Why I love Shiina Ringo

A few years ago I ran across a music recommendation – Tokyo Jihen’s Adult. I don’t even remember where I saw it or why I followed it. But I did follow it, and I didn’t regret it. Adult is a great album, largely because of one person – the band’s frontwoman, Shiina Ringo.

Miss Ringo is a popular Japanese singer-songwriter who’s gotten some attention in the West. She seems to go for a mix of jazz and pop-inspired elements in her music. This could potentially turn into a mess, but Shiina is very good at her job. She’s a fine pianist (and she can play a bunch of other instruments as well) and a great songwriter – almost every song of hers I’ve heard so far is catchy as hell. For an example, check out this song from her solo album Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana:

She also has a great voice. Here’s a live rendition of Poltergeist, a song from the same album:

Shiina Ringo is one of the few singer-songwriter types I care for at all. A lot of the really popular ones seem kind of overrated to me, and some of them are full of themselves or attention-grabbers etc. which can come through in their lyrics sometimes. I have no idea what she’s like – from the little I’ve read, she doesn’t say much about herself and puts on a mysterious persona. And since I can’t understand most of her lyrics, their contents don’t present any problem to me. It might sound weird, but I prefer not to know what she’s singing about. Though it’s possible her lyrics are really profound. I have no idea.

If this post seems short, it’s because I have a hard time writing about music. A few writers are really good at it and I’m not among their number. For me, trying to describe music to someone through words is a poor substitute for just playing the music for them, so check out the links above instead if you’re interested.

How to misuse your ellipses and infuriate your readers

Have you ever imagined that something as seemingly trivial as a punctuation mark could completely change not only the meaning, but the entire tone of a sentence? Sure you have.

As an example, consider the ellipsis. You know, this thing:

First, let’s establish what an ellipsis is properly used for. You can use it to abridge a quote as long as you retain the meaning of the original. If you’re writing dialogue, you can use it to indicate that the speaker is trailing off or that his statement is left hanging without an immediate response. If you’re writing dialogue for a JRPG, you can use an ellipsis on its own to indicate that a character is brooding and doesn’t want to respond to another character’s questions, or that he’s secretly a bad guy posing really unconvincingly as a good guy, which will be revealed by the game long after you’ve already figured it out on your own.

Set aside the usual questions of whether the periods should be spaced and how many there should be (common usage says three dots, but some style guides like the Bluebook dictate four.) Those rules aren’t all that important. What is important is the meaning of the ellipsis, both intended (by the writer) and perceived (by the reader.) This mainly comes up in writing meant to directly communicate information and ideas – personal emails and messages, office correspondence, etc.

An embarrassing example

Let’s look at an example sentence, first with standard punctuation and then with an ellipsis shoved in its place. In this scenario imagine the person being spoken to has just had his secret collection of My Little Pony dolls discovered by his girlfriend and she told their mutual friends about it (Note: this is not me I’m talking about. I just have some friends with strange interests.) In an email to said guy, one of the friends in question writes:

Don’t worry; nobody thinks you’re weird.

A direct statement that seems to mean what it says. Nobody in their common social circle thinks the My Little Pony-having guy is weird. This statement may not be believable, but at the very least we can infer that the writer himself doesn’t think his friend is weird.

Now compare the above statement with this one:

Don’t worry; nobody thinks you’re weird…

Suddenly the tone of the statement has changed. Those two extra dots suggest the friend is trailing off here, that he doesn’t actually believe what he is saying. Perhaps he’s being sarcastic. Or it could be that he’s serious, but he is dismissing Mr. Pony’s anxiety here as silly. Another possibility is that the writer really does mean what he’s saying, but he simply doesn’t understand that the ellipsis here throws the meaning of his statement into doubt. Therefore, the use of an ellipsis here changes “Nobody thinks you’re weird” from a direct statement of fact or opinion to a statement that could mean a few different things depending on how the writer meant the ellipsis to be read. Even if, objectively speaking, the person on the receiving end should rightfully be ashamed of his actions, this kind of confusion is still a very bad thing.

Okay, I really have no place to talk considering some of my own weird and severely nerd interests.  But I still don't understand the whole adult guys watching My Little Pony thing.  It's one of those ironic hipster things, right?

Okay, I really have no place to talk considering some of my own weird and severely nerd interests. But I still don’t understand the whole adult guys watching My Little Pony thing. It’s one of those ironic hipster things, right?

You see how frustrating the ellipsis can make simple communication? You don’t even have to be a grown man who watches shows for little girls to suffer the ill effects of such confusion. Texts and emails dealing with business matters can, if they use ellipses recklessly, actually hurt business. Clarity in language is vital, especially when you’re trying to get things done.

So what’s the message here? If you don’t want to come off like a passive-aggressive prick, don’t use ellipses to end your sentences. They are not substitutes for periods. When used in place of periods, they cause confusion, frustration, anger, hurt feelings, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Have respect for punctuation. Use ellipses where they’re actually needed – otherwise, give them a break. And if you happen to be a serial ellipsis misuser, it’s not too late to repent your ways.

A review of Shin Megami Tensei IV

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After 5+ months of playing SMT4, I’ve finally finished it as far as I care to, meaning I got one out of the three endings. I could have easily blown through it in one or two weeks if I weren’t a student, but that’s life. My open memo and exams prevented me from doing much of anything else through the months of October, November and the first half of December.

Firstly, I can definitely say that SMT4 was worth what I paid for it. A lot of people were surprised at the $50 price tag on a 3DS title, but that $50 was for the deluxe package. And those of us who’d been waiting for an SMT4 for years were more than happy to throw our money at Atlus.

So fine. I’m a huge Shin Megami Tensei fan and I loved the game. But how does the game hold up in a more objective light?

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First, the story. It’s nothing special. The plot is the kind that anyone who’s played an older SMT game will recognize and the characters aren’t interesting – in fact, they’re so one-dimensional that I don’t think the designers even meant them to be interesting. SMT4 is an RPG, but it’s not about the story. Its gameplay is the main selling point.

So, the gameplay: it’s solid and mostly consists of the same old demon battles/negotiations and frustrating boss fights that SMT vets are already familiar with. Pretty much every fight in every game in the SMT series, including the Persona titles, hinges on the elemental strengths and weaknesses of your party and the party you’re fighting. As a result, most non-boss battles in SMT4 are extremely one-sided, and having a strong party that balances out its weaknesses is a must.

This is all pretty standard for the SMT series. But I do have a few complaints about SMT4 – aspects of the game that knock a couple of points off its score.

1) The pace

For the most part, the game has a pretty good pace – from the “late early” to the “late mid-game” sections, I guess; maybe from 8 hours to 40-50 hours in. But the early and late games are a different matter. SMT4 takes about 6 to 8 hours to really get started and to get interesting. This isn’t such an issue, but it could turn off gamers looking for an immediate hook. (By contrast, SMT3’s “hook” comes about half an hour into the game – so the makers don’t have an excuse here.)

The late game is a more serious issue. If you plan to pursue the Law or Chaos paths, you maybe won’t have to worry too much about it, but the Neutral ending piles requirements on the player that essentially force him to grind. Granted, Atlus added a paid DLC add-on that makes late-game grinding quick and easy, but we shouldn’t have to pay extra for it, should we? In any case, the grind that the Neutral path required of me really put me off. I’m a student, Atlus – I have shit to do other than play games. Okay?

2) The boss battles

SMT4 uses the Press Turn system that was created for SMT3: Nocturne, its PS2 predecessor. The way it works: your player character, your own demons and enemy demons have unique strengths and weaknesses to the different elements, including physical attacks. If you happen to hit an enemy with something he blocks, you lose two “turns” where you’d normally lose one. If it’s an element he repels or absorbs, you lose all your turns and he acts immediately. If, however, you hit him with in a weak spot – for example, he’s weak to wind and you hit him with wind – you only lose a “half turn”. So you can accumulate turns and wipe out most enemy parties before their turn comes around. SMT4 compounds this effect with its “smirk” mechanic, which will sometimes give a guaranteed crit to a demon (or the protagonist) if he hits a weak spot or gains a critical. The same goes for enemies, by the way: they can also crit/hit your weaknesses, gain more turns and wipe out your party thus.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

And then the game will rub your face in it.

So what’s the problem? The bosses are the problem. Specifically some of the later bosses. The especially strong ones can and will abuse this system to wipe you out utterly. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal but for two issues:

– One of your allied NPCs also often fights with you, and he (or she) is completely fucking stupid when it comes to fighting. This means he’ll hit a boss with a physical attack after he’s cast Tetrakarn, a spell that reflects physical attacks. This means the boss will get a smirk on the next round, and he will crit and possibly destroy your party through no fault of your own (unless you get lucky and the boss wastes his smirk on a buff or a debuff spell or something similar.)

– Bosses will sometimes make the first move. This really, truly makes no sense to me. Nocturne and the other SMT titles always gave your party the first turn in a boss fight, the idea being that you could prepare yourself for his or her attacks by throwing up shields, buffing/debuffing, and so on. Here, however, a strong boss – and that’s a whole lot of the bosses in SMT4 – will, if he gets first shot, destroy your party or break it to the point that you won’t be able to recover on your turn. All you can do at this point is reset the game. Why Atlus chose to do this is beyond me, because all it adds to the game is pure frustration. It’s the difference between a tactically demanding and difficult boss fight and a downright cheap one. Sadly, quite a few of the boss fights in SMT4 comes down to either pure luck or brute force.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole.  Okay, not really a spoiler.

SPOILER: Beelzebub is a fucking asshole. Okay, not really a spoiler.

3) The quests

Most of SMT4’s quests are interesting and make sense within the story, but a few are completely stupid and nonsensical. Just wait until you’re forced to take a picture of a particular building for some jerk for no reason at all. This won’t be a problem if you’re going Law or Chaos, but Neutral and just plain completionist players will find it almost impossible to manage without the help of a guide.

It seems like all I’ve done is complain about SMT4 for a thousand words. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s bad, though. It’s a very good JRPG. The music and art are classic SMT, even without the work of the amazing Shoji Meguro on the soundtrack. The gameplay is pretty fun, and anyone who’s obsessive and weird enough to want to recruit and fuse every demon in the game (like me) will love the good old negotiation system, which can produce some strange results. The story and atmosphere in SMT4 are lacking when compared to those of Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and some other SMT titles, but they’re not bad in themselves – just in comparison to older, better games in the line.

The fact that I find SMT4 lacking probably has a lot to do with my growing up with classic PS2 SMT titles. Nostalgia isn’t something one should consider when trying to fairly judge a game (or anything else for that matter) so I’m not in the best position to judge this title. Still, these are my honest opinions, six months after the fact. If you’re an SMT fan and you own a 3DS, you’ve already played SMT4. If you’re not a fan but the above sounds appealing to you, and you don’t mind some old-school style cheapness and frustration, I’d say go for it – the game might not be worth the unusually high sticker price to you, but it’s probably being sold used at this point. It will give you dozens of hours of gameplay, so you’ll be getting plenty of game for your dollar.