Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet
If you were to ask me which figure in the game design industry I most admire, I would--without hesitation--answer Katsura Hashino. Hashino is a game designer at Atlus, a mid-sized company known primarily for making highly conceptual JRPGs. Atlus is one of the most consistently strong game design companies currently active, and although there are many great creative minds working for the company, much of Atlus's recent success stems from Hashino's work. Hashino is best known for directing 2003's minimalist, cell-shaded JRPG Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, along with the three most recent entries in the Persona series. His current project is a game inspired by traditional fantasy novels (as well as tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons), moving away from his past focus on Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy.
There are many things about Hashino's games that make them excellent offerings, but one common thread that tends to appeal to me is his tendency to draw from classic literature, modeling aspects of his games off of more traditional storytelling media. 2016's Persona 5 (which, incidentally, is what I consider to be the best overall game I've played), makes its literary influences crystal-clear: each main character is directly associated with a character from classic fiction (via the "persona" concept that gives the series its title), with figures ranging from the title character of Bizet's opera Carmen to the heroic monkey king Sun Wukong from the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West. The game as a whole is modeled after picaresque fiction--particularly French picaresque fiction--and the protagonist, who is associated with the gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin, lives in the attic of a cafe named after the Maurice Leblanc, the author who created the original Arsène.
Persona 5's usage of classic lit is simultaneously straightforward and clever, both using an established literary tradition as a strong foundation for a thoroughly modern story, and also playing on certain expectations in order to surprise players familiar with the literature on which the game is based. I could go on and on about the topic, but I'll save that for another day--instead, I'd like to point out some of the less-obvious ways Persona 4 does much the same thing.
Unlike in Persona 5, it's quite easy to miss many of Persona 4's literary inspirations. There are a few points that are rather obvious--Hashino has said that the game's mystery elements are meant to call to mind the works of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and it shows--but Persona 4 is full of less straightforward parallels and references to classic lit. Some of these are clearly intentional--Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is mentioned by name, and there are a few characters whose names are taken directly from the novel--but others are less direct. Even if you write these parallels off as coincidence, they're interesting to think about, and Hashino's well-documented usage of classic lit elsewhere (paired with a scene I'll bring up later) lead me to believe most, if not all, of this is entirely on-purpose.
This Sounds Kinda Familiar
Persona 4 has several striking parallels to William Shakespeare's Hamlet. The game opens with the protagonist forced to leave his home and school in the city to live with his uncle in a small town. Shortly after arriving, he learns of a recent murder under strange circumstances, hears a rumor from a friend about visions of the deceased appearing to people in town late at night, and goes to investigate. Although the rumor is not exactly correct, the protagonist does indeed have a supernatural experience as promised and that experience leads him to investigate the strange state of his new home.
Hamlet's opening is almost identical. Main guy leaves his school to live with his uncle in a relatively secluded location? Check. Someone's been killed? Check. Potential ghost sighting? Check. There are differences, sure--the victim in Persona 4 has no direct connection to the protagonist, for example--but parallels keep popping up as the game goes on.
One of my personal favorite examples is the character Kinshiro Morooka, an obnoxious and aggressive schoolteacher who tends to earn the derision of those around him, including his students. He's treated much like a fool, although (if you can get past his colorful language) much of his advice is actually quite valuable in the context of the game's story, and some of the things he warns against, such as illicit romantic relationships, are exactly what get certain characters into trouble. In true Shakespearean fashion, the fool is the wise man--it's just that nobody likes him enough to listen to him. Morooka suffers a violent death at the hands of someone other than the main antagonist about halfway through the game, and although he is quickly replaced by a new character who fills roughly the same role (albeit with less personality), his death marks a notable shift as the game starts to unravel some of its mysteries and build towards its climax.
Morooka finds a perfect counterpart in Hamlet's Polonius. Polonius is an advisor to the king--a teacher, in a sense--who offers good advice in a bad way, and the play's characters tend to ignore his advice, largely to their detriment. He is killed halfway through the play, his death sparks a sequence of elevated tension and action, and he's replaced in function as assistant to Claudius by another, less memorable character (Osric) shortly after.
Speaking of Polonius, the lyrics of one of Persona 4's main musical themes, "Reach Out to the Truth," are strangely reminiscent of Polonius's famous "To thine own self be true" monologue. Although the language itself is drastically different, both consist mostly of advice that relates to the themes of their respective works. Polonius gives Laertes such advice as "Give thy thoughts no tounge, / Nor any unproportion'd thought his act," which foreshadows Laertes's impulsiveness in attacking Hamlet later in the play, while "Reach Out to the Truth" includes lines such as "Do not waste your time," which is major theme in all three of Hashino's Persona games. The "To thine own self be true" line is also directly applicable to Persona 4, as one of the game's major concepts is the suffering caused by denying or repressing aspects of one's self.
Persona 4's department store Junes (pronounced June-ess) mirror's the role of Norway in Hamlet. Both Norway and Junes serve as distractions--or, perhaps, scapegoats--from the true problems of the stories. In Hamlet, Fortinbras's impending invasion of Denmark is mentioned early in the play and is a recurring concern, drawing attention away from the corruption within Denmark itself. In Persona 4, much of the population of the small town of Inaba is concerned about the recent arrival of the chain department store Junes, as its size and convenience has been gradually wearing down old family businesses, drawing attention away from the two actual problems within the town: a serial murderer, and a populace with a tendency to believe what they would like to be true instead of what is actually true. (As a side note, Persona 4's treatment of the theme of truth feels strangely prophetic 10 years later in light of the issues we've had with fake news and the like in the past two years).
To add to the Norway-Junes comparison, Persona 4 uses some language to refer to Junes that is odd for a department store but fitting for a country. Yosuke, the son of the store's manager, is on occasion referred to as "The Prince of Junes," which creates a curious link to Fortinbras (although the similarities between the characters largely end there). Moreover, towards the end of the game a particularly change-resistant older man claims that "Inaba is being invaded by the country of Junes!" While this reads initially as an amusing symptom of the mass hysteria taking over the town (due to a combination of bad weather and circulating rumors), it also calls to mind the end of Hamlet, when Norway does, in fact, invade Denmark. It could be a coincidence, but the wording is odd enough that reading it as a nod to Hamlet strikes me as the most sensible interpretation.
Scarlet and Gold
Hamlet is, of course, not the only classic literary work to influence Persona 4. The game also has some symbolic similarities to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne's novel centers around a woman found guilty of adultery in a small town and forced to stand on a scaffold in front of the people and then to wear a letter A sewn to her clothes in order to publicly shame her. The woman chooses to wear the letter proudly, opting for a striking gold-embroidered, scarlet letter A.
Persona 4 borrows this general concept and some of its symbolism, with a slight twist--the modern-day scaffold is a television. The game's major premise is that looking into a turned-off television at midnight while it's raining shows whoever has currently captured the interest of the townspeople. This supernatural program (called "the Midnight Channel") seems to reveal whatever negative aspects of a person's personality he or she might want to conceal--although we ultimately learn that the channel only reflects what the viewer wants to see, not what is actually true. The Midnight Channel, like The Scarlet Letter's scaffold, is a public forum for displaying perceived moral wrongs to the small town as a whole, and the program's color scheme is scarlet and gold, just like Hawthorne's letter.
If that isn't enough to convince you Persona 4 borrows intentionally from The Scarlet Letter, the first person displayed on the Midnight Channel is a woman accused of an adulterous relationship with a resident of the town. Again, it could be coincidence, but the parallels are a bit too clear to write off.
The Play's the Thing
Hamlet and The Scarlet Letter aren't the only classic works Persona 4 parallels, but this post is plenty long already and the point is mostly made. I'll end this with one last moment from the game that leads me to believe this is all done intentionally: the play.
Persona 4 has two characters named Kou and Daisuke, school friends of the protagonist who are largely interchangeable (mirroring Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). At one point in the game, the main characters' school holds a festival. As part of this festival, Kou's class puts on a play, which, according to Daisuke, is titled Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. It's just a single line in passing and it's likely meant as a joke, but it also strikes me as poking fun at Persona 4 as a whole. With its literary influences taken from multiple unrelated works, Persona 4 is, in a sense, just as much of a mish-mash as the hypothetical Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Just as there is a play within Hamlet that is a symbol for Hamlet itself, there is a play within Persona 4 that is, again, a symbol for Persona 4. Moreover, that one line is apparently considered significant enough that the play made a brief appearance in the game's animated adaptation, complete with a unique musical cue with the same title as the fictional play.
There are, of course, any number of possible explanations for all these parallels and call-outs, but I think they're all intended to further the game's thematic ideas. Persona 4 (and its superior remake, Persona 4 Golden), is a long game--probably 80-120 hours depending on reading speed--so it certainly isn't lacking for time spent exploring its concepts and ideas in detail, but using works such as The Scarlet Letter (for public enforcement of and attitudes toward morality) and Hamlet (for truth) as thematic springboards allows Persona 4 to move more quickly into unique and specialized aspects of its thematic realms. For example, the game does not need to establish a baseline exploration of public opinion, judgment, and shaming in a small town because Nathanial Hawthorne already has, so the game can take The Scarlet Letter's interpretation of that theme and then move into the more specific concept of how preconceptions and expectations color public reaction to scandals.
Building on the shoulders of giants (to borrow an idiom) lends weight to Persona 4's attempt to qualify as "serious" lit in the vein of the classics it emulates, and--beyond that--the usage of classic literature allows Persona 4 to reach a more nuanced (if less universal) take on thematic ideas that have been around for ages. Persona 4 takes concepts of truth and public opinion as they have been examined for hundreds of years and applies them to problems in our present-day society, resulting in an exceptionally strong work that is at the same time highly enjoyable.
Sword Art Online is a series that tends to get kind of a bad rap (in the U.S., at least). This is due, in large part, to a weak animated adaptation that loses much of what make the original novels so strong--namely, Kawahara Reki's fabulous narration. While I could expound upon why I think SAO's criticisms are largely unwarranted, this week's post is a little more focused: I plan to delve into the significance of verticality and artificiality as symbols and thematic ideas within the Sword Art Online novels, in the context of an article written by author Michael Lucken regarding the same concepts in Miyazaki Hayao's Spirited Away.
But First, Some Context
Sword Art Online, for the unfamiliar, is a novel series written by Kawahara Reki. The first volume was published in 2009, and the series is still ongoing, with 20 novels and several side works published so far. (If this seems like an absurd number, it is--Kawahara releases a novel about every two months, with about two or three per year being SAO.) The basic premise of the series is that in the year 2022 true sensory-replacement virtual reality becomes available on a commercial scale, and each story arc explores this concept from a different perspective, such as gaming, health care, and military applications. The first two volumes of Sword Art Online involve the (admittedly somewhat cliched) concept of characters trapped in a virtual environment in which the death of the characters' avatars results in the deaths of their actual bodies. The virtual setting itself is known as Aincrad, and it consists of 100 floors stacked on top of each other and connected by a series of towers about 100 meters tall. The floors themselves are massive--the smallest is 3 kilometers in diameter and the largest 10 kilometers in diameter--and have natural-looking geography and occasionally cities and towns.
Spirited Away is an animated film directed by Miyazaki Hayao and produced by Studio Ghibli. The film centers around a young girl named Chihiro, who is trapped in and forced to work for a bathhouse that serves as a hotel and spa for spirits--monsters, ghosts, and the like--to visit in order to relax and refresh themselves. Much like Aincrad, the bathhouse is a highly vertical structure, with multiple massive floors stacked on top of each other and with many passages up and down. In "Miyazaki Hayao's Spirited Away, or, the Adventure of the Obliques," Lucken interprets the bathhouse as representative of modern metropolises: artificial, closed spaces, isolated from the natural world, and defined by fairly strict hierarchical structures. This is contrasted with horizontals, representing the natural, original state of things, and then reconciled with the presence of obliques, essentially symbolizing the desire for the freedom of the the natural horizontal state giving way to the necessity of having some form of man-made, structured society.
Lucken goes into much more detail than I'm planning to, and there's more to it than that summary, but that's the gist of his argument. If you like Spirited Away, it's worth giving the article a read, though--it may give you something to think about the next time you watch it.
The similarities between the symbolism of the two works is clear: SAO's characters are trapped within an artificial, vertical structure, and the only apparent escapes are through death (which, as with Spirited Away, is often associated with the lowest reaches of the tower) or by reaching the top of the tower, something which seems to be impossible and in fact never happens within the novels. Spirited Away, similarly, involves characters trapped in an artificial, vertical structure, and Lucken's analysis of the symbolism of Sprited Away's bathhouse can likely be applied to SAO's Aincrad, as well.
Defending the Vertical
One of the major themes throughout SAO (and even Kawahara's other writing) is the realness of virtual spaces and connections. SAO's protagonist, Kirigaya "Kirito" Kazuto, is well-informed regarding the technology that powers Aincrad and the virtual spaces he visits in later novels, and he often comments on the theoretical limitations of these spaces--particularly the social limitations of the artificial-intelligence-backed "Non-Player Characters." Even armed with the knowledge that what he is experiencing is artificial, Kirito asserts that time spent within these vertical, artificial spaces has as much value as time spent in the relatively horizontal real world; in other words, the artificiality of the vertical environment does not mean the vertical is inherently bad--only different. The artificiality of the vertical is more extreme in SAO than in Spirited Away, as SAO's Aincrad literally does not exist. It is the ultimate artificial structure, and yet Kawahara seems to assert (unlike Miyazaki) that such places still have value, and that true, meaningful relationships can be formed even within those spaces. Kirito's friendships with many of the other characters--especially SAO's heroine, Asuna--continue on even after Aincrad collapses at the end of the first novel, whereas when Chihiro finally leaves the bathhouse at the end of Spirited Away, it is with the implication that she will never again see the people she met within that vertical space. Even the characters sitting atop the vertical societies behave differently: In Spirited Away, Yubaba, the owner of the bathhouse, largely stays at the top of her tower and fully asserts her superiority, while SAO's Kayaba Akihiko, Aincrad's creator and the rightful inhabitant of its top floor, actively engages with the people on the lower floors, saying at the end of the novel that simply watching from above would be far too boring.
With the third volume of Sword Art Online, Kawahara moved away from Aincrad, but he has returned to that setting relatively recently with Sword Art Online Progressive, a new project bridging a two year time jump early in the first volume of SAO. Kawahara has described Sword Art Online Progressive as something like a passion project, and his excitement for the series shows in the novels--they represent what I believe to be his strongest writing by a fair margin. The return to Aincrad causes Kawahara to once again address this concept of the vertical and the horizontal. Particularly noteworthy is the mention in these novels that Aincrad's floors were formerly one surface, and that long ago that surface was cut into pieces and stacked into a tower. If the vertical structure that is Aincrad is indeed symbolic of society, then this implies that vertical society is simply a reorganization of the horizontal, which would in turn imply that the world of the vertical is not fundamentally different from the world of the horizontal. Kawahara's frequent descriptions of the "natural" landscapes that make up Aincrad's floors support this interpretation as well--the beauty of the horizontal is still present, just arranged differently. Compare this with Miyazaki's bathhouse, which is physically and metaphorically separated from nature and which struggles to imitate older styles of architecture. Dangerous though Aincrad may be, it has much of the beauty of the natural, horizontal world, along with some unique charm possible only because of its vertical construction. Kawahara's interpretation of the vertical world is on many counts not nearly as pessimistic as Miyazaki's.
There is an issue with this, however--namely that the history of Kawahara's Aincrad is entirely false, even within the context of the novels themselves. Aincrad was a virtual space created by humans for humans, and its "history" is simply a story coded in to the space by its creators. A more pessimistic reading would take Aincrad to be a flawed attempt to justify the vertical, rewriting its history in a way that everyone knows to be false and yet accepts, much like in George Orwell's 1984. The vertical is a world of lies, and SAO's Aincrad is a literal castle on a cloud (as the tower is floating in the air), and it steals the lives and livelihoods of those trapped within it.
This contrast--the positives and negatives of the vertical--provides much of the tension throughout Sword Art Online. In a particularly pointed sequence in the first volume of Progressive, Asuna comes to the conclusion that the world she is experiencing--the world in which she is trapped--is fundamentally false, and as such her life is not worth protecting or living. It is Kirito who finds her and gradually brings her to decide that the reality or unreality of her world--or, alternatively, the artificiality of the vertical world in which she has no choice but to live--does not impact her subjective experience of her world and therefore should not invalidate what personal meaning it may hold. As a result of this, SAO does not need Spirited Away's obliques to balance between the horizontal and the vertical, as the two are not fundamentally different things so long as one is able to recognize their underlying connection.
Positivity is a Good Thing
Part of why I love Kawahara's writing so much is he's an overwhelmingly positive, optimistic author. His novels have very real stakes and bad things happen, but the vast majority of his characters are fundamentally good, relatively normal people doing their best to help others and make their world a better place as they go about their lives--which is pretty rare, especially in science-fiction. His novels examine potential consequences of the technological advancements he proposes, but unlike Orwellian dystopias, they also spend a considerable amount of time examining the positives that result from these advancements. It's an overall optimistic view of the future--and the present--that stands out as fairly unique for the genre and makes Sword Art Online an enjoyable read.
If Spirited Away can be read as fantasy with a sociopolitical focus, Sword Art Online can be read in much the same light. Boiled down to its simplest form, SAO--through broad use of symbolism--asserts that while our society and its structure are certainly flawed, the world we have built for ourselves is usually a good place to be, or at least no worse than it would be without our societal structures. Regardless of whether you agree with Kawahara's take on society, SAO's carefully-constructed symbolic layers go a long way towards making its worldview feel plausible. I would call it highly successful on that front.
Find a Job You Like
For this week's post, I had planned to go into some detail about why I like the novel series Sword Art Online, but after spending far too much time playing the new RPG Octopath Traveler this weekend, I decided to push that topic off a week and instead write about something much more interesting: jobs.
Of course, I'm not referring to forms of employment, but rather the style of character progression and customization common to role-playing games. Job systems (also known as class systems) are one of the oldest elements of role-playing games, originating in tabletop pen-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons. Job systems feature a set of character archetypes--jobs, or classes--which players may use to build characters. These jobs may include things like warriors, who use swords to fight, or clerics, who rely on divine magic to heal allies and ward off monsters, and each job has a different set of skills and statistics that determine what the equipped character can and cannot do. At its most basic level, this provides a set of play styles players can choose between and offers guidance and restrictions in character building. Over time, these mechanics worked their way into video games as well, with the most notable early examples being the Final Fantasy games, about half of which have a job system of some form. Even outside of Final Fantasy, Job systems are a common element of turn-based RPGs (and occasionally some other types of games), and the aim of this post is to explore why this mechanic has become so ubiquitous and what makes it so compelling.
The Influence of Tabletop Games
Tabletop role-playing games predate video game RPGs, and even today many games draw heavily from their pen-and-paper predecessors. This was especially true, however, in the early days of video games, when there was nothing comparable to imitate. The developers of games such as the original Final Fantasy had little to look to for inspiration (as far as role-playing games go) but the likes of Dungeons & Dragons. Many video games now have skill usage and stat progression tied to individual characters, with, for example, one being more magically-inclined while another might lean more towards physical attacks, but tabletop role-playing games by nature come with no such pre-built characters. Players create their own characters to use as they play through a campaign, and tabletop games need a system in place to structure the character creation process. Class systems work well for this as they are fairly easy to grasp: you select a job from a list of options, flip through your rule book to the pages for that job, and it tells you step-by-step what characters of your class can do. There is still a great degree of room to customize your character and to build around the base presented, but (for new players especially) building a character can be as simple as picking a class and jotting down a few notes from the game's handbook. For pen-and-paper games, where players are required to keep track of all of their abilities and numbers on their own, this sort of simplicity is a strong approach.
Class systems in early RPGs (and even some modern ones--see Etrian Odyssey) work much the same way. In the original Final Fantasy, the player creates a team of four characters from the game's six classes, and those four characters become the player's adventuring party. These characters are not given names--only referred to as "Warrior" or "Black Mage" or whatever the class is--meaning that, just like in a tabletop RPG, the class is essentially a container for the character the player creates. Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy III both operate in this way, calling upon the player to imagine personalities for their characters, much as a group of players might role-play their characters in a tabletop RPG. As storytelling in video games has grown more complex, that approach has become much rarer, but it still pops up every now and again, and even RPGs with clearly-defined character personalities sometimes have job systems.
The Introduction of Flexibility
Classes in tabletop role-playing games are generally fairly rigid things--once you define your character as a particular class, it's not possible to change jobs without making a new character entirely. Had video games widely adopted this same stance, I think it's likely that class selection mechanics would have fallen out of fashion over time as rigid character builds were replaced by the pre-built characters and novel-esque storytelling that characterized almost all RPGs from the early 90's until the popularization of open-world games about ten years ago. Fortunately for us, the Final Fantasy series has always been adventurous: some might say Final Fantasy has recently strayed too far from its roots, it's worth remembering that every main series entry except IX was in one way or another a radical departure from what came before. Final Fantasy III introduced the option to freely change classes throughout the game, giving the player the flexibility to mix and match teams and to adjust to individual challenges and fights. Final Fantasy III feels quite limited by today's standards, and it's another one of those games that shows how far RPGs have come, but for its time it offered a level of strategy and customization not normally seen in RPGs. In today's RPGs, requiring the player to adjust his or her tactics for difficult fights is commonplace, but before Final Fantasy III those sorts of options did not really exist.
In 1992, Final Fantasy V pushed this even further. Final Fantasy V is one of the least talked-about Final Fantasy games due to its less-than-memorable cast, its lighter tone, and its placement between the standouts Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI, but if nothing else Final Fantasy V is notable for introducing the approach to the class system that was so influential it's been copied and reused with very little change for 26 years. Whatever else the game may or may not have done right, its character customization and progression was top-notch.
Final Fantasy V's key innovation was allowing players to mix and match abilities from different jobs. As characters spend time using different jobs, they gain "job points," which allow them to learn new abilities for that job. They are then able to set a certain number of those abilities and use them even when equipped with a different job, opening up a variety of interesting combinations and strategies that wouldn't be possible otherwise. An example of this would be the Summoner and Red Mage jobs. Summoners have access to powerful magic, and Red Mages get the ability to cast low-level magic twice in one turn. In a pre-Final Fantasy V job system, those abilities would be mutually exclusive, but in most post-Final Fantasy V job systems, you can use both of those abilities at once in order to cast powerful summoning spells twice in a single turn. This transforms classes from static progression lines to groups of tools players can combine in creative ways to find interesting solutions to the game's puzzles, and it's such a compelling system that the vast majority of later RPGs with class systems use something like it. Much as I like Dungeons & Dragons, this system's closest equivalent in that game, multiclassing, feels much more shallow and limited by comparison.
The Importance of Balance
Final Fantasy V's system, however, would not work if it were unrestricted. Just as restricting players to one class limits strategy and creativity, allowing players access to all abilities simultaneously can negate the necessity for smart party-building and can make all characters feel the same. Final Fantasy VIII does a lot right, but it suffers from this to a degree--the game does not have a job system, and all characters can have access to almost all abilities, which eliminates the need for customization and can make the game feel too easy. Shin Megami Tensei IV has a similar problem, as its customization is so open there's nothing to stop a player from just equipping all of the strongest abilities at once and calling it a day. Job systems solve this problem with the intrinsic limitations imposed by dividing things into classes, and Final Fantasy V's system strikes an excellent balance between flexibility and restriction.
In games like Final Fantasy V, characters can (generally) pair any two classes or abilities together, but players cannot apply all classes and abilities at once. Pairing two abilities that work exceptionally well offensively may come at the cost of not having any defensive options, for example. This opens an interesting series of trade-offs and decisions and also encourages experimentation. In these sorts of games, players learn to identify innate flaws in classes and look for other abilities that can offset those flaws or otherwise boost the main class's strengths. Much of the fun of these games lies in looking for creative or interesting ways to build characters, ranging from simple things like giving a healer access to offensive magic to more creative builds like giving what would normally be close-combat skills to a class that can strike from a distance.
While that may not sound exciting to those who have not played that sort of game before, it works quite well in execution, turning character progression into something like a puzzle. Job systems tend to be a highlight of the games in which they're featured, solidifying otherwise-strong games and propping up weaker offerings. It's certainly possible to do a job system wrong, but often even in games with poorly-designed job systems it can be quite fun to find methods of exploiting the system that the developers almost certainly didn't intend.
Class systems are not the be-all-end-all of RPGs, of course. There are plenty of RPGs with compelling customization mechanics the work completely differently--2014's Persona Q being a particularly exceptional example--but the class system as redefined by Final Fantasy V is such a fundamentally strong concept that it remains a fixture of turn-based games. Octopath Traveler's development team has created their own spin on the system, and it has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies that are fun to pick apart, but at its core the class system is essentially the same as all the others that have come before--and that's not at all a bad thing.
Every so often one of the major game developers will release a game meant explicitly to harken back to the classic games--usually RPGs--of the early 90's. Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger, in particular, have had such a profound influence on the turn-based RPG genre that there's a clear desire among developers and fans alike to recapture what made that era so seemingly special for gaming. While looking to excellent games for inspiration is perfectly natural--building on the shoulders of giants and all that--there are a few issues with the mindset surrounding these classic games that tends to make their modern would-be spiritual successors largely fall flat.
Problem 1: Retro Games are All Different
The immediate issue with making a "retro-inspired RPG" is that the classic games these new games try to emulate are each entirely unique experiences. There is a tendency, I think, for gamers to remember these games as a set. This isn't a surprise, really; the RPGs from the first half of the 90's that have become part of the established canon of video game literature (if such a thing exists--I would contend that it does) are all strong, well-received games with similar art styles and fairly similar mechanics. There are enough superficial similarities between these games that it's very easy to look at the surface-level commonalities and assume those commonalities are what made the games strong to begin with. These games had detailed-but-heavily-pixelated artwork, top-down world maps, random encounters, and a number of other shared touches that are exceptionally common in modern knockoffs. While these things hold a level of nostalgia for longtime gamers, they are not what made the games effective and they do little to benefit today's games unless used with purpose.
The similar art styles, for example, were a product of the technology available at the time. If Final Fantasy IV's creative team had had access to today's graphical capabilities, you can bet they would have taken advantage of the technology. That the art of those classic RPGs is so appealing is a product of the skilled artists--led by the phenomenal Yoshitaka Amano, in Final Fantasy's case--who were working on the games. It is largely because of the work they did with the limitations they faced that we think so fondly of 16-bit spritework in RPGs. What this means, however, is that a modern RPG with a similar style and weaker art direction is not going to be nearly as captivating. Nostalgia can only carry a game so far, and an art style should be selected in order to further the game itself, not out of a somewhat-misplaced reverence for the games of the past.
This is also true, to a lesser extent, of things such as world maps and random encounters. These things worked for the classic RPGs, and because they were in all of those RPGs, they tend to be in all modern attempts to recreate the feel of those games. This decision-making process is problematic. Approaching a game from the standpoint of, "We need to include this because these other games did the same thing" is limiting and can result in a weaker game overall. It's natural to be aware of older conventions, but what's important is making decisions based on what's right for the game you are making, not what was right for games from 20-30 years ago.
This over-fixation on superficial commonalities leads developers and players to overlook the things that really made those classic RPGs so strong. Each game is as good as it is for different reasons. Final Fantasy IV is drastically different from Final Fantasy V is drastically different from Final Fantasy VI once you get past the airships and the crystals and the titles. Final Fantasy IV is a bog-standard but tightly-written high fantasy adventure in the vein of The Lord of the Rings or a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, while Final Fantasy VI is a gritty semi-open-world steampunk story with morally questionable characters and a charismatic villain whose plan to take over the world actually succeeds. Boiling these games down to their number of pixels drastically understates how distinct they are. A mentality of "Let's make Final Fantasy IV again" would not have produced Final Fantasy V or Final Fantasy VI, and that's where today's developers tend to run into trouble. It would take a great deal of luck to create a game that can stand alongside the classics by trying to imitate them. There are stylistic trends that have fallen somewhat out of fashion--hidden sidequests and secret party members and the like--that can be incorporated into new games, but a game without a strong fundamental concept isn't going to be nearly as compelling as the classics, even if it's been painted to have a similar look and feel.
Problem 2: Retro Games are Flawed, Too
Another issue with trying to imitate retro games is that these games all have problems of their own. Game design as an art form has developed quite a bit in the past 20-ish years, with many quality-of-life improvements making modern games generally less frustrating and more fun than their predecessors. Whether it's by streamlining and simplifying menus to save time and create a more fluid user experience (Persona 5), eliminating dated and unnecessary mechanics like lives and continues (Super Meat Boy), incorporating dynamic difficulty settings so players can be just as challenged as they like (The World Ends With You), or any number of other things, modern games tend to be more enjoyable experiences on the whole. Implemented poorly, these mechanics can, of course, hurt a game overall, but in general, they're a huge positive. If you want to see how far we've come, just play the 1992 RPG Shin Megami Tensei. It was a very good game for its day, and it remains a conceptually interesting and important game, but for someone used to modern gaming conveniences, playing that game is a slog. Granted, games like Chrono Trigger hold up somewhat better, but they are still considerably less player-friendly than modern offerings.
The problem with this is that when developers try to imitate the strengths of those classic games, they often end up imitating their flaws as well. As I detailed above, people tend to focus on the superficial similarities of older games rather than their underlying differences, which leads modern imitators to pick up another superficial similarity: the lack of modern game design conveniences. 2017's Sonic Mania is a great example of this. The game was an homage to the old Sonic the Hedgehog games--particularly Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles--and while there are a lot of things it does very well, there are a few frustrating elements of the game that are present only because they were present in the original games. The game's hypersensitive crushing physics, for example, are taken directly from the older Sonic games but do little more than frustrate the player with ill-timed deaths. Even a simple change like making getting crushed deal damage instead of killing the player outright would go a long way towards improving the player experience, but Sonic Mania's loyalty to its inspiration also blocks it from making those sorts of improvements. There's a sense that because the original games were good (which they were), anything that was in the original games must also be good (which is not true).
Problem 3: There are Great Games Being Made Today
This ties in to the two issues above, but nostalgia games often seem to come from a belief that today's games are somehow not as good as the games of yesteryear. It's understandable why some people might feel that way--Final Fantasy XV, for example, is not nearly as satisfying as many of its predecessors, so if the older Final Fantasy games are what got someone interested in gaming, that person may see the more recent games and feel the industry is going downhill.
This mindset ignores the bigger picture, though. First off, art is hard. Even the best creative teams aren't going to hit every game they attempt, and with long gaps between major installments of certain series, a good creative team going ten years or so between a real hit is not unreasonable. Beyond that, though, when one studio starts to fall from a dominant position in the industry, another is usually waiting to take its place. Square Enix may seem to be floundering right now, but Atlus has been on a significant positive trajectory for the past 15 years or so, with 2016's Persona 5 taking the awards for best RPG and best game ever in a recent series of polls conducted by the gaming magazine Famitsu. Eventually Atlus won't be as dominant--perhaps after Katsura Hashino retires--and some other company will gradually take its place. The fact that, for example, Final Fantasy games are not as strong as they used to be does not mean that games as a whole--or even just RPGs--are not as strong today as 20 years ago. I would argue that the games produced today are stronger on average than the retro games we tend to romanticize, we're just somewhat biased by the fact that the games we remember are, for the most part, the games we loved. For every Final Fantasy IV, there were tens if not hundreds of unremarkable RPGs few people remember
Romanticizing and trying to imitate retro games does a disservice to games old and new, ignoring the masterpieces of today and trivializing the masterpieces of the past. Classic games are not great because we remember them; we remember them because they were great.
The Bright Side: Some Games Get it Right
While retro-throwback games tend to be disappointing or forgettable, there are a number of games that originate from that desire to recapture the greatness of the classic games and that still manage to be solid-to-excellent offerings in their own right. These are the games that successfully tread the line between modeling themselves after classic games and incorporating modern game design principles.
The indie game Undertale is a great example of this. Undertale is partially an homage to the Nintendo RPG Earthbound, but Undertale has a strong an unique underlying premise (an RPG where the goal is to not kill anything you fight), and the game manages to create a distinct, meaningful, and artistically strong experience that draws from Earthbound's word-play and whimsy while remaining entirely its own work. Undertale is clearly indebted to Earthbound, but it doesn't copy the older game in the slightest. The art style, music, characters, and writing are vaguely reminiscent of the older game, but nothing feels as if it is present simply because it was present in Earthbound. Somewhat ironically, by avoiding direct imitation, Undertale comes much closer to recapturing Earthbound's strengths than it otherwise might.
Square Enix's Bravely Default team is also pretty good at this. Bravely Default and Bravely Second owe a lot to the older Final Fantasy games--especially Final Fantasy V--but they aren't hesitant to diverge where necessary. They incorporate very modern touches like the ability to change the random encounter rate alongside staples like airships and crystals, and the games are clever enough to use the expectations established by typical retro-imitators to subvert player expectations. The games have flaws (especially in terms of storytelling), but they aren't afraid to take radical steps away from the "accepted" retro formula, which, as with Undertale, results in an experience that feels closer to a modern interpretation of the classic games than the straight imitators can provide.
The Bravely Default team's next game, Octopath Traveler, releases on Friday, and after playing through the extended demo I'm rather excited. At first glance, it seems like a standard retro-imitation game--pixelated graphics, turn-based combat, and the like--but there is much about the game that is decidedly modern. The game's visuals actually consist of 3D models--complete with gorgeous lighting effects--that are simply covered in pixelated textures. This gives the game the look of something like a diorama, almost reminiscent of the Paper Mario games, and the strange decision feels like a perfect way to pay homage to the game art of the 90's: the 3D look takes advantage of the Nintendo Switch's graphical capabilities while still acknowledging the game's influences, and the strange contrast of models and sprites almost feels like a metaphor for retro RPGs still standing strong in a world that has largely passed them by. The game's battle system takes very little from the 90's, instead hybridizing one of Bravely Default's mechanics with something resembling a core mechanic of Atlus's recent RPGs, and the Final Fantasy VI-esque openness is accompanied by a helpful mini-map and and sidequest log. The storytelling structure is also entirely its own, telling essentially eight separate short stories instead of one long narrative, almost reminiscent of the obscure SNES RPG Live a Live.
It remains to be seen whether Octopath Traveler will live up to its promise, but even if its creative team is still unable to create a lasting game on the level of the classic RPGs, I see in the spirit of Octopath Traveler a model for all nostalgia games: a strong concept independent of the game's inspiration, thoughtful nods to the classic games it wants to emulate, and bold steps away from those influences where the game itself demands it.
A Brief Introduction to Kino's Journey
I tend to bump into what become my favorite anime series during the summer, perhaps because I have somewhat more time and am more willing to sit down and devote my attention to unfamiliar shows. This summer has been no exception: I finally made time to watch Lerche's 2017 adaptation of Kino's Journey (キノの旅, Kino no Tabi), directed by Tomohisa Taguchi. I usually enjoy works by Lerche--the studio behind other excellent animated series such as Assassination Classroom and Hamatora--and I'd heard good things about the source material over the years, so when you factor in that the title character is played by one of my favorite voice actresses (Aoi Yuki), it was only a matter of time before I watched this anime. I'm quite glad I did, too--it's a pretty excellent show overall, and well worth watching.
Kino's Journey is an adaptation of a Japanese novel series by Keiichi Sigsawa. The novel series, which began publication in 2000 and is still ongoing 18 years later, consists of collections of related science-fiction short stories, most of which feature the titular Kino and her talking motorcycle Hermes. I regret to say that I have yet to read the original novels (though I plan to fix this as soon as I can), so I went in to this adaptation with no knowledge of the series beyond the premise: a woman traveling the world alone on a sentient motorcycle. Each episode of the anime features one or more of the short stories selected from the existing novels, and they are in no particular chronological order and each mostly stands alone. This means the structure of Kino's Journey is somewhat unusual, as it lacks any real overarching plot, instead focusing on vignettes from Kino's travels. This gives the anime a feel more akin to a collection of related short films than a traditional season of an anime, and it works quite well.
With that introduction out of the way, I'd like to delve into more detail regarding the anime's first episode, "A Country Where People Can Kill Others." I said earlier that each episode of Kino's Journey could function as a standalone short film, but that is especially true of the first episode. I might be inclined to call "A Country Where People Can Kill Others" the strongest opening of any anime I've seen... but in order to explain why, I'll need to go through the episode bit-by-bit and pick it apart. Note that there will be spoilers for this episode from here on out, if that concerns you, but I think it would be just as easy to appreciate the episode even knowing what happens in advance, so I wouldn't be too worried about it. Still, consider yourself warned.
Lost in the Forest・b
The anime opens with Kino lying awake at night, softly explaining her worldview to Hermes. Her monologue is backed by strains of acoustic guitar and beautiful animation--Lerche's use of color is consistently excellent, and Kino's Journey is no exception--and this sequence largely sets the tone for the rest of the anime. Even in its more intense moments, the anime has a calm, reflective, almost detached feel. In the opening scene, Kino expresses that she occasionally experiences feelings of self-doubt, and explains that in those moments she finds strength in the beauty, vibrancy, and diversity of the world around her. She says that she knows that as long as she continues traveling, she will periodically undergo hardship and suffering, but she expresses her resolve to continue traveling in spite of that.
Aside from being generally beautiful, this scene accomplishes three things, only two of which are initially apparent. First, it provides what will prove to be valuable insight into Kino's character. I do not know if the source material is the same way, but in this adaptation, at least, we almost never see into Kino's mind. Hermes has traveled with Kino for long enough that he usually understands what she is thinking and feeling without much explanation, and Kino is quite good at concealing her thoughts from others, frequently leaving the viewer to speculate about Kino's motivations and goals. Most episodes reveal Kino's thinking--or, at least, hint at it--towards the end, but the insight provided in this opening scene helps the viewer to go along with Kino on her journey even when her thoughts are not clearly expressed. She is later shown to be an exceptionally capable individual in all respects, and she does not often outwardly show when she feels upset or unsure. This opening, however, assures the viewer that Kino does have a complex emotional life, which occasionally reveals itself in her behavior: on a few occasions she makes choices that seem out-of-keeping with her calm exterior, and it is those moments that remind us that Kino, as she tells us here, is very much human and has her own doubts and internal struggles.
The second thing this scene accomplishes is it immediately establishes the overarching theme of Kino's Journey as a whole: the world is a beautiful place in spite of, and sometimes because of, the bad things within it. Very few issues in Kino's Journey are one-sided--some good tends to come out of the worst of situations, and even the most utopian places have flaws. No character in Kino's Journey is morally perfect--not even Kino or Hermes--but this is rarely if ever accompanied by the angst typical of moral ambiguities in science fiction. Most of the people in Kino's Journey accept the bad with the good as a matter of course--just as we do in our everyday lives--and move on without giving it much thought. This is not to say that the anime doesn't explore its moral questions in detail--it absolutely does--but the attitude towards these questions is not one of stress and urgency, but rather one of curiosity and a desire to learn and grow. It's pretty refreshing, actually.
The opening scene manages to convey all of that in a grand total of two minutes.
A Country Where People Can Kill Others
Following the opening scene, the episode begins in earnest. In the set-up for the episode, Kino encounters a traveler resting by the side of the road, and in the course of their exchange, Kino learns that the country ahead is known for not prohibiting murder. The traveler notes that thievery is permitted by law, but that murder is not. He says that he felt stifled in his own home, which had strict laws and strong public order, and liked the idea of moving somewhere where he could be as violent as he pleased. He also informs Kino that a well-known serial killer named Regel lives in the town.
The traveler asks Kino to travel with him, and she politely-but-firmly refuses (along with a deadpan quip that she could easily steal his belongings if she wanted). A bit more travel brings her to the outside of a walled-city--the aforementioned country--and a guard at the gate warns her that murder is not prohibited by law within the city and asks if she is sure she wants to enter. She confirms that she does and passes through the gate. The "country" in fact looks much like an idealized version of a small town in the American Midwest in the early 1900s, complete with early cars and dirt roads. The town is calm and peaceful, with no signs of fear of public disturbance--it's entirely normal. After finding an inn to stay in, Kino observes to Hermes that that very normalcy is strange. For a country where people can kill others legally, there is surprisingly little violence.
Kino spends the next day riding around the town, and eventually she stops at a small shop. The owner is a kind, larger man, and he gives Kino a little more than she pays for, saying everyone should be kind to travelers. Kino then notices a large rifle propped up against the wall behind the counter. She asks if it is there to deter theft, and with a light laugh, the man shakes his head and says that no, it's for killing people. Hermes asks when he would do that, and he replies that he never knows, so he keeps it there just in case. She afterwards encounters a group of kind elderly men and women--one of whom has a pistol in her purse--and one of the men invites Kino to meet him for tea in the morning to hear her stories from outside of the town.
In the morning, the two share stories, and eventually the man invites Kino to consider settling down in that town. He says he believes she would be a good fit for the town, as she is someone who can kill people. After a long silence, she shakes her head in refusal, and he sees her off as she begins to board Hermes to leave the town. As she turns to leave, however, the traveler she met on the road earlier accosts her. The townspeople stop what they are doing and watch the exchange for a bit, but before long, the traveler threatens to kill Kino, at which point everyone watching immediately turns and walks away.
The traveler tells Kino that he has officially become a citizen of this town, and she responds by saying that he is not acting like it. She looks around and sees the townspeople now watching from inside doorways and behind windows, mostly out of sight but still very much present. The traveler aims a pistol at Kino, but rather than draw a weapon of her own, she simply hides behind Hermes. The traveler begins to pull the trigger...
...and a crossbow bolt pierces his arm, forcing him to drop the weapon. A group of armed villagers advances on the traveler. The group is led by the same elderly man Kino had tea with earlier, and he explains that because murder is morally reprehensible, anyone who attempts murder within the city's walls is put to death by the village as a whole. The fact that murder is not prohibited by law does not mean it is accepted culturally. It is permitted not in order to allow indiscriminate killing, but rather to prevent it--as attacks on innocent people are met by immediate an unhesitating corporal punishment, the city's public order is upheld and murder is rare. Kino understood this, but the aggressive traveler did not. The elderly man approaches the traveler and introduces himself as Regel--the same name as the serial murdered the traveler had said lived within the city--and then puts the man to death.
Kino leaves the town and encounters a traveler resting by the side of the road. The final scene of this story is a mirror image of the opening scene, with the traveler's posture and some of the dialogue matching the opening exactly. This traveler asks Kino if the country up ahead is a safe one. He says the country in which he formerly lived was very dangerous and he had to kill people just to keep himself alive. He wants to settle down in a peaceful place where he will no longer have to kill anyone. Kino assures him that he will be perfectly at home in the town she just left, and that it is exactly what he is looking for. The town, as the viewer now knows, is meant for people who desire peace and tranquility but are willing and able to do what is needed to uphold the public order. This is why the old man asked Kino to stay in the town, and it is why this second traveler will be happy there.
An Extended Metaphor
This vignette is, at its core, a metaphor for the rule of law and the social contract. There are multiple possible ways to interpret this, and I'll go through a few of them one by one.
As an American in 2018, it's tempting to look at this on the surface level and see a parable advocating broader access to guns as a way to ensure public safety, but I think this would be a misreading of the episode. While the anime itself aired in late 2017, the short story this episode is adapted from was written in 2002 in and for a country with exceptionally strict gun control laws. It's true that the overt plot of the episode involves an armed and trained populace preventing the murder of an innocent woman, but I believe the episode is not quite so literal. Kino's Journey is largely metaphorical, and this episode is no exception.
I would argue, instead, that this is an exploration of the concept of a social contract, the idea that leaders and laws do not have power innately, but rather take their power from the collective acceptance and support of the people. The town's attitude towards murder is essentially a distillation of this concept: in this case, rather than the law not having power beyond the will of the people, the law prohibiting murder does not exist except in that the people of the town enforce it. This is a clear representation of the concept that laws are simply a way that members of a community enforce their expectations and norms in order to protect each other. While this isn't exactly an earth-shattering realization, it does present an interesting way to look at the concept of what laws are and how they work. It's easy to describe what laws do--they protect people's rights, enforce certain behavioral norms, et cetera--but the question of what they are on a fundamental level is a touch more opaque. "A Country Where People Can Kill Others" is a relatively easy-to-grasp (albeit overly simplistic) answer to that question: laws are the accepted standards of behavior by which a community determines what is and is not permissible, as well as established punishments for transgressions of those standards--established and upheld by the people of the community.
This representation of law also raises an intriguing question of responsibility. In this episode, the community directly murders the traveler in response to his misdeeds, so they are clearly accepting the moral implications of enforcing their laws. They seem to have no qualms with killing the man--they have weighed killing the man and allowing him to kill an innocent and decided killing the man is the more ethical choice--but it can be somewhat jarring (or even creepy) that no one in the town seems to feel any hesitation or guilt regarding his execution. Regel, as a symbol and executor of the law of the town, is a serial killer in that he has likely killed many people, but his killings were (arguably) justified in that they were an extension of the desire of the town's populace to maintain public order.
This, too, is a part of the metaphor. In our society, where transgressions of laws are punished by police and courts and the like, few people feel a direct moral responsibility for the enforcement of these laws. We do not feel personally responsible for imprisoning people or fining people or (on rare occasions) putting them to death because we are not directly involved--and even those who are directly involved are simply executing the existing laws. "A Country Where People Can Kill Others" attempts to remind us that these laws, and the punishments they inflict, are at their core an extension of the will of the people--especially in democratic nations--and we are as responsible for the consequences of our laws as are the villagers who calmly execute the murderous traveler. And, again, these people believe they are in the right, just as we generally believe it is right to enforce our laws and punish criminals to uphold public order. This first episode of Kino's Journey doesn't imply that this is a bad thing. All it implies is that we each have a personal responsibility to be engaged in ensuring the laws we enforce are laws we believe are justified. Remember that this town, where the people are able to execute an attempted murderer with no hesitation, is otherwise a calm, peaceful, and happy place. The rule of law is necessary for a functioning society--otherwise you're left with something like the chaotic nation the second traveler was escaping from--but it's also important to examine those laws from time to time. If there is anything unsettling about the villagers executing the would-be murderer, I think it's that not a single one of them bothers to question whether their response is justified. A democracy in which existing laws are never questioned or revisited is not much of a democracy at all.
As a side note, another way to look at this episode relates to something my father idly conjectured once. He asserted that the laws in the United States do not prohibit anything. You are allowed to go out and kill someone if you want to--you'll just be arrested and punished severely afterwards. Our laws do not prevent behavior, but rather enforce consequences. We are, in effect, free to do anything, so long as we accept the consequences: jail time, fines, potentially death. This is somewhat of an extreme way to describe our legal system, but it actually fits perfectly with "A Country Where People Can Kill Others." As the old man says, "Not prohibited" and "Permitted" are different things. The town has no law prohibiting murder, but it does have a law (a de facto one, at least) punishing the act. Laws in the real world work much the same way, not stopping people from doing things, but penalizing them for violating certain rules.
Lost in the Forest・b
Just like the final scene of "A Country Where People Can Kill Others" mirrored its first scene, the final scene of the episode as a whole--which takes place after the credits--mirrors the episode's opening scene. It takes place at night, and the only image is a burning campfire, with Hermes's and Kino's voices over the top. Hermes observes that Kino has been placed in dangerous situations multiple times while traveling and is skilled enough to easily settle down and find a job. He asks why Kino continues traveling in spite of this. The final line of this scene is also the first line of the episode--the ending scene itself is what happened directly before the episode's beginning.
This contextualizes the first scene and completes the opening's third function--establishing Kino's reason for traveling. While you can get a sense for this just from the first scene alone, hearing Hermes's question solidifies the significance of the opening soliloquy (which isn't truly a soliloquy, but Hermes describes it as such, so I'll use the word). Without the context of the question, the viewer is more inclined to understand Kino's references to travel as a metaphor for life--full of hardships, but worth pushing through in spite of them--but being provided with the original question at the end of the episode reinforces that the opening lines are also literal. This establishes that Kino's journey and the larger metaphor that is Kino's Journey do, in fact, exist simultaneously. Both layers are equally important, and the anime would not be itself with either missing.
The final scene is also an impressive structural move that makes the episode feel something like a complete circle. The episode wraps around on itself, with the last five minutes or so essentially being the first five minutes played out in reverse: woods>traveler>town becomes town>traveler>woods. The first and last lines of the episode being the same--not just the same words, but literally the same moment in time, closes the circle, creating an impressively satisfying conclusion that few full-length films are able to replicate, let alone 22-minute anime episodes. It's really brilliant.
There is one other thematic purpose for this scene, though, and it relates to the entirety of Kino's Journey, not just its first episode. The anime opens with an answer, and ends with the question to that answer.
Many science-fiction works (and works of fiction in general) strive to find answers to questions, but Kino's Journey takes the opposite approach. Kino's Journey is less about answering questions and more about questioning answers. Many of the episodes start after Kino has encountered the episode's core conflict, so instead of wondering how Kino will solve the core problem, the viewer is left wondering what problem Kino is solving or has already solved. This contributes to the reflective and relatively calm tone of the anime--even in what should be tense moments, the viewer rarely knows what is at stake, and by the time the viewer learns what the problem was, Kino has already solved it. The question is given after the answer, and that question provides a new way to look at what has already been presented. It forces the viewer to actively contemplate the concepts around which each episode is built. A solution presented in reaction to a known problem is easy to accept without thought, but when Kino's actions are presented without context and then only later explained, the viewer is challenged to reconcile her actions with the situation and determine retroactively whether Kino's actions were justified.
It's a fascinating structural twist, and it makes Kino's Journey one of the most engaging anime series I've watched. It's masterfully crafted and carefully constructed throughout, and I highly enjoyed it.
The first episode, though, remains the highlight.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition