Listening/reading log #3 (December 2019)

I know I said I’d be off for the rest of the year, but there’s still one piece of old business for 2019 left to address. So let’s get right to it:

Magic (T-Square, 1981)

Highlights: It’s Magic, Sunshine Sunshine

Quite an album cover, isn’t it?  Pretty magical in my opinion too, at least as far as the subject matter goes.  Magic is an album recorded by Japanese fusion band T-Square, which has existed in various forms from the late 70s up until today.  These guys along with Casiopea were apparently a big part of 80s fusion.

The problem is I don’t seem to like 80s fusion very much, not even the later Casiopea stuff I’ve listened to.  70s fusion, sure, I’m into it.  But 80s fusion might just use way too many cheesy, ridiculous synth tones for my taste.  Some of those are on Magic too, and that might also be part of why I’m not a fan of the instrumentals here.  Half the songs on this album are vocal pieces, however, and I like those.  These feature lyrics in English sung by famous Filipina vocalist Marlene (yeah, just the one name) who I only learned about last week.  Her singing is unbearably cute and uplifting and makes the album opener “It’s Magic” as well as “Sunshine Sunshine”, a song you may be shocked to hear that I really like.  I’m not crazy about the message (which is essentially “don’t mope around, just be happy” — yeah, if only it were that easy) but when I listen to the song, it’s impossible not to imagine Marlene bouncing around a stage while singing the lines “SUNSHINE SUNSHINE IT’S A SUNNY DAY SUNSHINE SUNSHINE LOVE IS HERE TO STAY!” and that does actually make me happy.  So maybe this stupid shit works.  Anyway, Magic is mostly pretty good, and maybe you’ll like it more than I do if you’re not allergic to cheesy 80s synths.

H to He, Who Am the Only One (Van der Graaf Generator, 1970)

Highlights: Killer, House With No Door, Lost

Hey, was I being positive there for a few minutes?  Fuck that!  I know just the cure: some Van der Graaf Generator.  This was an English prog rock band that started back before prog was even really a thing, fronted by excellent singer/crazy lyricist Peter Hammill.  VdGG was pretty uneven in my opinion, but when they were good they were great, and H to He (referring to the solar fusion process — no idea what the rest of the title means) is one of their best albums.  This is dark, bitter, sad artsy rock featuring Hammill singing what sound like a lot of very personal words over a saxophone/organ-dominated background.

Which you might not think you’d be especially into depending on your tastes, but the songs here are really good.  “Killer” is energetic and catchy and has a monster riff that I love, and “House With No Door” is a ballad sung by Hammill sounding like he just had his heart torn out.  My favorite is “Lost”, though.  It meanders like crazy through its 11 minute run time and bizarre time/key signature changes, all classic prog-style, but it works because the whole song is about a guy who’s lost his love and is wandering in the same fashion.  Nothing pretentious here, it’s really just a love song.  Check it out!

So it’s only two albums I’m putting up for your consideration this time, but I hope the contrast between them is enough to cover pretty much everyone’s tastes.  If it isn’t, try out some of the following excellent pieces by my fellow blog writers.

Shadows of Mass Destruction.  The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 2-Gameplay — Aether dives deep into Persona 3 in his continuing retrospective series on the game.  If you like the Megami Tensei content I post here (what’s that, about two-thirds of my site?) you should follow Lost to the Aether as well for some great in-depth analysis.

Humanity Has Declined: Nameless Adventures With Incalculable Entities — Scott of Mechanical Anime Reviews writes about the uniquely weird anime series Humanity Has Declined and why it’s worth watching.  I liked the show a whole lot, and Scott captures the essence of it very well.

Editorial: Supporting the Little Guys — Professional and semi-pro game journalism sites are largely copy-and-paste clickbait outrage factories, and Pete Davison of MoeGamer takes on some of the problems this causes in this piece.

[GAME REVIEW] Mega Man 2 — Red Metal of Extra Life reviews one of the best NES games in such a thorough way that I don’t think there’s anything else to say about it.

Chapter 754: Hachinohe Station Giant Lanterns and History Museum — If you have any interest in traveling to Japan, or traveling anywhere for that matter, be sure to follow The Flying Tofu, now on part 754 of her travels through Japan and other lands.  I can’t go anywhere at the moment or anytime in the near future, so I like to read a few travel blogs instead, and this is one of them.

And that’s it once again.  A preemptive happy new year to everyone — doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a great year coming up in general, but we’ll see.  The last few years have turned me into a real fatalist, both as far as my personal life and public/world events have gone. But what the hell.  There’s not much ordinary people like us can do (assuming you’re ordinary too, dear reader — if you’re extraordinary, can you please do something about all this shit?)

Anyway, if all else fails, just remember this: no matter how much things might suck, nothing is forever.  That’s what I tell myself, anyway.  Until next time!

Backlog review: Doki Doki Literature Club! (PC)

I tried to write a concise review of this game, but I found it impossible to discuss all its aspects I wanted to hit upon without setting out the proper context, so I dumped that review in the bin and started over.  This second take is by far the longest review I’ve ever written.  How long is that?  So long that this review has a preface.  I promise there’s a point to all of it, though.  

Well, I guess you can be the judge of that.

***

Doki Doki Literature Club! is a free English-language visual novel for PC, one that’s been sitting on my hard drive for quite a while now.  I kept telling myself I’d take it on eventually, and so I did over an evening after work, and well into the night.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a meaningful review of this game without getting into spoilers, but I don’t think I can. What I can say without spoiling the game (because the game itself gives the player a warning about this upon running for the first time) is that while Doki Doki Literature Club! looks like your usual cutesy dating sim VN, it deals with some very heavy subjects.  The cheerful theme and the colorful opening screen featuring the protagonist’s schoolmates wearing the world’s shortiest skirts* don’t tell the whole story behind this game.

Just your average visual novel, nothing to see here.

When I first checked it out, I didn’t think much of that fact.  I played a few VNs years ago like Yume Miru Kusuri that touched on similar issues.  But Doki Doki is different.  When the protagonist is pressured into joining his high school’s literature club by his ditzy childhood friend Sayori and meets her clubmates – the painfully reserved Yuri, the ultra-tsundere Natsuki, and the charismatic club president Monika – you might expect the usual choose-your-own-adventure style quest to win one of these girls’ hearts, but that’s not quite what you’ll get.

Massive honking spoilers regarding the game’s plot, characters, and endings follow under the below screenshot. If you haven’t played the game yet and don’t want to read any further, the short, spoiler-free version of my review ends with this: if you’re okay dealing with talk about depression, anxiety, and related issues, and you don’t mind some disturbing images, you should absolutely play Doki Doki Literature Club!  I promise it’s not just another dating sim.  Also, it’s free to download.  Also, it’s not an h-game, so no worries if you’re creeped out by those kinds of scenes, but it’s still not really for kids.

I know how it looks, but I promise it’s not like that.

I didn’t think a PC game could throw me for a loop again after I finished OneShot.  I already had some idea of the reputation Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC from now on, because I’m not planning to wear out my ctrl and v keys today) has as a horror game hidden in the shell of a generic dating sim, so I thought I was ready for anything.  But this game exceeded my expectations in that regard.  The way the game starts contrasts so greatly with where the game arrives at the end of the first playthrough that the effect has to be astounding if you weren’t expecting a twist at all.

So what makes DDLC so special?  If you’ve read this far, you’ve either played it already or don’t care about getting spoiled on it, so I’ll spill it here.  DDLC does indeed start out like your average dating sim visual novel set in a Japanese high school.  The player character is an average student who likes anime and video games, and every other character in the game is a cute girl who’s ready to fall madly in love with him despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about him.  The only thing that seems to be different about DDLC at first is the poetry minigame that separates each in-game day in which you have to go home and pick twenty words to dump into a poem to share with the club the next day.  Each of your three romantic targets (the short pink-haired Natsuki, the tall dark mysterious Yuri, and the chirpy, spaced-out Sayori – notice Monika isn’t an option; stick a pin in that fact because it’s important) has certain words she likes according to her personality, and your word choice determines which of them you get closer to.  Upon returning to the clubroom the next day, you share your poem with each of your clubmates, who usually shares her own poem in turn.

Wait, why is suicide an option?

Developer Team Salvato could have just left it at that, creating a nice little free romance VN for people to download on Steam and itch.io.  The characters are cute, the art is well done, and the writing is pretty good for your standard dating sim, especially for a free one.  Hell, the writer had to actually compose several poems written by each girl that fit her personality, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.  The only poem I’ve ever written was an obscene scrawl about being drunk and broke and horny that’s only fit for publication on the wall of a bathroom stall.

But no.  Instead of building a normal dating sim on this solid base, the creators chose to take that tried and true format apart and reassemble it into a game about crippling anxiety, suicidal depression, emotional abuse, and existential angst.  But did they pull it off?

I hope that’s not foreshadowing.

It’s not easy to write about the above-listed subjects in a realistic and tasteful way.  It’s even more difficult to write a piece of meta-fiction that weaves all these themes together.  Despite the initial cheery atmosphere of the literature club, each of these girls has some serious emotional baggage she’s dealing with.  Natsuki is raised by a single father who largely neglects her.  Yuri suffers from severe social anxiety to the point that she can barely hold a conversation if it’s not about literature, and it’s implied that she cuts herself.  Sayori hides a case of chronic depression behind an outwardly sunny disposition.  And Monika – well, Monika’s issue isn’t obvious at first, but it’s the one that causes the game to completely run off the rails in the end.

In a normal dating sim VN, the player, represented by the protagonist, pursues the girl he likes the best.  If all goes well (meaning he makes the right decisions when presented with branching dialogue and action paths) he’ll typically get a few increasingly intimate scenes with the girl and end up confessing his love to her or vice versa.  A nice, clean romance.  DDLC makes the player think that’s the path he’s headed down, and then it closes that path off completely, forcing him to take a detour into mind-bending uncanny valley horror land.  This shift in tone is driven partly by the psychological issues the other characters in the game are dealing with, in particular Sayori’s depression.

I don’t have a funny caption for this screenshot.

As the first act of the game goes on, Sayori starts to withdraw from the club’s activities to the point that even the dense as hell protagonist notices there’s something going on with her.  One day after telling him that she’s got depression, Sayori catches the protagonist in an awkward romantic-looking situation with either Yuri or Natsuki, then once she’s alone with him, she confesses her love to him as she breaks down sobbing.  You have the choice of either returning her love or calling her “your dearest friend” (that has to hurt) but either way, Sayori ends up hanging herself the next morning in her room.  When the protagonist stumbles upon her corpse hanging from the ceiling after checking in on her, he starts to lose his mind, a black screen with the word “END” pops up and the player is kicked back to the main menu, where Sayori seems to have been completely written over.

This… this isn’t right, is it?

The natural thing to do in a situation like this is reload your last save.  But guess what?  The game has god damn deleted all your saves.  All you can do at this point is click on the gibberish option at the top of the menu, which starts a new game, only with Sayori curiously absent.  This time around, Monika herself invites the protagonist to join her literature club, and you join Yuri and Natsuki as its newest member.  Sayori isn’t even mentioned, as if she’s been erased from existence.

This second act of DDLC is where things get really weird and broken.  Yuri and Natsuki start to suffer from bizarre graphical glitches, and their mutual rivalry that was on display in the first playthrough heats up to the point of vicious insults and R-rated name-calling.  Monika seems to be the only level-headed member of the club this this time around.  You might expect that she’s taken Sayori’s place as an option for romantic pursuit, but no, she’s still just a side character.  However, Monika starts to do some weird things too, dropping subtle hints that she somehow knows exactly what’s going on.

Monika, you’re in front of the dialogue box.  Why are you in front of the dialogue box.

The player still ostensibly has the option of romancing Yuri or Natsuki, but this time Yuri reveals her true form as a yandere who is obsessed with the protagonist, using her newly discovered yandere powers to drag him away from Natsuki and Monika at every opportunity.  And if you know anything about the yandere archetype, you know that you do not want to be the target of a yandere’s affections.

Please don’t.

However, Monika isn’t having it.  As Yuri and Natsuki fight over the protagonist, Monika tries pulling rank on them to get you to spend the weekend with her to work on the big festival project the club was planning both in this and the first act.  Yuri’s yandere powers overcome Monika’s efforts once again, but not for long – after confessing her love for the protagonist, Yuri inexplicably pulls out a kitchen knife and stabs herself in the heart.  The player is then stuck in the classroom all weekend with Yuri’s corpse, the passage of time marked by the sun setting and rising through the windows.  For some reason, the protagonist doesn’t get a chance to respond to any of this.  You’re still viewing the action through his eyes, but he’s now effectively absent for some reason.

On Monday morning, Natsuki and Monika return to school.  Natsuki acts like anyone else would upon seeing the two day-old corpse of her classmate – she vomits and runs out of the classroom in tears.  Monika, however, just laughs and apologizes to you for having to spend a boring weekend at school thanks to the “broken script”.  She then promises to fix the problem, opens a console at the corner of the screen, and deletes two files named yuri.chr and natsuki.chr.  She then decides to go all the way and deletes the rest of the world outside of the classroom.

The end?

At this point, it’s obvious what’s going on.  Monika is a self-aware game character – she’s known since the beginning of the game that she exists inside a dating sim and that nothing around her is real.  That even includes the protagonist, who is now definitely no longer around, or at least not around enough to say or think anything.  Monika is now talking directly to you, the player.  She confesses that she was the one screwing with the game.  She figured out how to alter the game files to aggravate Natsuki’s and Yuri’s character quirks in an attempt to make them more unlikable.  She even manipulated Sayori into killing herself when she saw her getting too close to the protagonist, and hence to the player.  Monika then expresses her love for you, the player, on the other side of the screen, and says that the two of you are now together forever.  Once again, it’s pointless to open the load menu – all the saves have been deleted, and restarting the game just brings up Monika again, who asks you why everything just went dark for a minute (echoes of OneShot there, though in a very different context.)

This might seem like the end of the game, but the astute player will likely be wondering what happens if Monika’s character file is deleted as well.  That’s the key to getting to the actual ending of the game, in which Monika’s file is destroyed but she still manages to exist long enough to feel bad for what she’s done and to restore the game and all its characters except for her.  This third act (or fourth act, if you want to count Monika’s void as the third act) is very short – basically a lead-in to the ending.  DDLC will end in one of two ways depending upon whether you managed to see every special event in the game before it throws you into the “broken” second act of the game.  In both cases, Sayori has taken Monika’s place as club president, and in the best ending she thanks you, the player, for being there for all the girls when they needed you most before ending the game – this time for good.

Turns out the whole horrific awareness of yourself as a game character thing is inherited by whoever becomes the club president. Sorry, Sayori.

I like the concept of DDLC.  I’m not sure anyone’s created a fake-out dating sim turned horror game before this one, or at least one that’s been written in or translated into English.  There have been visual novels that use the player’s perspective as a plot point to throw the player for a loop, but I haven’t played one that involves the player himself as a character quite like DDLC does.

More importantly, the creators put together DDLC in a clever way, dropping hints in the first act that something isn’t quite right and building upon that feeling in the second act, culminating in Monika’s deletion of the rest of the game world.  Monika has a few strange lines of dialogue in the first act that break the fourth wall (at one point, for example, she says that a joke Natsuki made based on a Japanese language pun using Monika’s name** “doesn’t work in translation”, then everyone looks puzzled for a second before the dialogue continues.) Monika’s poems also make references to her self-awareness as a game character, though these are naturally a lot more obvious during a second playthrough.  In fact, upon a second playthrough you’ll probably notice a lot of weird things that you passed over the first time around, like the fact that the protagonist doesn’t respond to Monika’s “Writing Tip of the Day” segment at the end of each day, nor to any of the weird fourth-wall breaking stuff going on in either the first or the second acts.  And the fact that in every one of her portraits, Monika is the only character who is always looking directly at the player.  This is the sort of thing that you just don’t notice when you’re playing a VN, and the game uses that fact to set the player up for the big twist at the end of the second act.

See, this is an extra-meta-joke because saving your game in DDLC is mostly pointless.

The second act does contain a few jumpscare-esque moments, but they’re not done in the stupid kind of way you might expect.  The best one involves Yuri giving you her third poem, which is a page full of gibberish covered in bloodstains and also a yellow stain that’s probably exactly what you think it is.  When you stop reading the poem, Yuri is standing six inches from the protagonist’s face looking at him in crazy-eyes mode (not the crazy eyes in the screenshot halfway up, but extra-crazy eyes) asking him what he thinks of it.  I’m not posting a screenshot of that because it is actually pretty god damn disturbing and I do not want to look at it again.  The writer and artist both make effective use of that uncanny horror feeling in the second act, especially with Yuri’s increasingly scary yandere side coming out.

There’s only one real fault I can find with DDLC.  The meta-fiction derailment of the story in the second act is clever and surprising, but it also prevents the game from more seriously addressing the emotional problems that the characters face.  I can imagine an alternate version of DDLC in which the protagonist has to try to romance one of his clubmates while considering not only her feelings but also the feelings of the other girls in the game.  DDLC starts down that path in the first act but goes in a different direction after Sayori’s suicide.  That’s not a bad thing in itself, but I feel like there was a missed opportunity here.  On the other hand, the meta-fiction element of the game is a big part of what makes it special, so I can’t complain too much about the path the creators decided to take.  At the very least, Monika’s existential crisis freakout gets solved in the end, though not in an entirely happy way.

Or you can hang out with Monika in the void forever. That’s not a bad option either.

And that’s all I have to say about Doki Doki Literature Club!  As far as plot, characters, crazy meta-fiction elements and attention to detail go, DDLC is extremely impressive, especially for a free visual novel.  You just don’t expect this kind of quality from a free VN you can download off of Steam or itch.io.  I certainly didn’t, which is probably part of why it took me so long to play this game.  It’s a real achievement, and I hope the developer stays in the business.  Maybe they can follow DDLC up with a reverse-twist by creating a VN that everyone expects to be bizarre and meta but that ends up being a completely normal dating sim.  Now that would be interesting. 𒀭

* This is a Futurama reference, which means that I’m not being perverted by pointing out the shortness of the characters’ skirts.  That’s how that works, right?

** Translator’s note: ika means squid.

Why write?

It’s been about eight or nine months, so it’s time for another one of these complaint-ridden introspective posts, isn’t it?  This time, I’m asking myself – and you, if you’re a writer as well – the question in the title.  Seemingly a simple question, but it’s one that all writers have to ask themselves.  Why write?  What am I really doing here?  I don’t make any money off of this blog.  I don’t have any plans to use this site as a springboard to write for outside outlets, either; my day job keeps me busy enough, and the people I know who make their living writing have a rough time of it.  No, I’m happy to keep writing a hobby instead of a job, though I’m still not averse to taking a freelance job here and there when I have the time.  I’m also happy to stay primarily a W-2 employee, because doing taxes is hell on freelancers in the US.

I’ve been posting on a regular basis (at least by my standards) since the end of last year, when I ended my months-long on-and-off hiatus.  Since picking up the pen again and committing to it, my life’s gotten more tolerable, and I think there are two reasons for that.  The first that occurred to me was that I just like writing about subjects that interest me, and video/PC games and music have been my favorite forms of entertainment since I was a kid, so it seemed natural to write about them.

The other reason I continue writing here is that it’s the best way I’ve found to cope with my depression.  I don’t feel like I have any control over my life, and I hate most every aspect of it.  I used to drink to try to cope with those feelings – I drank way too much, in fact.  Since I thought I didn’t care about living, it seemed only natural to drink until I went numb for a while.  Sometimes literally numb, but more often figuratively. I probably don’t have to mention that since alcohol is a depressant, it can deepen depressive episodes and promote certain thoughts that might crop up during them.

Sure, whatever you say

I’ve basically quit doing that, and I’m trying to stay on course. It’s hard not to fall back into old habits when that high wave of depression hits, and it always does hit without exception. But that’s where writing comes in. My writing projects, as piddly as they are, give me at least one goal in life to pursue that I actually care about. And since there’s no ultimate goal to writing, no end destination, these projects will hopefully continue until my life ends, whenever that happens.  It helps that the subjects I’ve chosen to write about also provide an escape from the shitness of everyday life.

I hope this post doesn’t make it seem like I’m trying to get any sympathy.  That’s not useful to anyone, and in any case, I’ve always just tried to be sincere on this blog.  Seems pointless not to be, since I can’t get away with true sincerity out in the real world.  I also know well enough that since I’m not currently starving to death or living under a dictator, I have it better than a whole lot of people.  Having that knowledge doesn’t help with depression, though, as much as it seems like it should (and don’t use this line on someone who’s dealing with it as a way to try to give them perspective – it doesn’t work.)

For some reason, I always get this way around the holidays.  Ramadan starts on Monday, and even though it’s not a big deal where I live, it’s a big deal in my family.  A whole month of fasting and repentance.  I know a lot of people think it’s just an ancient custom not worth bothering with anymore, but I do think there’s value to the fast.  Self-denial of that kind puts me in a weird mindset – not weird in a bad way, either; it’s the kind of mindset that’s best for writing.  Thankfully, the fast doesn’t include games, so I’ll still be playing them this month as well.  That and having a feast at the end, because I’ll sure as hell feel like it by then.

I’ll still have a beer sometimes, I’m not going all cold turkey or anything.  Also hope Irina doesn’t think I’m trying to bite her style here, putting related anime stills in my post

Well shit, that was another rambling bunch of nonsense.  My next post will make more sense and actually be about something.  In the meantime, if you feel like it, I’d like to hear about your own motivations.  What drives you to write?

Megami Tensei #1: You’re not the hero of this story

Sometimes I won’t write anything for a week or two, and then in a few hours a few thousand words will spill out of my brain. This was one of those days, and the result is the start of a series on prominent themes in the Megami Tensei series of games and how I think they relate to life in general. I know, it’s a huge surprise that I’m writing about Megami Tensei. I only bring the god damn series up every other post I make. Anyway, I hope this mind dump makes sense to at least one person. It contains a few very general spoilers for Persona 5 and a lot of very specific story and ending spoilers for the original Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.

It’s almost a cliche to say that we all like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. I recently had to attend a few events at my state bar association, where you occasionally get to hear some puffed-up language about the nobility of the profession of law. Law is a serious and complex profession, no matter what field you’re working in, and we are subject to real ethical standards (a fact that’s shocking to a lot of non-lawyers.) Perhaps as a result of this, there’s a tendency, especially among law students who don’t know any better, to equate being a lawyer with something like being a knight. We do take an oath upon being sworn in, and some aspects of discovery and trial could be compared to the dance of a duel between two champions. Otherwise, the reality of the practice is quite a bit dirtier and more mundane than that. (At least practicing law doesn’t usually result in someone getting axed in the skull.  But I’m still never returning to the endless hell that is the world of litigation.)

This kind of romanticism affects many more areas of life, public and private, professional and personal. And, of course, we see it in video and PC games. Many of us, myself included, play games to escape from reality, so it’s only natural that we want to play the role of the hero. There’s a reason Joker from Persona 5 is such a popular character that he made it into Smash, and it’s not because of his amazing dialogue. His being a silent protagonist helps, in fact, because the silence makes it easier to pour own your personality into that empty vessel, a point that a lot of people who complain about the Persona games’ silent protagonists seem to either miss or ignore.

And who wouldn’t want to play one of the heroes in Persona 5? Joker and his Persona are references to the fictional suave gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and his Phantom Thieves as a whole are a callback to probably fictional romantic bandits like Robin Hood and his merry men of Sherwood Forest, only in a modern urban setting. Yes, Akira in the real world got a raw deal as a wrongfully convicted felon undergoing probation, but Joker in the world of shadows is a dashing hero. That’s not to mention the fact that even in the real world, Akira can romance almost all of the women around him.* Persona 5 does try to address serious social problems like official abuse of power, but in the end I see it more as an escapist fantasy than a commentary on reality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. God knows I need my escapist fantasy.

Yeah, this is 100% fantasy…

You can’t live in the escapist fantasy forever, though. Eventually, reality will catch up with you. There’s another game in the Megami Tensei series that emphasizes this point, and it’s the infamously difficult dungeon-crawler RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.**

In most of the endings of mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, the silent protagonist is not really the hero of his own story. He typically ends up assisting the head of one of the extremist factions build its own paradise based either upon the principles of the Law alignment or the Chaos alignment. The word paradise should really be in quotes, however. A Law ending usually leads to the direct domination of human society by God, complete with a nice “cleansing” to get rid of the unworthy, which is most of us, while a Chaos ending usually leads to the destruction of human society by a horde of demons and the violent murder of the weak, which once again happens to be most of us. The same is true of Strange Journey, in which you play another silent protagonist the fans have dubbed “Space Marine”, a member of an international strike/research force sent into a growing mass of dark energy covering most of Antarctica. Turns out said mass is swarming with demons (what a surprise!) which has gotten so bad that Mastema, a mysterious black-winged angel, is also there fighting the demons under the direction of God himself (or so he claims, anyway.)

Never trust an angel in an SMT game.

Most of these mainline SMT games also have characters who represent the Chaos alignment and the belief in absolute liberty, following the lead of Lucifer, and a character who represents the Law alignment and submits body and soul to whatever avatar God happens to be using at the moment (often, but not always, the Old Testament YHVH, complete with his jealousy and smiting and weird mood swings.) And behold, two of your fellow crew members, Jimenez and Zelenin, take these roles and undergo a demonic and an angelic transformation respectively (equally monstrous transformations in the context of the Megaten universe, because both end up completely losing their humanity as a result.) Out of the three available ending paths, two involve joining your considerable power with Jimenez or Zelenin and bringing about either a new Earth ruled over by massive demonic worms that have apparently devoured most of humanity or a new Earth in which part of humanity has technically survived, but in a brainwashed state in which all people everywhere are constantly singing in praise of the Lord forever while standing on top of giant gray windowless buildings.

Yeah, I don’t… I don’t know about this.

Watching these endings probably won’t make you feel like much of a hero for helping to bring them about.*** They might even make you angry. This is what I was fighting for? you might think to yourself. Generally speaking, the closest you can get to a “heroic” ending in a mainline SMT game is by taking the Neutral path, which rejects both God and Lucifer in favor of humanity’s control over its own destiny. Perhaps for this reason, both getting onto and completing the Neutral path is usually ridiculously difficult. Maybe that’s the price you have to pay for opposing the wills of gods and renegade angels.

It’s not too hard to find analogues to God and Lucifer in humanity itself, either. Replace all of Earth with a single country, God with an oppressive tyrant ruling over it and Lucifer with a violent revolutionary leader trying to oust him and you’ve got the basic plot of an SMT game, and one that occurs in the real world all the time. The only real difference between the two scenarios is that while the victorious revolutionary leader often transforms into the new oppressive tyrant, the Lucifer of Megami Tensei has no desire to rule over humanity because that would run against his belief in absolute freedom. But even in the Chaos ending, the soil is ripe for the growth of a new absolute ruler who can win power through strength and charisma, creating a constant cycle of lawful tyrants and chaotic revolutionaries that overthrow them. Even the Neutral ending always feels more like a temporary fix than a permanent one – the powers representing the extreme alignments might go away for a while, but they never truly die. God and Lucifer always return in some form to submit humanity to more suffering. Not exactly the fun “hero slays the dragon and saves the princess” kind of story, and certainly not satisfying if you’re looking for a happy ending.

You’d think if Lucifer took the trouble to genderbend that he’d also try to come up with a less lazy fake name than this.

Maybe that’s just the point – there are ups and downs in life, but there is no ultimate happy ending. There may not even be an ending at all. The Abrahamic tradition, the one I’m most familiar with by far, views time in a straight line starting with with creation and the Garden of Eden and ending with the apocalypse and Judgment Day. But in other traditions, time is viewed not as a line but as a circle. It’s not evident in Strange Journey, but other mainline SMT games adopt this cyclical view of time. It’s not that heroes can’t be born in that cycle – heroes simply can’t break the cycle. Balance between Law and Chaos is never achieved permanently, and the resultant suffering continues forever because of it.

My own country is going through a political upheaval right now. Our head of state and government is contained in one person, and that person is definitely incompetent and possibly traitorous. We Americans like to think we’ve somehow earned stability and prosperity, and even that God himself guarantees said stability and prosperity. When I was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, “God bless America” was a mandatory line in every politician’s speech, whether Democrat or Republican, almost as if by repeating this line over and over we could keep God’s blessings forever.

You don’t hear that line so much anymore. My own millennial generation is less traditionally religious than past generations, but there might be more to it than changing demographics. I think there’s a sense now that we could lose everything we have, and perhaps that God, if he even exists, doesn’t care. Perhaps he doesn’t even care if all humanity burns itself out because of our inability to handle the technology we’re developing. If that’s our ultimate fate, there isn’t a hero who can permanently prevent it. That’s the message I take from Strange Journey. It’s a depressing message, but an honest one.

Or maybe I’m just a depressive pessimist.  Yeah, that’s probably it. 𒀭

 

* I guess this point isn’t applicable to gay men or straight women. I’m not sure how well lesbian players can put themselves in Akira’s place either, him being a man and all. People have suggested bringing the female MC option back to a Persona game after P3P’s FeMC, or the possibility of at least one homosexual relationship (which did exist in implied form in Persona 2: Innocent Sin, but nobody seems to remember that game exists.) However, that’s a subject for a different post (and for countless, endless forum/imageboard/Twitter fights.)

** I technically haven’t finished this game, but I’ve gotten all the way to the absolute final Neutral route boss.  Yes, I’m pretty lousy.  I swear to God (or YHVH or whoever) I’ll complete it one day, just out of spite.  I made it all the way through Horologium, for fuck’s sake.

*** Depending upon your religious upbringing and how well it stuck, the Law ending in Strange Journey might seem like a good one to you. I don’t think Atlus intended for it to seem like a good ending but rather to be a mirror image of the Chaos ending. But if you think you’d enjoy singing hymns on top of a giant building for all eternity, more power to you. Just don’t make me join in. Well, I’d certainly be one of the unclean humans who gets banished to the outer darkness anyway, so I guess it’s a moot point.

I’m still not dead

This is a sort of placeholder post, in case anyone cares to know what’s been going on with me – I’ve been making the final sprint through law school, and today is quite literally the last day of class (hopefully for the rest of my life.)  Naturally, I paid about 20% attention in my classes today.  Once I bust through the exams next month, it’s bar preparation, then the bar exam, then a lifetime of working.  As a lawyer.

Well, my life is what it is, but I’ll be back writing here on a semi-regular basis after exams.  In the meantime, have a nice piece of official art from the amazing Dreamcast JRPG Skies of Arcadia:

171-Skies_of_Arcadia-1

I’d rather be an air pirate than a lawyer, but sadly that career path is not open to me.

I’m spending my downtime watching JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, so my next post might have something to do with that.  It’s a fabulously insane show.  And the ending credits song is Roundabout by Yes, one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, which is enough to make me want to watch the entire series.

Anyway, reader, see you again soon.

Anime for people who hate anime: Welcome to the NHK!

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I’ve consumed plenty of books, games, and shows that I’ve enjoyed. But only a few have really hit a nerve with me. Welcome to the NHK!, a novel-turned-anime series aired several years ago, is one of those few.

NHK is not, as I first thought, about a young journalist starting a new job at Japan’s biggest national news network. It is instead the story of a hikkikomori – roughly speaking a jobless, asocial shut-in. Tatsuhiro Satou is 22 years old and a college dropout. We soon learn the reason he left school. A powerful scene depicts Satou walking to college from his home, all the while imagining the thoughts of people he passes on the street: “Disgusting”, “what a loser”. Of course, these thoughts are purely in Satou’s head, but the anxiety they produce drive him to shut himself into his tiny apartment until he’s kicked out of school for non-attendance.

NHK satou

The first episode of NHK gives us a depressing look into Satou’s daily life. He sits inside all day, sometimes watching TV, eating and drinking, but mostly sleeping (16 hours a day, as Satou himself narrates.) He receives no visits from friends and effectively has no life outside his apartment. He ventures outside only to buy food and other necessities and to visit a nearby park at night, when no one else is around. Without a job, Satou relies on his parents for support, but conversations with his mother suggest that source of support is about to run dry. Satou knows very well that his life is going nowhere, but he feels powerless to stop his downhill slide. On the contrary, in the course of his isolation, Satou has started to imagine a nationwide conspiracy keeping him in his miserable state, blaming his problems on the Japan Hikkikomori Society (or NHK in Japanese. Hence the title of the series.)

One day, someone comes to his door. This surprise visitor is a sort of door-to-door religious missionary lady. Satou isn’t interested and tells her to go away (while simultaneously freaking out a bit at having to talk to another human being.) However, as she leaves, Satou notices the young woman helping her.

nhk_ni_youkoso-2118

Satou tries to put her out of his mind, but the very same young woman ends up dropping by later on to drop a message into his door’s mailbox asking him to meet with her at his regular park haunt that night. Satou has no idea what this girl might want with a shut-in loser like him, but he finally decides to go to the park after fighting with himself over it. As it turns out, this girl, Misaki, has a plan to “cure” Satou of his hikkikomori-ness and get him out into the world.

Satou reacts to this surprise pronouncement from this girl he barely knows in the same way most people would: “Who the hell is this person?” Regardless, Satou agrees to Misaki’s “program” and even signs a written contract to that effect.

Misaki and Satou.  The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

Misaki and Satou. The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

As the series proceeds, we watch Satou’s character change in serious and sometimes unpredictable ways. Satou’s progress isn’t always forward, either: he meets with some serious setbacks as well, with funny but also depressing results. He’s introduced to MMOs and spends hundreds of hours addicted to a game that is Final Fantasy XI but that the show can’t call that for legal reasons. He’s unwittingly drawn into a suicide pact and into a pyramid scheme, both by different former female classmates. He wastes a week of his life downloading hentai to the point that his hard drive is full. A lot of this action is moved along by Kaoru Yamazaki, Satou’s next-door college freshman neighbor and other former classmate, who fits the nerd stereotype perfectly (more specifically the otaku anime-loving nerd one.)

NHK manages to both be genuinely funny and emotionally affecting. Satou, Misaki, Yamazaki, and the other few secondary characters that show up are interesting and three-dimensional, and this helps the viewer care about them. Despite the wacky situations the characters sometimes find themselves in, nothing in the show really comes across as unnatural or forced. One of the best scenes in the show depicts Satou spying on Yamazaki’s meeting with one of his female classmates in the hall at their college. He’d formerly claimed to Satou that this classmate was his girlfriend, but after tailing Yamazaki to school, Satou discovers that Yamazaki was bending the truth: she’s no more than a casual acquaintance. Yamazaki continues to insist she’s his girlfriend, though not in a creepy or obsessive way – the viewer gets the impression that Yamazaki has a thing for this girl but simply can’t admit to himself that she’s not interested in his nerdy self. It’s funny and pathetic, and it’s also a feeling that I’m willing to bet you can relate to.

If don't you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that's a good thing.

If don’t you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that’s a good thing.

Despite a lot of its otaku trappings (trips to Akihabara to buy figures, a running plotline about Satou and Yamazaki creating a dating sim, Yamazaki’s pining after “2D girls”, etc.) NHK can also appeal to people living outside that weird circle of nerds (of which I’m sort of a part myself.) The reason NHK spoke to me was its theme of social anxiety and the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. I was never quite as bad as Satou – I never physically shut myself into my room or my apartment – but I did mentally and emotionally shut myself in, shoving away potential friends. Those feelings of despair and worthlessness that drive Satou at the beginning of NHK to sit inside every day and dog him throughout the show are all too real for countless people around the world. I’m not even sure they totally go away. Even now, as a more or less normal person (at least as far as public appearances are concerned) those poisonous thoughts nag at me occasionally. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never been in such a situation – as if you just missed out on some vital information on how to live life that everyone else in the world seems to have been born with. It’s a lonely, painful experience, and NHK addresses it in a meaningful way.

So that’s Welcome to the NHK! It’s a genuinely good series that I believe has appeal for viewers both in and outside of the “typical” anime-watching crowd. I should also note that NHK is based on a novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, a writer who I think must have experienced some of Satou’s travails, the story tells them in such a realistic way. I haven’t read the novel or the following manga series, but I understand they’re quite different from the anime in terms of where their stories lead.

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

What a way to start the new year. To everyone, but especially to those wrestling with social anxiety, insecurity, a lack of purpose, and all those inner demons that drive you to seek solitude, I wish you a happy one. Remember that, for better or worse, the future is unpredictable. Life is never worth giving up on, even though it might seem like there’s no light at all at the end of the tunnel – hell, I still feel that way sometimes. Satou might be a fictional character, but his story is a real one, and his final “recovery”, even though it’s not quite complete, is a part of that story too.