Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why You Should Watch Survivor

"Wait, Survivor's still on?"

Yes, Season 34 is fast approaching and Survivor is still on. And doing quite well, actually. It's still one of CBS's flagship shows. It has, at this point, outlasted nearly every other reality TV game show (including the once omnipresent American Idol) and has been consistently been putting out 2 seasons a year since 2001.

So why, when so many people fell off between seasons 3 and 8, is Survivor still going? And why should you watch it? Well, that's what I'm here to explain.

I've fallen away from Survivor myself, actually. Seasons 9-15 are kind of a blur for me, since I wasn't watching every single episode, and with seasons 22-24 I was watching more out of habit than anything else. But I've stuck with it, because there are so many various things that have attracted me to it.

1. The Game Theory and Political Intrigue

Survivor is, at its core, a simple but elegant game. You take 16 strangers, throw them together, and then force them to vote each other out until only two remain. Then, a jury of those who have been voted out cast a vote for who they think most deserves the win. The exact structure has changed some since the original season (seasons now usually have 18 or 20 players and end with a Final 3 rather than a Final 2), but that's the gist of it. There's very simple game theory behind it, but due to the human element (and the ability to win immunity, saving yourself from the vote), it has an insane amount of permutations. In fact, these elements provide such huge variables that, were you able to simulate the same contestants in the same game 100 different times, you'd almost certainly get 100 different outcomes.

One would assume the appeal of the show would be Bear Grylls-esque survivalism, but due to the nature of the game, it's actually political maneuvering. Voting people out requires betrayal and backstabbing, but because the winner is chosen by a jury, it discourages unpleasant play after a certain point. It's easy enough to crash and burn your way to the end, but if nobody respects the way you got there, you have no chance of winning. In order to win, you need to walk a line between being cutthroat and pleasant. And of course, if everyone is able to recognize that you're doing this and have a good chance to win, you place a target on your back. It's a very Game of Thrones-esque structure. Place yourself in a position to have power, seize that power, and have people like you well enough to think you deserve that power--at least more than your opponents do.

2. The Stories and Editing

Survivor may be the same basic game each time, but because every game has different variables, the results are always different. Every season has as many stories as there are contestants, which some talented editors are then able to compress and translate into hour-long episodes. You have Season 13 (Cook Islands), which is about four underdogs plowing through their competition. You have Season 8 (All-Stars), which was about people destroying their very real friendships with each other in the name of business. You have Season 30 (Worlds Apart), which is, depending on whose perspective you read it from, either "Mike Holloway vs. the World" or "Mike Holloway is a Dick and Then Screws Everything Up For Everybody."

Then there's the myriad of stories in the first season, Borneo. There's Sue and Kelly's relationship deteriorating from a close friendship to enmity so great Sue delivers one of the most famous speeches in television history as an attack on her. There's the relationship that forms between Richard Hatch, a fat gay nudist, and the highly conservative Ex-navy seal Rudy Boesch. There's Pagong's tragic decimation as they either realize too late or are just too stubborn to accept they need to coordinate if they have any chance of succeeding in the game.

But that's just an abbreviated version of what happened in a few seasons. Allow me to redirect you to two thorough examples, written by Survivor expert Mario Lanza. First, this article talking about Season 9 (Vanuatu) and how it basically becomes Chris Daugherty's revenge story. Or, even better, the epic 3-part narrative of how a foul-mouthed Latina mom became the first and only 2-time winner of Survivor, taking down a cocky bald troll in a fedora in the process.

With all these different stories and seasons, it ends up bringing a certain lore with it as well. The game changes and evolves, and various characters leave their impact and legacy. The producers keep tweaking the game to keep it from getting stale, and the editors change how they edit the show to keep the winner from being too obvious (or too unexpected). And, of course, this makes for a fanbase it's fantastic to be a part of.

3. The Melting Pot

Of course, the thing that ultimate makes Survivor so interesting to me is that it's a microcosm of humanity, and it's all real. Sure, it's heavily edited, but that's more to fit real events into a more compelling narrative. And there are obviously exceptions, but Survivor has always been pretty good at getting a good mix of people from varied backgrounds and giving them fair representation. As I mentioned earlier, a core storyline in the first season focused on the friendship between a gay man and one who was, well...a bit of a homophobe. This was way back in 2000, when you could say "fat naked fag" on television and when "queer" was an antiquated slur rather than what it's come to mean today. And Richard Hatch wasn't presented as any sort of stereotype. He was seen as villainous, yes, but that was more because he was using Machiavellian tactics that people interpreted as "unfair" than anything else.

There is, admittedly, a bit of a bias towards men and the casts still tend to skew white (which can unfairly stack the deck against people of color), but overall, the show tends to succeed at its goal of taking people from different walks of life who would normally never meet, and putting them together. Sometimes sparks fly in some very unpleasant ways. But sometimes you get situations where two very different people form strong friendships despite their differences. Winners have been men and women of a variety of races, ages, and sexualities, and include everyone from easygoing stoners, charming southern boys, neurotic Jews, flirts, sex therapists, yoga instructors, moms...basically, any type of person could theoretically win Survivor, and most types of people already have, up to and including a used car salesman/softcore porn actor who is quite possibly a legitimate sociopath.

Overall, Survivor is just a show that anyone can find value in. It's a battle royal we can look at strategic and social dynamics through. It's a microcosm of humanity we can use to examine sociology and see what people we wouldn't normally interact with are like. It's a piece of media we can examine the editing and storytelling techniques of. It's a show with a surprisingly dedicated and diverse fanbase. And, yes, okay, there are a lot of wacky nutjobs in the show too that it's fun to point and laugh at. My love of the show can't be entirely highbrow.

So I urge everyone to please give Survivor another shot. Honestly. It's really good, I swear, and I'd love to have more people to gush about this upcoming season with.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

It Bugs Me - Miraculous Ladybug Episode 1

Back in 2012, I stumbled across this little preview for an anime known only as "Ladybug."

I immediately fell in love. Part of it was the fact that I had already started going by "DaLadybugMan" at this point and knew that I had to do something to cover it when it came out. But then time went by. The anime didn't come out. after remembering it and doing some looking, I found out that it was now a CGI cartoon called Miraculous Ladybug that was being produced for a global audience. Which, you know...kind of good, kind of bad. CGI isn't inherently bad, and the series got a huge budget for it so at least it's good CGI. I was going to miss some things, but I kept telling myself that it might still be good.

Then we saw the first trailer.

"Okay," I thought. "So maybe it'll be okay. I mean, I think the music sounds absolutely terrible, but at least the animation does look pretty fluid...."

I kept telling myself that I was ready for it to premiere here in the US under the name Miraculous - Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir. It was airing in South Korea first (for reasons I still don't quite understand), and I incorrectly assumed that no one would be subbing it into English. Then it did premiere, I watched it, and was as disappointed as I hoped I wouldn't actually be.

I watched it before work, so I pretty much had a full eight hours to ponder what exactly it is that disappointed me about this first episode so much. Was it because it was different from what I had expected? Were my biases towards how it looks in 2D affecting my judgment? I came to the conclusion that, no, they weren't. It's just a bad episode of television on its own.

What Could Have Been

Look, I'm not going to sit here and say that my experience of this show wasn't colored by the trailer I'd been hyping over for so long. It definitely was. But it's precisely because that trailer does so much well that I'm not seeing from the show. The Ladybug PV manages to, in three minutes, tell some form of story and set up a world that Miraculous just didn't quite give me. So let's take a look at some of these elements that don't quite work out right.

Note: To distinguish, I'll be using the term "PV" to refer to the 2D preview, as that's how previews for anime are labeled and referred to by the fandom. Conversely, I'll be referring to the CG animated product as either Miraculous or Miraculous Ladybug.

The Romance

The PV spends some time setting up the dynamic between Marinette/Felix and Ladybug/Cat Noir. At this point, let me just point out that Felix is the original incarnation of the character who would eventually become Adrien, the character who is Cat Noir in Miraculous. Honestly, just from the bit of personality and story we get from both Felix and Adrien, I feel confident in saying that Adrien is a better character and a good change. But back to the romance.

In the PV, there are two dynamics. There's the one between Marinette and Felix, in which Marinette makes advances on Felix and is turned down, and the one between Ladybug and Cat Noir, their secret identities, in which Cat Noir is the one making the advances and being turned down. It's this interesting love triangle that somehow manages to exist between only two people.

In Miraculous, the angle is still there...almost. Cat Noir is still crushing on Ladybug, Ladybug is still turning him down, and Marinette is still crushing on Adrien. However, in this case, Marinette's issue isn't that Adrien is turning her down, it's that Marinette can't bring herself to reveal her feelings. It's a slight difference, but it's one that completely changes the dynamic. Now, if they end up discovering each other's identities, there's an implication that they'll immediately get together, because why wouldn't they? Adrien doesn't dislike Marinette, he just doesn't know that he exists. On the other hand, were Marinette and Felix to discover each other's identities, there would still be tension. Would that knowledge bolster the crush or destroy it? It's far more interesting.

Also, the way it's presented now has the side effect of making our protagonist look like a creepy, obsessed stalker. Ew.

The Atmosphere

The PV had a very "fighting evil by moonlight" vibe, i.e., Ladybug and Cat Noir spend their days as ordinary students, but fight evil at night because, presumably, that's when evil typically rears its head. This particular trope doesn't necessarily make for a good show, but what it's provided here is fantastic atmosphere. The music is almost a bit wistful and melancholy, and most the shots of Ladybug and Cat Noir take place at dusk or night, accompanied on occasion by rather dramatic poses. This suggests that, while half of the show is a lighthearted and cute romp, the other half of the show will be taking itself seriously. In Miraculous, so far I've gotten the sense that everything is going to be fairly brightly colored, probably because of how CG in general looks. Still, it's no longer seems as somber and reflective as it originally did. Now it's much more bright and cheery, and I think that also makes it less unique.

What I hoped for

 What I got

What Just Wasn't

Okay, so let me just put aside what's missing from PV because that doesn't matter if the show can stand on its own merits. So let me go through the first episode of Miraculous and talk about why it just does not work.

A Nonsensical Villain

The villain we get in this first episode of Miraculous is called the Bubbler. Now, it looks like the villains in this show are going to be normal people who, in a moment of weakness, are turned evil by these dark butterflies called Akuma that the main villain, Hawk Moth, controls. The Bubbler is an evil form of Nino, Adrian's best friend. That's fine. The issue is that he's a terribly designed villain, just because his design doesn't make any sense. We see Nino blowing soap bubbles at a few points in the lead-up to him becoming the Bubbler, but it doesn't seem to be a big part of his personality or play any role in the story. The Bubbler's physical design doesn't seem to bear a particularly close resemblance to Nino. While the bubbles may look fairly cool in terms of animation, they also don't make a lot of sense thematically relative to the episode and most of what we see the Bubbler do isn't even bubble-related.

What about this screams "DJ?"

What Nino gets hung up on is the fact that Adrian's father refuses to let him have a birthday party, leading him to believe that all adults stifle kids' freedom and that kids would be better off without them. So he turns into a guy with a bubble-themed design, who then DJs a party where he forces all the kids to dance and have fun. What exactly is the link between these three things? If he had been designed around the idea of a DJ, okay, fine. At least that's consistent with what he actually does in the episode. He's brightly colored and looks a bit like a harlequin, so if he were themed more around a jester or a children's toy or something that either ties into acting like a child or encouraging fun, that'd again be at least somewhat consistent. But instead, we get the nonsensical atrocity that is the Bubbler.

Plot Threads, Tangled Up and Snipped Short

There were some really good ideas introduced in this episode. You had Marinette's jealousy and Adrien's indulgence getting in the way of their hero work. You had Adrien's relationship with his father. You had the idea that parents, while sometimes oppressive, are necessary. None of those ideas went anywhere.

The show's aimed more towards kids now than it originally was, but you can't do that even in a kids' show these days. The episode has multiple separate ideas it touches on, but none are explored fully. The episode isn't built around them. Marinette gets berated for abusing her power, but it's waved aside with a quick "I'm sorry." There's no real buildup for Adrien's revelation that his being taken in by the idea of a party has made him irresponsible. Adrien's relationship with his father doesn't have any sort of payoff. And you'd think that an episodic kids' show would try to shoehorn in a moral about how adults aren't trying to stifle kids' freedoms, but there's no payoff for that apart from a half-hearted argument in the midst of a fight scene, and it's undercut by Adrien's father not really having any real reason for being oppressive. Maybe if it had been twice as long, it could have felt more conclusive and executed on its themes better. As it is, it's just a jumble of ideas that don't go anywhere.

On Origins (and Origins)

So in looking a few things up for this writeup, I've discovered that Miraculous has, in the US, been Firefly'd. This premiere episode was actually the second episode that aired in France and South Korea. So my evaluating it as a premiere episode is a little bit unfair, but that doesn't mean that I'm not going to do it anyway!

If Nickelodeon thought that this was the best first episode to put forward, that really does not bode well for the show. In addition to the meandering plot and the poorly designed villain, it feels like it's just a random episode of an episodic show. There's no indication of what's come before or what will come after. I can see every episode from here on out following the pattern of "person gets upset, Hawk Moth sends an akuma to possess them, Ladybug and Cat Noir defeat them, and alongside all of that there's some story about Adrien and Marinette's cat-and-mouse (or cat-and-bug) relationship." Sure, the details may be different, but it ultimately seems like it's a status quo show. And the fact that they're presenting the second episode as the first one really gives me the sense that they're all going to be interchangable.

Why do this? Why, in this digital era of television when people crave long-running plots that they can either marathon online or discuss on the internet each week? The people who do that are getting younger and younger. Does the show not realize this?

So how should the show have started? Well, probably with an origin story. It's basically a superhero show, and most superhero media begins with the origin story. Maybe that's there in the first episode, in which case Nickelodeon's decision is even more puzzling. But maybe it's coming later as a flashback, or maybe not at all. That can still work, but the first episode still has to have some sort of inciting incident. There's been a peace and something has disturbed it. Maybe Hawk Moth has appeared on the scene for the first time. Maybe it's an origin story for one member of the duo. Even the most episodic of shows more often than not take some time to actually set a few things up. Miraculous? Nah, it'll just throw you into any given episode. It's not that the show isn't straightforward enough that you can pick up on what's happening. It's that there's no long-term narrative, and consequently no reason to be invested.

A Bit of Positivity 

Look, I don't want to be completely negative. So at this point, I'm just going to say "there's still time." A lot of the ideas I'm drawn to are still in there. The original three villains we saw in the PV still all exist in some form. The fights might still be interesting. The rest of the episodes could be written better. It's not like a series has never had a bad episode before, especially early on. And it's not like it's a different series altogether. It's still the same series, it's just taken a slightly different direction. I may not be optimistic at this point, but I want to believe.

Don't let me down, France.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On Reviews and Scores

Note: I will be talking primarily about the anime community in this post and most of the terms used in this post will consequently reflect that, but I'm assuming it refers to reviewers of other media as well. If you want to replace every usage of "show" or "series" with "game" or "franchise" in your mind, please do so.

Part 1: On Why People Are Doing Reviews Wrong

The popular review style in the anime community seems to be to give a number for story, art, sound, characters, and enjoyment, and then average these scores into an overall score. I have no clue where exactly people came up with this format. I suspect that they stole it from Tristan "Arkada" Gallant, whose "Glass Reflections" is one of the more popular shows out there. If I recall correctly, Arkada himself swiped that from a friend, but said friend may have gotten it somewhere else. So I don't really know who came up with it. It doesn't really matter, because the entire system is bogus and bullshit anyway.

Reviews are always going to be tricky things, because they attempt to give an objective value to things that are generally fairly subjective. Maybe you hate a show's art or animation style, so you dock it points for that. But there are other people who might love it. Inferno Cop has atrocious animation, but for some, that's the appeal of the show. I think that the character designs in Seitokai Yakuindomo look terrible, but I'm sure that some people like them. Humor is a similarly subjective thing. To go back to Seitokai Yakuindomo, I've never gotten past an episode or two because I feel like just having "haha, sex!" as the punchline isn't clever and is just a cheap way of getting laughs. Other people love the show, though, so my opinion isn't going to matter to them. Every one of those categories is going to involve subjectivity. Not everyone is going to agree on everything.

And yet, those categories are often scored on 10-point--or even 100-point--scales (note: they will try to hide the fact that they are 100-point scales by using decimals. Do not be fooled. If the score includes an 8.1, that's actually 81/100). They use these scales because, presumably, the more granular your score is, the more accurate it must be. If you're giving a show an 8.3 instead of an 8.2, people assume you've done some serious research. After all, that extra .1 point must have come from somewhere. There's no way that the decision was arbitrary, right?

This is the biggest lie that review scores tell. The thing that both reviewers and people who read reviews seem to be unaware of is that a larger review scale makes scores less objective, not more. By adding more nuance to scoring, you introduce more subjectivity.

I've always hated 10-point scales because they feel arbitrary to me. In practice, people generally only use a few of the numbers anyway. Instead of 5/10 being average, anything that gets a 5/10 is generally seen as really bad. Everyone has a different definition of what a 10-point scale means. Sometimes, people will be willing to use all 10 numbers, at which point they get called out for being too strict. Other times, they inflate scores and avoid giving anything below a 7, which is how you end up with all those "10/10, it's okay" jokes that people add at the end of their reviews on Steam or what have you.

So stop doing this thing where you divide shows into several elements and give them all subjective ratings. All you're doing is making the review less clear and less cohesive. If you tell me that a show's story gets an 8, its art gets a 7, its sound gets a 6, the characters get a 7, and your personal enjoyment is an 8, that tells me literally nothing about the show. If the soundtrack is lackluster, does that mean that the rest of the elements are dragged down by it? Are entertaining characters enough to save a boring plot? None of these scores tell me whether the show as a whole is good or bad, so averaging them for some grand final score isn't going to tell me anything either.

Part 2: On How To Evaluate A Series Correctly

I think that a good reviewer will approach every series a bit differently, because not all shows can be compared to each other. Some of my favorite anime include JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, The Tatami Galaxy, Silver Spoon, and Nichijou, but I love all of them for wildly different reasons and I can't really say "this one is better than this one because it did X better."

Ultimately, to determine a show's quality, you need to start with this key question: What is this show trying to do, and did the show do it correctly? First, identify the purpose of a show. Is it supposed to make you think? Does it exist to provide an emotional, cathartic release? Is it just meant to be fun and entertaining? Once you've identified the purpose, evaluate how well it's able to live up to that. This is probably going to be a good indicator of what your final verdict is going to be.

After that, don't look at the same elements every time and give them a grade. Look at the show's strengths and look at its weaknesses. What's going to draw people to the show, and what's going to turn them away? And since these aren't always mutually exclusive, be sure to look at the elements that could be hit-or-miss. The fourth season of Arrested Development, for example, drastically changed the structure so that each episode focused on a single character, showing what they had been up to for the past few years and only gradually revealing how they were related. Some people (myself included) thought that this was a fantastic and innovative structure. Others hated it.

Reviews can be structured, but I feel like this hampers a review. It backs you into a corner that you won't allow yourself to deviate from. If you're only going to focus on certain types of shows, that's one thing, and with something like a video game, I understand that gameplay, story, visuals, etc. should all probably at least be touched on. But if you limit your structure, you're limiting your ability to experiment. I enjoy different things for different reasons. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is exciting and inspiring. Mushishi is ethereal and calming. You need to bring those attitudes with you into your review.

In addition, you'll also have biases, and you need to bring those into your review as well. Yes, it means you're not being as objective, but you're going to have biases anyway, so you may as well be up front about them. I can't explain why I think that Silver Spoon is so great without touching on how I grew up in a farming community or that I spent time in rural Hokkaido. I can't talk about Welcome to the NHK without explaining how I was in a situation uncomfortably close to the protagonist's and how the message of "if you continue down this downward path, necessity will eventually force you to get a job or die" that the show gave me was actually somehow disturbingly encouraging and exactly what I needed to hear.

Every show is different, so you need to approach every show differently. Maybe a popular show needs to be taken down a peg. Maybe you need to hype up an underappreciated gem. Whatever it is, don't limit yourself to a restrictive style. Especially when that style is stolen from other people and requires you to give scores you don't know how to give to aspects that you don't know much about. Seriously, you don't want me talking about animation and direction because my reasoning for a score will always boil down to "I dunno, I thought it looked good."

Part 3: On Alternative Methods of Scoring


No, seriously, you don't have to give something a score. All you need to do is explain what does or doesn't work. How you talk about a show is more important than actually scoring it. This also means that you have to actually have substance to your reviews, though. I've seen certain reviewers talk for minutes without actually saying anything of value.

But hey, some people feel like they can't break free of a rating system, so here are some other options.

 I've seen a lot of scales represented in more practical terms, such as "buy it, rent/stream it, skip it." I like ideas like that. But no matter what you end up doing, make sure that you, at very least, have some sort of rubric that you judge shows on. Have a way to describe each of your ratings and why a show would fit into them. Know who you would recommend a show to and why. Know who you wouldn't recommend it to.

As for systems themselves, start with a three-point system. Define things as good, neutral, or bad. If that's not something that works for you, expand it to a five-point system (the one I personally use) so that you can reward something that has that masterpiece quality to it, or to condemn something for being amateurish or downright offensive.

If you really want to add more nuance, try letter grades. That preserves the 5-point "terrible, bad, average, good, fantastic" scale in the form of A, B, C, D, and F, but it also allows you to add a + or - to say "I'm a bit on the fence about my rating."

If you're forced into a system you don't like, tweak a system that you do like so that it applies to it. Sometimes I do reviews on sites that force me to give a rating on a 100-point scale. I personally scale it so that I'm rating by intervals of 5, removing 100 (I could give a perfect score if I wanted but on a scale that granular I don't feel comfortable doing so) and 0 (everything at least deserves 5 points for existing). Then I divide it so that I know roughly where each series is going to fall. For example, 70-75 defines a good show that more people than not will enjoy, while 40-45 is more of a "guilty pleasure" show. I use benchmarks like this to define my entire scale, making it easier to give a rating that isn't as arbitrary.

In review (pun intended), don't make your scale bigger because you think it will make the review more objective. Don't feel like you have to structure yourself. Write a review because it's the right approach to take with a show. Look at the show relative to its peers rather than some nonexistant universal constant.

And please, whatever you do, don't score shows by averaging six categories. Seriously. That's stupid. Stop it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why You Shouldn't Read/Watch the Divergent Trilogy.

When the Divergent movie came out, my response was a resounding "huh." I'd read the books, and I thought they were pretty generic. I assumed it would go the way of so many adaptations before: it'd get a single movie that flopped and everyone would forget about them. But now it's gotten a second movie. And a third to complete the tri--oh, wait, no, four movies. Because of course they're splitting the last movie into two, as is popular these days.

That's when I said that it's time to speak out against this series. It's obviously more popular than I gave it credit for, and that's a bad thing, because I think the books are generic at best and ideologically dangerous at worst. So here's why you shouldn't support the Divergent Trilogy:

1. The books are generic

Remember how big Twilight got? Remember how that led to a slew of so many imitators that bookstores stocked "paranormal teen romance" sections? YA dystopias are going the same way. The popularity of The Hunger Games has led to an increased demand in the market for dystopias, and the Divergent Trilogy is just another one of these. They, unfortunately, bring very little new to the table. It's hard not to compare them to The Hunger Games, considering the first person present tense female narrator, or the "this is our world's future" premise, or the idea of people being segregated. And in the ways it, uh, "diverges" from similar stories? Genetic engineering? Wow, boring. Soooo boring.

2. The books are not well-written

It takes three books to justify the idea of splitting people into factions based on singular personality traits, and "genetic engineering" isn't really a good answer. It's a thought experiment, but one that is ultimately pointless because it's based on something that would never happen and doesn't even raise many important questions. What exactly is it trying to ask? "What do we become when we invest our identities in a single idea?" That's such an asinine question to ask. It's a flimsy premise that takes three books to get to the point, and by the time they get to the point, readers have already had two books to consider all the plot holes. The characters are largely one-dimensional by the very design of the system. Such mediocrity should not be encouraged with money.

3. It's a blatant cash-in

When the Harry Potter films the last book into two movies, they had six previous installments based on some pretty hefty books. Maybe it was an attempt to milk fans for more money, but it's just as reasonable to believe that it was an attempt to give fans a more complete experience. There were plenty of plot threads that needed wrapping up that had been built up over previous films. Since then, that's become the norm with adaptations, with movies being drug out and split into multiple parts for the sake of squeezing more money from consumers. Breaking Dawn, The Hobbit, Mockingjay...and now Allegiant. This pattern should not be supported. It's simply a way to milk a cash cow until it's dry, and filmmakers are going to continue doing it as long as we keep letting them.

4. They're ideologically dangerous

The Divergent Trilogy is mostly inoffensive for the first two books, but the third book has a lot of issues that seem downright dangerous. The plot of the third book focuses primarily on the people escaping the city discovering that being divergent marks a certain level of genetic healing, meaning those who aren't divergent aren't "healed." The scientists studying the city are considering using some sort of memory serum to reset the experiment, which understandably makes the group of escapees upset. The tone shifts to "how dare they tell us we're broken? We need to revolt!" Allegiant is very obviously aware of marginalized groups, as it includes some openly gay characters and there are themes that parallel the struggles of the gay community, but the context of the parallel and how it is ultimately handled both have major issues. First of all, the scientists are attempting to heal genetic damage, which has done major damage to the world. Most of the series up to this point has been "it's dangerous when you are reduced to just a few corruptible personality traits." But now, it's become the exact opposite: "you are fine as you are and don't let anyone else tell you differently." What happened to the earlier warnings? Have they suddenly become irrelevant? Allegiant completely ignores the possibility that who someone is could possibly be dangerous or harmful.

Secondly, the way the issue is handled is horribly dangerous and downright hypocritical. The issue is solved when the city group uses the memory serum on the scientists before they can use it on the city, and then fill in the gaps in their memories by telling them "this is what we want to do but we're going to pretend it's what you wanted to do." The message this sends is literally "if you think that a change you're attempting to affect is right, you should brainwash the people who disagree into agreeing with you." This is a terrible message to be sending. I don't have to explain why this is a dangerous ideology, do I?

And that's why you should not support the Divergent trilogy. Maybe you're still interested and want to check it out. Whatever. That's fine. I just ask that you borrow or pirate rather than give monetary support. There are certain things that should not be supported. And mediocre, money-grabbing, and ideologically dangerous series like the Divergent trilogy need to be sent messages.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Psycho-Pass 2 Review

It's been too long since I've written something for this blog, and while I have maybe four or five half-finished posts that I haven't published yet because I plan to put more effort into them, I figured I'd toss off a quick anime review.

Let's talk about Psycho-Pass. Psycho-Pass is is a 2012 original anime by Gen Urobuchi of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero fame. Urobuchi is one of my favorite anime writers, and I thought Psycho-Pass was incredible. It's a dystopian world where something called the Sibyl System controls crime by monitoring people's mental state and their criminal tendencies. Think Minority Report meets Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It makes plenty of allusions to the works that it draws its inspiration from, from Plato to Shakespeare to Joseph Conrad and more. The series takes a look at what it means to be a human, how we should interact with a heavily digital society, and what relationship law and ethics should have.

Psycho-Pass 2, which aired in 2014, is basically Psycho-Pass devoid of everything that made it great. It lack's Urobuchi's involvement, which probably should have been the first red flag. But that didn't necessarily mean it would have been bad. Maybe it could have had a solid storyline and good characters. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, many of the best characters from the first season were dead or indisposed and most the other established characters had to be left alone so that they could be used in the then-upcoming movie (which Gen Urobuchi was involved with). So the story had to be carried by the new cast members. Which were, uh...pretty awful.

Without going into too much detail since it involves spoilers for the first season, most of the cast was well-established and had at least some purpose in the story. I've always thought that characters were Urobuchi's strongest points. He doesn't write easily-identifiable and fun caricatures like you see in lots of anime. His characters have some subtlety and nuance to them, and viewers have to work a bit harder to understand them, but can enjoy them more fully if they put in that effort.  The characters in PP2? They pretty much exist to drive the plot (which is...not great) or fill out the cast.

Of course, not all characters are necessarily bad at the beginning. At the beginning, I was still hopefully optimistic. Episode 4 is when I abandoned hope. A bunch of hostages are caught in a situation that causes their crime coefficients to rise to levels indicating that they are about to instigate violent crimes. Dominators, the weapons the police use, are set to stun and contain criminals at a certain level and set to kill at a certain level. It's a safety mechanism that protects the people so that lethal force isn't accidentally used. However, as these citizens all blindly rush out of the building in a panic, their crime coefficients elevated, the police massacre them all. Why is this happening? There's something highly abnormal about this. Have no situations like this ever happened before? One would think that the police have procedures for dealing with hostage situations in which victims might become temporarily stressed. But no, that scene needed to be there, because something needed to make she show feel edgy, since the new writer has confused that for being good.

The edginess continues through the series. One of the major plotlines is a villain in the force attempting to make Akane's psycho-pass darker. Why? What good does that do? Why Akane? There is literally no purpose to the plotline other than "it's dark."

Psycho-Pass 2 feels like a single arc of Psycho-Pass stretched out into 11 episodes. It had the potential to be good, but in order to fill time, it took far too long getting to the point, and when it finally did get to the point, the point turned out to contradict a lot of what had previously been established. In theory, the season boiled down to a variation of the God Paradox, i.e., "if God can do anything, can he create a boulder so heavy that he can't lift it?" In this case, the villain, Kamui, asked "if Sibyl is all-judging, how would it judge itself?"

In attempting to answer this question, Psycho-Pass 2 completely changes what "criminally asymptomatic" means, and gives a convoluted answer to the question in the process. The obvious answer, based on what the first season previously established, would be "it doesn't need to because Sibyl is the embodiment of the law and the law is above judgment." But Psycho-Pass 2 sets up a scenario where Sibyl fails to judge a man whose internal organs are a conglomerate of individuals, similar to how Sibyl itself operates. Let's ignore how absolutely stupid this is for a few moments and focus on how Sibyl reacts. Sibyl says "well, we'll judge each of the individuals that are part of you individually, and we'll also judge ourselves individually and eliminate the brains that are raising our crime coefficients." Except that shouldn't happen, because the Sibyl System consists of criminally asymptomatic brains that can't be judged by the Sibyl System. There should not be brains capable of raising its crime coefficient. But of course that shouldn't be surprising, since the writers of Psycho-Pass 2 seem to have no concept of what "criminally asymptomatic" means, considering that Togane is somehow considered criminally asymptomatic while simultaneously having the highest crime coefficient recorded. This is literally the opposite of what criminally asymptomatic has been established to mean. Criminally asymptomatic people have hues that don't match their actions. A murderer like season 1's Makishima is criminally asymptomatic because he has a clear psycho-pass, and I suppose a good person who somehow has a dark psycho-pass would also theoretically be criminally asymptomatic. But having a high crime coefficient is something you would expect from a character who killed puppies as a child. That's not hyperbole, by the way. There is a scene where we literally see Togane murdering puppies as a child. I mean, seriously? Is there a more heavy-handed yet also generic way to establish that he's evil?

Let's come back to our villain, Kamui: he was the only survivor of a plane crash as a child who was saved by surgery that put the organs of the other 184 students who did not survive the plane crash into his body. Let's ignore things like compatibility of blood types and just assume that this somehow works. The result is that he cannot be detected by the Sibyl System because...he's not one person or something. Also, the season is set up around this idea of judging a collective. A collective of brains is wholly different from a collective of organs. A collective of organs should not affect anything the show tries to portray it as affecting. People who have heart or kidney transplants do not undergo random personality changes because they have other people's organs in them. There's probably research to back this up, but I don't need it because it should be obvious to pretty much everyone that this very concept of this happening is absolutely fucking stupid.

So let's recap what exactly we've established with Psycho-Pass 2:
-It focuses more on being dark and edgy than making sense
-It contradicts things that have been previously established in the series
-It's built on a premise that is not only fallacious, but makes no logical sense, either.

There are plenty of other small things I could go into, but those three points alone are enough to condemn the show. Psycho-Pass was an incredibly thoughtful show that, despite sci-fi elements not necessarily grounded in reality, at least stayed consistent. Psycho-Pass 2 is basically Psycho-Pass devoid of everything that made Psycho-Pass good. Does that make Psycho-Pass 2 bad? I honestly can't tell, because I cannot divorce it from Psycho-Pass, and relative to Psycho-Pass, it's bad. But hey, at least Urobuchi's still involved in the movie! Hopefully it doesn't suck when it's finally released here.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Gaming First Impressions: Life is Strange: Waif Hipster Bullshit

I quite enjoyed Telltale's The Walking Dead, both seasons 1 and 2. They were decent adventure games, but I wasn't really playing them for the gameplay. In fact, the gameplay was the worst part. I played them because I loved the decision-based story-driven narrative. Your choices affected things that happened later down the road--well, to an extent at least. It'd be difficult for every choice to make a huge impact on the narrative (if a key choice split the narrative into two notably different storylines, then just one key choice in each of the 5 episodes would result in 32 different endings), so some choices ultimately don't matter to the plot. The real appeal of the choices is that they give players agency over the story.

When Season 2 came out, a friend and I began playing at around the same time. We decided to chat through Steam as we played, reacting as the story unfolded, and then comparing the decisions we made afterwards. Sure, we made a lot of the same choices, but we also disagreed on what the best choice was at times. Being able to argue your choices was one of the most appealing parts of the game for me, because even if your choices don't matter, the act of making the choice in and of itself matters.

Life is Strange is a choice-driven adventure game like The Walking Dead, so the aforementioned friend recommended it to me when it came out and was kind enough to buy me the first episode so that we could share the experience again like we did with The Walking Dead. I played it and while the gameplay is similar to The Walking Dead, it's definitely a different experience. With one episode released and four more on the way, here are my thoughts.

The Plot

Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old student, moves back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon after an absence of five years to attend Blackwell High School for its photography program. While in class, she has a strange vision of a storm by a lighthouse. While trying to calm her nerves from the dream in the bathroom, a student enters, exchanges a tense and heated conversation with a blue-haired girl who follows him, and then pulls a gun and shoots her. At this point, Max discovers that she has the power to rewind time and uses her power to stop the incident.

There are also some strange things in general going on at Blackwell. There's the Vortex Club, a group of cool kids with a vague purpose. There's the missing Rachel Amber and the missing person posters of her put up absolutely everywhere. There's the push for an installation of an intrusive surveillance system. And, of course, there's all sorts of general teenage drama added on top of all that.

A note that pretty much everything that follows this is a spoiler for the first episode, but not the rest of the game, so stop here or proceed as you will. I'll be talking about other stuff less specifically in the other sections, but I will still be talking about it.

Max discovers that the blue-haired girl whose life she saves and the person putting up all the posters of Rachel Amber are the same person: her former best friend Chloe, who she had cut off contact with after leaving five years ago. Chloe became close friends with Rachel after Max left, and Max agrees to help Chloe find her.

At the end, Max has another vision of an impending tornado threatening to destroy the town in roughly four days. She explains the vision, as well as her time traveling to Chloe.

The Good

There's a lot to like about Life is Strange. While the models and such have some issues, the art is really nice. The ending scene in particular is beautiful, with Max and Chloe looking out at the town from the lighthouse at sunset while snow begins falling. The game has a nice soundtrack that fits it well, and there are some solid storytelling and characters.

There's also a lot to like about the time reversal system. The ability to undo choices is a good one. Sometimes people make a certain choice expecting it to go a certain way, then find out that there was a disconnect between what the developers were trying to say and what they thought it meant. It also allows for plenty of delicious paranoia-based traps. There were four or five key choices in this first episode, and I think that with maybe a few exceptions, I would always make a choice, rewind time to make the other choice, decide I like my first choice better, and then later think "I should have made the other choice" after it was already too late to change it. It's a unique take on the genre and I really hope the game is able to capitalize on it in later episodes.

The thing that stands out to me most, though, is the themes. In addition to spirals (the tornado and the Vortex Club feature prominently, and the time-travel mechanic interface is shown as a spiral), there seems to be an important theme of security vs. freedom. The principal and Chloe's father both want to control information more through the installation of security systems, one girl early in the game is piloting a drone, and social media and technology in particular are given attention. While social media is obviously just a part of most teen's lives now, particular attention is paid to the dangers. One character asks to sketch Max and then explicitly forewarns her that he posts his sketches on Facebook. Another girl, however, takes a somewhat unflattering photo of Max without her permission and posts it to Facebook. Public and private technology-based discourse and information sharing are brought up in various ways, from sexting to digital piracy.

On the other side of the coin, there are a few free spirits rebelling against the system. Chloe is obviously a very counter-culture character, but one of the teachers at the school is petitioning against the security system. Graffiti, an anonymous form of discourse, is also prominently featured. And then there are the symbols of the birds and the butterflies. Winged animals are often used as examples for freedom, and while the butterfly pulls double duty (since the story deals with time travel it almost certainly alludes to the butterfly effect), near the end Max makes a comment after seeing some birds, envying how free they are. The security vs. freedom conflict is set up subtly enough that someone who isn't used to looking for things like that might overlook it, and it's nice to see that a choice-driven game is setting up a conflict between two opposing sides without being blatant about it.

The Bad

That's not to say that Life is Strange is great, though. I knew literally nothing about the game before going into it, apart from it being episodic and decision-based, and my first thought when it started up was "wow, that wet hair texture looks awful." There's some noticeable failures on the parts of the models like hair clipping into necks at certain angles, and the voice acting isn't always stellar. And while the problem goes away quickly enough, the controls aren't always intuitive. When the game told me to look at a photo in the very beginning, I spent at least a minute attempting to follow the instructions without realizing that I was supposed to click on the word telling me how to interact with the object instead of the object itself. Overall, there weren't too many flat-out problems I had with the game, but there were considerably more things that should have worked better than they did, which I'll get to in this next session.

The Rest
A lot of the game swings around from legitimately enjoyable to a bit cringe-worthy (I'm sorry, was I supposed to find those selfie puns funny?), to somewhere in between.

The story is a bunch of stories I feel like I've heard before. It's got the whole "stranger in a familiar land" thing going on, and a large portion of the plot feels like it is literally The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. I'm just waiting for the scene where Warren asks Max on a date and she constantly rewinds time to try to get out of it so she doesn't have to face her feelings, or for when someone asks her "Max...have you been...time leaping?" And of course, it has tinges of absolutely every hipster-based story I've seen.

Then there's the characters. I have no clue how I'm supposed to feel about these characters. Sometimes they feel nuanced and fleshed-out, but sometimes they feel like they're just caricatures. What makes it worse is that some characters feel one way, some feel another way, and some feel like a bit of both. Chloe's father, the principal, and Nathan Prescott are obviously designed to be hated, making them feel two-dimensional. But when other characters are more nuanced, it makes it feel like one group or the other is just poorly written. Chloe is one of the more likable characters, but some of her actions are pretty inexcusable. Are we supposed to like those aspects of her character, or are we supposed to see her as more morally ambiguous? I don't know. It's either good writing or bad writing and it's hard to tell right now.

Most specifically I want to talk about Max because I have absolutely no idea what to make of her. Max almost seems to be designed to pander. It's like one or more developers said "these are things I love that I think that most of the target demographic will love." And they weren't wrong! I might not like photography, but I love a lot of books, anime, games, and TV shows Max mentions! It's probably because she likes things that I don't really care about that I'm able to see through her interests that I do love to the fact that she's very obviously designed to be lovable and/or identifiable. She has a lot of interests, and most people who would play Life is Strange are going to share at least one or two of them, but probably not all of them. I know that this is just how people work on a general level, but there's been so much effort put into making Max into a love letter to the things the developers enjoy and think that their audience will also enjoy that it feels a bit manipulative. Add in the fact that Max is our point-of-view character so we're seeing the entire game through this lens and it makes the whole game feel like--to borrow a phrase Victoria uses to describe Max's public image--waif hipster bullshit. Yeah, yeah, okay, we get it, Max is a socially awkward person who likes things we like. Can we talk about the story and not the merits of The X-Files?

That doesn't mean that it's bad, though. References are not inherently bad and in this case they didn't make me enjoy the game's merits any less. I'll still be playing through the other four episodes when they come out. It just makes it hard to form an objective opinion on the game's quality. Maybe all my griping really means is that I've reached the point of analytic viewing where I can't even turn it off even when I'm enjoying something. Oh well. We'll see in March when episode 2 comes out, I suppose.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

5 Anime From 2014 You May Have Overlooked

2014 was really the first year I started watching a lot of airing anime as opposed to just one or two shows, as well as listening to a lot of buzz surrounding the airing shows. Now the year is over and I've seen plenty of end-of-year lists touting which shows were worth watching the most. I've seen a lot of the same shows pop up. You had your mainstream hits like Space Dandy, Kill la Kill, Fate/Stay Night, and Parasyte. You had your cult hits like No Game No Life, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, Log Horizon, and Shirobako. There were mentions of shows that surprised everyone once they started airing, such as Barakamon and Bahamut. You even had some attention thrown to artsy shows like Ping Pong and Mushishi Zoku Shou. All of those were great, but I'm not here to talk about them.

 Barakamon was sweet and adorable and unexpected but everyone's already talked about how Barakamon was sweet and adorable and unexpected.

If you want to read about the shows I just mentioned, just Google "best anime of 2014" and I'm sure you'll find a few lists that mention each of them. What I'm here to do is talk about some of my favorite shows from 2014 that were overlooked by the larger anime community. Sure, there were obviously plenty of viewers who probably enjoyed them to an extent, but these are, in my opinion, some really solid shows that just never generated that much buzz for whatever reason.

5. Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii/The World is Still Beautiful

I have to admit that I'm a sucker for a good romance, and if a show can actually pull a good romance off, it's one that has my attention. And unlike most romance, it has a fantasy setting! Admittedly, The World is Still Beautiful is kind of hit and miss, but it manages to craft a romance that isn't just "I have a crush on this person but am too busy blushing whenever they're around to do anything." This show opens with our protagonist, Nike, forced into a marriage with the cruel Sun King, Livius. Livius also happens to be a young boy (though, to be fair, one very mature for his age). Though she's not pleased with the arrangement, Nike decides to make the best of the situation and attempt to heal the pain Livius carries with him by showing him how, despite all the hardships humans have to face, the world can still be beautiful. The show begins with Nike and Livius resenting each other, but by the end, they legitimately love each other and it never once feels like their relationship was rushed or drawn out to get to that point.

Like I said, it's a bit hit-and-miss, though, which is probably why it never caught on with most people. Certain plot elements that get a lot of focus feel unimportant, it can feel a bit repetitive, and I don't think they actually go far enough with the relationship. Sure, Livius is really young and I can see how some people might find the relationship between someone of that age and a young adult to be a bit uncomfortable, but the relationship is portrayed tastefully, the two are married, are clearly in love with each other, and Livius seems to be mature enough to understand the birds and the bees. It legitimately seems to cheapen their relationship by explicitly stating that the two have never done more than kiss. But whatever. Still a fairly satisfying show, and while it might not be the greatest show out there and maybe isn't your thing, it's a romance worth checking out.

4. Gugure! Kokkuri-san

I've always liked shows that draw humor from the absurdity of the world the characters live in, such as Nichijou or Cromartie High School. Kokkuri-san is another one of these shows. It focuses on a stoic young girl named Kohina Ichimatsu (who claims to be a doll or synthetic lifeform) and the supernatural companions she collects. The main cast is rounded out by fox spirit Kokkuri-san (who acts as the straight man), dog spirit Inugami (who frequently swaps between male and female form and is worryingly obsessed with Kohina), and the lazy Tanuki drunkard Shigaraki. It's your standard enjoyable situational comedy from that point, with fun characters in fun situations rattling off fun dialogue. Like I mentioned, a lot of humor is derived from the strangeness--yet also cuteness--of the world and characters, such as Kohina's obsession with cheap cup noodles or the fact that one of the boys in her school is inexplicably an alien.

There are also some legitimately sweet or beautiful moments in addition to the comedy. Episode 10, for example, feels almost like an episode of Mushishi...if Mushishi were a comedy with a slightly raunchy sense of humor, at least.

I feel like this show was largely overlooked due to the sheer number of good comedies that came out in 2014. Denki-gai (which aired the same season) and Nozaki-kun (which aired the season before) ended up gaining much more attention, and quite a few shows not strictly classified as comedy (like Space Dandy, Kill la Kill, No Game No Life, or Barakamon) had a lot of strong comedic moments as well. But if you're looking for something that is both funny and cute, Kokkuri-san is definitely still worth a watch.

3. Danna ga Nani wo Itteiru ka Wakaranai Ken/I Can't Understand What My Husband is Saying

From romance, to comedy, to Danna ga Nani: a comedy focused on a romantic relationship. Office worker Kaoru marries the otaku Hajime, and while the show initially seems to be setting itself up as an otaku wish fulfillment--okay, well, that's admittedly kind of what it is, but it's also way more than that. At first, it seems like the show is about Kaoru's difficulties living with someone so obsessed with otaku culture, but as time goes on, we see that the two actually compliment each other very well. Yes, Hajime is constantly spewing pop culture references and using fanspeak that Kaoru doesn't always get, but she loves him and tries to accept and understand his hobbies even though she just doesn't "get" them. Kaoru herself is not always easy to get along with, what with her inability to cook, her devilish nature that emerges when she's drunk, and her occasional immature fits.


Sure, Danna ga Nani's references might be a bit inaccessible to more casual fans, but ultimately it can still be enjoyed as a story about a healthy relationship between two people who don't always understand each other, but are still in love. There's also a fun supporting cast that gets a fair amount of development. It's impressive they managed to flesh all this out in a 4-minute short. That's probably a large part of why Danna ga Nani was overlooked: in addition to the premise (which sounds generic and terrible), short series often don't garner as much attention, possibly because they're seen as having less content, and they're usually excluded from ranking lists. Which is a shame, because Danna ga Nani manages to pack a ton of humor and romance into less than an hour.

2. Nobunaga Concerto

Who isn't sick of the Sengoku period by this point? We've had the Sengoku period where everyone's genderflipped (The Ambition of Oda Nobuna), the Sengoku period with Pokemon (Pokemon Conquest), a version of the Sengoku period that involves horses with handlebars and tailpipes and guys who fight with six swords at once, and just prior to Nobunaga Concerto, we had Nobunagun and Nobunaga the Fool. And yet it was this one that really stood out to me. First, it doesn't use a "Sengoku period but there's a difference" gimmick. Instead, it's more or less a straight alternate history. High school student Saburou accidentally finds himself transported back in time to the Sengoku period, where he meets a sickly Oda Nobunaga. As Saburou looks near-identical to Nobunaga, the man asks him to take his place. Saburou, however, is not particularly familiar with history, and while he has a history book that helps guide him in the beginning, the book gets destroyed and Saburou begins making the same decisions Nobunaga made on his own. If the viewer is vaguely familiar with the history of this period, the main appeal of the show becomes the dramatic irony. For example, it's made relatively clear who Hideyoshi is due to a few offhand comments, so viewers instead begin wondering how the man becomes Hideyoshi. And all the while, Saburou's 21st century mannerisms along with his own eccentricities make his transformation into the warlord known as Oda Nobunaga a fun one.

So why did this one get overlooked? Probably partially due to Nobunaga fatigue (seriously, you can't avoid him), probably partially because it began airing later into the season, and probably partially due to the art and animation style. I don't have much of an eye for animation, but it looks like all the characters are 3D models painted over to look 2D? I don't know, if you know what RWBY is, it's similar to that. See for yourself what it looks like in the ED (which is great, incidentally). Personally, I liked the animation because I thought it made it look vaguely like a period painting, but I know that plenty of people disliked it. It's a shame how few people gave this show a second thought, though.

1. Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou/The Kawai Complex Guide to Manors and Hostel Behavior

I honestly have no clue how this show wasn't one that got talked about a lot, which is a shame because it was easily one of my favorite shows of the year.

Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou is a play on words meaning "we all live in the Kawai apartments" or "we are all pitiful," and that describes the show pretty well. It's about a group of weird, pathetic people who all live in the same apartment complex. Our protagonist is a high school student named Usa, who develops a crush on the adorable introverted bookworm named Ritsu, whose family owns the complex. Unfortunately, in addition to both Usa and Ritsu's awkwardness, Usa has to deal with his masochistic roommate Shiro, the always unlucky-in-love Mayumi, and the devilish Sayaka. It's part comedy and part romance and it looks absolutely beautiful.

Seriously, do yourself a favor by checking this one out. Fun characters, good romance, cute situations, beautiful art and animation...I honestly don't see why this one didn't get more love. Go. Go watch it.

Well, hopefully I've given you some new shows to check out. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did.