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.

Politics, video games, and “nerd culture”

A while ago, I read an article published by Vice. This article titled “I Watched ‘The Simpsons’ for the First Time Ever and I Couldn’t Stand It” was written by one Nicole Clark, a self-proclaimed millennial who takes great offense at several classic Simpsons episodes produced over 20 years ago for not being sufficiently politically correct.

This character is meant to be taken seriously as a role model and a hero, not as a satirical criticism of middle class American society

I won’t get into how badly Miss Clark misses the point of The Simpsons, or how many times she comes off like an alien who doesn’t understand the concept of satire or of humor in general. Others picked apart her arguments well enough already months ago; there’s no need for me to pile on. What I want to address is rather her use of shaming as a technique to make you, the reader, feel bad for enjoying something she does not. At the end of the article, as though she were anticipating this, Clark writes “[i]f you love The Simpsons and the show is special to you, that’s great,” but this statement is overshadowed by the subtitle of the article and by the priggish tone of it in general. “How did you people put up with Homer’s nastiness for so long?” She asks. How could you? Get on my level of wokeness.

Criticism is well and good, but this is a step beyond mere criticism of the work – it is an attack on the fans of the work.  Such attacks are becoming more and more common in pieces about video games written by contributors to big-name sites like Polygon and Kotaku, especially with regard to the writer’s perception of the game’s treatment of female characters. (Let’s not even mention Cracked, which you can visit to learn, on a nearly daily basis, 5 Reasons Why [fill in title of popular video game/movie/TV show] is Sexist and Why You’re a Sexist for Enjoying It.) And the weapon used by the writer to attack the fan is shame. It is absolutely shameful that such a game would be released here.  Shameful that you would enjoy such a disgusting, awful work.  It’s a bad game, and by extension, you’re a bad person for enjoying it. I’m a millennial just like Miss Clark, and I find this sort of church lady attitude being expressed by a lot of people in my generation.

This September is All Gifs Month here on the site

Friends, family, and readers alike know that I am absolutely not a fan of President Donald Trump. The guy is an incompetent shithead if his performance over the last 20 months is any indication, and as an American citizen living in the US and being directly affected by his bullshit I am not happy about it. After Mr. Trump won the election, I looked into getting involved in active political opposition, but two things stopped me. The first was the fact that I had a government job at the time that prevented me from taking a partisan stance in public. The second was some of the batshit insanity being spewed forth from the American left. While I agree with many of the left’s policy goals*, I just can’t bring myself to join them as a card-carrying member because I hate their insistence upon total political and cultural orthodoxy. And because I do not believe that artists should be shamed into silence or self-censorship just because their creations might hurt some people’s feelings, or because it’s controversial in the “wrong way.”

It greatly concerns me to see left-wing priggishness and self-righteousness seeping into what was once a safe haven for misfits like me. This transformation might even be having an effect on games and media imported from Japan, where this movement doesn’t seem to exist at all – games end up arriving Stateside with objectionable content censored or cut out entirely. This is nothing new, but conservative religious and parents’ groups used to be the driving force behind the censorship. Now the politically opposite social justice warriors can join the censorship party. The result is a modern “nerd culture” with all the sharp edges sanded down, all the rough bits smoothed out. It’s pleasant and inoffensive and doesn’t require a lot of critical thought. It’s walls of Funko Pop figures and old episodes of The Big Bang Theory. In the end, it can’t be called anything other than corporate. Any art, any expression too weird, too dangerous, has to be buried – that sort of stuff isn’t good for business, because it makes that lucrative “nerd culture” look too bizarre to be marketable.

So what’s to be done? Most big publishers are going to play it safe by succumbing to loud-mouthed interest groups on the left and right and keeping anything too controversial out of their games. We can only rely upon those publishers willing to take chances, as well as the still sort-of-underground independent game development community, which is all about taking chances. There are quite a few games I’m looking forward to from indie developers like Yuppie Psycho and YIIK. The left- and right-wing self-appointed content police will always exist, and they’ll always be trying to ruin other people’s fun to make themselves feel superior, but I’m optimistic about the future of video and PC games because I know that true creativity can never be stifled – not completely. 𒀭

* I’ve never gone into much depth about my political views here, but now that my country is standing on the precipice of utter fucking insanity this seems as good a time as any. I believe in closing corporate tax loopholes, increasing spending on healthcare and public education, maintaining and improving environmental regulation, and maintaining the wall of separation between church and state. All of these are center-left to left domestic policy platforms in the US. The left wing of the Democratic Party that intersects with the fringe Democratic Socialist party is also the only political wing in the US that expresses any support at all for the Palestinian cause, which is something I care about deeply. I just have a problem with the attitudes that many leftists in the US express about art and expression and with their holier-than-thou attitude in general. They value art for its political and social value – hell, I do too – but they also view art for art’s sake as suspicious, as self-indulgent. If you’re not using your art to make a positive political or social statement, it’s implied, you’re part of the problem. In a broader sense, they see any sort of compromise as a betrayal, and they seem to always be looking for something to be offended by – as if our current president doesn’t give them enough material. These sorts of attitudes are part of what separates liberals from socialists – and what separates democrats from authoritarians, both on the left and the right.

Everything is bad for you

It’s mid-August, which means it’s time for my quarterly post. I was originally going to write about the new artbook I bought – Shigenori Soejima & P-Studio Art Unit: Art Works 2010-2017, featuring the art of Persona character designer Shigenori Soejima. I was going to tell you about how it’s filled with beautiful pieces of art and sketches of characters from Persona 3Persona 4Persona 5, from their various spinoffs, and from other Atlus titles like Catherine. About how it features interviews with Soejima and other members of the P-Studio art team that I can barely read because they’re all in Japanese, and about how I’ll probably buy the English version if this book is ever translated and have a redundant copy on my shelf.  And about how even though I love the book’s cover, I thought the decision to print its title in silver was pretty stupid, because the color blends in with Futaba’s white and silver shirt.  (Fortunately, the text is printed not on the cover itself but rather on the dust jacket, which is transparent.  Still looks weird.)

Somewhere along the way, I ran off course. I started thinking about the purpose of this site. I started Everything is bad for you (a name I probably came up with while I was either drunk or sleep-deprived, because I can’t explain the reasoning behind it at all now) five years ago, just before entering law school. I had no real direction in my life – I was attending law school because I managed to get into a pretty good school, and to attend it fairly cheaply, and because it seemed like a thing to do. Two years into the profession at this point, I’m just about where I began. I still have no direction. There’s nothing I really want that I can realistically get from either my personal or professional lives, and when you’re working hard in a life that you don’t care about it becomes difficult to even get out of bed in the morning. I don’t have a family to support yet, but soon enough, I’ll have my relatives trying to fix me up with someone, since my relatives are undoubtedly already wondering about me (imagine whatever you’d like about what they’re wondering, but it’s not hard to guess.) Of course, I could tell them all to fuck off, but then I’d become completely isolated from almost all of my family. Something in me won’t allow that. So I get to go on living a life that I don’t enjoy – and not only do I have to keep living it, but I have to look like I’m enjoying it. It’s not easy to put on that act every day.

Those of you who are still reading this mess of complaints might have no idea what I’m talking about. Or you might think I’m just whining about “first-world problems” and feel that I’m simply ungrateful for what I have. So much the better for you if you don’t understand what I’m saying. To be very honest, I’m not writing for you and I never will. I’m writing for the other kind of person – the kind who feels like an outsider, the way I always have. I’m writing for the kind of person who looks at the prospects of living a conventional life and feels sick, but who has no other choice.

So why this site? It’s an escape. Just like playing video games, or reading novels, or buying artbooks, or drinking whiskey or gin after dinner, probably to excess. Each of these are ways for me to escape not only from the present but also from the future, and I probably don’t need to tell you how futile that is.  Since I’m already being honest, I will admit that I’ve had suicidal thoughts throughout my adult life – thoughts I’ve thankfully never acted on, and at this point that I most likely never will act on.  These thoughts are usually not at the front of my mind, but every so often they emerge.

Tonight is the beginning of Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.  The closest western parallel I can think of to this holiday is Thanksgiving with a religious dimension – this Eid mainly involves having a feast with family and giving charity.  It’s a day to be grateful for what you have.  So why can’t I feel that way?

Two pages from Soejima Art Works 2010-2017. Miku is technically a Persona character because she was featured in DLC for Persona 4: Dancing All Night, which is a pretty good game for a fanservice-filled spinoff.

I never wanted to make a personal post on this site, but it seems that in the end I couldn’t avoid it.  I don’t know how I’ll face a future that I don’t really want.  The only thing I know for sure is that I’ll keep writing.  I thought about quitting this site entirely, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  As long as my writing connects with someone, it will be worth the effort, and it will keep me going through this vale of tears that we call life.  I might even try some fiction soon, though it will probably turn out to be lousy hackwork.

Sorry for being so dramatic.  Shigenori Soejima & P-Studio Art Unit: Art Works 2010-2017 is a good artbook, and you should buy it.  Still pretty cheap on Amazon and weeb-centric marketplaces like Tokyo Otaku Mode.  Feel free to leave your thoughts below if you decide to go for it.  God willing, I’ll stick around and keep writing here and on my other site that I’ve been neglecting.  I’ll try not to make it another two-month break.  In the meantime, no matter what your religious beliefs are or whether you have any, I wish you a happy Eid and hope the rest of the year goes your way.

Edit (8/26/18): Thought about taking this post down, but I decided I won’t.  Even if it is self-indulgent or looks like it’s fishing for sympathy.  I know there are other people out there, espcially people in our hobby/subculture/whatever, who carry around a lot of bitterness or just plain apathy about the world and their place in it and who have a hard time finding meaning in living a life that feels predetermined.  Sorry for bringing the mood down with this one, but I was in an especially bad place mentally when I wrote it.  I’ll be my usual cheery self next post.

 

Spooky RPG Maker game review: Bevel’s Painting

Over the break, I had the chance to play and watch a series of freeware RPG Maker (and Wolf RPG Editor) games with horror themes with a few friends.  (Before I go on, I should note that we weren’t recording ourselves uncontrollably shrieking at the games, like a handful of Pewdiepie imitators hoping to make it big with Youtube ad revenue.  Also, Pewdiepie’s routine is not funny and gets extremely irritating after about three seconds.  Sorry for the digression, but after writing off and on about video and PC games for over two years I finally had to say it.)

Despite technically all being “horror games”, the games we played in our weekend RPG Maker marathon varied pretty widely in theme and approach.  And while it wasn’t the best among the games, Bevel’s Painting was certainly one of the most interesting.

bevel1

Made in 2015 as an entry in an independent game contest by one Maninu, Bevel’s Painting tells the story of Bevel, a young white-haired girl who enjoys painting.  There’s not much in the way of dialogue in this game, and Bevel is a silent protagonist, so a lot of the story is implied, if that makes any sense.  Here, we know Bevel is a budding artist because she starts the game in an art classroom in front of an easel with a painting on it, and also because she wears something that looks like a beret.  Other than that, the game initially gives you no direction or narration, and Bevel’s classmates standing around in little cliques in the hallway outside the classroom won’t talk to her, so the only place to go is naturally inside the painting on the easel.

The great bulk of Bevel’s Painting takes place inside the “world” of Bevel’s painting.  Bevel has to navigate through various puzzles and traps to progress through her world.  While her art world starts out bright and happy (in a sequence that occurs shortly after entering the painting, Bevel is magically decked out in a princess outfit by animals and gets applauded by a crowd of colorful bees, worms, and alien-looking creatures) it doesn’t stay that way for long.  This is a horror game, after all, so it’s no surprise when the initial cheeriness of the game fades away into darkness and terror.  You can also expect to be chased by enemies a few times – and yes, you can die in the painting world if you’re caught or if you fall into a trap.  And like most games of its type, Bevel offers a number of endings – which ending you get depends upon several choices you’ll have to make when deciding how to solve the game’s puzzles.  The game also features a language gimmick: most of its text is in “Bevelese”, which is English with its letters replaced with gibberish symbols (the game helpfully offers a guide in the download file to help the player decode the language.)  The Bevelese thing does come as a surprise at first and can be a little annoying, but we quickly got used to it while playing, and the concept of a made-up language within Bevel’s art world makes sense in the game.

bevel2

Out of all the games I played/watched throughout our marathon horror RPG Maker game sessions, Bevel gives you the least information by far.  The game drops clues about where to go and what to do, but you have to use your mind to make the connections and solve the puzzles necessary to moving forward.  It also gives very little away about the story behind Bevel’s explorations – at least at first.  Bevel is (debatably) the only “real” character in the game, not counting the various creatures and beings you’ll run into during your playthrough.  The game doesn’t provide much in the way of dialogue and provides no narration whatsoever.  However, the game does provide serious hints later on about some of the issues Bevel might be trying to work through.  Without spoiling too much, I can say that the game goes into seriously dark territory near the end – although it never explicitly states anything about its protagonist, her experiences, or her feelings, they can be guessed at by the end of the game depending upon the ending route you’re locked into.  Bevel’s Painting goes far more for ambiguous creepiness and unease than it does for cheap scares, and that’s something I appreciate.

bevel3

All in all, Bevel’s Painting is well worth playing.  The game clearly owes a lot to Ib and Yume Nikki, two popular RPG Maker games that involve exploring mirror-universe painting-worlds and bizarre dreamscapes respectively.  Unlike those games, Bevel is very short – a full playthrough can take less than an hour depending upon your puzzle-solving and being-chased-by-a-monster skills.  Despite its short length and its ambiguous endings, though, there’s enough here to make the player feel that he’s achieved something by the end, at least if he manages to get one of the non-bad endings.  It’s not a terribly big or ambitious game, but Bevel is good enough to get a strong recommendation.  It doesn’t feature a lot of spooky ghosts or JUMPSCARES, but if you’re looking for a bizarre little exploration game with horror elements, Bevel’s Painting is for you.  Maninu’s game was translated into English (except for the Bevelese parts) by vgperson and the English version can be downloaded here.

Six great video game tracks

Music is a major aspect of a game. A soundtrack that fits well with the action of the game really helps its flow. Some game series are even defined by their soundtracks: pretty much everyone, even my mother who doesn’t know the first thing about video games, knows the Super Mario Bros. main theme, and other prime series from my (and possibly your) childhood like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man are known for their amazing background music.

Here are some pieces taken from game soundtracks that I think are especially good.

1) Shin Megami Tensei III – Normal Battle (Town)

If you’re a regular reader, you know I’m a big Shin Megami Tensei fan, and SMT3 is just about my favorite game in the series. And Shoji Meguro, the soundtrack-writer for many of the Shin Megami Tensei titles, is one of my favorite game composers ever. His work displays a lot of diversity, from the weirdly jazz-poppy music of Persona 3 and 4 to the hard rock of Digital Devil Saga. SMT3’s soundtrack is sort of a mix of hard rock and jazz elements, and this piece is one of my favorites of the bunch.

2) NieR – Gods Bound By Rules

Time for honesty here: I have not played NieR. From what I can tell, it’s made by Square-Enix, it’s an actiony sort of game, and it is highly controversial, with some people swearing by it and other people swearing at it. It was a commerical flop, but that’s not the measure of a game’s quality, is it?

Despite not having played NieR, I have heard its whole soundtrack, and it’s really good. Very symphonic in that old Square-Enix Final Fantasy tradition, with an extremely talented female singer accompanying the music. This track really conveys the feel of a boss fight well, I think. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a boss theme. In any case, you should really listen to it. It sets an “epic” mood without feeling overbearing (like, say, playing a famous public domain piece like “O Fortuna“. Yeah, it’s great, but seriously stop using this piece, it’s so amazingly overused.)

3) Umineko no Naku Koro ni – Final Answer

Unlike the last entry, I have played Umineko – all 80 hours of it. One of the things that kept me playing/reading was the excellent soundtrack. It’s no mistake that Umineko is called a “sound novel” – the original game had no voice acting but a great set of pieces by dozens of artists that perfectly fit the mood of each scene. I don’t think there’s a bad piece in the bunch, really. “Final Answer” is an especially great one, but the Umineko soundtrack is consistently good – I could have just as easily picked 20 or 30 other songs.

4) Makai Kingdom – Rushing Out of the Land of the Demons

NIS games tend to have really good OSTs that set a cartoonish mood consistent with their goofy, sometimes weird humor. Despite being one of their lesser-known titles, Makai Kingdom has an especially good soundtrack, and “Rushing Out of the Land of the Demons” is my favorite in the track list. This piece really gets down both the frantic pace of a battle scene and the strangely relaxed attitude of the typical NIS game. Does that make sense? I just wrote that sentence and I don’t know if it makes sense. Anyway, this is a great song.

5) Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors – Digital Root

When I heard the Zero Escape series was not going to have an ending because of poor sales, I was thrown into despair. I had just finished 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward and was dying to know how the bizarrely twisted story would end. I guess we’ll never know now. But at least we’ll have the really nice evocative sort-of-ambient soundtrack of 999 to listen to. “Digital Root” and most of the other pieces in the 999 OST perfectly complement and feed into the sense of tension that lasts through the game.

6) Touhou Project (Perfect Cherry Blossom) – Doll Judgment

I don’t think I’ve ever let on that I’m a Touhou fan, so I’ll do it now: I’m a huge Touhou fan. I’ve been playing the Touhou Project games for several years now. I know all the characters. I’ve even read some of the official comics (which have totally nonsensical plots.) If you’re unfamiliar with Touhou Project, it is a vertical scrolling shooter series begun and maintained by ZUN, one man who creates all the games on his own. The events of the many Touhou games (now up to 15? 17? I’m honestly not sure) take place in Gensokyo, a magically separated part of Japan that is still stuck in the 19th century for some reason and is inhabited by youkai – traditional demons and mythical beasts (all taking the form of girls, of course, because Japan) who live alongside a bunch of scared out of their wits humans in a village. The main characters are a shrine maiden and a witch who can fly and shoot lasers and fight said youkai. ZUN’s creation has spawned a massive community of fans and fanworks.

The funny thing about ZUN is that he seems to be a better composer than a game designer. Every one of the Touhou games features a really catchy and driving soundtrack. Fans have seized upon this aspect of Touhou and produce mountains of albums based on ZUN’s music. In fact, “Doll Judgment”, while it’s really a good piece, just as easily could have been a different piece from a different Touhou game – there are way too many to choose from.