Procrastinating a good thing: Why I can’t finish .hack//Sign

This is not a review but rather a lament. I have been watching .hack//Sign recently and like it well enough. But for some reason, I just can’t bring myself to finish it. (I’ll use the shorthand “hack/sign” because I don’t want to deal with Microsoft Word’s blue-line accusation: “Change punctuation placement”)

hack/sign is one of the most interesting anime I have watched this year. Other writers have called it boring for the slow, conversation driven plot, but for me it finally approximates the “MMO myth” I have sought and failed to find in this season’s video game isekai (I challenge you: what is more essential to the MMO experience than AFKing in a transport hub while chatting with friends?). Sure, the art is ugly, but given the age of the show (2002), whatever, I don’t care. I would even argue that the weirdly static movements give the show a welcome bit of that old-school RuneScape charm (Subaru holds her axe like a dragon battleaxe!). And of course, it would be criminal to not mention the gorgeous if slightly overbearing soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura of Puella Magi Madoka Magica fame. The music alone could almost carry the whole show. It’s fantastic.

I give that short review not to convince anyone else to watch, but to demonstrate that there isn’t much reason for me not to. Though I have only watched half of it, I am enjoying it very much (For the first time ever, a recap episode didn’t feel like a bucket of cold water to the face!). Of all the media I am consuming at the moment, hack/sign holds my attention the best if not for one little problem: I can’t find the motivation to keep watching.

This is not a new problem. I have an odd habit of procrastinating the shows that I look forward to most. I will drag out viewings for months, with an odd inverse relationship between enjoyment and time. For example, I paced out my competent comfort food, A Certain Scientific Railgun, over the course of three months but binged its mediocre franchise partner, A Certain Magical Index, in just a few weeks. Meanwhile, I limped through Gakkou Gurashi, a personal favorite, in twice the time even though it had half as many episodes. My current record belongs to Azumanga Daioh. I started watching it over a year ago but haven’t picked it up since, despite adoring every piece of that perfect little moeblob wonderland. My bookmark for the show remains stuck on episode 9, two-thirds unfinished.

If the theory of revealed preferences held, it might appear that I didn’t enjoy any of those supposed favorites very much. After all, if I really liked them, why would I budget my time to avoid them? In the month I could have watched hack/sign, I binged Netflix’s hot new drop Disenchantment (despite not liking it much), played 10 hours of the Battlefield V beta (despite, again, not liking it much), and read the whole novel Ready Player One (despite, surprise!, not liking it much. No wait, I hated that one!). Revealed preferences would tell me that I enjoyed those three activities more than hack/sign. But that approach makes no sense: when I finally get around to watching hack/sign, I enjoy it as much as I might expect. So what stops me?

I can discard an obvious hypothesis. What if I don’t want to see the ending? That was certainly true in say, Gakkou Gurashi (no spoilers!). But the idea falls apart when considering a show like Azumanga Daioh, with it’s sweet everythings that promise nothing but a happy half-hour. Even unambiguous “bad endings” aren’t clear deterrents. To draw on an example from this season, the yandere psychological-horror flick Happy Sugar Life seems to inch closer towards an unrestrained bloodbath with every episode. The premise of the show practically demands a “bad ending,” but I eagerly anticipate such a tragedy. Of course, that anticipation did not prevent me from waiting a whole month between episodes 5 and 6.

Instead of avoiding the ending, I think the problem comes closer to avoiding the finish. Once I have watched all of the episodes of an excellent show, I condemn myself to be content with reruns forever after. I can never experience a good thing for the first time, twice. So maybe, there is some logic in saving a show as a means to savor it. But when framed a different way, that delay has an ironic result: if I refuse to watch something out of a desire to save it for later, I essentially finish it for good. I can’t experience a show I don’t even bother to watch, once.

By analogy, I think of it like saving a bottle of fancy wine for some special celebration, only to refuse to drink it for want of a truly deserving occasion. My parents certainly did this. Growing up, I remember them marveling over some prized wine acquired at a work party. But a decade later, I am sure the thing has sat forgotten on some dark, dusty shelf in a makeshift cellar in the basement. Maybe more relevant to my gaming demographic, it is like saving a powerful potion for when I might “really need it,” only to defeat the final bosses with dozens of them clinking around in my inventory. I hadn’t used a single one! Why did I even bother collecting them?

Maybe a solution is to realize that good things are more common than I often think. Part of my fear seems to stem from a scarcity mindset: by watching a good show, I will somehow exhaust the whole stock of them. Of course, this is ridiculous. There is more good, cheap content in the world than I could ever hope to consume and time reliably produces more. I can’t ever watch hack/sign for the first time again, but some other show will come along that will approximate the experience. And well, maybe reruns aren’t that bad.

However, even though I know that there is no content scarcity, I can’t shake my reluctance to watch the next hack/sign episode. 1000 words later, I still don’t know why exactly I procrastinate good things.

Whatever, a consideration for another time. I just know that I should stop, and finish.

Eventually…

3 thoughts on “Procrastinating a good thing: Why I can’t finish .hack//Sign

  1. I’m felling the same thing about Accel World. Thoroughly enjoyed it; like you,I can’t articulate just why I won’t finish it. But at least you went to the effort to try to figure it out! Kudos for that!

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    1. Thanks for the comment!

      The behavioral economics of procrastination has a tentative answer. People often save “good things” like coupons or frequent flier miles when there is a long time-window to consume them. For example, people will accumulate frequent flier miles for years with a “perfect” vacation planned when they would have likely enjoyed smaller, shorter “good” vacations. But by then, the miles have expired. By chasing the perfect instead of the good, they get neither.

      Popular reference here: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/29/science/29tier.html
      Academic reference here: http://journals.ama.org/doi/abs/10.1509/jmkr.47.5.933

      The time window on watching anime is effectively infinite, like a good wine that will last a century in the bottle without spoiling. So maybe that results in the “saving” behavior. If you could watch it today or tomorrow with no change in enjoyment, you might as well watch it tomorrow (if we ignore discounting / preference for present consumption, which we can assume is overridden by a desire for the “perfect” future).

      However, that logic works in reverse as well. If you could watch it today or tomorrow with no change in enjoyment, you might as well watch it today. The “costs” of watching an episode of anime are trivially low (for me, clicking a bookmark and sitting for 23 minutes) so the typical procrastination explanation fails. I have no “cost” to defer to the future, like a student would when putting off a homework assignment.

      More importantly, I can’t imagine a “perfect” future to watch an episode of anime like I would with a special celebration and some good wine. I should be indifferent between present and future consumption, and once we reincorporate discounting into the equation, the behavioral economic theory suggests I should consume a good show as fast as possible (binge ahoy!).

      So, with all of that in mind, I gave up on the behavioral economics explanation (plus, it’s frankly a bit boring and full of slippery jargon and probably didn’t belong in a personal blog).

      I think it really does just come down to anxiety. I don’t want to finish .hack//Sign because I don’t want to finish .hack//Sign. I don’t want to lose the comfort of having a good show on standby, like a security blanket hovering over all of the other mediocre nonsense I watch (Disenchanted was fine… but I didn’t enjoy it very much).

      Like so many anxieties, it is stupid and irrational. But I can’t shake the feeling.

      Liked by 1 person

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