I don’t read many visual novels because they’re almost all uh… pretty bad. I’ll occasionally pick up a free or cheap one on Steam because Steam’s awful recommendation algorithm won’t stop suggesting them. But then, they almost always disappoint. They often run the same anime girl archetypes (and it’s almost always girls. Not much otome seems to make it onto Steam), most have weak art (4 original character designs and 5 backgrounds is not a selling point!), and, most of all, so many of them have terrible, terrible writing.
I’m not here to complain or put down the visual novel medium because, again, I only ever really read the free ones put out by hobbyists that take advantage of Steam’s lax store policy. I know that I don’t have a fair sample for careful commentary.
Instead, I just want to observe a personal point of interest: so many English-language visual novels, even those originally written in English, read like translated Japanese. Or in other words, instead of simply borrowing the visual novel medium to produce fresh English-language works, some visual novel writers seem intent on imitating both the tropes and the language of their Japanese inspirations, resulting in a hodgepodge of stodgy prose that doesn’t quite sound Japanese… and doesn’t quite sound fluent English either.
Today I’ll be picking on Kill or Love, a free visual novel on Steam by Andy Church about “obsession, loneliness, and, based on your choices, varying amounts of murder,” not because it’s good or bad but because it has so many examples of such odd pseudo-translated writing (and because it has Yandere, yum yum). I’m not going to pretend to be rigorous or even generous – I’ll just note some of the lines that interested me and give a probable Japanese inspiration. So, let’s start off with a fan-favorite onomatopoeia:
[Ugh, it’s been a while. Through late February and early March, I was just too busy with work and applications to write. But then the virus hit and I gave up on having any sort of routine, even a leisurely one for this blog. It’s hard to find anything interesting to observe when you’re stuck in a box.]
Sooo, bored inside during quarantine, let’s introduce Hentai Nazi, a typical Unity Engine shovelware game that for some reason floated to the top of my Steam recommendations feed. It’s terrible!
But with nothing else to do during this dull coronavirus lockdown, and leeching off my computer for any inch of entertainment, I impulse bought it. And god damn am I going to get my 89 cents of value out of it, even at 55% off. I finished the game itself in less than an hour though so I’ll need to drag out the entertainment for a little while longer…
After 15 years, I thought that I would have more to say. But really, what’s left to say about a game so old? I scrapped half a dozen drafts of this post that did nothing but note little forgotten surprises in the gameplay — you have to eat food and drink water! — before tacking more towards personal philosophizing because really, who wants to read a list a changes, like patch notes?
Most people, maybe… I think a lot of players have taken an ironic joy in cataloging those nostalgic post-epiphanies with the sort of “we walked uphill both ways” style griping that mythologizes suffering as a source of glee. They describe Classic as something to endure (as one friend did), not something to enjoy. Instead, the enjoyment comes after, when they can boast about the extent of their suffering after conquering the game’s progression system.
I simply reject that premise. Suffering is bad (wow.) and I take no masochistic joy in it. Good thing then that Classic has a secret that the fans hailing it as a hard-core return-to-form don’t often admit:
[First time for this blog, a game review! My brother recommended that I play Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords. I love my brother but… oh man I hated that game. I’ve really only written this post to explain to him why I disliked it so much, so forgive the fragmented, rambly style]
I try to avoid calling anything overrated, but the praise I see for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords (Kotor 2) just baffles me. I can’t find a single serious negative review for it — even though it’s a buggy, broken, imbalanced mess that suffers from obvious development limitations. It has a solid enough narrative outline (but as I will explain, the actual narrative sputters) and I restored much of the content the developers cut to meet publishing deadlines with this mod. But the game still feels like such an incomplete, disjointed experience that I can’t recommend it to anyone. It’s awful or, at the very least, it does not hold up 15 years later.
First though, I suppose that I should address the elephant in the room early: Kotor 2 seems incomplete because it is. The publisher (Lucas Arts) pushed the developer (Obsidian Entertainment) into an early release, forcing the devs to scrap much of the work-in-progress content and rush out the remainder without much time to polish or address bugs.* But let me make this clear: I do not care about the game Kotor 2 could have been if it had completed its original production schedule. I only care about the game Kotor 2 is now, and even with support from post-release patches and fan-fixes via the Restored Content Mod, it’s still just… not much fun.
I don’t really have an argument here beyond a series of impressions on vague categories including level design, gameplay, characters, dialogue and narrative, role-playing features, and the so-called “philosophy.” Spoilers abound, but whatever, the game lacks a big twist like the original and it’s been 15 years anyway, so who cares.
* (Just a quick note on bugs because everyone will experience them differently: on my Windows 10 PC, dialogues skipped, cutscenes broke, graphics exploded, characters fell out of the map, voice lines didn’t play, framerates collapsed and I crashed over and over again across my 65 hours and 1.5 playthroughs. The game just doesn’t run well with my modern system)
[content warning: discussion of suicide in fiction]
[So, as usual, I know it’s a massive stretch to compare some silly anime to “serious” philosophy but today’s theme is the Absurd, which I’ll define with Camus’ lucid simplicity in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The absurd is born of [the] confrontation between the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world.” For the sake of brevity, I’ll try to avoid any more philosophical jargonizing or existentialist name-dropping beyond that Camus quote. But if he’s right and there’s no meaning in the world, why am I looking for it in anime? Because I’m bored, of course. Madness.]
Oh, how to review Angels of Death?
The last time I asked that sort of question, I was looking at RErideD: Derrida who Leaps Through Time, a time-travel adventure anime that has fast become one of my favorite “just laugh” disasterpieces. Even though Derrida relies on simple sci-fi cliches, it crams so many of them into its short twelve-episode run that they collectively stop making sense. It’s a failure of over-ambition, leading to a severe lack of focus in the narrative and even plenty of “out of time and money” production problems in the sound design and animation. But for all that, I love Derrida for everything it earnestly tried to be — but couldn’t. It’s a perfectly incoherent failure, a real comedic gem.
At first glance, I hoped that Angels of Death (Japanese: Satsuriku no Tenshi) would turn out the same way. After all, it has such a perfectly ironic premise! A young girl (Rachel) who wants to die teams up with a serial killer (Zach) who refuses to let her, all while they try to escape a prison tower that wants to kill them both? I’m not big on psychological horror, but sure, sign me up. And oh ho ho… what’s that trivia? The source material is an RPG Maker game? Now that’s a mark of quality. Maybe I’d found another rough diamond…
But eh, too bad. As I crawled into the second half of the series, I couldn’t bring myself to toss the thing aside into the “good-bad” garbage bin alongside my glorious, incoherent darling Derrida. Angels is certainly confusing, but in that self-aware, winking way that tells me there’s probably more going on. After all, no one just quotes Nietzsche by accident, but Angels comes close during some climactic dialogue: “My God… is dead!” “Yeah, that’s right… [and] I killed him!” I laughed out loud at the directness of the cliche, but unlike all of Derrida’s earnest, unintended nonsense, I suspect that Angels meant it.
Despite the unsubtlety of the line though, I’ve struggled to put together much of a coherent interpretation of the series as a whole. Angels of Death resists understanding; through a heavy reliance on unreliable narrator devices like memory loss, psychological breakdown, hallucinogenic gas and a fair share of deadpan comedy (Rachel’s mewling monotone…), it’s hard to ever trust anything on the screen. Though Angels has something to say, the series quickly becomes a jumble of self-contradiction that offers little to help the viewer tease out any thematic message, let alone do the basic task of distinguishing the real from the surreal.
Spoiler alert: No, not really. But as I’ve maybe already suggested, I think that might be the point. A bit like a piece out of the Theater of the Absurd, all the incoherence in Angels of Death coalesces into something tangible: it’s an existential allegory, an attempt to capture the feeling of the Absurd itself.
…aaand I’ve already lost confidence in my argument. This exercise already feels absurd with a small ‘a’, doesn’t it?
[Before I start my own post, I’d also like to give a strong recommendation for this excellent one by zeroreq011. Seeing another serious analysis of Angels’ existential themes gave me the confidence to finish my own.]
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 settingdid 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.