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.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition