Shichisei no Subaru: thinking about video game settings in anime

As a long-time MMORPG player, the isekai genre fascinates me for its almost complete adoption of video game tropes following the wild success of Sword Art Online. Though isekai, and even virtual world MMO isekai, predate Sword Art Online, that one franchise seems to have turned the entire genre into a wish-fulfillment fantasy playground for otaku. Especially in the light novel arena, isekai has become a Japan-specific modern analogue for the scandalous dime novels or trashy pulp fiction of the past. Every season seems to pump out another MMO-esque isekai setting, from shameless ecchi harems like Isekai no Smartphone to legitimate parodies of the current industry craze like KonoSuba.

This season is no exception. By my initial count, summer 2018 introduced three new isekai anime. The first, How Not to Summon a Demon Lord, grossed me out with its glib slavery premise and the second, Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria, exceeded even Demon Lord in eliciting disgust (I repeat: it is the worst television production I have ever seen. ). With that mess as competition, I immediately crowned the third, Shichisei no Subaru (English: Seven Senses of the Reunion), the best isekai of the season before even watching it.

But then I ran into a problem. After watching the first three episodes, I realized that Subaru didn’t fit my initial isekai genre label. Thought about 70% of the show takes place in a virtual reality video game world, the narrative remains well-grounded in an exploration of very real grief after the death and virtual reincarnation of a childhood friend.

I was too hasty in my coronation. Subaru is not just another cheap wish-fulfillment otaku exploitation flick set in an MMO-esque fantasy. It has a mystery! It has decently sympathetic characters! It even has identifiable themes! None of those features exactly impressed me; the first three episodes earn a solid “just okay.” However, it does deserve credit for trying to tell it’s own story in a genre full of generic copy-cat nonsense.

But then I ran into another problem. Subaru wasn’t just telling it’s own story. I had heard this premise before… the ghost of a young girl returns to haunt a reclusive otaku years after her early death, thus forcing him to reunite with his now-distant childhood friends to solve the mystery and overcome unresolved grief… hmmm… is this… AnoHana? Pretty much, yeah. Essentially, Subaru cuts the narrative out of AnoHana and pastes it into a generic MMO-inspired video game world. Again, Subaru isn’t exactly bad. It is just astoundingly unoriginal.

Subaru’s odd combination of a serious grief narrative with a typical farcical MMO setting did make me think though. Can a writer shove any theme into a video game world and produce a compelling story? Or does the setting only excel at generic self-insert wish-fulfillment? Have MMO-esque fantasies proliferated in the anime industry because they possess some genuine storytelling utility? Or are they just a cynical way to capture the gamer-otaku market?

Unfortunately, the first three episodes of Shichisei no Subaru push me towards the cynical conclusion. AnoHana does not fit well inside Sword Art Online. Video game settings should not simply replace straight fantasy; they need some thematic connection to the real debate over the meaning and value of virtual realities. Otherwise, stories like Subaru’s might as well simply exist in the the real world. But unfortunately for Subaru, AnoHana already exists.

I think it might help to outline my own history with MMO games to illustrate my thinking about video game settings in anime. If you only care about my assessment of Subaru specifically, feel free to skip the next five paragraphs.

Though I played World of Warcraft (WoW) on and off from thirteen to twenty three, I really played for just a few months. But by this, I mean literal months: the play time on my main character was measured in triple-digit days rather than hours.

I often try to justify my inordinate play time with mythologized “it could only happen in WoW” stories. If I can make a real-life friend laugh with an absurd World of Warcraft anecdote, maybe the game had some real value. The best stories come from embellished profiles of my strangest guildmates, who became steady friends during my most active year in the game. I like to romanticize our little group progressing through increasingly difficult bosses before finally besting the big bad at 5am after ten hours of raiding (“another 15 minutes dad, I promise I’ll go to bed” I said as he wandered downstairs in his underwear to make his morning coffee…). But even just wasting away the hours grinding alone can become a good story: once, I was relaxing on a fishing expedition in the cold north when suddenly a group of players arrived to club all of my baby seal neighbors to death. I don’t think I ever laughed so hard in the game.

However, sometimes I doubt the myth of a meaningful MMO that I’ve built up in my mind. I have a pernicious suspicion that I am simply mimicking the marketing departments of developers that want to disguise the repetitive, sedentary nature of their games. I don’t exactly regret playing WoW; I have many fond memories of the game and “time enjoyed is not time wasted.” But no matter what the platitude says, I often worry that I wasted my time anyway. Yes, I usually liked the mindless grinding, but all I earned were virtual tokens. Yes, I completed some fun achievements, but I really just flicked a mouse cursor around a screen. Yes, I made friends in the guild, but none of them lasted more than a year. I often wonder if I could have focused on a more fulfilling, real world hobby. Could I have put those thousands of hours into reading 100 classic novels or mastering my old middle-school clarinet? Maybe! Even if I enjoyed the game, that uncertainty feels awful.

I finally gave up on WoW for good last winter. The new expansion looks like a lore train wreck, but more importantly, none of my online friends play anymore and I have never managed to convince any real-life friends to commit $15 a month for the subscription. I didn’t know why I still played, alone, in a massive multiplayer online game. With no more interesting stories to make, I could no longer justify it. The romantic MMO myth had collapsed.

At least, the myth collapsed for World of Warcraft specifically. I still feel the “pull” of virtual worlds. I wish I could skip the worst grinds and share a persistent narrative with thousands of other players. I wish I could finally conquer a truly difficult boss with a group of eccentric guildmates. I even wish I could go to an awkward meetup in the lobby of some Holiday Inn and turn them into long-term, real-life friends. I wish the myth of a meaningful MMO was real, or at the very least, I wish I didn’t doubt it.

Those virtual-world wishes all bring me back to video game-settings in anime. Video game anime typically peddle in wish-fulfillment. They promise to make the dream real, to achieve that myth of a meaningful MMO. Though this usually means a misogynistic sexual fantasy with a harem of girls orbiting around an overpowered, self-insert MC, many appeal to my more mundane desires from the MMO myth. For example, Net-juu no Susume’s female lead develops a deep friendship with an old MMO pal that blossoms into an adorable romance. Sword Art Online pulls a similar love story but also makes gaming skills a real accomplishment by playing the  stupid “~if you die in the game, you die in real life~” gimmick straight. Log Horizon goes a step further by exploring the political and economic structures of a game-ified world in a grand, unified narrative. Each of those shows make me nostalgic for my MMO days. My months of play time feel like less of a waste.

Shichisei no Subaru falters because, at least within the first three episodes, it fails to capture that nostalgia. In fact, it does the opposite. Instead of wanting to hop back into an MMO myself, after watching I just wished the characters would give up on the game and move on with their lives. They all seemed so miserable!

Subaru depicts everything that made me want to quit WoW. It opens with a happy guild full of anime archetypes, but then crushes the group by killing one of its members in real life (less melodramatically, I had a guild collapse when a core player quit to focus on school). Flash forward to the future, the main character helps an acquaintance who might as well be a random matchmaking player complete a dungeon, all while wondering why he should still bother with the grind. He clearly does not enjoy the gameplay anymore and has lost touch with his unique genetic gaming skill (Subaru calls the skills “Senses” but does not explain the odd genetic component). Worst of all, some of his old guildmates have moved on to more serious, hardcore groups while others have disappeared all together. Like me before I quit WoW, in a massive multiplayer online world he seems so lonely.

This results in a strange tonal mismatch. By killing an elementary school age guildmate, the first three episodes establish a tragic, emotional premise in a genre that excels at shallow wish fulfillment. I get the sense that Subaru wanted to tell a genuine ghost story about old friends reuniting to settle their grief six years after a childhood friend’s death but then ran into the rather obvious problem that AnoHana already exists. Thus, in order to distinguish itself from the work which likely inspired it, Subaru generated a generic fantasy world with the added bonus that it might accidentally capture a piece of the current video game isekai craze.

But because the core of the narrative lies in a story about personal grief, Subaru’s MMO setting feels so half-hearted. Though the characters exist in the real world (except for the dead friend, who is a virtual ghost online), most of the show takes place in a game called Re:Union. However, the game often feels like a prop that could be swapped out with any other type of isekai rather than an integral part of the series. Re:Union only matters because of a gimmick: the ghost girl cannot log out, thus forcing any dialogue with her to take place within the game. However, the game does not feel necessary to the experience. She could just as easily exist in a dream or ghost realm or parallel dimension. I suspect Subaru could completely scrap its virtual world and still do a competent job with the same story about the memory of a dead friend, but again, it runs into that persistent problem: AnoHana already exists.

Cracks in the MMO setting appear immediately with a pseudo-“death game” mechanic which automatically deletes a player’s account when they die. The mechanic tries to serve the narrative function of giving fight scenes real “stakes.” However, it is hard to take the death game seriously when no one actually dies in the real world. It raises more questions than it can satisfyingly answer. Couldn’t players just make new accounts? If not, why would the company restrict its revenue stream by constantly culling its playerbase? With a mustache-twirling name like Pleroma Industries and a dead girl living in their game, they probably have some evil intent, but what exactly is their business plan here? Subaru ever so slightly sets up a corporate mystery with a news report on the company in the first episode, but it seems far more interested in exploring its romance plot and grief themes. As a result, the setting never gets the development it needs to feel like a plausible, interesting place with narrative significance.

To reiterate my assessment in the introduction, I don’t think Subaru is bad. But I can’t figure out its angle. It constantly self-subverts its melancholy tone with half-hearted isekai nonsense that probably belongs in a more over-the-top show like How Not to Summon a Demon Lord. For example, Subaru lays the foundations for a serious romance with a decently compelling love triangle between the ghost guildmate, an estranged friend, and the MC. However, it neuters any emotional impact in the narrative by playing the usual tropes: The MC is a typical self-insert oblivious to the girls’ obvious romantic gestures… the estranged friend is a stuttering, back-talking tsundere… the ghost guildmate is elementary-age loli-bait that often finds herself in sexually revealing situations (please not this again!).

These cliches feel odd because Subaru mostly takes itself seriously. It mostly humanizes the self-insert MC as a disillusioned hero coping with real grief and mostly presents the estranged friend as a genuinely lonely, heartbroken lost love. The ghost guildmate mostly works well in her role as a child struggling to connect with friends that have matured six years beyond her. Even when she has a stupid “oops I lost my clothes moment” in episode 3,  the MC responds appropriately as an adult to shield her child body from the view of onlookers (and the audience). The moment is still gross (the child sexualization could be removed without damaging the narrative), but I suppose Subaru deserves credit for mostly showing some restraint. It isn’t building a harem.

Of course, the trouble word in the previous paragraph is “mostly.” Subaru mostly avoids the excesses of gonzo wish-fulfilment shows like Isekai no Smartphone but still partakes in a hefty helping. Though it tries to present something halfway between Anohana and a video game isekai, it comes up short on both counts. The personal grief narrative keeps the show grounded enough that it does not work as an over-the-top wish-fulfillment piece. But at the same time, the MMO tropes prevent its serious themes from having much weight. To put it bluntly, when a young girl emerges from a literal treasure chest (or emerges from a river without clothes…), it becomes difficult to take Subaru seriously as an exploration of death, grief, and reincarnation in a virtual world.

My ultimate question for Shichisei no Subaru is “Why does the game matter?” Why place the narrative in an virtual world if it could just as easily exist in the real one? The real cemetery visits and quiet conversations in the MC’s bedroom had much more emotional value than similar in-game scenes in the guild hideout or the ghost girl’s place of death in a dungeon. The video game elements often feel so immersion breaking, which is maybe ironic in a wish-fulfillment-focused genre that promises to immerse the audience in a fantasy.

One moment stuck out to me in this regard. The young adult characters have an interesting debate in the guild hideout over whether they should let go of their past and ignore the ghost girl or stay in the game to help her log out (I suppose this serves the same narrative function as putting a ghost to rest). But afterwards, the MC just opens an options menu and logs out himself. He’ll be back online tomorrow for some group questing. It was so silly! When I should have reached peak empathy with the characters over their grief, I just thought “Oh right, this is a game.”

Again, why does the game matter? Where is the MMO myth of empowering adventure and real friendship in a virtual world?  On a more personal level, why did I spend thousands of hours in World of Warcraft? I don’t think Subaru has an answer. Despite its reliance on an MMO setting, it has nothing to say about games. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Subaru has no obligation to explore the themes I am interested in. But it does seem like a waste when it could have approached setting-specific ideas like finding value and meaning in a virtual reality. The show certainly seeks to consider serious concepts like grief to elevate itself over the standard video game wish fulfillment flick. It just struggles to do so under the weight of its weightless MMO.

I might continue to follow the Shichisei no Subaru this season to see if it ever develops any interesting intrigue relating to the game, but given the relatively slow, personal pace of the first three episodes, I doubt it will. I might just watch AnoHana instead.

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