Eight years on, a few thoughts

Hey, it’s time for another deeply personal post, so if you only want to read about games/anime/music/etc. feel free to skip this one. I won’t be offended. Hell, I won’t even know, really, so it doesn’t make a difference. However, there are a few thoughts I’ve had recently about writing, and specifically about my writing here, and these tie in with the subjects I write about and with my life as a whole. So it is relevant, but still, a warning: I complain a whole lot this time, so if you don’t want to read that, please wait for my next post. Also some stuff about depression and other problems probably. But it doesn’t have such a bad ending, I promise.

Still have to admit that his image is relevant to most of my waking hours, and even to some of the sleeping ones.

This month marks eight years I’ve had this site. When I started it in 2013, I was a different person in many ways. At the time, I was just starting my final degree program, whereas now I’m a working and licensed professional. I also didn’t have much of the responsibility — or sense of responsibility — that I feel now.

Without getting into too many specifics about my life, I can’t live the way I’d prefer for reasons that have to do with family and culture.* This has caused me a lot of stress over the last few years, stress that I haven’t even been able to express — at least not as myself, in my offline life. When I hear people talking about living for yourself, doing what’s best for you, I’m reminded that I can’t do that, and moreover that a lot of people don’t understand why I can’t do that, why I feel so constrained.

This is partly a result of being brought up in (or caught between, maybe) two cultures with very different concepts about tradition and family. I’m very much an American culturally, but the traditional culture of one side of my family has also had a massive impact on me, and one that I can’t avoid. This is partly what constrains me. If I were a more naturally generous and selfless person, I probably wouldn’t feel so constrained, but I have no illusions about myself. I’m actually selfish in the sense that I really want to live the way I like, but since I can’t, I pretend to be a better person than I am. Partly in an effort to actually be that better person, maybe. I don’t know if that’s working, but I still feel bitter about it sometimes.

I’m sorry to be so vague here, but I hope my feelings come across at least. This site is one of the only ways I have to express myself in the way I’d like. And that’s where all the bullshit I write about games and anime and music comes in. I have a few offline friends who share my weeb interests, but most of them don’t. The same is true of my professional colleagues. There are certainly other lawyers out there somewhere with my interests, but aside from one who I’ve more or less lost contact with (though the contact’s not broken at least; it’s really a matter of physical distance) I can’t get into these subjects with them.

That’s not unique to law, certainly — I get the impression that the same is true of almost any professional/corporate American setting. At least when fucking Game of Thrones was running I could relate to people about that, even when it really went bad. By contrast, Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro and similar stuff I write about here obviously doesn’t work as around the water cooler talk, even if it is popular in the fringe circles I and other writers get into here on WordPress.*

And I won’t even get into visual novels. At least not some of them.

This is doubly, triply true of family. Maybe it’s a cliché to say so, but they really wouldn’t understand my interests if they knew about them. I don’t think I’m jumping to conclusions here, either — the few times I’ve tested the waters in that sense, I’ve gotten burned, so I have good reason to believe as I do.

This brings me to the main point. A few years ago, I asked myself why I was keeping up a blog. When I asked myself that question, I had been pushed out of my last job, which I was naturally pretty distressed about. Technically I’d quit to save face, but I have to be honest about it — the axe was about to fall on my neck, and I knew it. And money was an issue for me as it is for almost everyone on Earth.

In fact, leaving that job and ending the daily misery associated with it was one of the best things that’s happened in my life to this point, but at the time, I had no idea where or how I’d end up. But thankfully, I’m in a much better place now. My health and mentality aren’t perfect, but certainly better than they were before, thanks in part to my new work situation over the last few years and to certain lifestyle changes I’ve made. I’ve also become resigned to some unavoidable constraints on my personal life — agonizing over them is useless, and as depressing as it might sound, giving up has helped me come to terms with that. Hope can be a good thing, but a pointless and worthless hope can eat at you and drive you insane — this is my feeling about it, anyway.

Because of all this, I’ve found that I can’t stop writing here. At the end of June, I took what I meant to be a hiatus to deal with certain matters that were causing me issues, and I’m still dealing with them, but I’ve found that writing actually helps keep me balanced. Ever since returning to writing on a regular basis here a few years ago, I haven’t been able to stop or slow down very much. It might have to do with my obsessive-compulsive personality — I don’t use that term lightly, because I do have some actual issues with OCD, though thankfully they’re minor and manageable. So maybe writing here is a kind of obsession as well.

I’m not qualified to say anything at all about psychology, so that might be total bullshit. But if it’s true, I don’t mind having this obsession. I enjoy writing here, even or maybe especially through harder-than-usual times, and so unless I happen to just fall over one day (a real possibility given the old “fast living” habits that I’ve gotten away from, but I don’t worry about that anymore) I’ll keep going here.

Semi-related: Chiri from SZS is a pretty good example of one of the ways OCD can play out.

Maybe this long rambling load of garbage I just wrote was completely unnecessary to express this feeling, but I have a lot I’m carrying around right now, and I felt I had to unload a bit. I’m well aware that I don’t have it so bad, especially compared to at least 95% of the rest of humanity, so I don’t want to say I’ve gone through hardships — I have plenty of family who have gone through truly serious hardships, and I know friends who have been through more than I have besides. But it’s all relative, and it’s hard to keep that kind of perspective when you’re wondering about the point of your life in itself. I hope I’ve at least gotten enough perspective to resolve that sort of existential crisis stuff, at least enough that I can go on living more or less productively.

And if you’ve stuck around for all my bullshit, dear reader, I want to thank you as well for helping me with that. I am really grateful for it. Next time, I’ll post something at least marginally less self-indulgent than this post was. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be leaning towards the anime reviews since I’ve been watching so much of it lately (and a reminder to check out Asobi Asobase! Weird in a good way.) But I won’t be neglecting games either — I just happen to be stuck in the middle of a few massive ones at the moment. There are still those itch.io indie games to get through, and some of them are pretty interesting, so I’ll be taking those on in the meantime as well. Along with one game in particular that’s extremely overdue for a review. Until then!

 

* Except to note that it has nothing to do with having a kid or a wife or anything. If that were the case, I’d dive into all that headfirst without complaint.

** Not that I really expect it to make for water cooler talk. Still, this is an issue that someone could write a book about. Maybe someone already has. The fact that I’m expected to give a fuck about pro and college football and the NBA, yet my fringe interests are just that: fringe. I know “nerd culture” is supposedly mainstream now, but it feels like only a narrow band of works are actually included in that. Namely the ones that are put out by major studios and publishers.

But I don’t want to have “nerd rage” here or whatever people who complain about nerds complaining about things call it. This is a subject for a different post, really, and one that I’ve written before and might write again later. I’m nothing if not repetitive.

Summer cleaning game review special #6: Baba Is You

Yes! Summer is back, the worst of all the seasons, and even worse this year because of the heat wave we’re going through. So I thought I’d drag this post series back out as well. It’s especially relevant since just like last summer, I’ve picked up a new massive batch of over a thousand games from itch.io in a bundle, so now I have — well, a lot. There’s some overlap between the two, so I’m not sure how many are in both together, but certainly more than I can ever play in my life.

In this resurrected post series, I’ll again be covering smaller games that I don’t have as much to say about as I would in a typical review. I can use the break from the massive epics I’m working through anyway. Atelier really took it out of me last spring, and I need to gather my energy again.

So why not start with a game everyone’s already heard of? As usual, I’m late to the party, but for those in the same situation, here’s the puzzle game Baba Is You.

This game was released in 2019, when I first started hearing a lot about it but for whatever reason never bothered checking it out. But I should have, because it’s pretty damn close to the perfect sort of puzzle game: easy to learn but hard to master, and one that either lets you or forces you (depending on your mindset) to use unorthodox solutions. The object of each stage in Baba Is You is to reach the goal, which is initially marked by a flag, and your player character is Baba, the white rabbit-looking creature seen above.

But not always. All that can change, because in many cases the player has the power to alter the rules of a stage by moving the text blocks that create said rules. So Baba is you, except when it isn’t. Maybe something else can be you. Or maybe the flag doesn’t have to be the goal — maybe it can be something else entirely. Is a wall or some other obvious obstacle stopping you from proceeding? Maybe you can get around it — or maybe you can change the rules to break straight through that wall.

Is this the solution to this stage? I guess not.

Baba Is You encourages you to try all kinds of stuff that might seem fruitless or even silly at first — if it doesn’t work or results in failure, hitting the z key lets you rewind your actions step by step. And in some cases, an action that might seem silly or unthinkable can be exactly the solution you were looking for.

This game reminds me of nothing so much as the logic game section of the LSAT, the standardized exam that American and Canadian law schools require all applicants to take. I had to take that bullshit exam three times before I got a score I was halfway satisfied with, and those logic games were the bane of my fucking existence for months.* These games were essentially very complex word problems that operated according to logic rules, most of which you’re required to piece together yourself. Here’ are a few good examples of such games. You can see if you play with some of the rules in these problems how the different elements in it can change. The exam does this in some of the questions under each problem, forcing you to quickly factor in those rule changes to find their solutions.

I think this is where I discovered the connection in my head

While the LSAT is a hateful, miserable exam, however, Baba Is You is a fun puzzle game. Probably because it doesn’t impose a time limit upon you or grade you on a curve, and certainly because being bad at it or taking a while to solve its problems doesn’t subject you to shame among your peers and anxiety about your career prospects (unless your desired future career is as a speedrunner, maybe.) But it operates on similar principles, like understanding what rules can and can’t be changed, how multiple rules fit together to create other rules that aren’t obvious at first, and how changeable rules can be broken up or added to. Not every idea is going to work — most of mine were failures, but that’s part of the fun. Even discovering some of the bizarre ways in which you can fail these stages is interesting.

So this one comes highly recommended. Try out Baba Is You for some good brain exercise, because we can all use it.

 

* Of course, now the Law School Admissions Council is getting rid of that section, only after so many of us had to suffer through it. I support that decision, but couldn’t they have made it sooner, preferably before I took the god damn test? Thanks for nothing, assholes.

A review of Highway Blossoms: Remastered (PC)

It’s back to the visual novels. And it’s also back to the itch.io bundle, and specifically last year’s racial justice donation bundle, not to be confused with the recently ended Palestine relief one I talked up last post (which I will be getting to in turn, because there are a few interesting games in there as well. Also thanks to itch.io for that bundle again and to everyone for putting up over 900K for a great cause.)

But for now, here’s the 2016 kinetic novel Highway Blossoms, which I just got around to reading after a year of owning it. This is specifically the recently released remastered version, which adds in voice acting and probably a few other features I didn’t notice because I didn’t play the original. I’m not sure if the old version is even around for sale anymore, but it seems this is the definitive version anyway. (And some story spoilers, since this being a kinetic novel, there’s not much to talk about other than characters and story. But that might not be such an issue either way.)

Yeah I played in windowed mode, I admit it

Highway Blossoms tells the story of Amber (above, left), a young woman driving down a highway in the American Southwest in the RV she inherited from her recently deceased grandfather. As our protagonist drives along, she comes across a hitchhiker standing next to her car on the side of the highway, and against her better judgment she stops to help out. Said hitchhiker is Marina (right), another young woman looking for a lift from a stranger. Which is also against all good judgment and common sense, as Amber herself says — but we’ll soon learn that Marina is a bit lacking in the common sense department.

Amber decides to bring Marina along, afraid of what might happen to her if some seedy weirdo comes across her instead. And so their adventure brings, and also their romance, because Highway Blossoms is a yuri (i.e. lesbian) romance VN and this is our couple. That’s not really a spoiler, either: the game bills itself in exactly that way, and its promotional art makes it very obvious that these two will get together, so I don’t feel like dropping that fact here is a big deal when it says all this stuff on the cover basically.

Amber likes black coffee, Marina likes milkshakes. With this odd couple character dynamic plus the yuri tag on the game, you can see it coming from miles away.

There’s another major aspect to Highway Blossoms aside from the yuri romance, and that’s the travel guide one. This game takes place entirely in the American Southwest region, starting in New Mexico, running through Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, and ending in inland California. What starts as a simple lift turns into an extended trip through an entire quarter of the United States when Amber learns that Marina is out on her own searching for a legendary treasure of gold scattered and buried in parts by a 19th century prospector with clues left about their hiding places.

Amber is a naturally skeptical type, and the fact that this prospector’s journal is being sold at gas stations and corner stores all over the place and has sparked a new “gold rush” to find his treasure cements her opinion that it’s all a scam. However, Marina seems dead set on finding these stashes of gold, so Amber unaccountably (even to her, at least at first) agrees to help her.

It also helps that Amber has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Southwest and the ability to decipher vague hints based on its geography despite still only being 19. Not that a 19 year-old can’t be that smart, but I feel like life length/experience should factor in a bit more, especially when so many people are on the hunt.

This gold rush is the excuse for Amber and Marina’s tour through this part of the country, and we get to visit some big natural landmarks along with them, like Shiprock and Arches National Park, places where the prospector hints that his treasure was buried. And of course, a rivalry develops between Amber and Marina on one side and a team of treasure hunters they keep running into on the other, spurring them on to try to find the gold before the other group cleans them out.

The rivalry is really between Amber and this constantly half-naked lady Mariah; anime hair man and Mariah’s little sister who are along for the ride are actually pretty nice. And nice crack on ska there. Why the hate for ska anyway? It’s not that bad.

Finally, between these points, we get a nice dose of what people call “Americana”1 — it’s a term I always found strange, since it only seems to refer to a narrow slice of what life in America is like, but here we’re talking about country/western folk sort of music, 24-hour roadside diners serving heart attack food, and weird man-made tourist attractions like the tallest thermometer in the world. All the stuff you find on Route 66, even though that famous US highway isn’t mentioned at all in Highway Blossoms unless I missed something. But since Amber and Marina are bouncing between different states constantly, it makes sense that they’d have to go off the beaten path a bit more.

I forget exactly what this spot was, but it must be another important natural landmark.

Before going into what I liked and didn’t like about Highway Blossoms, I want to acknowledge something that I very probably got wrong last year when I wrote about visual novels here in the West — they seem to be more popular here than I gave them credit for. I was thinking more about mainstream popularity then, which I feel VNs still don’t really have here, but my perspective was too narrow to see other niches this medium has gotten into, especially with all the otome games out there.

Original English-language visual novels (OELVNs as they’re commonly called) still look like a niche thing to me, but I might still be out of touch in that area — Highway Blossoms is only the third one I’ve played in my life after Doki Doki Literature Club two years ago and Katawa Shoujo (or part of it anyway)2 last year. But it also feels like a first for me in the sense that it’s an entirely American VN with regard to its setting and characters. I also get the impression that the writers at the indie developer Studio Élan are American, or at least that they’ve been around the Southwest and are very familiar with the cultures down there.

There’s still a lot of very obvious influence from Japanese VNs in certain aspects like the character design (which I’m naturally not complaining about — I am still a damn weeb after all, and Amber and Marina and a few of the game’s other characters look pretty fine) but this is otherwise very much an American work, and as an American who’s somewhat into the visual novel medium, that’s nice to see.

In general, Highway Blossoms feels pretty polished, with full voice-acting, original music that mostly fits that Southwest country/western folkish feel, and some pretty nice CGs. Including a few in its 18+ scenes near the end of the story — the base game is all-ages, but there’s an 18+ patch you can download and apply from the Steam page, even if you got Highway Blossoms through itch.io like I did. It only adds maybe ten minutes to this ~5-6 hour game, but to the publisher’s credit, the patch is free.

The only real complaint I have with the game’s presentation is that the otherwise nice-looking character portraits looked a bit crusty in their outlines when set against the backgrounds, but then maybe it was an issue on my end somehow. I don’t know enough about the technical aspects of putting a VN together to say. It’s not a big annoyance for me either way, but just something I noticed.

Now for the writing, which is certainly the most important aspect of this game considering that there’s no gameplay here to speak of. And this is where I have a few more substantive criticisms to make, one of which has to do with the central relationship between Amber and Marina.

If you’ve read or played or watched any similar romances, it’s not much of a surprise: Amber is the serious one, somewhat bitter for her age and carrying around an emotional burden she’s trying to deal with (the recent death of her grandfather, the one who raised her in place of her deadbeat parents and the only person in her life she really cared for) and Marina is the free spirit she comes across by chance, the one who shows her a new way to think about life and who helps her resolve that emotional burden. The road is a bit bumpy; there are a few arguments and one big fight near the end between them, but the two are finally able to come together and realize and express their love for each other. There’s a happy ending as the pair set aside uncertainties over their futures for the moment and embrace their love.

I’m not saying the above is even that unrealistic, but it does feel like a tired sort of story. Maybe I’m just a bitter fuck, but believe it or not, I actually can appreciate a good romance if it gives me something new and fresh to enjoy, and this doesn’t really. For all her impulsiveness and spontaneity, Marina might even be put in that dreaded “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” category that film critics created in the mid-2000s to describe such free spirits. See the 2004 film Garden State for a good example of that character type: the free spirit in this case being Natalie Portman, who pulls depressed guy and writer/director Zach Braff out of a slump with similar results.3

To be fair, though, I think Highway Blossoms avoids falling into that old trope too much, because Marina does have a backstory and a personality beyond “cute girl who loves life and doesn’t let things bother her etc.” She’s not nearly as out to lunch as a few of the other characters I’ve seen stuck into that category either — Marina’s actions seem to make sense to her, at least, without just coming from a place of pure whimsy or whatever the hell nonsense those other movies were trying to pull. The “Marina’s thoughts” feature helps a bit there — throughout the game, we hear Amber’s thoughts, but certain objects the pair collect are catalogued in a separate menu with Marina’s thoughts on them in the attached notes. It’s clear that though she does lack some common sense, Marina doesn’t deserve to be called a simple airhead. Even if she does a couple of profoundly stupid things in the course of the story that Amber ends up having to fix.

I found the romance a bit dull, but at least sort of believable.

The bigger problem is that as a kinetic novel without any player choice or interaction, the story is all Highway Blossoms has beyond its nice art and music, and there’s not much there for me to enjoy. The romance is nice enough, but nothing more, and all the treasure hunt and travel stuff feels like a reason for the romance to take place more than anything. Again, maybe I really am just an embittered type too far beyond that point of life to appreciate the game’s messages. Maybe this game simply wasn’t meant for me — the main characters in it are 19 and 18, both with their whole lives ahead of them, and while I was once like that, I’m now a professional chained to my desk with no real personal goals beyond “get a few hours of total escapism a day to put up with this shit”, all of which is entirely my fault.

So I’ll go for a complete, shameless cop-out and give the typical lawyer’s answer to the question of whether Highway Blossoms is a good visual novel: “it depends.”4 I feel now like I did when I was looking at Blend S, in fact, only instead of the feeling being “this is for me but might not be for you”, it’s “this isn’t for me but might be for you.” If all of the above really appeals to you, or if you’re the type who melts at romance, you might want to check the game out. I liked Highway Blossoms a hell of a lot better than I did Garden State, at least, if that gives you any point of reference. If it doesn’t, I’ll just say that while I didn’t exactly dislike this game, it did fall flat a bit for me.

Okay, not this part, though. There’s something about that “one character has to wear another’s clothes” thing, especially when the two are still just romantic interests. I don’t know. I’m not the only one, right?

Maybe Highway Blossoms does have some value as a Southwest travel guide, though. I’ve never been to that part of the country before, so I can’t say how well it captures the region and its natural beauty, cultures, and all that. But if it does so sufficiently, some of the states it features might consider officially adopting it as a tool to drive tourism — Japanese VNs do this sort of thing often enough, with Our World Is Ended for example set in Asakusa and even talking up particular restaurants.

Something to think about, at least. Though I don’t know how Utah would feel about using a lesbian-themed visual novel to promote itself. Maybe about as good as they would using a lesbian-themed visual novel to teach their schoolchildren Esperanto. There really are a lot of great potential uses to VNs, aren’t there? 𒀭

 

1 Of course, there’s also apple pie and baseball, as seen in this photo I found under “Americana” taken by someone at the USDA Agricultural Research Department. Those are somewhat more widespread in the US, but I’d say still partly outdated as a representation of what America is considering how far baseball has fallen against other sports like basketball, football, and NASCAR (and even soccer, which has been steadily rising in popularity here recently.)

Apple pie is still good, though. I’m more of a cake guy myself but I can appreciate it.

2 I have a load of very old notes on Katawa Shoujo and I still might write something about it here. The trouble is I don’t know if I should write about it if I’ve only gotten through two of its five routes, but then again it is a proper 30+ hour visual novel with branching decision paths and bad ends and all that. Maybe I’ll just finish the damn thing finally, since I’ve thoroughly liked what I’ve played of it so far (there’s your preliminary review of it at least.) In any case, there are more visual novel reviews to come as I plow through what I still have in my massive backlog.

3 I don’t remember their characters’ names, but these two were quite big back at the time: Braff was one of the main guys in the TV comedy Scrubs, and Portman was in quite a few other movies throughout the 90s/2000s, including the first run of bad Star Wars films. The only movies I saw Portman in that I actually liked were Heat and The Professional, the latter of which admittedly had some very weird vibes that may have been explained recently by what’s come out about director Luc Besson. I don’t know how well it holds up, but Jean Reno and Gary Oldman are both always good. But then there are those weird vibes again, so I don’t know. Maybe it’s worth a re-watch?

4 I don’t mean to say here that it always depends — I absolutely don’t subscribe to the view that the quality of all art is a subjective matter. I just feel this is one of those cases where the problem might be partly with where I am more than with the work itself.

A review of Sagebrush (PC)

I’m generally not a fan of environmental narrative games. These are also known as “walking simulators”, a term that’s meant as a bit of an insult, though one that’s stuck for good reason. Considering how I’ve felt about those I’ve already played, I wouldn’t normally have gone for a game like Sagebrush. However, it was included in that 1,000+ game itch.io bundle from last year that I’ve still barely made a dent in, and lately I’ve felt like giving a chance to something I typically wouldn’t. Open my mind to new possibilities and all that, which is something I usually don’t have an easy time doing.

Well, I’ll just say it straight out — Sagebrush didn’t change how I feel about this genre. Released in 2018 for PC and later ported to the Xbox, Switch, and PS4, this game received quite a lot of praise from reviewers and players, but I found it frustrating, all the more so because the story it tries to tell seems like it would be an interesting one if it were told as it happened. But as is so often the case with these kinds of games, we only get to see the aftermath of that story. Sagebrush does try to justify that with its ending twist, but it still doesn’t work so well for me, partly because the twist itself didn’t work for me either.

Note: I will be spoiling the hell out of this one, so if you don’t want to proceed further, here’s my bottom line: I didn’t like Sagebrush, but its story and characters have potential, and if you like these sorts of environmental narratives I can see how you’d enjoy it. But I didn’t. Now on to the horrifying details, because this isn’t a pleasant story in the slightest.

Good time to turn back if you’re not up to it, and I wouldn’t blame you.

In Sagebrush, you play as an initially unidentified protagonist visiting an old abandoned cult compound, the scene of a mass suicide. The player isn’t let in on why we’re here at first or even about who we are, but we at least know our objective is to explore this abandoned compound and put together what exactly happened here — or rather how it happened, since the game tells us the conclusion of this story at its beginning.

The player is therefore required to piece this story together by working back from the end and seeing how it happened. Sagebrush leaves a lot of clues around for the player to do just this, with plenty of notes, pamphlets, and journals to read along with more physical and visual forms of evidence, all having to do with the head of the cult, a preacher referred to as Father James Israel, and his followers.

Hey, this Father James guy sounds great! I’m sure he had nothing to do with the tragedy we learned about right after the title screen.

The compound is divided into several distinct areas, most of which are initially locked off and have to be accessed with keys and sometimes with other tools you’ll come across during your explorations. This allows the story to build gradually, showing more and more of the true horror behind this Perfect Heaven cult. What first seems to be a strange but perhaps harmless group of ascetics (starting with a few notes in the community hall, including a meal schedule with “fasting” listed two out of seven days) turns out to include a “cleansing” practice involving self-harm and self-mutilation as penance for sin and an “alternative cleansing” method in private with this Father James, which just happens to only involve certain young women in the cult. The inclusion of a schoolhouse and references to children at the compound makes the situation all the more horrific.

The rectory, where Father James lives and commits some of his more despicable deeds.

No one who’s looked into the history of cults will be surprised by any of this. Developer Nathaniel Berens took inspiration from real-world cults, some of the more likely examples being the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas that ended in a deadly standoff with federal authorities, the California-based Heaven’s Gate that ended in mass suicide, and the FLDS polygamist Mormon sect that still hasn’t ended despite its leader being imprisoned for sex crimes. However, the marks of a cult, and especially of this sort of millennial religious cult — fanaticism, militancy, and unquestioning devotion to a leader who claims he has special powers or speaks with God — can be found throughout history. The earliest example I know much about is the 16th century Anabaptist commune that briefly took over the German city of Münster (even if the link wasn’t intentional, Father James surely has some Jan van Leiden in him, especially with his more sexually oriented “revelations”) but there are certainly even older examples.

All this could make for a compelling story, and I had the feeling from reading all the correspondence and journals in the game that the cult featured in Sagebrush might have been a great subject for a game. However, the usual problems of these environmental narrative games show up yet again here. We only see the remains of the story, its characters and conflicts, through the written and physical evidence left sitting around the ranch. These do fill out the story and suggest what some of the characters are like and how they related to each other and especially to the false prophet James, who is about as big of a shithead as you might imagine and maybe even bigger, considering what you find in his journal near the end of the game.

Do not trust a man who hangs multiple portraits of himself in his own house, especially when he puts them right next to religious imagery

But again, I would have liked to see this all play out in real time. That’s always one of the problems I have with these games. Clearly there are people who enjoy this sort of forensic style of gameplay, but I’m not one of them. I have seen Sagebrush described as having a puzzle element along with the exploration one, but the puzzles in this game are the most basic “go to location x and find item y to open door z” sort of stuff you could ever imagine, to the point that I don’t even think you can call them puzzles at all. It’s not all just finding keys to unlock doors to find new keys, but it’s close enough that there’s no real challenge involved.

So all that’s left is the story, which is again told well after it’s happened. And the way it’s told feels a bit cheap. Initially, the player has no idea who the protagonist is or why they’re exploring this cult compound. Near the end of the game, however, it’s revealed that the protagonist is Lilian, one of the former cult members and the only survivor of the mass suicide by fire that puts an end to the cult. After coming to her senses and escaping the flames into a bunker built by Father James to ride out a police/military standoff, Lilian returned to her family and to society. But it’s implied her time at the compound was so traumatic that she’s repressed many or all of these memories, which return to her in the course of her explorations.

I still only vaguely remember who this Athanasius guy was or why he was important from a classics class I took years ago at college. Maybe the reference is relevant to the story? I have no idea.

I know nothing about psychology, so I can’t say anything about how realistic or unrealistic any of that is. However, hiding Lilian’s identity from the player up until that point feels pretty damn cheap. She hasn’t forgotten who she is, after all, and by the end of the game it’s revealed that she came back to the compound specifically to come to terms with what happened there and with her role in it. You’d think we would at least get some kind of internal monologue when we find Lilian’s living space in the trailer park set up to house the cult members, but we don’t. We only clearly enter Lilian’s mind near the very end of the game, when we get a cryptic message about “facing your past” just before entering the chapel, the final area of the game.

The only other clue before this point that the protagonist is Lilian is the old-fashioned tape deck that keeps showing up in various places. These act as save points, but they also play recorded monologues that turn out to mostly be Lilian’s recollections. My read on it is that these tape decks don’t actually exist at the compound but are just representations of Lilian’s thoughts — or it would be if there weren’t also a tape deck in the middle of the game that plays a monologue by Father James. Maybe this is supposed to be Lilian recalling what James told her, since it does take place at the site of one of his creepy as hell sex pervert “alternative cleansings” that it’s implied she took part in. But this also kind of breaks the rule the game set about the tape decks being Lilian’s thoughts alone, assuming it set that rule at all and I didn’t just imagine it in an effort to make sense of it.*

A few of these descriptions might also contain hints, but I might have missed some.

In any case, none of that changes the fact that the game does pull a surprise reveal about the protagonist being Lilian, despite this separation between the player and protagonist not really working. That kind of separation can actually work — I’d give examples but it would naturally spoil those games’ endings somewhat, so I won’t. Some ambiguity like this in a story can be extremely effective if it’s done right. However, I think it’s very difficult to pull off well, and in the case of Sagebrush it simply feels like the game is hiding the ball. Again, maybe it’s just me being dumb or not picking up on something extra-obvious (and if so please let me know what you saw that I didn’t) but I don’t appreciate this approach.

I wish I could be more generous to this game, because I like the basic story it sets up, and I think Mr. Berens treated his extremely sensitive subject with a lot of respect, but as far as I’m concerned it really is just another walking simulator in the end. If you’re into this sort of game, you might like it. Sagebrush has some atmosphere to it and it does deal with some heavy issues, and I can see a cult survivor or someone close to one connecting with and getting something out of the game.

I leave all the theological questions to others, but you don’t need to know much about that to recognize fanaticism when you see it. Stay alert.

But I don’t know. Aside from the narrative issues I brought up, I just like to have more game in my game than I got here. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, since I’ve highly praised stuff like Yume Nikki that’s also essentially a lot of walking around and exploration, but surreal dreamscape games like that are so interesting and weird that I’m willing to give them a break. Sagebrush gets no such break. At least it only takes a couple of hours to get through, so not too much of a time commitment if you plan to try it out.

So no, my return to this itch.io bundle didn’t start so hot, but I will be going back to it for a few more interesting-looking games. Among those I have lined up to play are a visual novel about two girls driving around a desert, a weird-looking meta RPGMaker-style game recommended by Frostilyte, and a few others I might pick out if they’re lucky (or not lucky?) But hopefully it is all good stuff that I can use to break up the bigger games I have going right now. Until next time.

 

* It’s also possible that the whole thing occurs not in real life but in Lilian’s mind, and the entire game is just her sorting through and coping with her own memories. A real-life cult compound and site of a mass suicide like this wouldn’t just have all that evidence left lying around by authorities, after all. Or maybe I’m overthinking it? See, I really don’t mind some narrative weirdness, but the rules set have to be consistent, otherwise it’s just frustrating.

Listening/reading log #18 (March 2021)

Sorry for the short break between posts and for not being very active in general lately. I’ve had a mountain of work to get through since the beginning of the year, and it’s only growing larger. But I finally have a weekend to myself (as much as I ever get any time “to myself” anyway. Being an adult really is shit, isn’t it? Or maybe I should blame myself instead for making poor life choices…)

I promise I’ll stop complaining now. I don’t have much reason to feel bad, anyway — April is the start of the overcast/rainy season here, which is my favorite kind of weather when it happens in this 60/70 degree, slightly humid climate. I think there are also particular kinds of music that go well with this weather. The following three albums fall into that category for me, though I don’t know if I can really explain why they make good “rain music.” After that, I’ll cover more excellent writing from around the communities last month as usual.

Bitches Brew (Miles Davis, 1970)

Highlights: It’s hard to break down because it’s so damn long but Bitches Brew gives you a good idea of what’s going on here

I’ve written about a lot of progressive rock here, but everyone knows that’s for weirdo shut-in nerds like me and is not cool in the slightest. No, Bitches Brew is the kind of album you bring up if you want to seem deep and cool, especially if you’re in college.

Until the late 60s, jazz and rock didn’t have much of anything to do with each other, but top musicians including Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea got together to combine the two into what we now call fusion. They weren’t the first to do this, but their work together did a lot to define the new genre, starting with In a Silent Way in 1969. Bitches Brew seems to be the big one, though, both in terms of its scope and size, a double album with a 90+ minute runtime. These are mainly spacy jazz/rock tracks like the opening Pharaoh’s Dance and the title track that make up the entire first record, along with a little more funky-sounding music like the shorter Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.

It’s all pretty hypnotic stuff, excellent to space out or study or work to, but there’s also a lot going on if you want to pay closer attention to the music. Even if you don’t like traditional jazz, you should check this out, because it’s not much like Miles Davis’ earlier work. (Also, if you want to be a real college hipster, be sure to album-name-drop his following A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Really impress that girl in your philosophy class. But more importantly, it’s good as well, so be sure to listen to it too.)

Future Days (Can, 1973)

Highlights: Future Days, Moonshake

I’ve covered the classic German band Can once before, back when I wrote about Ege Bamyasi. That’s a great album too, but as far as “stuck inside/rainy day” music goes, I prefer their later album Future Days. These guys had an amazing rhythm section that makes the music feel almost trance-like, and Damo Suzuki’s strange half-understandable singing adds to that feeling.

Future Days is another album that used to be perfect for my study sessions and is now perfect for my work sessions. Still more hypnotic tracks like you’ll find on Ege Bamyasi and the equally great Tago Mago, but Future Days feels more chilled out than those two albums. The title track is an excellent opener, and the ending 20-minute Bel Air puts me in a nice mood. “Moonshake” provides a nice short break (kind of sounds a bit like “I’m So Green” from Ege Bamyasi, which I like too, so that’s a good thing.)

I don’t really have much more to say about this album, other than it’s another one you should hear if you haven’t already. It almost sounds like ambient music, which I don’t think would take off for a while until Brian Eno really got around to defining that genre. I also wonder if they were going for a kind of aquatic theme here with the music and the trident-looking symbol on the album cover, though from the lyrics that are on this album there’s no way you’d ever be able to tell.

Blue Reflection Official Soundtrack (Various, 2017)

Highlights: Way too many to choose from, but see below

Even though I wrote about Bitches Brew above, as you probably know already, I am a weirdo shut-in nerd who plays way too many JRPGs. A few months ago, I finally got through Blue Reflection, a somewhat unfairly overlooked/maligned game here in the States at least. Not that the mixed reviews are that surprising — it had its problems, but a turn-based JRPG about magical girls isn’t exactly the kind of game most professional critics here love to talk up in the first place.

I didn’t see anyone talking shit about its music, though, because the soundtrack is undoubtedly excellent. There are the expected driving battle themes like TIGAR Kurt, but a lot of the album focuses on calmer piano/synth-based pieces like A Small Distance and Vesicular Membrane Transporter. I’ll still talk up Blue Reflection myself (and I’ll absolutely be getting the announced sequel Second Light when it comes out here) but if this game isn’t your thing, its music is still worth hearing especially if you need something relaxing to get you through the day or the night.

Now to the featured articles:

Eyes on Transistor (Lost to the Aether) — Aether takes an in-depth and thorough look at Transistor, the game that developer Supergiant Games released following their hit Bastion, and it seems this one is a bit of a mixed bag.

FromSoftware Games Ranked (Honest Gamer) — FromSoftware has developed some of the most interesting games of the last decade or so, and I have to acknowledge that even if I am absolute, total shit at every one I’ve ever tried. Stephen at Honest Gamer gives his own ranking of their games along with his thoughts on each.

Source Code (Extra Life) — I’m pretty damn tired of modern speculative sci-fi now, even if I did try to write some at one point — if you’re curious where that writing is now, it went straight into the trash, which is exactly where it belongs. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. Does Duncan Jones’ speculative science fiction film Source Code get it right? Read Red Metal’s comprehensive review to get his opinion on it.

I Actually Enjoy Among Us (Frostilyte Writes) — Frostilyte takes on the subject of the popular party game Among Us and why he actually enjoys it, addressing how and why it works for him. This is a trend I’ve completely missed out on, but it certainly looks like a great time.

Film in 500: Promare Review (WCRobinson) — New in WCRobinson’s concise Film in 500 review series, a look at one I’ve been meaning to see at some point, Trigger’s Promare.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles In Time (Gaming Omnivore) — The Ninja Turtles were a staple of my early childhood, and while game adaptations of comics and films usually weren’t that great at the time, Turtles in Time was actually a pretty fine beat-em-up. Learn more about it from Gaming Omnivore.

Call of the Night: Volume 1 – Sexy Vampire Nights (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — I’ve been thinking about trying out a few manga series lately. I’ll probably pass on Call of the Night based on Scott’s look at it, but it might be just your thing. “Has a hot vampire girl” is a pretty decent draw for a series in any case, even if it doesn’t have much else.

A Twist “Outrage” Marketing in Anime? (I drink and watch anime) — Irina gives her usual interesting perspective on an issue that keeps coming up in the online anime circles, at least here in the West — what place does moral outrage have in marketing anime? There’s no question that a few series have been attacked, and sometimes unfairly, by some very uptight people, but overreactions to such outrages have also occurred, creating an irritating and stupid self-sustaining loop of people screaming at each other on Twitter. And sometimes that mutual outrage gets a series more attention than it might otherwise have gotten (or maybe deserved.) No matter whether you take a side on this issue, Irina’s post on the subject is worth reading.

Amazing Anime Power Often Comes with A High Cost (100 Word Anime) — And from Karandi, a post on the theme of power in anime and the toll it takes on those who use it. If the cost of power is so high, I think I’d rather be powerless.

That’s all for last month. Shorter post this time, and very late, but I hope to correct that next month. And I do have a few posts planned out including two reviews of anime, one very dark and heavy and the other extra-light and fluffy, so hopefully everyone will find something they like. Other than that, I’m currently rolling through the Dusk trilogy of the Atelier series — Gust has really taken over all my game time so far this year. Until next time, all the best.

Deep reads #5.4: Gods and devils

This is the last in my deep reads post series about Megami Tensei, though it’s certainly not the last time I’ll ever write about the series. I can absolutely guarantee that. This one deals a lot with religion in the context of the games, so if you don’t care to read about that, then you probably shouldn’t read it. Otherwise, have a good time! Maybe. That’s for you to judge, not me.

***

I was raised to fear God. Depending on your perspective, this might sound like a strange thing to teach a child. Quite a scary one as well, and in some sense it was. But in the Islamic tradition, it’s completely normal and even natural. The existence of an omnipotent creator of the universe and judge of humanity is taken for granted, as is the fact that this creator and judge is good, forgiving, and just. And in the various places I’ve lived for most of my life, the term “God-fearing man/woman” was a synonym for a good person, which tells you a lot about the values of the cultures I grew up in.

I’m not writing this post to debate the existence of God, gods, angels, demons, spirits, or the supernatural in general with anyone. You may certainly disagree, but to me, that seems like a pretty useless debate to have. If these exist, then they exist; if they don’t, they don’t — there’s nothing any of us can do about that either way. I won’t criticize anyone for their religious belief or lack thereof, either; life is such a miserable shitshow as far as I’m concerned that any way you can find to get through it is fine as long as you’re not hurting or intruding on the rights of other people in the process.1

However, the ways in which people think about religion and the supernatural are really interesting to me. Though Islam is one of the largest religions in the world, there were very few Muslims where I grew up, and there were none at all at my school who I knew of aside from me. This probably gave me a different perspective than my friends from Christian families had about religion in general; since I knew my family’s beliefs were very different from theirs in some ways, I had to accept that most of the people around us didn’t believe in the same way we did.

And maybe that perspective helped me get into Megami Tensei. Because out of every game series that I’ve ever played, MegaTen would probably be considered by strict adherents of any of the Abrahamic religions to be the most sacrilegious.2 Certainly it could come off that way at first glance, without even giving it a second look — just check out the cover of Persona 3 FES, the expanded version of the very first game in the series I bought and the first real breakout the series had here in the US:

Yeah, that is a pentagram in the background, behind the silhouette of Aigis. I think it’s meant to be a magic circle, which would make sense considering its origins. It seems to be a modified version of the older symbol used on the covers of Shin Megami Tensei I and II, which feature a six-pointed star and a more elaborate design in general with what I think is Loki’s face in the middle as a reference to his summoning by Nakajima in the original novel. However, over here, when people see a pentagram, the usual assumption is that it’s associated with some kind of devil business. The fact that the pentagram design specifically was used only in the West had to be deliberate on the part of Atlus — it’s also on the NA cover of Nocturne, maybe put on to add some extra edge (which honestly wasn’t necessary in my opinion, but if it attracted some edgy kid gamers I guess so much the better for their sales.)

In a way, it might have been a good thing that Megami Tensei had a very low profile in the West before P3. By the mid-2000s, the controversies connected to supposed Satanic references in popular media had died down, but in the late 90s they were still going strong. This may have been a result of the larger “Satanic Panic” of the late 80s and 90s generally, during which you couldn’t turn a corner without finding a den of devil-worshipers carrying out a sacrifice — or at least that was what people were saying at the time. I was either not alive or way too young for most of that period to notice that kind of talk or to care about it even if I had, but I do remember the continuing scare in the late 90s that most prominently involved Harry Potter and Pokemon.

The supposed Pokemon links were just silly, probably a result of some parents confused by all these weirdly popular creatures and thinking there must be something sinister about them. At least Harry Potter actually dealt with witchcraft, though the hero of that series and his friends were decidedly good wizards and witches fighting against evil ones, so even that doesn’t fit the bill of a Satan-inspired work. No — if the upset parent groups had really wanted something to be scared by, they should have raised the alarm over Megami Tensei, a series of games that actually featured Lucifer and that even let you join his cause and fight against God himself if you so desired.

(And here’s where I start getting into the actual theology, so please correct me if I get something wrong. Though I have an interest in it, I’m a total amateur in this area.)

“Louis Cyphre” as depicted in Shin Megami Tensei by Kazuma Kaneko. He never bothered trying too hard with his pseudonyms, at least not in the early days.

And Lucifer himself would have been the source of a lot of this controversy. While he doesn’t seem to figure into Judaism very much or at all, in Christian tradition, Lucifer was originally one of the prominent angels in the service of God. But this prominence made him prideful, and he eventually led a failed rebellion against God, who tossed him and the rebel angels who joined him into Hell. Lucifer is sometimes depicted as a sort of king of Hell, ruling over vast legions of demons, including many of his fellow fallen angels featured in old European grimoires like The Lesser Key of Solomon and The Infernal Dictionary. Lucifer is also generally equated with Satan and is often simply referred to as “the Devil”, the one who tempts humans to sin so he can drag them down to Hell when they die.

Islamic tradition contains a similar story about the rebellion against God, only Lucifer is named Iblis and is considered by many Muslims to have been not an angel but rather a powerful djinn, a supernatural being with free will and the source of the genie legend that we know over here. But the gist of the story is the same — Iblis refuses to accept God’s command (in this case, by vocally disapproving of his plan to create humanity) and gets cast out of Heaven and thrown into Hell, but with special permission to tempt humans to sin once again. And in both traditions, it’s implied that he’s the serpent who causes the fall of man by convincing Eve to eat a fruit from the tree of knowledge, who then got Adam to eat the same fruit, and then we were all royally boned and had to till the soil and all that nonsense for thousands of years.

As with just about every element of our religious traditions, there are a lot of disagreements over much of the above between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and between members of sects and schools within those religions, and even of sects within some of those sects — for example, over whether Lucifer and Satan are the same or are distinct beings,3 over his or their origins, over whether he even exists, over whether or how an apocalypse will go down and how he might be involved in it, etc. etc. What really interests me in this case, however, is the relationship Lucifer, or the Devil, or whatever you want to call him has with God and with humanity, how those play out in the universe of MegaTen, and what that might mean for religious believers who might not be comfortable with its interpretations.

Mastema, an angel loyal to God, as depicted in SMT: Strange Journey offering support to you and your friends. But is he really trustworthy?

The biggest difference between these traditional interpretations and the ones found in MegaTen as I see it is based in the Law vs. Chaos system used so often in the series. In tradition, God is absolutely good and Lucifer/Satan is absolutely evil.

There are very old, famous interpretations of Lucifer than are more nuanced that that. The best-known of these is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which depicts him as a tragic figure. The Devil is also featured briefly in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, not laughing maniacally over his kingdom but rather trapped in a mass of ice in the center of Hell, uncontrollably weeping over his fate and being frozen in by his own tears.

However, in both these works, Lucifer is still considered to be evil, or at best extremely misguided. By contrast, in the Megami Tensei universe, Lucifer is not at the evil end of a good-evil scale but rather at the chaotic end of a law-chaos scale, with God or an avatar of God at the law end. One of the results of this difference is that the games don’t put any particular moral weight on your choice between the two, leaving you to make that call for yourself. I’ve written a bit about the hero’s unusual role in these games before — you’re generally required in Shin Megami Tensei games especially to decide between joining God or one of his avatars and his allied forces and supporting a regime of total order, in which peace reigns but at the cost of freedom, or joining Lucifer and his forces and going full chaos with all the freedom but also the destruction and misery that leads to. If you’re lucky enough to manage it, you can also reject both and fight for humanity independent of these two supernatural powers on the Neutral path, though thanks to the games’ strict requirements it’s usually a pain in the ass to achieve this route.

And then you have to fight this asshole. No, I haven’t forgotten about you.

There are many more gods and demons from around the world thrown into the MegaTen mix, and some games center more on eastern traditions (the Digital Devil Saga duology, for example, which is based largely in Hinduism and Buddhism.) But the idea of “killing God” that Megami Tensei is known for is still in those games to some extent. It still feels a little sacrilegious to me somehow, even if these gods aren’t the ones I was brought up to believe in.

This idea of killing God isn’t unique to Megami Tensei, of course: it’s a staple of the JRPG genre itself. If there’s an organized religion in a JRPG, it’s almost certainly dysfunctional and corrupt at best and an insane, evil cult at worst. Gods, if they exist in the game universe, are also generally best mistrusted, since they’re often planning to either end the world or use and sacrifice the heroes for their own ends, and they generally don’t give a shit about humanity or any other sentient life even if they’re not actively trying to destroy it. There are exceptions, but this seems to be the standard, at least in older JRPGs.

So the writers at Atlus didn’t exactly invent this idea. However, they are the only ones I know of to actually put the God of the Abrahamic religions in their games and let you quite literally punch him in the face, mostly notably in the form of YHVH, the Tetragrammaton or four letters of the name of God of the Old Testament. When this guy shows up, he demands absolute obedience or else. Fitting for the one who represents the Law path, but it leaves a bad impression on me, especially when the end result of taking that path involves a lot of people dying as it inevitably does.

This really hit me when I first played Nocturne. That game, unlike most of the others in the main line of Shin Megami Tensei games, doesn’t work on a Law-Chaos scale but rather gives you a choice of three different Reasons, essentially the life philosophies of three characters who are trying to make a reborn world out of the ruins of Tokyo, one that operates according to their own ideals. All three result in pretty shit worlds as far as I can tell, though Musubi is still my favorite (even if my ideas about what Musubi means for its inhabitants might not be correct; I might have to revisit that someday.) Different classes of demons support different Reasons, and strangely enough, the faction of angels decides to support Yosuga, the “might makes right” Reason that has some resemblance to the Chaos concept in terms of its violence against the weak, only with a supreme leader standing at the top who can’t be knocked over by a new challenger.

This was strange to me because I’d always understood that one of the tasks of God’s angels was to protect the weak against the strong, but here they were doing just the opposite. So when I made it to the near-endgame fight against the archangels — including Gabriel, who plays a major role in the tradition I was brought up in4 — I didn’t have any problem knocking the shit out of all of them, since they were clearly twisted depictions of those figures that I couldn’t recognize.

Seraph as depicted by Kazuma Kaneko

Even so, I partly understand this sort of interpretation of God and his angels. The Old Testament God was famously testy, putting his people through all kinds of trials, inflicting plagues and infestations on them and even drowning them in a massive flood. And while God later said he wouldn’t do that again, the prophesies of apocalypse found in the Bible and Quran both have that same sort of feeling to them, to me at least.

And even setting the Old Testament aside, a lot of our shared religious tradition comes off as a lot more terrifying to me than some of us are taught. The idea of a final judgment of all souls is scary enough in itself, but some of the angels as described in the Bible come off as very strange and alien — Kaneko’s depiction of the seraph, left, a high-ranking class of angel, is a lot closer to those descriptions than the guy or lady with wings we generally think of. Hell, even most of Kaneko’s lower-level “guy with wings” angel designs look pretty fierce and unapproachable.

Of course, the point is that if you’re a righteous person and a true believer, you have nothing to worry about despite how scary it all seems. The mercy and forgiveness of God are constantly emphasized as well. All this nice stuff fits perfectly well with the terrifying aspects of religion, because it truly can inspire terror if you believe in it — the kind that hopefully sets you on the moral path. I guess that’s the idea, anyway.

Whether any of that is true or not, I never had the feeling playing these games that I was doing anything particularly against the religion I was brought up in. For one thing, it’s all fiction, so no matter how many angels or even versions of God I beat up in these games with insta-kill dark attacks or Freikugels, I don’t think it matters. But even if it does matter, the ideals expressed by the Law path, to me anyway, never lined up very well with my own concept of God. I admit that concept might not be an orthodox one, either in Islam or any of the other related religions. But I do think it’s totally possible for even a strong religious believer to enjoy these games on that basis, even if they don’t want to follow the Law path. Megami Tensei contains some interesting angles on the ideas of religious faith and how it can affect humanity that are worth exploring, no matter what your feelings about faith in the real world are.

But I won’t be addressing those here. Not yet, anyway, because I’m done with Megami Tensei for now. There’s a lot more that can be said about these games, and I’m sure it’s all been said already. Of course, if I feel like returning to this series, I won’t let that stop me from saying it over again.

Until that time, I’m saying goodbye to MegaTen for a while. At least until SMT V comes out, whenever that might be. If there’s one thing being a fan of this series has taught me, it’s how to wait. 𒀭

1 This view itself could be considered a sacrilegious one, since true believers (at least in my tradition and the related ones in the Abrahamic line) are meant to feel and express gratitude for life, which I’m not properly doing.

That’s the reason I also want to reject a lot of what I see as the more useless social norms. It’s not just because of my leftover bits of edginess from when I was a kid (though I’m sure those are still buried around somewhere, probably in the lines I wrote above now that I look at them again) but mainly because I believe life is generally enough of a burden to bear that people should not be required to conform with such norms on top of that, especially when they’re handed down from generation to generation for no reason other than “this is how we’ve always done it.” Again, as long as nobody’s being hurt or having their rights infringed upon, I say you should be free to cope with life as you like.

Of course, that issue becomes more complicated when the reason is “because this is how God told us to do it.” I think that’s an interesting issue, but it’s not something I feel like getting into here, and anyway it’s way outside the scope of this post and site in general (and also outside the scope of my own abilities to address in a meaningful way, which is another reason for me to avoid the subject.)

2 And maybe of eastern religions as well, though I don’t know enough about them to say for sure.

3 In these games, Lucifer and Satan are portrayed as different beings, and even as directly opposed to each other. The MegaTen depiction of Satan is as scary as you might expect, but he is a loyal servant of God carrying out the role of accuser of humanity on his behalf.

4 The MegaTen version of Gabriel is interesting, partly because the games depict the archangel as female, but more because they generally show her as actually feeling some sympathy for humans that isn’t shared by either her colleagues or her boss (though this doesn’t come up in Nocturne from what I remember.) Even if she still does follow God’s orders no matter what, at least she feels bad about it sometimes.

A review of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)

Where to start with this game? It’s hard to say, because there’s a lot to talk about here. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was announced all the way back at the Tokyo Game Show in 2015, but it came out late in 2019 in Japan and late in 2020, only a few months ago, in North America. While it wasn’t released to a lot of fanfare over here, anticipation seems to have been very high among fans of developer Vanillaware, known for their unique art style and great attention to detail with earlier titles like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown.

The big question in these cases is whether the game was worth the long wait. I can’t claim I was one of those fans waiting for five years on the edge of my seat. But after playing through it, I can say that if I had waited that long or even longer, I think 13 Sentinels would have been more than worth it to me. It’s not going to appeal to everyone (just like most of the games I write about here, that’s nothing new) but I liked its mix of gameplay styles and especially its characters and story.

Of course, I’ll be getting into all that in more depth here. Before that, there’s one more thing I have to bring up: this is going to be a no-spoilers review. I’m still putting a disclaimer up even in this case, though, because 13 Sentinels is one of those games that it’s best to go into completely blind if possible. If you trust me enough to just take my word on faith (which I don’t expect at all) then here it is: I greatly enjoyed 13 Sentinels and highly recommend it. But not everyone is going to agree with that assessment, and in any case you probably need more than just me saying “hey it’s great the end”, so I’ll get into why I liked this game so much below without dropping any major plot points or character details, because you should discover those for yourself.

I also promise I won’t make any “get in the robot Shinji” references. They don’t exactly fit here anyway.

On the surface, 13 Sentinels is a game about high school students who have to fight city-destroying mechanical kaiju-style monsters by piloting giant mechs called Sentinels. A lot of the gameplay and plot revolve around these battles and the enormous strain they put on their young pilots, both physically and mentally. As with a lot of other “teenagers in giant robots fight to save the world” stories, though, there’s more going on under that surface.

From the very beginning, 13 Sentinels is split between three different gameplay modes: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis. Remembrance is the one you’ll likely be in most of the time. It’s the one that looks like the typical Vanillaware game, only there’s no combat in this mode — it’s sort of in the style of an older adventure game, consisting almost entirely of exploration and character interaction. This is where we really get to know our characters and where almost all of the plot unfolds.

One of the 13 protagonists, Juro Kurabe, at school. The colored bars in the upper right indicate topics or actions that your protagonist has yet to consider or carry out in a scene, some of which are prerequisites to moving their story along.

Each of the 13 protagonists in the game has their own story to play through in the Remembrance mode. In the beginning, the game only gives you a couple of characters to start with, but as you advance their stories, the game unlocks other characters that you can switch between as you see fit. At that point, the initially hidden connections between these characters reveal themselves. These connections are not at all obvious at first in some cases, especially considering the fact that our protagonists are scattered throughout time, with a few from the past of wartime Japan and a few from the far future.

For some reason, everyone ends up meeting in the Japan of 1985, where both the battles against the kaiju and the bulk of the story occur. Figuring out how and why they’ve all converged on this point in time and this place is part of the mystery the game presents. Remembrance involves a lot of tracking down and talking to or otherwise interacting with other characters in the course of this story, but we also get directly into the heads of our player characters. The Thought Cloud is an integral part of this exploration section of 13 Sentinels — it lets the player scroll through the protagonist’s various thoughts, which are updated as they make new discoveries.

Ass-kicking delinquent girl Yuki Takamiya takes a break on the roof in the middle of her various thoughts, one of which is “maybe I should drink this juice box.” Getting your vitamins is important.

But you can’t just make progress through exploration and talking to people: you have to actually fight those big kaiju battles by directing your 13 protagonists in their mechs. This is where the Destruction mode comes in. Destruction is a real-time tower defense game, starkly different from the adventure game style of Remembrance both in its looks and style. Taking place during what the game calls the final battle against the invading kaiju, a horde of giant mechanical monsters, Destruction requires the player to direct a strike team of up to six characters in the defense of a giant terminal that itself acts as a defensive mechanism against the kaiju. Defeating all the kaiju on the map typically leads to victory, though a couple of the game’s 31 maps (not counting the first seven tutorials) require the player to destroy a specific powerful target.

The heat of battle. These screens can get a bit confusing with all the enemies, missiles, and lasers shooting off and flying around, but it’s not hard to get the rhythm of combat down.

A lot of your success in battle comes from preparation. Each of the protagonist’s Sentinels can be upgraded using “Meta-chips” you earn both from advancing the story in Remembrance mode and fighting battles in Destruction mode. Around the middle of the game you’ll be able to unlock some extremely powerful weapons to use against the kaiju, both short- and long-range, allowing you to play defensively by turtling around the terminal and using long-range attacks or offensively by taking the fight directly to the kaiju and punching them in the face. There are four types of Sentinel to choose from as well, each types with its own strengths and weaknesses, so you can mix things up depending upon your preferred play style with a combination of defensive and offensive tactics.

Natsuno’s Missile Rain is stupidly powerful, and I relied on it a lot. Thanks Natsuno, and also Tomi and Keitaro who have the same ability — you saved the team more than a few times. Also god damn, those Sentry Guns.

Finally, there’s the third mode, Analysis, which isn’t so much a gameplay mode as it is a giant cache of information that grows as you progress through the game. Analysis includes a library of previously played scenes that you can return to watch as many times as you like as well as a set of “mystery files” that are unlocked and added to as the game progresses. These files contains information on just about everything in the game, from the characters and their backgrounds, stories, and relationships down to various foods and drinks your characters consume during their adventures. It might seem weird to have entries for such trivial information, but in this game, sometimes the most seemingly trivial bits of information can be important in strange ways down the line.

I’m not kidding; there’s even an entry for strawberry crêpes. Though I have to give credit: the artist made all this food look amazing. I got hungry playing 13 Sentinels a few times for foods I can’t even obtain where I live. Thanks a lot for that, Vanillaware.

It might seem a bit strange at first to put so much information about the game’s major plot points and characters into a library like this. But it doesn’t feel at all like a lazy shortcut to make telling the story easier. On the contrary, I think this Analysis mode is necessary, because the story and its characters’ relationships get so complicated that it’s sometimes helpful to go back and check on a few already established points. Naturally I can’t give any examples without spoiling things (I even went to the trouble of redacting the above image in five seconds in Paint; a lot of work, I know.) It’s enough to say that this mode is very useful in a game like this in which each character’s story has its own flowchart practically.

That takes me back to the story itself. I think the greatest strength of 13 Sentinels by far is in its writing, in the plot and its massive tangled web of characters and relationships. The story is ambitious, but unlike some other works that try this sort of thing and get lost in technobabble and confusion and end up a mess, 13 Sentinels keeps it all together. Part of this might have to do with the organization of the information you receive in Analysis mode and in the character timelines that let you track your progress and jump around from point to point to a limited extent.

For example, should you get crêpes or ice cream after school? This really is one of those branching path decision points.

However, I think more of it has to do with the strength of the game’s characters. Each of the protagonists along with several important side characters are given enough screen time to establish their personalities and motivations. Through their story paths in Remembrance mode, we come to understand how and why they end up in these giant mechs fighting kaiju. These aren’t a bunch of cardboard cutouts either. Each character feels pretty well fleshed out and realistic, allowing the game to build believable rivalries, friendships, and romances. And there are romance subplots in 13 Sentinels, and even though I’m about as unromantic as it’s possible for a human to be, they worked for me — they’re not just shoehorned in for the hell of it but actually play their parts in the larger plot.

That’s love, man, who knows

Then there’s the other half of 13 Sentinels, speaking in terms of gameplay at least: the RTS tower defense section. This one seems a bit controversial. I’ve barely played any tower defense games before, so I really have nothing to compare the tower defense element in 13 Sentinels to, but I found it to be pretty fun for what it was. It was definitely the lesser of the two sections for me, though. Combat in this game, with the exception of maybe two or three boss battles, presented no challenge at all — once you figure out how to play defensively and get the skills to beat the shit out of kaiju without them getting anywhere near you, you’ll be all right for the most part. The second-to-last fight did give me some trouble, but I still beat it on my first try, and I’m not even very good at this sort of thing.

I’m not sure if this game will satisfy hardcore RTS/tower defense fans because I’m not one of them, but playing on hard mode is a good idea if you’re looking for more of a challenge. It’s probably also important to note that, as you can see in the battle screenshots I posted, the combat takes place in top-down view, as if the player is controlling everything from a command center. If you were hoping for the combat sections to be all drawn and animated in that Vanillaware style like they were in Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, you won’t get that in this game. But I didn’t mind too much — the real draw of 13 Sentinels for me was in the story and its interesting character relationships and conflicts.

I wish I lived in Shu’s apartment, what a view. This is my ideal living space.

There’s plenty of style in this game as well. The art is very impressive, much of it handpainted and animated in the typical Vanillaware fashion. That’s one of the reasons I used so many screenshots here, probably more than I normally would in a review like this: the beautiful art adds a lot to an already great experience. The soundtrack is also excellent, from mood-setting pieces in the Remembrance sections to tense battle themes in Destruction mode. And as an added bonus for western players, the NA release features both Japanese and English dubs, so you can choose whichever one you like. Kids these days really have it easy — I remember when we didn’t have that option.

I have more I can say about 13 Sentinels, but not without getting into spoilers, so I’ll leave it there. It’s obvious by this point that I really liked this game and that I’d highly recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of other weird sci-fi material like the Zero Escape series and Steins;Gate. I’ll only add the caveat that it might not be much of a tower defense game if that’s really what you’re looking for. But again, since I’m no expert in the tower defense genre, I can’t say much about that. Again, it’s really all about the story for me in this case, and I was happy with what I got out of 13 Sentinels in that respect. Now I just have to track down some yakisoba pan to see if it’s really as good as the game claims it is, and it will get a perfect 10 out of 10.

Miscellaneous game reviews from that huge itch.io bundle (pt. 1 of ?)

Remember that summer cleaning series I ran months ago? I still have a ton of games from the huge itch.io bundle I downloaded back then. There are well over a thousand games in that bundle, including a few long titles that I’m currently stalled out in — partly because of my own laziness, and partly because playing one of them is like listening to someone scrape their nails on a damn chalkboard.

Anyway, here are a few games I had planned to write about, but that I felt I didn’t have quite enough to say about to give their own dedicated posts. I meant to write about them sooner, but you know how it is with the aforementioned laziness and all. So let’s finally fix that:

Sonar Smash

If you’ve ever thought to yourself: I want to play a shmup about a dolphin killing its fellow sea life, then there’s a game made just for you. Sonar Smash stars a cute dolphin who has the ability to shoot sonar bullets (?) at its enemies. Using this ability, you’ll need to fight your way through waves of enemies who show up to harass you from the top of the screen classic shmup style. It’s easy to mess up and take hits, but luckily there are also shops you run into between waves that offer upgrades and health refills.

And that’s the whole game — you’re just getting as far as you can using your dodging and aiming skills. There’s not much more to Sonar Smash in terms of gameplay. It has some style on top of that, though, with nice retro-looking graphics and a surprisingly good BGM, sort of an electrofunk thing that I really like. The game is probably worth checking out for the music alone, honestly. The sea life killing is fun too, though.

Cityglitch

Cityglitch is a straightforward sort of puzzle game set on a series of 95 5×5 boards. On each of these boards, your goal is to use your main character, an unnamed being that I think looks like a levitating red-haired girl, to activate every red symbol. Your character can move all the way across the board if not blocked by an object, but only in a straight or diagonal line. There’s no time or move limit to complete a board, but there are enemies who move according to set rules that can either block the red symbols or run into your character and remove her from the board, requiring you to start over. The game doesn’t give too much background about why you’re doing this aside from its main page on itch.io, which states “touch runes to illuminate them / light them all to complete the ritual / release the glitch” but for a game like this I don’t guess you need more explanation than that.

You might wonder how much someone can do with a game board as small as five by five squares, but Cityglitch gets quite creative with the setup. The different enemy types and maze layouts can require the player to use some fancy tricks to maneuver the obstacles and clear the board. If an enemy moves across one of the activated symbols, it will also deactivate it, so you have to factor that in when making your own moves.

The green snot-looking things are stationary, the blue dots appear when you move your mouse around to see your range of movement, and the blue guy in the lower left corner is an asshole trying to stop you from completing your task.

And yeah, I liked this game too. I was surprised how quickly it hooked me, in fact — it’s impressive how much developer mindfungus was able to do with these small puzzles. I also like the blocky style of the graphics. For some reason they remind me of those old games people used to program for those TI-83 graphing calculators we used to have in high school, except those were all in black and white. Did anyone else waste time in class with those games? I can’t be the only one who played Caterpillar during trigonometry lessons. Maybe that’s why I never got onto the STEM path…

I should also mention the ambient synth background music, which fits the mood of the game very well. Again, a little style like this can go a long way towards making a simple game a lot more memorable — see also Helltaker, even though in terms of their looks they are very different (and Helltaker is more interesting, but then it also featured a cute demon girl harem, and how do you really compete with that?)

Siberia

I didn’t grow up in the age of those old-fashioned text adventures, but I think that’s the kind of game Siberia is taking after. The scenario it presents is pretty rough: you’re in a plane flying over Siberia that has engine trouble and is about to crash, so you have to parachute out and try to find help without dying.

As you play, the game presents you with branching decision points that you have to resolve before moving on Choose Your Own Adventure style, and as you might imagine, a lot of these decisions will end up getting you killed.

Siberia really has no mercy — there are a lot of ways to die in this game. Fortunately, if you make the wrong decision, it will either kill you instantly or after only a few more screens. This is a very small game, and each playthrough takes five minutes at most. None of the statistics at the bottom of the screen seem to matter that much, because from what I found while playing, I never actually reached 0 in any of them; I’d either be rescued or dead well before that point.

These guys were definitely going for that old 80s aesthetic here. Playing Siberia on a visible old CRT monitor felt a bit weird, but I liked the simple ASCII art the game used for illustrations. Again, this stuff is a bit before my time, but I do remember making and sharing crude text drawings online as a kid in the 90s. Those really were better times, at least for me.

So maybe the nostalgia angle really did work for me here. Siberia is very short — I didn’t get more than 30 minutes out of it, far less than most typical text adventures have to offer. However, it only costs one British pound, which I think is something like $1.25. Not such a bad price for what this is, though the monotonous background music might also drive you crazy. Considering all that, I can’t give it a definite recommendation, but it’s something to check out if you’re into this sort of throwback game.

And that’s it for the moment. Will I return to this bundle to review more of its games long after the bundle was on sale? Maybe. That ? in the title of this post might be a 1, or it might be a larger number than that. I might also get around to reviewing a few of the longer, more involved games in the bundle if I ever finish them. Even the nails-on-a-chalkboard bullshit one, though I might not have terribly nice things to say about it. If I do, I’ll do my best to be fair as always, though.

US copyright law needs to be reformed (feat. Liru)

Standard disclaimer: This post deals with both a hentai game and copyright law. If you’re under 18/don’t want to read about a hentai game, don’t read this, or at least don’t complain if you don’t like it. Also, absolutely nothing in this post constitutes legal advice. If you want legal advice, consult your own lawyer, because I’m sure as fuck not giving that out for free or letting anyone claim they relied on the stupid speculative shit I’m writing here. You probably already knew all this, but as usual I still have to write it. Now for the good stuff.

Here’s a game I’ve had sitting around for a while now. Starting this game up again raised a few unexpected questions in my mind. For example: what would happen to an American developer if he tried to sell a game featuring the protagonist boning a licensed character from an American property? If he didn’t have the license to use that character in his game, how quickly would the copyright holder’s attorneys jump on him? And should he even have to worry about that sort of thing?

If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, this is Ookami Shoujo to Issho, or Wolf Girl With You. It’s a doujin game that took h-game creator Seismic so long to make it turned into a joke, people online referring to the planned release for years as Wolf Girl Never Ever With You. But as you can see, it came out, because I played it. And it’s just what it looks like: a sort of slice-of-life thing where you return home every night and experience some domestic bliss with Liru, your happy and energetic werewolf girlfriend. Both Liru and the anime series she originally came from, Renkin 3-kyuu Magical? Pokaan, seem to be pretty much forgotten now, but I remember her being a big deal in the mid-2000s. That’s her normal outfit from the show in the title screen above, so you can probably see one reason why she was so popular, but she also had that animal-eared girl appeal. So it’s no surprise that I had this game lying around.

So Liru is your live-in girlfriend, and you get scenes with her, and they mostly either involve having dinner or sex. There are several scenes you can unlock depending on what you say to her when you have dialogue options available. It’s all very sweet and happy stuff, and you could even say it warms the heart a bit — sort of like Nekopara, only while Nekopara in its 18+ form was maybe 80% slice-of-life banter and 20% sex, this one flips that ratio around, featuring barely any story to speak of but a whole lot of fucking. Also, that model of Liru is animated and 3D, and there’s serious bounce there as you’d expect, and her lines are even voiced (though in Japanese only.) What more can you ask for, really.

I won’t put up any sex scenes here because I try not to just post porn on this site, but you can find them in five seconds with a Google search if you feel like it.

I guess Wolf Girl With You was so popular even among western fans that we got an official English version (note: link is NSFW for obvious reasons) which is otherwise not very common when it comes to doujin works like this. It’s honestly pretty easy to get the gist of what’s going on with minimal knowledge of Japanese, though. You might not really need any Japanese at all; it’s not a very complicated game.

Returning to the question of copyright I raised at the top, it’s pretty funny how a game like this can do so well for its creator in Japan — this is apparently the best-selling game ever released on the Japanese ero/h-game vendor DLSite. Here in the States, assuming the developer didn’t already have a license to use the character, I think there’s no way one or more threatening cease and desist letters wouldn’t have gone out from the corporate IP owner followed by a complaint in court if the C&D letter(s) were ignored. I’m not going to assume anything at all about what Seismic is doing, because for all I know his game is a licensed work. But there certainly are a whole lot of doujin artists who don’t have such licenses and are still able to sell their work.1

I much prefer this more relaxed attitude towards intellectual property and fanworks, and not just because I like hentai games about licensed wolf girl characters (as much as I like Liru, Holo is still best wolf.) Copyright law can and should protect the author’s right to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but there’s a limit to how far that protection should extend, and here in the States thanks largely to the efforts of certain massive media empires, that protection is extended much too far.

Original character do not steal

Codified at 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 – 810, US copyright law is designed to protect “writings”, a term that’s now broadly interpreted to include many forms of expression. As you might imagine, this extends to character creation. If you played Persona 5 (and chances are good if you’re reading my Megami Tensei-obsessed blog) you might remember a classroom question about Maurice Leblanc, the French author of stories featuring the protagonist’s Persona, gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and also Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was understandably pissed off about Leblanc using Holmes and sued him over it. Leblanc lost, but in a response that puts modern-day trolls to shame, he simply moved one letter around, renaming the character “Herlock Sholmes”, and was able to continue selling his stories.

The saga of Sherlock Holmes-related copyright battles extended all the way to a US Supreme Court case in 2014, but the most relevant part of it comes out of that initial Doyle-Leblanc fight. Specific characters are protected by copyright, but broad character types are not. It’s pretty obvious why this is: if an author were able to copyright a certain style of character or story, everything would be protected by copyright and no one would be allowed to sell works without paying whoever holds that particular right, effectively stifling the creation of new fiction.

This brings us back to the case of Liru and the fangame she stars in. The Liru featured in Wolf Girl With You seems fundamentally the same character as the one in Magical Pokaan, right down to her personality quirks and the unusual outfit she wears. Yet it doesn’t seem like the maker has had any problem selling his work. The same is true of thousands of doujin artists who produce and sell fan comics twice a year at Tokyo’s massive Comiket conventions.

Under US law, these would very likely fall into the category of derivative works, which make use of copyrightable aspects of existing works (in this case, characters and sometimes elements of the world they live in) to create something otherwise new and original. The authors of such derivative works can claim copyright protection, but only for those original elements they add — the characters and other elements they borrow are not themselves copyrightable by the derivative work author according to 17 U.S.C. § 103(b).

However, although games like Wolf Girl With You and many of the other doujin games, comics, and fanworks in the market would almost certainly be considered derivative works, US law also requires that the author of the derivative work be licensed by the original copyright holder, not just to sell it, but even to produce it in the first place. To me, this is where the trouble starts, specifically with the length of time that copyright protection in the US extends. Because for works created and “fixed in a tangible expression of medium”2 on or after January 1, 1978, that protection extends for the author’s entire life plus 70 years, or in the case of multiple authors 70 years past the death of the last surviving author. And in the case of works made for hire, which would usually include works produced by a corporation, that protection lasts for either 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

There’s a complicated mess of other rules applying to works made before 1978, to sound recordings, and to works created under certain uncommon circumstances, but this is probably enough to illustrate just how long copyright protection lasts in the United States: for stupidly long periods of time. These periods have also been extended by Congress, thanks largely to political pressure applied by major copyright holders (Disney is usually the one “credited” in their efforts to protect Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain, but they’re not the only ones responsible.)

This photo result I came across under the search term “old mouse” is the closest thing to a public domain image of Mickey I could find. Also, though they’ve produced some great films, fuck Disney now for both this and various other reasons.

I certainly support the artist’s right to protect their work. Hell, I should — I hold the rights to everything I’ve written on this site, and I’d be pissed if someone copypasted one of my posts somewhere without asking me, providing a link, and giving proper credit. However, that protection should have a more realistic limit. Compare the time periods listed above to those in patent law, which protects the exclusive rights over new inventions and processes for either 14 or 20 years from the date of filing for an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office. In these cases, the benefits enjoyed by the patent holder are protected, but not for a ridiculously long period of time. There’s good reason to protect patent for a shorter period than copyright (for example, to allow pharmaceutical companies to start making generic versions of brand-name drugs, hopefully at lower prices) but the century-plus copyright protections we now have are still extremely excessive.

Moreover, these periods have been continually extended by Congress, most recently in 1998, and there’s no reason to believe these extensions won’t continue into the distant future. It’s worth asking whether the interests of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original artists in exclusively profiting off of their works outweigh the interests of the public in having works available to freely republish and enjoy without permission in the public domain.

Thankfully, copyright holders generally seem to tolerate unauthorized uses of their characters in the US and broadly online, at least when they’re not sold for profit, as with fanfiction. And sometimes even when they are — anyone who’s ever visited the artists’ alley in an anime, fantasy, or sci-fi con has seen hundreds of artistic depictions of popular copyrighted characters being sold without an army of lawyers descending upon the operation. Of course, it’s not like the copyright holders don’t realize what’s going on. Presumably most of them tolerate that much because cracking down would give them bad press, and perhaps they even see the use of their characters as a sign of their popularity and as an overall positive.

I spent four days of hell at the Baltimore Convention Center once, but I’d still do it again. I miss anime cons.

Even so, the copyright holders still hold the right to descend upon any artists who make unlicensed, unauthorized use of their characters. That right generally isn’t in question, even if an artist can successfully argue that fair use protects them in a particular case (which is a harder defense to sustain in these circumstances than many people realize.)3 The problem lies in the law itself, which has been repeatedly adjusted to ensure that most works made and published in the 20th century don’t fall into the public domain. As I see it, in this case as in many others, the individual right should be balanced against the social good — here, the rights of artists and their descendants to enjoy the fruits of those labors against the public interest in keeping old art alive and accessible. Which is certainly something I think government has a duty to regulate, instead of simply bending over for big copyright holders as they’ve always done. Not that I have any particular hope of that happening. It’s all about who has the deepest pockets, after all.

Which brings me back to Liru once again. As far as I know, she first showed up with the rest of the cast of Magical Pokaan when the original anime series aired in 2006, so the matter of public domain isn’t that relevant to her or to many other characters now used in fanmade works. However, the idea of the public domain and the benefits it provides to everyone does apply in this case, at least in a general sense. Even if there’s no question that the copyright holder has the right to prevent the creation of derivative works based on their character without permission, it can be to their benefit to have a permissive attitude towards the use of their characters by fans.

Of course, not every IP owner might be comfortable with letting people sell porn games starring their characters or even offer them to the public for free. That’s understandable, especially if they’re trying to maintain a family-friendly all-ages atmosphere (see Nintendo’s recent DMCA takedown of an NSFW Newgrounds game starring Princess Peach.) However, there’s something to be said for letting things go at a certain point. Speaking again of Persona 5, a few years ago Atlus received massive backlash for trying to strictly police streams of that game, even though they were arguably within their rights to do so. Perhaps as a result of this backlash, they seem to have eased up on such policies.

While that had to do with streaming and not the creation of fanart, I think a very similar principle is at work here.4 It’s really in everyone’s interests to allow plenty of leeway for fans to show their appreciation for the works they enjoy, which may involve the creation, display, and even to some extent the sale of fanworks whether licensed or unlicensed. There’s certainly a line to be crossed somewhere in this area — for example, if someone’s trying to pass off bootleg “official” merchandise — but I generally feel that if there’s no possibility of confusion over whether a work is official or fanmade, a more permissive attitude should prevail, and I hope that’s the new standard we’re approaching in the West.

Anyway, thanks for joining me for this serious legal analysis post. If you’re a staff member at Harvard Law looking for a new professor, send me a DM and we’ll talk.

As always, I’d like to know what you, the reader, think about this issue if you have an opinion. There’s clearly an ethical/moral element to this matter aside from the legal one, and I recognize that some creators might have reasons for wanting to maintain control over how their characters are used by fans. I’d also like to hear from fan artists if any are around, since a lot of my assumptions about how these laws are actually enforced here come from my secondhand perspective as a fan and buyer. And of course, I’m also interested in hearing from other fans like me. As usual, I don’t really have the answers — I only end up asking more questions. 𒀭

1 Here’s where I admit that I know nothing about Japanese law, so I can’t really comment on any potential issues that could arise in Japan over copyright matters. This is only going off of a possibly mistaken assumption that the fundamentals of copyright law in Japan aren’t that different from those in the United States. If they aren’t, then clearly at least the approach to enforcement there is very different.

2 This “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” requirement has its own whole complicated factors test that I won’t get into, since all the works we’re dealing with here are undoubtedly fixed in this way. However, in some cases, this requirement can place certain performances outside the scope of federal copyright law.

3 But note that if an IP owner sits on the right to enforce their copyright for a long time, they may end up effectively losing it — the doctrine of equitable estoppel lets the alleged infringer argue that since the IP owner knew and was clearly not bothered about the unlicensed use of their IP, they shouldn’t be allowed to suddenly change their minds about it. There’s a fundamental matter of fairness involved here; the idea is that other users may reasonably rely on the IP owner’s inaction as a sign that they’re taking a permissive attitude.

Like other forms of equitable defense, it’s absolutely not a sure thing, though. As always, every case has its own quirks and has to be taken on its own.

4 However, by contrast streaming is still in a gray area. I might get into the fair use doctrine and transformative art as they relate to streaming in a later post.

Deep reads #5.2: That was cheap

Here’s a fun Hardcore History-style disclaimer: This is part two in a multi-part feature on the Megami Tensei game series. If you haven’t read part one, here’s a link — I recommend reading that first before proceeding to get the proper context if you need it. But if you just want to dive in here, that’s totally up to you.

You can also read this disclaimer in Dan Carlin’s voice if you want. But if I had his voice, I’d probably be podcasting instead of writing a blog. Anyway, on with the show.

“Cheap” is a term that gets thrown around a lot when players die in games in ways they feel to be unfair. I don’t know if it’s possible to pin down exactly what a cheap death is, or where specifically a death goes from “okay, that was my fault” to “fuck this cheating piece of shit game” along with a possible thrown/broken controller.

Maybe the best way to define cheap in this case is to use that famous definition of pornography given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”1 The best example I can give of just such an “I know it when I see it” instance is this.

I like the detail on his sarcophagus, though. Kazuma Kaneko pays a lot of attention to detail in his designs.

That’s a compilation made by YouTube user Jim Reaper of parts of the boss battle against Mot, an Egyptian god of death, in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. This fight occurs at a point fairly late in the game when the part-human part-demon protagonist Demifiend is running through the Vortex World, a small sort of bubble universe containing the ruins of Tokyo. After fighting through the somehow perfectly preserved Diet Building, Demifiend is forced to face this sarcophogus-encased asshole to proceed.

Mot normally shouldn’t be a big problem at this point in the game if you’ve built up a team of demon allies with diverse strengths and abilities. However, he has a trump card that he’ll decide to pull if you’re unlucky: Beast Eye. This is the weaker of two special abilities that gives the user extra half-turns denoted by the flashing icon in the upper right.

Essentially, Beast Eye and the even stronger Dragon Eye let you get more turns for free, something like wishing for more wishes from a genie. Only bosses can use this move; for obvious reasons neither Demifiend nor any of his allies gets to use either of them (including boss demons that become recruitable or fuseable after they’re defeated.)2 This would be cheap enough, but Mot alone among all his boss colleagues can use Beast Eye multiple times in one turn. It doesn’t happen in every fight, but when Mot remembers he has that ability, he can effectively deny the player his turn, using a combination of Beast Eye, buffs, and powerful Almighty magic attacks that can’t be nullified to kill Demifiend and company even if they’re fully healed and buffed.

Granted it does lead to the game’s beautiful game over sequence that I never get tired of seeing, but still, annoying.

So maybe it’s not easy to pin down exactly what constitutes “cheap” in a boss battle, but that sure as hell is cheap. I’m not sure if it was even put in intentionally or was an accident; there’s no particular reason Mot alone among all the bosses should have this frustrating ability, which is why I think it might not have been intentional.

But this is not the only big “FUCK YOU” moment in a Megami Tensei game. I had a much more personally frustrating experience with the Beelzebub fight near the end of my Neutral route run of Shin Megami Tensei IV. This feared chief lieutenant to Lucifer is very strong, as he should be given his position as an endgame boss, and the battle is naturally difficult to clear. However, when the fight starts there’s a good chance, possibly 50/50, that on top of all that Beelzebub will get the first turn, which he will use to absolutely fucking destroy your party. If he hasn’t completely wiped you out and sent you off to Charon before you get a turn, your party will almost certainly be too injured and weak to effectively answer Beelzebub’s first strike, and you’ll probably end up dying on your second or third turn.

After beating slapped around by this giant fly for a dozen rounds, I just started automatically quitting and reloading when he got the first shot assuming I wasn’t totally dead at that point. Because to me, this fight jumped over “challenging” and landed in that cheap territory, at least when it gave Beelzebub the first turn. I wouldn’t call it a controller-throwing moment, since SMT IV was on the 3DS and like hell I was about to break that precious thing by flinging it into a wall. But the fight was frustrating and felt fundamentally unfair. A coin toss mechanic works fine if the two parties are relatively balanced in strength, but that wasn’t the case here.

More Kaneko, depicting the Lord of the Flies in his ultimate form. I said it seven years ago in my review of the game and I’ll say it again now: Beelzebub is an asshole.

There are a few other instances I can think of in the series that might count as cheap, like the Sleeping Table fight in Persona 3. However, almost none of the other difficulties I’ve faced in an SMT, Persona, or other game in the MegaTen series has really pissed me off to such an extent as this fight against Beelzebub. I have heard some of these games called difficult to the point of being entirely cheap, though, and that’s what I want to address here. I can’t blame anyone for feeling that way about any of the mainline games in particular — they do like to beat up on the player, Strange Journey probably being the worst in that regard.3

But I don’t mind that. That’s partly because these games usually give you all the tools you need to meet their challenges. When I talked about cheap SMT bosses above, the name “Matador” might have sprung to mind — this powerful fiend dressed up like a Spanish bullfighter shows up early in Nocturne and will usually wipe out new players because of how steep a jump in difficulty his fight represents. However, there’s a big difference between the way Matador fights and the ways Mot and Beelzebub fight in the examples I gave above. In the latter cases, the player can easily get battered to death no matter how prepared they are through the enemy’s use of unique advantages that are extremely difficult to survive, much less to counter.

Matador, however, can easily be countered as long as the player has the right party and skill setup. He seems to be the game’s way of telling the player “Hey, we’re not going to let you breeze through this just by staying properly leveled. You have to use your head.” You could argue that a boss battle designed to beat the player the first time around is a bit cheap in itself, but as long as you’re hitting save points promptly, you’ll lose very little progress, and it’s an easy matter to fall back and come up with a new strategy. And almost every other difficult battle in the series I’ve played so far fits this model: it presents an obstacle that seems insurmountable until you come up with the winning strategy (though having some luck still helps.)

And don’t forget the buffs. No joke, Megami Tensei really is the one JRPG series I’ve played in which buffs and debuffs are not only useful but essential to winning.

That’s not the only aspect of Megami Tensei that sometimes feels unfair, however. There’s another mechanic present in a lot of these games that might make you tear your hair out: demon negotiation.

Negotiating with fellow humans is hard enough. But when you’re a human (or a former human-turned-demi-human as in Nocturne) dealing with devils, angels, spirits, and even deities, it’s time to leave behind logic entirely. Players new to the series who picked up Persona 5 got a taste of that pure insanity in its own negotiation system, but the mechanic in that game is fair and easygoing compared to its counterparts in the mainline games.

In the other games, the demons you’re talking to aren’t typically knocked down or pleading for their lives, so maybe that’s the reason for their relative docility in P5. And in case you’re wondering, yeah, I did let her live.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a summary: in many Megami Tensei games (ex. the SMT series, the Devil Summoner series, and of course Persona 5) you have the option of fighting against your enemies or talking to them.4 Once you initiate the conversation, several things can happen depending upon the game you’re playing. Most often, the demon you choose to talk to will acknowledge that you’re asking them to join your party and will start to haggle with you, asking you to give them specific items or amounts of money or to let them drain some of your HP or mana. After a few requests that you can either take or leave, the demon may then ask you a multiple-choice question. This question is often a philosophical one, something like “Don’t you think the strong should protect the weak?” or “Is beauty only skin-deep?”, the sort of question depending upon the demon you’re talking to. And if the demon likes your answer, it will probably join your party.

But note all those qualifiers I wrote above: often, may, probably. None of these are sure outcomes. Again, it depends on which game you’re playing, but the demon you’re talking to may be able to reject your advances outright, or take the items and money you’ve given it and run, or decide it doesn’t like how you answered its question and leave or even get angry and attack you, or decline to join your party but give you an item instead (sometimes the very same item you gave it!) Sometimes the question it asks has a bizarre “correct” answer, or one that doesn’t seem to line up with the alignment of the demon asking it. Sometimes the “question” isn’t even a question but an exclamation or a command that you have to do your best to interpret. And depending upon the type of demon, you might not even be able to enter negotiations, either because it’s a mindless beast that can’t communicate with you or because it’s an evil god or demigod who’s too arrogant to even consider giving you the time of day.

And if you talk to a demon under certain circumstances, like a full moon phase in a mainline game, good luck getting anything meaningful out of it, because the full moon apparently gets demons high. Though that’s also a great time to trigger events that won’t normally happen at any other time, like having one of those haughty but extremely powerful Tyrant demons join your party (though I wonder if they end up regretting their decision when they come down after the full moon phase ends. Too bad, because it’s too late once you’ve got them!)

Okay Demifiend, I agreed to join your party but does that mean we have to take these weird group photos? Also please stop twisting my nose. (Source: still more Kaneko official art. This post is really doubling as a Kaneko art appreciation piece, isn’t it.)

At this point, you might be wondering whether it’s worth negotiating with these jerks at all if there’s always a good chance that it will go wrong. To be sure, it’s extremely annoying to have a demon run off with your items without you being able to stop them or to constantly get turned down by one specific demon you’re trying to pick up because you keep failing its stupid tests. But negotiation is still a must. It’s necessary to getting through these games’ challenges efficiently, since it provides useful fodder for fusion to get new demons with more than their typically meager default set of skills.

More importantly, negotiation in these games is fun, largely because of how insane it can get. Negotiation is a gamble that provides the player with a lot of possible outcomes, some of which may only turn up after dozens or hundreds of rounds of talks with various enemies. This makes the mechanic a lot more interesting to use for me, even if the results can be occasionally frustrating — especially when you’re trying to recruit one particular demon you need for a fusion (or just because they look cool or are a hot lady demon or guy demon depending upon your preference; those are legitimate reasons too.) If the gambling aspect of negotiation weren’t there, I could imagine it becoming a bit repetitive and boring, but I’ve never had that feeling about it in one of these games.

Moreover, the crazy, unpredictable nature of negotiation in SMT and the other spinoffs that feature it fits in nicely with the chaotic environments that most of these games take place in. Imagine trying to talk to a powerful mythical beast or spirit, much less trying to convince them to join your team and follow your orders. You’d be lucky if they merely ignored you and didn’t decide to eat or possess you or something similar. Since your protagonist in these games typically has either the natural ability or the pure strength to bring these beings over to his side, it’s reasonable that he at least has to deal with this human-demon cultural divide, and in a few cases with a sort of language gap.

Uh, shit. Okay, maybe “human” is the right answer because it’s the odd one out, but maybe this demon will agree and eat me if I say that. What to do.

To me, this is why these crazy, often unpredictable negotiations fit in so well with the general feel of the Megami Tensei games, and especially with the mainline apocalyptic SMT ones. When you’re thrown into the deep end like that, it makes sense that you’d have to deal with this kind of madness. The games usually do give you a bit of help with a free demon, typically a Pixie who takes some pity on your squishy human self, joins your party for free, and explains the basics of negotiation to you. But beyond that, generally speaking you’re on your own, which is just the way it should be.

And I think that’s true for the entire Megami Tensei experience as a whole. These games vary in tone a lot, from pretty hopeful and even light and fluffy with a few of the spinoff of spinoff games (really the Persona ones) to grim and “why even go on living” with stuff like Strange Journey. Those are both aspects of the series that I plan to cover in later parts of this run of posts, but I think the mercilessness of the combat and dungeon-crawling and the chaotic nature of the negotiation throughout a lot of the series suits it well in both cases. I couldn’t imagine MegaTen in general without it, anyway. It just wouldn’t be the same. Even the fights that feel cheap still fit that kind of setting in my opinion, though I could still do without Beelzebub starting first and destroying my party while I watch helplessly.

I could go on with even more such banging my head against the wall but also fun instances from these games, but I hope I’ve made my point well enough by now. Next time, I plan to move from gameplay mechanics over to story elements, diving right into the characters, story, and lore, so prepare yourself for that. Once again, I hope you’ll join me on that journey. 𒀭

 

1 Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), in case you thought I wouldn’t bother to cite the case properly. You can find the quote on page 197 if you don’t believe me. There are also very obvious questions raised here about how much experience Justice Stewart had seeing pornography considering his comment, but these questions lie outside the scope of this post series.

2 And possibly some very strong normal enemies as well, but I don’t remember if that’s the case. In general if I write something incorrect in these posts, which is very very likely, please feel free to leave a comment correcting me.

3 Just to be clear, I’m not talking about ultra-frustrating final bosses like Mem Aleph in Strange Journey, or optional extra bosses like Demifiend in Digital Devil Saga. Some people might see those as kind of cheap, especially Demifiend who can summon a wide variety of demon allies just like he can when the player’s controlling him in Nocturne. However, these are the kinds of bosses you fight either specifically for a challenge or at a point in the game where you’re expected to throw everything you have left at it, so if there is any cheapness there, it feels more appropriate to me.

4 If “talking to enemies instead of fighting” makes you think of Undertale, that’s no coincidence: from what I understand, Megami Tensei is where its creator got the idea from, though he took his own conversation mechanic in a very different direction. There’s no pacifist run possible in any MegaTen game that I’ve ever played, anyway.