A review of The Expression: Amrilato (PC)

I wasn’t kidding when I wrote a while back that I had a bunch of visual novels to get through. When I wrote that post about visual novels still being a bit of a niche thing in the West, though, I wasn’t thinking of The Expression: Amrilato. No, this game beats all the rest in terms of its niche-ness: it’s a yuri romance visual novel that teaches you Esperanto.

What? Yes, this is a real thing. I first heard about Amrilato when Valve briefly refused to stock it on Steam for depicting a romance between two students, the main characters Rin and Ruka (if you didn’t know this was a yuri VN at first, the cover says everything.) They soon thought better of it and put it back up in their store. It’s an all-ages VN anyway, so I’m not sure what the fuss was to begin with — by the same logic, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet would be banned from the platform, which seems stupid enough.

In any case, this minor incident got Amrilato more press than it would have received otherwise, because it’s how I learned about the game. And after that I filed it in the back of my mind to play, and now I’ve played it. And now I’ll write what I think of it in a very long-winded way, because I have a lot to say about it.

First, an introduction: this is our protagonist, Rin. Rin is a hardworking, cheerful Japanese high school student who’s also pretty thick and often says and does things without thinking. One day, Rin buys a taiyaki (something I’ve never had myself, but I’ve heard a lot about, sounds like a kind of sweet pastry?) and eats it while on the street. Then she blacks out and wakes up on more or less the same street, only now the sky is pink and everyone’s speaking in a language she can’t understand.

Rin is understandably freaked out by this and suspects her taiyaki was drugged, and she goes to cry in a corner, where she’s approached by a girl in an impossibly frilly outfit who tries to talk to her in that mysterious language. Rin is still frustrated, but she does her best to communicate with this girl, whose name is Ruka. Fortunately, Ruka knows a little Japanese and invites Rin back to her house after establishing that she needs help.

Naturally, Rin feels like she’s in the dark at this point — her phone isn’t getting a signal, everyone’s speaking this weird language, and why the hell is the god damn sky pink, even at night? However, she manages to sort herself out in an impressively short time after trying and failing to find her parents’ house. While the city she’s currently in is very similar to her own, there are many subtle differences, and it soon becomes clear that Rin has somehow entered an alternate-universe version of her hometown. Which means no getting back to her family or friends, at least for the time being.

Yeah, yuri vibes from the very beginning

Thankfully, Rin is in Ruka’s care. She soon learns that she’s considered a vizitanto, or visitor, and Ruka takes her to a kind of combination library/government office to get a special ID from her own mentor, the librarian Rei Arbaro. Rei explains that Rin is now something like a resident foreigner, a status that comes with privileges like discounts at stores and a special allowance. Since Rin’s not the first vizitanto to accidentally fall into this dimension, the government has a system in place to care for people in her position until they can get on their feet and be productive members of society.

This is where the game really begins and where we’re introduced to the first of the two major aspects of Amrilato: the Esperanto. As a vizitanto, Rin has to learn Juliamo, the common language in this world. Aside from a few vocabulary and grammar differences and a customized alphabet thrown in to make things feel more other-dimensional, Juliamo is the same language as Esperanto. The player can switch between this fictional Juliamo alphabet and the Latin alphabet used to write the real-life language, but it seemed like a waste to not use the custom alphabet, so I stuck with that.

And naturally, since Rin is learning Juliamo, we’re learning it along with her. As the story progresses with typical dialogue and narrative stuff, Rin gets presented with language lessons that she has to complete as part of her new education. A lot of these involve one-on-one sessions with either Ruka or Rei, and you get to take quizzes and exams at the end of most of these lessons, an experience that will surely remind you of your school days if you’re past them now like I am. These exam sections can be deactivated in settings, but they’re turned on by default, and I get the impression that the developer SukeraSparo intended for the player to actually take the lessons and learn the words, expressions, and grammar rules that they teach.

I was barely familiar with Esperanto before picking up Amrilato. All I knew is that it was a constructed language, or a language created purposely and not developed naturally over thousands of years like English or Japanese. It has an interesting history — the creator, L. L. Zamenhof, was a Polish Jewish eye doctor who in the 1870s came up with the idea for an international language because he thought it would put an end to war. This unfortunately didn’t happen (a sad end to that part of the story, especially considering the fate of his family, still in Poland at the start of World War II) but Esperanto has gone on to become the world’s most widely spoken constructed language.

One of the most interesting parts of playing Amrilato was in seeing Rin’s thought process while learning Juliamo. Even though she’s the player character, her experience with the language and mine were very different. A big part of this difference has to do with the origins of Esperanto: from the basics I learned of it by playing this game, most of it’s derived from existing Romance and Germanic languages, seemingly with more of a lean towards Romance. So if you speak or you’ve studied languages like Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Italian, a lot of this Juliamo will be familiar to you right away. Even someone who only speaks English and has no familiarity with the Romance languages will probably pick up on some of the vocabulary and grammar by instinct because of the strong historical Romance influence on English (it’s a Germanic language, but we’ve also got those Latin roots and the additions from Norman French after William the Bastard Conqueror’s invasion of England.)

Aside from its loanwords, Japanese has barely any relation to these or the other Indo-European languages that form the basis of Esperanto, and so root words and grammatical concepts that might sound natural to a westerner may not be so intuitive to a native Japanese speaker. The lesson sections of Amrilato consist largely of Rin’s thoughts about what she’s studying, and she’s often forced to try to remember her meager English knowledge that she picked up at school to help her understand Juliamo. Things as seemingly simple as the sounds “si” and “zi” are a bit hard for Rin because those sounds don’t exist in Japanese, instead becoming “shi” and “ji.” However, Rin’s stubborn, hardworking nature comes out in these sections, especially when she pushes herself to practice her Juliamo on Ruka, Rei, and strangers when she’s out buying groceries and running errands, and so she manages to push through it.

A lot of Rin’s struggles with Juliamo made me think of my own efforts at learning Japanese. I’m not immersed in the language like Rin is, but it couldn’t be more different from my native language of English, so I find myself asking some of the same types of questions Rin asks when she’s taking Juliamo lessons. Questions like “how the fuck am I supposed to tell when 人 is pronounced nin or jin in a compound kanji?” Questions that sometimes seem to have no answer other than “that’s just how it is” or “you just have to remember it.” These are aspects of language that native speakers grow up with and take for granted, but to the adult brain (or near-adult, in Rin’s case) they can’t simply be absorbed. Fortunately, with Esperanto/Juliamo being a constructed language, most of its aspects seem to have real explanations that aren’t “that’s just how it developed over time, so remember it.” My native language is notorious for shit like that. Sorry to all the ESL students out there.

amrilato-4

Not the face you want to see when you make food for someone

This is where the language-learning aspect of Amrilato connects with its other major aspect: the yuri romance. Rin is very obviously attracted to Ruka from just about the beginning, and as the game goes on, this attraction shifts from being about Ruka’s looks and style to being about the connection that’s grown between them. Even though Ruka is younger than Rin, she takes on the role of Rin’s language tutor and legal guardian, and her mature attitude sometimes makes her seem older, creating an unusual sort of teacher-student relationship. Ruka soon tells Rin that she wants to learn more Japanese, and so each becomes a teacher to the other.

Eventually, these feelings turn romantic, though we initially only see that from Rin’s perspective. At first, the game throws in some hints that Ruka might be interested too, or that she wouldn’t at least be not interested in a romantic relationship with another girl, and even these parts play with language in interesting ways. Early on, for example, Rin buys what looks like a fashion magazine from a vendor that’s wrapped in plastic with the title “Blanka Lilia.” Rin is too thick to get it, but usually when a magazine like that is wrapped in plastic there’s a reason. And anyone who knows the origin of the Japanese term yuri that describes themes of lesbian love/desire in fictional works knows that the same word 百合 also means “lily” and can probably work out that “blanka lilia” means “white lily” and guess at the magazine’s contents.

amrilato-3

When Ruka accidentally gets a look at those contents, she gets red in the face, which suggests a lot more than just indifference. After this episode, there are a few others that are also suggestive, and a lot of Amrilato consists of Rin wondering how Ruka feels about being with another girl, and specifically about being with her, and agonizing over whether she should say anything. The language gap between the pair makes things more difficult, and when Rin finally confesses her love to Ruka, she uses a Juliamo phrase that Rei taught her and that translates into something like “I’m thirsty for you” with some unintended lewd/embarrassing implications. Rei also likes to tease the two students and knows exactly what’s going on even before they do, so her addition into the mix as a kind of older sister/mentor makes things easier in some ways and more complicated in others.

Complicating things even further is the character of Rin herself. She’s stubborn and hardworking, but she also totally lacks self-confidence. By acting before she thinks, Rin ends up getting herself into awkward social situations, but then she gets carried away thinking of what a grave mistake she’s committed and imagines outcomes that are a thousand times worse than what could realistically occur. She also constantly thinks poorly of her own intellect, looks, and general desirability as a partner. In reality she’s a little thick but not at all stupid and perfectly capable, and her looks are just fine. She keeps thinking of herself as out of shape, but the character art doesn’t give me that impression at all. Maybe it’s the effect of that soft anime art style the game uses, but I prefer to think this is just Rin being unnecessarily down on herself, which would fit with her character.

I can see how Rin’s awkwardness, her yelling in surprise at inappropriate times, and her constant second-guessing of herself could get on a player’s nerves and make her a grating character, but most of these traits just made me feel bad for her. I find her lack of self-confidence to be relatable, in fact, which is a pretty shitty thing to deal with. It can be dealt with, but Rin doesn’t seem experienced enough with life at this point to have figured that out, which leads to a lot of emotional turmoil in the game — up until the player gets the few massively important choices near the end of the game that have serious relationship and ending implications. And there are a few different endings available, two of them pretty sad. But even if you give Rin lousy directions, you won’t have to backtrack very much to see the other endings. There’s only one route in Amrilato, and that’s the Ruka route.

And of course, Rin and Ruka do cement their relationship, because it wouldn’t be much of a yuri VN without some yuri. It’s all very PG-rated, hence people wondering why the hell Valve had a problem with it — yuri doesn’t necessarily have to involve anything explicitly sexual. Though there is definitely a physical element to their attraction, the emphasis in Amrilato is on emotion, and on the ability to show one’s emotion through using one’s expressions. This sort of romantic stuff can be easily screwed up and turned to total cheese if it’s not done well. However, Amrilato builds up the relationship between Rin and Ruka to the point that when they finally break through those language and emotional barriers, it feels nice to see. It’s earned. As for the endings — well, you’ll have to play the game to see those, because I won’t spoil them here. If you want a real deep dive, go check out Pete Davison’s post series about Amrilato on MoeGamer.

This is about as close to R-rated as Amrilato gets. I still find it funny that publisher MangaGamer offered this game free to schools because of its educational content. We never had a scene like this in Oregon Trail unless I really missed out on something.

So was I satisfied with The Expression: Amrilato? You can probably guess by now that the answer is yes. It was a nice experience, something new and unexpected, and it worked for me. I still have no interest in learning Esperanto, but I can see Amrilato getting at least a few players hooked on the language, and I think promoting an international language is a commendable goal in any case, so I give SukeraSparo credit for that.

As for the lesbian aspect of the game, it isn’t even played up that much as an issue in the way you might expect. All of Rin’s agonizing is really just over whether Ruka would go for her — the game doesn’t give the impression that either one is even necessarily exclusively into girls; the issue is more about how Rin and Ruka fit together. In that sense, I think this game is the same vein as VA-11 HALL-A: it’s progressive but in quite a natural way. What matters is the purity of the love and the expressions used to convey it.

Or something. I don’t know. I’m not a god damn romantic. But I did like The Expression: Amrilato, for what it’s worth. Now I’ve had enough cute romance for a while. I’ll probably play GTA for a change of pace. 𒀭

Yet another Valentine’s Day post (or, four game characters I might want to date if they were real but probably shouldn’t)

I have to admit that there are a few games I’ve played featuring characters who I thought were pretty attractive, in that “if only she were real” sense. However, as we know, fantasy is one thing, and reality is quite another. And since reality is generally speaking a big pile of shit, it stands to reason that someone pining for their game character waifu (or husbando, let’s not forget them) might end up a bit disappointed if said waifu were real. But why? Let’s find out both the answers to that question and also possibly to why I make such terrible life decisions.  Here they are listed in random order, along with their respective official art/game CGs.

4) Kat (Gravity Rush)

In almost every way, Kat would be an amazing catch.  She’s bright and determined.  She has a strong sense of self but doesn’t take herself too seriously.  She’s exceedingly hot (I do have a shallow side, I won’t lie to you.)  And finally, she’s got the unique ability to shift gravity around her, letting her fly through the air by “falling” in a different direction than gravity would normally allow.  This is the central mechanic of Gravity Rush and is part of what elevates it well above the standard action game.  Seems like a useful skill to have in general.

As great as Kat is, though, there’s one problem: her gravity-bending powers are a bit indiscriminate in practice.  When the player suspends Kat in mid-air before choosing what direction to send her “falling” into, other objects and even innocent bystanders in her immediate vicinity are caught in the same suspension.  Sending Kat off into another direction in this case also flings anything and anyone in the affected area through the air.  This isn’t such a problem for the inanimate objects that get caught up in Kat’s gravity field, but for the living things it is most certainly a problem.  Not that she’d ever intentionally do that to anyone, but you’ll send people flying to their deaths often enough during a playthrough of Gravity Rush even if you’re not trying to do it.  So just hanging around her might end up with me getting accidentally flung into a brick wall or off the edge of the city into the abyss below.  Though Kat honestly might be worth taking that risk.

3) Patchouli Knowledge (Touhou Project series)

Patchouli is my favorite Touhou character.  The characters in this long-running shoot-em-up series aren’t all that fleshed out in the games themselves — the fans do a lot of the heavy lifting through their own doujin works that include fan games, comics, and animations — but Patchouli isn’t really that complicated to begin with.  She’s introduced in Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil as the librarian of the Scarlet Devil Mansion.  This naturally means that you have to fight her and endure her insane bullet patterns.  Outside of EoSD, though, Patchouli doesn’t seem to care for fighting very much, preferring to stay holed up in the mansion’s giant library surrounded by her books, studying and drinking tea.

So Patchouli is absolutely my kind of woman: such a complete shut-in that she never bothers to wear anything other than her pajamas (at least that’s what I think those robes are.)  However, it would be extremely dangerous to try to date her.  Not so much because of Patchouli herself, but rather because of her employer: Remilia Scarlet, the mistress of the Scarlet Devil Mansion and a straight up vampire girl.  Remilia and her even more dangerous little sister Flandre are supposed to be the descendants of Vlad Tepes, the real-life medieval Romanian ruler also known as Dracula.  Since Patchouli generally doesn’t leave her library, then, you’d have to brave the mansion and the vampiric sisters living there, and that might end up with you getting put on the mansion’s menu.  I don’t think I’m quite so brave to risk that.

2) Astrid Zexis (Atelier Arland series)

Skilled alchemist Astrid Zexis has a lot going for her.  On paper, anyway.  She has a quick mind and a sharp wit, she owns her own business, and she’s got that girl with glasses appeal that seems to be so popular these days.

However, she’s also careless and lazy to an extent that amazes even me.  As a result of her shitty attitude, by the beginning of the JRPG Atelier Rorona her alchemist shop in the capital of the Kingdom of Arland is failing and about to be shuttered.  The townspeople who might normally speak in her support hate her for screwing up their orders and generally causing a lot of trouble, so they seem more than happy to let her business flounder.  Despite her predicament, Astrid is still too lazy to actually do anything about it, so she very generously hands ownership of her atelier over to her apprentice Rorona, the clumsy but determined main character of the game.  Everything works out eventually, but that’s primarily thanks to Rorona constantly busting her ass to meet deadlines set by government agents who are working under orders to close the shop unless she can fulfill certain requirements on a regular basis.  Astrid admittedly does get around to doing some things to help Rorona, but at that point she’s just gaining back a few of the many points she’s lost.

Astrid, center, pushing her failing atelier off onto Rorona, left, at the beginning of the game.  Also pictured, right: best girl Cordelia.

If you really need to know about Astrid, you might ask supporting character/party member Sterkenburg.  This stern young knight dated Astrid for a while and it didn’t end well if their interactions in the game are any indication.  I’m sure there are two sides to that story, but Astrid still seems like a real handful.  I know this because I had a relationship fall apart once because one of the partners in said relationship was an Astrid, and that Astrid was almost certainly me.  Hell, maybe I should date someone like Astrid.  Two assholes with fuck-off attitudes would probably suit each other quite well, wouldn’t they?

1) Saya (Saya no Uta)

Now now, before you say anything — Saya’s on this list only because of the weird circumstances surrounding her existence.  For the uninitiated, Saya no Uta is a visual novel about one Fuminori Sakisaka, a medical student who has an accident that gives him a rare type of brain damage.  This condition makes him perceive everything in the world as disgusting to all his senses.  Even his friends now look, sound, and smell like bizarre rotten meat-creatures.  However, one single being on Earth appears to him as normal: Saya, a strange girl who discovers Fuminori while he’s contemplating suicide.  Fuminori clings to Saya as the one remaining thing in his life that seems pure and good, and Saya becomes just as attached to Fuminori.

Playing Saya no Uta, I couldn’t help but think that if I were in Fuminori’s place, I’d probably fall for Saya too, and that scares me a bit.  I won’t spoil it here, but if you want to read my take on how well Saya no Uta weaves its romance and horror elements together, check out the piece I wrote last Valentine’s Day on the game.

So hey, happy Valentine’s Day again.  Or not, if you hate this holiday, which I’d understand for a variety of reasons.  As for me — the above post is about as romantic as I can possibly get, which should tell you a lot.  Look, I couldn’t even be bothered to write a decent title for it. It does fit this holiday, though, doesn’t it? A tossed-together bullshit post, I mean. The equivalent of buying an off-brand heart-shaped box of chocolates at CVS. You deserve better than this. I’m sorry.

Backlog review: Doki Doki Literature Club! (PC)

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

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

***

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

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

Just your average visual novel, nothing to see here.

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, why is suicide an option?

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

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

I hope that’s not foreshadowing.

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

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

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

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

This… this isn’t right, is it?

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

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

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

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

Please don’t.

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

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

The end?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

** Translator’s note: ika means squid.

Anime for people who hate anime: Planetes

planetes-01

Caution: there’s a spoiler in this review about a relationship between two of the characters in this series. It’s not really that much of a spoiler if you can draw real basic conclusions from character dynamics in episode 1, but still. Read on if you want.

Set in 2075, Planetes centers on the Space Debris Section of Technora Corporation. Derisively called Half Section because of its small staff and cramped, shoddy office space, this department is looked down upon by pretty much everyone. Despite the necessity of space debris cleanup, nobody really wants to do it because it’s both unglamorous and hard work – yet that’s exactly where Ai Tanabe, a recent graduate, ends up because she couldn’t get a better position elsewhere.* Tanabe is a bright-eyed, almost annoyingly optimistic young woman, and she immediately gets on the nerves of Hachirota Hoshino, a/k/a Hachimaki, a young astronaut who has a lot of talent but also a sour, sarcastic attitude. The complicated relationship between the optimist Tanabe and the realist Hachimaki is a big part of the story of Planetes.**

Tanabe (left) meeting Hachimaki (right).  Note the space diapers.  Being an astronaut is not as glamorous as Miss Tanabe thought.

Tanabe (left) meeting Hachimaki (right). Note the space diapers. Being an astronaut is not as glamorous as Miss Tanabe thought.

Planetes is a hard science fiction manga-turned-anime. There’s nothing especially fantastic about the space travel going on in the series; it’s pretty easy to imagine actually happening 60 years from now. There’s a large base on the Moon, but otherwise most activity in space occurs in near Earth orbit. The governments and corporations of Earth are planning to send a mission to Jupiter, however, and Hachimaki desperately wants get out of his dead-end job and land a spot on the elite crew to make the first trip. The mission to Jupiter sets the stage for a lot of the drama in the second half of the series.

Despite the mundaneness of their jobs, the crew of Half Section get involved in a lot of action. Several episodes feature situations in which the crew must recover runaway satellites and other such dangerous, potentially life-threatening hazards. Any fans of realistic science fiction or dramatized accounts of real space flight missions (for example, the film Apollo 13) will probably enjoy these scenes. I even read somewhere that the animators increased the number of cels used in scenes involving zero gravity (which are a lot of scenes in Planetes) to increase the realism of the movement of characters and objects.

P7

Points to the reader who’s already figured out that Planetes is, in part, a love story. It’s pretty obvious from the first episode that Tanabe and Hachimaki are going to end up romantically involved, because they’re about the same age and they have a weird kind of love/hate thing going on for the first half of the series.

I usually don’t go for love stories because I’m an asshole who doesn’t believe in true love. The romance aspect of Planetes works, though, because it feels realistic and Tanabe and Hachimaki have believable character traits and flaws and a relationship that the series builds upon from the first episode until they end up hitting it off. It also doesn’t overpower the larger story. The romance plot of Planetes in that sense is the opposite of the one in Titanic, which both overpowered the larger story and was fakey and unbelievable. Seriously, watch it again. Jack and Rose are perfect characters with zero flaws who “fall in love” within one or two days of meeting each other. This is okay though because Rose’s fiancé is a two-dimensional rich shithead who only cares about money. Fuck you, James Cameron. Fuck you and your billions of dollars. You rich shithead.

This is way more what an actual relationship is like: screaming at each other from the very first episode.

This is way more what an actual relationship is like: screaming at each other from the very first episode.

Tanabe and Hachimaki are the most central characters in Planetes, but the series gives a lot of screen time to the other crew members of Half Section. Also present are Fee Carmichael, a chain-smoking, eternally stressed female pilot; Yuri Mikhailkov, a pilot who lost his wife to an accident caused by space debris; and the clerks and accountants of the office, who usually stay inside during cleanup operations but also play a part in the struggles of the department. Some of these characters are more comic relief than serious figures (for example, the office-bound department chief and his assistant, a divorced accountant from India with several children who is usually seeking out a way to pay his massive child support bill.)

Planetes also doesn’t focus exclusively on the positive aspects of space exploration. There’s a subplot that runs through most of the series about a terroristic resistance to humanity’s expansion into space – because it allegedly takes resources away from and ignores the needs of the third world. Planetes doesn’t condone such acts, and it definitely seems to lean towards the “space exploration/expansion is good” viewpoint, since its protagonists subscribe to that view. But the series does ask the question, and that’s significant in itself.

P8

Forget the fact that Planetes is an anime series. It is simply one of the best TV shows that I’ve ever seen. I do like Akagi and Kaiji better, but Planetes is really a completely different sort of series. Despite the fact that Planetes is mostly set in space, its characters and story are far more grounded than the insane gambles and superhuman feats featured in Fukumoto’s works. (By the way, here’s just another reason why the whole “anime as a genre” idea that seems to be so common is silly and nonsensical.)

Anime or not, I’d honestly recommend Planetes to most anyone. Unless they’re into Keeping Up With The Kardashians or that kind of shit. Then they probably won’t like it, I guess.

* I know this experience all too well, because I’m going through it right now.
** Planetes manga writer and creator Makoto Yukimura apparently had some fun with his protagonists’ names. The Ai in Ai Tanabe is written as 愛, meaning “love”, and Tanabe, as an optimist, believes in the power of love. Hoshino, Hachimaki’s last name, is written 星野, which as far as I can tell means “star-field”. That name makes sense for Hachimaki considering his goals.