggers.

First: write about something you care about.  I know this might seem like painfully obvious advice, but you may be surprised how many people disregard it, instead choosing to chase after trends that they may not necessarily give a damn about only for the clicks.  This is probably more of an issue among Youtube video creators, since that’s long been a far more visible and potentially profitable platform than WordPress or other blogging sites — it’s full of people chasing those trends and mostly burning out, likely because they never had any true desire to create such content in the first place.

If you’re creating a blog strictly to generate ad revenue, then I totally understand this approach.  Make maximum use of SEO tools, go for the clicks, promote yourself everywhere, and get that money if you can.  But if you’re doing this strictly as a personal thing or a stress reliever, and you find yourself writing exclusively about mobile games, or Youtube drama, or Apple and Samsung product updates because “that’s what people actually care about,” you’ll likely end up hating it.  Remember: unless it’s part of a broader business venture or it’s a collaborative effort, your blog is yours, not someone else’s.  The same goes for creating podcasts, Youtube videos, and every other form of popular media.  Write about what you like, and stuff everyone who tells you otherwise.

And second: be yourself.

I don’t know if there’s a worse cliché around than this one when it comes to advice.  Just to be clear: “be yourself” is not advice I endorse when it comes to living your everyday life.  Of course, you shouldn’t try to be someone else, exactly, but you also shouldn’t expect members of the general public to accept you just as you are.  Maybe “try to be the best version of yourself” is better advice in that case.  On your blog, however, you have the freedom to completely be yourself, especially if you’re maintaining relative anonymity with your username and associated social media accounts.  You can write about whatever you like without being forced to put on that mask most of us have to wear when we go out to our jobs, see our relatives, and deal with our respective cultures.  Or maybe you’re one of those lucky free souls who doesn’t need to wear that mask, or you have enough money to not have to worry about what other people think of you — in which case you don’t need this advice.

I can write about questionable maid services if I want, and so can you. (This is also a spoiler for a future post scheduled way down the line, so if you know what this is all about, you can look forward to that in a couple of months probably.)

This piece of advice ties into the first one pretty well, so I’ll just leave it at that before I start rambling on and on about nothing.  I do believe, for what it’s worth, that without following these precepts I would never have made it to 200 posts on this blog.  I care about everything I write about here, and you can be sure that I’m always giving you my honest opinion.  If you do the same, you can go far in creating something of real value.  You might not get a million views a month, but you’ll make something that’s meaningful to you, and as a consequence it will likely be meaningful to other people who come across it.

Anyway, I hope I’m not giving new bloggers the wrong advices.  This is what worked for me.  It might not work for you.  If you want to achieve financial success through blogging, you sure as hell shouldn’t listen to me.

4) Nominate 10 other bloggers and link their blogs.

Shit, ten blogs is a lot to ask, especially considering how well this tag seems to be doing.  But I’ll do it.  As usual, if you’ve already been nominated or don’t feel like answering this, feel free to ignore the tag.  All of the following are well worth checking out:

Curiously Dead Cat

Fan of a Certain Age

K at the Movies

Tiger Anime

Umai Yomu Anime Blog

Frostilyte’s Blog

No Rez, No Life

And a few of the usual suspects (I know I probably tag you all too much, but here’s another one if you want it):

Mechanical Anime Reviews

Extra Life

Lost to the Aether

Listening/reading log #4 (January 2020)

Well!  We managed to almost get through the first month of the decade without a total global disaster occurring yet, so I guess that’s good.  More importantly, I got halfway through my latest deep reads series of posts this month, so check out the first and second parts of that if you haven’t already.  Since life in the world and here in my country continues despite all the unrest we’re going through, we may as well keeping listening to good music and reading good blog posts.  Here are some of those.

The Yes Album (Yes, 1971)

Highlights: Starship Trooper, I’ve Seen All Good People

I guess it’s tradition now that I include at least one classic prog album in my listening log, so here’s another one.  Out of all the big old classic prog bands, Yes is arguably the most positive in tone (they named themselves “Yes” for just that reason supposedly) and The Yes Album is maybe the most positive-sounding of their classic period, which just happens to start with The Yes Album.  It’s the first one of theirs I heard, and it’s a great introduction to the band, featuring some typically long as hell songs with a lot of impressive solos and the insane, seemingly meaningless lyrics of unearthly high-pitched singer Jon Anderson (no, that’s not a falsetto he’s singing in, that’s really his regular voice.)

My favorite track on the album is “Starship Trooper”.  Everything about it is great — it’s sort of a combination of folk-rock and space-rock, which probably sounds like it shouldn’t work but really does.  I don’t know if it has anything to do with the Heinlein novel (it’s always hard to tell with Mr. Anderson’s bizarre lyrics) but the title does remind me of the famous shower scene from the film adaptation, which affected me so deeply when I saw it as a kid.  I also really like “I’ve Seen All Good People”, a song you’ve probably heard a bit of in a commercial or on classic rock radio if you’ve ever bothered to turn it on.  I think it was in an Intel commercial once.  Excellent album, anyway.  If you need to hear some music that feels positive even though you can’t understand what the hell it’s about, try it.  (For all the JoJo fans — “Roundabout” is on the following album Fragile, which is also excellent.)

The Bends (Radiohead, 1995)

Highlights: Fake Plastic Trees, My Iron Lung, Just

I always feel the need to balance the moods out with the music I listen to over the long run, so to balance the sunshine and happiness of The Yes Album here’s a Radiohead album.  The Bends is one from my childhood — it came out a bit before I was old enough to be an angsty teenager, but it was there for me when I got to that point and got it along with OK Computer and Kid A.  And damn if this album wasn’t tailored exactly for an introverted 13 year-old boy to connect with.  The music has a sharp edge throughout, and Thom Yorke’s singing has a matching bitter, sarcastic feel to it.

However, this music doesn’t feel whiny or anything, partly because of that sharp instrumental edge and partly because Yorke’s voice wasn’t whiny like another popular 90s frontman’s (you know who I’m talking about maybe, no need to say his name) but mainly because most of the songs still hold up well. “Just” is especially good, my favorite on the album.  I also put “My Iron Lung” up because it captures that old teen angst from around my childhood/school years better than anything else.  Not sure that one holds up as well, but you can’t reason with nostalgia.  Though should I really be nostalgic about that time in my life?  I don’t know.  Let’s just move on.

Chopin – Complete Piano Music (Frederic Chopin/Idil Biret, 1820s-1840s/1995)

Highlights: too many to name, but here are a few samples

This album is really testing the format I’ve been using for these posts.  This truly is a collection of all the solo piano pieces written by the legend himself, the French-Polish Romantic period pianist and composer Fryderyk (or Frederic) Chopin.  This guy is claimed by both France and Poland as a kind of national artistic hero, and for good reason.  Chopin hits a wide range of emotions using only a piano.  There are plenty of longer epics on this collection, but a lot of these pieces are also very quick and catchy — a few are even under a minute.  Anyone who has a bias against classical music in general as being “that boring old stuff” should really give Chopin a try.  He’s one of my favorite composers.  In fact, if you check out the links above, you’ll discover where I got the original name for this site.  (Didn’t last very long as the “official” name, but I suppose it still is the name of the site in some sense.)

Pianist Idil Biret also does a fine job playing all these pieces.  At least I think she does.  I’m no expert.  I can scrape by with a few myself, but I make them sound like shit.  Biret is a real professional.

And now for the featured posts:

“Classical Music is Dead”: Misconceptions and More — rxtrogression takes on the many misconceptions a lot of people hold about classical music, a couple of which I mentioned in the bit above about Chopin, but also including equally mistaken ideas like “it all sounds the same.”  When you’re dealing with a set of music written across an entire continent and a few other places besides, and over a period of three centuries, you can’t generalize about it.  This piece does a great job at breaking that subject down.

5 things I’ve been doing wrong when writing posts — Irina recently attended a WordPress course and analyzes the wisdom its lecturers had to impart on writing a “good post.” These include such nuggets as “don’t go off on tangents”, “write fluff pieces”, and “don’t be too weird.”  Many of the blogs most worth reading break most of these rules, and Irina’s blog happens to be one of them, so you should check it out.

Trout Mask Replica — If you want to read some more comprehensive album reviews than the mini-reviews I write in these posts, you should follow Hi-Fi Adventures.  In this post, Matt analyzes Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, one of the most classic “weird albums” ever to exist.  It’s a complicated and interesting work, just like Beefheart himself, and Matt covers the subject very well.

All Good Things Come To Those Who Wait: Delaying The Release Of A Video Game — If you’re disappointed about the delay of Cyberpunk 2077, simpleek’s post is a good one to read, detailing why it’s better for a game to be delayed than released in a rush and providing examples.  Reasoning these points out doesn’t remove the sting from delay announcements, but it might make them easier to bear.

The Gutenberg WordPress Block Editor – An Update — I hate the new editor, but Yomu at Umai Yomu Anime Blog has a more nuanced view of it, discussing both its strengths and weaknesses.  Maybe I’m just not willing to try anything new at this point, no matter how good it might be.

You Best Took it Serious When You Heard the Tone. The Persona 3 Retrospective Part 3: Presentation — You know the deal.  It’s about Megami Tensei so of course I’m going to talk about it.  This is the next part in Aether’s insightful Persona 3 retrospective, this time getting into the game’s distinctive and beautiful presentation.

Finally, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out Red Metal’s Star Wars sequel trilogy reviews, starting with The Force Awakens.  They’re full of spoilers, but if you’ve seen the series and want some in-depth analysis of these films’ characters, plots, general feel and all the rest, you should absolutely read them.

So that’s it for the month.  I know this post is coming a bit early, but this week is going to be hell for me, so I thought I may as well write this end-of-month piece before I get mired in bullshit as usual.  I do plan to finish the Disgaea deep reads sub-series in February, though.  And if you’ve liked these commentaries I’ve been writing, I have good news: I already have plans for #3 and #4 in the wider series.  Might take a while to actually write them, but they will happen.  Once again, you probably won’t be surprised by what I’ve decided to write about.  Until next month, take it easy.