I talked about a manga called From Now On We Begin Ethics in an article quite a bit ago. For those who don’t know, the manga is set in a high school ethics class taught by a man named Takayanagi. In it, I discussed the excellent tone set by mangaka Shiori Amase and since then it has gotten a live action adaptation consisting of 8 episodes. The cinematography isn’t particularly impressive, the tone feels different than the manga, and the mannerisms of Takayanagi paint a different picture of his character than the impression I had- but this isn’t a review. If that’s what you’re interested in: the quality is good enough to warrant a watch and it’s interesting seeing a conscious effort to diversify shooting locations. In fact, there’s one reason I would in fact recommend watching it if you’re a fan of the ongoing manga: the live action ending.
An important theme I drew from my reading of the manga was the practical application of philosophy to the real world. The characters within its universe are presented as learning from Takayanagi’s lessons and nearly always their lives are better as a result. Important here is that the students themselves, armed with what they know and in conjunction with what they learn, make their own decision and decide their way forward. That way, even after school is over and Takayanagi is only a distant memory, they’re able to conjure their own beliefs and think for themselves. It’s a pleasant depiction of education and the live action adaptation actually enhances the factor of application in its closing moments.
The last episode‘s climax is bittersweet to say the least as Aizawa confesses to Takayanagi but is ultimately rejected. Not everyone can get what they want, and Takayanagi cannot ethically date Aizawa as her teacher. His words do give way to speculation about his backstory and previous relationships, but I opt to think this is more set dressing and a way to let her down as gently as possible. This confession isn’t what I want to focus on- it’s the montage that comes after. The show, with its high school setting, was filmed on location and not a soundstage, but that didn’t mean the artificial atmosphere a television show exudes wasn’t present. There’s a certain sterileness that can be felt, despite many shots being naturally lit from what I could tell. Yet, in a sobering and brilliant moment, the façade of a show fades away into the present.
Usually, when we talk about the present as a setting, we’re transitioning from a significant amount of time in the past. At the least, it’s a few decades. That isn’t the case here however. Instead, the show presents us with a Japan post-COVID. Whether it be convenience store workers, people commuting to and from their job, or students out and about, they wear face masks. It’s in this mass of reality do we find the characters from the show going about their lives the same as any other person. They’re normal people in the same circumstances as we are. They’ve gone through difficult trials and tribulations, but they’re no superhero. They’re just like you and me, all collectively in the same world, able to move forward one step at a time. Would it have worked animated or in the manga? Sure. Would it have had the same impact? I don’t think so. Let’s celebrate then that live action adaptations do have a benefit!
This article contains discussion about the use of nonconsensual sex, sexual abuse, suicide, self-harm, manipulation, and general violence in anime with relation to minors. If you are particularly sensitive to any of these topics, please continue at your own discretion.
Sekai Saikou no Ansatsusha, Isekai Kizoku ni Tensei suru (2021), translated to The World’s Finest Assassin Gets Reincarnated in Another World as an Aristocrat, is from the same author as the now infamous Redo of Healer (2021). I wasn’t privy to watch that show when it aired and I don’t intend to watch it now. I’m not squeamish about the idea of portraying dark and mature topics in media. Conversely, I greatly appreciate a nuanced narrative that does cover such themes. The reason I don’t intend to watch Redo of Healer is what I gather to be the underlying motive of its main character’s actions. From what I gather, the justification of his actions, i.e., rape, is revenge.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” or so we all quote from Hammurabi’s Code. I understand why many people continue to uphold this adage as an example of fairness. It’s simple and straightforward. I would almost dare to use the word logical. Unfortunately though, many people either have never known the context of Hammurabi’s Code or choose to ignore it.
“The Code of Hammurabi is often said to have been based on the principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” – as if this were some fundamental principle of justice, elaborated and applied to all cases. In fact, the code reflects no such consistent principle. It frequently prescribes the death penalty for offenses that do not themselves cause death (e.g., robbery and accepting bribes). Moreover, even the eye-for-an-eye rule applies only if the eye of the original victim is that of a member of the patrician class. If it is the eye of a commoner, the punishment is a fine of a quantity of silver (Brittanica, 2010, pp. 17-18)”
It’s certainly interesting to think that centuries-old literature is what we popularly cite assuming ethics is static, unconcerned with the state of the world or humanity’s progression. We understand that humans are complex creatures and that our consciousness and morality are unique to us [Though this notion can be challenged with good argument and evidence (Midgley, 1985; Singer, 1989)], yet we treat them as a part of the natural world. Think what you will of modern philosophers, but it’s evident that the objective reality is very much distinguishable from our constructed viewpoint(s) including our self-imposed sense of morals. All that to say- man made concepts change over time and Hammurabi’s Code, even assuming the punishment doled out was equal, is flimsy at best. There’s a reason documents like the Constitution of the United States are referred to as “living”.
In any case, that’s about Redo of Healer. Isekai Assassin, what I will be calling the obnoxiously long yet standard length LN title, has different problems. Nevertheless, ethics takes center stage regardless. First, we’ll talk about the ability to distinguish the real from the fictional via a brief critique about the use of child assassins. Next, we’ll discuss the discrepancy in mental and emotional age between the MC and his companions, preceded by a comparison to Youjo Senki (2017).Then, we’ll look at the MC’s manipulation of his companions and ultimately explain why his treatment or mindset about them, whether he regards them as tools or cherishes them, is irrelevant. Bear in mind that this discussion of Isekai Assassin only analyzes the story as portrayed in the anime adaptation. As always, expect citations which will be hyperlinked in-text if a PDF or web page of the article is available. Otherwise, see the list of references at the end of this article.
Distinguishing Fiction & Desensitization
When consuming media at large, the ability to distinguish fact from fiction is important. The term media is too large in this case though. I speak specifically about creative works: novels, television, cinema, and the like. Key though is that we indeed distinguish as opposed to crudely separating. Creative works are not merely ways to relax or entertain. Social commentary has always been a relevant use and today’s authors are no different. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and several of George Orwell’s works come to mind. That said, even renditions of the legend of King Arthur have historically functioned as an excellent tool. Wheeler offers a very quick and accessible overview at the Spokane County Library District website. For a more nuanced look, either see the books recommended at the end of Wheeler’s article or read Castleden’s King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend (1999).
There’s no innate reason why a character being a child assassin is “bad”. It’s no great feat to see that Isekai Assassin isn’t a means to provide social commentary. The use of child assassins isn’t indicative of anything in this case. There’s no inane argument trying to justify training kids to kill. Perhaps if there was a glorification of murder then a critique about its portrayl would have merit, but that’s a necessary qualifier. It’s a power fantasy plain and simple, directed at an adolescent audience; that’s why I take no umbrage with its implementation. A sane person won’t think that the MC or his role is a position to aspire to. Assassination Classroom (2015) was principally about a school of assassins that trained students to kill. It was met with very positive reception, but I seriously doubt there was any uptick in the assassination market.
A year or two ago, I attempted to write an article titled Anime – Empathy or Desensitization, but it never reached completion. The goal was to see if anime, in this context Japanese animation and not animation in general, broadly portrayed violence in a way that could teach empathy or was correlated with desensitization. The problem is that I couldn’t find research done on this definition of anime specifically. There was research about cartoons and cartoon violence in shows for infants (Zhang et al., 2019) and there was research about violence in US TV for adolescents (Khurana et al., 2019). Yet, I couldn’t manage to find the middleground that I believe anime is. It’s quite possible that it exists somewhere, but as to exactly where I only wish I knew. What I want to make a point of though is that many things are a risk factor. That is to say, X does not cause Y. However, if a person is somehow predisposed to Y, X would be a factor to play a part in its manifestation. Could anime [not standalone] influence a particularly vulnerable individual to commit violence? Yes. So too could live action movies, television, novels, games, and a plethora of what is considered normal to consume.
There are actually a good handful of characters in recent years whose mental age and maturity are drastically different from their chronological (physical) age due to reincarnation into a younger body: Tanya from Youjo Senki (2017) and Rudeus from Mushoku Tensei (2021) for example. Interestingly, they represent an oddity in that their mental age and maturity are drastically ahead of their chronological age as opposed to facing a mental illness where the opposite would be true. Let me be clear by saying that I don’t have comprehensive knowledge about Mushoku Tensei or Rudeus’ character- I haven’t watched the show whereas I’ve seen Youjo Senki and so that’ll be my point of focus.
In Youjo Senki, the issue of this discrepancy is largely sidestepped. What is there to sidestep exactly? On a social psychology level I propose: interpersonal relationships and mental health as a reflection of constant residence in an out-group.
Tanya has an aptitude in magic and quickly obtained military knowledge in the world she was reincarnated into. Using this, she rose in the ranks as a proposed hero to some, devil to others. In addition, Tanya’s previous self adhered to a cold sense of logic and rationale. So long as it benefited them in the long-term, no sacrifice, even human, would be too great. Many viewers are of the opinion that Tanya exhibits psychopathic traits. I would go on to claim that those traits may help Tanya climb the ladder, but that’s a surprisingly tough claim to make. Whether it’s in the military or business, the research is actually a mixed bag despite popular belief (Smith & Lilienfeld, 2012; Landay & Frieder, 2018). That said, research determining psychopathy is difficult to conduct, partly because psychopathy isn’t actually a disorder and partly because businesses don’t readily jump at the opportunity to partake in these tests for obvious reasons (Babiak et al., 2010). The aforementioned cold logic would theoretically help in a military setting on the other hand. Coupled with a desire to do whatever in her power to better her socioeconomic standing and a degree of conformity to the military hierarchy, she seems like an ideal soldier in service of the Empire.
I say all this despite my previous mention of problems with interpersonal relationships and mental health. Given that one typically congregates with people generally around the same chronological age, this then applies to mental age as well. When this isn’t the case, it’s easy to be singled out and potentially ostracized. Without peers: this is what I refer to as residing in an out-group. This doesn’t really apply to Tanya though. For one, in Tanya’s squad is another woman named Visha (Viktoriya). As fellow women, this develops quite a strong connection between the two, especially in an environment populated majorly by men. This pairing alone functions as an in-group that can’t be entered readily. Additionally, since Tanya is in charge of a squad of soldiers during a war where they’re actively engaging enemy combatants, the group naturally develops a strong bond with one another as they collectively fight for their lives. Thus, it’s another tight knit in-group. Moreover, Tanya isn’t the type of person to be drastically affected by the opinions of others. So long as it didn’t hinder her capacity to live a comfortable life, it’s no sweat off her back.
Besides this, mental age and maturity also plays a role in the ethical dilemma of allowing what’s chronologically a young girl into the military. There’s a reason there’s a minimum age requirement for activities such as drinking or joining the military. The brain simply hasn’t matured enough and being introduced to the chemical effects of alcohol or the events a military deployment entails would understandably have a chance to cause the brain to develop or cognitively behave differently from the norm. In-universe then, it’s odd that Tanya is so young and that is mentioned on occasion; however, I don’t find it to be unfitting. A young hero serves such an exemplary role for advertisement and morale, both of which the military needs as the fires of war rage on. Besides, it isn’t as if what can be considered war crimes don’t come very close to fruition in Youjo Senki. Even if Tanya is so young, her skill far exceeds others and to not use her would be logistically foolhardy. It’s pragmatism that drives the brass and Tanya herself and so this is all in accordance with the core philosophy embedded in the show. It’s no wonder that Tanya is often described as a monster.
What of Isekai Assassin? Again, the reincarnation of an older man into a younger body applies. The difference between this show and Youjo Senki is the amount of events that become immoral at best when we consider what this means. To start, it’s obvious that there’s a fair amount of fanservice. My comments on this will be short as the inclusion of fanservice in anime at large is quite typical and so isn’t a critique specific to Isekai Assassin. Whether this is detrimental to the ability of a show to convey its narrative is debatable and rest assured debate does ensue appropriately. The same can be said about the effect of fanservice, which mainly appeals to a male audience and thus centers on erotic depictions of women, and its place in teaching traditionally accepted sex roles. The conversation becomes a bit more complicated when we consider the age of the characters [in Isekai Assassin] who all principally seem under 18. From one minefield to another, the age and physical appearance of characters in anime is a hotbed of controversy. So much so, that I intend to refrain from giving my own opinion on the matter. What I will state are arguments I’ve heard anecdotally from what can be considered “both sides” of the matter. Perhaps there are more perspectives, but very broadly the arguments are:
“Anime is fictional and the label of age attached is merely a means to ‘trick’ viewers into being further immersed into a world. Moreover, the anime aesthetic of a character is only loosely similar to their real counterparts [a real person] in a variety of ways. Therefore, attributing real-world preferences is a misnomer.”
“The sexualization of underage characters in anime is morally reprehensible. Fiction is a gateway to explore ideals and fantasy which, to an extent, correlate with mindset. Additionally, this type of fanservice seems exclusive to anime-esque content which may suggest a deeper cultural dilemma and further conformity of those who consume it.”
These are comments on fanservice and so are largely irrelevant to the actual plot. That said, I’d like to see psychologists try and formulate an answer, but that is exponentially difficult. At a base level, anime just isn’t a topic that sees a lot of research. Popularity notwithstanding, you can’t really perform adequate research about the topic in my opinion. To obtain a sample size of participants who [are offenders and] all share more or less the same background and experience for reliability and validity seems impossible. I suppose you could do a case study, but even then, the most you could posit is declaring a potential risk factor. The limit of what one could do with the mass population is to gauge their perception on this material which would be interesting, but not necessarily beneficial at large.
However, Isekai Assassin’s use of underage characters is less fleeting than fanservice and instead they’re integral to the plot. It’s for this reason why I consider it noteworthy. The circumstances in which two female characters, Tarte and Maha, meet the MC and the end result of how that pans out is concerning. To give context to those who don’t know:
Tarte was a young girl formerly from a poor household. Given the onset of winter and the food scarcity it creates, it became a necessity to decrease the amount of people that needed to be fed. To that end, Tarte was thrown out into the wild and she eventually wandered long enough to end up starving and hunted by wolves in the region of Tuatha De. About to be killed and eaten, the MC Lugh, son of the lord of Tuatha De, saves her by killing the wolves and gives her food.
In the case of Maha, she was an orphaned child who organized fellow orphaned or abandoned children to assist and give tours to tourists in the city they resided in. The profit would eventually lead to them being able to buy a house for proper living conditions. That never came to pass however as they were kidnapped and forced to reside in an orphanage. This orphanage was in actuality closer to a mixture of a sweatshop and human trafficking ring where the kids were forced to work, beaten, sexually abused, and sold off to those with money. Under an alias, Lugh saves Maha and the children.
As an aside, Dia, Lugh’s teacher in magic, is also an underage character who comes to love him. The relationship is much better than that between Tarte and Lugh or Maha and Lugh considering there were no dire straits or obvious manipulation that led to a romance forming. It was relatively natural in fact, but the problem of age still does apply. The power dynamic is imbalanced. While the mental age is actually closer, there is still an insurmountable gap in emotional maturity.
That surface-level summary is dark, but that’s fine. Once more, there’s nothing wrong with dark and mature themes and their depiction in media. What’s omitted from these summaries is the part I find, for a lack of a better term, problematic. Tarte and Maha’s emotional attachment from being saved develops into a romance and Lugh ends up having a harem. Thus, we have a large age gap in a romantic relationship. What can stem from this? Manipulation.
Manipulation, Disney, & Zugzwang
To begin this talk on manipulation, we need to backtrack slightly again as I omitted another crucial aspect to the ending of Tarte and Maha’s backstory. In order for Tarte to escape her situation, i.e. being homeless, facing starvation, and physical danger (from wolves and other predators), her only perceivable choice was to join with Lugh. That alone isn’t grounds for purposeful manipulation, but Lugh goes a step farther with declarations like “I need you,” while maintaining that the condition of joining him meant aiding him in killing. When faced with this ultimatum, death or life, it’s clear that there wasn’t ever a real choice. It isn’t as if this wasn’t planned either, quite the opposite. Lugh’s internal monologue runs through the steps he took to secure her trust and submission while concluding it with the thought, “Brainwashing complete”.
“While the general public would not think of children and young people as hostages, they can be victims and they can be held captive… Their hostage situation exists in both material and subliminal form manifested in: their perceived threat to survival and belief the abuser is willing to carry out that threat, the victim’s perception of some small kindness from the abuser within a context of terror, fear of isolation and the perceived inability to escape. These elements are the four precursors or conditions that Graham et al. (1994) identified as the precursors for Stockholm syndrome and Julich (2001) analysed her interviews of adult survivors of CSA using these precursors as a framework”.
While Stockholm syndrome doesn’t apply to Maha’s situation, I do believe there’s a large level of manipulation, even if it isn’t overtly disclosed as was with Tarte. Before Lugh saved Maha and the rest of the orphanage, he simply went there under his alias to hire a suitable assistant for himself. When he arrives, he sees Maha alone in a building, crying to herself with a blade nearly piercing her eye. She appears to be attempting to either gouge her eye out or kill herself entirely. Lugh calls out to her smiling and says, “You’d be cuter if you smiled”. Then, hardcut to see the lineup of girls. He chooses Maha from their assortment who seems to have overcome her trauma in the time elapsed and finds herself swooning over Lugh. However, he must wait three days while she is prepared for him. Before these three days have passed, Maha is in transit where her captors attempt to have their way with her. She tries to run away, is caught, and subsequently saved by Lugh who she sees as a dashing prince come to save the day.
There is a distinct possibility that what I critique now is the result of inconsistent writing and presentation, yet I continue to critique regardless as that is simply what the end product is. Lugh is explained to be quite smart. Is the audience expected to believe that he went to the orphanage simply to hire an assistant without knowledge of the location’s circumstances? If not, why else would he wait for Maha to be attacked? If we don’t accept his out of character naivety, we instead accept the fact that Lugh waited for Maha to be attacked in order to garner trust and devotion from her, thereby fulfilling her ideal of a prince coming to save her. This terminology is quite reminiscent from the controversy that stemmed from Disney movies which played a role in the adoption of traditional sex-roles with Maha being a damsel in distress in need of a prince (Coyne et al., 2016). The climax of it all is that Maha, after being saved from rape and abuse, is trained to be an assassin.
Zugzwang is a term most associated with chess and is essentially a position where a move is always detrimental (Winter, 1997). In my mind, this fits quite appropriately with Lugh’s situation. I’ve seen comments from the audience glad that Lugh is developing a more human side compared to his previous life, but that has little bearing on Tarte or Maha. At this point, when both his female companions are presented as loyal to the point of death, it appears self-evident that no action can be significantly helpful to them. Regardless of whether Lugh cherishes them or not, they will obey him completely. In short, the damage has been done and efforts to reverse that will largely fall short.
There are clear actions on the part of Lugh in order to manipulate his companions. Yet, the story pays this little mind. When it’s discussed, such as in Tarte’s case, it’s a matter of fact. While it is possible to accept this as the MC simply being cold and manipulative, assumed to be typical of an assassin, the show also wants to humanize Lugh at the same time. This results in a contradictory sway with the narrative, hopeful that everything can be idyllic when the time comes to settle down without regard to the long-term effects of manipulation. In truth, manipulation has become the Original Sin, the bedrock of the story.
I would like to recognize that the intentions of the original author were most likely not to convey ill intent. This should not be seen as an attack on said author or any other individuals associated with the work as a whole. Neither should it be seen as an attack on the audience that enjoys the product. However, this article stands as a critique of the narrative, themes, and possible conclusions that can be made from a close analysis. Whether or not all shows need to withstand such close-reading is surely a topic of debate. Nevertheless, I believe that depictions of relationships in media do function as a learning tool, especially to those prone to influence (i.e. children and those with mental disorders). By virtue of being an anime tagged isekai and harem, having a male lead, and being rated PG-13, this puts it squarely in an audience of male adolescents. No, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that dark themes or even discussed examples of manipulation should be thrown out of shows for adolescents. I instead recommend parental guidance when it comes to consuming and properly understanding the implications of shows that contain the aforementioned. When parents can’t monitor their kids or if there’s no parental figure, what’s to be done? That’s a good question, but I don’t have the answer for you today.
Any comments are welcome, especially critique on this article. I didn’t find any controversy about Isekai Assassin which actually surprised me. I don’t often criticize anime for its oversexualization, but it just felt different in this show. Seeing as how I might be the only one writing long-form about it, maybe it’s just me. In any case, I hope the read wasn’t too formal and that you could still enjoy it.
Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. D. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 28(2), 174–193.
Britannica, E. P. S. (2010). The history of western ethics. Rosen Publishing Group.
Castleden, R. (1999). King Arthur : The Truth Behind the Legend. Taylor & Francis Group
Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A., & Birkbeck, V. (2016). Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement With Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behavior in Children. Child Development, 87(6), 1909–1925.
Khurana, Bleakley, A., Ellithorpe, M. E., Hennessy, M., Jamieson, P. E., & Weitz, I. (2019). Media violence exposure and aggression in adolescents: A risk and resilience perspective. Aggressive Behavior, 45(1), 70–81.
Landay, K., & Frieder, R. E. (2018). Cold-Blooded Killers? Rethinking Psychopathy in the Military. Occupational Stress and Well-Being in Military Contexts (Vol. 16, pp. 23–47). Emerald Publishing Limited.
Are humans scary? That’s simply a question about humans: the anatomy and behaviour of Homo sapiens, not a question meant to provoke thought about our actions on a grand scale. Treat it as it is and mull over it for a second: “Are humans scary?” We see humans every day of our lives. Even those who dread making prolonged eye contact with strangers commuting- No, even if a person doesn’t leave their home, what about a mirror? A video? Or perhaps a reflection of themselves on the screen? Note the last three examples in particular. Those situations detach most relevant interaction that anxiety would stem from. The mirror, the video, and the reflection simply present the structure, the form, of a person. It’s highly improbable to go a day without seeing a human and the layperson isn’t inherently afraid of the human form so the answer to the initial question seems clear enough. So, what happens when you watch this:
Once the game transitions from a cutscene rendered in-game to full-motion video, the atmosphere changes instantly. Compared to today’s standards combined with a time where photorealism is so popular, perhaps some may find it low quality. Nevertheless, there’s an eeriness to it. Maria’s anatomy is that of a human, undisputedly so. She has two eyes, two ears, a mouth, a nose, eyebrows, limbs, etc. all where they belong. Everything is in place, but it’s wrong. Not wrong to the extent that it’s comedic or looks “buggy”, it’s only slightly off the mark. The facial animations are the culprit, the face acting more like a mask than usual. It tries to wear the correct emotions, but the transitions are either too slow, too quick, or nonexistent. The audio seems to drag slightly and it seems out of sync. It’s unsettling, but why? Why don’t we recognize it as it is, an FMV with nuanced cracks in the presentation?
Let’s look at another game called PT, a title that has etched itself into the annals of horror video game history, despite it only being a piece of a bigger picture. In the game, your character initially enters a doorway and wanders a well-lit hall. There’s nothing to do. For a while, you can barely interact. The bathroom door is locked. The front door is too. Despite the windows and glass allowing you to peak outwards into the night, there’s no escape. Would anything be out there for you anyway? There’s one more door down a set of stairs, lit only by a hanging bulb. You approach it and low and behold it opens- to the same hall you just left. As you continue this loop, eternally descending downwards, everything starts to change. A banging on the bathroom walls, a light swinging to and fro, darkness encroaching on the house, and staggered steps behind you, cut only by a dragging sound. You know what that sound is, from whom it comes from. You’ve seen her already.
Lisa is perfect. The sounds she makes, a mixture of raspy breathing, moans, and groans, are all distorted with a strange filter. She shares the same anatomy as a humanoid, but her stance and posture is odd. The way she moves is completely inhuman, shifting about in place erratically causing motion blur implying a speed at which the human eye can’t keep up. This movement is despite her already deceased appearance which you see when she grabs you; however, most of the time she’s surrounded by darkness. This creates a brilliant contrast of being swathed in darkness to the deathly pale skin seen in the light. The light reveals a reality better left well alone. The dark causes you to be unable to discern any facial features, almost dehumanizing her. The FMV had a similar effect with the lighting being above the characters, casting deep shadows on the eyes and eye sockets. Those eyes in the darkness are almost reminiscent of the predators which sought to hunt the human population at night, or perhaps it’s more akin to the light of an angler fish.
PT presents Lisa in a horrifying light, what with the jumpscares and noises, not limited to subtle clues or purely ambiance like in the shown Silent Hill 2 cutscene. I would posit in this instance then that PT is more horrifying than what I would describe as creepy. Yet, these have all been descriptions of what has happened. It has yet to touch on why these events are scary. Jumpscares are one thing, but why exactly does the erratic movement cause our hearts to beat so fast? And why have a good handful of monsters in fiction taken up a human-like appearance anyway?
If you’ve been to this site before, you may know what’s coming next. Today, I have for you a paper titled Uncanny Behaviour in Survival Horror Games, written by Tinwell et al. in 2010. If you have access to the full paper I encourage you to read it as it’s written quite well, certainly less boring than the usual research paper. I’ll be summarizing the participants involved, the experiment method, and the conclusions. If you’d like to skip this summary, scroll to the Header below titled [Conclusions].
The following is the Abstract for the paper:
“This study investigates the relationship between the perceived strangeness of a virtual character and the perception of human likeness for some attributes of motion and sound. Participants (N=100) were asked to rate thirteen video clips of twelve different virtual characters and one human. The results indicate that attributes of motion and sound do exaggerate the uncanny phenomenon and how frightening that character is perceived to be. Strong correlations were identified for the perceived strangeness of a character with how human-like a character’s voice sounded, how human-like the facial expression appeared and how synchronized the character’s sound was with lip movement; characters rated as the least synchronized were perceived to be the most frightening. Based on the results of this study, this article seeks to define an initial set of hypotheses for the fear-evoking aspects of character facial rendering and vocalization in survival horror games that can be used by game designers seeking to increase the fear factor in the genre, and that will form the basis of further experiments, which, it is hoped, will lead to a conceptual framework for the uncanny.”
The majority of these people were students, but not exclusively as an untold number of “professionals working within the academic sector and video game industry” also contributed to the total 100 (p. 10). Moreover, these charts don’t necessarily denote that those in the 18-24 age bracket all have advanced experience in video games. That said, they are very similar…
(These numbers can be treated as percentages, e.g. 83%, given that the total number of participants were 100; however, I won’t be doing so in this article save graphs. Additionally, I don’t know how they measured player experience. Likely participants were asked to self-assess themselves in a short survey, though whether this took place before or after the experiment I don’t know.)
As for the experiment itself, as was described in the Abstract, participants were shown thirteen video clips of these characters from the following media, as well as a real human (p. 11):
Emily Project (2008)
Mary Smith – The Casting (2006)
Alex Sheperd – Silent Hill Homecoming (2008)
Louis – Left 4 Dead (2008)
Francis – Left 4 Dead (2008)
The Smoker – Left 4 Dead (2008)
The Infected – Left 4 Dead (2008)
The Tank – Left 4 Dead (2008)
The Witch – Left 4 Dead (2008)
Lillien – a Chatbot character (2006)
“[A] realistic human-like zombie” – Alone in the Dark (2009)
A real human
I make a point of specifically identifying everything the participants reacted to because I want you to pay attention to both the release date and choices of characters/games. They’re interesting choices to be sure, especially considering that Left 4 Dead, a game with a slightly cartoony art style, makes the bulk of the list. Ultimately though, without being able to view the same clips as the participants, I can only make surface remarks about it. Everyone who has seen SFM videos knows that the quality and depth varies wildly depending on the creator.
After viewing these video clips, participants were asked via an online questionnaire questions involving the strangeness, familiarity, and how human-like characters looked and sounded. Importantly, a question was included about the facial expressions of the characters, asking which part of the face showed either a lack or exaggeration of emotion. Two other important questions were about how synced the audio was with the character and a question about the qualities (tone, pitch, speed, etc.) of the voice (p. 11).
From the results found, there were four main conclusions (p. 21):
“Uncanniness increases with increasing perceptions of lack of human likeness of the facial expression.
Uncanniness increases with increasing perceptions of lack of human likeness of the character’s voice.
Uncanniness increases strongly with increasing exaggeration of articulation of the mouth during speech, and this relationship is of more significance than that between uncanniness and middle and upper facial expression.
Uncanniness increases with increasing perceptions of lack of synchronization between the character’s lips and the character’s voice.”
reviewing and reflecting
Upon reviewing the Silent Hill 2 FMV, we can see that both points 3 and 4 apply. Connected between them is a focus on the mouth and lips rather than other options participants could choose such as the eyes or forehead. I believe this was a fairly easy assumption to make, but it’s best to know there is research that affirms the opinion; however, what of the other questions posed? I suppose the uncanny valley can answer a few of them, especially in Silent Hill 2, but what of the erratic movement in PT? You could sweep that under the rug and attribute it to the uncanny valley as well- I don’t think that’s wrong, although it could also be a result of what I talked about before: a biological response to potential danger. See this short article on spiders for a quick and dirty explanation.
Mathias Clasen’s paper titled Monsters Evolve: A Biocultural Approach to Horror Stories, published in 2012, explains that horror fiction should be viewed from both a constructionist ontology and positivist epistemology POV. He makes the case of our jumpy attitude to sound or movement to be the result of a hardwired response to threat. Even if the modern example which causes such a reaction is fictional, it’s likely we still react as older humans who did so were more likely to survive: natural selection (p. 223). Yet, he also affirms that a fear of monsters such as zombies can also stem from a sociological response, e,g., the manifestation of a fear of consumerism of cold war anxiety, and a biological response, e.g., “infectious agents” that can spread violently (p. 225).
In summary, due to the initial familiarity we feel towards something, should it begin to act or move strangely, that uncanny feeling is even more pronounced. Specifically the articulation of the mouth, as well as the sync between the voice and lips, provides a great deal of uncomfortableness to the viewer. Other actions such as erratic movement could be a result of an ingrained attentiveness, developed early on by humans and cultivated by natural selection, in order to survive a potentially life-threatening scenario. And so many monsters are human because they’re precisely what we know and become exactly what we don’t. Does that sound weird? Well, look in the mirror. Yes, really.
Giovanni B Caputo published a paper titled Strange-face-in-the-mirror Illusion in 2010. In it, he describes the phenomenon of staring at a mirror in a dimly lit room, only to begin to see one of a spread of things. In his experiment, the two most common reports by participants for what they saw were either their own distorted face, or what were generally described as “fantastical and[/or] monstrous beings” (p. 1007). Before, a similar distortion effect, the flashed face distortion effect (FFDE), would occur when a person would be presented with two cycling faces in their periphery. When attention was focused on the middle ground between them, the faces in the periphery appeared to change and were registered as distorted and maligned. There are many videos on YouTube for you to do this yourself. Here’s one of them:
This doesn’t explain the mirror illusion however. Some such as Maclen Stanley cite the Troxler Effect as the culprit. You can read his article here. I would highly recommend this article as well on the Scientific American. The most interesting part is the inclusion of images taken from a research paper where Caputo replicated his study under different conditions. Instead of a participant looking at themselves in a mirror, two participants stared at each other in dim light. Given that some participants were artists, they were able to reproduce what they saw. With the knowledge that this illusion isn’t isolated to mirrors, it makes me wonder if the strangeness of paintings, typically portraits, aren’t a symptom of this or a similar effect.
Principally, for games in a 3D landscape, dynamic lighting would theoretically be the easiest thing to experiment with. Casting shadows on character models from different angles and playing with perspective are a good route to go and I believe this is understood. For games that are 2D such as most visual novels, there’s the option of playing with lighting as well. Although, depending on the artist(s), their workload, and intended release dates, I’d generally opt to focus my attention on voice acting and sound design. Lip sync is of course unnecessary, therefore the ability to direct your voice actors to change their tone, pitch, and cadence are important. It would also be interesting to play around with the sound artificially. I highly suggest this not be done standalone as it may just come across as clumsy and amateur, so a combined focus on the soundscape is necessary.
I don’t refer to just music, but the ambient sounds when the music clears. Faint breathing under the crashing of rain, barely audible to those who pay attention. Utilizing directional audio to mimic passing movement behind the player. In cases, I would even justify asymmetry between what the player and player-controlled character experience; e.g., audibly- whispers directed at the player/whispers unheard by the character in-game. Visually- the appearance of something in the distance, not overtly making itself known but not hiding itself either, yet no comment of it is made. In any case, I leave it up to you, the reader, to perhaps try and implement some of these tricks in whatever products you create.
Isekai Shokudou or Restaurant to Another World is exactly as it sounds and little more. Its title is literal, succinct, and as will be repeated: I think that’s fine. Doubtlessly you don’t need a plot summary as there really isn’t much to delve into. It portrays characters from a fantasy world finding a magical door to a modern Western restaurant, Nekoya, in Japan. There’s a lot of questions that could be raised when watching the show or reflecting on it. Several can be asked about the magical door itself. There’s also brief glimpses at the evolution of technology and agriculture as a result of customers emulating modern food and tech. What about the discrimination towards demons and half-elves? The wage gap? While fantasy currency is useless in the modern world, what about its purity and cost as a metal? I could go on and on, but the fact of the matter is that the show didn’t really explore these topics.
Audience reception was generally positive, but Isekai Shokudou aired during the Summer 2017 season. For reference, Shokugeki no Souma was airing its third season in Fall 2017. As a result, I think there were some misconceptions about the show. Cooking anime don’t seem to be particularly prolific and so Shokugeki no Souma was the only point of reference for a lot of people. I suspect the anime community expected a bit more focus on action and fantasy in the vein of shounen while the show ended up being the exact opposite. Critique followed the train of thought that the show had no progression, main story, or plot as nothing happened. After reading the previous list of topics they could’ve written about in-depth, you might be inclined to agree that a larger overview of topics related to cooking should’ve been explored. Well, I actually disagree.
My argument here isn’t that Isekai Shokudou is an objectively great anime. I understand why it has a 7.35 on MAL and I think that’s a fair score. In fact, this article is barely an argument. I’m writing this to affirm why I liked the show and to explore the main theme because there was one integrated into every episode. It was never about large complicated ideas. Instead, it was about appreciating the small things. In this case: food and food culture.
From the beginning of the show, it’s stated that Nekoya is not a traditional Japanese restaurant. While it does have Japanese cuisine to suit the local palate, it’s a so-called Western restaurant. In this case, they define Western not just as food from Europe and the Americas as is often associated. Instead, Western is closer to a term for foreign, defined as food not having originated in Japan. This alone is integral to the entirety of the series. By showing culturally diverse food, it holds up and embraces its interconnected nature. We shouldn’t be stringent in what we accept or negative towards foreign food as so much of what we eat doesn’t originate natively. Sometimes this is the case in recipes, but it’s also true when we look at crops themselves and international trade routes.
When it comes to food, no one is excluded. Elves represent this most overtly with their aversion to eating meat and dishes created with animal products: veganism. Even then, there’s still options available to them and they’re quite good. The perspective is not that veganism is exclusively a restriction either- it’s a push to further explore new tastes. SORTEDfood is a great channel that maintains the comedic nature of a bunch of friends while talking, teaching, and messing about with food. In the past, they’ve brought to attention and raised good points about traceability, food alternatives, and veganism to name a few. You don’t need to be particularly interested in cooking to have a laugh.
In a way, there’s also a subtle allusion to the unification that food can provide. Nekoya is often filled with multiple inhabitants from the other world, all varying species. Despite any barriers that may exist, that all fades away when they enter the restaurant’s door. No one wishes to physically fight in earnest fearing they’ll be kicked out. As such, it’s almost like they’re on sacred ground. The only argument that transpires there is about which dish is supreme. It’s a common occurrence, but it’s always friendly banter with the resolution that everyone has their own preference. Those arguments also serve to broaden the horizons of other customers, urging them to try other dishes.
The very lighting of the restaurant, or at least the warm colors used in its depiction, reinforce the homely nature of the environment. I’m sure everyone is aware of color psychology so we can sail past that. Interestingly though, when I looked to see if there were any articles written about lighting in restaurants specifically, there was one worth mentioning. Its title is Fast Food Restaurant Lighting and Music can Reduce Calorie Intake and Increase Satisfaction (Wansink & van Ittersum, 2012). Before I discuss it, I do feel that the title is irritatingly misleading. To me, it presents itself as some miraculous way to reduce calories while maintaining portion size and food consumption. That’s not the study at all. It merely observed the effect of lighting and music and its relation to how much people ate. Dim lighting and soft music caused people to eat slower and often less than the other extreme of loud music and bright lights which accelerated consumption (p. 231). Very generally, this (dim lighting and soft music) led to greater satisfaction with the food. There is other speculation about their data, but honestly it’s fairly flimsy and so I opt to forgo writing about it.
Usually, I’d apply a study’s conclusion to the anime I’m discussing- that’s the point of bringing it up after all. In this case though, I want to make a few points:
The study was about fast food restaurants. That means it doesn’t directly apply to proper restaurants. It’s difficult and often faulty to generalize results that occur outside of a lab setting due to the amount of factors out of the researchers’ controls.
The study’s sample size consisted of 62 people. While that is decent and the results it concluded are backed up by significant enough data (large enough to not be a result of random chance), it remains a singular study. Despite this phrase being frowned upon since it’s self-evident within the science community, I say it anyway: “further research must be done.”
To you as a reader, while it may be difficult due to a variety of reasons, try and read a citation’s original text. At the least, skim it. While a writer may propose something, even with citations, don’t treat it as fact. Not all research is done well and you need to learn when to disagree with experts’ methodology or conclusions about their data.
All that aside, there are still other factors beyond the lighting which theoretically increase the homely feeling of the diner. For one, it’s the proximity of the dining room to the kitchen. While you’re seated at your table, you can hear the chef preparing your food. It’s one step away from watching your parents cook as you did as a child. You’re doing nothing physically, but you’re anticipating the meal and thinking about it in your head. You can smell the delicious aroma wafting from the back that causes you to salivate. The placement of the furniture and lack of separators between tables aids this. In an open room, you’re not only smelling what’s being cooked currently- you register all the sensory information from others’ food. You’re able to see their reaction, one of pure bliss, and you too come to expect that. Those other people aren’t just customers either. You’re all regulars at this lovely restaurant, nicknames given to each other based on your favorite dish. It’s truly a familial experience.
While it never explored the purity of coins, it did touch on the craftsmanship and advancements of the modern age. Episode 2 featured a treasure hunter and soldier baffled at the availability of free cold water and the presence of ice respectively. Episode 5 featured a half-elf who emulated a fridge with magic while wondering how the restaurant copied her writing perfectly to produce multiple menus. Episode 9 featured a dwarf who marveled at the craftsmanship of a beer mug. This is all a showcase of the little things we take for granted. Settings like the restaurant shown in the anime are personal favorites of mine. Whether they be cafes, tea shops, or bars, they all represent a peaceful place away from the business or action. It’s as if time stops and life allows you room to breathe. When you’re there, all you need to do is enjoy the atmosphere. Places like that transport you to another world.
“Isekai Shokudou Is A Perfect(ly Okay) Anime” – There’s nothing exceedingly spectacular about it and that’s fine. Not everything needs to be met with raving reviews, heralded as a masterpiece for all to follow. It’s still filled to the brim with little details to appreciate and makes for both a pleasant and relaxing viewing experience. To like it is to recognize the little things that make it good, a successful passing on of the theme. Watch it on Crunchyroll, Funimation, or Amazon if you haven’t already. There has even been an announcement of a Season 2!
Note that this analysis of Starlight Shores does contain spoilers for the story. As such, it will sparingly show screenshots from the game; however, they will not portray the integral story beats per se. Instead, I’ll be using them to convey what I believe capture some of the themes of the game. Still, if you only want to hear my thoughts without spoilers, this will summarize it:
Starlight Shores is a hidden gem masquerading as a writer’s first full-release. The dialogue is poignant, and the short-novel style fully utilizes the medium while playing into the theme of time.
No review copy was sent to me, nor was there any other incentive for writing this analysis. Starlight Shores was bought with my own money and my connection with the development team is limited to following them on Twitter and tweeting at them sporadically.
I don’t know what I expected from Starlight Shores (SS). I played the demo of Tidal Blossoms (TB) a while back, also written by Sam Kerr of Delphinium Interactive, and from what I can recall it was quite decent. I wouldn’t single it out as anything too spectacular, but I think it’s still important to bring up. The fact that they’re both in the same universe and SS is a sort of prequel to TB aside- from a writing perspective, it’s very interesting because the tones are perceivably different, or at least that’s my feeling.
Tone is something I’ve commented on before and even then I noted that I’m hesitant to do so because it’s such an ephemeral and subjective concept. It’s very easy for tone to control an author’s writing rather than it purvey throughout. As such, intended tones often come off heavy-handed and almost amateur in their application. Its role in Starlight Shores though is dare I say excellent. But before that, what is Starlight Shores?
“Starlight Shores is an island-themed romance game where you’ll visit the town of Seaside with your friends. Party under the stars, play games together, and remember that your choices matter!”
It’s very straight-forward about being a romance game which is quite ironic in retrospect when we view the dynamic of Theo, Lena, and Will who is our main character. To start, while Will is the MC, he is by no means a blank slate to be puppeteered around completely by the player. His history is extremely relevant to the story as Theo was his close friend and their parting left a sense of longing and regret which aided in dividing the two. Being able to reunite after so long, it’s both a blessing and a curse. People change over time and without significant introspection, it’s difficult to consciously notice that change within one’s self, regardless if it was for better or for worse. After so long, will the memories they made remain consistent with who shows up at Seaside?
That’s a good hook in its own right, but the personality and views of a person aren’t the only things that change with time. Our lives are never static. Conversely, they’re always in development and that brings new stories and new characters, even if we’re sometimes stuck in the past. That’s where Lena comes in, the new best friend of Theo. She’s affectionately referred to as Theo’s replacement best friend, a stand-in for Will, and that has very relevant implications. Top among them is the formation of a perceived romance barrier. Yes, Lena is not just a love interest for the protagonist. She too carries feelings for Theo and draws very significant parallels to Will as is mentioned time and time again.
The dynamic of the previous two paragraphs is the crux of the story in a nutshell and your choices dictate your answer. All that was only to explain the premise but henceforth I’ll be talking about its themes. The themes which stood out the most to me were these:
Time & Ambiguity
I’ve already discussed time’s role in the synopsis, but I talked about it in a way which denoted inevitable change. I don’t mean to contradict that, you can’t stop time, but critical is what we decided to do within that context. We are not helpless bystanders that watch the world go by. Though our lives are fleeting, all the more reason to seize what we want while we still can. Carpe diem. But what does that really mean? Does that involve reconnecting with and romancing Theo? Does it mean to date Lena? Does it mean to reconcile that your feelings were not romantic but platonic?
If you date Theo, then you’re affirming that while both you and her have made mistakes in the past, you still love each other and vow to be there for one another in the future. That goodbye kiss, whether purposefully memorable or done spuriously, bound you two together in a relationship not to be confined by distance. Lena though? She’ll never end up with Theo who she loves dearly. She missed her chance by waiting too long. Maybe she can accept that, but can you?
A similar conundrum persists if you date Lena. Perhaps you do contend that you love Theo in a platonic way and so you choose Lena. Well, she still loves Theo. Your choice is then to hook up with Lena for the night or abstain, in the case of the latter not knowing what will come from that choice. You can spur her on, but at this point all you can do is hope the future will prove fruitful for the two. Do you opt for sex for the sake of it, again hoping that a proper relationship will further blossom from that? Only time will tell.
And of course, when you maneuver a path to bring Theo and Lena together, for the most part, you step out of the picture. You’ll be there to support the two, but are you alright leaving Starlight Shores like that? You’re playing a romance game, so the game’s objective in theory is most likely to end up in a relationship. It’s your choice to walk away knowing that your preconceived goal wasn’t met, but perhaps this was the supposed correct choice. Or was an ending without a relationship between the player and someone else a waste of time?
I don’t have an answer, but I do know that there’s no correct choice. I’d posit that the author didn’t have a canonical choice in mind either. You find this string of text at various different endings: “This wasn’t the night that I expected, but I’m glad that I’m here.” Your choices are something you have to live with. You don’t always need to justify your actions and you won’t always know where you’ll end up. There’s nothing wrong with that though. It’s through the passing of time that we ourselves bring meaning to our choices and our lives in full.
Throughout all of this analysis, there’s been a level of ambiguity present reflective of the VN. Sometimes ambiguity is frowned upon, but usually that critique is levied at a lack of information which prevents readers from formulating any cohesive meaning from a work. That isn’t the case in Starlight Shores. There’s undoubtedly ambiguity, but it’s tactful in its use as the meaning needs to be both ascertained by the player and the characters themselves. Take this for instance:
Besides the fact that it’s a beautiful line, the context of the scene is discussing the past of Theo and Will’s and if they were ever truly in love. The ambiguity here is not just well placed, but it’s accurate. Relationships and emotions in general are ever so complicated and sometimes our minds get a bit boggled trying to make sense of the events around us. It’s easy to second guess and doubt ourselves, especially when we’re in stressful situations and I think it’s fair to say that the isolation that came from moving away from a potential partner and the rigors of college life are significantly stressful. Moreover, the quote plays into the idea of personas and romanticization. We wear a mask to appease different social groups. Individual masks subtly alter our mindset and behaviour, though not too far from the cumulative average. These masks though are not only relevant when outward facing. When we view them all, our emotions must be consistent with them otherwise one of them must change. This conflict of memory and emotion, not knowing which is correct, leads to a downward spiral as one’s self is lost.
I’d like to bring in an academic article titled My Time, Your Time, or Our Time? Time Perception and its Associations With Interpersonal Goals and Life Outcomes by Yu Niiya (2019). Niiya talks about the concepts of zero-sum and nonzero-sum time. The former is when time is viewed as a limited commodity or resource, usually taken up, taken away, or spent on another in an interpersonal relationship (p. 1440). A nonzero-sum on the other hand is when time is not perceived as property, neither given or taken away. Rather, it’s unowned and exists for everyone’s benefit. It’s argued that people most likely perceive time as zero-sum or nonzero-sum in different situations. The conclusion to take away from that article are the primary results about time perception, interpersonal goals, and life outcomes: In layman’s terms, people who wish to help others are more likely to have a nonzero-sum perception of time since they view the processing of helping to aid in self-growth resulting in no perceivable loss. Overall, there was a correlation between nonzero-sum perception and happiness (pp. 1451-1452).
These conclusions are considerable when we think about the dialogue contained within Starlight Shores. By not looking at time as a commodity, we stand to be happier for it. Thoughts about wasting each other’s time should cease, though that’s definitely easier said than done. However, this does happen at certain points in the game, principally select endings. It fits thematically as that’s the culmination of their life experience and conversations that transpire- learning to live in the moment, uncaring of judgement by others, wholly trusting, and only wishing to be happy with one another.
Before I close out, it wouldn’t do to avoid talking about the “short story” romance style of the game. On a meta level, the player experiences the story through parallel timelines via their different choices. It’s through these different stories that we learn about different facets of individual characters’ lives. The background information is both relevant to understanding them and substantial when accumulated over multiple playthroughs. It’s even on a meta level that we once again return to the core themes of time and ambiguity. We can see that on certain routes, say when Will romances Theo, Lena is willing to grant them reprieve and essentially gives up on her chance with Theo by returning to the house. With this knowledge of character’s actions and mindsets, we can make a more informed decision about what we really want to do.
I think this is of the utmost importance to other developers who also develop their games in the “short story” romance style: consistency, and Starlight Shores does it well. There must be consistency in actions and if not, there must be a very good reason. Undoubtedly characters are dynamic and their words and actions should suit the situation, but they need to remain true to their personality. Otherwise, you run the risk of ruining players’ expectations of how a character will act, negating any sense of knowing that character on a deeper level. Breaking those expectations is no doubt useful, but that’s a tool to be used sparingly.
With that, we’ve reached the end of this analysis. Starlight Shores is a wonderful game that has somehow managed to claw its way into my list of favorite VNs. Admittedly, I didn’t expect that, but credit where credit’s due. The writing was superb, the artwork was beautiful, and the music a joy to listen to. Thank you for reading and I implore you to buy Starlight Shores if you haven’t done so already.
As I don’t review games as I’ve done in the past, I’ve opted to bundle my critique of the game here. Firstly: the amount of choices. It’s an odd critique to be sure, but I do believe it’s justified. At junctions, I sometimes felt unsure as to which choices were relevant. Couple this with the amount of choices, and there are quite a number of permutations to go through. I don’t feel as if it detracted from the experience, and as has been stated, there is importance even in the finer details of small junctions, but something to note nonetheless.
I believe this problem of “getting lost” when searching for a new end doesn’t need to be solved by lessening those choices, though practical and aesthetically pleasing ways of doing so are difficult to think of. The most efficient and fitting way I can come up with at the time of writing is implementing coding which denotes that a choice has been picked before. Other mechanics to consider are a hint system or a flow chart that effectively serves as a chapter select after a certain amount of progression has been achieved. These two systems don’t seem very pleasing though and I’d opt for the initial recommendation. For all that, this is the critique and recommendation of one person. Other methods are available if the critique is to be agreed with in the first place.
Two other minor critiques are the speed at which text fades in and the settings (preferences) screen. I think the fade-in is a tad too slow and could use a slight bump. Maybe allow that speed to be configurable in the settings. The settings screen itself is, and this really is the most minor of critiques, a bit plain. There’s nothing wrong with something default, but in the future and with a bigger budget, it’s a little detail that would be appreciated.
Despite these critiques, I still vehemently believe that the quality of Starlight Shores is worth your time and money.
The game’s credits and potential conflict of interests are listed again for redundancy:
No review copy was sent to me, nor was there any other incentive for writing this analysis. Starlight Shores was bought with my own money and my connection with the development team is limited to following them on Twitter and tweeting at them sporadically.
I’ve never been too fond of most educational video games. There’s nothing wrong with video games that seek to teach. In fact, I think that’s a brilliant idea. Technology has become increasingly integrated into the world and to be proficient, despite dissenting opinions, is a near necessity. This notion has become obvious during the pandemic we find ourselves in with most work being done online. Thus, it’s good to introduce tech to children at a young age and get them experienced with handling interfaces. Additionally, most children are exposed to video games quite often and would therefore be more inclined to learn a topic if presented in a similar format (Parent Zone, 2019; NPD, 2019).
My problem with educational games lies in the execution.
Games, by their definition, must be fun. And if we’re looking at video games specifically, I opt to use Ahoy’s criteria in his documentary film “The First Video Game”.
A Video Game Must:
Exist in a practical implementation
Generate some kind of video signal
Have interaction that alters this signal
Be principally intended for entertainment
Be playable solely through the video display(s)
Educational video games forget, or perhaps forego, designing their gameplay elements to be entertaining. I understand that some people may find that self-evident. An educational game’s purpose is not to entertain but solely teach; however, therein lies the problem. If we design games with that philosophy, we are not creating software that can be called a video game. What we create is an online textbook with monotonous steps that doesn’t incentivize the student to continue playing or learning.
Current educational games
Many educational video games that have been released revolve around teaching typing and there is a logic to it (BBC, n.d.). One of the first hurdles to using a computer is the keyboard. The QWERTY layout of the keys isn’t exactly intuitive relative to how we teach kids the alphabet, that is in A-Z format. Even though digital keyboards kids use on their phones or tablets also conform to the QWERTY layout, there is still a valid reason, I think, to teach kids typing. Simply, it’s so that they don’t need to look at the keyboard to type.
I’m sure many people who are reading this find that a bit funny- having to look at the keyboard to type, but that is a problem many older people face. Moreover, depending on the typing method taught, this could lead to a higher WPM. There are no doubt diminishing returns after a point- WPM isn’t something people are hired for and high levels can be achieved by self-practice (Barbash, 2016), but the fundamentals should be in the curriculum somewhere. That isn’t to say typing should be taught throughout all of, say, elementary school. In fact, since keyboards, either physical or digital, are so ubiquitous in daily life, it could be argued that teaching typing has become less important over time since the practice has become something natural to learn. Research should then seek to find the efficacy of typing classes over time.
Two other common topics often expressed through games are the broad science and mathematics fields. Science is quite a good topic given that it’s quite creative. By that, I mean there’s room for errors and its essence lies in experimentation. Thus, the interactivity games provide are perfectly suited to it. Even at the university level, students learning through virtual labs aren’t particularly uncommon. It’s also worth noting that virtual experiments remove the financial burden of lab equipment and experiment materials. Though I wouldn’t classify these virtual labs as video games, as an example, a game that could be integrated is Spore and its reflection of evolution and natural selection.
Math on the other hand is interesting. I’m not going to say it’s not creative or there’s no experimentation with it. It’s not always exact with a well-defined answer. I point you to twotalks on the Royal Institution’s channel by Matt Parker. But- we’re talking about educational games here, “the fundamentals.” You don’t really delve into abstract math until university and so everything’s rather straightforward. However, that’s also a great reason to make it into a game. If, at first glance, a topic seems uninteresting, then present it in an interesting way. In writing, it’s like a hook. It grabs people so that they’ll be interested enough to read more. If only games could be like Abstracts in academic papers- Though more advanced and not applicable below the high school level, Kerbal Space Program is a great video game with a complicated physics system that I could see used as pseudo-simulation. Perhaps Garry’s Mod and its physics engine is robust and general enough for wider use.
Anyway, I can’t talk about educational games without mentioning the ever famous: The Oregon Trail. It’s not about science or math really and certainly not a typing game, but instead it’s a history game. We’ve talked vaguely about gameplay until now which is why it took so long to bring up. There’s no clear proposition of what a history game’s gameplay would entail; however, it’s undeniably a great fit. There’s a large disconnect between a student and what they read because all they see are proper nouns. It’s very difficult to imagine a world you have little reference of. How are you supposed to become immersed in semi-objective explanations and the occasional illustration as your anchor points? Instead of being confined to a textual explanation, a game allows you to visualize past civilizations and architecture in vivid detail. There’s the potential to portray both the pivotal events in history as well as the equally important daily lives of people. A wide berth of potential gameplay options stems from this. Andrew Webster wrote a brilliant article on The Verge with an interactable image detailing Assassin’s Creed Unity’s portrayal of Notre Dame.
The sentiment is somewhat shared for literature as well. Now, I won’t dismiss an author’s ability to conjure up an in-depth world in a reader’s mind through the use of words alone. I love contemporary novels and by visualizing the narrative you do lose something important, if intangible. Despite all the work an author does to describe the setting, the onus falls on the reader to interpret and then imagine that setting. The personal background and even mood of each individual reader causes their interpretation to differ, however slight. By playing a game, you lose that personalization and may not agree with a developer’s interpretation. Because of all this, I believe if games do want to adapt a novel’s story, it’s best to relegate games to a similar state to movie adaptations. Thus, comparisons between different formats would make a decent exercise.
With literature, the problem of gameplay is also exacerbated. Not every story includes physical conflict- there won’t always be such a spectacle as Odysseus blinding the cyclops. There’s not always room for player agency either which may signal a bad fit with video games. In large part, I do agree; however, there’ s still room for exploration. Video game adaptations of novels do exist, but admittedly there’s little if any overlap with novels in school curriculums and I don’t think that will change. I don’t expect Metro or The Witcher being mandatory to read. So, why don’t we meet each other in the middle here?
VN adaptations for novels
For those who don’t know, there are things called visual novels. I use the terribly general and widely panned term “things” because there’s some debate around their classification. They’re either regarded as a genre of games or a medium in of themselves. The reason for the latter is because of how unique they really are. If forced to compare, they’re usually closer to a play’s script than novels; with an abundance of dialogue between characters and internal monologue. Yet, there’s still narration and description of events and surroundings. Speech is typically presented in what’s known as ADV mode with extensive text being presented in NVL mode.
They’re quite different from other games also in how little gameplay and animation there often is. Gameplay in VNs is typically restricted to making choices at certain branches in the narrative. Think of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Animation is also restrained- limited to changes in sprite poses, screen transitions, and visual effects. You may have some rigorously animated cinematics at the beginning or end of the VN, sometimes between chapters, but those are implemented by those with a significant budget.
Perhaps surprisingly, there is precedent of a story being adapted into a visual novel: The Dandelion Girl. Originally written by Robert F. Young, a group called Outis Media took it upon themselves to adapt it and it’s available for free on Steam. There are no choices, but it’s still accompanied by artwork and music.
In truth, I don’t view what I’ve said as an argument to include VNs in the curriculum as I’ve done with games for other subjects so far. I do believe that VN adaptations should be experimented with to see if modern students will be more likely to read or retain the material. Argument should ensue only on the bedrock of that data. At the moment, I’d much rather see VN stories looked at standalone from an analytical lens. Further considerations are publishing rights and development costs of such adaptations. Even outside of an educational setting, perhaps there is an untapped market for VN adaptations similar to Manga Classics and its adaptations of classic stories into manga format.
Research About Vns
Interestingly, research about VNs has and possibly is going on right now. It doesn’t explore the potential for adaptations, but rather its potential as a vehicle for teaching history, values, or even language. A brief glance reveals that a large portion of the research has come out of Indonesian journals, but this may be due to my institution’s database. Among all articles found relevant to VNs and education, here are a few:
Amalo et al. in 2017 published Developing Visual Novel Game With Speech-Recognition Interactivity to Enhance Students’ Mastery on English Expressions. As you may be able to tell, it implemented speech-recognition which functions as the trigger for events rather than clicking on a choice. The results indicated
“The Visual Novel Game with speech recognition interactivity significantly donated constructive outcomes toward students’ achievement in mastering English expressions” (p. 135).
Pratama et al. in 2018 published The Visual Elements Strength in Visual Novel Game Development as the Main Appeal. I didn’t find this paper to reveal anything too novel, but in its Conclusion, it reads:
“It is hoped that local visual novel developers will also prioritize the creation of visual character and visual styles that prioritize the characteristics of Indonesian society, as well as lift the narrative of Indonesian history, such as the characters of the Majapahit kingdom figures, so that novel visual games can be utilized into educational media that attract teenagers” (p. 332).
Andrew et al. in 2019 published Analyzing the Factors that Influence Learning Experience through Game Based Learning using Visual Novel Game for Learning Pancasila. To my knowledge, Pancasila is a philosophy whose values are deeply ingrained in Indonesian society. It found:
“Based on the survey results the respondents showed that the friendship game prototype has an interesting game play and easy to understand story so that it attracts users to learn the precepts in the Pancasila through Visual Novel games. Based on regression analysis, the motivation to apply Pancasila values in everyday life can be influenced by understanding and recommendation of the game” (p. 358).
Finally we have Manuel B. Garcia’s paper: Kinder Learns: An Educational Visual Novel Game as Knowledge Enhancement Tool for Early Childhood Education. Contrary to the other three, this is a paper from the Philippines. and-
“Based on the rating obtained through game testing and evaluation, the result of the evaluations from 272 respondents therefore supports the acceptance of Kinder Learns as an educational tool for knowledge enhancement in preschool”
Equally important as those results is a part of the author’s closing thoughts:
“Albeit the result of the study is not generalizable, the use of video games in early childhood education, and the use of visual novel as a genre of an educational game are both worth exploring”.
While the studies discussed seem to show educational visual novels as having a positive effect, I want to make it clear that their appearance here is not a stamp of approval or an indication of their applicability. First and foremost, their purpose is to represent the fact that visual novels are, and should be, of interest in the academic world. As an aside, a notable contradiction in this observation is the lack of articles which explore the content of visual novels compared to those which seek to use its format. I implore those capable to remedy this absence, especially relevant now given the increasing popularity overseas of Japanese culture via the medium of Japanese animation as well as the trend of virtual avatars and the exploration of parasocial relationships that stem from it.
In closing, there is room for video games ranging from preschool to university. While most are developed and aimed at the youngest age bracket, the potential exists to create sophisticated virtual environments to emulate what otherwise appears as dry passages in a textbook. Games should not replace these materials but serve to accompany them. If we don’t implement more new and interesting vehicles to educate, we stand the risk of stagnation and alienation of students who are uninterested in contemporary formats. Visual novels appear to represent one potential path forwards among many. With this knowledge, future work should address questions of accessibility and determine if any games in general which are currently released are accurate enough to be implemented.
Amalo, E., Agusalim, I., & Murdaningtyas, C. (2017). DEVELOPING VISUAL NOVEL GAME WITH SPEECH-RECOGNITION INTERACTIVITY TO ENHANCE STUDENTS’ MASTERY ON ENGLISH EXPRESSIONS. Jurnal Sosial Humaniora, 10(2), 129–136.
Andrew, J., Henry, S., Yudhisthira, A., Arifin, Y., & Permai, S. (2019). Analyzing the Factors that Influence Learning Experience through Game Based Learning using Visual Novel Game for Learning Pancasila. Procedia Computer Science, 157, 353–359.
VTubers are fascinating. I don’t mean their personality, I’ve already written an article about some of my favorites a while ago, but from a translation standpoint they seem incredibly unique. Specifically, I refer to monolingual Japanese VTubers. There are a variety of them, much more than I can document, and that poses some interesting problems.
There was a VTuber boom during 2020, around the time the Hololive English branch made their debut. People from all over the world started to invest in virtual avatars and rigging. Some conventional YouTubers and livestreamers simply substituted themselves with the avatar while some took it a step further. Instead of a change going forward, they opted to close their channel, erase their virtual footprint, and rebrand as a VTuber. That seems quite risky and it really is, but it’s not as if they were starting from square one. Besides the experience under their belt, some joined pre-existing agencies that had existed before the boom which represented a stable income and guaranteed exposure. Even if others didn’t, taking into consideration the size of their fanbase prior to becoming a VTuber, it was impossible that their old fans wouldn’t eventually find themselves watching their favorite creator again. We can thank the algorithm for that.
Although, for all the VTubers out there, there’s only so much audience to attract. Inevitably, some would get left behind in subscriber count. This problem is exacerbated when you consider the language barriers. English is pretty much a universal language (despite the inconsistencies which make it difficult to learn) and so those who speak it have an advantage over those who don’t. Well, it’s perspective whether you see one side as advantaged or the other as disadvantaged or both, but that’s besides the point. The takeaway is that certain VTubers, such as monolingual Japanese VTubers, couldn’t attract a dedicated audience and couldn’t maintain growth.
There’s a translator named Yoyuu who I respect a lot for their neutral stance and articulation about the state of VTubers and the community that surrounds them. In an article about the state of Hololive post-EN, they expound on why Hololive originally became popular in the first place. It wasn’t an intentional action taken by the company to cater to the English-speaking audience. Rather, it was due to fan-translators choosing to upload subtitled videos of their talents. This has had a ripple effect on VTubers who want to emulate the success of Hololive. Namely, they believe that by streaming in the same way that Hololive talents do they’ll be able to reach some semblance of success if their personality and quality of stream permits it. Of course, this isn’t the case as the catalyst of fan-translators aren’t there for those upstart VTubers.
This is the unique problem I referred to at the start of the article. VTubers are, in my opinion, time-sensitive. If they don’t get exposure within about a year, morale really begins to plummet. That continual loss of motivation to stream is bound to be reflected in the livestreams themselves. Additionally, if met with no reception, one would expect that those VTubers would need to turn to part-time jobs at the least to pay the bills. This lessens their stream schedule and total uptime with the possibility that they’re relegated to work hours which prevent streaming during golden hours. How is this different from the typical streamer? Besides the model and rigging, a significant budget still needs to be allocated to the hardware, software, and fast internet. In one word: translators.
VTubers are massively different from novels or visual novels. A novel or VN can be completely forgotten about by the author but popularity can still arise at any time. Translations can expose an audience previously unable to access the material and generate revenue for the author by buying the product. VTubers aren’t like that. A stream needs to be active, or at least scheduled, to send a donation. Thus, if a VTuber temporarily retires and a clip of them gets massively popular and drives traffic, unless they capitalize on that and come back quickly, it’s all for naught. The sad part is that even if they do come back quick enough, can they retain an audience they don’t speak the language of?
All this is why I think being a VTuber translator is such a rough ride. I won’t touch on the topic of translators monetizing clips, Yoyuu has already done so competently here, but there is such a swath of VTubers to translate you really don’t know where to start. At the same time, there is a perceived pressure to translate everything in a vain attempt to help draw awareness to independent creators. Then, one day, a VTuber you’ve wanted to translate clips of for the longest time retires. While it wasn’t your fault, you can’t help the small voice in the back of your head. That is a translator’s regret.
I wouldn’t say I’m a VTuber translator. I can and have translated some videos in the past as well as translated Sister Claire’sdaily series for a bit more than a month, but really I just translate whatever and whenever I want. Those translations never caused a big splash either so I doubt my contributions to a small VTuber would’ve done much, but I still think about it. I wonder if bigger VTuber translators think about it as well?
I say all this in the wake of Nijisanji IN’s suspension and the graduation of their three livers: Noor, Aadya, and Vihaan. I was particularly quite excited to watch Noor after skimming through a few VODs and listening to her KING cover, but that’s not possible anymore.
More pertinently, I say this in the wake of Futamochi Yamai’s retirement. I translated her announcement myself and published it on Twitter, YouTube, and in an article here. The remaining covers on her channel dwindle by the day.
In response to both, I can only say one thing: Good luck. I wish them all the best and hope the future brings them good tidings. Therefore, what other image to pick than cherry blossoms…
As of today, Futamochi Yamai will end activities as a VTuber.
I apologize for the sudden announcement. The reason for the departure will be withheld. I will not be answering any questions regarding my departure, and I will be deleting my posts on YouTube and Fanbox.
I’d like to thank all of the VTubers who have been involved with me, everyone who has supported me, and everyone who has made my life as a VTuber so enjoyable. I’m not good at goodbyes, so I’ll end with this. Thank you for all the encounters. Thank you very much!”
In this two-part post, I will be comparing the purported barriers I proposed in an old article of mine with the cultural barrier Emily Taylor proposes in her academic peer-reviewed article Dating-simulation games: leisure and gaming of Japanese youth culture (2007). Before I compare them in part two, let me first explain Emily Taylor’s article. I know a lot of people don’t have access to it via their institution so I’ll do my best to summarize her article. Note that her focus was specifically on Japanese dating-sims (of the bishoujo variety), not VNs as a whole.
Past the abstract, Taylor first includes a section which justifies her study of dating sims. She asks the main question of why dating-sims aren’t popular abroad and brings up the lack of spotlight dating sims have in academic literature. This is despite the frequency of articles seeking to study otaku and hikikomori. She emphasizes the point further by pointing out that dating sims encompass three important categories of study: “(1) Japanese dating and personal relationships, (2) Japanese gaming and leisure, and (3) obscenity and pornography in Japan” (p. 193). Thus, the overlap which dating sims represent should call for further research.
The next section will not be summarized as its purpose is to define dating sims. I expect, and I don’t believe that this is unreasonable, that those who are reading this already know what they are. Once again though, I will reiterate two facts she puts forth. The first being that the focus of Taylor’s article is on bishoujo dating sims. The second that dating sims represent a significant proportion of the Japanese gaming market’s sales as opposed to overseas in America and Europe.
The subsequent section lists the four dating sims which “reveal the complexities and possibilities of the genre…” with summaries of them (p. 195). I opt to directly quote Taylor here as I find the phrasing interesting. The following then serve as the bedrock of the article:
[Author’s Note] There are some discrepancies between the English titles and the redirects to JAST USA, specifically with Kana Imouto and Tottemo! Pheromone. Kana Okaeri is a revamped version of the original Kana Imouto. Target Pheromone on the other is a discrepancy I cannot explain.
Taylor then classifies dating sims- what she terms an “ambiguous genre” (p. 197) and makes the important connection between dating sims, video games, anime and manga, and Japanese pornography. She begins by calling dating-sims overall a type of video game given their availability on consoles as well as computers. The extended length of time between choices within dating-sims evokes an atmosphere similar to anime- Besides a similar structure, e.g., anime and dating sims both containing an animated opening and transitions using still frames there are also shared story elements between dating sims, anime, and manga. For the comparison to poronography, she similarly lists shared tropes.
“I propose, therefore, that dating-sims games be considered interactive anime/manga with erotic content, a classification recognizing that dating-sim games combine both the voyerusitic aspect of (pornographic) anime or manga with the participatory aspect of video games” (p. 198).
Next, a very important part of the article, explains the common appearance and nature of male characters in dating-sims. Usually they’re young enough to be in school, high school or college, and heterosexual with a realistic daily routine. Their physical features are generally Japanese (“usually dark hair and light-colored skin” p. 198) with the caveat that their facial features are rarely shown. This is exemplified by hair covering the eyes. On the basis of personality, they’re rather plain and serve as a self-insert. While not many dating-sims allow for players to change the name of the main character, the name itself is quite generic.
Interestingly, male characters are characterized by Taylor as “the opposite of shōjo” [少女 shoujo or young girl] (p. 199).
“[D]ating-sim games protect otaku from the risk of being labeled as shōjo, a pejorative appellation that is a result of being feminized through watching romance-comedy anime and from being sexually inexperienced, unmarried consumers” (p. 203).”
[Author’s Note] Contemporarily, in the western anime scene, shoujo is recognized only by its literal definition. Usually it’s referred to in conjunction with other mediums: shoujo manga or anime, denoting the audience they’re aimed at.
Shoujo in this context alludes to a lack of sexual experience and, to an extent, femininity or rather a lack of traditional masculinity. Therefore, male characters are actually portrayed as quite sexually experienced compared to the females. This holds true even if the female character is older and has had sexual experience before. Additionally, male characters rarely show outbursts of emotion.
More on female characters, Taylor concludes that they’re quite contrary to male characters. Even in physical appearance, they’re quite exaggerated and rooted in the realm of fantasy with colorful hair and eyes. Moreover, they’re typically written to be weak characters: submissive and subordinate. Therefore, all female characters can be described as shoujo, even if they’re quite mature, due to their portrayal as sexually inexperienced and emotional.
“Thus, in dating-sims, women are presented as either being defenseless playthings for the male character or are reduced to such by the end of the game, essentially reverting to a childlike, shōjo state” (p. 202).
To summarize and finally conclude:
“Additionally, as the otaku figure is becoming increasingly feminized, dating-sim games, through their control and exploitation of weak, shōjo characters, allow (or even encourage) the player to affirm his identity as a non-shōjo, or masculine, thus empowering and reassuring him” (p. 205).
“With these deep connections to Japanese society and culture, therefore, we should not be particularly surprised that such games have not yet been well received abroad. Perhaps gradually increasing levels of popular awareness of Japanese culture in the West will enlarge the market for Japanese-style dating-sims among certain populations abroad; or perhaps producers of dating-sims will modify their approach- the very premise upon which dating-sim games are built, and the very premise that makes games so quintessentially “Japanese” – for foreign markets” (p. 206).
I realize that some people may find speaking about femininity/masculinity in relation to otakus weird. Due to that, let me touch very briefly on a paper that you can find online quite easily: Acquisition of Cultural Competence through Visual Media: Perceptions of Masculinities in Japanese Society by Kaori Yoshida. It looked at three films:
Historically, Seven Samurai was released post-defeat in World War II.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity was released during the rapid economic growth that occurred in Japan between the 1960s and the early 1970s.
Densha Otoko was released after the rapid economic growth which subsequently caused female employees to be sought out due to growth in the service industry.
To summarize the article succinctly:
The first film portrayed Japan as a nation that had been feminized, forced to submit, by the US and a collapse of patriarchal authority. The ending however displayed the resilience of Japan and the survival of traditional masculinity, also associated with physical strength, persisting even its defeat.
The second film portrayed the yakuza and internal betrayal which was analogous to the sentiment of salarymen in Japan. While salarymen worked hard for their company, other individuals sought to pave their own path and abandoned the group in favor of profit. Loyalty and chivalry, also an aspect of traditional masculinity, have been abandoned as well.
The third film portrayed a story of an otaku’s romance, based on a supposedly real story which originally circulated online on Japanese forums. It shows the changing perception of gender norms and the move away from traditional masculinity.
Finally, since otaku’s are the main focus here, I’d like to supplement both Yoshida and Taylor’s article with some points from Susan Napier’s Where Have All the Salarymen Gone? Masculinity Masochism, and the Technomobility in Densha Otoko (2011). Napier talks about how traditional masculinity which values physicality has instead been replaced by technical skills; otakus represent high-level knowledge of cutting-edge technology. Moreover, despite not being muscular, standing up for others is still valued by otaku. Therefore, as more traditional masculinity, represented by the salaryman ideal, is slowly being phased out in Japanese society, new forms of masculinity as represented by otaku, among others like “bishōnen (beautiful boys), aggressive young entrepreneurs… or the creative ‘cooking man’…” (p. 133), are replacing it.
I hope you enjoyed this look at three academic sources! It was a joy to write and a bit of a delve into science communication and practice in academic summaries. I’m sure all of you can draw a lot of ideas from these and of course feel free to do so. References to said sources in APA format below. Part 2 to follow.
Napier, S. (2011). Where Have All the Salarymen Gone?: Masculinity, Masochism, and Technomobility in Densha Otoko. In Recreating Japanese Men (1st ed., p. 154–). University of California Press
Taylor, E. (2007). Dating-simulation games: leisure and gaming of Japanese youth culture. Southeast Review of Asian Studies, 29, 192–208.
Yoshida, K. (2012) “Acquisition of Cultural Competence through Visual Media: Perceptions of Masculinities in Japanese Society,”Journal CAJLE, Vol. 13, 135–152.
Firstly, I’d like to credit the blog Intermittent Mechanism. I was perusing the WordPress Reader this month looking for interesting articles and lo and behold, I saw an article about Katawa Shoujo. Cited in it was the academic article by Emily Taylor which kicks off the post you’re about to read. Apparently that KS article was written by a university student in Ian Bryce Jones’ class where Katawa Shoujo was, in part, a required read. That alone should interest you and so I encourage everyone to explore that site.
I read an article by author Emily Taylor titled Dating-simulation games: leisure and gaming of Japanese youth culture (2007). It’s a fascinating article which talked about the popularity of dating-sim games in Japan, what it says about the culture and playerbase, and why that popularity hasn’t translated overseas. I’d love to talk about the findings of her peer reviewed article and compare it to what I wrote early on about VN popularity, but not today. Instead, I want to chime in on a particular few sentences she puts forth about game completion in dating-sims.
“Intuitively, one would think that players would aim for good endings, but such is not always the case. The only way to ‘beat’ the game is to play it numerous times, experiencing all the endings. After playing through the game, players can go to the main menu and check their ‘status,’ which shows how much of the game is finished. To reach a status of 100 percent, signaling completion of the game, all endings must be reached. Essentially, the only way to ‘lose’ when playing a dating-sim game is not to get a bad ending but to get the same ending twice, since doing so prevents players from making any progress toward game completion” (Taylor, 2007, p. 195).
Overall, I think that’s a brilliant explanation. In fact, when I reviewed VNs, I adhered to this concept of full completion before writing a review. Each segment of the story, irregardless of whether it’s a good or bad end, tells you so much about the characters. In fact, bad ends are fascinating in that they often portray the side of a character you may not see if you’re aiming only for the happy ending. Take Katawa Shoujo (KS) for example. Hanako is perceived to be a shy and timid girl. During her route, one could name a number of things that would cause her anxiety or distress, but what about anger? It’s a magnitude more difficult to picture and it’s not portrayed outside of the bad end. Furthermore, on a simpler level, bad ends may also contain exclusive CGs. Therefore, a game completion stat of 100% based on both good and bad ends is perfectly reasonable and should contemporarily be considered what beating a VN means.
After all that, what if I told you that I believe completing a VN isn’t getting that 100% stat? You beat the game, but you didn’t complete it. How does that sound? Obviously I’m referring to completion in a different context to Taylor. In this case, I’m talking about something more akin to internalization. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) definition of internalization is this: “the nonconscious mental process by which the characteristics, beliefs, feelings, or attitudes of other individuals or groups are assimilated into the self and adopted as one’s own” (n.d.).
To continue using Katawa Shoujo as an example, there are five routes encapsulated by five different questions on the KS webpage.
“Can you face your fears?”
“Can you seize the day?”
“Can you see what I see?”
“Can you stand up for yourself?
“Can you tell me what you think?”
The correlation might be loose, but if you read KS’s story and choose options based on how you feel versus which character you want to romance, you’re led along to about where you should be. By the end of each route, the main character will have found an answer to the corresponding. More than that, you yourself will begin to think more about the question and its relevance. You may not have an answer as Hisao and his romantic partner do, but you’ll be one step closer to finding out. Thus, the ending of a route is a pivotal moment that marks you, the player, further reflecting on what has transpired. In truth, this self-reflection begins somewhere along the route itself when you begin to draw parallels, but I believe this step of realizing what you don’t know fully manifests near the end. This is further magnified as you complete each route and continue to reflect on the other thing you don’t know.
The next step, after you’ve completed all the routes [and found all the bad ends], happens away from the game. A few days after, you’ve finished it and are off to do something else. Maybe you’ve transitioned to another game, VN or otherwise- Perhaps you’re driving along in your car to work or taking a shower. Nevertheless, you begin to think about the themes of that game unprompted. You begin to apply those themes to other aspects of your life, aspects that are different from the context of the game. The application has then shifted away from only applying to direct parallels. [I think this is the optimal time to write a review.]
The last step is the unconscious application of those themes. At this point, you might not even remember the plot of the game in full. Nevertheless, what you’ve learned from it has seeped into your life. That said, to phrase it like such is a bit of a misnomer. Stories, in my mind, don’t teach you; however, you still learn from them.
So, where does that leave us? I’d say you’ve completed the game at step two, but is a game’s journey truly completed when it reaches this step? Actually, I’d argue that some are never completed, even when application is unconscious. This is due to how ideas fundamentally travel. If it truly did seep into the facets of your life, you’re more than likely to spread it via your own writing or other work. Take these two screenshots from a VN called Campus Notes – forget me not below. What really underscores the point is the state of the developer group 4th cluster, disbanded since August 10, 2018. Nearly three years since their disbandment, I’m referencing their work originally released on April 6, 2016.
What’s the point of this article? Think of it as a bit of a mental exercise. What are some things that have influenced you- especially works that you haven’t thought about in a long time? I talked about visual novels and games in this article, but the sentiment spreads to any artform really. Whatever you’re doing, keep that question in the back of your head. You might rediscover something.
If you liked this article, I recommend the VN Chuusotsu! 1st Graduation: Time After Time. It’s a kinetic VN with Japanese voice acting which is centered around a group of three girls tasked with actively finding the answer to the question, “What makes a wonderful life?”