Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Guilty Gear is a weird series. If you look at the premise and narrative composition of the games, you’d think it would be terrible, or at least too cheesy to be particularly valuable. The series is simultaneously an homage to 80’s rock and to 90’s superhero science-fantasy. Its hero is a grumpy former scientist who’s well over a century old. Its supporting cast includes a samurai pirate cowboy based on Johnny Cash, a British time-traveler form the 80’s based on Axl Rose, a ten-foot-tall quack doctor who wears a bag over his head, and self-important robot. And those aren’t even the weird characters.
In the abstract, Guilty Gear is a messy hodgepodge of incongruous, ridiculous ideas. Even the overarching plot clashes with itself—it’s both a semi-dystopian spaghetti western and a sweeping geopolitical space opera. It’s a series you’d expect to criticize for trying to do too many different things and not pulling any one of them off convincingly. And yet, it all works. Nothing feels out of place or unbelievable. The world feels cohesive, and every bizarre side character or outlandish plot point blends seamlessly into the whole.
It may not be high literature, but it’s certainly rather impressive.
The History of the Gears
Guilty Gear is a series of 2D fighting games created by Arc System Works, and it’s largely the brainchild of Ishiwatari Daisuke. Ishiwatari created the concept for the original game, directed its gameplay mechanics, created its characters, drew much of the art, wrote its music, and even voiced the main character. He’s nothing if not multitalented. The original Guilty Gear was the progenitor of a sub-genre of fighting games (often called airdashers, due to the trademark ability to “dash” while in the air after jumping) that typically tends to be flashier, faster, and often more technical than more standard fighting games (such as Street Fighter).
For the first fifteen years of its run, Guilty Gear’s story elements were scattered and confusing. As was typical of arcade fighters, character information and story background came through a combination of unrelated arcade paths, blurbs in instruction booklets, and so on. The story was more an excuse to justify everything else—the excellent gameplay and fabulous guitarwork the series is known for, mostly—than a true standalone narrative.
That all changed with Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign- in 2014. Guilty Gear Xrd was something of a reboot of the series. Guilty Gear had not seen a new true installment in years, and the older games looked and felt dated, especially compared to their spiritual successor, BlazBlue. Rather than simply continue with the work the old games started, -Sign- changed to a full 3D art style (despite keeping the traditional 2D mechanics), shrunk the cast considerably, and—most importantly—added a dedicated story mode.
In something of a radical move for the genre, -Sign-‘s story was entirely divorced from the game’s gameplay. It was a disconnected and unrelated visual novel/movie hybrid, lasting about five hours. The story technically picked up where the game prior left off, incorporating all of the old world-building and lore, but it was nonetheless written to be appealing even to those with no familiarity with the series. Every character and concept was properly introduced within the story such that the game functioned as a fully standalone work, filled with nods to old material for longtime fans but nonetheless the beginning of the “proper” Guilty Gear storyline.
It works brilliantly. The fact that -Sign-, along with its sequel -Revelator-, is able to function despite its bizarre world and significant writing debt is nothing short of miraculous. Old Guilty Gear’s cast and world was designed with gameplay and aesthetic value in mind first and foremost. I doubt there was much care for meaningful character development or thematic weight when characters like Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske were initially designed—they, along with the rest of the old Guilty Gear cast, were cool-looking heroes filled with references to obscure (and not-so-obscure) rock musicians. Their stories, insofar as they had them, came later.
Rather than rejecting the absurdity of the existing Guilty Gear material, -Sign- ran with it. -Sign- works for two equally important reasons: a relentless adherence to concept, and careful character development. Without either, -Sign- would be nothing more than an awkward attempt to match ArcSys’s earlier success with BlazBlue’s story mode in a series not designed to accommodate a traditional narrative.
Everyone is Super
The first of those two pieces is what makes Guilty Gear so unique. Guilty Gear’s world is essentially built such that every character, every concept within it is bizarre. You won’t find any standard character types or typical Shonen tropes in the series. The series allows its bizarre characters to fit in by ensuring every single character is equally weird. Guilty Gear takes suspension of disbelief and shatters it. Its world is one in which anything is possible, and everything is so strange that no single element of strangeness stands out as jarring.
Take, for example, Slayer. Slayer is a vampire whose primary goal is to be as classy as possible. He only drinks the blood of one person: his immortal wife, Sharon, to whom he is eternally faithful. He also runs a group of international assassins and has connections to many global governmental leaders. Because why not.
In pretty much any other work, Slayer would stand out as unusually strange—a joke character, probably, who exists in the background of the world for comic relief. In the context of Guilty Gear, however, Slayer’s no stranger than anyone else. Slayer’s existence makes it less strange for someone like Elphelt Valentine—an artificial humanoid from another dimension who’s obsessed with romance—to exist, and, conversely, Elphelt’s existence makes Slayer’s less strange in turn. No one in the world of Guilty Gear is normal. No one even falls into the “normal” range of weird, for that matter—you won’t find anyone who’s “just” an alien, or a time-traveler, or a super hero, or what have you. Every single character is an amalgamation of so many contrasting traits that they sound like a joke.
This makes it easier to accept all the strangeness. -Sign- could have tried to dial back old Guilty Gear’s weirdness, but instead it took the opposite approach, embracing everything that didn’t make sense about the series and using that absurdity as the foundation for its world rather than as an obstacle to be overcome. Guilty Gear’s world is one in which the extraordinary is commonplace, and the end result is a cast and setting that’s highly unique and exceptionally vibrant. Everything about -Sign-‘s and -Revelator-‘s writing feels fresh because everything is original. Nothing else is going to have an assassin who specializes in the use of pool cues face off with a comatose villain who fights using a deadly hospital bed he controls in his dreams.
Adherence to concept in this case equates to originality. That alone wouldn’t make Guilty Gear great, but it certainly lets it stand out.
The second piece that’s key to -Sign-‘s strength is how remarkably grounded its characterization is. It would be very easy for something as intentionally outlandish as Guilty Gear to feel ultimately weightless, completely removed from reality. This could be nonetheless fun to watch in much the same way a senseless action movie can grip the audience—but Guilty Gear goes a step beyond, and it’s a much stronger work for doing so.
While Guilty Gear allows itself an endless capacity for absurdity on the conceptual level, it is executionally the complete opposite. Once the bizarre concepts are in place, the characters behave as fundamentally real people, bound by interpersonal ties and mundane desires. -Sign- opens with its protagonist, Sol Badguy, traveling with his grandson, Sin Kiske. Sol may be a jaded, functionally immortal ex-researcher who’s saved the world multiple times, but his interactions with Sin are as believable as if they were both ordinary people. Sol offers Sin advice, laughs and sighs as he watches his antics, and learns things about himself in the process.
Sol’s interactions with his son-in-law, Ky, are much the same. You have grudging mutual respect, family banter, and so on. For all its over-the-top science-fantasy action and all its geopolitical maneuvering and all its superhero-style world-saving, Guilty Gear is ultimately a story about an old man who feels he’s lost everything, and how his remaining family helps him to not be so dang cynical all the time.
It’s touching. Sol may punch out aliens and help weird scientist monsters figure out quantum mechanics or whatever, but his character growth and his relationships with his family drive it all. The writing is strong enough to ground a story that by all rights should not feel grounded.
To make things even better, Guilty Gear is an ensemble piece. Sol’s story is the central one, but there are somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen side-plots going on at any given time, and -Sign- and -Revelator- jump back and forth between them constantly. As with the “main” plot, each of these side arcs is larger-than-life and borderline insane, but each one is grounded in deeply “real” emotional characterizations.
You have, for example, Chipp Zanuff and his secretary Answer. Chipp and Answer are Americans who were fascinated by Japan and trained as ninjas and then decided to form the Eastern Chipp Kingdom to assist refugees and other troubled people who the two believed were not receiving enough support from the United Nations. The two characters are as absurd as anyone else, and their objective is such a long-shot and such an extreme solution that it should be hard to take it seriously. The two are completely earnest, though, and their excitement for their pet project is instantly recognizable. Their characterization keeps the player from dismissing their goal as a joke and instead leads the player to cheer them on as they push forward against seemingly impossible odds. Ignore the melodramatic absurdity for a moment and you see two entrepreneurs striving to make the world a better place. You don’t have to believe the fantasy of Guilty Gear—you just have to believe its characters, and that’s quite easy to do.
Other side-characters are much the same. You might write off Johnny, the samurai pirate cowboy, as a joke, but he’s such an unabashedly good person that you can’t help but cheer him on as he searches for a way to cure his chronically ill friend. The time-traveler, Axl, is defined more by how much he misses his home and his family than by the time-travel itself. The 10-foot-tall doctor Faust is consumed with guilt surrounding the death of someone who died on his operating table.
The outlandishness of Guilty Gear lends the world color, but the weirdness is always secondary to the emotional lives of the series’s characters. They are people first and foremost, and vampires or pirates or aliens or robots or whatever else after. The plot of the games involves a lot of rationalizing of the world. The strangeness doesn’t just exist passively within a stagnant world—all of the odd characters exist in a living world that reacts in believable ways to the strange things within it.
That Would Never Happen
Whether a work of fiction feels “believable” is entirely unrelated to how much it is or isn’t rooted in reality. Something can be a direct adaptation of a true story and ring false if written poorly, while something completely absurd and entirely divorced from reality can nonetheless feel remarkably real. Guilty Gear is a shining example of the latter.
It is perhaps easier to accept Guilty Gear as it is if you’re familiar with its influences. If you’re accustomed to Shonen anime and you have a broad enough knowledge of classic rock to pick up on all the little references and gags, the series’s outlandishness makes a bit more sense. Everything weird in Guilty Gear exists for a reason.
The reason -Sign- and -Revelator- work as well as they do, though, is that the outlandishness doesn’t need to make sense in order for the games to be satisfying. You don’t need to know all the reasons why characters like Sol and Slayer and Axl are designed as they are, because within the context of the story they give the impression of being entirely normal, plausible human beings.
Guilty Gear is weird in the abstract, but it is also weird only in the abstract. In context, its bizarre premises seem entirely sensible. The end result is a story that feels both thoroughly unique and yet remarkably familiar. It’s strange, but there is no sense of wrongness or unbelievability. It creates a world with dragons and time-travel and floating cities and makes it all feel no less real than a standard work of historical fiction might.
Guilty Gear isn’t a thematically complex work. It’s not intellectually challenging. It’s not high literature. It’s just fun, and not really anything more. But from a strictly technical standpoint, -Sign- and -Revelator- accomplish something truly remarkable in the way they ground an ostensibly unbelievable world. For that, if nothing else, the series deserves praise.
Detective fiction is super neat. Sherlock Holmes remains a household name for a reason—a well-written mystery holds nearly universal appeal, and while he was not the first fictional detective, Sherlock is the symbol of the entire genre. Reading or watching the great detective reason his way through cleverly-plotted cases is, quite simply, really fun.
As detective fiction has developed, however, writers have taken to using its techniques and tropes for purposes beyond pure entertainment value. I’ve written about this in the context of other works--Kara no Kyoukai and Danganronpa V3 in particular—but a while back I came across a particularly interesting representation of how the genre has grown over time.
Madoi Ban is a Japanese mystery writer who also works as a member of Fate/Grand Order’s main writing team. He recently wrote a mystery-themed event called Analysis of the Perplexing Meihousou. The event was presented as a frame story, with Murasaki Shikibu—author of The Tale of Genji—writing and directing a movie, assisted by Sherlock Holmes’s arch-rival James Moriarty. Because it’s a Fate work, all of the actors are historical or mythological figures, ranging from the composer Antonio Salieri to the Egyptian pharaoh Ozymandias. It’s a fun time.
The story’s setup places the filmmaking process on a strict deadline, and the event jumps back and forth between the “in-frame” story that’s being filmed and the “out-of-frame” events surrounding the filming itself. Early on, Murasaki collapses while on-camera in what was intended to be a small director cameo role. With the writer and director down for the count, the actors (and assistant director Moriarty) are forced to improvise, and the “in-frame” story develops into a murder mystery centered on Murasaki’s character’s death while the “out-of-frame” story becomes a secondary mystery centered on her collapse and the “intended” course of her hastily-written story.
This would be neat even on its own. Two separate mysteries playing out side-by-side, one fictional within the universe and the other real? Super cool, super unique, very on-brand for a modern mystery writer like Madoi. The story is (much to its credit) a level more complex than this, though. With Murasaki out of commission and the filming on a tight schedule, the main cast calls in the assistance of three experts—Hans Christian Andersen and William Shakespeare for writing advice, and Sherlock Holmes himself for the solving of the mystery. Hans and Shakespeare refuse to finish Murasaki’s story on principle (saying, essentially, that one author should not impose his thematic ideas onto another author’s work unless the second author expressly asks for it), but they do offer guidance on good writing to the crew and actors who frantically try to improvise through the story Murasaki might have intended.
Hans in particular carries a special significance within Nasu Kinoko’s universe, as he serves as something like an author insert. His character has little basis in the historical Hans Christian Andersen but rather is drawn from Nasu’s own quirks, and when he appears it is often in the de-facto role of speaking for the author. Madoi uses Shakespeare similarly, as his own voice when he decides to speak about writing more generally within his work in FGO.
As such, the advice that comes from Hans and from Shakespeare ends up being something resembling the philosophy Nasu and Madoi espouse when writing mysteries. Nasu is not a “mystery writer” in the traditional sense, but his writing owes a great debt to the techniques of detective fiction (and particularly to Edogawa Ranpo and Ayatsuji Yukito), while mysteries are truly Madoi’s specialty. There are a lot of neat quips about writing throughout the event (one of which I’ll return to in a bit) but for now suffice it to say that Moriarty and the actors take their advice—with some tips about deduction from Sherlock—and start forming their own ideas for how the in-frame mystery should end.
Bumbling through the first few scenes, the actors end up establishing a set of facts on which the murder must be based. Character backgrounds are revealed, a murder weapon is discovered, a second murder occurs, and so on. None of this in-frame action is the result of any out-of-frame plan for how the mystery should end, and it seems for a time that the story is headed to a dissatisfying and chaotic conclusion. Surely a mystery not planned in advance cannot resolve satisfactorily, yes?
This setup leads to one of the most creative concepts I’ve seen in a mystery: specifically, as the in-frame story approaches its conclusion, the out-of-frame actors convene to determine how the in-frame mystery should end. We then get five alternative theories, with the out-of-frame characters reasoning their ways to different resolutions of the mystery, all consistent with the (ostensibly) arbitrarily-produced facts. These sections read like chains of logical deduction—like a detective explaining a murder and pointing out the true culprit—but none of the solutions are inherently correct or true. They are five entirely different, entirely satisfying ways to resolve the same setup.
This section of the story calls to mind the multiple endings of the movie Clue. Take away the frame story setup and it functions much the same: multiple solutions to the same mystery. Meihousou’s justification for its multiple endings is, of course, somewhat more thorough, but the audience experience is more-or-less the same. You effectively get the “payoff” for several mysteries despite only needing the “setup” for one. It’s economical if nothing else.
Where this takes a step beyond being just a tighter Clue is in the progression of Meihousou’s alternate in-frame endings. The proposed endings themselves mirror the development of detective fiction as a whole. The first is mostly straightforward, filled with twists and surprises but mostly focused on the direct plot and the killer’s motive. The second builds on the first, taking much the same style but adding stronger character interaction, emotional weight, and thematic purpose. The third sheds much of the actual “mystery” and instead uses the trappings of a mystery to tell an otherwise unrelated story in the vein of more “serious” literature. The fourth returns to the mystery-plot focus but violates the expected rules of detective fiction in an extremely cool way. The fifth breaks from traditional mystery storytelling further by presenting the out-of-frame mystery as the true mystery and proposing that the in-frame mystery is just a red herring to divert attention from the actual plot—the solution involves including footage of the filming process itself in the final film.
In these five stories we see the transition from standard plot-centric detective story (as in Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories), to “non-mysteries” that subvert the genre towards a larger goal (as in the works of Edogawa Ranpo and Nasu Kinoko), to meta-mysteries that break the established rules of the genre to great effect (as is characteristic of Ayatsuji Yukito and of Madoi himself).
Meihousou is a fantastically entertaining mystery—a collection of mysteries, really—but even beyond that it’s a lesson in the structure and history of detective fiction, and it’s hugely effective in that regard. It’s also one of the few Fate/Grand Order events to have been published in traditional book form, for good reason.
One of the more interesting observations to come out of Meihousou’s advice on the writing of mysteries comes in the form of a recommendation to plan backwards. As one of the characters struggles to produce a satisfying conclusion to the in-frame story, he receives some advice from Sherlock and the author duo. The advice, in essence, amounts to this:
It is basically impossible to deduce things in the manner Sherlock does, and even more so when producing a work of fiction that (by necessity) does not have a true answer already waiting to be found. A writer is not a detective, and as such does not come at a mystery’s solution by reasoning forward. Instead, when writing a mystery, it is helpful to think first of an interesting twist or solution and then to develop a set of clues and deductions that lead to that intended solution.
In other words, to write a mystery, decide on the answer and then create the clues that lead to that answer, somewhat like designing a puzzle. This process allows a writer to create the illusion of cleverness while in fact being in control of the situation from the beginning. A writer doesn’t need to deduce a killer’s identity—the author needs only to create tools that might lead his or her capable detective to deduce things the author already knows to be true in a way that strikes the reader as plausible.
Perhaps this bit of advice is obvious—of course the author knows everything, right?—but it’s nonetheless a potential sticking point for someone new to mystery writing (as is the hapless Sir Tristan in Meihousou). An inexperienced writer may have an intriguing setup or interesting mystery in mind, but no clue how to go about solving it. Writing backwards solves the problem.
While Madoi expands on the idea, the advice actually echoes something from Sherlock’s debut work, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. In explaining his deductive process in this original work, Sherlock talks about reasoning backward—looking at a conclusion and deducing the steps that must have led to that conclusion. In the context in which he means it, Sherlock refers to the process of coming upon a crime scene and gradually piecing together the events that must have led to its happening. This is standard for murder mysteries, of course, though in light of Madoi’s advice in Meihousou it takes on a slightly different significance.
Not only was A Study in Scarlet (along with Doyle’s later writing) likely written using the process Madoi outlines, it is presented to the reader in exactly that fashion. Sherlock almost never presents a series of facts and deductions leading to a conclusion—he does the reverse, presenting the reader (and nominally Watson) with a conclusion, and only after great prodding explaining the observations and deductions that led him there. His deductions are presented backwards, just as they must have been written. Doyle tells us “the culprit came by cab” and then only afterward gives the reasoning why Sherlock would know that to be true. Other mysteries do this as well, but it’s most readily apparent in Doyle’s works as Watson frequently draws attention to the practice.
On the surface, the reversed order seems to be primarily a way to characterize Sherlock as brilliant, eccentric, and more than a little impatient. He’s the clever student in a math class who doesn’t like to show work because the answer is “too obvious.” It works well, and Doyle’s Sherlock is, if nothing else, fairly uniform in his personality.
Beyond that, though, the flipped presentation serves to do that at which detective fiction is most adept: tricking the reader. I don’t mean this in the sense I might in the context of more modern works—the flipped reasoning doesn’t lead the reader to mistaken conclusions—but it does create an illusion of brilliance where said brilliance doesn’t truly exist.
Placing conclusions before deductions leads the reader to accept leaps in logic he or she might otherwise question. An example of this comes very early in A Study in Scarlet, where Sherlock identifies a passing man as a retired marine sergeant. Without the foreknowledge that he is correct, his logic seems shaky. Sherlock assumes he is a seaman because of a tattoo of an anchor—a reasonable guess, sure, but not a foolproof one. He assumes the man is from the military due to his haircut—a somewhat stronger deduction. Finally, he concludes the man must be a sergeant because of… his age and the way he carries himself? This last piece in particular is a strange logical leap that would be difficult to accept without the certainty that Sherlock is, in fact, right.
And yet, when reading the piece front to back, nothing about the exchange jumps out as odd. Sherlock makes his claim, which Watson questions, asking the man to verify Sherlock’s intuition. When the man confirms Sherlock is correct, Sherlock is able to present what would otherwise come across as strange guesses as superhuman insight. Watson’s response, impressed by the reasoning, leads the reader to accept it as presented. It’s quite clever.
Essentially, the backwards reasoning means Doyle does not need to produce chains of deduction that would actually make someone a brilliant detective, as the reader’s assumptions that Sherlock is correct fill in the gaps. We don’t question Sherlock because, well, he’s Sherlock. He might as well be a superhero (a character type with which he in fact shares many qualities, right down to his surpassing physical strength).
There is an element of suspension of disbelief involved here as well. Even after noticing the holes in Sherlock’s logic, readers are able to enjoy watching him work because the writing is structured so well. You have to actually stop and dig into the logic for it to ring false, and to do so is to do the one thing you should never do—question Sherlock Holmes. The direct steps of Doyle’s logical chains don’t matter nearly so much as the fact Sherlock is the one producing them, and the writing moves so quickly it’s quite easy to just accept that Sherlock is right and move on.
L is not Sherlock
Roundabout as it seems, all this background brings me to the main point of this post: Death Note.
It’s related, I promise.
Death Note, for the unfamiliar, is essentially a semi-supernatural crime drama. There is one single supernatural component with clearly-defined rules—the death note itself—and everything else adheres to the rules of a “normal” crime drama. The criticisms I’m about to point at Death Note can be written off by saying I’m applying mystery logic to a work that is at its core a thriller and not a mystery, and while that’s a fair point, Death Note owes enough of a debt to detective fiction that I think it’s worth acknowledging the ways it misuses the science of deduction.
Most of Death Note focuses on the interplay between its villain-protagonist, Light Yagami, and its hero-antagonist, L. The story begins with Light finding a journal that allows him to cause people to die by simply writing their names, and he uses the journal to undertake a sort of vigilante justice, killing criminals who he views as not being punished effectively by the law. This gets the attention of the police, who eventually call in the eccentric, brilliant detective L to identify and capture the strange killer.
The excitement of Death Note comes in the form of the back-and-forth between the two, as L tries to close in on Light and Light outsmarts him again and again. L is nearly always almost able to catch Light, which forces Light to take more and more extreme measures to avoid capture. It’s pretty entertaining if you don’t think about it too hard..
The core issue I have with Death Note lies with the deductive prowess exhibited by both L and Light as they try to predict and outsmart one another. On multiple occasions, both characters—but especially L—make assumptions about the behavior of the other and then act on those assumptions. Light’s are usually pretty well-justified, as he has ways of gathering information about the individuals targeting him, but L’s tend to be a bit… out there.
As in the case of Sherlock’s deductions, L’s assumptions are nearly always correct. Unfortunately, L’s reasoning rings false far more often than Sherlock’s does. L seems at times to operate off of random guesses that strain suspension of disbelief, and the only reason they don’t come across as stranger is because the viewer already knows them to be true. As we see the criminal’s actions directly, L can simply assert things that we already know to be true and his insights seem brilliant rather than random because we know in advance that they are correct.
This is a misuse of the backwards reasoning that characterizes Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock’s backwards reasoning works for two primary reasons: first, the reader and the narrator both believe Sherlock to be nearly infallible and thus trust him implicitly even when his direct explanations don’t quite hold up, and second, the reader does not already know the answers to the mystery when Sherlock presents his deductions.
These seem somewhat contradictory. The first points to the deductions working because we know them to be true, while the second implies they work because we don’t know them to be true. What gives?
The answer has to do with the source of our information. Sherlock works as a detective because he is both a reliable source of information (the former point) and our only source of information (the latter). We do not inherently know that he is correct, but we are adequately prepared to believe he is correct.
L falls flat on both counts. As we are more-or-less omniscient when reading or watching Death Note, we know what L does not know, and so we know that he is not omniscient and is occasionally incorrect. We know that L is not a completely reliable source of information (nor is he meant to be), and he is also not our primary source of information.
This isn’t inherently problematic, and were Death Note less mystery-esque in structure L’s weakness as a detective character would not be a weakness with the work overall (and might in fact be a strength). Unfortunately, Death Note wants to present L as a Sherlock-esque figure. It wants the illusion of brilliance Doyle achieves, but it lacks the foundation required to enable it.
The result is that L’s deduction sequences feel hollow. When he makes a brilliant “deduction” that leads him close to catching Light, if seems unfair rather than impressive. His hunches are correct far too often without the character buildup or the plot-driven smoke-and-mirrors needed to cover it. He feels like he has the analytical equivalent of plot armor—all it would take is one or two wrong guesses to send him off the trail and leave Light free to do his thing unmolested, but L seems inexplicably immune to major errors (for the most part). His reasoning is weak and his assumptions often take the form of pretty wild logical leaps, but he gets away with it because we know he’s right.
Again, maybe this isn’t a problem. Maybe a thriller’s detective can afford a flimsier foundation than a mystery’s detective’s. I think it makes the overall work feel quite contrived, though. Suspension of disbelief carries me through Sherlock’s trains of thought without issue, but it runs out somewhere before L’s.
Death Note wants to be a competition between great minds, a battle between Sherlock and Moriarty that follows both and consequently leaves its outcome uncertain until the very end. It’s a noble attempt, and Light in particular is pretty well-executed, but L rides on his plot handicap a bit too much, and I find the end product stretches believability.
A week ago, I had a friend recommend the game Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark in strongest terms. Typically when I receive a game recommendation I file it away for potential future playing—I’m typically juggling two or three more pressing games I want to finish and don’t have the time to pick up another—but one piece made Fell Seal’s recommendation different: the recommender described it a hybrid of the best of all three Final Fantasy Tactics games.
That (coupled with my respect for the person in question) made for a proposal too intriguing to turn down, and I downloaded the game within the hour. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed.
Tactics has not seen a new game since Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2: The Grimoire of the Rift came out twelve years ago. I’ve written before about my love for the series’ gameplay (and one of these days I’ll dive into some of the more interesting elements of their narrative presentations), so the idea of a spiritual successor to an old favorite—and a spiritual successor that was possibly better than the originals—held quite a bit of appeal.
A “spiritual successor,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is a game that is technically not connected to an earlier (and usually very popular) game but is meant to evoke the feel of a sequel. These typically pop up in cases where licensing issues prevent a company from continuing with a series—such as with Arc System Works creating BlazBlue to fill the time when they couldn’t continue with Guilty Gear—or when a studio has left a beloved IP dormant for a long time and another developer wants to take a stab at satisfying the original’s fans.
Spiritual successors tend to be kind of hit-and-miss. In some cases, they ride on nothing but nostalgia and end up as fairly superficial and unsatisfying experiences. My best example of this would be Tokyo RPG Factory’s I am Setsuna, which tries to be an artsy homage to Chrono Trigger and ends up feeling empty and unoriginal (and consequently boring). Sometimes they diverge too far from the heart of their source material and end up becoming something else entirely, as in the case of Bravely Default, which is an interesting and valuable game but nonetheless doesn’t really deliver particularly well on the promise of “another Final Fantasy V.” I actually prefer Bravely to FFV, so this latter category isn’t an inherently bad one, but it does somewhat defeat the purpose of a “spiritual successor.”
The most successful spiritual successors are those that fully understand what made their inspirations great. BlazBlue is truly the best example of this, as it had the benefit of having the exact same creative team as Guilty Gear (albeit with Mori Toshimichi spearheading the writing while Ishiwatari Daisuke focused more fully on the series’s music). This has changed somewhat now that Guilty Gear has been revived, but originally BlazBlue took everything that made Guilty Gear fun and iterated on it while maintaining the same feel. Larger-than-life characters loosely inspired by popular culture? Check. Awesome rock-and-roll soundtrack? Check. Wacky-but-exciting sci-fi superhero story? Check. And—most importantly—top-notch, super tightly designed 2D fighting game foundation? Check.
BlazBlue is the “ideal” spiritual successor in that it has enough of its own identity to stand as a distinct offering from Guilty Gear, but it also has enough of Guilty Gear’s core to feel like a plausible iteration on the games in the older series. It rode that balance perfectly in the first few games, and then when ArcSys revived Guilty Gear BlazBlue started taking more risks and carving out its own unique place alongside the revamped version of the series that inspired it. BlazBlue is not without flaws, but as a spiritual successor to Guilty Gear it’s a home-run.
Fell Seal doesn’t have the head-start Blazblue did. Its development team has no connection to that of the games it’s emulating. It’s a two-person Kickstarter project. There’s no inherent reason it should be successful. And it manages to be among the best spiritual successors out there—and certainly the best follow-up to the Tactics games.
Fell Seal (and any other top-shelf spiritual successor) benefits from a fundamental understanding of what made its inspiration work and not work, and also of what inspired its inspiration. The game doesn’t just borrow from the Final Fantasy Tactics games—it borrows from other RPGs that fed into those games, including the original RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. Fell Seal supplements its Tactics-inspired ideas and mechanics with Dungeons & Dragons staples (and not-so-staples) that were nonetheless absent in Tactics. The Thief-equivalent class getting a representation of a D&D Rogue’s Sneak Attack feature is such a clever choice it seems wrong for the Tactics games to not have it. Fell Seal also allows full visual customization of generic units to allow players to create unique characters (again, D&D-style) and it feels as if it has everything a longtime D&D player would want to mess around with in the context of a Tactical RPG, from rocket boots to cursed swords to anything else.
I think the moment when this “drawing from the influence’s influences” clicked was when I walked into a shop in-game and the shopkeeper greeted me with the phrase “Be pleased.” It’s easy to move right past this without thinking anything of it—but it made me grin from ear to ear.
There’s a long-running D&D show that streams on Twitch (and is now a podcast) called Critical Role. It’s a D&D campaign played by a bunch of voice actors and run by the fabulous Matthew Mercer. It’s probably the most well-known D&D show out there, and Matthew Mercer’s DM-ing is something of an inspiration to pretty much every DM I know (myself included). The phrase “Be pleased” is something of a running gag from a section of Critical Role where the party travels to the desert city of Ank’Harel. The typical greeting within Ank’Harel is… “Be pleased.”
Additionally, the most prominent merchant figure in Critical Role is originally from the area around Ank’Harel, so when I saw a merchant in Fell Seal using the Ank’Harel greeting, I immediately thought of Critical Role’s Shaun Gilmore. It’s a tiny Easter egg, to be sure, but it speaks volumes about the game’s awareness of the sources that produced it.
There are all kinds of little things that make Fell Seal a great game, but it’s this awareness that makes it all possible. It knows where it comes from. It’s not simply trying to replicate and iterate upon Final Fantasy Tactics—it’s a game built in the way Tactics was built, looking at everything that came before and building the best game possible based on the experimentation of older works. And it’s incredibly successful.
If you’ve played video games for a while, you’ve probably experienced a wide range of both intuitive and unintutive gameplay systems. Some games have pages and pages of bulky tutorial text and still leave you forgetting things and looking up controls, while others feature barely any direct instruction and are incredibly easy to pick up and play even after a long hiatus. Some of this is due to genre—action RPGs and some turn-based RPGs tend to be tricky to learn, while platformers and puzzle games are mostly fairly intuitive—but a lot of has to do with how the game teaches the player.
The textbook example of intuitive mechanical design is Portal. Aside from a few brief pop-up notifications indicating basic controls, the Portal games feature no formal tutorials. The game leads players to learn to solve complex, abstract physics-based puzzles through nothing more than slowly-compounding puzzle mechanics and subtle visual cues. A rusted ladder, for example, causes a player to instinctively look up, encouraging the player to think vertically. Visually distinct portal-ready surfaces lead to observation-based puzzle sequences where players have to search for similar surfaces in unfamiliar locations. Et cetera.
Portal’s approach to teaching players its mechanics serves three purposes. First, it avoids the boredom inherent in most formal tutorials. Second, it makes the game a lot more intuitive and a lot less frustrating than it might otherwise be—rather than reading about the game’s mechanics and being asked to immediately apply them to a fully-realized puzzle sequence, the game teaches the player organically, piece-by-piece. More importantly, perhaps, the game’s learning-by-doing approach makes the mechanics stick longer, so a player returning to the game after a long break is more likely to remember how the game works—a real challenge in many more traditionally designed games.
Part of the reason Portal is an interesting example of this is its mechanics are not inherently intuitive. The spatial thinking the game requires—placing portals on two surfaces to bridge spaces in creative ways—is entirely divorced from reality. Even with little grounding in expected physical behaviors, Portal is able to train players to understand its mechanics fairly quickly.
You can see a similar philosophy running underneath Super Mario Galaxy. Galaxy turned the typical norms of Mario games on their head by designing levels where gravity doesn’t always go down. This is hugely unusual, and the rules of when and how this applies in the game would be quite complex if you were to try to write them out in the abstract. As with Portal, though, the game makes this all feel intuitive using subtle visual cues. Rounded edges generally mark a change in the direction of gravity, while corners indicate a surface you can fall off of. A black hole indicates the presence of a deadly pit. Coins or other collectibles on the side or bottom of a platform hint that Mario can safely walk off the edge.
As with Portal, Galaxy takes inherently unrealistic mechanics and makes them feel natural and intuitive. Both Portal and Galaxy have other aspects that I would consider their “core” strengths, but their intuitive mechanics are absolutely a triumph and not something that happened by accident.
That said, both games are fundamentally built around movement, and movement tends to be fairly intuitive given enough time. Even playing something like Jet Set Radio, another movement-centric game that does far less to help the player learn, becomes second-nature after an hour or two with the game. The more technical a game’s systems, though, the more difficult this sort of intuitive player learning becomes.
This is often a problem with RPGs in particular. Many RPGs and Action RPGs spend much of the early game gradually introducing the player to new mechanics, usually through text boxes filled with technical details surrounding how the game works. When you play one of these game for the first time and all at once, this works well enough. On subsequent playthroughs, the tutorial segments are annoying, but not hugely problematic.
Where problems come up, though, is when you leave one of these games for a while and then try to come back later. Because the mechanics themselves are unintuitive and the tutorial method was also unintuitive, it can be a challenge to re-learn the game. I have this problem with the more recent Tales Of games in particular, as they’re filled with special techniques and mechanical quirks that add richness to the gameplay when you already know them but that are highly obtuse when you don’t. Playing the games straight through, you know what you have access to and you can use everything effectively, but after a hiatus it’s easy to forget key options and inadvertently make the game much more difficult. Controls and explanations of mechanics are buried deep within tutorial menus in the middle of pages and pages of text, making it even harder to find information about specific systems. Not fun.
I’ve yet to find an Action RPG that solves this perfectly. Some ARPGs avoid the problem by just being fairly simplistic (like Kingdom Hearts), but even the Kingdom Hearts games have a number of obscurities that can be problematic on higher difficulties, and on lower difficulties the simplicity can make the games mechanically boring. The World Ends With You is probably the closest to what I would consider the ideal in this regard, but that’s likely in part because I’ve played the game several times and know its mechanics like the back of my hand.
Turn-based RPGs fall into a nice middle-ground where, like Action RPGs, they often allow for a high degree of mechanical complexity, but unlike Action RPGs they aren’t (usually) bound by the constraints of a time-sensitive battle system and thus they can make more information available to the player at once. There are, of course, Turn-based RPGs with exceptionally complex and unintuitive battle systems that are difficult to return to after a hiatus (looking at you, Persona 2), but there are also a great many that have solved these problems in creative ways.
The key in the case of Turn-based RPGs tends to be contextual information displays. When the player highlights a skill, its effect should be displayed. Even better if the game also provides a damage estimate and an accuracy percentage. When the player highlights a character or enemy, its stats, strengths, and weaknesses should be displayed. There’s a point where it becomes too much information, of course, but generally speaking a smart contextual information display reduces cognitive load and lets players focus on the actual fun parts of the games—the strategic thinking.
More and more RPGs seem to be moving in this direction. There’s a big difference between something like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Shin Megami Tensei IV or Persona 5. Even just in terms of skill usage, Nocturne forces the player to remember enemy weaknesses and resistances, as it provides no visual indication of enemy vulnerabilities. In Shin Megami Tensei IV and Persona 5, by contrast, once the player sees an enemy’s weaknesses or resistances the first time, the targeting cursor changes to reflect those weaknesses and resistances on all future turns and encounters, speeding things up and making it a lot easier to come back to the game after a break.
These sorts of systems do make the games easier, but the difficulty they take out isn’t fun difficulty—it’s just annoyance and tedium. The end result is the same as if the player were to take notes on a physical notepad while playing. It saves the player time and frustration, which is a full win, on-balance.
Making games more mechanically intuitive reduces friction and helps pacing. It makes it so players are more likely to continue playing and more likely to come back to a game after dropping it. It’s something that’s often overlooked, but it adds a ton to overall player experience.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition