More YouTube channels to watch during the quarantine (part 2)

When I wrote the first part of this post series 16 months ago, I didn’t imagine we’d still be in this shitpile by September 2021. Yet here we are, still in the midst of it. Everything is technically open where I live, but fuck that shit. I have the good fortune to be able to work from home anyway, which not everyone does obviously. (And here’s another reminder that America doesn’t give its teachers nearly enough credit or compensation. They’ll have to hope for that in the afterlife, because hell if they’ll find it on Earth.)

So here’s another post about good YouTube channels to check out if you need extra time to pass while at home. I hope this is helpful, and not just another excuse for me to write a fairly low-effort post because every day after work this week I only had the energy to watch a screen with flashing colors on it.

I’ll break these channels down into four categories again, though different ones this time, starting with:

1) Informative/documentary/etc.

First, a few channels I somehow missed last time that I want to add to this category:

CGP Grey — This guy has been around YouTube for a long time, and I’d say he’s a must-watch if you’re into history or political science at all. CGP Grey’s videos somehow manage to be both in-depth and concise, a trick I could never pull off myself. I’d recommend anything he’s put out, but his discussions of efficiency in voting systems are great (and not at all dry like they might sound — Grey also manages to always be entertaining.) They’re not all about history and politics, however: I found this one informative, though I’ve been following its instructions for about 20 years now without realizing it.

Periodic Videos — I got a lousy grade in chemistry class in high school, partly because I was being a complete no-effort shit at the time (and as a result getting a figurative but still massive ass-kicking and sorting myself out just in time to get a respectable four-year average and to get into a respectable university, but that’s another story.) I found actually studying that stuff from the textbooks and doing labs miserable, but I’ve come around, and now I follow Periodic Videos, a channel run by a group at the University of Nottingham. This channel mostly contains videos focusing on specific elements from the periodic table as their name suggests, featuring interesting background and experiments that sometimes include explosions or super-frozen objects.

Really, I get the impression this group might just like exploding, freezing, and melting objects, which I can understand. It does make the videos a little more exciting wondering how large a mess they can create with these chemicals in a safe and controlled environment.

I’ll also throw Solar Sands in this category. This guy creates interesting videos on art criticism and related subjects.

His “Let’s Build an Anime Girl” video is also pretty thought-provoking. Though I don’t agree with his conclusion that drowning in theoretical immersive fictional worlds at the expense of “real life” is a bad thing, because it’s honestly all I’m looking forward to in my own life. If anything really, I’m sad that I’ll probably be dead before we have that kind of technology. Fuck you, theoretical future people.

2) Music

I’d like to tell you the name of the first channel I’m featuring in this category, but it doesn’t have one. I’d also like to tell you the names of the songs the artist releases on this channel, but the songs don’t have names either, and neither does the artist really (though they go by x0o0x_ on Twitter.) So I’ll just post one of their recent songs:

So ”     ” is really good. But be sure to check out ”     ” as well:

These and the rest of their songs are just god damn good, not much else to say about them. I like the dark feel of them combined with their energy, and the illustrations by stdio_nameraka match the songs perfectly. Not sure why the maker(s), including the singer, have decided to remain anonymous otherwise, but that’s their deal.

If you like solo piano as much as I do, you might also be interested in Pan Piano. This channel features another anonymous musician who plays covers, largely of anime and game music.

Her playing is obviously the only reason I’m subscribed to this channel. Why else would I be?

Well, yeah, Pan’s cosplay is obviously part of the appeal of her videos, and I suspect she wouldn’t have quite so many fans without it. But she is a fine pianist on top of that — I’d like to be this good one day, or at least close to it once I brush up again. Also, she recently put out what I consider the best video on YouTube so far:

And if you’re looking for a guy who talks about music theory, why some music might sound good to your ear while other music doesn’t, and how good or shitty various music-making software is, check out Tantacrul. This channel might fit just as well in the first category above, but it’s all about music, so I’m putting it here. I especially liked this video about how modern TV producers use stock music to try to manipulate viewers’ feelings as opposed to letting the viewers’ feelings result naturally from what they’re watching.

3) Bizarre/unsettling horror

I’m generally not a fan of horror. When it’s done well, it can be a good time (though certainly taxing, but I guess that’s part of the point) but most of what I’ve seen is more of the eye-rolling sort, if it doesn’t manage to go all the way over to that “so bad it’s funny” territory. Some filmmakers seem to think it’s enough to just have a spooky ghost haunting, an alien invasion, or a demon possession in their story for me to give a shit about it.

But no. I don’t have any problem with ghosts or aliens or demons, but I need a little more than just these elements to care about horror. Thankfully, there are a few interesting and creative independent projects on YouTube that I think get the genre down pretty well, certainly better than most Hollywood films today do. And the best channel I’ve seen so far in this regard is Gemini Home Entertainment.

Gemini is a running project by one Remy Abode, who creates these 80s/90s instructional VHS-style videos that start pretty normal and pleasant but always end up running off the rails into bizarre and uncanny horror. Though it’s not clear at first, all of the videos up until the most recent as of this writing tell a cohesive story, and one that’s pretty damn terrifying once you really understand it. If you’re a fan of slow-building psychological horror, I’d recommend Gemini. No dumb jumpscares here, but what it offers is way more effective in my opinion. I especially found the video “DEEP ROOT DISEASE” genuinely upsetting in exactly the way I think it was going for.

And if that was too taxing for you, try taking some Thalasin! It’s a new drug that’s supposed to improve your emotions. Or turn you into a character from a Junji Ito manga. I didn’t know what to expect watching this one and might have pissed myself as a result. I didn’t, just to be clear, but I can understand why someone would.

And if you’re not familiar with Junji Ito, look him up before watching the Thalasin video, and if you don’t like what you see of his work, probably don’t click that link. Without giving the twist away, it’s really not to be taken lightly — and now you can’t complain that I didn’t warn you beforehand. That Gooseworx is a creative one in any case.

4) VTubers

And finally, of course here’s an update on those virtual YouTubers we all love so much. Since first writing about them back in December, the world of English-language VTubers has expanded quite a bit. Hololive English has recently had additions to its lineup, including “Hololive Council” or EN Gen 2 as I’ve heard most people call it, even though apparently we’re not supposed to call it that. It’s good stuff, with plenty of interesting and varied personalities to suit just about anyone’s tastes.

My personal favorite in the bunch is Ouro Kronii, the “Warden of Time” who wears a giant floating clock over her head that resembles a helicopter’s blades. And of course that’s the only remarkable thing about her design. Always looking respectfully, of course.

She also provides good life advice:

Kronii’s streams have a nice chilled-out feel that I like. Even though I can’t really catch much of any of them because holy shit, I have too damn much work to do and how am I supposed to follow all these VTubers? I really hope that afterlife I was talking about has all these VODs in stock so I’ll have something to pass eternity with.

On top of all that, the other major VTuber agency Nijisanji started its own English-language branch this year, with two generations already pretty well established. I’ve already talked them up a bit in end-of-month posts, but all six VTubers in the group so far are a good time to watch, and they have great chemistry together. I’m partial to Pomu Rainpuff — she’s a strange one, very entertaining and certainly dedicated, practicing one song for nine hours straight. Her Google Earth tour of Akihabara was also interesting. Pomu really likes maid cafés I guess, can’t blame her.

But my favorite in this particular group is probably Finana Ryugu. She’s streamed both Nekopara and VA-11 Hall-A — truly a mermaid of culture. Her “safe for work” narrations of the 18+ scenes in the Nekopara games alone are enough to put her in the eternal hall of fame.

Also, credit to Rosemi for playing Age of Empires II. Still a great game worth the attention after 20 years, though she earned her reputation as ruiner of all France in that stream.

That’s it for now. If we spend still another 16 months in this hell, I’ll be sure to write a part 3 in this series. Until then (but hopefully not.)

Politics in art and the value of escapism

Warning: it’s a real load of bullshit this time. I talk about politics, angry people on the internet, and the end of the world, and it’s probably a mess. Maybe. Judge for yourself. I had to get this out, anyway. Next time I’ll post something more normal.

I’ve written about politics here on occasion, usually in the context of law when it relates to the main subjects on this site — games, anime, etc. Anyone who knows me well in real life can tell you roughly where I fall politically (because I probably went on about it once in a caffeine-fueled rant to them, something like this one): I believe in maintaining the rule of law, in fair and equal process without discrimination, in improving both the access to and quality of essential social services like public education and health, and in rebuilding and repairing the national infrastructure. I consider one of the most important roles of government to be the maintenance of a balance between individual freedoms and the good of society as a whole. And I wish we’d have a metro system where I live that’s not a complete fucking embarrassment.

Even the shitass train and highway system in my old, long-gone SimCity 2000 save is better that what we have in my city.

But why am I talking about my politics now? Because apparently the subject just can’t be avoided, even if I were to stick to writing about games, anime, and music on this site without any reference to politics. Because the concerns I’ve brought up in past posts on the subjects of access to art, on public censorship and private pressures to freeze out NSFW/18+ work, apparently put me in the alt-right camp where some of these are used as talking points. So I’ve been told in a few conversations. Sure, I’m alt-right… even though I’d be thoroughly despised by just about everyone in that camp for most of the views I expressed above.

But no, they’re correct. I must actually be in the alt-right without knowing it. Well, it makes sense — after all, people with anime avatars and by extension anime-styled game-themed avatars are probably mostly extremist trolls. And do you like the wildly popular Attack on Titan? Be careful — it’s also a favorite of the far right.

Of course, some people believe that all art is political and so it’s only natural that the conversation involves politics. But then I don’t agree with that stance at all. Is some art political? Absolutely. Art has been used to express political ideas for thousands of years. And of course, anime and games are included in that set of work: it would be ridiculous to suggest Legend of the Galactic Heroes doesn’t involve politics for example; it can’t even be talked about meaningfully without bringing its politics up. And some works that don’t explicitly address such issues can still be examined from political, social, and economic angles.

And LOGH is more relevant now than it’s ever been since it aired.

But is all art political? Is a pure jazz album without lyrics or any apparent message like MSB political? What about an ultraviolent over-the-top gangster story like Vice City? What about a surrealistic slapstick gag comedy like Asobi Asobase, or a silly romantic comedy like Uzaki-chan Want to Hang Out? Where’s the politics behind these works? According to the definition of “political” I’ve sometimes seen used, any work of art that deals with any aspect of life at all is political. To me, this definition is so broad that it becomes completely meaningless.

And even if we agree that a more ambiguous work of art deals with politics, how can we pin down what sort of politics it espouses? The New Republic article above is a good example: the author, a professed left-winger and a fan of Attack on Titan, comments on how both left- and right-wingers have interpreted the series in very different ways that fit their own worldviews. By the end of the article, he notes that manga author Hajime Isayama doesn’t want to tell his readers how to interpret his work — a feeling that I understand and sympathize with myself. But the writer of the article seems almost to blame Isayama for not correcting posters on the virulently right-wing sections of 4chan and elsewhere about what Attack on Titan is supposed to mean. As if that would prevent such people from making their own interpretations of it anyway.1

Another problem I have with this “all art is political” argument is that it often seems to be used as a way to argue some work or other is socially harmful to justify its removal from a private platform, or to try to discourage and freeze out NSFW styles of art. I already addressed this argument here, so I won’t go through it again in detail, but the gist of my response was that if a great enough social harm can be shown to justify removing access to the work in question, I’m fine with having it kicked off platforms. However, the justification I hear so often of “because I think it’s distasteful/disgusting” without more isn’t enough to prove this kind of harm. The burden of proof on those arguing to remove access to artistic works has to be set extremely high, otherwise it’s too easy to turn out any work with anything near a sharp edge that might put a few people off. Granted, I’m not talking here about a legal burden of proof — I leave that for arguments involving the First Amendment, which this one doesn’t necessarily. But I think the concept can and should be applied in a similar way when considering not just the creation of art but of access to it.

I don’t think any of the points I’ve made here are particular to a right-wing mindset. To any right-wingers who might be reading, feel free to tell me if I’m wrong, but you’re not the only ones who profess to believe in free expression, are you? On the contrary, we’ve seen throughout history that those greedy for control and power, regardless of their political stance, are happy to deny freedom of expression and to deny the public access to artistic works they dislike. For the most recent major example, see Xi Jinping’s wide-reaching crackdowns on popular culture in mainland China — anything that even smells like a hint of diversity away from the standard he and his CCP hold up seems to be a target now.

But outside of those really oppressive examples, why does any of this shit matter? There’s still another argument I’ve heard that none of the above matters very much in the face of far more serious social, economic, and political problems — another one that I’ve addressed once before.

Again, I’ll acknowledge that the entire human race faces massive obstacles, some of which may not even be possible to get over. To me and to many others, climate change is the greatest of these obstacles. Together with the threat of civilization-scale suicide by nuclear war that’s been around since the 1940s and more generally defects in human nature that haven’t disappeared or arguably even diminished very much since ancient times,2 and with COVID on top of that, it’s no wonder there’s so much talk about apocalyptic scenarios these days (at least for us humans. The roaches will still be around, damn them.)

And yet again, I say: all the more reason to have a permissive attitude towards escapist styles of art. What the hell else are people supposed to do to let off steam? Yoga, exercise, and healthy eating just aren’t enough sometimes, and certainly not now. Art has practical uses in addition to its inherent value. One of these is its use as a way to express political ideas, yes, but another is the power it holds to let people escape from reality for a while into a novel, a game, an anime or TV series or comic — and of course, there’s nothing to say the two can’t be combined in the same work.

A lot of the anger over games and other popular art forms being “attacked” or “invaded” by people with political agendas is misplaced, I think — all art should be open to criticism, and it’s impossible to “remove the politics” from anime and games since some of these works clearly deal with political and social issues. Certain right/alt-right figures in the gaming and film spheres especially have used this anger to stir the pot for their own purposes, making and inspiring arguments based on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other -isms and -phobias (see some of the criticism of the last few Star Wars films or The Last of Us Part II for examples — though of course some defenders of these works were all too happy to paint all criticism with that brush, which was completely inaccurate and disingenuous.)

At the same time, I understand the mistrust some fans feel towards the especially vocal critics who speak against works full of sexual and/or violent elements. This debate around the contents of popular media, and especially of video games, has been raging for three decades now, and for what? There’s never been proof (despite constant claims of it) that these kinds of expressions affect real-life behavior for the worse. On the contrary, it feels to me more natural to think that they act as a sort of “release valve” for people to indulge in extreme behaviors they never would in real life. If you’ve played GTA, for instance, how many wild, murderous rampages have you gone on in game? Does that mean you’d go on any in real life? Have these in-game experiences even made you more callous towards real-life suffering? Similar questions can be raised about sexual content in games, anime, and elsewhere.

I just wanted to play GTA for half an hour but suddenly I’m okay with murder as a result. Shit.

Too often I’ve heard it said with complete authority, but no factual support, that “fiction affects reality” with the implication that writers, artists, and others involved in the creative process have a duty to always create in a socially responsible way. Maybe it’s a mark of my embarrassing immaturity, but I can’t agree with that, or at least not in all cases. If the work is meant to address serious issues — if the creators opened that door — then I agree that such criticism is completely warranted. But there has to be room for pure escapism as well. Age-restricted if necessary, of course, but beyond that, without an extremely strong argument I don’t think it’s warranted to call for the removal of games or series from platforms, bookstores, or any other shops or the freezing out of such works on these grounds.

And I don’t think saying so puts me in a certain political camp. Unless that camp is “people who like lewd anime girls”, and despite efforts to make that seem like an alt-right thing, I’m also committed to helping defend democracy from the extremists who would destroy it. Quite literally: I took an oath to defend the US Constitution when I joined the bar, and I take it seriously. I’m also worried about the future of my country for perhaps obvious reasons. That said, I’m not going to simply fold up and drop this other subject, since I feel more than anything that they go hand in hand.

Yeah I picked this screenshot to place here because they’re holding hands, but it’s also relevant because The Expression: Amrilato was briefly removed from Steam for supposedly being too spicy. Which it really isn’t.

As usual, please feel free to tell me if you think I’ve lost my mind. More likely I’ve never found it.

To be more serious, I know my own life experience colors my feelings about all of the above, and though I do my best to consider my arguments fairly and without too much bias, it’s not possible to remove myself from them. It’s probably not advisable anyway, even if I could. Otherwise what would be the point of writing here? But for this reason and others, I’m always happy to hear differing opinions. In the end, after all, we’re all in the same boat — a boat that might be sinking.

 

1 This isn’t to say that an artistic work with an explicit political message is any worse than one with an ambiguous message or none at all. It all depends on how honestly the work approaches the beliefs and the issues it’s dealing with and how much or little credit it gives its audience. i.e. don’t talk down to me like I’m a child or try to pull some silly straw man bullshit to “prove” your stance is correct.

2 Here I’m starting down an entirely different path that involves history, psychology, sociology and a lot of other -ologies (all ending in eschatology, of course.) I love reading and thinking about history, but I’m an amateur at best in that field and can’t even call myself one in the others. Still, here’s my dumbass opinion: I feel we have far stronger norms these days generally speaking that keep us in line and cooperating to some extent (see international organizations and agreements that only became a standard thing after World War II — I’m not counting the clusterfuck that was the League of Nations) but in the end, human nature seems like it’s still more or less what it always has been. Read Thucydides to see a good example of that. What struck me most about his History of the Peloponnesian War, written 2,400 years ago, is how familiar all the political deceit and militaristic dick-swinging he describes felt, especially at the time I read it in the mid-2000s.

But that’s a debate that I won’t engage in any more deeply because, once again, I’m not really qualified to do so. I’m not academia and never have been. Though a gig as a law school professor would be nice — those people are so incredibly overpaid that it’s practically a crime.

Deep reads #6: Artificial life in a natural world

It’s been a while since the last one of these, hasn’t it? It takes a long time to put these deep read posts together, but I always feel good by the end. This time, I dive into artificial intelligence, a field I have a lot of interest in but absolutely no technical knowledge about beyond the most basic level. For that reason, I’ve tried to avoid getting into those technical areas I don’t understand well, sticking to the more philosophical aspects that I can actually sort of write about. If you know more about the subject and can bring your own perspective to the comments section, I’d welcome that.

Also, some story spoilers for Time of Eve, and very very general ending spoilers for the film Ex Machina just in case you plan to watch these and want to go in blind, which is always best in my opinion. Just being safe as usual. And now on to the business.

Sometime in the future, society has started to integrate realistic human-looking androids into everyday life. Rikuo, a high school student, relies on his family’s household android to make his coffee and breakfast in place of his seemingly always absent parents.

One day, Rikuo checks on the movements of this android and discovers that she’s been visiting a mysterious location on a regular basis, a place that he never told her to visit. After letting his friend and classmate Masaki know about it, he decides to investigate by going there himself. And so he finds Time of Eve, a café with a special rule: no discrimination between humans and androids allowed.

Time of Eve is a six-episode original anime series aired online in 2008, sometimes listed under its Japanese name Eve no Jikan. It was on my list to watch for a long time until I finally got to it last year. And while I enjoyed it, the series also raised some questions, or maybe reminded me of questions I’d already been asking myself — questions way too big for my own puny mind about the future of humanity.

Most of the action in Time of Eve takes place in the café it’s named after. Rikuo and Masaki don’t fit in very well at first, though. The lone proprietor Nagi is welcoming and friendly, but she also demands that they stick to the house rule: no discrimination between human and android patrons. This even includes asking whether a patron is human or not, leading Rikuo and Masaki to look around and speculate about all the café’s customers.

But why would this even be an issue? As Masaki explains to Rikuo, Time of Eve operates within a gray area of the law. In response to the creation of humanoid robots so realistic that they’re passing the Turing test left and right, legislators have passed laws that require they use holographic halo-like rings to differentiate them from humans. At the café, nobody has a ring, but Rikuo knows his family’s household android has been here, and considering the house rule, it’s safe to assume that at least some of the patrons are androids with their rings turned off in violation of this law.

Further complicating matters is the fact that all the café’s customers seem human enough from the way they act. When Rikuo and Masaki meet Akiko, a chatty, excitable girl, they assume she’s a human like them.

The next day, while Masaki is teasing Rikuo about his wanting to see her at the café again, Akiko shows up at their school — not as a student, but as an android to deliver something to her owner there, now with the holographic ring over her head. The pair are shocked, and the effect is made all the stranger when she doesn’t acknowledge them there but is just as friendly as before when they return to the café later.

This strangeness ends up hitting Rikuo at home when he realizes that his family’s android — after a couple of episodes finally referred to by a name, Sammy — went to Time of Eve because she wanted to make a better cup of coffee for him and his family. Rikuo first loses it, demanding to know why she was taking her own initiative without any orders. Soon enough, however, Rikuo starts to accept the situation, and we can see him thinking of Sammy as more human-like. This invites mockery from both his older sister and his friend Masaki, who say he’s starting to sound like an “android-holic”, or someone who relies too much on androids in place of fellow humans.

This fear of androids isn’t totally unjustified. Time of Eve presents a world in which these humanoid beings, far more skilled than humans in technical ability, are taking jobs, not just as household servants and couriers but also as teachers and musicians. Rikuo has already been feeling the effects of this change — it’s revealed that he gave up playing the piano because android players were starting to overtake human ones. This is a change that hits Rikuo all the harder because being a pianist was a dream of his before, one that he clearly felt was taken away from him.

Another social change, one potentially disastrous for birth rates, is the new phenomenon of human-android sexual relations. Android-holics are even referred to as living with androids in romantic relationships. These people are somewhat ostracized and are heard being criticized and mocked. However, it’s still enough of a problem that an “Ethics Committee” headed by Masaki’s father works to keep human-android relationships in line, even running ads discouraging people from seeking out partnerships with androids, as human as they might seem on the surface.

All this boils down to a question that works in the sci-fi genre have been asking for a long time now: if an android is created that acts like a human and seems to have thoughts and feelings like we do, is it any different from a human in a meaningful way? Every year, with the development of more advanced robotics, augmented and virtual reality, and AI technologies, this question comes closer to leaving the realm of fiction and entering that of reality. How will people and their governments around the world react if or when AI starts to be integrated into society itself, even into the roles traditionally played by one’s relatives and partners?

I already wrote a bit about this theme in my extended look at Planetarian, a visual novel that’s largely about the relationship between a human and an android. But that story took place in the post-apocalypse. There’s no real concern about society in that world, where civilization has already been destroyed. Looking back, the contrast with Ex Machina might have been slightly off for that reason, though I still basically stand by everything I wrote then. However, I do think Time of Eve makes for a more effective contrast because it deals with some of the same questions Ex Machina did about the social implications of the human-android relationship, but again in a very different way.

I already wrote about all the faults I found with the treatment of this relationship in Ex Machina; you can find all that in the link above. But to put it briefly, director/writer Alex Garland seems to have assumed that humans and androids can never understand or empathize with each other. At least that’s the idea I felt Garland was communicating through the ending of Ex Machina.

Time of Eve, like Planetarian, doesn’t make that assumption. In fact, I’d say the central relationship between Rikuo and Sammy changes throughout the series because Rikuo realizes from his time at the café that they can understand and empathize with each other. The fact that Sammy is an android doesn’t seem to matter by the end; Rikuo accepts that she, Akiko, and the other androids around them may as well basically be treated as fellow humans instead of mere pieces of machinery.

These deeper issues surrounding human-AI relations are still some years off, since we’re still not close to creating a convincingly human android or AI for that matter — certainly not if Sophia is the best we can do at the moment. For that reason, Time of Eve still comes off very much as science fiction to me. Unless some of the wilder conspiracy theories I’ve heard are true, we don’t have realistic-looking human-styled androids walking among us.

However, the AI musician aspect of Time of Eve isn’t quite as far-fetched now as it might have seemed 13 years ago when it was aired, because AI has actually begun moving into — or intruding upon, depending on your perspective — artistic areas that were previously thought to be purely “natural”, purely human. In the last few years, AI tools to generate images, text, and sound files have become available to the general public. I am absolutely not an expert when it comes to the technology behind these tools, but my understanding is that consumer-level AI tools can roughly imitate human-created media by using pattern recognition.

Some of these tools are pretty damn impressive. Some time ago I came across a site featuring AI-generated paintings for sale, each piece created through a process described here. Again, I don’t quite understand the specifics behind how this works, but it seems like these pieces are generated when the AI analyzes human-created art and produces something original based on a particular style.

The AI comes up with some interesting-looking stuff as well. Here’s one example I like. Quite an abstract piece as you might expect, but the AI can also produce human figures and other subjects in more classical or traditional styles.

Visual art isn’t the only place AI has dabbled either. AI-produced music has made impressive strides, putting together songs that sound like something that might have come from a human composer if you didn’t know the difference. The above piece is a pretty basic sort of instrumental rock song, something that you might expect out of a studio that produces background or soundtrack music, but the AI does follow that formula well enough to create something coherent.

The same is even true of writing. This obviously hits home closest for me, since I’m a writer. An amateurish writer to be sure, but I still take pride in my thoroughly unprofessional work full of f-words and mediocre grammar. However, I can’t ignore the fact that AI is edging in on my territory. Predictive writing AI programs like AI Dungeon and NovelAI1 are designed to build stories based on the user’s prompts. Older programs produced pretty obvious nonsense, sometimes ending with an entertainingly bad result — see the AI-written Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash for an example of such material. But the newest technology is again pretty impressive, producing text that’s at least coherent most of the time.

The use of emerging technology for the purposes of art and entertainment is nothing new. You could argue that this process extends back thousands of years, through the creation of new musical instruments and drawing/painting tools. In that sense, even a modern innovation like Vocaloid is just one part of that long trend. For all the concern over synthesized singers replacing human ones, Hatsune Miku and her friends are essentially just new types of instruments, only with avatars and some fan-created backstory and personality attached. The songs are still composed by humans; they’re only artificial in the sense that they use synthetic as opposed to acoustic instruments.

Miku is basically a cute anime girl vocal synthesizer you can dress up. The best musical instrument since the piano, and maybe even better, because you damn well can’t put a piano in a cheerleader outfit or a swimsuit.

In the same sense, the trend towards VTubers in place of “real-life” streamers shouldn’t be a concern for people worried about the replacement of humans with AI. Funny enough, the original VTuber Kizuna Ai played on this theme, her character being an advanced AI learning about the human world. However, the only difference between a “real” human streamer and a VTuber is the use of an avatar. The fascination with VTubers might be more a part of an escapist trend, adding an element of fantasy to streaming with its cute angels, demons, and fox/dog/shark girls.2

Even so, between the increased use of synthetic instruments and tools and emerging AI art generation technologies, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which AI can put out work that resembles human-created art closely enough that it turns from a novelty to a viable, cost-effective alternative. This may be especially true of formulaic art created for mass consumption, the sort you hear and see and don’t think too much about. And I’d say it’s already somewhat true of the more abstract-looking pieces you can find on various AI-generated illustration sites — the sort that I could imagine hanging in an office hallway or hotel lobby somewhere, a piece that might just be vaguely noticed and passed by.

There’s an obvious objection to all this: that the works generated by AI lack meaning. There’s no intent behind them. It’s true that the general form of an AI-generated work might be determined by humans, who set the parameters for the program: what style to follow, what colors or tones to use, and essentially what sorts of human art it should imitate when generating something original. But the end result is something that can’t connect with an audience on an emotional level, or at least not intentionally. We humans are great at finding patterns when we want to find them, seeing shapes in clouds, hearing hidden messages in music played backwards. On that level, it might be possible to read some kind of meaning into a piece of AI-generated art, but that reading says nothing about the art itself and everything about its audience.

Shocking news: people who think rock is inspired by Satan hear Satanist messages in rock albums played backwards! I don’t need more proof than that.

To me, this lack of intent behind these artificial pieces of art makes them feel empty. Not that I hate or even dislike them — I find some of them really interesting, but only on a technical level. And some of that interest comes from seeing how these AI-generated works differ from human ones.

I think the lack of human-like thinking and intent is most obvious when an AI tries its hand at realistic-looking human figures; the ones I’ve seen have come out close but somewhat off and wrong, especially in their faces. Not in the way a human unskilled at drawing would mess them up, either — there’s a kind of technical “skill” in the AI work if you want to call it that, but details in the figure make it clear that the AI isn’t “thinking” about what it’s drawing in the same way a human would. See Edmond de Belamy,3 an AI-generated portrait of a fictional French nobleman, and how the face is smudged. Similar paintings that try for more detail seem to do a little worse, misplacing eyes and noses in curious ways and, for me, planting themselves firmly in that infamous Uncanny Valley.

Of course, there’s a lot of argument to be had over how much the intent of the artist should be taken into account when examining art. I take what I feel to be a pretty balanced view: that both how an artistic work is meant to be perceived and how it’s actually perceived are important to understanding it. When art is put out to public view, the public takes their own kind of ownership of it in the sense that they get to interpret it for themselves. But the artist’s intent still matters. Some people may feel differently, but if there is no intent behind the art, I can’t connect with it in the same way I could with a human-created piece.

But what if the art in question is so convincing and feels so meaningful that you can’t tell the difference? At that point, does the divide between the artificial and the organic even matter? This comes back to one of the central questions asked in Time of Eve. By the end of the series, Rikuo answers this question for himself by returning to the piano and playing for the café’s audience. By returning to the music he’d previously rejected because he felt it had been invaded by androids, he accepts them.

It’s clear enough that the androids in Time of Eve are essentially human in this sense. They’re completely differently when we see them in the outside world — Sammy and Akiko both act in a sort of robotic “just carrying out commands” way while in sight of humans, as if they’d get in trouble if they acted otherwise. When they’re in the café, by contrast, they act much more naturally, as if they’re letting out their breath after holding it in for a long time. It seems that all they want is to be spoken to as equals, as though they’re humans as well; the fact that they’re synthetic and we’re organic doesn’t make a difference.4

That’s the key to that central question in Time of Eve. Its androids are self-aware and have that intent and even emotion behind their actions. I think if a real-world AI can express that intent through the creation of original art not just based on analyzing scraps of existing human-created work, that would be a sign of AI so self-aware that it might essentially be considered human in the same way.5

Of course, as far as we know, we’re nowhere near that point yet. Any AI out there that the general public knows about (leaving a gap there for any possible ultra-secret experiments in progress) still thinks like AI. When I’m out driving and I have Google Maps guiding me, it still tells me to take a left turn by swinging through five lanes of busy traffic over a few hundred feet. That direction might make sense to an AI, but any human who’s ever been in a car will understand why it’s actually a terrible direction to give.

Maybe that’s the real test: when the AI understands what I’m going through when I’m driving my car in rush hour traffic and empathizes with my experience. At least enough to not suggest such a suicidal route.

Hey Google, I get that this is technically the fastest path to my destination by one and a half minutes but maybe consider my fucking blood pressure too. (Source: B137 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

As for Time of Eve, there is one criticism I can make: that it might be a little too optimistic, especially for the reason that it doesn’t really address the whole “humans losing their jobs to more skilled androids” problem beyond just acknowledging it. It is absolutely a problem, in some sense one we’ve been facing for centuries now with automation of work starting in agriculture and leading up to the development of advanced AI today. It’s not a problem we can’t solve, but it is one that will probably cause a lot of social strife before that point.

Then again, this series provides a nice counterpoint to all the overly pessimistic science fiction we have today, the sort that’s practically anti-scientific development. Again, I’m definitely biased on this subject, but the Luddite approach to this problem is absolutely the wrong one. We shouldn’t try to limit our development out of fear of what might happen as a result.

Time of Eve doesn’t imply that everything will be sunshine and rainbows in the future. But it does deliver a more hopeful message than we usually see out of Hollywood these days. As much of a pessimist as I am generally, I can really appreciate that, and I’d say it’s absolutely worth watching even if you end up coming to a different conclusion. I, for one, welcome our new android friends, and I sincerely hope they don’t become our android overlords instead. 𒀭

 

1 AI Dungeon and the AI writing programs that gained popularity afterward make for another potential deep read rabbit hole subject. AI Dungeon was previously the premier AI story creation tool, but developer Latitude placed sexual and other mature content control filters on the program leading to suspensions, bans, and an exodus of users to alternative services.

I’ve messed around with both AI Dungeon and the much newer NovelAI, and while they’re interesting (well, AI Dungeon was interesting before it was utterly fucked by its own developer — the filter was supposedly meant to prevent certain types of extreme/gray-area material from being written, but it didn’t work properly and was extremely overbroad) the few times I tried writing a story with them, I ended up taking the prompt away from the AI and continuing it on my own. And now I have the rough rough draft of a very short fantasy action-adventure-romance novel that will never be published. Not unless there’s a market for shitty novellas that indulge in escapist fantasies that are somewhat different from the Fabio-on-the-cover supermarket romance trash variety.

Not that my story isn’t also trash, because it is, but I still like it. Maybe I should rework it into a visual novel script?

2 The parasocial relationship aspect of VTubing is still another deep dive that I’m sure a few people have taken already. I don’t know if I’m qualified to address it myself, but it is an interesting subject. Maybe it’s one I should address — not like I’m qualified at all to be writing about AI, yet here I am completely bullshitting about it.

Actually, I do know more about this other subject, since I’ve spent enough time in VTuber chats on YouTube to know that at least a few people are quite serious when they send love confessions and marriage proposals to their beloveds. Then again, that’s always been a thing idols have had to deal with, so maybe nothing’s really changed.

3 You can say this image lacks intent and meaning, but it sure as hell doesn’t lack value: it sold for almost half a million dollars when it was put up for auction a few years ago, probably for its novelty value since it was touted as the first piece of AI-generated art to ever come to auction. I wouldn’t buy it for more than $20 myself, but since I’m not a member of the idle rich set, my opinion doesn’t matter when it comes to these big-ticket auctions.

4 Of course, there’s also a religious aspect to this question, since many people believe that a God-given or otherwise divinely created soul is the most essential part of what makes us human. That’s a debate I don’t feel qualified to get into — I leave it to the scientists, theologians, and philosophers to argue over all that.

5 To complicate matters further: you could argue that this is exactly what we humans do when we create art, since everything we make takes at least some inspiration from past works of art. But there’s usually more to the creation of art than just copying our influences — we filter those older works through our personal experiences and feelings and create something that’s our own, even if it’s somewhat derivative. The same can’t be said for these AI artists, at least not yet.

A review of Ganbare Douki-chan (Vol. 1-4)

Anyone who’s into the less safe-for-work side of art on Twitter might be familiar with Yomu. This artist has made a name for himself creating work that’s sometimes very close to the edge of being 18+ but technically doesn’t cross it. That’s to say, a lot of his art really isn’t SFW in the literal sense. (And the standard disclaimer: this is more or less adult stuff this time around so fair warning as usual.)

Yomu certainly deserves the praise he gets for all his skill, but part of his appeal probably comes from the fact that he makes no secret of what he’s into, which is a quality many people respect. If you’ve seen Miru Tights, this is pretty obvious — this is the same artist behind that series. And the same is true of his other work Ganbare Douki-chan.

I’m really not sure what category to put this one into. I chose to file this post under “manga”, but Ganbare Douki-chan is not exactly a manga; it’s really more of a series of full-page and full-color drawings with a bit of descriptive text or dialogue sometimes included punctuated by a few comic strips. It’s more like an artbook series in that sense. But unlike the other artbooks I own, these aren’t just individual pieces of art: they feature established characters and tell a running story. So Douki-chan is a strange bird, but that’s part of why I wanted to write about it.

Ganbare Douki-chan (something like Do Your Best, Co-Worker, or maybe Doing Her Best/Hardworking Co-Worker? I’m still not that great in Japanese) is about the emotional travails of the office worker Douki-chan, seen on the cover above. She doesn’t get a real name — I don’t think anyone in this series does from what I can tell; “Douki” is an equal colleague or in this case a co-hire as opposed to your senior or junior. Douki-chan and her colleagues work at an office doing some kind of office-related work that’s never specified, but that’s not important either, because this series is all about Douki-chan and her rivals vying for the affections of one guy at their office.

Vol. 2: A challenger appears!

This dude is apparently desirable as hell too, because they’re all going after him pretty hard. Unfortunately, Douki-chan isn’t quite as forward as her rivals, and she certainly can’t bring herself to confess her feelings to the guy, but she still somehow ends up getting into nice situations with him that aren’t quite intimate but close enough to spur her on more. On the other hand, she also worries about and imagines her rivals getting into sexual situations with the guy (and she imagines herself doing so as well — Douki-chan has a pretty good imagination.)

For me, a lot of the appeal to Ganbare Douki-chan comes from seeing the title character getting all flustered but then getting those small wins over her flirty co-workers. But then, of course, there’s the appeal of the art itself. Yomu is great at drawing really cute/attractive women. That seems to be about all he does, anyway, which is certainly fine with me.

He also has a few very obvious fixations, namely on women’s legs and tights/pantyhose; that was the focus of Miru Tights, and the same theme shows up a whole lot in Ganbare Douki-chan, so if that’s your thing, you won’t be disappointed. However, he also branches out into other areas: there’s plenty of cleavage, some swimsuits in the fourth volume, and a few approaching-but-not-quite-naked situations throughout, even with implied sex in Douki-chan’s imagination/dreams in a few (again skirting that 18+ line! And a reminder that even though they avoid that 18+ only label on the cover, these volumes aren’t for kids.)

Finally, there’s the appeal of imagining yourself as the guy in this situation. I guess this is part of the point of Douki-chan, anyway, since a lot of the pages are drawn from the point of view of the man being fought over. Of course, as with a lot of fantasies, the situation would probably get a bit ugly if it were to become reality — there’s a reason a lot of offices discourage open co-worker relationships, and the love polygon in this series has to be causing productivity issues.

… and another one. Will there be yet another challenger added in Vol. 4? You can probably guess.

But I don’t read something like Ganbare Douki-chan because I want to think about productivity issues. I have to do that enough at my own office, which isn’t anything like the one featured in these books (otherwise I might actually look forward to going back soon despite what I just wrote above; yes I really can be that shallow sometimes.) The point to me is more to appreciate Yomu’s beautiful art and to hope Douki-chan comes out on top in the end. This isn’t a deep or serious work or anything, and there’s only so much in the way of storytelling I think you can do with this kind of format.

But I like the format Yomu uses here. It strikes a nice balance between showing off his art and telling a very light romantic story with some comedy mixed in. This is naturally one of those “this is for me but might not be for you” works again — that applies with double or even triple strength this time — but if it’s for you, you’ll like it too.

Just a few more points about Douki-chan — these are doujin (self-published) books, so they don’t have ISBNs or barcodes, and they’re not listed in a lot of the places you can typically find manga. I got mine off of eBay, because of course I had to get physical copies, but if you don’t want to go through the trouble I think there are digital copies available around as well. There also isn’t any official translation and very likely never will be — not such a big deal since you can get the gist of the whole thing without even being able to read any of the bits of text and dialogue in it, but there are sites out there that have unofficial translations, and you can find them easily if you know where to look. Finally, each volume is fairly short at about 30-36 pages each, but the quality of the art and the paper size (B5, typical doujin size; larger than a manga tankobon volume) more than make up for their relatively short lengths.

 

Fanservice done right

Now here’s a subject that I really care about. Probably way too much. I’ve featured a few pieces from other writers around the communities here on WordPress on just this issue in my end-of-month posts, but I sometimes disagree with their opinions even when I feel they make some good points or interesting arguments.

So it’s time for me to put out my own dumb take on fanservice and on the broader subject of sexual content in games and anime and related works. It’s one that I’m sure won’t surprise anyone at all, since I’ve already written about it in the context of law and popular culture a few times, and also considering a few of the works I’ve reviewed in glowing terms here. Even so, I think this is a matter worth bringing up and looking into more closely, since it’s such a constantly controversial one on social media in anime and game circles. As usual, if others won’t shut up about it, then neither will I (though I hope I can at least make real arguments to support my views, unlike some of the kneejerk reaction types we see.)

Also, the usual disclaimer: this post deals in part with sexual content, don’t read if you’re not into that, etc. You know the deal.

If you’re thinking “oh, another excuse for AK to post a bunch of half-dressed catgirls again” well, maybe it’s partly that, but that’s not the main point here.

First: what is the controversy here that people are talking about? Fanservice has been present in anime, comics, games, and related media both western and eastern for decades. Defining it is a bit difficult, though, because people disagree on the boundaries of fanservice, drawing their own borders according to their own reasoning. According to the top-rated definition on the esteemed reference Urban Dictionary, “fan service refers to scenes designed to excite or titillate the viewer. This can include scantily-clad outfits, cleavage shots, panty shots, nude scenes… if it has little plot-redeeming value, but makes the viewer sit up and take notice, it’s probably fan service in one form or another.”

The author of that definition also notes that a broader definition might include gratuitous action, explosions, and other types of non-sexual fan-pleasing scenes, but I’m only concerned with the narrower definition here, since that’s what most people seem to refer to (and complain about) when they use the term.

I won’t deny that there’s a whole hell of a lot of sexual content out there. It’s an old maxim that sex sells — that’s been true for thousands of years, probably ever since someone in Uruk decided to start a peepshow for guys drunk on that ancient beer with the grain floating in it.1

There was fanservice even back in Babylonian times.

But there’s an important distinction to be made here. I believe a necessary part of this concept of fanservice is that it’s gratuitous, that it’s added into an existing work that would have been complete and whole without it. Above I’ve posted a screenshot from the first episode of last year’s Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, an anime series that undoubtedly contains a whole lot of fanservicey shots of certain popular characters like Mash Kyrielight (above) and Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and fertility who looks exactly like Rin Tohsaka for some reason. I think these kinds of shots can be safely put into the fanservice category because they’re pretty damn blatant and clearly gratuitous. When the Servant Mash is protecting her Master by using her Noble Phantasm while they’re falling out of the sky, do we need the above kind of shot specifically to get what’s going on? Not really.

Of course, games also contain plenty of fanservice. A few days ago I saw a review of Atelier Ryza 2, the newest entry in Gust’s long-running Atelier series. This review mostly praised the game but did complain about all the “fanservice”, by which it meant shots of characters in conversation with low camera angles. Presumably these angles focus a whole lot on the protagonist Ryza, since her thighs have become famous (and I still wonder whether she was designed at least in part to appeal to the American market, because if she was, the plan seems to have worked.) I haven’t played Ryza or its sequel, so I can’t say whether that reviewer was making too much of it, but I have seen a few of those conversation scenes in bits of playthroughs and yeah, those shots certainly do exist in the games, though I can’t say how frequently they come up.

However, there are other works in which I’d argue that the “titillating” material is not gratuitous. I’ve written a bit about the Monogatari anime adaptation here, which I mean to pick up again this year because of how much I liked its first few series. Though it had been on my to-watch list for a long time, I have to admit that part of what got me interested in it was the griping I saw about it from some Twitter users for being “horny” in their words. And then I resolved to finally start watching it to see if there was anything to those complaints.

What I found was a series that did contain some material people would call fanservice but that worked in the context of the series, that suited the tone of the story and didn’t involve any out-of-character nonsense. Moreover, this material was largely woven into the story, since confusion between romantic love and mere sexual lust is a pretty prominent theme of Monogatari, at least in the first few series that I’ve watched so far. You could certainly argue that author Nisio Isin pushed the envelope with Nisemonogatari, but in general I never felt like I was being pandered to or watching something meant merely to titillate. And even Nisemonogatari didn’t feel too off to me since the series had established a kind of absurd tone by that point, mixing that in with the more serious dramatic material in a way that I thought completely worked.

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (2015). Fighting hundreds of bikini ninjas at once is just a normal day in this game

And then there are games and other works so filled with sexual or borderline content that they’re defined by it, but those don’t bother me either. It’s not like I can argue otherwise after everything I’ve written on this site until now anyway. But I think the most important reason I’m not bothered by such works is that they don’t pretend to be something they’re not. When you buy a Senran Kagura or Gal*Gun or HuniePop game, you know exactly what you’re getting. The same goes for anime and manga series with strong erotic elements.

I always find sexual content-based complaints about these works strange. It would be like me reviewing an album by a noise rock group and complaining about how noisy it is. Well shit, what did I expect? I completely understand why these kinds of works put some people off, but I also don’t think complaints over fanservice apply to works that don’t make any secret of what they are. Just read the M for Mature or 18+ notice on it and move on if you’re not into that sort of thing.

Nekopara Vol. 2 (2016), just filling my self-imposed catgirl quota for this post.

I feel the same to be true of optional material in games. As much as paid DLC sometimes annoys me, I don’t have any problem with giving players the option to choose whether they want the spicier parts of a game. The Nekopara series of visual novels provides a nice example: the all-ages versions are cute romance/slice-of-life stories with some light ero sort of stuff thrown in, while the 18+ versions go hardcore by adding the sex scenes. (The full 18+ version of Nekopara Vol. 4, which I’ve recently started reading, is even considerate enough to ask if you’re playing the game while other people are present, and you’d better take it seriously when it asks.) I’d put skimpy DLC costumes in games in the same category — they’re there if you want them, but if you don’t they’re easily ignored.

But then what does that leave? There’s a narrow slice of artistic content that I’d call fanservice that actually annoys me. That’s the type that’s clearly present only to pander to what the creators think I want to see and that either distracts from the story, breaks the tone, or causes characters to act in bizarre or stupid ways or against their established personalities, assuming the characters in the work have personalities worth caring about in the first place. I wouldn’t even include shots like those brought up in F/GO Babylonia or Atelier Ryza 2; my only complaint is with those works that allow the fanservice to seep into the substance, the story and characters, in ways that warp them and screw them up.

I can’t think of any specific examples to illustrate this point, but I know they’re out there. Take your average harem comedy for a general example, the kind that has a dumbass protagonist bumble around and waver between a bunch of girls who inexplicably all like him. I can’t stand this sort of work. It’s not so much the fact that there are usually erotic elements to it, but rather that they’re put there in service of a bunch of boring characters getting into predictable situations.

Obvious fanservice here in Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!, but this didn’t bother me too much.

This is part of why I usually dislike romantic comedies unless there’s something really special about them. The Uzaki-chan anime didn’t deserve all the silly controversy it got itself into last year, but it did come close at times to falling into that boring overused trope category for me — that was the only real complaint I had about it. Even stuff like the standard beach episode seen above didn’t bother me, since it’s not unusual for people to go to the beach on vacation, and nobody was acting out of character in this part. It’s only when the characters repeated the same old gags, going through that tired cycle of “are we just friends or more than that” bits that I got irritated. I know that’s the whole point of the series, but there are more interesting ways to do it (see again Nagatoro, but maybe I should reserve my judgment to compare its own anime adaptation to that of Uzaki, especially since I haven’t read the Uzaki manga.)

So really, I guess my only complaint about fanservice is when I feel I’m being very obviously pandered to in a cheap way, or when I’m being bored by something overly predictable. It’s not enough to just have some cleavage or thighs on screen every so often; you need to provide an interesting story or compelling characters or fun gameplay, and then you can throw in all the titillation you like as far as I’m concerned as long as it fits into the work naturally and isn’t just a dumb distraction. The real sin in my mind is creating something that’s dull — as long as the game or series in question is entertaining, I’m fine with these sexual elements, and used in the right way and context I think they can even add to the appeal of a work.

Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica (2007). This JRPG contains some suggestive conversations and some eye-catching costumes, but I’d say these are examples of fanservice done right, presented in an interesting and clever way.

Finally, I want to address an argument I’ve seen brought up that I find interesting: that anime and related games and other media should be cleaned up somewhat to get rid of the stigma some people attach to them. This very argument was raised by an article I featured on the site back in October, which dealt specifically with fanservice in anime. I agree that this stigma is a real thing; certainly some people think poorly of anime in general at least partly because of its sexual content. However, I don’t agree that the stigma is a problem. Those who dislike anime are free to find other media to enjoy, and that’s provided they never discover that there’s plenty of anime out there they probably would like. Creators shouldn’t feel compelled to water down their work in the hopes that they’ll reach a wider audience, especially since a lot of established fans would likely be upset by it. If they want to take that risk, that’s their choice, but I believe in most cases that it would be the wrong one.

Of course, I get that a lot of people would disagree with me on these points. I obviously don’t have the same moral objection to h-games or similar 18+ material that some do, and my tolerance for sexual content in games, anime, manga, and VNs and in art in general is pretty high.2 These are just my opinions, and as usual, I’m always happy to read differing ones as long as we all keep things civil. But we always do here anyway, don’t we? We can keep all the stupid fighting for social media. I think I’ve gotten used to Twitter’s bullshit by now, at least enough to not be driven crazy by it. 𒀭

* * *

1 On this subject, it’s not really my concern anymore, but I think it’s pretty weird that all these modern breweries try to replicate these very old drink recipes like Dogfish Head’s ancient Egyptian-style beer, which from what I remember tastes like liquid ass. Probably for a reason: people back then were making alcohol from whatever they had around, and when you’re a commoner tasked with building King Menkaure’s pyramid, life probably sucked enough that you were fine as long as you could get hammered every day. This has nothing to do with fanservice; it’s just something else I wanted to complain about.

2 This is also not strictly related to what I’m writing about here, but I do believe drawn and animated 18+ material can be a moral substitute for people who have objections to similar live-action videos — especially relevant now considering certain large websites that have collapsed in on themselves thanks to apparently practicing little or no oversight over their content. But then many people who object to live-action videos also seem to object to the 2D adult material, sometimes in even far stronger terms, so maybe their problem is with the subject matter and not the people involved in depicting it.

In any case, it’s important for the purpose of regulation to make a distinction between suggestive and downright pornographic material, both in live action and in drawing and animation. Conflating the two leads to serious problems (and unfortunately that’s something legislators seem all too willing to do, especially if they see votes in making a moral issue out of art. But I’ll save the political/legal soapbox stuff for a later post.)

A review of Everywhere at the End of Time (Stages 1 – 6)

Disclaimer: this post deals with dementia. If you know anything about the work I’m taking on in this post, this will come as no surprise, but fair warning: please skip if you don’t feel like reading about such a depressing subject. My next post will be a lot lighter in tone. It’s hard to imagine how it could be any heavier than what’s coming up, anyway.

Today’s subject might seem like it’s pretty far outside the scope of what I usually write about here. But listening to the six-album project Everywhere at the End of Time raised some points that I found interesting and that connect back to some I’ve written about here. Since getting so popular online, it’s also become a “big internet thing” or whatever you’d call it (though that didn’t seem to be the intention of the artist at all) and I have an interest in those as well. Finally, writing about this work is also a way for me to try to “unstick” the experience I had with it a bit, because it has stuck with me, and that’s not entirely a pleasant thing.

The cover of Stage 1

But it might sound like I’m being unnecessarily dramatic here, so I’ll explain. Some months back, I started seeing a thumbnail on YouTube in my recommended list of videos come up again and again: a painting of something that looks like a rolled-up newspaper without any print standing on its side. The attached video was also six and a half hours long. After seeing it so many times, I finally gave in to my curiosity and clicked the link and heard track A1: It’s just a burning memory, and then thought “okay it’s some kind of reverbed old-timey ballroom music; that’s fine, but I don’t need to listen to that for six damn hours.”

Of course, I was wrong: that’s how this project starts, but that’s not nearly all it is. After reading more about it recently, I got interested and decided to try to listen to the whole thing. Everywhere at the End of Time is a set of six albums by British artist Leyland Kirby, going by the name “The Caretaker” for the purpose of this project. This series of albums, ordered in stages from 1 to 6 and released from 2016 to 2019, is meant to depict the slow mental and emotional decline experienced by a dementia/Alzheimer’s patient.

Not exactly a light listen, not something you can just throw on while making dinner or cleaning the house, and despite its length it’s definitely not something to listen to on a road trip. This album series is an ordeal to get through and maybe not something you’d want to subject yourself to in one sitting assuming you had the time to do it. You might not even want to subject yourself to it at all.

Stage 1 might trick a listener going in without prior knowledge like it did me, because it’s deceptively easy listening, without much of a hint as to what’s coming next — it really is just a set of old ballroom music with some reverb and crackling as if it’s being played on a gramophone. But that seems to be by design, because Stage 1 is about the aged subject of the album remembering their young days and not yet realizing that they’re entering the early stages of dementia. Stage 2 sees an increase in the crackling and reverb, and the songs themselves start to become distorted, stretching out, slowing down, and suddenly cutting off or flowing into the next track without warning. At this point, the subject of the work seems to realize what’s going on and is trying to hold onto their memories, but when Stage 3 hits, it’s obvious that those memories are fading and becoming more confused. The music is still recognizable, but it’s starting to distort badly and get buried under noise.

Stage 4 represents a shift into the “post-awareness” stages of consciousness, and the music reflects that — the protagonist is now completely confused and can’t recall much of anything clearly. The last three stages take up most of the play time of this project, lasting about an hour and a half each, and they consist of a lot of noise, droning sounds with recognizable music occasionally fighting its way to the forefront but quickly getting drowned out again and disappearing. It feels in parts of the fourth and fifth stages like the catchy big band songs and ballads from Stage 1 have been stretched and distorted until they’re just a mess of random horn, string, and piano notes, as if they’re still in the patient’s mind somewhere but can’t be recalled in a coherent way anymore.

Thankfully, there’s a resolution to all this. The final stage is more peaceful — not exactly pleasant, but it’s a nice break from the nightmarish mess of the preceding two stages. And then there’s the ending, which I won’t give away except to say that it does put a cap on the whole thing in a satisfying way.

The cover of Stage 5. I see a lady in a fancy old-fashioned dress on a flight of stairs, but who knows what this might be.

So why would I listen to this thing all the way through? That’s something I asked myself before and even after I did it. There were a few things about Everywhere at the End of Time that really interested me. One was the artwork attached to each of the albums. All the covers are paintings by artist Ivan Seal, who worked closely with Kirby on the project. I’m not the hugest fan of abstract painting in general, but I really like Seal’s work. He depicts a lot of strange-looking objects that almost look like things that might exist in the real world but are unidentifiable, and I enjoy that kind of mind-trick stuff, especially when it’s not trying to just get by on shock value. Each of his covers also feels like it suits the mood of the corresponding album well.

And then there’s the effect this music has apparently had on a lot of listeners. Despite being a six-hour-plus piece of experimental music, something you’d think wouldn’t be all that popular, Everywhere at the End of Time blew up online — the artist himself posted the whole thing on YouTube, and it has over six million views as of this writing. Before diving in, I read accounts from people who claimed this album made them break down crying, that it followed them into their dreams, and that it even changed their outlook on life as a whole, making them appreciate it more, or driving them into existential despair and depression.

I tend to be pretty skeptical about claims like this. I don’t doubt that art can make people feel strong emotions, but “life-changing” is a tall order. It was enough to get me to listen, though, just to see how much there was to this thing. The worst that could happen would be that I wouldn’t care for it, and as for the depression — I’m already depressed! What more can this to do me?

Reviewing something like this is a bit difficult, but I’ll just give my opinion here: Everywhere at the End of Time didn’t change my life, but it was interesting. First, it’s obvious that a lot of work was put into it. It’s easy to be dismissive of abstract art, especially when it feels too abstract to really grab onto and get any feeling out of. These albums, however, were understandable — Kirby himself wrote the descriptions for each stage along with what he intended to express in them, all of which can be read in the text under the video, and his ideas are expressed very clearly in his music with its gradual degradation and decline from music into pure noise.

However, even though he’s very straightforward about what this work is meant to represent, he’s still able to express his ideas in subtle ways. To me the most interesting parts of the work are the first three stages, before the subject has totally lost himself to dementia and still has some memory. Kirby uses a few specific themes that come up a few times throughout these stages, but in successively degraded states. The most obvious and memorable of these themes is the opening “It’s just a burning memory”, based on the 1930s big band love song Heartaches. This song gets reprised a few times up until it’s nearly unrecognizable at the end of Stage 3, where it’s heavily distorted and stopping and starting again, as if the subject is trying desperately to remember their old favorite song but failing.

The decline isn’t a constant slope down, either; there are a few ups as on “Last moments of pure recall” on Stage 2, which as the title suggests is a return to the relative clarity of Stage 1. But things quickly take a turn for the worse after that track. Even on the fairly normal Stage 1, there are signs that all isn’t well — the fifth track “Slightly bewildered” is a kind of muffled, unassuming piano loop that passed me by at first, but looking back, it seems to suggest some early confusion both in the title and the music itself.

The final three stages are interesting in a conceptual way, but they make for very rough listening, especially Stage 4 and 5, which make up three hours and nearly half the length of the entire project. The musical ideas from the first three stages are still there in bits and pieces, but they’re very brief and disjointed when they do appear, suggesting that they’re still floating around but that the patient has perhaps stopped trying to remember them at all. These two albums are supposed to depict the confusion and fear experienced by the dementia patient after losing their coherent memories, with 20 minute-long tracks bearing titles like “Post-Awareness Confusions” and “Advanced plaque entanglements”. I guess they’re effective at that, because both albums were extremely unpleasant and even disturbing in parts. Stage 6 is a welcome change to more of a peaceful sound, even if the traditional music is still almost entirely gone, but that seems to represent the patient’s slip into their final period of life towards death.

The cover to Stage 6. You can probably elicit some emotion from a few people just by showing them this image based on what I’ve seen.

Reading comments under the full project on YouTube, some people have said that they connect strongly with these albums, especially those who have family members and friends suffering from dementia. Even dementia-sufferers have commented that Everywhere at the End of Time is an accurate depiction of what it’s like to have the disease — stretch each stage out from a number of hours to a number of years. It makes a lot of sense to me that some listeners might have broken down while listening for this reason. It’s a reminder of what can happen to the brain, taking away the personality and everything that makes it and leaving a shell of a person behind.

It might also explain why I didn’t break down or have my attitude towards life changed by these albums. Because I can’t connect with it on such a personal level: the closest I’ve experienced to this was near the death of my grandmother, who thankfully only had some mental confusion very shortly before she went, and then she only seemed to be living back in the past, mistaking me for one of her long-gone brothers and my mother for one of her aunts, things like that. I think a lot of people have such stories. If you have a much more personal and bitter experience with dementia, though, this work might really shake you.

If you don’t want to listen to Everywhere at the End of Time, I totally understand that. It’s very interesting, a piece of abstract art that comes off as thoughtful and well-made. It’s also a hard listen. After finishing it, I thought back to a post I wrote last year taking on arguments being made by some critics that a game that’s not fun to play and puts the player through an intentionally miserable time (specifically The Last of Us Part II) can make for a more meaningful experience somehow than a game that is fun. I stand by everything I wrote then, but I do think Everywhere at the End of Time is the kind of depressing, hard-going artistic work that gets it right. It’s thoughtfully produced, subtle, and has proper respect for its subject matter.

Here on the site, I’ve written about games that I feel also successfully take that approach. Saya no Uta, like Everywhere, is intentionally ugly in parts and can be hard to get through for that reason, but it also uses those elements to address ideas about mental health by getting into the mindset of someone suffering from severe delusions. You can make the same case for the early Silent Hill games. These are rightly regarded as classics, even though they’re not entirely fun experiences.

And as with those games, I can’t give a massive, “everyone should hear this” sort of recommendation to Everywhere at the End of Time. You might argue that you can just as easily get down the experience of feeling pain by slamming your hand in a car door or something, and why the hell would you do that — and I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that way. Listening to Stage 5 does feel like the aural equivalent of doing that for 90 minutes. But it’s probably not possible to express the idea of dementia through music without this kind of pain, so if you don’t want to hear it, better just avoid it.

As for me… I was very impressed by this work, it did make me feel something (even if I didn’t break down and cry at it), and I’m probably never going to listen to it again. That shouldn’t be taken as a negative judgment, of course — it probably speaks more to just how effective it was at achieving what it set out to do.

On the use of public office to suppress the display and sale of artistic works

Weeks ago, I heard about a controversy in Australia having to do with the sale of certain manga in the Sydney branch of Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore chain with locations around the world. Last July, South Australian state legislator Connie Bonaros made a complaint regarding volumes sold there, including such titles as Eromanga-sensei, No Game No Life, Sword Art Online, and Inside Mari, on the grounds that they violated Australian law regulating certain types of sexual artistic depictions. The exchange of letters between Bonaros and Kinokuniya officer Keijiro Mori can be found in the link above, but the gist seems to be that Bonaros thought some of the anime-styled girls in works that include sexual content looked like minors and came to the conclusion that their sale in Australia constituted a violation of the law.

If we talk about how horrible this is and have it banned from stores, people will definitely stop reading it! That has always, always worked.

I feel bad for Australian manga and light novel readers who were into those series, and especially for fans of No Game No Life, a few volumes of which received an outright sale/importation ban. It’s worth mentioning that we’re not even talking about some hentai doujins and manga you might find in the seedier shops in Akihabara; most of the affected series are massively popular and none are pornographic as far as I understand. It also seems weird that a South Australian state legislator can have any say at all over what books can be sold in Sydney, which is located not in South Australia but in New South Wales. That sounds to me something like a Virginia state senator getting books removed from a New York bookstore, which would be unthinkable here in the US.

But I’m not an expert in Australian law. In fact, I don’t really know anything about it except that the Australian constitution doesn’t contain an explicit protection for freedom of speech or expression. Since Bonaros is an Australian lawyer and I’m an American one, I’ll defer to her understanding of her own country’s law. I just hope fans and other artists in Australia can find a way to gain a stronger voice in politics.

All that said, I think the victory won by Bonaros has to be examined more closely. It raises a question that’s relevant to every fan of anime, manga, video games, literature, and art in general living in any country on Earth. That is: how far should a public official be able to use the power and influence afforded by their office to suppress the display and sale of an artistic work? Because that is apparently what Bonaros did. No legislation seems to have been proposed; no evidence was brought forward to show that the contents of the listed works actually violated Australian law (or if it was raised, it wasn’t mentioned in the reports I found.) And there’s certainly been no solid evidence brought forward that said works have a harmful effect on their readers or on society in general. It seems that Bonaros simply saw some manga that rubbed her the wrong way, used her platform as a legislator to complain about it, and successfully pressured Kinokuniya into removing it.

I can’t pretend that this incident in Australia doesn’t affect fans of manga, anime, or related works here in the States either. Because Bonaros also requested a list of other countries in which Kinokuniya still sells No Game No Life and the other titles she objects to, presumably including its American branches, and pressured the company to ban their sale globally.1 As a result, it’s now undoubtedly an issue for us Americans as well. And since she’s made it an issue for us, let’s have a look at US law to see whether or how such an incident might play out here.

Unlike my last couple of posts on this general subject, this time around we’re specifically concerned with the First Amendment. Here’s the original text in full:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Pretty short considering how much has been said about it since it was ratified in 1791. And we’re only concerned here with the middle clause, and specifically with this statement: Congress shall make no lawabridging the freedom of speech.

It’s understood that artistic expression counts as “speech”, and this naturally includes manga (and visual novels, and drawings, etc.) However, that doesn’t mean these are all entirely safe from regulation. Congress has made laws abridging the freedom of speech since, but these were passed when the courts carved exceptions out of that guaranteed protection. An example of such an exception is found in the Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio2 (note: citations provided in the footnotes in case you want to look them up) in which the Court determined that the government could not regulate speech on the basis of violent or incendiary content unless it was 1) “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and 2) “likely to incite or produce such action.”

So it’s unconstitutional to arrest someone for throwing out extremist political views, for example, unless they’re actually stirring up a group to do some immediate violence or lawbreaking. It’s a very limited restriction but an important one — essentially, the Court has said that the government shouldn’t have the power to restrict this kind of speech unless it’s about to cause actual harm.

Artistic expression has also been restricted in limited ways and on similar grounds. Certain kinds of expressions that involve causing harm to others, for example, are rightly recognized as falling outside of the First Amendment’s protection. When the artistic expression in question doesn’t involve such harm, however — for example, when actors are depicted being harmed through the use of effects and studio tricks, or the expression consists of drawing or sculpture or some similar form — the standard for regulating the expression is far higher. Even if an artistic expression seems revolting, as long as it’s not found to be obscene or otherwise outside the protection of the First Amendment, it can’t be banned or suppressed through government action.

And the obscenity standard set by the Supreme Court in Miller v. California is extremely difficult to meet. Attempts at getting around this test through other sorts of official action have usually failed, as in the case of Bery v. New York,3 in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a government regulation requiring artists to be officially licensed to sell their work on public streets. Even if a regulation isn’t obviously intended to restrict freedom of expression, if it has that effect, it’s subject to the First Amendment and likely to be struck down in the same way.

However, let’s say that “official” government action isn’t being taken. What if, as in South Australia, some legislator stands up and simply talks about how bad some work of fiction is, how it’s degrading the morals of the people by its very existence, and how for those reasons Amazon should stop selling it? What if people petition Amazon on that basis and the company gives into public pressure and removes said work? In other words: can a public official legally use the power and influence of their office to skirt the First Amendment and have an artistic work suppressed without “making a law”?

Again, this is no hypothetical, because we’ve already seen it happen. I brought up several examples of such attempts at content-based regulation in another previous post. The most relevant here is the string of attacks on video games made by Congress in the early 90s, most famously against the Sega CD game Night Trap. Looking back, it seems strange that this FMV game was ever at the center of a controversy. Its contents are pretty tame, but some legislators spoke against it anyway, most notably former Senator Joe Lieberman, for containing gratuitous violence and lewdness. Following a congressional hearing in 1993 on the subject of video game violence (during which Lieberman admitted to never having actually played Night Trap) the game was pulled from distribution by major distributors and later pulled from the market altogether.

If it hadn’t been for that controversy, though, this game wouldn’t have gotten a rerelease/remaster on Steam, no way in hell.

The facts that the Sega CD was a marketing failure, and that by most accounts Night Trap was a lousy game, might have something to do with its pulling from distribution, but the influence of interest groups driven at least in part by public condemnation has to be considered. In my view, the use of a congressional hearing in this way taints the market and is an example of government overreach into the regulation of art. Lieberman’s view of Night Trap doesn’t seem very different from Bonaros’ view of No Game No Life and the rest of the manga on her list: both came to conclusions about the meanings and effects of the works seemingly without supporting evidence, and both ended up having an effect on the distribution of the work (in Bonaros’ case a much more direct and obvious effect, though.)

It seems this kind of government interference in art is hard to prevent even in the US, however; it’s happened so many times already (see also the Hays Code and the Parents Music Resource Center.) And there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again. At the moment, the US is going through a shitstorm for lack of a better term, or at least I can’t think of a better one to use, so people aren’t thinking too much about how music or video games are going to turn fans into degenerates or criminals. But that won’t last forever. One day when things are less chaotic, we’ll have another moral panic in which art is attacked as a way to avoid actually addressing societal problems. And since it doesn’t seem to be considered a violation of the First Amendment for politicians to use their influence to try to have works regulated or removed from sale, maybe the better question to ask at that point is: “Should they be allowed to do so?”

Let’s just do this again, why not.

Of course, my answer is “no.” The First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression loses some of its teeth when politicians are able to use the resources and influence of office to essentially get around it. Yet I don’t see a solution to that other than maintaining a culture of open and free expression. That’s a culture that has been under attack recently, especially with regard to anime, manga, and anime/manga-influenced games. We just have to remain vigilant as usual, calling out hypocrisy and scapegoating when we see it, and always in a civil but forceful manner.

I’ve lived in a country where the government had near-complete control over art and the press and where the dominant culture supported that control, and I can tell you it’s not fun. Many of the people who think they want that kind of power to be exerted against expression they don’t like here in the US might be in for an unpleasant surprise when they find works they like on the chopping block. But by then, if we ever get to the point where the First Amendment is so eroded, it will be too late to do anything about it.

So there’s my dire warning as usual. And as usual, I’m interested in other opinions. Do you have a different angle on these issues? Do you think Bonaros was right and justified in what she did? If you do, I don’t think we’ll find much common ground, but it’s still worth talking about. Maybe there were some important facts in that case that were glossed over or that I missed. Or maybe my own views on the issue as an American are considered weird in other countries. I know for a fact that’s the case, but that’s also part of why I came back here after all. 𒀭

1 Thankfully, Kinokuniya’s response to this request was: “In terms of our action globally, wherever our stores are situated we respect local law and culture, and make ordering decisions respectively and accordingly.” Which sounds like a diplomatic way of saying “mind your own damn business.”

2 395 US 444 (1969).

3 97 F.3d 689 (2d Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 117 S.Ct. 2408 (1997). There’s an interesting note about the case here (a note being an article written by a law student in an academic journal — I wrote a note myself, but it was a piece of shit and rightly didn’t get published.) A good read if you’re interested in the subject.

Does fun belong in “serious” video games?

I don’t know if I’ve seen an upcoming release as controversial as The Last of Us Part II in a while. It’s received almost entirely excellent reviews from the professional game press, who are declaring it a triumph of storytelling and a deep, affecting experience. Meanwhile, consumer opinion seems to be split — people are somehow already bitterly arguing about the game’s quality even though the damn thing isn’t out for another week. Granted, we have the first game to compare it to, but it still seems hasty to call the sequel a piece of shit on that basis, or even to call it a masterpiece based merely on the word of a bunch of professional reviewers.

I won’t be playing TLOU2. Not because I hate Naughty Dog or anything; I don’t care about them one way or the other, and I don’t really have it out for any game developer at all for that matter. Based on what I’ve seen, the game just doesn’t interest me. However, there is a question raised by all the back and forth fighting over TLOU2 that I do find interesting, and one that I was already thinking about before this controversy blew up — should a good game be fun to play? The reviews of this game I’ve read pretty consistently describe a miserable experience fighting through and hiding from both undead and living human threats and requiring the player to make potentially morally uncomfortable decisions. Yet those reviews also declare TLOU2 a triumph, with one guy comparing it to Schindler’s List and causing yet another uproar for it.

It goes on in this fashion

Setting aside Mr. Cannata’s weirdly narrow definition of “everything” being John Wick when it comes to games (I’m currently playing a game about a princess who makes items with alchemy, beats up dragons, and eats pie with her friends and it’s not much like John Wick1) I find his view interesting. The game wasn’t “fun” at all, but it was still an amazing experience. This isn’t a new take on video games, either. See this 2015 piece from Vice titled “The Value of Video Games That Aren’t ‘Fun'” that expresses a very similar view. The idea seems to be that a work of art that puts the player through hell as Cannata writes of TLOU2 can be inspiring and profound, and that such a game’s lack of fun elements can even work in its favor in that sense.

I don’t want to completely dismiss this idea. If video games are an artistic medium, and I think they are, then they can certainly affect the player emotionally and challenge their views of the world just as some of the great novels, plays, films, and music out there have done. To pull an example straight out of that Vice article, 1984 was a very depressing novel to read, but I thought it also totally achieved its goals in getting the reader to really care about a few people living in this unbelievably oppressive society. If a novel like that weren’t kind of hard to read, it would defeat the purpose. The same goes for Schindler’s List for that matter — a film about trying to save people during the Holocaust can’t really be called “fun” either, but it is profound, emotionally affecting, and very worth watching. So then why can’t a game also be depressing and hard to play, therefore making it way more profound and effective in challenging the player’s views of the world?

I see a few problems with the views expressed by these critics and writers. One is that they seem to be ignoring interactivity, an element of video games that isn’t shared by older media. When you sit down to watch a movie or read a book, you don’t expect to take an active part in it; you’re just taking in a story. With a game, however, unless it’s a visual novel or something similar [edit: and one without much player input either, like a kinetic novel] there’s an expectation that you’re going to get to interact and have some gameplay elements. So if you’re making a game an absolute misery to get through, you’re not just asking for the audience to passively sit and watch or read — you’re asking them to take an active part in struggling through a difficult mess for the payoff. That’s quite a bit more to ask.

A game can’t put a player in a rough situation and also be fun, it’s never been done before

Even that can make for a good game when done right, however. The Silent Hill games gave you pretty much normal-strength humans to control while fighting through and often hiding from vicious monsters. Plowing through enemies would be a lot easier and maybe more fun in some sense, but that’s not the sort of experience those games were meant to deliver. And despite all that, the Silent Hill series is widely beloved (up through Silent Hill 3 at least.) Even though they didn’t quite empower their player characters, putting them in extremely dangerous situations with scant protection and pretty average fighting ability, they also let you work out alternative ways to get through those situations when brute force was not going to work so well. A challenge like that can be fun in itself, and I’d argue the good Silent Hill games achieved that balance.

However, there’s another problem stacked on top of the first. If a game is going to put the player through any kind of hell at all, it has to deliver a payoff at the end that’s worth the effort spent to get there. Otherwise, it’s probably going to leave a rightly frustrated and annoyed player. If a game has something truly profound to say about humanity or life that’s worth the effort it takes to make it through its challenges, then it certainly could be worth playing, just as I think a book like 1984 is worth reading or a film like Schindler’s List is worth watching. If the payoff ends up being some trite message that most every person on Earth over the age of five already knows, however, then by contrast it won’t be worth playing unless the gameplay’s fun on some level. At that point, I’m far better off instead playing a game that’s fun and has no message at all.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t responsible for whatever this is.

Finally, there’s the problem of player agency. If a game’s going to take me to task for making the player character do something it perceives as wrong, it had damn well better give me options. Even though it doesn’t tie into its plot, I remember the old Thief games doing a good job of this: on higher difficulties the games usually forbade you from killing enemies in favor of knocking them out with your blackjack or with sleeping gas devices, the idea being that the protagonist Garrett is a professional thief, not a murderer. This was more difficult but always possible to achieve, and it made a no-kill run of a mission very satisfying to pull off on the harder levels. I think this element of player choice leading to a rewarding feeling was also a big part of why the indie RPG Undertale did so well.

However, a game that essentially forces the player to do something it deems bad only to chew them out for it afterward causes a disconnect between game and player. A game can’t simply make the protagonist do whatever it wants in the same way and with the same consequences as a novel, film, or other non-interactive work can. If I’m being put on rails and shoved down a track, you can’t make me feel bad for whatever happens as a result.2

Again, I don’t have any particular feelings about The Last of Us or Naughty Dog; I can’t and don’t plan on making any judgment of the game, and it’s no skin off my back if it ends up doing well or poorly. And after all, the market has room for all kinds of games. Some of those kinds I don’t especially care for, but why should that bother me? The same is true of every artistic medium on Earth. I just find some of the views expressed by professional reviewers who are praising it to be not very well-considered. By suggesting that this game is both profound and emotionally affecting and “not fun” and really emphasizing that “not fun” aspect, there seems to be an implication that a fun game can’t also be profound and emotionally affecting in the same way, and that doesn’t make a god damn bit of sense to me. 𒀭

1 It’s Atelier Meruru DX for the PS4, and now I’ve totally ruined the surprise when I post my review of it soon.

2 I recently bought a massive bundle of over a thousand games on itch.io. The deal is still on for a couple of days so check it out; the $5 minimum goes to the NAACP and a bunch of bail funds, which I think are pretty damn good causes. Anyway, one of the games included is 2064: Read Only Memories, a game that’s been sharply criticized for doing just this sort of obnoxious “railroad the player and then try to make them feel bad” thing. I might just have to see that for myself since I own it now. I did find the demo pretty irritating, but I shouldn’t judge it based on that alone.

However, the bundle also contains Dreaming Sarah and OneShot last I checked, and I know for a fact that those are both well worth playing.

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.

On reviews, scores, and objectivity vs. subjectivity

I’m in despair again.  This time about review scores.

It’s never not a good time to use screenshots from SZS

Let me back up about a decade and a half (I promise there’s a point to this trip through time, so don’t worry.)  Back in my school days, I used to follow two music reviewers: George Starostin and Mark Prindle.  These guys maintained websites dedicated to writing album reviews well before the modern age of easy blogging — before technologically untalented people like me could start free WordPress and Blogger accounts and dump words onto the internet without knowing anything beyond the most basic HTML tags.  Messrs. Starostin and Prindle were both excellent writers, very knowledgeable about music, and incredibly prolific (in fact, Starostin is still writing at a different address, though he seems to be on hiatus right now.)  Most importantly to me, they were independent voices that I felt I could trust far more than the hacks at Rolling Stone, Spin, and the other big music magazines.

However, Starostin and Prindle’s review styles were very different.  Starostin seemed to try to take a more objective approach to his music reviews.  While admitting that he couldn’t be totally objective, being a human with his own likes and dislikes when it came to music, he still tried giving a fair chance to artists whose styles he wasn’t naturally fond of (though he could and would tear an album up in a very entertaining way if he thought it was lousy.)  Prindle, by contrast, seemed not to give a damn about even trying to be objective.  He could and often did also write deep and interesting analyses of albums, but they also felt more personal in the sense that you were getting his opinions based purely on what he liked and disliked.  Prindle’s more personal style also came out in the various rants, anecdotes, and obscene jokes he’d drop into his reviews, usually without any warning to the reader.  Even though their styles were so different, I liked them pretty much equally, and I’m sure both of them have had a serious influence on my own reviewing style.

Source.  Though how “Movie X no longer has a 100% RT score” could be considered a story worth writing about, I have no fucking clue.

Now back to the present day, where people on Twitter and other platforms are tearing their hair out over the Rotten Tomatoes scores movies get.  Red Metal at Extra Life covered this already in a recent post about the reaction to the film Lady Bird getting one bad review from a critic, knocking its score down from 100% to 99%.  Some people were apparently losing their shit over this development.  If it can even be called a “development”, really.  No doubt they’d also be piling onto Red Metal if his own mixed review of Lady Bird had been factored into that score.  I haven’t seen the film, but I can say at the very least it’s impressive that a movie managed to get such dedicated fans that they’d scream bloody murder over a single poor review.

Or is that really what’s going on?  It looks to me like many people have expectations that certain artworks should be insulated from negative criticism, as though they have a God-given right to a perfect score on RT and maybe also on every other review score aggregator.  I have no idea where these expectations come from.  Even among my favorite games and albums, I can’t think of a single one that I’d yell at a reviewer for over a poor review.  I’d certainly disagree with said review, but as long as it was reasoned out well enough, I’d just think “Fine, that person has a different opinion than I do.”  Because we all have different tastes, different perspectives, different life experiences.  Not everyone has to like what I like, and I don’t have to like something even if almost everyone else likes it.

I like drinking beer, chewing on dried squid, and playing visual novels, but a lot of people don’t, and that’s okay.

So how should I approach my own reviews?  I’ve been writing reviews of games and other media for six years now (not on a very regular basis, as you can tell from looking at my index of reviews and dividing their number into six, but still, six years is a long time.)  I always try to write my reviews in such a way that they’re useful to every reader who follows this site or comes across it through a Google search.  But when it comes to the score I assign a work, I sometimes find myself facing this conundrum: if I score the work based too much upon my own subjective tastes, the score won’t be meaningful to a reader with different tastes from my own, and if I score it based too much upon some kind of as-objective-as-possible balance of factors, I’m removing my own views from the process so completely that I may as well not review the work at all.

I usually try to strike a balance between these two extremes, but sometimes that’s difficult, especially when the work I’m analyzing is directed at a niche audience.  I’m facing just this issue with the game review I’m currently writing.  Maybe I should just not worry about the problem at all and write whatever I want like Prindle, or maybe I should still try to take a more objective view of things like Starostin.  Maybe I’m overthinking this like I overthink every single other aspect of my fucking life.

Maybe don’t worry about cutting the cake precisely Chiri, maybe just cut it and eat some god damn cake

I have another question for you, the reader: if you write reviews, do you run into this problem?  How do you resolve it?  Or is it even really a problem and am I just overthinking things? If you don’t write reviews but only read them, do you really care about how objective or subjective the reviewer is trying to be?  And should anyone even care about Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic scores aside from the film and game studios and distributors?

Sorry, that was more than one question.  You don’t have to answer all of them if you don’t feel like it.  Or any of them.  In the meantime, I’ll go back to finishing my next review.  Maybe one day, I’ll write a review that will get me a headline on Indiewire about how I’m an asshole who made people on Twitter cry.  I can only hope.