A review of Kizumonogatari

Last month I took a look at Bakemonogatari, the first part of the long-running Monogatari anime adaptation of novels by author Nisio Isin. I liked pretty much everything about what I saw and decided on that basis to keep going with it. But before I could proceed to the next part in the series chronologically, I was advised by top experts to turn back and watch the three Kizumonogatari prequel movies, titled Tekketsu-hen, Nekketsu-hen, and Reiketsu-hen. So that’s what I did. And so here’s my review of all three. I could break this post into three parts as well, but to me these three films really feel like one three-and-a-half hour film broken into three parts — they tell one complete story, and they’re all made in the same style.

But maybe that would have been too exhausting for the audience. Taken all together, there is a lot of shocking, sometimes inhuman-looking violence and gore in these three movies, much more than there was in Bakemonogatari. The same is true of the sexually suggestive content in Kizumonogatari. If you thought that first series was a bit much for you, this set of movies also cranks that element up. Once again, though, I don’t think any of it’s gratuitous, as extreme as these movies get in some of their contents. The story they tell is an extreme one anyway, one that was already set up in the first series, and one that needed to be told to explain some of the characters’ situations in that series.

Aside from the general content warning, here’s another one: there are going to be some specific spoilers in this post, the kind I tried to avoid in that last review. I couldn’t really avoid them this time, partly because of these films’ links to that series. So please take the usual precautions if you care to. In some sense the ending to these films is already kind of spoiled since they’re meant to be watched after Bakemonogatari, but I like to be safe anyway.

Here’s our protagonist again. At the beginning of Bakemonogatari, the student Koyomi Araragi has already survived a serious ordeal, a run-in with the supernatural that nearly killed him and put one of his friends in great danger. At the start of Tekketsu-hen, he’s just a regular guy, though one without friends at the moment. Araragi prefers to keep to himself. However, that changes over his two-week spring break. When school gets out and he’s aimlessly hanging around the front gate, he comes across one of his classmates, the legendarily smart and proper student council president Tsubasa Hanekawa. The first look he gets of her is quite improper, though. When the wind blew down the street and flipped her skirt up, I understood where that very first scene in Bakemonogatari came from.

That’s one of the powers of the author, to create a convenient gust of wind at just the right time

Despite this embarrassing start to their first meeting, Hanekawa laughs it off and insists on talking with and getting to know Araragi better. It turns out they both know about each other, but until now they haven’t interacted despite being in the same class. Araragi tries desperately to get away, putting up a show of acting cold towards her, but Hanekawa follows him anyway and goes on about school, their future plans, and some rumor she heard about a beautiful blonde vampire woman stalking around town. She also puts her number into his phone and tells him that he’s made a friend whether he likes it or not.

After she cheerfully waves goodbye to him and leaves, Araragi skips home, secretly happy that he met and got to know Hanekawa. However, he can’t get that first accidental and improper look at her out of his head, and it starts to seriously bother him in just the way you might expect. So late that night, he leaves his weirdly empty house (he lives with his parents and two little sisters, but they’re nowhere to be seen in these movies) and runs to a bookstore to buy a girly magazine to relieve some of that stress. On the way back home, however, he gets sidetracked by a trail of blood leading down to a subway station, and what he finds there puts every other thought out of his mind. There lies a blonde woman with all her limbs cut off, gushing blood all over the platform.

Despite her state, she speaks to Araragi calmly, even with an arrogant tone, commanding him to give her his blood. This seems to be that vampire Hanekawa was talking about: the strangely named Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade. Kiss-Shot tells Araragi he should be grateful to have such an opportunity, but Araragi turns to flee in terror after she tells him she’ll need all his blood to survive.

Despite initially running for his life, Araragi decides to throw it away to save this vampire woman after she loses her haughty demeanor and starts crying and pleading with him. Kiss-Shot thankfully accepts his offer and bites him, and the scene fades out. However, we know he’s obviously not going to die, so what does happen to him? Naturally, he wakes up a vampire himself — a follower of Kiss-Shot, who’s been restored to health with all her limbs intact.

Well, sort of. Kiss-Shot explains that she indeed sucked Araragi dry, and by doing do she turned him, making him her servant. She also explains that in order to regenerate her body, she needed to take the form of a child. In this weak form, though, she can’t fight against the vampire hunters who cut off and took her limbs. To recover that strength, Araragi will have to use his new vampiric regeneration ability and strength to defeat them one by one and acquire her arms and legs, all video game boss style. Only then will she have the power to turn him back into a human. In the meantime, the pair take refuge from the sun in an abandoned cram school building.

Also, headpats are how you show your vampire master that you submit to her. At least that’s what Kiss-Shot claims. Maybe she’s just making that up — it would be totally in character for her.

When Araragi ventures out of the cram school at night to face these powerful vampire hunters who are after Kiss-Shot, they all gang up on him at once. Araragi freaks out and tries to run away, but one moment before they close in and kill him, the final character in the story shows up to save him: Meme Oshino, the ghost/youkai/apparition expert from Bakemonogatari. This Oshino guy apparently has a scary enough reputation that the three vampire hunters run away, and he and Araragi return to the cram school to sort things out with Kiss-Shot. A solid team is formed, although the mysterious Oshino refuses to do any fighting himself, only “lending a hand” as he puts it, and for a steep price at that. But he seems to know his stuff, so they accept his help.

Oshino is legitimately a cool guy, and not just because vampire hunters are afraid of him.

And that’s the basic premise of Kizumonogatari. In fact, I just set out all the events of the first movie, which is only about an hour long. The rest of the story sees these plot setups play out, with emphases on the relationships Araragi builds with Oshino, Kiss-Shot, and Hanekawa. Because even though she doesn’t seem connected with the rest of the story, Hanekawa ends up involving herself in it with obviously serious risks. These are risks that she seems to fully understand, but she takes them anyway.

Before getting into more details, I should say that I completely get now why Kizumonogatari is meant to be watched after Bakemonogatari, even though it comes first chronologically. It seems to have been written specifically as a prequel. If I’d watched these movies before that first series, I don’t know if I’d understand why certain characters take some of the seemingly strange actions they do here. For example, the reason that Araragi would give his life up for this vampire woman probably won’t be clear unless you’ve watched Bakemonogatari and know what kind of person he is. As we’ve already seen in that series, it’s not out of character for him to help someone else even at the risk of his own life, and even if that someone else is an apparition, monster, or spirit. It really would have been more out of character for him to let her die.

The same is true for Hanekawa. Araragi himself is confused about why this perfect young lady, this model student and class president, would even bother talking to a loser like him. From what I could tell, for as much screentime as Hanekawa gets in these movies, the narrative doesn’t make this clear either. She tells Araragi at their first meeting that she has a fascination with vampires and supernatural things in general, but the reasons she’s found wandering around town at night, or why she gravitates towards Araragi as if he’s a magnet, even when she knows he’s been turned into a vampire — these only make some sense if you’ve seen Bakemonogatari and understand what a miserable home life she has. Again, Kizumonogatari doesn’t go into any details; it relies on the viewer having seen the first series or read the first set of novels already.

It’s not a baseball movie, this is just part of one of the fights

If you were starting with these movies, you might also think based on the events of Tekketsu-hen that their focus is going to be on how Araragi learns to use his new vampiric powers to fight the three vampire hunters and retrieve Kiss-Shot’s limbs. That does happen, complete with elaborate fight scenes — these scenes fill out a lot of the action of the second Nekketsu-hen film — but it turns out that these three enemies aren’t even close to the greatest threat Araragi has to face. No, that would be Kiss-Shot herself.

Oshino, who Araragi comes to half-trust as a mentor and half-suspect as a weirdo with unclear intentions, drops a few hints that help him discover this fact. Though Araragi absolutely wants to become a human again, he also seems to be drawn somewhat to Kiss-Shot. This isn’t such a surprise — in her weakest form, she takes the form of a kid who looks like she needs protection, albeit one who talks in a very haughty and superior way and uses old-fashioned language (I don’t know how it comes out in Japanese, but in the translation she refers to him as “ye” a lot.) As Araragi collects her limbs, Kiss-Shot consumes them and ages up, getting closer to the looks she has when we first meet her. But he seems more and more taken by her, up to the point when she’s fully restored and at full power again.

I mean, not that I can really blame him.

By this point, he seems to have forgotten an important fact, one that he curses himself later for not realizing: Kiss-Shot is a vampire, and that means she kills and consumes humans. He gets a stomach-turning reminder of this fact when he tells her he’ll go get a meal to celebrate their last night together before she turns him into a human again. Kiss-Shot cheerfully agrees, but when Araragi returns with some takeout, he finds she has started without him, feeding upon the corpse of one of the vampire hunters he’d earlier defeated. Kiss-Shot seems genuinely surprised when she sees he’s brought normal human-style food and not the “portable food” she expected: that “bespectacled, braided girl” she’d briefly met before, that class president who had been sticking around Araragi and bringing him supplies while they hid out in the cram school — Tsubasa Hanekawa.

In a later episode of Bakemonogatari, Araragi tells Hanekawa that he owes her his life. It’s not clear what he’s referring to then, but in Reiketsu-hen Hanekawa snaps him back into reality when he’s despairing about having revived a murderous vampire. By this point in the films, the two have built a strange sort of relationship — Hanekawa pushed a friendship on him that he didn’t plan to accept, then he tried pushing her away out of fear that he’d put her in danger. When she was put in danger anyway by trying to help him during a fight with one of the vampire hunters, the hunter mortally wounds her, and Araragi is only able to save her with the timely help of Oshino. By the middle of the third film, Araragi and Hanekawa understand each other and their connection has been made real, letting the viewer make a direct link to the unusual friendship between the top student and burnout slacker in Bakemonogatari.

Kiss-Shot showing off her stupidly long sword: one that she purposely doesn’t use in the final fight.

This is the link that gives Araragi the strength to fight and defeat his vampiric master Kiss-Shot. Having resolved that he can’t let her continue to kill humans, he faces her in battle. Though they’re both immortal at this point and can almost instantly regenerate limbs and even their own heads, Kiss-Shot is clearly on a far higher level having been around for 500 years. So it’s a bit of a surprise when Araragi manages to get an opening and latch onto her neck, literally sucking the life out of her as she withers back to a small, weakened form. And here’s the other big connection to Bakemonogatari and the rest of the story: it’s revealed that Kiss-Shot wanted to die after living for such a long time — specifically that she wanted to die for a human after seeing her first human-turned-vampire follower die centuries before — and this was just how she intended to restore Araragi to human form.

Araragi refuses to grant her wish, however. After Oshino (who’s been hiding in a corner and watching this whole time) comes out and gives Araragi a few options none of which are that great, our protagonist goes for the ending that will make everyone unhappy: he drains Kiss-Shot of blood until she’s almost dead and has lost almost all her power, making him almost human but not quite. By doing this he creates Shinobu, the silent vampire girl from Bakemonogatari who has to drink his blood to survive. It’s now clear why Araragi feels guilty towards Shinobu, having taken away almost all of her power and even the right she has to her title and name while not granting her wish to die, and this guilt makes it even more clear why he might have been reluctant to ask for her help at the end of Bakemonogatari even when he knew he needed it.

And here’s the end of Kizumonogatari, or Wound Tale. I wrote in that first Monogatari review that I’d heard these movies were somewhat divisive, and I have seen a few criticisms of them since. One is of their visual style, which is very different from that of Bakemonogatari and the other TV series in some ways. Kizumonogatari is a lot more violent with a focus on body horror — during his fights, Araragi loses and regrows body parts, which regenerate in almost infant-looking form back into their original shapes. All this is accompanied by a lot of viscera and spraying blood. The worst scene by far for me isn’t one of these but rather a more realistic-looking one, when Hanekawa gets very graphically disemboweled by one of the vampire hunters. Probably because it is more realistic-looking, even if she does get magically restored by Araragi’s vampire power with the advice of Oshino.

There are more mundane differences too, like the character models themselves: Oshino is pretty much unchanged, but Araragi looks a lot bulkier in Kizumonogatari, even before he gets buff and largely shirtless during his time as a vampire. And Hanekawa looks extra-cute, to a way more exaggerated extent than in the other series. I did notice these differences, but they didn’t bother me. I can even take the extreme violence — as I wrote at the top, this is an extreme sort of story anyway, so the extreme visuals fit in that sense. I should note generally how good the animation in all three films is; Kizumonogatari looks like it had a pretty high budget. Even so, people who can’t take extremely violent scenes might want to avoid these movies.

More of those facial closeups that I’ve come to expect from this series now. Maybe Hanekawa’s weirdly exaggerated cuteness is meant to contrast with the extreme violence later on? Just a guess, because I have no idea.

There’s also the sexual content. There’s no outright sex in Kizumonogatari, but there is a ton of tension between Araragi and Hanekawa from their very start of their first encounter. Araragi is obviously attracted to Hanekawa from the beginning, and Hanekawa seems to start feeling that way about Araragi. After their interactions in the second and third movies, it’s honestly pretty surprising that nothing ends up happening between them, with Araragi eventually getting grabbed up by his other classmate Hitagi Senjougahara. It definitely comes as no surprise when we later learn in Bakemonogatari that Hanekawa’s secretly interested in him and that this interest started right here during Araragi’s vampiric spring break.

Even so, there’s a bit of criticism that Hanekawa is unnecessarily or overly sexualized in these movies, especially during the gym storage room scene between her and Araragi in Reiketsu-hen. While I can understand some people being uncomfortable with that scene, it doesn’t really clash with the characters that were developed either here or in Bakemonogatari in my opinion. This and a couple of other scenes also provide some background for the relationship between Araragi and Hanekawa. So far I’ve seen a recurring theme in Monogatari of the contrast between lust and serious romantic love. It’s one that’s very relevant to this relationship, and one that will come back with serious consequences for both characters later in the series.

Also, both the anime series and films are based on novels written from the perspective of Koyomi Araragi, a high school student with raging hormones, so it’s only natural if he’s fixating on more sexual details. He doesn’t seem to be a totally reliable narrator anyway. Not sure how much that perspective affected the angle taken in Kizumonogatari, but it’s worth noting.

As usual there’s context to explain this strange-looking scene

There’s a lot of emotion in Kizumonogatari, and it’s not the cheap kind. Sure, it is a vampire romance, and those aren’t anything new. But the characters here show that they’re willing to make great sacrifices for each other in ways that both explain and connect with events in Bakemonogatari, and for that reason alone these films are quite something to watch. They have a style fitting the dark, depressing tone of the story, though there are some comedic breaks as well — this is also written by Nisio Isin, so there’s still some quipping here, though there aren’t any 20-minute stretches where two characters sit on a park bench and play out comedy wordplay bits like there are in Bakemonogatari.

The pacing in Kizumonogatari is still a bit strange at times in the way you’d expect if you’re familiar with this series, with a few very weird scenes in the middle (my favorite: Araragi playfully spraying Hanekawa with a bottle of Coke while they run around in a field of wheat???) But again, that didn’t bother me at all. It seems like anything weird that comes up in these adaptations is taken straight out of the original novels. The pacing also suits the story these movies tell, and that’s part of why I can imagine Shaft having made this one extra-long film with an intermission in the middle, the sort American studios produced back in the 50s and 60s. I think that could have worked well, not just because of the relatively short lengths of each but also because they have some of the feel of those old-fashioned epics. Though presumably there would be a lot fewer ticket sales for one movie than for three. They did air all three in theaters from what I understand, which makes sense — Kizumonogatari really feels to me like it was made for a big screen.

That’s quite a skyline. Later on Araragi talks about how he lives in a “small town”, but this doesn’t look that small to me. Maybe it’s meant to be a boring suburb.

The ending theme to the second and third movies also suits the tone of these movies beautifully. When I first heard “Étoile et toi” I thought it was an old French song they had adapted, but it turns out it was written specifically for these movies. Even if you have no interest in watching this or Monogatari at all, you should at least check out that song and its variations.

Obvious content warnings aside though, again, I think there’s a lot to miss out on here if it’s passed up. I really liked Kizumonogatari, even if it was exhausting to watch all at once, or maybe partly because of it. And the very last lines of the movie sealed the deal up for me. Araragi sparing Kiss-Shot’s life, though it cost her everything else, fits perfectly with the other parts of the series I’ve seen up until now: even though she’s a vampire, as Oshino says, aberrations like her can’t really be blamed for doing what they do. To him, and later to Araragi, this work of containing demons and spirits doesn’t seem to be a matter of good and evil so much, even though both are doing so largely to protect human life. The result of their efforts in this case was an unhappy ending, but it was also a satisfying one and a great setup to what comes afterward.

I don’t have anything big and profound to close with, so here’s Hanekawa’s :3 face.

And shit, that’s a lot more than I thought I’d have to say about Kizumonogatari. I did say in my first Monogatari post that my next anime review would be something different, but I guess I lied. Sorry. But I’ve been sucked into the series now. I really will try to find something different for my next anime review, though. This one took it out of me.

Until next time… I don’t know. Try to avoid vampires, maybe? Seems like a good idea. 𒀭

Liebster Award questions and answers (and another open question)

Many thanks to Frostilyte for tagging me for the Liebster Award. Writers on this platform have come up with a lot of these, haven’t they? In the creator’s words:

It’s an award in which bloggers nominate other bloggers for showing respect to their works and their dedication. It’s an appreciation and recognition for all the fellow bloggers out there in the blogosphere!

Which is something I can’t argue with.

So first, I highly recommend Frostilyte Writes — if you like the sort of stuff I post here, you should be following that site as well for deep game analyses, reviews, and art. Frostilyte has insightful takes that are very worth reading, and the blog comes with my seal of approval.

Now to the questions:

1) We’re four months into the year (at the time of writing) – what’s your favourite game played thus far?

The only 2020 release I’ve played so far is Persona 5 Royal, so I guess that’s my answer. Technically it’s a 2019 release, and the West had to wait another eight months for the localization as usual. But who am I to complain about a long wait? P5R is excellent so far, even if there are real questions to be asked about how necessary Royal is for people who have played the original and aren’t dumbass fans like me who will buy anything with Persona or any Megami Tensei branding on it.

There really is new content in Royal, though, like this. I know how it looks, but it’s not that kind of game.

2) What’s your favourite Pokémon? (don’t read into this too much)

I know this is a massive sacrilege, but I’m not really into Pokémon, which you might have guessed from the fact that I’ve never written about it here. Not that I think it’s bad or anything; I just missed the boat on it. Which is weird, but I think I was just about a year too old when it really got big where I lived — the card-trading game was seen as a kids-only thing in my class, so we weren’t doing it, and the series never caught on with us as a result. I also missed out on Harry Potter for probably the same reason.

Remember when both those series were condemned by some weird people as being Satanic? Those were better days, back when there was so much less to worry about that assholes had to invent controversies to get mad about.

Actually, they still do that, so never mind.

I still want to answer this question, though, and I am a little familiar with Pokémon, so I’ll just say Farfetch’d because I like his name and design. I don’t know if he’s any good in combat, but he’s a weird duck carrying a leek, how can you not like that.

3) Have you watched any shows lately that you’d highly recommend?

I just started watching Babylon Berlin, a Netflix original German production. It’s a crime/espionage drama set in 1929 in the Weimar Republic, the first democratic period of Germany’s history that ended when Hitler and his Nazis overthrew it. This is one of the most interesting times and places in history to me, considering all the political and economic chaos that occurred there. Not such a great time and place to live in, though, as you can see if you watch the show. I’m only into part of the first season, but it’s good so far — a lot of intrigue and backstabbing going on, just what I like.

4) What was your favourite movie from 2019?

I know it’s a boring answer, but hell if Parasite wasn’t just that good. I guess I won’t spoil anything here, but if you haven’t seen it, you should watch it. That’s all.

5) How do you feel about games with no single player content?

I don’t give a damn about them. Nothing against multiplayer-only games; they’re just not my thing. Part of the reason I got into gaming was because it was something I could do without having to talk to other people. If that sounds weird and unhealthy, it probably is. But God knows I need a fucking break sometimes, and I don’t need to spend it trying to awkwardly interact with strangers. This answer says a lot more about me than it does about multiplayer games.

6) What is your least favourite genre of game?

First-person shooters. Maybe partly because so much of the content in those games is multiplayer, but also because I just find them boring. The only one I ever liked very much was Goldeneye, and I don’t know how well it would hold up.

The second-to-last place prize goes to the MMO, partly for the reasons I put up in answer #5. Two free weeks of EVE Online was enough time for me to decide I’d never play another one again. I can appreciate the escapism they deliver, but I prefer to get mine through singleplayer games.

7) What is your favourite genre of game?

Turn-based RPGs. This genre has gotten a lot of shit in the past several years. I get that certain gameplay mechanics can get stale, but there’s still a lot of room for innovation using turn-based or hybrid setups. The mostly turn-based Megami Tensei series, for example, has kept its gameplay fresh for three decades by constantly tweaking its combat systems.

My answer extends to tactical RPGs. For people who feel regular turn-based RPG combat is too much of a weird abstraction, with enemies waiting their turn to attack and all that, this might be a better alternative. It’s still turn-based, but it feels more like playing a giant game of chess with way more types of pieces and freedom of movement, and your pieces have HP and SP and can use magic attacks.

Okay, it’s not much like chess, but at least the board game feel of it is different from the standard RPG combat setup. I once knew someone who couldn’t stand mainline Final Fantasy but really liked Final Fantasy Tactics for just this reason.

8) What game from your backlog have you recently finished?

I haven’t quite finished it, but I just got through two of five routes in the visual novel Katawa Shoujo. If I told you a bunch of 4chan regulars made a dating sim featuring girls with physical disabilities, you might imagine that it’s got to be incredibly offensive, but so far it’s just the opposite. I kept meaning to play this VN for several years now, and I’m happy that I’ve finally gotten around to it.

The third (and maybe last, maybe not) route I’m on is Rin’s. I get the feeling that Rin is supposed to be how the typical 4chan user saw himself back when the game was being made around ten years ago. She’s a spaced-out artist who despises authority and talks to her peers in a direct and sometimes harsh way. There’s another character in the game who represents that typical 4chan user a lot better in reality, probably, but I’ll get around to that if I write something on Katawa Shoujo. Anyway, I have no idea what the typical user of that site or its various boards is like today — this game may as well have been released 700 years ago for how fast society and culture move now.

9) Physical or digital?

Physical. I do own a lot of digital copies of games, partly because of Steam sales and partly because so many low-budget indie projects can only offer digital copies. If I have the choice, though, I’ll always go with a physical copy. I still vaguely remember the pre-internet era that ended when I was still very young, and I have some nostalgia for it. I also miss not having adult concerns. No one told me being an adult would be such dogshit, or if they did then I wasn’t listening.

10) Pinecone?

No thanks, I already ate.

***

Thanks again to Frostilyte for the questions. I’m reluctant to keep this chain going myself because I’ve taken part in a lot of them in the last year, and I’m afraid of asking essentially the same questions and annoying the same fellow writers I’ve kept tagging (or I’m just too lazy to bother; it’s up to you to decide which is true.)

So once again, I nominate everyone who’s bothered to read all of my rambling answers for a Liebster Award because if you have, you honestly deserve it whether or not you even have a blog. And I have a question for you that you can answer in the comments, or on your blog, or not answer at all, or just do with it whatever you feel like. Here it is:

Virtual reality-based games right now are clunky messes that cause motion sickness and headaches, but that probably won’t be the case forever. How do you feel about the prospect of games becoming increasingly immersive, to the point that they might even feel as “real” as reality itself? Do you think this would have more of a positive or negative impact on society as a whole, or would it make a significant difference?

I’m thinking of writing something about this soon, and you might guess at my own feelings about the subject, but I’m interested in knowing what other people think, and specifically in what the sort of person who reads my site thinks. It’s all still speculative, but it’s not so bad to speculate sometimes.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the drudgery of work for me. Once I’m past that crap, next up will probably be more visual novel reviews/analyses. Between the lunar new year and Golden Week sales, I’m loaded up with them, and I’ve also got more routes of Katawa Shoujo I can play through. So I hope you’ve liked it so far, because 2020 is the year of the visual novel for me apparently. Until next time. 𒀭

Deep reads #3: Just a little broken (Planetarian)

What’s the line between human and machine? If an artificial intelligence were created that seemed so natural and lifelike that we treated it as human, would there effectively be no difference between that artificial life and a natural one? And do these questions even really matter?

If there’s a mandatory reading/playing list of visual novels, Planetarian would have to be on it. First released in Japan on PC in 2004, this kinetic novel has gotten both fan and official translations on several platforms and is now widely considered a classic of the medium, and rightly so. This isn’t my favorite VN, but it is one I enjoy and respect a whole lot, and it takes on the above questions in a unique and interesting way.

Before I begin my look at Planetarian, however, I want to lay out exactly what approach I’m taking with it. I initially tried to write this as a normal review, but then I kept writing until I had a whole damn treatise on the thing. So it’s full of spoilers, both for Planetarian and a certain popular sci-fi film with some surface similarities that I contrast it with, one that took a promising premise and managed to completely shit it up in its last ten minutes (and one that was marketed partly through a harebrained scheme using a fake Tinder profile to catfish SXSW attendees. Okay, it’s Ex Machina.) So if you want to go into either of these raw, here’s your warning.

I do want to persuade people who haven’t experienced Planetarian yet to check it out, though, so here’s a one-sentence no-spoiler review: if you like the idea of a short post-apocalypse sci-fi story with excellent characterization, voice-acting, and music, but no branching decision points or route because it’s a kinetic VN, you should like it. I think the ending of this work is pretty well known by now since Planetarian has been around in various forms for 16 years, but I still feel the need to put a warning up here. It’s only a few hours long anyway, so it’s not a huge time investment.

The basic premise of Planetarian is that the world has gone completely to hell. About thirty years after a nuclear war and its aftermath destroyed almost all of humanity, Earth is only inhabited by still-operating autonomous weapons and a scattering of human survivors doing their best to live off of the ruins of their dead civilization. A constant radioactive downpour simply called “the Rain” makes this new world even more difficult to live in. In the midst of all this misery is our unnamed protagonist, simply called the Junker, a man who makes a living off of salvaging useful scraps from the old world to trade with: parts, food supplies, and the extremely rare and valuable preserved packs of cigarettes and bottles of liquor. Junker is exactly the kind of protagonist you’d expect to find in a post-apocalyptic work like this. He’s tough and battle-hardened, always armed and on the lookout for valuables and potential enemies, both mechanical and human.

At the opening of Planetarian, Junker has come across a “sarcophagus city”, a settlement that has been heavily fortified against attack. Unfortunately, those defenses weren’t quite enough: the city was abandoned by its population long ago, left to become yet another ruin. This is an opportunity for Junker, who thinks he may be able to salvage some useful items here.

There is one other being still operating in this dead city. Her name is Hoshino Yumemi, a robot built in the form of a young woman. Despite the fact that the city had been long since destroyed and emptied of its population, Yumemi still works for exactly one week per year as the receptionist, usher, and hostess of the Flowercrest Department Store’s planetarium, spending the rest of her time in sleep mode charging at a station that’s still working off of a trickle of power somehow still available from a nearby vacant military installation. Since the outbreak of the global war and the exodus from the city, however, the planetarium hasn’t seen any business — not until Junker arrives there looking for shelter.

Junker is shocked to find a young woman alone in this ruin and immediately suspects a trap, but he soon realizes that Yumemi is just a robot who has been operating autonomously all this time. As Yumemi herself explains, she was left in charge of the planetarium while the human staff were out. Since the day they left the city almost thirty years ago, she has carried out her duties to the best of her ability for the one week per year that she’s able to operate. And what luck — she happens to be freshly recharged and active when Junker arrives. Yumemi, seemingly oblivious to Junker’s appearance and all the destruction around her, processes him as a customer, greets him warmly, and tells him that in honor of his status as the 2,500,000th customer the staff has prepared a special projection that she intends to show him. She then offers him a makeshift bouquet made of wires and junk she found lying around, apologizing profusely and explaining that the florist’s shop downstairs had unexpectedly closed for the time being. She also admits that he’s not really the 2,500,000th customer, but she’s rounding up because there hasn’t been much business lately.

Junker naturally does not give a shit about any of this. After trying without success to explain to Yumemi that he’s not a god damn customer, he lays out his supplies and equipment to dry, then drifts off to sleep in one of the planetarium’s seats. When he wakes up, Yumemi is still around performing her duties, and she cheerfully greets him, addressing him as “Mr. Customer” (or okyakusama, a term like “honored guest” that doesn’t quite translate because we don’t have a similar term in common use in English) and doing her best to serve his needs. Of course, Yumemi can’t really serve Junker’s needs. When she offers him a refreshment, he asks whether she has any liquor in sealed bottles, and she tells him there are liquor shops on a lower floor. Tragically, that lower floor is completely flooded and inaccessible, so Junker can’t even have a nice drink to calm him down.

Yumemi continues to insist that she’ll show Junker the projection, and he finally gives in to her demands if only to shut her up. However, there’s a problem: the projector is broken. No big surprise, since the planetarium has been inactive for nearly 30 years, but Yumemi is seriously distressed when the projector doesn’t move or respond at the start of the show. Since she was built to be a sort of greeter/hostess and not a maintenance worker, there’s not much Yumemi can do to fix the giant machine, and so she asks Junker if he can repair “Miss Jena” as Yumemi refers to it.

This leads to the first of two fateful decisions Junker makes. By deciding to help Yumemi out, Junker takes up valuable time and energy that he admits he should be using to get the hell out of the city and resupply. He’s established that the planetarium and attached mall don’t have anything of value to him. Yet he stays and starts working on Jena, an extremely complex piece of equipment with a bunch of small moving parts that hasn’t been maintained for three decades. Meanwhile, Yumemi can only stand by and express her concern. She clearly feels bad about asking a valued customer to repair one of the planetarium’s machines and tries to help Junker by asking him if various tools might be useful, but it’s obvious she wasn’t designed for that sort of thing, so she steps back and lets him work.

After a couple of days of work, Jena is finally repaired, and Yumemi is able to run the special projection she had planned. Junker is still anxious to get the hell out of there, but once the lights dim and Yumemi starts her presentation, he’s drawn in. So much so that when the power fails for good shortly after the projection starts, Junker asks Yumemi to continue her monologue as he closes his eyes and uses his imagination to fill in the visual gaps.

If you’ve read Planetarian already, this may seem like a weird statement, but this scene provided the biggest emotional punch for me as Yumemi talks about the birth and growth of the human race and of its reaching out to the stars through the space program. The same space program that was in progress when the global war began 30 years ago, destroying its base on the Moon, grounding its spaceships, and and eventually killing the great majority of humanity. It’s all the more heartbreaking because, despite the fact that she’s a robot, Yumemi seems genuinely proud of humanity’s growth, just as though she were human herself. But her information is painfully outdated. Junker knows the truth of the matter all too well, but he lets Yumemi finish without saying anything about it.

When the show is over, Junker is ready to leave. But not without Yumemi. This second serious decision puts Junker at yet another disadvantage — Yumemi doesn’t seem to understand how dire the situation is outside the mall and planetarium, and she’s already told Junker that she’s not designed to handle rough environments or to move very quickly. Junker nevertheless doesn’t want to leave her there, and presses the facts on her that the planetarium won’t recover its limited source of power again and that she’ll never see another customer show up. Yumemi still seems optimistic despite Junker’s warnings, so when she offers to walk him to his car, a sort of post-apocalypse combat vehicle, he takes her up on her offer and decides to bring her along with him to a nearby inhabited settlement.

Getting to his vehicle is no easy matter, however, and it’s even more difficult when he’s essentially doing an escort mission. Yumemi trips several times and admits that she hasn’t been very well maintained lately. But she still keeps her spirits up, pointing out popular restaurants and attractions around town and printing coupons from the port in her ear for him to use, apparently not recognizing that that they’ve all been long abandoned and lay in ruins. Eventually, after several breaks to let Yumemi recover and prevent her from overheating, they reach the city wall, close to Junker’s car. A giant tank with a massive gun sits at the entrance of an opening in the wall through which they’ll have to pass, but Junker believes trying it would be suicide — despite the end of the war, the automated weapons deployed back then are still active and will attack anything that moves. So Junker tells Yumemi to hang back in a relatively safe place while he tries to destroy the tank with a grenade launcher.

Junker’s grenade is unfortunately a dud, and the tank turns its gun on him. He manages to escape and mostly disable the machine against all odds in the game’s only action scene, but it’s still barely functional and is about to kill Junker when Yumemi steps between them in a dramatic Tienanmen Square moment.

Yumemi tries to send the tank an electronic signal to get it to stop attacking, but in its final moments it shoots its gun directly at her.

Yumemi is torn apart at the waist, but she’s still able to function for a few minutes, just long enough to show Junker some of her memories recorded in her eyes: of happy guests, adults and children, telling her how much they enjoyed their time at the planetarium, and of the rest of the staff being forced to evacuate the city and saying their painful goodbyes to her. She then reveals that she realized long ago the planetarium was finished, but that she was happy to see one more customer show up. As she finally shuts down, Yumemi opens the port containing her memory card, and Junker takes it and seals it in a waterproof case, resolving to find a new body for her somehow so she can live again.

And that’s Planetarian. Quite a sad story in typical Key style — this studio is well known for creating melancholic visual novels. As miserable as the whole thing might seem, though, the story of Planetarian is not a hopeless one. Yumemi’s body is destroyed in the end, but her mind essentially lives on, waiting for Junker to find a new vessel for it.

What’s more interesting to me than the ending is the relationship created between Junker and Yumemi, a human and a robot. From the beginning it’s no secret that Yumemi is not a human, and a lot of her mannerisms reinforce that. When asked a question she doesn’t know the answer to, for example, she’ll tilt her head a bit and then deliver word-for-word the same response about not being able to make contact with some control center that she’s programmed to message in such cases. Her insistence upon carrying out her regular duties in a workplace that’s clearly been abandoned and left to rot for thirty years also seems kind of inhuman. A human would have left the planetarium behind long ago, just as Yumemi’s coworkers did, but she keeps performing her programmed duties faithfully.

But there are things about Yumemi that also seem strangely human. One of these is her extreme talkativeness. Yumemi simply won’t shut up. Junker is clearly annoyed by this and tries giving her a command to stop talking — a command that she acknowledges for about ten seconds before breaking it and asking him a question, after which he gives up trying.

Yumemi explains that this chattiness is caused by an error in her programming, one that was never fixed because the staff of the planetarium thought she was cuter for it. She refers to herself as “just a little broken” both because of that design flaw and her recent lack of maintenance. Certainly, Yumemi doesn’t act like a perfectly honed android of the kind you might see in some other sci-fi works, but these imperfections made her seem all the more human to me. She also constantly shows genuine concern for Junker despite having just met him, asking if he’s feeling sick and offering to call the mall’s medical center that she doesn’t realize is now abandoned. Indeed, Yumemi seems determined to help Junker out and tend to his needs as the “customer” he is, even when he insists he’s not one.

Considering all this, it’s not a great leap for Junker to start thinking of Yumemi as less of a machine and more of a human, at least in terms of how he treats her. The pair have the kind of chemistry where one complements the other — Junker’s bitter, harsh, practical attitude with Yumemi’s optimistic and cheerful one — and they start to have real conversations by the end of his stay at the planetarium. The first time I read through Planetarian, I thought it was a bit weird that this extremely pragmatic guy would decide to bring a slow, partially broken robot along with him through the streets of the city, where autonomous, heavily armed tanks were still operating. Junker wonders that himself and doesn’t seem to understand exactly why he’s doing it. But there has been a connection created between the two when the final part of the VN begins, to the point that I can believe Junker simply couldn’t allow himself to leave Yumemi alone in the now unpowered mall to shut down — effectively to die, left to be “harvested” for her parts by other junkers as he puts it.

This is where Planetarian totally departs from a lot of other modern sci-fi. When I watched the 2014 film Ex Machina a while back, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Planetarian and how completely different each work was in spirit, despite the fact that they both deal with human/AI interaction. Ex Machina takes place in a near-future Earth that’s still thriving, in which the eccentric genius CEO of a massive search engine company has built a line of realistic androids. Said CEO rigs up a fake contest to select one of his employees, a coder/programmer type named Caleb, to spend a week at his high-tech, high-security mansion in the wilderness. There Caleb gets the chance to run a series of tests by having conversations with Ava, like Yumemi an android in the shape of a young woman. Ava seems to be curious both about the outside world, which she hasn’t seen, and about Caleb himself. She also comes off as having an almost human-seeming sense of humor and a pretty sharp wit. After a few days of testing, Ava tells Caleb that she knows he’s attracted to her, that she’s attracted to him, and that she wants him to help her break out of the CEO’s mansion and escape.

Despite their efforts to conceal these parts of their conversations, the CEO realizes what’s going on, but in a double-twist Caleb reveals that he outsmarted the CEO by secretly fucking with the power system so that he’d be sealed inside his own high-security bunker of a house without being able to get out while Ava and Caleb would run away together. CEO tries killing the plan by ordering Ava to go back to her room, but she and another android get the better of him in a fight and stab him to death. We’ve seen him act like a real asshole to them throughout the film, so sure, this makes sense. However, in a final betrayal, Ava traps Caleb in the house and escapes without him, leaving him to die as well. The end.

Does this remind anyone else of those old creepy Svedka ads? Is it just me?

What message is to be taken from Ex Machina exactly? Caleb admittedly didn’t think through his actions fully, but he was motivated by a desire to help Ava escape because he essentially saw her as human, or at least as a being deserving of human rights. While Caleb did mean to seal the CEO into a virtual tomb in the course of his plan, he also found and watched tapes of said CEO treating the androids like garbage during tests and generally being a dick, and he also knows of his plan to erase Ava’s memory at the end of this testing phase. So his feelings are a bit understandable. However, the relationship Caleb thinks he has with Ava is pure fantasy. She’s been manipulating him this whole time, and far from being grateful for his help, she traps him and effectively murders him at the end of the film for no clear reason that I can understand, other than director/screenwriter Alex Garland wanting to throw a final twist in to shock us.

At first, Ex Machina left me asking “so fucking what?” The actors are good (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as Caleb and the CEO, for you Star Wars sequel trilogy fans if there are any left, and Alicia Vikander as Ava) and the look and feel of the movie in general are pretty nice, so I can’t exactly call it total garbage. But the writing. The first 100 minutes of the movie now seem entirely pointless, with its attempts at making me feel bad for the plight of Ava by making her come off as self-aware and sympathetic — such a being would have at least recognized Caleb as her ally and let him live, even if she’d been manipulating him up to that point. But no, turns out she’s nothing of the sort, more of a HAL from 2001 sort of character. Only 2001 took the time to establish HAL as a scary psychopath sort of AI making the course of the story believable, whereas Ex Machina just throws us an ending twist without bothering to set it up in the slightest.

So the message I’m forced to take from Ex Machina — because there clearly is a message in there; everything about the film suggests it’s meant to be taken as Serious Art instead of a basic horror movie — is that we can’t trust those god damn androids because there’s no way they’ll treat us with any care or affection despite what we might think. This is a depressingly pessimistic message. That’s fine with me; I’m a depressingly pessimistic guy myself, so I get that.

But what I can’t forgive is the sheer dishonesty of it. Ex Machina presents a dark future without any real argument to back it up. While many critics and fans have praised Ex Machina, I believe Garland completely screws up its treatment of its central human/AI relationship, which is quite an unbelievable and stilted-feeling one created to express the message, when the message should instead flow naturally from a believable story. Planetarian also depicts a dark future for humanity in its global war and post-apocalyptic setting, but in creating the relationship between Junker and Yumemi it doesn’t try to pull a cynical trick on the reader. Yumemi is exactly what she seems from the first time Junker meets her — an android who likes the company of both her machine and human colleagues. She has fond memories of working with the planetarium staff and helping customers and has a desire to continue her work.

Whether that’s because she’s programmed to do so doesn’t seem to matter anymore, at least not to Junker. By the end, he doesn’t see her as a mere piece of machinery. Yumemi herself, while conscious of the fact that she’s a robot, doesn’t want to be separated from humans. This is the meaning of her saying “please do not divide Heaven in two”, one of the game’s best-known lines — when she asks whether Junker has ever prayed to God, a weird sort of theological question comes up about whether there might be a separate God of Robots. Yumemi says her coworkers told her that robots get to go to their own Heaven when they shut down, but because she doesn’t want machines to be separated from humans, she prays that they can all go to the same Heaven.

This is where I think you can find the optimism in Planetarian. It’s a sad story with a bitter ending, sure. But there is hope in the end, both for Junker and Yumemi, and maybe for both humans and machines beyond them, living in the world together. Yumemi sees both organic humans and other, non-humanoid machines like Jena as her friends and colleagues, and she even says Junker shouldn’t blame the tank for what it did — in the end, it was simply doing its best to carry out its duties faithfully.

This view is very different from the one given by works like Ex Machina, in which humans create technology that ends up destroying them of its own will. In those works, there’s an assumption that any form of advanced AI will necessarily be separate from the natural world. Humans are animals, androids are machines, and there can’t be any meaningful emotional relationship between them. When a well-meaning character like Caleb foolishly believes he’s created one with an android like Ava, she ends up betraying him. She can’t empathize with him, and he was stupid to think he could empathize with her. Planetarian, by contrast, does not make any such assumptions. Humans started the global war that wrecked civilization. They used technology to do it, but the story doesn’t give any indication that the AI employed in the war rebelled against their human creators or did anything other than follow the orders given to them.

I’m not saying a robot apocalypse will never happen. But it seems both disingenuous and lazy to just assume that advanced AI will definitely turn against its creators when you’re putting together a work of fiction, or that they’ll even necessarily see themselves as that different from their creators.

I wrote at the start of this post that Planetarian isn’t my favorite visual novel. While I don’t have any problem with kinetic novels, I prefer VNs that give the player dialogue and action options and branching story paths. And I don’t know if writer Yuichi Suzumoto is responsible for this or if it’s the translation, but the prose occasionally gets really awkward — just see the above screenshot for an example. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but those instances stick out and hurt an otherwise good game.

But I’d still rank this pretty highly among the VNs I’ve played. A good story can end with disaster and total despair, but the way it gets to that ending is important. Planetarian doesn’t take the same straightforward, lazy “technology is bad” route that Ex Machina and many other modern sci-fi works go with. And it’s not afraid to express the hope at the end that maybe things won’t be so miserable one day, and what the hell is wrong with that? Nothing. In real life, people keep hope alive even in the worst of circumstances, so it’s not a sin to give your audience some hope as well, despite what some writers and directors seem to think.

And that’s true even if that hope directly follows a tearjerker scene. I mean, I didn’t cry when Yumemi got blown up. Really, I didn’t. I just had bad allergies that day. You know how that pollen is in the spring.

***

I hope I’ve represented Planetarian well enough here. It also has anime OVA and film adaptations that I haven’t seen, but I’ve heard good things.

I also want to note that I’m not trying to do a “western vs. Japanese take” comparison with this commentary. Reading back through it, all the crap I dumped on Ex Machina might make it seem that way to some people, and everyone knows I’m a degenerate weeb after all, but it’s not the case. I only meant to highlight two approaches sci-fi writers have taken with regard to human/AI relationships and how I think one is more natural and honest than the other. If you want proof of my sincerity, here you go: the Spike Jonze movie Her does thousands of times better at this than Ex Machina, and it involves an actually believable romance between a human and an AI character if that’s what you’re looking for. 𒀭

The Real Neat Blog Award, round 2

And here’s part 2 of my Real Neat Blog Award posts, this time courtesy of Red Metal of Extra Life.  Red Metal writes in-depth analyses of games and films.  If you have any interest at all in either of those, you should absolutely check out Extra Life.

Once again, the rules are that I have to answer his questions (the game says there are supposed to be seven of them, but Red Metal asked 11 — I’m up for it, though) and then ask seven questions of my own and nominate seven other bloggers to answer them.  Not very different at all from the Sunshine Blogger Award that I’ve taken on a few times already.  Anyway, here are Red Metal’s questions:

1. Have you ever watched a film in theaters that featured an intermission?

Back in the day when an Arab actor could play a Russian character and a British actor could play an Arab character and nobody would complain

If I have, I don’t remember it.  I know I watched a few films on VHS as a kid that included an intermission screen in the middle with a musical score playing over it like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I missed out on the actual moviegoing experience in those cases.  It’s really too bad we don’t have intermissions anymore.  I guess studios don’t generally release movies as long as those old epics now.  Though they could have easily released the extended cuts of the Lord of the Rings movies and added intermission breaks.  I like the idea of giving the audience time to get up, get more popcorn or booze or whatever they’re refreshing themselves with, and go to the bathroom without missing any of the action.

2. What is the most expensive ticket you’ve ever purchased?

Unless we’re talking about plane tickets, it was probably a pass to Otakon back when it was held in Baltimore.  That con was a god damn mess; insanely crowded and too expensive.  I spent most of it drinking with friends, as I’ve done at every con I’ve ever been to, so it was fine in the end.  I never went to Otakon again, though.  Hopefully the DC location is able to handle the crowds better.

3. If you had to trade in fluency of your first language for another, which one would you choose?

Well, this is an easy one.  I already admitted to attending anime cons above, and everyone reading this knows I’m a massive weeb, so it’s Japanese without a doubt.  The prospect of playing a bunch of games that will probably never be translated is just too good to pass on.  On the other hand, it would be extremely annoying to have to relearn English, since I rely on reading and writing to make a living.  Include a three-month paid vacation with intensive lessons included to get my English back, and I’d be happy.

4. If you could appear on any game show (including ones that have ended), which one would you choose?

I used to want to make it onto Jeopardy as a kid, but just answering questions in question form seems a bit boring to me now.  I’d pick Takeshi’s Castle.  The odds of winning that game are incredibly low, but your friends and family getting to watch you pummeled by plastic cannonballs while you try to walk across a board over a lake would be fun.  Fun for them, at least.  (Also probably because I’m a weeb, see answer #3 above.)

In case you were wondering, yes, this is the same Takeshi who inspired the infamous kusoge Takeshi’s Challenge

5. As someone who has watched many classics over the past few years, I’ve concluded that old films are overall better than recent efforts. What do you think the current generation of filmmakers lacks that allowed their predecessors to shine?

I’m no expert in film, but if there’s anything I think current filmmakers are missing that previous ones had, it’s a sense of subtlety and perspective.  I know there are exceptions, but it seems like most movies that are trying to make a point today feel the need to hammer it into your head without bothering with shades of gray or nuance, which I find both annoying and insulting.

I know this one is a stupidly easy target, but I’ll never forget the ending to Surrogates, a 2009 movie I saw on TV that features Bruce Willis mumbling his way through a lead performance as a detective in a sci-fi future society where everyone uses artificial bodies while their organic bodies are in special chambers at home.  The movie’s a piece of shit, so I’ll just spoil it here: the big ending is that Bruce Willis’ wife destroys the computer that powers the surrogate bodies or something, and everyone goes back to living fully natural lives.  Which the movie presents as a victory without considering all the possible benefits of being able to use an artificial body.  Say you’re physically disabled.  Or you feel you were born the wrong gender and want to live in a body of the opposite sex without undergoing a major surgery.  No, apparently none of that shit matters.  No nuance, no shades of gray.  Technology bad, nature good.  Sure, movie, whatever you say.

Well, this is coming from a guy who admitted he would marry a deadly battle android if he could.  So you should probably take that opinion with a grain of salt.

Okay, so Surrogates was fucking garbage and I’m shooting fish in a barrel by criticizing it.  But even plenty of movies that are supposed to be good according to most critics often seem to fall into this trap.  I understand having an agenda, especially these days when the future seems so dark, but it’s no good letting your agenda take over your sense of perspective, not to mention your sense of humor.

6. How do you like your eggs prepared?

Over easy. I guess that’s not the safest way to eat them, is it? Doesn’t kill all the potential salmonella in there, but I haven’t gotten sick yet. On the rare occasion I’m at a Waffle House (say if I’m out at 3 am for some reason) I’ll order them scrambled.

7. How do you like your potatoes prepared?

I like a baked potato with sour cream, butter, and chives.  Not the healthiest option with all that sour cream and butter in there, but it tastes the best.

8. If you found yourself directing films, which genre would you want to specialize in?

Hard sci-fi, especially if the budget isn’t a problem.  There’s a lot you can do with that genre beyond the usual “humanity is doomed” kind of stuff we see now.  I have a few plot ideas, in fact, but I’ll just have to write them in story form instead since I don’t have the skills or money to make a film.

Planetes is the realest hard sci-fi series ever made

9. What is your favorite band/artist with a limited discography (i.e. no more than four studio albums)?

Red Metal already brought up a few worthy answers to this question like Joy Division, the Sex Pistols, and Nirvana.  I really like those bands (especially Nirvana; even though they were a bit before my time, they were a big part of my angsty teenage playlist right up there with Radiohead) but I’ll go with Jimi Hendrix and his band the Experience.  For as much influence as the guy has had on music, he only put out three studio albums — there’s no saying what he could have done if he hadn’t died so young.  I’ve always liked Hendrix, even his singing that a lot of people are unimpressed by; it fits his style perfectly.  Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding were excellent musicians too, let’s not forget about them.  And all three albums they put out were great.  I’m a big fan of Axis: Bold as Love, which I think tends to get a little overshadowed by the others.

10. There are many stories over the years of projects or ideas never getting off the ground or being canceled mid-production. Which one would you bring into reality if you could?

I really had to think about this one.  I know for a fact there have been games I was looking forward to at times that were canceled, but they may have ended up being lousy for all I know.  I’ll go back to music this time and say The Who’s Lifehouse.  Pete Townshend’s concept for Lifehouse sounds quite insane, but it would have been interesting to hear the result.  Then again, Who’s Next, the album we got from the wreckage of Lifehouse, was great anyway, and I care about the music a lot more than the concept when it comes to the rock operas I like.

11. What series do you feel managed to be consistently good for an extended period of time?

Disgaea.  Both the mainline games and spinoffs I’ve played range from good to excellent, with each game building upon what the previous one accomplished in terms of mechanics and features.  The prospect of the series ending because of developer Nippon Ichi’s possible bankruptcy is a depressing one.  I know it’s all business, but still, to see one of my favorite series perhaps facing its end is not easy.

If the series ends with Disgaea 5, at least it would be going out on a high note.

Thanks to Red Metal once again for the interesting questions.  Here’s my own set of questions:

1. How do you feel about content warnings and rating systems (like the MPAA and ESRB rating systems and the famous RIAA Explicit Content sticker?) Are they effective, or is the point of these ratings the same as it was when they were created?
2. Do you have hard limits as far how short or long a game should be?  Or a book, movie, or album — whichever you have a strong opinion on.
3. How do you keep yourself occupied during your commute or while on a long trip?
4. Is there a certain character in a work that you strongly identify with? What is it about that character that you identify with?
5. Have you ever read/watched/played a work with a protagonist who you ended up hating, even though you were meant to like them? Who was it and what put you off about them?
6. Do you prefer to listen to studio or live albums?  Or does it just depend on the band/artist you’re listening to?
7. Is there a series (of games, films, novels, whatever) that you used to enjoy but that eventually lost you?  If so, what do you think happened to cause that?

And the subjects this time are:

Nintendobound

I Drink and Watch Anime

Otaku Orbit

BiblioNyan

BlerdyOtaku

Video Game Grove

I’ll also tag back Red Metal, since he went through the trouble of coming up with four more questions than he had to.

And now that I’m done with that, it’s back to the usual.  Hopefully we actually get episode 10 of Cop Craft tomorrow.  Man, do I fucking hate recap shows.

On reviews, scores, and objectivity vs. subjectivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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