Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
I’ve been in the process of watching Shaft’s anime March Comes In Like A Lion (original run 2016-2018), a slice of life series focusing on a young professional shogi player. It’s exceptionally well-done, and I plan to write about it once I’ve finished it, but it got me thinking about another slice of life anime, Hanasaku Iroha. Hanasaku stands as my personal favorite animated series, and it's an example of a show I tend to like more and more with each subsequent watching. Produced by P.A. Works in 2011, Hanasaku follows a girl named Matsumae Ohana as she moves from her home in Tokyo to live with her grandmother at a traditional hot spring inn, Kissuisou, run by her extended family. It’s a fairly simple premise, and the show moves slowly—at least one person I know has called it boring—but everything about the anime, from the soft coloration to the airy strings to the slow-burning characterization, is absolutely beautiful.
A Matter of Perspective
Much of what makes Hanasaku special is its (rather large) cast. The anime centers around the lives of the employees of the Kissuisou, which includes three generations of the Shijima family (including Ohana herself, as Shijima is Ohana’s mother’s maiden name). The early episodes primarily center on Ohana as she adapts to life at the Kissuisou and wins the respect of the novelty-averse staff, as well as on the two other part-time employees who are close to Ohana in age. As the show goes on, however, we’re given insights into the lives of every member of the Kissuisou’s staff, and therein lies Hanasaku’s unique charm.
Slice of life anime series almost always focus on high-school-aged students (or occasionally junior high or college). This isn’t an inherently bad thing, and there are plenty of anime, novels, and games that focus on this demographic and nonetheless say something broader than the characters’ ages may imply—for examples of this, look to standouts like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Your Lie in April. While Hanasaku’s protagonist, at 16, falls right in the center of the typical Japanese-pop-fiction-hero age, most of the anime’s characters are considerably older, each is at an entirely different stage of life, and their personal growth is every bit as integral to the overall story as Ohana’s.
This makes Hanasaku highly interesting in comparison to its contemporaries. Ohana’s emotional journey is engaging enough, but the more memorable episodes by far are the ones that feature the inn’s other employees. Shijima Sui, Ohana’s grandmother and the owner of the Kissuisou, at first appears to be a demanding and crotchety taskmaster who’s stuck in the past, but as the story develops we begin to see Sui from the perspective of the older characters—including Ohana’s mother—and we’re given more context for Sui’s actions. The Kissuisou was an entrepreneurial passion project started when Sui was recently married, and Sui still believes firmly in her initial vision of caring for those who stay at the inn. Through various anecdotes and stories, we come to see why the inn’s employees have such respect for Sui, and we become able to empathize with her deeply as she struggles to keep the inn running in a changing world.
And Sui is just one example. Each character has different goals and concerns, which creates variety and keeps the show interesting. The character development is generally gradual and (by anime standards) free of melodrama. There are, to be sure, moments of particular tension and panic, but these tend to arrive and pass quickly, often the result of misplaced rumors or simple misunderstandings. The true dramatic progression in the show happens calmly over long periods of time, and major moments of character growth come not through immediate crises but in moments of self-reflection after relatively mundane events. The focus of Hanasaku Iroha is on the gradual personal growth that comes through everyday life, and on the beautiful moments that happen amidst the mundane.
Were the anime to focus solely on Ohana, this would not be nearly as effective (and it could easily fall into “boring” territory). Where Hanasaku succeeds is in the breadth of its cast. Most days at the Kissuisou are fairly similar, with familiar concerns and tensions and dramas appearing again and again—Minko’s unrequited affection for Tohro, her fellow chef; Ohana’s uncle Enishi’s endless attempts to modernize the Kissuisou; neighborhood rumors about the declining popularity of traditional inns—it all becomes part of the landscape, and while some of these issues eventually come to a head, many more of them are never resolved, mirroring the often-trivial long-term anxieties we tend to fixate on. Hanasaku finds its variety in presenting this daily life from multiple perspectives. When something unusual happens, we return to Ohana’s point of view, but many times we see the day-to-day from the perspective of the other employees of the inn, and we are given insight into how they process their lives and the meaning they find in their work.
The result of this is an exceptionally rich and layered setting, where the viewer has a deep understanding of the motivations, concerns, and connections of each member of the cast, which then translates to an affection for each of the inn’s employees. The Kissuisou is portrayed as a fundamentally good place, a place a little off the map that those who visit fall in love with and return to again and again. The attitude Sui insists on conveying to her guests is also presented to the viewer, and the result is a calmly uplifting anime that is, ultimately, about the beauty of the mundane and the goodness of people.
Traditional, and Also Not
On the surface, there is a strong theme of tradition in Hanasaku Iroha. The novelty-seeking Ohana initially arrives at the Kissuisou full of action and idealism, only to be shut down by her overbearing grandmother, but then as time goes on Ohana comes to understand her grandmother’s reasoning and eventually embraces the traditionalism of the inn. The matriarch of the family knows best, and the proud old inn makes people happy and stands against the soulless modern hotels. Even visually the anime is filled with traditional Japanese images, from cherry blossoms to kimono to the inn itself.
And yet, Hanasaku Iroha embraces variety and change. Ohana’s entertaining creativity and her appetite for novelty last throughout the entire anime, even as she grows to appreciate the traditional. Where new things are presented as foolish or threatening initially, they are gradually rounded out to become just another part of the world. The most complete romantic relationship in the anime is between Enishi—Sui’s son, and the first in line to own the inn on her death—and an outsider who constantly encourages innovation and change. Aside from this being interesting because of the age of the characters—they are in their 30s, which is quite a bit older than most anime couples—their literal marriage symbolizes the metaphorical marriage of old and new that is at the heart of Hanasaku’s thematic conflicts. While they come into conflict on occasion, ultimately novel and traditional ideas join together—even if uneasily—to create the foundation for the next generation.
Change in Hanasaku Iroha happens gradually, as a result of traditional worldviews slowly adapting to new challenges. The characters often grow and develop so slowly that it is difficult to notice it happening. As a result, the most striking moments in Hanasaku are those when change is thrown into the sharpest relief. In the show’s 10th episode, “Slight Fever,” we have the opportunity to step back for the first time to view the Kissuiosou with a bit more objectivity. Ohana is ill and bedridden, and the episode consists almost entirely of the Kissuisou’s staff visiting her throughout the day. Through the things they say, we see both how their attitudes towards Ohana have change and how they have grown through the first half of the show. Similarly, in the final episode, the Kissuisou is finally forced to close down, and a bit of distance reveals just how much the characters have grown during the course of the anime.
For all the show’s traditionalism, I think this gradual change and growth is Hanasaku Iroha’s heart. The anime’s title roughly translates to, “The ABCs of Blossoming.” Blossoming is not a static state, but rather a transformation. Each of the characters, from the youngest to the oldest, grows and changes in some way, and that growth and change outlasts even the Kissuisou itself, despite the Kissuisou being a clear representation of the best of the traditional. The anime begins and ends with forward, onward movement, informed by and grateful to the past, but not bound to it.
All Good Things…
As melancholic as it is, the closing of the Kissuisou is a brilliant way to end the anime. The inn becomes such a positive force throughout the show that its somewhat sudden closure comes as a huge blow, but the forward movement and the growth and change the Kissuisou’s closing necessitates is very much in-keeping with everything Hanasaku is about. While the Kissuisou itself was a good place for its characters to grow and develop, it is not in itself necessary. The characters’ lives will continue on after the inn, and they will find new goals, new concerns, and new meaning in whatever follows.
That Hanasaku’s characters would have to let go of the inn eventually was nearly inevitable, but the inn’s end’s presence in the anime forces the viewer to also let go of the inn. Just as Ohana, Sui, and the rest need to continue on beyond the special place that is the Kissuisou, so too does the viewer. This ending is an encouragement for the viewer to mentally leave the inn, taking its mentality with them, rather than abandoning the attitude of the anime when the last episode ends. In one sense, it is a challenge to the viewer—the regret and disappointment inherent in seeing the Kissuisou close can serve as an impetus to keep its spirit alive in one’s thoughts and actions, just as the anime’s characters aspire to do.
This final episode in effect serves as a bridge from the idealized-but-believable everyday life of Hanasaku Iroha to the real everyday life that we face daily. It won’t leave an impression on every viewer, but for some (such as myself) it will be striking. The unique blend of melancholy and optimism is singularly beautiful, and it only grows more so as I think back on it and rewatch it. It’s unlikely that Hanasaku Iroha will ever grow beyond its relative obscurity, but its careful construction and its timelessness establish it as among the strongest works its genre has to offer.
When people think of PS1-era RPGs (Final Fantasy VII and the like), among the first things to come to mind is the characteristically brooding heroes. To use a more literary term, we might describe them as Byronic Heroes, burdened by dark and often unclear pasts and characterized by a gruffness that could be described as rude. This trope, while certainly not a new idea, was particularly popular in the late 90's, and its liberal usage is often one of the foremost points of criticism for people looking back on the likes of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII (especially when trying to argue that Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy IX is a stronger game). An interesting Kotaku article recently examined the behavior of Final Fantasy VIII's protagonist in context of how it reflects societal views of masculinity and femininity. It's a good read in general, but one of the more interesting takeaways for me was the observation that Final Fantasy VIII's other characters are remarkably forgiving of the protagonist's rude, isolating behavior. There is a tendency to overlook that as you are playing the game, as the protagonist is the hero of the story and we expect him to grow and develop as a character, eventually overcoming his flaws and becoming a better person--which he does--but that expectation should not necessarily be shared by the other characters within the game. In most games (particularly older games) with similarly brooding heroes, though, the other main characters are infinitely patient, sticking with the hero regardless of what he may do or say.
That's not to say these games are bad, of course--it works as a storytelling mechanic and can be quite uplifting in games like Final Fantasy VIII to see fundamentally good people helping a troubled individual through a rough emotional time. Final Fantasy VII, by contrast, gets away with this by having all of its characters be impacted negatively by the dystopian setting and each responding differently; the protagonist's rudeness isn't all that much worse than the veiled bitterness or outright cynicism expressed by much of the rest of the cast. That said, you would expect this sort of negativity to create a great deal of social tension, and that's something RPGs rarely explore. Most such games operate off of the assumption (likely a holdover from tabletop RPGs) that the main characters are stuck journeying together for better or for worse and that no one has the potential to get frustrated and leave. In that context, forgiving behavior makes a bit more sense, but it still comes off as missing a potential layer of nuance.
And Then There's Luke
With that background in mind, I'd like to turn to Tales of the Abyss, a game released for the Playstation 2 in 2005, well after the period in which Final Fantasy VII and similar games were dominant. I once saw the Tales of series described as the "fast food" of RPGs--accessible and enjoyable, but without much lasting value. (This same comparison also likened the Megami Tensei franchise, of which my fondness is well-documented, to "brussel sprouts" in that they tend to be less outwardly appealing but more valuable in the long-run, which amused me considerably.) I mostly agree with that assessment--the Tales of games are definitely fun, but they aren't games you'll think much about afterwards--with the exception of Tales of the Abyss. Abyss's writing is on a noticeably higher level than its related games, and while there are a number of things about the game that are intriguing, I'd like to focus on its protagonist: Luke fon Fabre.
Luke is a young noble in Abyss's world, and he doesn't get out much. Unlike your typical adventure-craving fantasy hero, he also has no desire to see the world. He's deeply cynical, thoroughly self-interested, intensely mistrustful of all except his teacher, fundamentally lazy, and a coward. This is, of course, highly unusual for a fantasy hero, but it echoes the brooding protagonists of the PS1-era RPGs I discussed earlier--and Abyss draws much from those games, including its overall art style, so the similarity is likely intentional if not pointedly so.
Due to an unfortunate sequence of events, Luke begins traveling with the game's heroine, a soldier named Tear Grants; his servant, Guy Cecil; and a few other characters. Guy mostly plays the role of the long-suffering infinitely-patient friend, as usual, but Tear and the others do not. They specifically call out Luke's rudeness and poor behavior throughout the early game, refusing to allow it to stand in the way that most RPG characters would. Rather than reform, Luke doubles down on his cynicism and behavior, until about a third of the way through the game, when Luke makes a significant mistake that costs the lives of several thousand people, all of the other characters (including Guy!) finally abandon him. There is no endless forgiveness in hopes of improvement, and the other characters don't automatically assume that Luke is redeemable. They believe what he shows them, and what he shows them is not good. Even Guy's initial patience is born of obligation and personal objectives rather than out of a general good-natured-ness, and I think there's a biting irony in the fact that the only character who behaves as most RPG characters would in placating the protagonist is a hired servant of the hero.
After Luke's key mistake, there's actually a section of the game where the other characters continue on their quest without him--and the player follows them, rather than the actual protagonist. This whole sequence, complete with the party's abandoning of Luke, is exceptionally interesting because of how it applies meaningful consequences to the poor behavior characteristic of brooding protagonists. The other characters go off to try to save the world and the protagonist is, essentially, uninvited, kicked out due to his poor choices and foul attitude.
And Now the Character Development Means Something
After a bit of time spent wandering the world, Tear ends up returning to the place where Luke is staying, and Luke pleads with her to forgive him and to give him a second chance (complete with the symbolic gesture of cutting his long hair, representing a shedding of his past life and worldview). Tear eventually concedes, and Luke rejoins the main characters, albeit under close scrutiny and with a good deal of social distance now placed between him and the others.
Over the course of the game, he grows as a person and eventually redeems himself through unselfish acts, in typical fantasy form, but Luke's initial fall--and especially the fact that it lasts for a large portion of the game--makes his redemption much more impactful. In the case of a game like Final Fantasy VIII, the protagonist never really has to feel the consequences of his actions, which makes his eventual growth nice to see but not particularly weighty. While Squall at the end of Final Fantasy VIII is a better person than Squall at the beginning of Final Fantasy VIII, all of the other characters treat him more or less the same, which somewhat devalues his internal journey.
In Tales of the Abyss, by contrast, Luke's choices and behavior have a real impact throughout the entire game, and his character growth ripples out through the world's network of social connections to affect much of what happens over the course of the narrative, at times positively and at times negatively. In a genre of game where protagonists are often similar and somewhat shallow, Luke offers a complex, rich character who is enjoyable not because of his successes but because of how he moves past his significant failures. It's a character arc that's quite rare in video game protagonists, and it makes Abyss stand out as a singularly impactful game.
Ronald Knox is a name that pops up with some regularity in Japanese detective fiction. You've probably never heard of the early-20th-century author unless you're an avid mystery fan, and that's to be expected--his books don't exactly feature prominently in popular memory. Knox is mostly known for his "10 Commandments of Detective Fiction," a set of rules penned to assist aspiring authors in what was then an overly saturated genre to avoid writing stories that are either trite or frustratingly unsolvable. The strict text of his rules is somewhat dated now, but the spirit of the rules is alive and well in most mystery fiction--and, of course, more than a few authors have taken his guidelines as a challenge to write satisfying mystery narratives that explicitly break what Knox saw as necessary guiding principles.
In light of this (and because I think Knox's Laws are pretty fascinating), I thought I'd go through his laws one by one, analyzing the possible reasoning behind them and in some cases providing examples of ways they've been broken.
1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
This first rule--perhaps the cardinal rule of detective fiction--has two key parts to it. The first half of the rule is fairly straightforward and is adhered to consistently and (usually) intentionally. There's sort of an unwritten promise on the part of the author that the criminal in a mystery is not going to come out of nowhere. The culprit will be introduced, or at least referenced, as early as possible, often being among the very first characters introduced. For a masterful example of this, look at Persona 4's Izanami, who is (counting generously) the sixth character to be introduced, preceding the vast majority of the game's significant characters, but who draws little attention to herself and does not appear again until her role is revealed in the game's final arc.
The second half of the rule seems rather obvious: of course anyone narrating the story cannot be the culprit, as the reader would see the crime happen and the mystery would be purposeless. Generally speaking, if this half of the rule is violated the work moves from "mystery" to some variant of "crime drama," as with Death Note (or, to provide an older example, Macbeth), which involves an investigation of a serial murder case, but which is not a mystery because the viewer follows the killer's thoughts throughout the whole show. I only know of one example of a true mystery that successfully breaks this portion of the rule--Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony--and that particular instance is crafted with extreme care such that the violation of the rule works well.
As a whole, this first law is meant to establish a sense of fairness on the part of the reader. Introducing the culprit early precludes arbitrarily introduced villains and encourages the reader to be skeptical of all characters introduced. Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None would be a lot less satisfying if the killer were not one of the ten major characters introduced at the beginning of the novel, for example. The latter half of the rule just reaffirms a basic assumption readers are likely to hold, as a poorly-written the-narrator-did-it twist could easily leave a reader feeling frustrated or betrayed.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
In Tanigawa Nagaru's The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya, Koizumi Itsuki differentiates the fantasy, science-fiction, and mystery genres by analyzing the way they explain supernatural phenomena, using the example of talking animals. According to Koizumi, in fantasy, animals can speak as a matter of course--no explanation is needed. In science-fiction, there is (usually) a reason given for why animals can speak, whether that's scientific progress or aliens or something similar. In mysteries, though, if an animal seems to be able to speak, there is always some sort of trick to it, such as hidden speaker built into the animal's collar.
Revealing rational explanations for seemingly supernatural occurrences is such a staple of detective fiction that Tanigawa used it to define the genre. There is an expectation in detective fiction that everything is based on the world as we know it. This provides an accepted ruleset through which we can view the mysteries with which we are presented, and it allows us to rule out impossible occurrences by relying on our knowledge of what we know to be impossible in the real world. Allowing for the supernatural would make these assumptions unsafe. We could not, for example, immediately accept that a room locked from the inside was locked by one of its inhabitants unless we know that supernatural tools (like teleportation of telekinesis) are impossible.
In that respect, this rule could be re-framed as, "common-sense assumptions about the world hold true." There are examples of mysteries that successfully incorporate elements of the supernatural--Takumi Shu's Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is one, as the game's detective is a poltergeist trying to solve the mystery of his own murder--but even in those cases the supernatural elements are usually introduced early, clearly defined, and carefully restricted to their initial rules. The key point of this law is to ensure the mystery's world behaves in predictable ways, which means supernatural forces can be allowable so long as their rules are defined such that they fall within what the reader accepts as "common sense" with regards to the mystery's world.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
This one's pretty self-explanatory, and I don't have any notable exceptions to the rule on-hand. This falls into the category of rules that are intended to avoid clichés and to keep from frustrating the reader, as characters popping out of secret passages left and right could quickly get old. Secret rooms and hidden passages are such an established component of detective fiction we really don't think much of them anymore.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
This is related to the second law. Where the second law says, "Fantasy explanations cannot be used," this one says, "Science-fiction explanations cannot be used." Much of the same analysis applies, although the wording of this rule suggests a bit more of a focus on the resolution of the mystery specifically. This rule is partially designed to avoid lazy deus-ex-machina solutions to puzzles, which would consequently create mysteries that are not solvable by the reader. If the solution to the mystery requires a long scientific explanation, the reader is not going to be able to solve the mystery through the clues provided, and the mystery is unlikely to be satisfying.
For a case-in-point example, look at Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma, which sets up an intriguing mystery and then solves it through a mixture of parallel worlds and time travel. The former mechanic is foreshadowed and explained well-enough (mostly in the prior game, Virtue's Last Reward), but physical time travel is explicitly stated to impossible, which makes its surprise usage to solve a major mystery--one that dated back to the game before--singularly irritating, as it violates the "common sense" of the game's world. In this is a lesson that Knox's Laws are still valuable guidelines and should only be violated with careful planning and good reason.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
This is the most dated of Knox's laws and it needs a bit of explanation as a result. The intention behind this one is that the culprit should not be an outsider, someone who exists outside of the primary social networks of the characters involved in the crime (as Knox was approaching this from a Western viewpoint and from his perspective Asian characters would be outsiders). This is, in part, to keep the solution to the mystery from being too obvious--the noticeably different character can be a suspect, but never the true culprit. The other reason for this is that the reasonings, motives, and social tensions for crimes are often just as interesting as the strict logistical components of the mystery, and the expectation that the culprit will have a personal stake in the crime both makes the criminal more believable and allows for tension between the story's characters leading up to the final reveal, as suspicions are lobbed back and forth and tempers run hot.
Despite the dated wording, this law actually holds up quite well in modern detective fiction. It's pretty uncommon for the culprit to be unrelated to the primary group of people affected by the crime, and even in cases where the culprit is an outsider (such as the final trial in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All) there are generally extenuating circumstances that place at least some of the responsibility on members of the "in-group." This also makes intuitive sense, as people generally don't commit crimes for no reason, and random thefts and the like don't make for interesting mysteries.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
This is an easy rule to accidentally break, and it's a quick way to lose reader investment in a mystery. It's important that the reader feel like the mystery is both sensible and solvable. The second and fourth rules cover the "sensible" concern, ensuring a mystery adheres to its own rules, but this rule focuses on the "solvable" part. If the detective has a sudden and unexplained insight into an aspect of the crime or the culprit's identity, it leaves the reader feeling somewhat left out, as that usually means no clues leading in that direction were presented and the reader is forced to rely on the detective's judgment. This eliminates the fun of solving a puzzle that comes with reading detective fiction, and makes for a much less enjoyable experience overall.
Avoiding things like this also, somewhat paradoxically, makes the detective seem more intelligent and admirable, rather than less so. Being presented with a clear line of reasoning that leads to the detective's conclusions makes those conclusions more believable and also more impressive. The reader's reaction to the detective's reasoning should be "Wow, I totally missed that!" rather than "I never would have got that." It's a slight difference in nuance, but it has a significant effect on the reader's enjoyment of the story.
Although I've already acknowledged Death Note is not a mystery and therefore should not be held to Knox's Laws, this is a principle the show's two main characters--particularly the lead detective, L--break with a great deal of regularity, and it contributes to my antipathy towards the show. In Death Note we see the thoughts of both the killer and the detective, and much of the tension and excitement comes from their attempts to outwit each other. This leads to some great moments of gambit chess, but it also makes the player less sensitive to the absurd logical leaps that are sometimes made. L makes several arbitrary guesses and is right almost every single time. The viewer doesn't tend to question these guesses, as the viewer already knows the guesses are right and they seem reasonable as a result, but with a bit of thought L's reasoning rapidly becomes difficult to believe. His unaccountable intuitions make for thrilling individual moments but an unbelievable overarching story, which weakens the work as a whole. To use a tabletop game term, L seems to be metagaming, or operating based off of information his writer knows but his character should not logically have access to. This is something of a cardinal sin in games like Dungeons & Dragons, and it's equally unsatisfying in more traditional fiction.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
Another seemingly obvious one, and sometimes redundant in context of the first law. The distinction here comes in stories where the narrator is not the detective, like in Sherlock Holmes, which is generally narrated by Holmes's assistant, Watson. Even if the detective is not the protagonist of the story, it is generally necessary for him to be trustworthy, as he is the one providing clues for the reader and unraveling the mystery itself. If the detective is unreliable, the mystery usually becomes unsolvable and consequently unsatisfying. Even when this rule is broken, it tends to be broken in half-measures, with a detective, but not the detective around whom the story centers, being the culprit (as happens in Ace Attorney on occasion), or with the culprit appearing to be the detective while another character has, in fact, been subtly filling the role (as in Danganronpa V3).
If pressed, I would call this the closest to an inviolable rule of all of Knox's Laws. All of the others can be circumnavigated with clever and careful writing--even if it may be exceptionally difficult to do well--but this rule is one that often holds even in works where the author appears to be directly attempting to break it. The reason for this is the flexibility with which "the detective" is defined. The detective is not necessarily an actual detective--he may be a journalist on scene, or just a curious or concerned citizen. The detective need only be the character working actively to uncover the truth of the mystery. In a case where the ostensible detective is in fact the culprit, that character is working to hide the truth rather than to uncover it and consequently is not actually filling the role of the detective. Either another character steps into this role, or you're looking at something more akin to a crime drama or a heist than a mystery.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
This is another rule that plays into the importance of a solvable mystery, but there's a little more wiggle room here than the wording implies. At the heart of this rule is the necessity that the reader be provided with enough clues to solve the mystery. The detective can (and often does, assuming he is not the protagonist) conceal clues or information so long as that information is not pivotal to solving the mystery. In this case, though, the reader must be made aware that the detective is concealing something, and that fact may itself be an important clue regarding the overall case.
When Knox refers to a "clue" in this rule, I believe he means something slightly broader than the concrete evidence the detective might stumble upon. A footprint without context, for example, is not a clue. A footprint that the reader is informed matches the shape of a known character's shoe, on the other hand, might be. The reader must be provided with all necessary and relevant information, and all such information must be produced as soon as the detective finds it (or at least confirms it to be true). Extraneous clues that might influence the behavior of the detective or tie together loose threads can be safely concealed so long as the reader knows something is hidden and the broad strokes of the case can be solved without the hidden clues.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
This is the longest of the laws, but it's also pretty straightforward. Assuming "the Watson" is the narrator, he is not permitted to hide his reasoning from the reader and his thoughts must be clear and simple enough that the reader can understand them, without being frustratingly slow to catch on to what's happening. This serves two purposes. First, it ensures the reader has time to reason out the mystery before the narrator explains it directly, and second, it prevents the reader from missing out on key deductions or getting lost. The detective is often highly intelligent and poor at expressing himself, so "the Watson" serves as an interpreter of sorts, making the mystery easier to digest.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
The final rule is also concerned with the solvability issue. Twins and doubles are an easy way to, for example, cast suspicion on the wrong character or to allow someone to seemingly be in two places at once. Readers are generally going to assume that if a credible witness sees a character at a specific place and at a specific time, that character cannot have been anywhere else. In order to account for that perfectly reasonable assumption, twins must be introduced before they matter or not at all.
He's the Culprit! Grab Him!
It's easy to look at the wording of Knox's Laws and think they're too strict or that they're easy to break well (and some of them certainly are), but if you look at bit deeper at the intent behind each guideline, you'll find that most contemporary detective fiction still adheres to these rules pretty closely. A well-crafted violation of these intuitive standards can be really fun--just look at Danganronpa V3 for an example--but more often than not breaking these commandments leaves the reader unsatisfied. Plenty of creative and fun mysteries exist within the framework Knox outlined, and while the exceptions are neat, there's nothing wrong conventional detective fiction.
In any case, it's interesting to break down these conventions, going beyond the "what" and examining the "why." Knox's works may not have had the staying power of the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, but he clearly had a pretty good understanding of what makes mysteries work, and his thoughts still influence today's authors of detective fiction.
Due to the fortuitous confluence of a long weekend and a lull in classwork, I had a bit of extra time to spend playing a game this weekend. Rather than continuing my playthroughs of my two current projects (Fate/Extra CCC and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, both of which I've played half of once before, before being forced to restart due to lost save data), I decided to grab my Japanese copy of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. Atlus has started releasing trailers for its sequel, Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth, and I wanted to see if the original holds up as well as I remember.
The short answer is yes, it does. While PQ does a lot right (and a few things wrong), playing through the second of the game's five dungeons got me thinking about RPG dungeons in general, and what elements make them engaging and fun to play through. There are, of course, myriad relevant components of dungeon design, but in this post I'll be breaking down a few of the most important ones: theming, aesthetics, navigation, and puzzles.
Not Another Random Cave
The best--or, at least, most memorable--dungeons tend to be the ones with strong underlying concepts. Strong theming can, in fact, make up for the other three components if the dungeon is closely tied into the game's overarching story. A good dungeon concept underscores the entire dungeon, informing everything from its visual presentation to its battles to its puzzles, and it keeps the player interested and curious not only throughout the dungeon itself but also through the game as a whole. Games with conceptually relevant dungeons can leave the player excited to see each new environment, which makes the game seem to move faster, potentially covering pacing issues that may arise from moments of weak gameplay or poor writing.
Persona Q's dungeons are representations of the anxieties and emotional anguish of a girl who died young due to a terminal illness. Each starts off under the guise of a joke, but as the player progresses it gradually becomes clear that the dungeon's concept is dead serious, with what seems at first to be quirky humor reading instead as black comedy. Moreover, the contents of each dungeon are everyday things warped by the perspective of a terrified child, which is foreshadowed in the game's first dungeon, "You in Wonderland." This first dungeon draws from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a story that also features innocuous things (such as flowers and playing cards) transformed into terrifying, exaggerated forms by a child's imagination.
The second, third, and fourth dungeons apply the Carroll influence to the life of a child living in the present day. The second dungeon is modeled after a cafe and has a romance theme. It ends in a chapel--but the chapel is prepared for a funeral, not a wedding. The third dungeon starts as a cheap haunted house built in a school classroom and then transitions to a similarly haunted but much more threatening hospital, with the dungeon's final location being an operating room presumably familiar to the deceased girl. The fourth dungeon is modeled after a traditional Japanese festival, and it seems to be loosely based on the Bon Festival, in which the spirits of the deceased are believed to return to visit their families.
Setting aside the first dungeon, which provides the context for the remaining four, and the final dungeon, which resolves the game's plot, Persona Q's dungeons all have strong thematic ties to the game's overall premise, representing different aspects of fear of death. The second dungeon plays on the fear of dying young without accomplishing major life goals (such as marriage), the third is built around the more immediate fear of disease and death, and the fourth is centered on the concept of the afterlife. It isn't until the end of the fourth dungeon that their significance is explained to the player, but the dungeons are built around this concept regardless, and even if the player does not catch on to their significance, it is fairly clear even early on that the dungeon design is significant, and curiosity with regards to that significance helps to keep the player engaged throughout.
In many RPGs--especially fantasy RPGs--dungeons tend to lack a fundamental conceptual or thematic basis. The player may be sent into a dangerous cavern system in order to capture a criminal or slay a monster, but the cave itself is not significant, which makes the hour or two or three exploring the cave feel like filler--a mere gameplay convention with no significant reason behind it. Gameplay-driven games (like the recent Octopath Traveler) can sometimes get away with this, but that doesn't mean they should. Integrating storytelling elements throughout dungeons can go a long way towards holding player interest and making the game's world feel more cohesive and believable.
Rivers in the Desert
Aesthetically appealing dungeons tend to be much more enjoyable to play through. Games are fundamentally a visual medium, and visually striking dungeons can be highly engaging. For an example of this, look up a few screenshots of Final Fantasy XIII's "Lake Bresha." The environment's concept is that a floating structure crashed into the surface of a lake, and the disturbed water immediately crystallized. This results in a stilled environment consisting of chaotic, towering waves all frozen in place. The waves are all faintly translucent, adding unique lighting effects to the overall image. It's an absolutely gorgeous environment, and the visuals are incentive enough to keep the player moving.
Music is another way to strengthen a dungeon, particularly when the dungeon's music blends well with the dungeon's concept and creates a sense of motion. "Price," the background theme for Persona 5's third dungeon, fits this description well. The piece has a cocky attitude that matches perfectly the tone of the game at that stage. By the third dungeon, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts have successfully pulled off two heists, and they go in to the third one intentionally, knowing from the outset that their target is a villain and confident in their ability to reform him through their actions. Price's groovy base line and its driving melody build the characters' swagger into the tone of the dungeon as a whole, pushing the player through the stylized bank heist.
Dungeon navigation is an important facet of maintaining player interest and engagement. Nothing is more frustrating than getting turned around for the umpteenth time, having to trek back and forth through a dungeon searching for that one door or switch you've overlooked. There are a few different approaches to mitigating this, and some combination of them can do a lot to ease player frustration.
Maps are perhaps the most obvious answer. If your dungeon's layout is not intuitive, an easy-to-understand map is absolutely crucial. It's also important that the map be visible while moving, as forcing the player to pause the game to open a map every few steps drastically hurts the pacing of exploration (even if it may be more realistic that way). Etrian Odyssey provides a clever solution for this (which Persona Q steals). The Etrian Odyssey games allow players to draw their own maps, covering the DS's or 3DS's lower screen with graph paper and a toolbox of useful symbols (like doors and treasure chests). This map is slightly context-sensitive--it shows the player's location, for example, and the treasure chest icon changes depending on whether the chest has been opened--but the player is mostly free to notate the map as he or she likes, meaning the map should, in theory, always make sense to the person playing the game. The labyrinthine dungeons become much easier to navigate as a result, as there is a detailed map always available and in the course of manually mapping the dungeon the player builds an understanding of the layout of the dungeons.
Another helpful design choice that can make dungeons easier to navigate is incorporating easy ways to return to previously-visited areas. Some games use checkpoint systems, allowing players to instantly jump to previously-visited locations, but personally I'm more fond of the inclusion of shortcuts. The simplest form of these shortcuts is doors that can only be unlocked from one side. Shortcut-based dungeons tend to be structured around a central hub area, and as the player progresses, the dungeon periodically wraps back towards that area, at which point the player can unlock another door that gives quick access to the next section of the dungeon. This sort of layout doesn't make sense for every dungeon or every game, but it can offer a real sense of progress, letting the
player know they've completed a significant stage of the dungeon and also answering a question set up at the very beginning of the dungeon--specifically, "what's behind that door?" A final advantage of this setup is that it makes intuitive sense. Fast travel, while generally a positive thing, asks for a bit of suspension of disbelief on the part of the player, in that the characters are (usually) not literally teleporting to the designated location, but rather are traveling off-screen without the player's input. A shortcut-based design, by contrast, eliminates the need for this compromise, removing one more point in which the players might be brought out of the game's immersion.
Some games handle dungeon navigation by just presenting their dungeons in a linear fashion, moving clearly from one room to the next with little need for exploration. There's a bit of a stigma against this (partially because it's a newer phenomenon), but if the dungeons themselves are thematically and aesthetically strong it can still work well. Persona 5 is an excellent example of this. With a few exceptions, the game's dungeons progress linearly from large set-piece to large set-piece. This works in Persona 5 because the game is heavily narrative-focused, and the dungeons are integrated directly into this. Where in Persona 3 and Persona 4, the dungeon-crawling segments are a break from the text-heavy visual novel that makes up the bulk of the game, Persona 5's dungeons are just chapters of the story presented in a richer way. Each of the set-pieces builds upon the concept and themes of the dungeon, and they generally need to be experienced sequentially in order to make sense. The value of these dungeons is not in the exploration but rather the narrative, so a linear structure is the most natural solution.
Every Puzzle Has an Answer
There is somewhat of an established repertoire for RPG dungeon puzzles. You have the "step on every tile once" puzzle, the "find and defeat this enemy to get the key" puzzle, the "slide helplessly across the ice" puzzle, the endless stream of block puzzles, and so on. Unfortunately, these "puzzles" are rarely very puzzling, and they often blend poorly with the dungeon as a whole. Suspension of disbelief leads us to accept that the boulders lying in this random cave just happen to be placed perfectly so as to create a block puzzle with exactly one solution, but if you step back to think about it, it comes across as kind of lazy--an attempt to break up the monotony of an uninspired dungeon we've been through hundreds of times before. (Pokemon is the prime offender here).
Strong dungeons--and games with strong dungeon design--will incorporate their puzzles into the overall concept of the dungeon. Etrian Odyssey and Persona Q do this through FOEs, powerful enemies that appear on the field (as opposed to being random encounters), and which have fixed patterns of movement, forcing the player to learn and manipulate their patterns in order to get past. While this is, essentially, a variant of the classic block puzzles, it is integrated much more effectively into the game as a whole, and it also gives a sense of stakes that most in-dungeon puzzles do not. Add to this the fact that smart map design means some of these puzzles are surprisingly tricky to solve and you have an effective puzzle mechanic that carries throughout the games.
The most entertaining puzzle dungeons, though, tend to be those where the entire dungeon is built around one central puzzle. These sorts of dungeons offer an entertaining break from the typical "go from point A to point B" dungeons, and they make progress much more meaningful and satisfying. Persona 5's sixth dungeon--my favorite in the game, and among my favorite dungeons in any RPG--is a spectacular example of this. The dungeon is modeled after a casino, and upon entering the dungeon, the players are given a card containing a certain number of casino credits. In order to progress, the players need increasing numbers of credits, but each of the games in the casino is (of course) rigged against the player. Dungeon progress, then, consists of figuring out how the house is cheating on each game and then twisting the system such that the Phantom Thieves of Hearts are able to win. The players' number of credits increases exponentially as the player moves from game to game, until you finally have enough to reach the dungeon's end. This sort of setup ensures that all of the dungeon's puzzles play into both the larger puzzle and into the dungeon's concept, creating a unified and highly entertaining overall experience. It's a masterful example of dungeon design.
Quality over Quantity
While many of the classic turn-based RPGs from twenty to thirty years ago are remembered fondly--for good reason--dungeon design is an often-overlooked way in which games have improved considerably in the past twenty years. This is especially clear playing Octopath Traveler, with its retro-inspired dungeons that are heavy on polish and light on substance. There is certainly an appeal to games that offer a lot of territory to explore (and there are certainly plenty of modern games that have that same quantity-over-quality philosophy), but I much prefer games like Etrian Odyssey that have fewer environments, but in which every dungeon is carefully- and purposefully-constructed.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition