Retrospective: Umineko no Naku Koro ni

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Umineko no Naku Koro ni (eng: When the Seagulls Cry) is the story of a family – a rich, fractured, miserable family full of intrigues and mistrust. It’s the story of an old man driven mad with a desire that he could never fulfill. It’s the story of a witch, a woman who may or may not really exist.

Really, though, Umineko no Naku Koro ni is a “sound novel” produced by independent Japanese designer 07th Expansion and released in eight parts from 2007 to 2010 (is this old enough for a “retrospective?” Sure, why not.) This team is also responsible for the earlier series Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, with which Umineko shares some links. Umineko is essentially a book – you simply click through screens and read description and dialogue. If you’re familiar with the visual novel concept, it’s a bit like that, only it’s even less of a “game” than the typical visual novel, because Umineko presents the reader with no Choose Your Own Adventure-style options at all. You just read the thing. Just like a book!

The Ushiromiya family tree.  If you play-read Umineko, you'll learn this chart by heart before long.

The Ushiromiya family tree. If you play-read Umineko, you’ll learn this chart by heart before long.

Umineko takes place on Rokkenjima, a private island owned by Kinzo Ushiromiya, the fabulously rich head of the Ushiromiya family. Kinzo is an old man and is near death, yet he seems to have no interest in writing a will – to parcel out his assets to his children, those “vultures”, as he calls them. Even so, the traditional annual family meeting is still on. Kinzo’s four children, their spouses, and their children are all headed to Rokkenjima to talk family business, and that’s where our story opens.

There are a ton of characters in Umineko, but the central ones – at least in the first episode – are the four cousins, the children of Kinzo’s children: Jessica, George, Maria, and the strangely named sort-of protagonist Battler (the red-haired guy on the cover.) The cousins get along very well, which is more than could be said for their parents, who spend most of the conference fighting over their ailing father’s inheritance. The cousins are much more interested in the stranger aspects of their grandfather Kinzo’s massive estate, not least of which is the massive portrait of a young blonde woman in an elaborate gown. This is not a portrait of their late grandmother, but rather of Beatrice, the “Golden Witch”, a mysterious woman whom Kinzo claims lent him the enormous amount of wealth he needed to establish his business empire.

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Of course, a loan demands repayment, and Kinzo is prepared to pay back Beatrice’s loan in a way that will terrify his family. As a huge storm bears down on Rokkenjima, trapping the Ushiromiya family on the island for the weekend, rumors of Beatrice’s arrival start to circulate and the tension within the family grows. How will it end?

Umineko starts out as a murder mystery along the lines of an Agatha Christie novel (in fact, Ryukishi, the writer, drops some big references to Christie and other mystery novelists in the narrative.) It quickly turns into something else, however. In a really, really basic sense, Umineko is about the melding between the real world inhabited by the Ushiromiya family and Kinzo’s servants, on one side, and a fantasy world inhabited by strange magical beings on the other. In the center is the mystery of exactly what happened on Rokkenjima that weekend; a mystery that Battler, one of Kinzo’s grandchildren, is forced to uncover after the fact by entering a bizarre timeloop meta-world and playing a “game” attempting to reconstruct the event with a woman who claims to be an ancient and powerful witch. It makes more sense when you’re reading it, I promise.

There's lots of this kind of back-and-forth between characters regarding the action of the story.

There’s lots of this kind of back-and-forth between characters regarding the action of the story.

To be completely honest, Umineko isn’t without its faults. The writing seems to be unedited, and dialogue can go on and on without any seeming regard for pacing. Speaking of that, in fact, the first episode of the story (there are eight at around 10 hours each) is incredibly slow and occasionally dull before it reaches the climax near the very end; it’s pretty much setting things up and introducing the characters. And you might not have noticed from the above screenshot, but the art is pretty bad – Ryukishi, the writer, also draws the characters, and he can’t fucking draw.

However, the positives of Umineko outweigh its negatives. The story really picks up after the first episode, and its “supernatural murder mystery” angle is pretty unique. Just like a normal mystery novel, the mystery of the deaths on Rokkenjima is made to be solveable by the player, and technically it is, although it’s pretty much impossible to figure out in the English-translated version because it relies in part on some kind of kanji puzzle. Characters will even throw out statements in “red text” that are guaranteed to be true in order to help the player – and Battler – sort out the situation. The characters also turn out to be pretty compelling. And the music is really damn good; it’s well-written, diverse and sets the mood of the story perfectly.

Umineko was originally made for the PC with Ryukishi’s janky art and no voice-acting. This version is still available to buy on disc in various online stores and has a full and very well-done English patch. PS3 ports of the game also exist. These are way more polished than the originals, with actual good art and voice-acting. A different fan group has made a patch of the PS3 better art/voiced edition that you can apply to your PC copy of Umineko. This also has the same English patch adapted to it.

A screen from the PS3 version.

A screen from the PS3 version.

There’s also an anime series. Don’t watch it, because it’s crap. A case where the adaptation fell flat on its face because it simply isn’t possible to adapt Umineko to any other format. This isn’t some “purist” twaddle either, there are technical reasons why it can’t really be adapted to any other format without some serious changes. The sound novel original contains lines of text that are key to understanding the central mysteries of the game, and the show left some of them out completely and screwed other parts up. There was apparently not much care put into the adaptation. In fact, the show seems to have bombed, because the second half of the series (the part where the questions posed by the first are answered) was never adapted for the screen.

Anyway, that’s Umineko for you. Not quite a game; not quite a traditional novel. Think of it as a computer based novel without an editor but with a soundtrack. It is a really good soundtrack, though. And Umineko is a good story, despite its issues. It is a serious time commitment at this point, though (80+ hours!) so don’t plan on finishing it in one night. Hell, the only reason I ever finished it was because I started when Episode 3 was translated. Otherwise I probably would be dead by now.

Retrospective: SimCity 2000 (or why the world’s energy problems will be solved by 2050)

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When you are a child, the world is full of endless possibilities (it’s also full of asshole bullies and unfair rules, but never mind that.) And no game better embodied that world of possibilities than did SimCity 2000. Released in 1993, SimCity 2000 was the isometric 3D sequel to the original top-down SimCity and was the company’s biggest hit until The Sims came along in 1999. The idea was basic – you were the major of a blank patch of land (and water, if you so wished) and your job was to build a city, complete with power, water, services and entertainment for your new residents, who would flock to your city as soon as you zoned land for residential, commercial or industrial use.

SimCity 2000 seemed to predict a sunny future where we’d all eventually benefit from advances in technology, where political and police corruption were nonexistent and where a low student/teacher ratio meant a school automatically turned out A students who went on to fulfilling courses of study and careers.

Of course, there were still disasters.

For example

For example

Disasters that you could start yourself from the disaster menu, and also from the magical debug menu that allowed you to generate mega-disasters like volcanoes and nuclear meltdowns as well as enough free cheat code money to rebuild right away.

If you wanted to take your game seriously, however, you were in for some planning. SimCity 2000 isn’t the most complicated game in the world, but it’s up there on the list, and to make your citizens happy you’ll have to track and alleviate high crime and heavy traffic, build enough fire departments and hospitals to keep people safe and walking around, provide schools, universities and libraries to educate your citizens and keep them from not getting stupid. Critical decisions such as whether to allow the construction of a military base mean balancing between the value of the military’s help in fighting disasters against higher crime and pollution where the base was built. City ordinances can also affect your city, with their own benefits and drawbacks.

Fortunately, you have a panel of advisers ready and willing to help you with your decisions. Unfortunately, they aren’t much help. Most of them just want full funding in their particular areas and will complain if you drop it.

Pretty sure this one isn't real

Pretty sure this one isn’t real

One of the most interesting aspects of SimCity 2000 was its predictions of future technology. You had the option of starting your game in 1900, 1950, 2000 and 2050, but 1900 was the default (and the “real way” to play, as far as I’m concerned) perhaps in part because you got to see and take advantage of new technologies as they developed historically. Upon the building of the first airplanes, you get to build an airport. Your first nuclear plant is available in the 50s. But, of course, SimCity 2000 was only developed in 1993, so there are some technologies that are mere predictions – the most exciting of which is the fusion power plant, made available in 2050. SimCity‘s fusion plant can power about half of the entire map, is completely safe and, despite being the most expensive plant in the game, is also the most cost-effective. We should all hope Will Wright’s prediction is correct.

If you've played SimCity 2000, you'll know just how much waste this screenshot depicts

If you’ve played SimCity 2000, you’ll know just how much waste this screenshot depicts

SimCity 2000 also saw the advent of the arcology, a bizarre self-contained city of the future. The idea for the arcology didn’t come from SimCity, in fact – early design ideas were proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects, and real-life arcology-esque projects are planned for construction in the United Arab Emirates and Japan. Arcologies in SimCity 2000 are expensive and massively boost crime and potentially pollution, depending on the type you build, but they also give a major boost to your population – and to your tax base.

Despite these predicted advances in technology, though, your city’s local newspaper will always be completely stupid and nonsensical. It uses article templates with randomly generated words in certain spots, kind of like Mad Libs. Even so, SimCity‘s newspaper is still less of a joke than the Washington Times.

Yes, every story in the paper looks like this.

Yes, every story in the paper looks like this.

So, yeah. SimCity 2000 is a real classic. All my love for this game might stem from the fact that I played the hell out of it as a kid, but even without the nostalgia goggles on, it’s a legitimately great game. Not that I really need to convince everyone of that, since it sold about ten billion copies anyway and everyone seems to love it or at least pay it respect.

Sadly, though, the SimCity story doesn’t have a happy ending. SimCity 2000 was followed by SimCity 3000 in 1999 (sort of a graphical update of 2000 with not much else going for it, though it’s still good) and SimCity 4 in 2003, which was also good and legitimately felt pretty different from its 1993 ancestor. The series’ latest entry, however, was a disgrace. 2013’s SimCity looked amazing, but it was released full of bugs. Many fans were shocked at the fact that they were required to be connected to the internet to play the game in singleplayer mode. To add insult to injury, the SimCity servers fucked themselves upon launch and for a while nobody was able to play the game they’d just bought for 50 or 60 dollars. To add even more insult to injury, Maxis and EA apologized for all this by announcing the coming release of The Sims 4, which they promised wouldn’t be all glitchy and force to you be online constantly. A shitty SimCity game for a good Sims game. What a trade, huh? Some people might like it, but really, this drives me crazy. Not like I have much time left to play open-ended sandbox games anyway.

Perhaps not coincidentally, EA won The Consumerist‘s Worst Company in America award that same year. EA basically responded by saying “We have enough money to buy and sell you ten times over, so fuck yourself.” Which I suppose is fair.

Otakon 2014, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Line

or, Did You Really Know I Was This Much of a Fucking Nerd? Now You Do.

I recently attended Otakon. If you’re well-adjusted and normal enough to not know what Otakon is, it’s an anime convention that takes place in Baltimore every year in early August. I believe Otakon is the largest such con in America; this year’s attendance cap stood at 30,000. 30,000 people, many of them in ridiculous costumes, milling around the Baltimore Convention Center like cattle to attend workshops and showings of anime series and fighting game tournaments.

There will be blood

There will be blood

I went to the con with a group of friends who all more or less share my severely nerdy interests. Mine tend heavily towards video games – I don’t really know a whole lot about most anime stuff, but I’m a massive fan of some game series and was looking for a few specific items at Otakon’s game dealer booths. My primary purpose in attending Otakon was to spend time with my other nerd friends, though, and that was definitely accomplished. We hit some of the bars at Baltimore’s harbor pretty hard last weekend and mostly hung out, and as a consequence, I didn’t spend much time at the actual con. I did spend some time there, though – much of it in line.

This, only mentally add twenty thousand more people wrapped around the building three times, and you've got it.

This, only mentally add twenty thousand more people wrapped around the building three times, and you’ve got it.

The true ordeal began late Thursday, after we arrived at the Baltimore Convention Center to get our passes from the pre-registration line. The convention center is massive, taking up the entirety of a large block near Baltimore’s harbor district on the corner of East Pratt and Charles Streets. By 7:00 PM, the line already looped several times, snake-like, outside of the front of the center, proceeding then around the whole of the building and wrapping back, where it finally entered through a side door into the center itself. Inside, we could see that the line continued, although to what extent we had no idea.

This is the part where I complain about the sheer incompetence of the con’s staff. Fan convention staffs aren’t generally known for their planning skills, but Otakon was bad even by those standards. We waited in line for nearly four hours, inching towards the doors, only to be told by around 10:30 that in ten minutes the doors would be closed for the night. Behind us, thousands more nerds and misfits were waiting. None of us would get in that night. As it happened, the staff had had severe internet connection problems early that evening and throughout the night that created delays in the processing of entrants – yet they still allowed the line to grow until the very last minute, knowing for hours, as they must have known, that everyone past a certain point wouldn’t be processed that night. We were finally sent home by a couple of staff members who didn’t seem all that apologetic about the screwup; in fact, they seemed to blame us for being stupid enough to think we’d get in that night. So we returned the next morning, spent another three hours in line and finally got our badges.

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So was it worth it? Yes, absolutely. Everyone loved Linecon 2014. We stood in the heat and humidity and played our 3DSes, talked to strangers, exchanged Streetpass info and complained about the line. One man (above) quickly made a costume that perfectly summed up the experience (complete with ice-cold DLC – a reference to the now-famous Ice Cold Water Man who sells bottled water to line-standers at Otakon and other Baltimore events.) We got to hear his song about selling ice-cold water and buy water from him. And, of course, there was the con itself once we all got in on Friday, which featured even more lines: lines to the dealers’ room, where I bought my video game nonsense; lines to the artists’ room, where I didn’t buy anything but saw a lot of art being sold; lines to the game room, where I had my ass handed to me in fighting games because I’m not good at them; lines to workshops and showings and other things that none of us attended because they all looked pretty dull. The main attraction of a con is seeing people in costume, and there were a few good ones, but all in all, it was a disappointment – not really very much obscure stuff, which is what I like to look out for. I might have missed them.

Also, you know, all the scantily-clad girls there. That’s another good reason to attend the con, or any con, for that matter.

To be completely honest, I can’t recommend that you attend a fan convention unless you’re spending the time with friends that share your interests or you plan on meeting people there. Otherwise, it would be a massive pain and entirely pointless in any case – most of the stuff in the dealers’ and artists’ rooms can also be found online. The whole point is to spend a weekend in a place where it’s socially acceptable for adults to play dressup and pretend to be their favorite fictional characters, where you can talk to people face-to-face who share your interests. It’s a true escape from the real world, and we all need that sometimes. So despite all the logistical screwups, I did enjoy Otakon, and I might go back – but only if my friends are also planning on it. And only while I’m still young enough not to feel like a creep going there and not having the excuse of having a kid who’s attending.

Anime for people who hate anime: Humanity Has Declined

Being an ambassador to a newly discovered race of fairies is hard work. This is evident from the first episode of Humanity Has Declined (Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita), an anime series aired in the summer of 2012.

Pictured in the OP: nameless protagonist and a bunch of fairies.  Note her dead, despairing eyes.

Pictured in the OP: nameless protagonist and a bunch of fairies. Note her dead, despairing eyes.

“Anonymous blog writer”, I hear you saying. “What is this cutesy bright pastel-colored bullshit you’re showing me. I don’t want to watch that!”

Well nonexistent blog reader, don’t be misled. This series is anything but normal or typically cutesy. Known to fans as Jintai for short, the series tells the story of a young lady, the nameless protagonist, who is growing up at a time when humanity is in decline just like the title says. For some unspecified reason, human civilization has pretty much collapsed and returned to a sort of medieval way of life – the world protagonist lives in is full of bits of modern technology and has some modern-looking buildings around, but the technology is mostly unused and the buildings are overgrown with trees and weeds.

The mysterious fairies.  Yes, they always have this facial expression.   Always.

The mysterious fairies. Yes, they always have this facial expression. Always.

Our heroine is tasked with making contact with the fairies, the “new humanity” (so called because they recently appeared after humanity’s collapse and seem to be on the rise.) The fairies are a strange race: they seem to be able to use magic to create something out of nothing. They try to use this skill for the good of the old humans (i.e. us) because the old humans are the only ones that can make the candy they crave. Unfortunately for everyone, the fairies’ efforts just make things worse. It’s really hard to describe how this happens, but it does.

As a result of her assignment (from the United Nations, no less, albeit a way crappier and smaller UN because of the whole decline of humanity thing) Nameless Girl has to deal with the magical fairies and try to figure out what they want and how to develop a mutually beneficial relationship. And she’s a great protagonist: outwardly nice and polite about carrying out her duties but inwardly frustrated and sarcastic. This is understandable, because the fairies put her through all sorts of unintended trouble. I won’t give any of that trouble away because it would spoil a lot of the story, but it’s enough to say that you won’t find this kind of content most anywhere else. Time travel happens. Bizarre cases of mistaken identity happen. Etc.

I refuse to explain this screen to you, but I'm still not sure I even understand it.

I would refuse to explain this screen to you, but I’m still not sure I even understand it.

She’s joined by her strange and domineering grandfather, an important researcher; the mute young boy assistant he pushes onto her who turns out to be massively helpful to her; and a friend who’s overly obsessed with reading and writing erotic fiction comics. Together, they all have to manage to survive from day to day and deal with the fairies, who grow increasingly powerful and increasingly irresponsible.

Jintai might sound like an irritating SO RANDOM sort of series – that’s why I avoided it at first – but it really isn’t. Most of the weirdness has some sense behind it. Plus I just love sarcastic-quipping protagonists. Also, her grandfather is pretty much exactly the same character as Hououin Kyouma from Steins;Gate only fifty years older. At least that’s what my idiot brain told me. Am I crazy, or do you agree? Or you do know what the hell I’m even talking about?

Protagonist's very realistic response to being told she has to undertake a new job.

Protagonist’s very realistic response to being told she has to undertake a new job.

So should you watch it? I enjoyed this series partly because it wasn’t a goddamn high school setting series, and honestly, this was one of maybe three or four airing series I’d watched in a long time partly for the reason that really interesting stuff seemed so few and far between. But even so, I can say that Jintai is worth a watch. It’s just strange enough to be interesting but not so strange as to be annoying or nonsensical.

Then again, your mileage may vary.

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