A Slice of Psychology – The Horror Genre

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].

summary

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):

  1. Emily Project (2008)
  2. Warrior (2008)
  3. Mary Smith – The Casting (2006)
  4. Alex Sheperd – Silent Hill Homecoming (2008)
  5. Louis – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  6. Francis – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  7. The Smoker – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  8. The Infected – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  9. The Tank – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  10. The Witch – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  11. Lillien – a Chatbot character (2006)
  12. “[A] realistic human-like zombie” – Alone in the Dark (2009)
  13. 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).

CONCLUSIONS

From the results found, there were four main conclusions (p. 21):

  1. “Uncanniness increases with increasing perceptions of lack of human likeness of the facial expression. 
  2. Uncanniness increases with increasing perceptions of lack of human likeness of the character’s voice. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 

Video Games in Education – A Rudimentary Exploration ft. Visual Novels

Header Image from Hello, Goodbye.

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.

SPORE (Maxis, 2008)

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 two talks 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.

Kerbal Space Program (Squad, 2015)

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.

Assassin’s Creed Unity Modelling (Webster, 2019)

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.

Click me!

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”.

concluding statements

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.


References

Ahoy. (2019) The First Video Game [Video]. Youtube.

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.

https://doi.org/10.12962/j24433527.v10i2.2865

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.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procs.2019.08.177

Barbash, F. (2016) The Washington Post. Is Touch Typing Overrated?. The Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/02/12/scientific-proof-that-nobody-really-needs-to-learn-touch-typing/

BBC. (n.d.). Dance Mat Typing.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zf2f9j6/articles/z3c6tfr

Facepunch Studios. (2006). Garry’s Mod. [Video Game]. Valve.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/4000/Garrys_Mod/

Garcia, M. (2020). Kinder Learns: An Educational Visual Novel Game as Knowledge Enhancement Tool for Early Childhood Education. The International Journal of Technologies in Learning, 27(1), 13–34.

https://doi.org/10.18848/2327-0144/CGP/v27i01/13-34

Lump of Sugar. (2019). Hello, Goodbye. [Video Game]. NekoNyan Ltd.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/1009460/Hello_Goodbye/

Maxis. (2008). SPORE. [Video Game]. Electronic Arts.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/17390/SPORE/

NPD. (2019). Notable Increases in Both Engagement and Spending Coming from Kids.

https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/2019/according-to-the-npd-group–73-percent-of-u-s–consumers-play-video-games/

Outis Media. (2016). The Dandelion Girl. [Video Game].

https://store.steampowered.com/app/990090/The_Dandelion_Girl_Dont_You_Remember_Me/

Parent Zone. (2019). The Rip-Off Games: How the New Business Model of Online Gaming Exploits Children. 

https://parentzone.org.uk/the-rip-off-games

Pratama, D., Wardani, W., & Akbar, T. (2018). The Visual Elements Strength in Visual Novel Game Development as the Main Appeal. Mudra : Jurnal Seni Budaya, 33(3), 326–333.

https://doi.org/10.31091/mudra.v33i3.455

Ren’Py. (n.d.). NVL-Mode Tutorial. 

https://www.renpy.org/doc/html/nvl_mode.html#nvl-mode

Squad. (2015). Kerbal Space Program. [Video Game]. Private Division.

https://store.steampowered.com/app/220200/Kerbal_Space_Program/

Webster, A. (2019). Building a Better Paris in Assassin’s Creed Unity. The Verge.

https://www.theverge.com/2014/10/31/7132587/assassins-creed-unity-paris

VN Barriers: A Comparison of Taylor’s Article+ [P1]

Header Image from Riddle Joker.

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:

  • [Touching Fan Favorite] Kana Imouto(加奈~いもうと)
  • [Eroge] Sensei 2(せ・ん・せ・い2)

[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. 

An example of transitions.

“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. 

Source

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:

Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954)

Jingi nakai tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, 1973)

Densha otoko (Train Man, 2005)

  • 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.
From Densha otoko TV series (2005).

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.

REFERENCES

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.

The World God Only Knows – A Tragic “Harem”

Valentine’s Day is upon us and so what better thing to talk about than romance anime? 

Today, I’ll be talking about an anime that I normally keep under wraps. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine in the fact that it’s not widely regarded as “great” in terms of quality. It also falls into a grey area with the harem tag, something I usually steer clear of because I don’t normally like harem plots. If you ever read the Home page of this site, you may remember that I have a quote from it

Obligatory spoiler warning for both the anime and manga (including the ending).


Let me give a bit of context for those not familiar with The World God Only Knows (TWGOK). The main character is Keima Katsuragi, a high school student. He is crazy about visual novels and 2D girls, often not caring about the real world. That is until he mistakenly contracts with a (cute) demon who is tasked with bringing back loose souls that escaped from Hell. Loose spirits reside in the heart. To capture them, Keima must similarly capture the heart of whomever it has inhabited. From there, the (cute) demon, Elsie, will do the rest. Break the contract or fail to meet the conditions, and he will die. 

Sounds fairly usual by anime standards. Keima basically has girls fall in love with him and that’s it. The only caveat is that after every “conquest,” when a girl falls in love with him and the loose spirit is captured, that girl loses all memory of it. How else would the plot support multiple romances? You saw the title of the article though. The Tragic “Harem.” You know why the harem part is a bit of a misnomer now. The tragedy? Keima, who doesn’t lose his memories. 

During a conquest, a lot goes into making a girl fall in love with him. It isn’t simply romantic gestures and pleasant dates. He learns their life story, the problems which enabled a loose spirit to embed themselves in them in the first place. Without his presence, many of the girls would’ve lost themselves. Some would abandon their extracurricular passions, lose their self-recognition, find themselves jaded by the real world, etc. Love is the goal, but the means to that end require Keima to guide the girls through their problems and spark self-confidence and determination, ultimately reorienting them to reach a path where they will be happy. His own happiness is another matter entirely.

“Well, it’s probably easier for me this way.” – Keima Katsuragi, TWGOK, Ep. 1

Speaking realistically, unusual circumstances notwithstanding, love is not a one-way street. It requires both parties to reveal their hearts and minds to each other. Thus, every time Keima has a girl fall for him, it’s impossible for him to not hold at least a sliver of emotion for them in turn. He may try and say that this is simply what he must do in order to “fulfill the contract” or “complete the route,” but this is all a facade. For as long as the series needs to continue, he can’t find true love. But what if those conquest targets did regain their memories? This is actually an integral plot point in Season 3.

A girl named Kanon runs up to Keima and confesses to him, remembering the conquest that dates back to Season 1. You can tell from the clip below that Keima is at a loss for words. He’s not in the business of being confessed to. For someone to still remember him and therefore love him? It makes his heart skip a beat.

Not all conquest targets regained their memories, only a handful. Due to more anime shenanigans and the explanation for why they regained their memories, there’s surprisingly little conflict between the girls now doting on him. The conflict that does ensue isn’t even between two girls that have regained their memories. While they were both previous targets, only one has regained their memories. Why do they fight then? Because the other has fallen for Keima despite forgetting what he did for her. 

Ayumi – The first girl Keima ever captured the heart of. The fastest runner on the track team; known for both speed and cheerfulness. The best friend of Chihiro.

Chihiro – A girl whose heart was previously captured by Keima. No particularly defining traits, recognized even by herself. Described as a “normal girl.” Originally a background character. The best friend of Ayumi.

Ayumi is the one who gets her memories back. Meanwhile, Chihiro is the one who  develops feelings for Keima independently. A love triangle forms.


There are two things I neglected to mention. The first is that Keima doesn’t actually know who has regained their memories. He has to subtly probe all those he has previously targeted to find out. 

The second is the stakes of the season. Fail to capture the hearts of those who have regained their memories and the world will fall to ruin. The details of why aren’t particularly important for the article. Although, know that this causes an artificial timer for the former point. 

This needing to probe (seeing who displays feelings for him) and the timer (mandating a quick turnaround time between conquests) causes a scene that none of us want to see, let alone experience.

On the school roof during the festival, Keima and Chihiro gather together as a couple. It’s here that Keima realizes that Chihiro isn’t a girl he needs to capture. Too little too late though.

He needs to push her away. He can’t fall in love with her. She can’t fall in love with him. Otherwise, he can’t go after the last target, Ayumi. But when Chihiro finds out that he’s trying to romance Ayumi, she’s angered to no end. Keima does try to explain the stakes to Chihiro, but she’s still angered. Why? Not because she rejected him. She realizes the stakes. It’s the fact that Keima isn’t serious enough about Ayumi.

Her own happiness doesn’t matter. She recognizes Ayumi loves Keima. As Ayumi’s best friend, she’ll support that. If you ever saw Hamilton, perhaps you remember the song Satisfied. It has lots of parallels to this arc. Here’s a great AMV of TWGOK.

After Ayumi is captured and the world is saved, that isn’t the end:

Keima tells Chihiro that she was never involved in this. He lies, implying that they never once loved each other. Going forward, he wants to spare her from anything like this. He doesn’t want her to get involved with his life because chances are that he’ll inadvertently break her heart again. She’s already gone through so much- She deserves better.

The anime ends on a concert, Chihiro’s band (consisting of many who were capture targets, including those who got their memories back), playing a song she wrote about herself before this mess started. As the concert continues, she recognizes that she’s the only one who never got a happy ending. Yet, the lyrics of the song describe her thoughts. Though her first love has ended, she’ll never forget it…

Its title: “The Memory of My First Love.” 

Keima listens from the roof lamenting; the only time he’s shown crying for serious reasons in the series. So too does Chihiro begin crying as the song ends.

And that’s the finale; two people forsaking their own happiness for the sake of others. 


Why did I write such a sad article for Valentine’s Day? 

It’s a reminder I suppose. Chihiro is a normal girl with nothing notable about her. But she’s kind. Incredibly kind. Never forget about people like her in your life. In the beginning, they may fade into the background; you don’t immediately notice them. Upon discovery though, they’ll face life’s trials with you.

That’s why-


Please enjoy your Valentine’s Day. If you don’t have a valentine, that’s quite alright. Do yourself the favor of loving yourself. Thank you for reading.

Gakkou Gurashi – An Unraveling Tale

If you haven’t watched Gakkougurashi, I highly recommend you do before reading this. Spoilers abound.


I used to watch every single new anime that aired for three episodes. That’s a fairly standard practice and most people still continue to do it, not just in the blogging community but a fair amount of the entire anime community. I didn’t do it so I could write reviews or analyses; that wasn’t even on my radar at the time. I just thought that the only way to know if an anime was for me was to actually watch it. I still stand by that line of thinking. I also thought that I’d be able to find any hidden gems of the season. 

After awhile, I almost got burnt out on anime altogether. I started to see recurring patterns in character archetypes, designs, settings, and even story arcs. It’s an inevitability really: both seeing recurring things and said things recurring. The former because of experience and the latter most likely a byproduct of how close-knit the community is. We see an anime do [x] and we love it. Thus, we want to try our hand on implementing our own version of it as both as an homage and attempt at refinement. There’s no malice in it. It simply happens. 

I started to become an anime recluse; watching mostly slice of life because there was no grand narrative; it was just a bit of dumb fun in the moment. That’s why when Gakkou Gurashi came along, I felt as if I was saved. No synopsis or spoilers existed yet. I went in expecting to watch people enjoy their lives, that’s all. And you know what? I got that. I got that and so much more.

Let’s leave the psychological analyses for another day. I definitely want to revisit Gakkou Gurashi since it’s actually one of my favorite anime. There’s a ton to talk about like trauma, repression, pain threshold, attribution of emotion to color, mental illness treatment… Oh, it’s endless and so interesting, but another day to be sure.


Today, I’ll be talking about the brilliant unraveling of Gakkou Gurashi. I’m not gonna hold back any emotions in this review since I loved it that much. Because of that, it might read a bit differently than normal. It’s definitely me experimenting with a new style, but don’t think this is a facade. I’m not putting on a mask or anything of the sort. I genuinely write casually and semi-formally naturally. Speaking of personas, the manga I wrote about in my last article, From Now On We Begin Ethics, has a chapter dedicated to the concept. Check it out if you’re interested. Anyway, back to Gakkou Gurashi.

I really do hold Gakkou Gurashi very highly, perhaps higher than I even should, but the way it unravels is breathtaking. Twist after twist, all of which is perfectly foreshadowed beforehand, creates a picturesque viewing atmosphere. Being surprised by a twist is nothing special, but when a twist feels cathartic, you’ve done it right. 

From the end of the very first episode, it punches the audience in the face. I talked about restraint in my Isekai Quartet article, so you might think that’s it hypocritical to praise this. However, there are exceptions to every rule and this is why it worked. 

There was actually a lot of restraint shown. Sure, they did reveal a twist in the first episode. The thing is though, their restraint didn’t begin with the first episode. It began behind the scenes. The initial key visual was this: 

Coupled with the release of that was its opening: 

For those who didn’t read the manga, it was strictly a slice of life anime. Very rarely was it hinted in news sites that there was anything dark under the surface. This is a huge component of what makes the anime so great and I do attribute this “deceptive” marketing entirely to Gakkou Gurashi. After all, advertising and media don’t only serve to promote your product. They themselves can spin a narrative. 

Check out this key visual that was released much later:

Then also look at how the actual anime opening evolves over time. It’s brilliant really.

If possible, I would’ve liked to link to a Code Geass publicity stunt they did a while back. I actually can’t find anything about it anymore though, but the gist of it is that a Code Geass themed announcement was made with a time, date, and location. When people gathered there, a metropolitan area with huge billboards and screens, said screens went to static. Silence captivated them for a short while until Lelouch appeared. In the middle of Japan, during a regular day, he was there. It was a great publicity stunt, especially since it mirrored the event in Season 2. 

For something I actually have a video for: Joker’s inclusion in Smash. If you don’t know, Joker is from the game Persona 5 and is the leader of the Phantom Thieves. Thus, their hacking in The Game Awards broadcast was incredibly apt.

I’ve gone on a slight tangent, but to summarize, marketing is a core part to telling a story. Try and take advantage of it when possible.

This is all well and good, but how did Gakkou Gurashi sustain itself? They started with an absolute banger, but how did they keep up the momentum? There was never only one twist. 

Admittedly, when people talk about Gakkou Gurashi and vaguely refer to “the twist,” they’re most likely referring to the first one. Yet, there’s so many twists and turns that it’s almost unfair. In my mind, the first twist wasn’t even the best twist. “Who is Megu-nee?” takes the cake for me. 

If you’re reading this without watching the series and breathing in all these spoilers (you monster), Megu-nee is the teacher of the four girls on the key visual. While she’s supposed to be an adult, she’s very clumsy and instead serves as a source of emotional support. The thing is, she died before the first episode even began. Every time we see her, it’s simply Yuki imagining her presence. She can’t do anything and is a crutch for Yuki’s psyche. 

Damn, I’m slipping into psychology again. I intended to talk about the incredible planning of Megu-nee instead. Since she doesn’t exist and only Yuki sees her, no character ever interacts with her except at Yuki’s behest. The amazing thing is that the continuity goes completely unbroken. Rewatch the series and you’ll see that she really does do nothing. You can catch her teleporting from scene to scene with no conceivable way for her to get there. Oh, but they still keep the pressure on as they compile another twist atop that twist! Megu-nee isn’t quite dead. To be clear, she’s undead. She’s still walking around as a zombie in the depths of the school. 

Another beautiful twist that goes unexplained has to do with the setting itself. While its exterior is that of a regular high school, it has the ability to be fully self-sustained. The girls catch on to this and realize it’s too big of a coincidence. With enough searching, they found out that part of the school faculty were aware of a biological weapon (or weapons?) that would create zombies. Thus, the school would serve as a sort of sanctuary for the healthy. 

“Why was that specific school built as a haven? Are there other locations like it? How many people were aware of the biological weapon?” We never get an answer and yet it adds more than it detracts. To understand why, think back to an anime called Girls’ Last Tour. In both Gakkou Gurashi and GLT, the goal isn’t to answer why they’re in such an apocalyptic state. The goal is simply to survive above all else. 


So, even with this more cluttered style, what did we learn? Let’s recap.

1) Advertising and social media is a tool for much more than promotion. It can elevate what you’re trying to sell and can even tell its own story.  Code Geass and Persona are good examples for thematic correctly publicity stunts. Of course, marketing antics on that level aren’t possible at the get-go. A possible alternative is what Studio Élan is doing right now with making audio logs. Theoretically, if you’re competent enough and have an appropriate setup, you can even record the script yourself. Whether there’s voice acting for the game itself is irrelevant.

2) Plot twists in a story shouldn’t be completely out of nowhere. Like any great mystery novel, the audience should be able to piece the next story beat together. Having them realize your intentions shouldn’t remove the emotion you want to evoke. Adding a surprise for the sake of it, one that your audience can’t see coming, is lazy writing. If you want to implement something like the “Who’s Megu-nee” twist, have the plot laid out before hand. Otherwise, you’ll end up with plot holes when you retroactively correct your story to account for said change. 


What do you think of this style of writing? Did it reduce the article’s educational value? Did it add or detract from what I was trying to convey? Most importantly, did you still find it an enjoyable read? I found that by writing like this, I can probably crank out articles at a 3 day pace. For that reason, any feedback is greatly appreciated and will go a long way to molding this site.

From Now On We Begin Ethics – Understanding People & Ourselves

This article is in dedication to Irina. Thank you for your support!

[Going forward, I want to thank people in a more concrete way when they mention my blog or nominate it for things. I decided that a good way to do that was to make content I thought they specifically would enjoy. As such, this is an extra article to the standard 2 – 3 minimum per month.]


When we grow up, the majority of our time is spent in schools: institutions meant for education. They’re designed to give children a foundation of knowledge to stand on while also simultaneously teaching them how to behave in the world. It’s in schools that people learn to interact and communicate with their peers and mentors; developing bonds and the ability to empathize. That is the intended result. A result that doesn’t always come to pass.

For one reason or another, and sometimes even without one, children can be isolated from their peers and the world. Regardless of whether it’s self-isolation, ostracization, or somewhere in between, it happens. Isolation in of itself takes many forms. It isn’t merely the number of people around you that dictates whether you’re isolated or not. The experiences you’ve been through, your outlook on life; they can create a barrier that allows no entry. How do you connect with people who are perceptibly so unlike you? 

“They haven’t gone through what I have. They don’t understand me.”

Or is it the opposite? 

“I don’t understand them. I don’t understand the world.”

Perhaps you’ve experienced that yourself. Perhaps you continue to experience it. I believe everyone has at least once, even if only in a small way. 


The manga I’ll be discussing today is called From Now On We Begin Ethics. For the most part, it’s an episodic manga with every chapter presenting a student who is struggling in some way. The common link is their teacher, Takayanagi, and his class on ethics. 


I bring up this manga in particular because of how close to home it can hit. Each chapter feels as if someone’s life story is being poured out onto the page. I found myself in more than one chapter and saw friends in others. It didn’t make me feel vulnerable though. Honestly, it was a bit relieving. To not be understood, or worse yet to be misunderstood, is a tragic thing. In that same vein, the realization that someone does understand is akin to taking weight off your shoulders. I’m almost certain you’ll be able to find yourself in it too.

I don’t just mean that you’ll find a parallel to your own experiences (though you’ll do that too). Takayanagi’s words will find their way to you personally. You’ll feel as if he’s speaking to you

There are quite a few themes littered around but two are generally prominent:

“Your feelings aren’t wrong.”

“Finding your own answer.”

The former is something every character and person in real life should hear. We are human. That isn’t an excuse to use when we make mistakes. It’s something we admit to ourselves so that we’re humble. We’ve all felt jealous of a person and what they have. At times, we’ve even come to hate people. That doesn’t make you a bad person. Those emotions define you as human. What you choose to do with your emotions defines you as you. Never forget why you feel a certain way. 

The latter is similarly important. Our lives are filled with choices and we rarely have the luxury of time to decide which choice is correct. Only in hindsight can we see the full picture. Thus, we’re always left with regret; regret we shouldn’t have. We question our actions and how we live our life; desperately searching for the correct answer.  Of course, there’s no one correct answer. This can leave us clinging to the answer another person has found for themselves. The only one who can ultimately decide who is correct is ourselves. 

Even Takayanagi doesn’t hold all the answers.

The themes I just discussed aren’t new or avant garde; neither are my explanations of them. Actually, they’re both pretty basic and I recognize that. What elevates it is the actual dialogue itself. Given that Takayanagi is teaching, he brings up several quotes from famous philosophers and explains the meaning of them. However, he also brings the hypothetical into reality, expounding on the psychological and sociological effects of living by an old adage. 

What can we learn from it (in terms of writing)?

I’ve rewritten this several times and couldn’t come to a satisfying singular answer. Everything I concluded was purely based on emotion and I wasn’t sure I could even frame it subjectively so as to point out how you could benefit your writing. That’s when I remembered that not every literary device was entirely objective. There’s one device in particular that I always hesitate to bring up precisely because of that: tone.

Tone is a very difficult thing to purposefully implement as it usually comes off too strong. The question of how to implement it is even more difficult and quickly breaks down into a discussion about diction more than anything else. It’s easier to point to examples when instructing, though this can fall flat when the example isn’t understood. This is far from the fault of the learner and an inevitability of the fact that everyone processes information differently. 

Nevertheless, I believe wholeheartedly that Shiori Amase, the mangaka, brilliantly uses tone to its fullest potential. While she likes to provide answers through Takayanagi, it never comes across as an absolute. Following the theme of “finding your own answer,” never does the manga make you think that you’re wrong. Rather, it encourages different ways of thinking that may conjunct or diverge with your own. 

To capture tone as wonderfully as she does, you need to remind yourself what your manga is about. What’s the core theme and not just this arc’s theme? In the end, From Now On We Begin Ethics isn’t a guide to your life. It isn’t something you learn how to act from, it’s something you learn how to think from; hence ethics. If you do this as Shiroi does, it’ll reflect subtly in your writing. If you don’t feel like the tone you’re trying to capture is represented enough, have some people read through it blind first. Then, if you don’t get the comments you want, you can be more hands-on and purposeful with tone’s implementation. 


For those who plan to read it, and I highly recommend you do, be advised that it contains mature content. Bullying, drug abuse, suicide attempts, nonconsensual sex, mental illness, and domestic abuse are part of the currently released stories. The manga is not completed as of the date published. Read with care. Also, please remember what I said before. Takayanagi’s actions aren’t always in line with what you should do. This manga is about ethics first and foremost, not medical care.

Isekai Quartet – More Than a Chibi

“Overlord, Re;Zero, Konosuba, and Youjo Senki were all great anime. What if we take their characters and transport them to another world (again)? This time though, they all have to attend a school together. Doesn’t that sound great? Huh? Why do they get transported? Well… That’s a secret- for now,” said someone, somewhere, maybe.

It reads like a badly written fanfiction. You’re putting together four different Isekai series, only one of which is mainly comedic, without any real rhyme or reason besides being under KADOKAWA. There’s absolutely no way it would work. 

But it did. Spectacularly. 


With Isekai Quartet’s second season now airing, it’s a great time to discuss the original season, how it managed to work, and what we can learn from it.

The original and second season’s episodes clock in at about 10 minutes of original animation, plus the OP & ED. Then, you have the chibi art style whose role is to make every character look similar to their respective designs while keeping everything uniform in the new setting. On a technical level, there’s nothing too blatantly important at first glance; however, the voice acting and animation really do elevate the series. It’s no surprise given that nearly every character is a main or otherwise staple of their show with all VAs reprising their roles, some even voicing multiple characters. You can feel that they had a lot of fun in the booth and I hope we get to listen in on some bloopers eventually. 

(In the case of Ram and Tanya’s squad, it’s a blessing to see them get more screen time. In the case of the latter, it actually flushes out a lot of their character. The world of Youjo Senki doesn’t have time for breaks or vacations so seeing them relax is nice, even if they’re not waifus!)

The animation is also deceptively simple. Its chibi style allows for incredibly fluid animation when the scenes call for it. Moreover, all the visual effects look gorgeous. Check out the energy Tanya exudes in this scene. The pulse, while brief, is nothing to scoff at.

It looks nice and it sounds nice, but what about the story? 

For the overarching story, the question of why and the specifics of how our characters have been transported go unanswered. This is actually the best thing they could’ve done. While explaining why and how is certainly important to the cast in-universe, for the most part, I daresay that it’s the B-plot to the audience. Their transportation is certainly a point of intrigue and all the allusions to a greater power inspire curiosity, but the audience doesn’t watch for that. We watch to see the characters react in circumstances that are somehow more crazy than usual.

Even if there’s only a loose connection between most episodes and arcs, it’s not a concern. The entire show is more akin to a series of skits and all aspects conform wonderfully to that concept. If the comedy doesn’t hit or your favorite character hasn’t shown up yet, it’s only a matter of time until they do. That of course stops jokes from running too long and leaving the viewer bored. I don’t believe there was any joke that didn’t land, but I recognize that the audience at large may not have watched every show. The delineation between good jokes and cheeky references is important. Luckily, they manage this well. 

Strangely enough, I don’t remember Isekai Quartet opening to much hype. It certainly made the rounds with a plethora of screenshots and memes though. No doubt season 2 will make the round also. The same can be said for the inevitable season 3. So long as the series continues to do well and doesn’t show its entire hand, Isekai Quartet has the potential for exponential growth. With the many isekai series that release each year, it’s only a matter of picking who to incorporate next. That does beg the question of how long the show is willing to skirt around the question of why they were transported there in the first place. Regardless, I do sincerely hope the series continues. 

Since we got this comedic collaboration, the prospect of a serious crossover did occur to me. Surely that wouldn’t work as well though. Having to scale powers and change tones on a whim- It’d be a headache. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t watch it though. It would make for a fun experiment. 

What can we learn from Isekai Quartet? 

(1) Restraint (2) Preservation (3) Delineation 

(1) As I said before, you never want to show your hand too early. 12 episodes of 10 minutes aren’t nearly enough to explore the larger narrative. By the end of the second season, they still shouldn’t be able to give a cohesive answer. There’s not enough time alloted for it and that’s not a bad thing. It all comes down to preplanning. 

This is also illustrated by the fact that the producers had a clear intent to add more characters in future seasons. As of now, only Naofumi and his party (from Rising of the Shield Hero) is a new addition. Those three characters alone will provide enough content for the season as they more or less need an introduction to every character already in place. Leave the audience anxious for what comes next, a basic tenet. 

(2) This is a problem when you start working with a large number of characters. The problem only compounds when they all occupy the same space but is still relevant when that’s not the case. Writing without a clear outline of your characters leads to an amalgamation of traits that are only true from moment to moment. Amateur writers tend to either swing one way or the other; either having a character stubbornly keep to one way of thinking or be far too flexible. To resolve this, remember to differentiate between personality and emotions. 

“This character is normally like [x]. So, if [y] happened, would that be enough to provoke them to act differently? Are they more vulnerable to [y] because of recent events?” Questions like that are essential to ask yourself. 

(3) References can be hilarious, but they in themselves aren’t necessarily funny. Moreover, they shouldn’t be funny to just those in the know (If said jokes are in the spotlight anyway. If they’re minor, you can get away with it, especially in writing. The eyes will glaze right over it). They’ll surely be more funny with background knowledge, but that shouldn’t stop them from being appreciated. It’s effectively similar to needing to have the joke be explained to you. Leave references as a fun tidbit to catch. For anime, maybe it’s something in the background you only catch if you’re actively watching or on a second viewing. 


My publishing schedule is still a mess… Surprise! There were two articles that were supposed to be finished and released before this one, but one is probably going to be 3x the average length and the other is a tad too subjective for my liking. I know that being subjective is normal and generally can’t be avoided, but I want to make sure it doesn’t detract from the article’s educational value. The site’s name is AniCourses after all. I’ll figure it out though, no worries there.